Religion and Political Order in Egypt

Essential Quesion

What was the role of religion in maintaining social and political order in Egypt?

Religion and Political Order in Egypt

The Old Kingdom was a period in Egyptian history that lasted for about 500 years, from about 2700 to 2200 BC. Egyptian society grew more complex during this time it became more organized, disciplined, and highly religious as they develop their political system. The system they developed was based on the belief that the pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, was both a king and a god.

The ancient Egyptians believed that Egypt belonged to the gods. They believed that the pharaoh had come to earth in order to manage Egypt for the rest of the gods. As a result, he had absolute power over all land and people in Egypt.

But the pharaoh's status as both king and god came with many responsibilities. People blamed him if crops did not grow well or if disease struck. They also demanded that the pharaoh make trade profitable and prevent wars.

Society and Trade

By the end of the Old Kingdom, Egypt had about 2 million people. As the population grew, social classes appeared. The Egyptians believed that a well-ordered society would keep their kingdom strong. At the top of Egyptian society was the pharaoh. Just below him were the upper classes, which included priests and key government officials. Many of these priests and officials were nobles or people from rich and powerful families.

Next in society was the middle class. It included lesser government officials, scribes, and a few rich craftspeople. The people in Egypt's lower class, more than 80 percent of the population, were mostly farmers. During flood season, when they could not work in the fields, farmers worked on the pharaoh's building projects. Servants and slaves also worked hard.

Religion and Egyptian Life

Worshipping the gods was a part of daily life in Egypt. But the Egyptian focus on religion extended beyond people's lives. Many customs focused on what happened after people died.

The Egyptians practiced polytheism. During the Old Kingdom, Egyptian officials expected everyone to worship the same gods, though how they worshipped the gods might differ from place to place. The Egyptians built temples to the gods all over the kingdom. Temples collected payments from both worshippers and the government. These payments allowed the temples to grow more influential. Over time, certain cities became centers for the worship of certain gods. In the city of Memphis, for example, people prayed to Ptah, the creator of the world. The Egyptians worshipped many gods besides Ptah. They had gods for nearly everything, including the sun, the sky, and the earth. Many gods mixed human and animal forms. For example, Anubis, the god of the dead, had a human body but a jackal's head. Egyptian families also worshipped household gods at shrines in their homes. Other major gods included

• Re, or Amon-Re, the sun god

• Osiris, the god of the underworld

• Isis, the goddess of magic

• Horus, a sky god, god of the pharaohs

• Thoth, the god of wisdom

• Geb, the earth god

Emphasis on the Afterlife

Much of Egyptian religion focused on the afterlife or life after death. The Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a happy place. Paintings from Egyptian tombs show the afterlife as an ideal world where all the people are young and healthy.

The Egyptian belief in the afterlife stemmed from their idea of ka (KAH), or a person's life force. When a person died, his or her ka left the body and became a spirit. The ka remained linked to the body and could not leave its burial site. However, it had all the same needs that the person had when he or she was living. It needed to eat, sleep, and be entertained. To fulfill the ka's needs, people filled tombs with objects for the afterlife. These objects included furniture, clothing, tools, jewelry, and weapons. Relatives of the dead were expected to bring food and beverages to their loved ones' tombs so the ka would not be hungry or thirsty.

Burial Practices

Egyptian ideas about the afterlife shaped their burial practices. The Egyptians believed that a body had to be prepared for the afterlife before it could be placed in a tomb. This meant the body had to be preserved. If the body decayed, its spirit could not recognize it. That would break the link between the body and spirit. The ka would then be unable to receive the food and drink it needed.

To keep the ka from suffering, the Egyptians developed a method called embalming to preserve bodies and keep them from decaying. The Egyptians preserved bodies as mummies, specially treated bodies wrapped in cloth. Embalming preserves a dead body for many, many years. A body that was not embalmed would decay quickly in a tomb.

Embalming was a complex process that took several weeks to complete. In the first step, embalmers cut open the body and removed all the organs except for the heart. The removed organs were stored in special jars. Next, embalmers used a special substance to dry out the body and later applied some special oils. The embalmers then wrapped the dried-out body with linen cloths and bandages, often placing special charms inside the cloth wrappings. Wrapping the body was the last step in the mummy-making process. Once it was completely wrapped, a mummy was placed in a coffin.

Only royalty and other members of Egypt's elite, or people of wealth and power, could afford to have mummies made. Peasant families did not need the process, however. They buried their dead in shallow graves at the edge of the desert. The hot, dry sand of the desert preserved the bodies naturally.

Discussion Questions

  • Both Egypt and Mesopotamia have polytheistic religions. What does that mean?

  • Why was the pharaoh's authority never questioned?

  • Why do you think pharaohs might have wanted the support of priests?

  • How did religious beliefs affect Egyptian burial practices?

Activity 1: What were the social classes in Egypt?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Activity 2: What effects did Egyptian religion have on Egypt's social and political order?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities