Sunday, November 9, 2008

Work like an Egyptian

The ancient
Egyptian calendar was divided into three seasons - planting, harvest and flood. The yearly flood of the Nile sent everyone inland to higher ground. This same flood provided the nutrient rich silt and water which created the fertile conditions for the farms along the river once the water receded.

Each of these three seasons lasted four months and each of these months consisted of three weeks with ten days for a grand total of 360 days. After awhile the ancient Egyptians (the Egyptians of the time – not really old Egyptians, we saw some really old Egyptians while we were there – but you couldn’t call them ancient unless of course you’re talking about a mummy – I guess THEY really would be ancient - but I digress.)

Anyway, the Egyptians who lived over two thousand years ago and used this particular calendar realized after awhile that they were five days off so they added them at the end of the year. These five days, according to our guide Magdi, were amazingly enough known as the five missing days – later of course leap year was included, I don’t know what it was called back then. The work week consisted of eight days with two off.

Magdi explains this to us at Edfu temple, the most intact temple in Egypt. Edfu means land of the warrior and this temple too is dedicated to the falcon headed god of protection Horus, this time without subletting to any other gods. I am again astounded at the scale of the architecture and even though some of these structures took hundreds of years to complete the physical effort is mindboggling. The twin towers of Edfu temple are over one hundred and ten feet tall made from solid blocks of sandstone the size of refrigerators.

Contrary to conventional supposition, the building and furnishing of these shrines was not undertaken by slaves at the crack of a whip. No, these temples served as the nucleus of a pretty ingenious public works project based on the three Egyptian seasons.

During the planting and harvesting seasons the population was expected to bring offerings to the temples. Foodstuffs, beer, wine, honey the usual things one figures would appease a god with the head of a crocodile, jackal, or ibis. These offerings were used to pay and sustain the priests who ran the temples, numbering in the thousands in some of the bigger joints like Karnak in Luxor. What was left over, which still amounted to quite a lot, was placed in storehouses near the site.

Come the flood season, when all the fields were under the Nile and the populace had moved inland where they could roam the streets being bored and getting up to generally no good like a bunch of students let loose on four month spring break, this is when the work such as temple building, statue carving, obelisk cutting etc. was performed. Seems thousands of years ago the powers that be realized that an idle population is not a happy one, and an unhappy population never bodes well for the powers that be.

So, while the farmers and their families waited for the Nile to return to her banks they were gainfully employed in the arts of building, carving, painting, sculpting and the like. How did they get paid for all this hard work? From the storehouses at the temples! Pretty slick huh? And, since a temple could endlessly be added on to, and the bigger the temple the more offerings it could garner the work was steady.

I thought we were supposed to learn from our history, it seems that quite a few good lessons have fallen by the wayside – doesn’t it?

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