Egypt-Cornerstone

Our 1999 visit to Israel was combined with a trip to Egypt. These were not especially companionable destinations but the itinerary made for some heightened experiences. It was on this trip that I first focused on composing a chronology of a country I was visiting and matching it to movies I could remember, or discover. I was fond of asking fellow travelers, or even local guides, if they could name a movie about ancient Egypt before Moses. When you speak of Pharaoh, people immediately think of Yul Brynner as Rameses, but the Exodus has been placed at circa 1200 BCE while mainline Egyptian history extends to almost 5000 years ago. Some people want to go immediately to Cleopatra, but she was in fact the last pharaoh of Egypt, dying in 33 BCE. Her movies will be found in Roman Empire.

As I worked on my project, I found I could bundle Egyptian history into neat packages with at least one or two movies for each epoch – except the less cinematic Middle Kingdom. Historians break this history into many subdivisions, but I am fine with Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, etc.

The Old Kingdom saw the building of the three pyramids at Giza, which almost everyone will recognize, but there is a less famous prototype just south of Giza, dating to circa 2700 BCE. Called Saqqara (say Sock-ara), it is a step pyramid and very much resembles the ziggurats of Mesopotamia. For the curious visitor, it is a milestone of Civilization, and emblem of the monumentalism to come. The classical history of Egypt discontinues with the arrival of the conquering Romans and the death of Cleopatra. There were several centuries of Roman domination, leading to a period of highly creative chaos.

To walk the streets of Cairo today is to reach for connections between King Narmer who united Upper and Lower Egypt 5000 years ago, and the realities of the modern nation. The pyramids lie just across the Nile at Giza and the Egyptian Museum sits in the center of the city near Tahrir Square, scene of more recent unrest. Egypt gives us 5000 years of Civilization in a nutshell.

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