Why Did a Great Egyptian Civilization Suddenly Collapse?

The Mysterious Demise of the World's First Socialist State

by Revilo P. Oliver

We are so often assured that we live in a "changing world," and we are so pleased by the progress of our technology, that we sometimes imagine that change, or at least the rapidity of it, is a peculiarity of our time -- an originality of which we are as proud as an adolescent who has discovered that he is in love.

The most drastic and rapid social change that mankind has ever experienced took place approximately five thousand years ago in Egypt. (I avoid the long discussion that would be necessary to set a more precise date or determine what was happening in Sumeria more or less contemporaneously.)

In terms of history, the change was sudden. A great Egyptologist, Professor John A. Wilson, had compared it to the speed with which a supersaturated solution crystallized in a flask. And it was drastic.

Within a century the Egyptians were hustled from barbarism to civilization. At the beginning of that period, they were roughly comparable to the Indians of our Southwest in their adobe villages before the coming of the white man: a timeless people, without a past to remember or a future to plan; a people for whom tribal mores took the place of formal government or social organization; a people that could live almost entirely by instinct, since the monotonous collection of food was varied only by an occasional raid on a neighboring village. At the end of that century, Egypt was a nation extending from the First Cataract to the Mediterranean, and subject to the absolute rule of a completely centralized and socialist government.

For the first time in man's long existence on this planet, there was a nation: and that nation's resources were consciously marshalled and used by government which necessarily planned for the future. Writing and written records appeared suddenly to make possible the bureaucracy that managed the nation. And the intelligent direction of human effort soon required or induced technical accomplishment. At the end of the Second Dynasty there was nowhere on the surface of the earth a permanent structure: Nothing had ever been built of stone. Within a hundred years Egypt had erected the most enduring structure that man has ever built -- what was, until quite recently, both the tallest and the most massive building in the world. It was also one of the most accurately constructed: the two and a half million blocks of stone in the Great Pyramid were faced with blocks, many of them weighing sixteen tons, which were finished to a tolerance of plus or minus one one-hundredth of an inch.

When civilization had come to Egypt, it must have seemed eternal. It was, of course, designed, like the pyramids, for all time. For reasons made clear by Karl A. Wittfogel in his brilliant Oriental Despotism (New Haven, 1957), the earliest and most primitive form of civilized society is always socialism, with an omnipotent central government, a completely managed economy, and with inhabitants reduced to the kind of serfdom that our planners in Washington are now imposing, step by step, on the American people.

The Egyptians defined the good state as one in which "well directed are men, the cattle of God." Men were simply the cattle of Pharaoh, who had all the power that Jack Kennedy craved, and who was, by definition, the son of God and therefore God himself. He owned every acre of ground, every house, every stick of wood in Egypt from the First Cataract to the Mediterranean, and he naturally owned all the livestock on that plantation, both quadrupeds and bipeds.

A total socialism, such as Egypt had from the beginning, necessarily excludes all thought of change. That fact, indeed, may explain its appeal to men. The many hundreds of Utopias imagined by idle dreamers from Iambulos to Sir Thomas More to Edward Bellamy differ greatly in all details, but have one thing in common: They imagine a state in which no governmental or social change is possible or even conceivable. And the sincere socialists of our own time, though vociferous in praise of "inevitable change" leading to socialism, promise us the joys of a social order that can never again change and will be immutable forever in saecula saeculorum -- or, at the least, "'Til the sun grows cold, And the stars are old."

Necessarily, therefore, the basic assumption of Egyptian civilization was that it was a social order as eternal as the granite of its monuments. But four hundred years after Cheops built his pyramid, that order suddenly disintegrated into anarchy and utter chaos.

The one thing the we know with certainty about the causes of the collapse is that they were internal. Egypt was not invaded by a foreign people and was not involved in a major war or even any military action other than routine policing of the few points at which she was not isolated from the rest of the world by natural barriers. There appears to have been a steady trickle of immigration across the isthmus of Suez into Egypt, but there is no reason to suppose that the immigrants were sufficiently numerous and active either to affect the character of the Egyptian population or to attempt an insurrection.

When we look for internal causes, we note that the last king before the collapse, Pepe II, ruled for ninety years, which suggests that if he did not begin his reign as God in diapers, he ended it as God in senile imbecility, possibly inspiring one of his sons, grandsons, or great-grandsons with impatience to start enjoying the blessings of divinity himself. That is merely a guess that the spark which set off the explosion was struck by a civil war for possession of the throne. But whatever the source of the spark, it is clear that the explosive materials lay deep in the structure of the society they destroyed. Since a small body of literature, especially the lamentations of Ipu-wer and Nefer-rohu, who witnessed the collapse, has survived, modern historians can learn a good deal about the causes. You will find them discussed at length in any good history of ancient Egypt.

What happened in Egypt was not a mere political upheaval to change the ruler or form of government; it was the ruin of a whole civilization through the collapse of its moral foundations. "If three men go along a road," says Ipu-wer, "they become two men, for the greater number kills the lesser." "I show thee," says Nefer-rohu, "the brother as an enemy, and the man who kills his own father. Every mouth is full of 'Love me!,' and everything good has disappeared." Order had vanished in anarchy and universal banditry, and no man knew when he would be struck down from ambush or murdered in his own house.

Yes, "his own house," for the lamentations incidentally show us that during the centuries preceding the collapse the perfect socialist state under its incarnate God had not been able to maintain its pure form; it had somehow progressed from socialism toward a higher form of social organization in which there was private property in practice and quite possibly even in theory. The writers take it for granted. Nefer-rohu complains that "Men take a man's property away from him, and it is given to him who is from outside. I show thee the owner in need and the outsider satisfied." And Ipu-wer: "The robber is now the possessor of riches ... The children of great men are dashed against the walls ... Great ladies now glean in the fields ... The owners of fine robes are clad in rags, but he who never wove for himself is now the owner of fine linen." It is clear that Egypt had risen, though perhaps precariously, to a level far above pure socialism. That must have made the collapse the more terrible.

A great nation, which was coterminous with a civilization, had simply caved in. And since it had not been overthrown by an external force, the structure must have been poorly designed or poorly maintained. Or, to vary the metaphor, the culture had contained in itself the seeds of its own destruction. Or, perhaps, the civilization, like a dog, simply grew old and feeble and finally died. But whatever metaphor we use, the Egyptian collapse posed for us the basic problem of history. What were the causes of the collapse? And, since causes imply the existence of natural laws by which they operate, what laws of history can be inferred from them?

The Egyptians either violated some natural law that applied to civilizations, and could therefore have averted the collapse had they been more prudent, or they underwent a change that was "historically necessary" because imposed by some natural law that human ingenuity cannot circumvent. That alternative simply states the central problem that a philosophy of history must solve. And since we are subject to the same natural laws, the problem is vital and urgent.

Of course, Egypt eventually recovered from the chaos that historians euphemistically call the First Intermediate Period; and she went on to complete with many vicissitudes her three thousand years as a great and independent nation -- a record that only China can rival. But the men who witnessed the collapse could not foresee that. The apparent end of human civilization, overthrown by a barbarism made more savage and terrible because it had captured the weapons and resources that civilization had produced, must have been a traumatic shock unsurpassed (thus far) in the experience of mankind. Contemporaries felt utter despair. "The land is completely perished, so that no remainder exists," concluded Nefer-rohu. And Ipu-wer could only regard mankind as a failure and wish that it would disappear: "Ah, would that it were the end of men! That there were no conception and no birth! Then would the earth cease from turmoil and be at rest."

But it did not occur to either Nefer-rohu or Ipu-wer -- nor, so far as we know, did it occur to any later Egyptian -- to ask why the catastrophe had befallen them. That may be a very significant historical datum.

It is not at all astonishing that the two Egyptian writers, with no precedent or record of comparable human experience to guide then, did not see in the cataclysm an intellectual problem. Nefer-rohu was right when he said, "What had never happened had happened." But it seems that at no time in their long existence as a nation did the Egyptians think in terms of historical cause and effect. They compiled chronologies, but they never wrote history. They kept careful record of the sequence of events, but did not try to explain them. Some years brought national misfortune, just as the Nile in some years did not rise to its normal height and the fields consequently bore but a scanty harvest. Such things happened; if they had a cause, that cause lay in the mysterious and perhaps capricious will of the gods, far beyond human understanding.

From The Journal of Historical Review, January/February 1995 (Vol. 15, No. 1), pages 34-36.