Ancient Egypt: Pyramid scheme working perfectly
Spanning around three millennia of recorded history, Ancient Egyptians created a state to last. What was behind this huge success and what can we now learn from it?
The “failing state” pandemic that has been all over the Middle East for many years now appears to be spreading to some of the richest and most technologically advanced societies in the world.
The latest country to come to the fray of frailty is the US. The fragility of the American state is obvious in its disastrous handling and apparent failure to minimize the human cost of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also observable in the political shambles that ensued the expensive political circus that passed for an election, as well as the increasingly vicious tribalism devouring the country’s societal bonds and institutions.
This sorry and sad state of affairs has triggered doom-laden predictions that the US, like its previous superpower rival, the Soviet Union, is on the verge of a historic collapse.
Although there is a little hope that the incoming Biden administration could undo some of the damage done by Trump during his catastrophic presidency and pull the country back from the brink of collapse, there is little doubt that America is in the midst of serious decline and decay. Not only have other powerful states significantly narrowed the geopolitical and economic gap between themselves and the country once seen as the “sole dominant global power”, America itself appears to be unravelling.
This means that America’s rise and collapse were fascinatingly fast.
This, however, is not how it was meant to be. The founders of the US wanted to build a political system that would perfectly stand the test of time. They purveyed this desire through Ancient Egyptian iconography and symbology. From the colossal obelisk set up in the capital to commemorate George Washington, to the pyramid on the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States, the early rulers of America widely used Ancient Egyptian symbols to signify the strength and durability of their young state. Washington, DC, would even possess an actual pyramid today, if a certain John Pope’s ostentatious design for the Lincoln memorial had been accepted by Congress.
There was an interesting logic to their use of Ancient Egyptian symbols, and especially pyramids, to convey permanence – the first pyramid in Egypt was built nearly five millennia ago and is still standing. Meanwhile, the Ancient Egyptian civilization that constructed the said pyramid had a recorded history of some three millennia (from the early dynastic era before 3000 BC to the demise of the Ptolemaic dynasty in 30 BC).
Egypt surely went through several periods of change and became briefly divided during those 3000 years. Nevertheless, the Egyptian civilization did not have a “dark age” even during these so-called intermediate periods. Rather, it became more localized, with a decentralization of power, more economic equality and greater social mobility. Additionally, even the foreign conquerors of Ancient Egypt, such as the Macedonians, Persians and Hyksos, later decided to adopt Egyptian ways rather than imposing theirs.
To put this somewhat long history into perspective, the pyramids were already ancient when the Ancient Romans took over Egypt and turned it into one of the provinces of their empire. In the two or so millennia since then, which is one millennium less than the lifespan of the Egyptian civilization, the world has seen the rise and fall of countless empires, states and civilizations.
So what was behind the significant staying power of Ancient Egypt and what are there the lessons the modern world can learn from it?
Simply put, the Ancient Egyptians owe the longevity of their civilization to their noticeable success in building a political system that was especially suited to their surroundings. “The state lasted because its structure worked perfectly, especially within this particular natural environment and it was thus really trustworthy,” states Zeta Xekalaki, a Greek Egyptologist who has a PhD from the University of Liverpool.
The real lesson from Ancient Egypt is that a big government is the key to individual wellbeing and state longevity.
Recent decades have witnessed governments lose a great deal of power to global corporations and the private sector. This process began with the weakest and poorest countries but now engulfs even the most powerful.
It is difficult to draw obvious lessons for the 21st century from the Egyptian experience. Egypt’s strategic location in the Fertile Crescent meant it was in the middle of the most vibrant area of human development back then yet, crucially, it was shielded against any possible from rival civilizations by its friend and foe, the vast moat of arid desert enveloping the fertile sliver of the Nile valley and Delta.
In that time, the state was responsible for almost everything: ensuring the land was correctly managed and irrigated, collecting and redistributing taxes and more importantly, guaranteeing work for everyone. Seen through the lens of Keynesian economics and Roosevelt’s New Deal, the pyramids were not merely acts of monumental folly but were the largest and grandest job-creation scheme the world has ever known.