TRAVEL / Civilisations: Truth and Order beside the Nile: Political theory, philosophy, monotheism - all began in old Egypt, says David Keys

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If you are a leader

Governing the lives of the masses

Seek out for yourself every good deed

So that your actions shall be faultless.

Great is truth, enduring is its power.

THUS wrote an Egyptian historian 4,000 years ago, recording the political and ethical views of the 'prime minister' Ptahhotep, who ruled the Land of the Nile in the 24th century BC. As an expression of what good government ought to be, these words have an ageless ring.

Ancient Egypt emerged as a civilisation more than 30 centuries before the great political philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome were forged. In politics - and religion, architecture, literature, art, even technology - it was the trail blazer for the classical world and human civilisation as a whole.

Egypt was the first important country to emerge in the history of the world. Although a few other civilisations are older, they were based on city states, not countries as we know them today. Egypt was the world's first organised nation, and the first to develop - 4,800 years ago - a recognised political philosophy. It was called 'Ma'at', which means 'Truth and Order'. The concept of Ma'at, backed up by innumerable works of political wisdom, formed the theoretical basis of the role of government for almost three millennia.

On the face of it, 'Truth and Order' may sound a little autocratic - an impression perhaps reinforced by the (incorrect) thought of countless slaves toiling to build the pyramids. But the reality was somewhat different. Ancient Egyptian papyri make it clear that, at least in theory, the pharaohs only had the right to rule if they took good care of the nation. The texts also make clear that if the government failed in its job, the workers could get decidedly bolshy. For in the 12th century BC, a pharaoh had to weather the world's first recorded strike. Claiming they had not been properly paid, construction workers downed tools and even staged a sit-down demo in front of the royal temples in the country's religious capital, Thebes. The authorities were forced to cave in and give them fish, clothing, vegetables and ointment (money had yet to be invented).

In many ways, ancient Egypt also led the world in the sphere of religion. The concept of monotheism was originally formulated in Egypt, and although monotheistic thinking was soon completely suppressed there, many scholars have argued that it had an immense influence on the subsequent development of the doctrine in the land of Israel.

Certainly, Christianity owes much to ancient Egyptian iconographic and theological influence. The image of the Virgin and Child - apart from the Crucifixion, perhaps the most important in Christian iconography - is based on the ancient Egyptian image of the goddess Isis and her son Horus. The Christian concept of death and resurrection is at least in part a continuation of the story of the death and resurrection of Isis's divine husband Osiris. Even the Christian ideas of 'personal salvation', Christ as the Good Shepherd and the Trinity emerge out of concepts that had long existed in various Middle Eastern religions.

All this unsung continuity from ancient Egypt is not really surprising when one realises that within the Roman Empire, Christianity's greatest competitor in the religious recruitment stakes was the Cult of Isis, which flourished not just in Egypt but all over the Roman world - including Britain. Egypt was a major springboard for early Christian expansion, and was the birthplace of Christian monasticism - the movement that came to dominate so much of medieval European society.

Ancient Egypt also blazed a literary trail, producing the world's first novels and its first reflective writings. Ancient Mesopotamia had produced earlier literary works, but they were mainly in a mythological or adulatory genre. Egyptian authors were the first on earth to write ordinary stories about ordinary people - and to consider the problems dealt with by the Greek philosophers 1,500 years later.

The ancient Egyptian intelligentsia appear to have mused long and hard over such philosophical issues as the meaning of life, the nature of suffering and the reason for death. Certainly they were fascinated with death and obsessed with the prospect of an afterlife, preoccupations which emerged in their writings. High-quality Egyptian literature had a substantial influence on the style of much of the Bible - especially the Psalms. Indeed, David's Psalm 104 is often said to be based on a poem attributed to the founder of Egyptian monotheism, the pharaoh Akhenaten.

This controversial ruler overturned the country's entire religious system, closed down most of the temples and declared that there was but one God - the Sun. A new capital, Amarna (150 miles south of Cairo), was built and dedicated to solar monotheism - but after Akhenaten died, conservative military forces took over, the monotheistic experiment was ended and the dead pharaoh's name was expunged from the record as if he had never existed. The new solar metropolis was left to the sands and the vultures.

City building - and every other type of construction work - was certainly a major ancient Egyptian preoccupation. The civilisation pioneered the world's first large-scale use of stone in architecture, and the first widespread application of town-planning techniques. Most Egyptian masonry - starting c 2700BC - was reserved for tombs and temples. The majority of residential buildings, even royal palaces, were built of mud-brick and timber.

When the people of ancient Egypt did build in stone, they always did so on a grand scale. Egypt's biggest temple, at Thebes, dedicated to a holy triad of gods, was 18 times the size of ancient Greece's most famous temple, the Parthenon. Covering 430,000 square feet, it was built by a succession of pharaohs, each of whom vied with his predecessors for the glory of further enlarging the great building.

Even bigger were the 36 pyramids themselves, the largest of which has a base covering the equivalent of 33 football pitches. That's a lot of stone (91 million cubic feet, to be precise), especially given that some of it was shipped in from 500 miles away.

Although most of the ancient Egyptian buildings which tourists visit today are great temples and tombs, the pharaohs were also enthusiastic city builders. Several great metropolises had between 20,000 and 40,000 inhabitants, and some - Memphis, Heliopolis and Per Rameses (where the Israelites are believed to have worked before the Exodus) - may have had up to 80,000.

Quite apart from the ill-fated planned solar city of Amarna, the Egyptians built many planned 'new towns', the most impressive of which was Kahun (near modern El Lahun), the scanty ruins of which can still be visited with special permission. Using 100,000 tons of building material, they also built the earliest known dam. In 2600 BC, close to what is now the town of Helwan near Cairo, Egyptian civil engineers constructed a great barrage - it was 37ft high, 270ft thick and 348ft long - across a seasonal tributary of the Nile.

The dam was purely utilitarian, but most Egyptian stone architecture served as a platform for the ancient world's greatest corpus of paintings and bas-relief sculptures. Millions of square feet of walls, pillars, and even ceilings were covered with murals and reliefs - it is because of this prolific art that archaeologists and historians have learnt so much about ancient Egypt. Apart from prehistoric cave paintings, Egypt's murals were the world's first great figurative paintings.

Technologically, too, the Land of the Pharaohs was highly innovative: the ancient Egyptians invented the first paper-like material (papyrus, 3100 BC), writing ink, metal pipes (2450 BC) and the very first known contraceptive - a spermicide which was made of acacia gum and honey.

With all its extraordinary achievements and contributions to human civilisation, it does seem somewhat unfair that ancient Egyptian culture is today best known for the golden treasure of a very unimportant pharaoh called Tutankhamun, and for the mummies of the country's long-dead inhabitants. It is unfair because, apart from King Tutankhamun's grave- goods, comparatively little gold has survived from ancient Egypt - and because the vast majority of mummies were technically failures.

Despite 3,000 years of practice and their brilliance in other more meaningful spheres, the ancient Egyptians never really got the hang of mummifying people. Most mummies were so badly done that they literally self-destructed in their tombs as a result of spontaneous combustion. Many others were badly stuffed with stones and sawdust and consequently split open with unprepossessing results.

Until the last century, Europe was not particularly interested in ancient Egypt or its human remains. In fact, even in the Victorian age, Egyptian mummies were burnt by the thousand as fuel for the early steamships plying between the Middle East and England.

The ancient Egyptians certainly would not have relished that fate, nor the idea of being exhibited dead in the world's museums. But they could be philosophical about death and the afterlife, as these words written by an Egyptian poet in the 16th century BC show:

Have a holiday.

Don't weary of life.

Look, no one can take his things with him.

And no one who has gone there returns again.