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Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Sneferu

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For the second episode/lecture in the Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt series from the Great Courses, Dr. Bob Brier takes us to c. 2600 BCE and the reign of Sneferu, the first pharaoh with a real pyramid as a tomb.

The lecture is as much about the evolution of the pyramid and Sneferu’s efforts to build his grand tomb as it is about the pharaoh himself. The failures are as enlightening – perhaps even moreso – than the final success, as Egypt moves from building step pyramids to the smooth sided shapes we now know. A nice little piece of trivia is that the name of the original architect for the step pyramid is the same as the villain in the 1932 and 1999 movies the Mummy – Imhotep.

For those not interested in the evolution of the pyramid – what is wrong with you? – Dr. Brier also discusses Sneferu’s role in Egypt’s expanding international influence, sending trade missions both to Lebanon for cedars and the Sinai for turquoise. This leads to a quick discussion of the reason for Egyptians’ general lack of nautical skills – the Nile spoiled them. The Nile flowed north while the prevailing winds blow south, meaning you can coast if you want to go north or use sails if you want to go south. No need for navigation, no need to tacking with the wind. So when Egyptians sailed “the Great Green” of the Mediterranean, they generally needed foreign sailors.

This struck my fancy. I actually quite like the ideas of trade missions leading to adventures. I was planning a game based on this set in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, and that would fit nicely with Sneferu’s missions. I have no idea about the population of the Sinai during the period, but the Egyptians apparently reported barbarians. I’d do more research were I writing something historical, but for a game I’d be happy calling them the Monitu, the name an unreferenced article on the internet says the Egyptians used.

For Lebanon, we’ve got Byblos, which was occupied from well before Egypt’s first dynasty and may have become a kind of Egyptian colony – or at least dependent on Egyptian trade. For me, the idea of a cosmopolitan, Bronze Age port linking Egypt to Mesopotamia is awesome. Sure, it would actually be tiny by our standards, but it would be a metropolis for those at the time. You could easily have political intrigue, factional fighting, even a bit of the unknown as trade missions go farther afield in search of materials or new cultures with which to trade.

Finally, Dr. Brier describes to us Sneferu as a possibly “approachable” pharaoh, kind of like Vespasian as an emperor. I like the thought that the leader who both revolutionized Egyptian architecture and international status was a humble, kind individual that cared for his subjects. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.

This lecture is especially useful if you are interested in how the pyramids evolved into what we recognize today, and it has some very interesting asides about Egyptian expansion early in the Old Kingdom. There is a fun little tangent about Dr. Briers’ visit to one of the turquoise mines in the Sinai and the miner he found, and this adds to the charm of the episode.

Up next? We jump about 1,000 years, over the first two intermediate periods and the Middle Kingdom, to get to Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh. That should be interesting.

You can find more about the Bronze Age Mesopotamia game on which I was working here