Egypt vs. Mesoamerica
Ancient Egypt is often compared to Mesopotamia. Two cultures that we call the birth of civilization. Egypt developed around the Nile river and Mesopotamia between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Both show remarkable advances in agriculture, trade, and government. They also developed highly complex writing systems, religions, and art.
There are, of course, various other ancient civilizations such as the Indus Valley (from 3300 B.C.), China (from 1600 B.C.), and the ancient Greeks (from 2700 B.C.). They all contributed to our own culture we know today.
At certain points in time, these civilizations came into contact with each other, either through trade or war. Eventually, they all influenced each other.
The Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec, developed completely independently. They originated from the people who crossed the Bering Strait 30,000 years ago and slowly moved south.
In Mesoamerica, they evolved from hunter-gatherers to complex civilizations with societies similar in complexity to ancient Egypt. Actually some traits of Ancient Egypt and the Mesoamerican cultures are so similar that it’s interesting to compare these two societies.
Ancient Egypt vs Mesoamerica
Before we focus on the similarities, let’s first point out a difference between the two. In Egypt the different ages are divided in Dynasties:
As the above shows, though there are intermediate periods, it is mostly a linear timeline. And all these dynasties were ruled from a Nile city (though the locations of the capitals vary).
In Mesoamerica the situation is different. There is much sharing of cultural practices (like for example human sacrifices which was a practice from the Olmec's), there wasn’t a real succession.
Thus, though traditions were shared, the cultures had much developed more independently, often around city-states.
You might say that it’s impossible to compare Egypt and Mesoamerica because their history, civilization, and other factors are so different. But precisely because they developed so differently, with different circumstances, that’s why it’s so interesting.
In Egypt one of the greatest art artifacts was found in 1925. The mask of Tutankhamun. It weighs more than 10 kilo and large parts are of high-karat gold. Despite the fact that many tombs have been looted, a number of treasures were still saved. The precious metal was mined in Nubia (which comes from the Egyptian word for gold).
The precious metal was in many Mesoamerican cultures just as important. Though the emergence of gold metalwork in Central America occurred relatively late, around 800 AD it developed its own techniques and artwork. Two civilizations with the same value for gold.
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Both Egypt and Mesoamerica made significant pyramids that still amaze us today. Long scolars thought that pyramids in Mesoamerica had only a function as a temple, but later research suggests that it mainly has been used in a burial function for kings. Just like it did for pharaohs.
The Great Pyramid of Giza has a height of 139 meters. The Mesoamerican are mostly smaller and contain on the top statues of gods. Still the temple of the sun of the Aztecs has a height of 71 meter.
3. Polytheistic gods
Both Egypt and Mesoamerica had an important role for religion. Both where polytheistic with a variety of gods. Both were very fluent in honouring gods. There are mostly endless number of gods and their popularity and ranking changed over time. Both cultures also believed that this god needed to be praised and worshipped in order to have good harvests and enough food supply for their people to survive.
Formal religious practice centered around the pharaohs (Egypt) or kings (Mesoamerica). In both religions the god of the sun was widely favored. For example Ra in Egypt and Huitzilopotchli (also god of war) by the Aztecs. Below are the major gods of Egypt and the Aztecs:
In Egypt as well as Mesoamerica there was an admiration and worship towards hunting animals. Often gods or rulers appear in these forms. Important forms in Egypt are the falcon, bull, cats and lions. In Mesoamerica also the falcon was worshipped as well as the jaguar. Often jaguar skins were worn by royals or elite warriors. In Egypt, people were sometimes represented as a sphinx (half human, half animal).
5. Pay for Death
In Egypt the Book of the Dead is a series of spells that guides a deceased person to the afterlife. There is no canonical version of it. No version is the same. At first the spells were only used for royalties, but later had a more widespread usage. The spells should have helped the deceased to enter the underworld.
The Maya has also a book of the dead (The ceramic codex). The Maya dead were laid to rest with maize placed in their mouth. Maize, highly important in Maya culture, is a symbol of rebirth and also was food for the dead for the journey to the otherworld. Similarly, a jade or stone bead placed in the mouth served as currency for this journey.
Thus both need to pay with religious objects to get to the ‘other side’.
Both civilizations had calendars. One for everyday life and one for religious purposes. The Egyptians first had a lunar calendar, but later switched to a solar one. July 19th was the Egyptian new year. That was the date that Sirius reappeared on the eastern horizon after a 70-day absence, and the date the Nile began to flood.
Mesoamaerican societies like the Zapotec, Maya, Mixtecs and Aztecs, used a highly complex system of calendars. Most of these cultures used a 260 day and a 365 day calendar. The first was more ritual and second for everyday life. Special significance was when both calendars completed (The so-called Calendar Round) every 52 years. This often marked a new beginning often accompanied by a fire ceremony.
7. The role of the king
In Egypt the king was called a pharaoh and among the Aztecs the king was called Huey Tlatoani. Here we take the Azetcs ruler as an example, though Maya and other mesoamerican civilzation may used different practices for their rulers.
Both the pharaoh and tlatoan were the ultimate power in the land. Assisted by priest, nobles and the military. As head of the army they were given a leading role during war times. The tomb of Tutankhamun contained body armor, bows and folding tools appropriate for military campaigns. He was expected to lead the army. Among the Aztecs this was not different. During times of war, the Tlatoani would be in charge of creating battle plans, and making strategies for his army.
The Pharoah was recognized by his scepter, crowns and various headdresses. The Tlatoani is known by a feather crown which is seen in the museum in Vienna of king Moctezuma II. The last surviving crown from the Aztec empire. Often also Jaguar attributes and scepters were kings attributes in Mesoamerica.
In Ancient Egypt there were several columns erected. They were called Tekhenu by their builders and later obelisks (from Greek). Ancient obelisks are monolithic, which means that they are made from one stone. In Egypt the obelisk were standing in pairs at the entrance of a temple. They symbolized the sun god Ra.
In Mesoamerica often, so-called Atlantean figures were created. These are carved stone support columns that portrayed Toltec warriors. The Tula figures are the most famous, but later Maya and Aztecs created similar columns. They also created stelae, originally for mythological scenes, but later mostly to glorify the king and his deeds. Egyptian and Mayan columns often use hieroglyphic texts on the pillar.
Living in populated areas with its bright light, you don’t think a lot about the stars. For most ancient civilizations this was very different. Studying the night sky was serious business. It was used for their calendars and many other things. In Egypt for example structures like Pyramids were often aligned with the stars. They were also used in fixing dates for religious festivals, determine the hours of the night and lunar phases.
The Mayan astronomy was often more accurate in the calculating of years. They, too, had a religious aspect for determine religious festivals (there even was a special calendar for it). There is also proof for alignment of buildings with celestial objects. The Mayan astronomers studied the sun and moon, the planets and other astronomical phenomena. Amazing that this was completely done with naked-eye observations.
Both Egyptians and Aztecs use hieroglyphic texts. The Egyptian hieroglyphs consist of around 1000 characters. The writing system emerged artistic tradition where symbols were found on for example pottery. Scientist think it’s plausible that the Egyptian derived the concept from Sumerian writing.
The Mesoamerican didn’t have this luxery. The writing systems developed gradually from older civilizations (like Olmecs) to more complex one like the Mayas. Around 15 Mesoamerican writing systems are currently known. Technically they are not really hieroglyphs. Maya writing used logograms complemented with a set of syllabic glyphs (like Japanes writing). Maya writing was mistakenly called “hieroglyphics” by early European explorers.
Egyptian and Mesoamerican developed in a different era and place in the world. Still it remains amazing that they both developed from hunter/gatherers and small farming cultures to complete civilizations that arose independently from each other.
It seems that there are almost ‘rules’ on how to build the structures for a functioning society. We can still learn a lot from their greatness, their mistakes and what it means to be human.