(Deeds) after the manner of the people of Fir'awn and those before them: They treated as false the Signs of their Lord: so We destroyed them for their crimes, and We drowned the people of Fir'awn: for they were all oppressors and wrong-doers. (Surat al-Anfal: 54)

Ancient Egyptian Civilisation, along with other city states established in Mesopotamia at the same time, is known to be one of the oldest civilisations in the world and it is recognised to have been an organised state with the most advanced social order of its age. The facts that they discovered writing around the 3rd millennium BC and used it, that they made use of the river Nile and were protected against dangers abroad on account of the natural setting of the country, greatly contributed to the Egyptians improving their civilisation.

But this "civilised" society was one in which "the reign of pharaohs" prevailed, which is the system of denial mentioned in the clearest and most straightforward way in the Qur'an. They puffed up with pride, turned aside and blasphemed. In the end, neither their advanced civilisations, their social and political orders, nor their military successes could save them from being destroyed.

The Authority of the Pharaohs

The Egyptian civilisation was based on the fertility of the River Nile. Egyptians had settled in the Nile valley due to the abundant water of this river, and because they could cultivate the land with the water supplied by the river without being dependent on rainy seasons.

The historian Ernst H. Gombrich states in his writing that Africa is very hot and sometimes it does not rain there at all for months. For this reason, many areas in this huge continent are extremely dry. Those parts of the continent are covered with vast desert. Both sides of the River Nile are also covered with deserts, and it hardly rains in Egypt. But in this country, rain is not needed so much, because the River Nile runs right down the middle of the whole country. 1

So, whoever has control of the River Nile, which is of such great importance, is also able to control Egypt's biggest source of commerce and agriculture. The pharaohs were able to establish their dominance over Egypt in this way.

The narrow and vertical form of the Nile valley did not allow residential units situated around the river to expand much, and therefore Egyptians formed a civilisation made up of small-scaled towns and villages instead of big cities. This factor also fortified the dominance of the pharaohs over their people.

King Menes is known to be the first Egyptian Pharaoh who united the whole of ancient Egypt, for the first time in history, in a united state around the 3rd millennium BC. In fact, the term "pharaoh" originally referred to the palace where the Egyptian king lived, but in time, it became the title of Egyptian kings. This is why the kings, who were rulers of Old Egypt started to be called "pharaohs".

Being owners, administrators and rulers of the whole state and its lands, these pharaohs were accepted as reflections of the biggest god in the distorted polytheistic religion of old Egypt. The administration of Egyptian lands, their division, their income, in short, all the estates, services and production within the country's borders were managed on behalf of the pharaoh.
The absolutism in the regime had furnished the pharaoh ruling the country with such a power that he could have anything he wished. Right at the establishment of the first dynasty, at the time of Menes who became the first King of Egypt by uniting Upper and Lower Egypt, the River Nile started to be delivered to the public through canals. Beside that, production was taken under control and the entire production of goods and services were assigned to the king. The king distributed and shared these goods and services in the proportions his people needed. It was not hard for the kings, who had established such a power in the region, to reduce the people to submission.

The King of Egypt, or with his future name, the pharaoh, was looked upon as a holy being who held great power and met all the needs of his people: and he was transformed into a god. The Pharaohs definitely believed in time that they were indeed gods.

Some of the words the pharaoh mentioned in the Qur'an used during his conversation with Musa prove that they held this belief. He tried to intimidate Musa by saying "If thou dost put forward any god other than me, I will certainly put thee in prison!" (Surat ash-Shuara: 29), and he said to the people around him "no god do I know for you but myself" (Surat al-Qasas: 38). He said all this because he regarded himself as a god.

The religious beliefs of the Egyptians were mainly based on serving their gods. The "intermediaries" between these gods and people were the priests who were among the leaders of the society. Dealing with magic and witchcraft at the same time, the priests made an important class whom the Pharaohs used in order to keep the people in submission.

Religious Beliefs

According to the historian Herodotus, the Ancient Egyptians were the most "devout" people in the world. However, their religion was not the religion of Truth, but a perverse polytheistic one and they could not abandon their perverse religion because of their extreme conservatism.

The Ancient Egyptians were largely influenced by the natural environment in which they lived. The natural geography of Egypt protected the country against external attacks perfectly. Egypt was surrounded by deserts, mountainous lands and seas on all sides. Attacks likely to be made on the country had two possible routes and it was very simple for the Egyptians to defend those routes. The Egyptians remained isolated from the external world thanks to these natural factors. But passing centuries transformed this isolation into a dark bigotry. Thus the Egyptians acquired a viewpoint which was locked against new developments and novelties, and which was extremely conservative about their religion. The "religion of their ancestors" mentioned frequently in the Qur'an became their most important value.

This is why Fir'awn and his close circle turned their backs on Musa and Harun when they announced the Religion of Truth to them, by saying: "Hast thou come to us to turn us away from the ways we found our fathers following - in order that thou and thy brother may have greatness in the land? But not we shall believe in you!" (Surah Yunus: 78)

The religion of Ancient Egypt was divided into branches, the most important of which were the official religion of the state, the beliefs of the people and belief in life after death.

According to the state's official religion, the pharaoh was a holy being. He was a reflection of the people's gods on earth and his purpose was to dispense justice and protect them on earth.
The beliefs widespread among people were extremely complicated, and the elements in item which clashed with the state's official religion were oppressed by the reigns of the Pharaohs. Basically, they believed in many gods, and these gods were usually depicted as having animal heads on human bodies. But it was also possible to meet with local traditions which differed from region to region.

Life after death made up the most important part of Egyptian belief. They believed that the soul went on living after the body died. According to this, the souls of the dead were brought by particular angels to the God who was a Judge and forty-two other witness judges, a scale was set in the middle and the heart of the soul was weighed in this scale. Those with more goodness passed on to a beautiful setting and lived in happiness, those with more wickedness were sent to a place where they were subject to great torments. There, they were tormented throughout eternity by a strange creature called the "The Dead Eater".

The belief of the Egyptians in the Hereafter clearly shows a parallelism with the monotheistic belief and the religion of Truth. Even their belief in the hereafter alone proves that the religion of truth and the message had reached ancient Egyptian civilisation, but that this religion was later corrupted, and monotheism was turned into polytheism. It is already known that warners calling people to the unity of Allah and summoning them to be His slaves were sent in Egypt from time to time, as they were to all the earth's peoples at one time or another. One of these was the prophet Yusuf whose life is told in detail in the Qur'an. The history of Yusuf is also extremely important because it includes the arrival of the Children of Israel in Egypt and their settlement there.

On the other hand, in the historical resources, there are references to some Egyptians who invited people to monotheistic religions even before Musa. One of them is the most interesting pharaoh in the history of Egypt, that is, Amenhotep IV .

The Monotheistic Pharaoh Amenhotep IV

The Egyptian pharaohs were generally brutal, oppressive, belligerent and ruthless people. In general, they adopted the polytheistic religion of Egypt and deified themselves through this religion.

But there is a pharaoh in Egyptian history who is very different from the others. This pharaoh defended belief in a single Creator and was subjected to great resistance by the priests of Ammon, who profited from the polytheistic religion, and some soldiers who supported them, and so he was finally killed. This pharaoh was Amenhotep IV who rose to power in the 14th Century BC.

When Amenhotep IV was enthroned in 1375 BC, he came across a conservatism and traditionalism which had been lingering for centuries. Until then, the structure of the society and the relations of the public with the royal palace had carried on without any change. The society kept all its doors firmly shut to all external events and religious innovations. This extreme conservatism, also remarked by ancient Greek travellers, was caused by the natural geographical conditions of Egypt as we have explained above.

Imposed on people by the pharaohs, the official religion required an unconditional faith in everything old and traditional. But Amenhotep IV did not adopt the official religion. The historian Ernst Gombrich writes;

He (Amenhotep IV) broke with many of the customs hallowed by an age-old tradition. He did not wish to pay homage to the many strangely shaped gods of his people. For him only one god was supreme, Aton, whom he worshipped and whom he had represented in the shape of the sun. He called himself Akhenaton, after his god, and he moved his court out of reach of the priests of the other gods, to a place which is now called El-Amarna2

After the death of his father, young Amenhotep IV was subjected to great pressure. This oppression was caused by the fact that he developed a religion based on monotheism by changing the traditional polytheistic religion of Egypt, and attempting to make radical changes in all fields. But the leaders of Thebes did not allow him to convey the message of this religion. Amenhotep IV and his folk moved away from the city of Thebes and settled in Tell-El-Amarna. Here, they established a new and modern city named "Akh-et-aton". Amenhotep IV changed his name which meant "Contentment of Amon" to Akh-en-aton, which meant "Submitting to Aton". Amon was the name given to the greatest totem in Egyptian polytheism. According to Amenhotep, Aton is the "creator of the heavens and the earth", his equating the name with Allah.

Disturbed by these developments, the priests of Ammon wanted to snatch Akhenaton's power by profiting from an economic crisis in the country. Akhenaton was finally killed by being poisoned by conspirators. Succeeding pharaohs were careful to stay under the influence of the priests.

After Akhenaton, pharaohs with a military background came to power. These again caused the old traditional polytheism to become widespread and spent a considerable effort to return to the past. Nearly a century later, Ramses II, who was to have the longest rule in the history of Egypt, came to the throne. According to many historians, Ramses was the pharaoh tormenting the Children of Israel and fighting against Musa.3

1. Ernst H. Gombrich, Gençler için Kisa Bir Dünya Tarihi, (Translated into Turkish by Ahmet Mumcu from the German original script, Eine Kurze Weltgeschichte Für Junge Leser, Dumont Buchverlag, Köln, 1985), Istanbul: Inkilap Publishing House, 1997, p.25
2. Ernst H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, London MCML, The Phaidon Press Ltd., p. 42
3. Eli Barnavi, Historical Atlas of The Jewish People, London: Hutchinson, 1992, p. 4; "Egypt", Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 6, p. 481and "The Exodus and Wanderings in Sinai", Vol. 8, p. 575; Le Monde de la Bible, No:83, July-August 1983, p. 50; Le Monde de la Bible, No:102, January-February 1997, pp. 29-32; Edward F. Wente, The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No:144, Winter 1995; Jacques Legrand, Chronicle of The World, Paris: Longman Chronicle, SA International Publishing, 1989, p. 68; David Ben Gurion, A Historical Atlas Of the Jewish People, New York: Windfall Book, 1974, p. 32