The Danger of Tradition – or – Why the Ancient Egyptians didn’t have Air Conditioning

The Ancient Egyptians were an extremely organized and advanced society. It is believed that they existed, as a cohesive society, for around 3,000 years from around 3100 BCE to 30BC when they were taken over by the Romans. They built pyramids, had one of the first recorded writing systems, and left us some of the most inspiring historical remnants. To sum it all up, they were awesome. Using the original definition of the word Awesome. Awe inspiring.

That said.

They didn’t have air conditioners, did they? Unless we’ve missed some HUGE hidden deposit of historical electronic devices, the Ancient Egyptians didn’t have air conditioners. They had fans, sure. And lots of people to wave said fans. But they did not have air conditioners as we know them today.

The Ancient Egyptians did not believe in change. While it is undeniable that their society changed drastically from its inception to its demise, adherence to tradition was essential to their everyday life. Some sources I looked at said that their society was a reflection of their beliefs of what society was like at the ‘dawn of time’. My Anthropology teacher back in college said that they believed that their society was perfect and that change was heretical. Wikipedia mentions that adherence to tradition, as opposed to change, was one of the important principles in their society.

While there have been many technological advances made since the Ancient Egyptians, I don’t believe that these advances are tied down to the year they were made in. They are instead an organic growth from the needs of the people at the time. Different societies need different things at different times, which is why societies create different things to fulfill their needs. Technological advances come from just one person discovering something new or looking for a change. Had the Egyptians had a higher rate of literacy amongst their population, they may have considered newspaper type objects. Had they considered newspaper type objects, they might have moved to develop a printing press.

The Chinese developed movable type in 1040 CE. The standard Western printing press was invented in 1440 CE. The typewriter came about in about 1829 CE. In 2000 CE we have the Internet and more printers than we know what to do with. (Mostly because toner costs so much). There are hundreds upon thousands of smaller tweaks and twists that led to my ability to create this blog post and post it out on the internet for you to read, however I hope you understand my point here. One problem leads to many incremental evolutions that create major inventions that change our way of life.

This is just one example of how one change can have a cascade effect. One decision is all it takes to spark a revolution. I don’t know if all of the individuals involved considered what they were doing to be revolutionary. To be honest, I think they were just looking for an easier way to do things. They were looking to improve what they started with.

The Ancient Egyptians were an amazing society, but they didn’t believe in change. They stayed true to their traditions and didn’t embrace change. While they were indeed awe inspiring, I look at the 3,000 years they reigned and I wonder. I wonder what they could have accomplished if they had embraced change. I wonder what they would have printed if they had considered mass producing their writing in newspaper style objects. I wonder what they could have created if one person had thought ‘Gee its a bit hot, I wonder if I could find a way to fix that without relying on someone else to fan me, since their arms tend to get tired’. Presumably in my imagination, their society would have accepted such creations with open arms.

I am over simplifying this, I know. The Ancient Egyptians did discover many things, especially about how to create really well preserved mummies. Perhaps they did have people who endeavored to create easier and better ways to do other things too.

But if your society does not embrace change, then what would give you the motivation to try? If you believe life is perfect the way it is now, why would you try to change it? If you believe our best years are in preserving the past, why would you attempt to create the future?

I write this article, as tongue and cheek as it is, as a warning against traditionalist behavior. We hear a lot in our country (well my country, you might be from Switzerland) about ‘traditional’ values. The Conservative Party are constantly barraging us with rhetoric glorifying the past. Meanwhile they are updating their twitter and sipping Starbucks coffee out of a commuter mug.

The America I know, The America I love, is a country that embraces change. The America I believe in is a country that shakes off the old, the outdated, the untrue. The America I hope for is a country that sees this new Millennium and can’t wait to see what changes it will bring, what new ideas will unfold.

But the America I hear lauded by conservative pundits is not that America. Their America is regressing. Their America is about needless tradition and outdated values. Their America is about glorifying the past. They want to “Keep America, American.”

If we, as individuals both in America and around the world, allow Traditionalists to sell their outdated and regressive values to society, if we allow them to win. . .

We will become the Ancient Egyptians. A relic of an Ancient society. Alone in the desert. Without Air Conditioning.

3 thoughts on “The Danger of Tradition – or – Why the Ancient Egyptians didn’t have Air Conditioning

  1. Interesting observation, Ann. In fact, the Hittites were able to successfully war with Egypt due to their advances in chariots and bow-and-arrow technology. On the other hand, the unchanging nature of Egyptian society led to many socially stable inventions, including affording significant legal rights to women, such as the right to own property, write a will and divorce.

    Lester Picker
    Author of “The First Pharaoh” and “The Dagger of Isis”

    1. I wonder if Women’s rights can be linked to social stability, it feels like something I should research.
      The Goddess/principle Maat was very important to the Egyptians, so I wonder if their progressive attitudes towards women stem from having Goddesses in many positions of authority.

  2. Although I appreciate your point and do agree that embracing change can be a good thing, I also think that the ancient Egyptians managed to accomplish a great deal, not least of which was creating a stable society where a lot of people were reasonably happy, generation after generation. Progress can be hard to make if you don’t embrace change, but it is even /harder/ to make if /someone/ doesn’t manage to perform the enormously difficult balancing act of preserving a stable society that lasts for generations, keeps extensive records, generously shares information, educates subsequent generations, and so on.

    Much of our modern society, especially in terms of the scientific ethos and the very idea of progress as we know it, derives from classical (and pre-classical) Mediterranean cultures, most obviously Greek, Roman, and Hebrew culture, but others as well. All of these cultures, and others, owe Egypt an enormous debt for acting as a stable repository of culture and ideas for the entire region, as well as many creative contributions.

    It is no mean feat to keep a culture together for thousands of years, including written records and cultural traditions like scholarship and religious traditions that are life-affirming and include fascinating stories admired to this day.

    Without Egypt’s stability and generosity, it is unlikely that the classical world as we know it would have been able to evolve, or our modern world. Classical Greek and Roman authors acknowledged their enormous debt to Egypt; if you read “Black Athena” and its sequel(s) by Bernal, you might develop more respect for their achievements.

    Without /someone/ maintaining a long-term stable cultural base, the many many innovators of history are ultimately doomed to keep re-inventing various versions of the same things over and over, then lose them again as their cultures fall apart. A brief survey of history shows many instances of this phenomenon. If Egypt had valued innovation over stability, they might well have fallen apart before the Classical period, and without the leg up that the Egyptians gave the Greeks… et cetera.

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