How old is knowledge? The idea itself of knowing things has obviously been around for millennia, but what about what we would call knowledge?
In the west, the definition of knowledge accounts for the mathematics of perfect circles, the physics holding the moon in place and the psychology of what your neighbor will do if he finds your cat in his garden again. They are facts, backed up by empirical evidence that govern our universe and when applied, can give you an upper hand in a situation or lead you to avoid a situation entirely. In the east, knowledge is this and more. In India and China, knowledge extends more into the philosophy and mystery shaping how things work. Ancient scriptures concerning ideas on spirituality and the self are held in the same regard as those concerning the planets, as if the two may not be dissimilar in the role of wider understanding. But that is an article for another time.
For now though we look at western knowledge, and specifically those wonders of antiquity the Ancient Greeks.
Everyone can probably name at least one great Greek from around 500 BC, whether they know it or not. Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Hippocrates all graced the southern tip of Europe at this time. They are considered some of the greatest minds of all time, credited by many high school teachers and scholars alike as personally responsible for huge advancements in the understanding of mathematics, medicine, philosophy and physics. But at such an introverted period in Greek history, after the fall of the great empire of Mycenae around 1000 BC in what historians call the Greek Dark Ages, how did such thinking come about?
Across the Mediterranean from Greece lay the vast land of Africa and a civilization that was at that time already two-and-a-half thousand years old. Located in the north east of the continent where Egypt lies today, was the land of Kemet.
Kemet was already considered by this point (circa 500 BC) a center for learning in the ancient world. In the words of prominent historian Cheikh Anta Diop, Kemet was a “fount of scientific, religious, moral and social knowledge, the most ancient knowledge that mankind had acquired.” Not surprising when one learns that children in Kemet were raised to understand a range of disciplines in order to see themselves through life. However not all finished their studies, which is hardly surprising when you have conservatively nearly 3,000-4,500 years of collective knowledge to learn. Up to the age of four, children were nurtured by their mothers and likely other women before the role was taken over by the father. With this the young Kemites would begin to learn about the machinations of their world. They would have the universe slowly explained to them through beliefs of gods and stories, tying real knowledge with myth and fostering an interest in the natural world.
Then, at the age of seven these inquisitive minds would be enrolled at one of Kemet’s universities. Embarking on a holistic 40 year course that covered everything from geography, geometry, medicine, mathematics and astrology all the way to philosophy, religion, grammar, architecture and the realms of magic. One could hardly be surprised if only the most scholarly minds completed the nearly half a century of learning it took to become a priest of the land.
Within Kemet there were the two main universities of Waset (better known now as Thebes) and Ipet Isut (Karnak, Luxor) which had over 200,000 students passing through their gates at any one time. Although other holistic schools could be found through Africa at this time, including evidence to suggest similar centers of learning in modern day Ethiopia, Mali and Ghana, Kemet was most likely the most prolific center of education. This can be judged not just by what we find in writings of the period, but also by what we can still see in the region. The pyramids, the sphinx, all were built by Kemites and all are still standing today. But as well as being a marvel of architecture, they are a marvel of astrology and mathematics providing hidden knowledge of the seasonal solstices as well as the very circumference of the earth. Not bad for a civilization born thousands of years before the smart phone.
Of the 200,000 students that thronged through the doors of the two ancient universities of Kemet, many were from outside Kemet, travelling from all corners of Africa to study. Fewer however were from another continent entirely.