Ancient Egypt

Definition

by
published on 02 September 2009
Map of the New Kingdom of Egypt, 1450 BC (Andrei Nacu)

Egypt is a country in North Africa, on the Mediterranean Sea, and is among the oldest civilizations on earth. The name 'Egypt' comes from the Greek Aegyptos which was the Greek pronunciation of the Egyptian name 'Hwt-Ka-Ptah' (which means "House of the Spirit of Ptah", who was a very early God of the Ancient Egyptians). In the early Old Kingdom, Egypt was simply known as 'Kemet' which means 'Black Land' so named for the rich, dark soil along the Nile River where the first settlements began. Later, the country was known simply as Misr which means 'country', a name still in use by Egyptians for their nation in the present day. Egypt thrived for thousands of years (from c. 8,000 BCE to c. 525 BCE) as an independent nation whose culture was famous for great cultural advances in every area of human knowledge, from the arts to science to technology and religion. The great monuments which Egypt is still celebrated for reflect the depth and grandeur of Egyptian culture which influenced so many ancient civilizations, among them Greece and Rome.

Evidence of overgrazing of cattle, on the land which is now the Sahara Desert, has been dated to about 8,000 BCE. This evidence, along with artifacts discovered, points to a thriving agricultural civilization in the region at that time.  As the land was mostly arid even then, hunter-gathering nomads sought the cool of the water source of the Nile River Valley and began to settle there sometime prior to 5500 BCE. Organized farming began in the region c. 5000 BCE and communities known as the Badari Culture began to flourish alongside the river. The Badari were followed by the Amratian, the Gerzean, and the Naqada cultures, all of which contributed significantly to the development of what became Egyptian civilization.  The written history of the land begins at some point between 5000 and 3200 BCE when Hieroglyphic Script is developed by the Naqada Culture (who also established the faience industry sometime prior to 5500 BCE around Abydos). By 3500 BCE mummification of the dead was in practice at the city of Hierakonpolis. The city of Xois is recorded as being already ancient by 3100-2181 BCE as inscribed on the famous Palermo Stone. As in other cultures world-wide, the small agrarian communities became centralized and grew into larger urban centers.

Prosperity led to, among other things, an increase in the brewing of beer, more leisure time for sports, and advances in medicine.

Early History of Egypt

The Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-c. 2686 BCE) saw the unification of the north and south kingdoms of Egypt under the Pharaoh Manes (also known as Meni or Menes) of the south who conquered the north in 3118 BCE. This version of the early history comes from the Aegyptica (History of Egypt) by the ancient historian Manetho who lived in either the 3rd century BCE or 2nd century CE and whose account has been disputed by later historians. Manetho’s work is the only source which cites Manes and the conquest and it is now thought that the man referred to by Manetho as `Manes’ was the Pharaoh Narmer who peacefully united Upper and Lower Egypt under one rule. Geographical designation in Egypt follows the direction of the Nile River and so `Upper Egypt’ is the southern region and `Lower Egypt’ the northern area closer to the Mediterranean Sea. Narmer ruled from the city of Heirakonopolis and then from Abydos. Trade increased significantly under the rulers of the Early Dynastic Period and elaborate mastaba tombs, precursors to the later pyramids, developed in ritual burial practices which included more elaborate mummification techniques.

The Pyramids

During the period known as the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-c. 2181 BCE), architecture developed at an increased rate and some of the most famous monuments in Egypt, such as the pyramids and the Great Sphinx at Giza, were constructed. The Pharaoh Djoser, who reigned 2691-2625 BCE, built the first Step Pyramid at Saqqara c. 2630, designed by his chief architect and physician Imhotep (who also wrote one of the first medical texts describing the treatment of over 200 different diseases). The Great Pyramid of Khufu (also known as The Great Pyramid of Cheops, last of the seven wonders of the ancient world) was constructed in 2528 BCE with the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure following in 2494 and 2474 BCE, respectively. The grandeur of the pyramids on the Giza plateau, as they originally would have appeared, sheathed in gleaming white limestone, is a testament to the power and wealth of the rulers during this period. Many theories abound regarding how these monuments and tombs were constructed but modern architects and scholars are far from agreement on any single one. Considering the technology of the day, some have argued, a monument such as the Great Pyramid of Giza should not exist. Others claim, however, that the existence of such buildings and tombs suggest superior technology which has been lost to time. Most modern scholars today reject the claim that the pyramids and other monuments were built by slave labor, and recent archaeological excavations in and around Giza support this view. Such monuments were considered public works created for the state and used both skilled and unskilled Egyptian workers in construction who were paid for their labor.

The First Intermediate Period & the Hyksos

The era known as The First Intermediate Period (2181-2055 BCE) saw a decline in the power of the central government following its collapse. Independent states with their own rulers developed throughout Egypt until two great centers emerged: Hierakonpolis in Lower Egypt and Thebes in Upper Egypt. These centers founded their own dynasties which ruled their regions independently and intermittently fought with each other for supreme control until 2055 BCE when the Theban Pharaoh Mentuhotep II defeated the forces of Hierakonpolis and united Egypt under the rule of Thebes.

The stability provided by Theban rule allowed for the flourishing of what is known as the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BCE). The Middle Kingdom is considered Egypt’s `Classical Age’ when art and culture reached great heights and Thebes became the most important and wealthiest city in the country. According to the historians Oakes and Gahlin, “the Twelfth Dynasty kings were strong rulers who established control not only over the whole of Egypt but also over Nubia to the south, where several fortresses were built to protect Egyptian trading interests” (11). Luxurious spending and building projects, combined with uncontrolled flooding of the Nile River which caused famine, weakened the government at Thebes to the point where it had no power to halt the increasing influence of the Hyksos people in the Nile Delta.

The Hyksos are a mysterious people, most likely from the area of Syria/Palestine, who first appeared in Egypt c. 1800 and settled in the town of Avaris. While the names of the Hyksos kings are Semitic in origin, no definite ethnicity has been established for them. The Hyksos grew in power until they were able to take control of the whole of Lower Egypt by c. 1720 BCE, rendering the Theban Dynasty of Upper Egypt a vassal state and the pharaoh no more than a figure head. This era is known as The Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-c.1550 BCE). While the Hyksos (whose name simply means `foreign rulers’) were hated by the Egyptians, they introduced a great many improvements to the culture such as the composite bow, the horse, and the chariot along with crop rotation and developments in bronze and ceramic works. By 1700 BCE the Kingdom of Kush had risen to the south of Thebes in Nubia and allied themselves with the Hyksos rulers against the Kingdom of Thebes. The Egyptians mounted a number of campaigns to drive the Hyksos out and subdue the Nubians but all failed until Ahmose I, who had been a soldier in the Theban army, finally succeeded c. 1555/50 BCE.

The New Kingdom & the Amarna Period

Ahmose I initiated what is known as the period of the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE) which again saw great prosperity in the land under a strong central government. Many of the Egyptian sovereigns best known today ruled during this period and the majority of the great structures of antiquity such as the Ramesseum, Abu Simbel, the temples of Karnak and Luxor, and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens come from this time. Between 1504-1492 BCE the pharaoh Tuthmosis I consolidated his power and expanded the boundaries of Egypt to the Euphrates River in the north, Syria and Palestine to the west, and Nubia to the south. His reign was followed by Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE) who greatly expanded trade with other nations, most notably the Land of Punt. Her 22-year reign was one of peace and prosperity for Egypt.

Portrait of Queen Hatshepsut

Her successor, Tuthmosis III, carried on her policies (although he tried to eradicate all memory of her as, it is thought, he did not want her to serve as a role model for other women since only males were considered worthy to rule) and, by the time of his death in 1425 BCE, Egypt was a great and powerful nation. The prosperity led to, among other things, an increase in the brewing of beer in many different varieties and more leisure time for sports. Advances in medicine led to improvements in health. Bathing had long been an important part of the daily Egyptian’s regimen as it was encouraged by their religion and modeled by their clergy. At this time, however, more elaborate baths were produced, presumably more for leisure than simply hygiene. The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, concerning women’s health and contraceptives, had been written c. 1800 BCE and, during this period, seems to have been made extensive use of by doctors of the time. Surgery and dentistry were both practiced widely and with great skill, and beer was prescribed by physicians for ease of symptoms of over 200 different maladies.

In 1353 BCE the pharaoh Amenhotep IV succeeded to the throne and, shortly after, changed his name to Akhenaten (`living spirit of Aten’) to reflect his belief in a single god, Aten. The Egyptians traditionally believed in many gods whose importance influenced every aspect of their daily lives. Among the most popular of these deities were Amun, Osiris, Isis, and Hathor. The cult of Amun, at this time, had grown so wealthy that the priests were almost as powerful as the pharaoh. Akhenaten and his queen, Nefertiti, renounced the traditional religious beliefs and customs of Egypt and instituted a new religion based upon the recognition of one god. His religious reforms effectively cut the power of the priests of Amun and placed it in his hands. He moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna to further distance his rule from that of his predecessors. This is known as The Amarna Period (1353-1336 BCE) during which Amarna grew as the capital of the country and polytheistic religious customs were banned. Among his many accomplishments, Akhenaten was the first ruler to decree statuary and a temple in honor of his queen instead of only for himself or the gods and used the money which once went to the temples for public works and parks. The power of the clergy declined sharply as that of the central government grew, which seemed to be Akhenaten's goal, but he failed to use his power for the best interest of his people. The Amarna Letters make clear that he was more concerned with his religious reforms than with foreign policy or the needs of the people of Egypt. 

Death Mask of Tutankhamun

His reign was followed by his son, the most recognizable Egyptian ruler in the modern day, Tutankhamun, who reigned from 1336-1327 BCE. He was originally named `Tutankhaten’ to reflect the religious beliefs of his father but, upon assuming the throne, changed his name to `Tutankhamun’ to honor the ancient god Amun. He restored the ancient temples, removed all references to his father’s single deity, and returned the capital to Thebes. His reign was cut short by his death and, today, he is most famous for the intact grandeur of his tomb, discovered in 1922 CE, which became an international sensation at the time.

The greatest ruler of the New Kingdom, however, was Ramesses II (also known as Ramesses the Great, 1279-1213 BCE) who commenced the most elaborate building projects of any Egyptian ruler and who reigned so efficiently that he had the means to do so. Although the famous Battle of Kadesh of 1274 (between Ramesses II of Egypt and Muwatalli II of the Hitties) is today regarded as a draw, Ramesses considered it a great Egyptian victory and celebrated himself as a champion of the people, and finally as a god, in his many public works. His temple of Abu Simbel depicts the battle of Kadesh and the smaller temple at the site, following Akhenaten’s example, is dedicated to Ramesses favorite queen Nefertari. Under the reign of Ramesses II the first peace treaty in the world (The Treaty of Kadesh) was signed in 1258 BCE and Egypt enjoyed almost unprecedented affluence.  He became known to later generations as `The Great Ancestor’ and reigned for so long that all of his subjects had been born knowing only Ramesses II as their ruler. Upon his death, many feared that the end of the world had come as they had known no other pharaoh and no other kind of Egypt.

Ramesses II Statue

The Decline of Egypt & the Coming of Alexander the Great

His successor, Ramesses III, followed his policies but, by this time, Egypt’s great wealth had attracted the attention of the Sea Peoples who began to make regular incursions along the coast. The Sea Peoples, like the Hyksos, are of unknown origin but are thought to have come from the southern Aegean area. Between 1276-1178 BCE the Sea Peoples were a threat to Egyptian security (Ramesses II had defeated them in a naval battle early in his reign). After his death, however, they increased their efforts, sacking Kadesh, which was then under Egyptian control, and ravaging the coast. Between 1180-1178 BCE Ramesses III fought them off, finally defeating them at the Battle of Xois in 1178 BCE. Following the reign of Ramesses III, his successors attempted to maintain his policies but increasingly met with resistance from the people of Egypt, those in the conquered territories, and, especially, the priestly class. In the years after Tutankhamun had restored the old religion of Amun, and especially during the great time of prosperity under Ramesses II, the priests of Amun had acquired large tracts of land and amassed great wealth which now threatened the central government and disrupted the unity of Egypt. By the time of Ramesses XI (1107-1078 BCE), the end of the 20th Dynasty, the government had become so weakened by the power and corruption of the clergy that the country again fractured and central administration collapsed, initiating the so-called Third Intermediate Period of 1069-653 BCE.

Map of the Third Intermediate Period

Under the Kushite King Piye (752-722 BCE), Egypt was again unified and the culture flourished, but beginning in 671 BCE, the Assyrians under Esarhaddon began their invasion of Egypt, conquering it by 667 BCE. Having made no long-term plans for control of the country, the Assyrians left it in ruin in the hands of local rulers and abandoned Egypt to its fate. This is the state the country was in when Cambyses II of Persia struck at the city of Pelusium in 525 BCE. Knowing the reverence the Egyptians held for cats (who were thought living representations of the popular goddess Bastet) Cambyses II ordered his men to paint cats on their shields and to drive cats, and other animals sacred to the Egyptians, in front of the army toward Pelusium. The Egyptian forces surrendered and the country fell to the Persians. It would remain under Persian occupation until the coming of Alexander the Great in 332-331 BCE.

Alexander was welcomed as a liberator and conquered Egypt without a fight. He established the city of Alexandria and moved on to conquer Phoenicia and the rest of the Persian Empire. After his death in 323 BCE his general, Ptolemy, brought his body back to Alexandria and founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305-30 BCE). The last of the Ptolemies was Cleopatra VII who committed suicide in 30 BCE after the defeat of her forces (and those of her consort Mark Antony) by the Romans under Octavian Caesar at the Battle of Actium (31 BCE). Egypt then became a province of Rome (30 BCE-476 CE) then of the Byzantine Empire (c. 527-646 CE) until it was conquered by the Arab Muslims under Caliph Umar in 646 CE and fell under Islamic Rule.

The Historian Will Durant writes,

The effect or remembrance of what Egypt accomplished at the very dawn of history has influence in every nation and every age. ‘It is even possible', as Faure has said, 'that Egypt, through the solidarity, the unity, and the disciplined variety of its artistic products, through the enormous duration and the sustained power of its effort, offers the spectacle of the greatest civilization that has yet appeared on the earth.' We shall do well to equal it (217).

Egyptian Culture and history has long held a universal fascination for people; whether through the work of early archeologists in the 19th century CE (such as Champollion who deciphered the Rosetta Stone in 1822 CE) or the famous discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter in 1922 CE. It is an important testimony to the power of the Egyptian mythos that so many works of the imagination, from films to books to paintings, have been inspired by it and the ancient culture continues to attract enthusiasts from around the world.



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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • c. 6000 BCE
    Burial of the Dead in Egypt.
  • c. 6000 BCE
    Earliest Egyptian mastabas dug at Saqqara.
  • 5500 BCE
    Oldest faience workshop in Egypt founded at Abydos.
  • c. 5200 BCE
    Nile River Valley first inhabited.
  • 5000 BCE
    Organised farming begins in Egypt.
  • c. 4000 BCE
    Depictions of gods and afterlife on walls of Egyptian tombs.
  • c. 3414 BCE - c. 3100 BCE
    Xois founded as a city during the 1st Dynasty.
  • 3200 BCE
    Hieroglyphic script developed in Egypt.
  • 3150 BCE - 2686 BCE
    Early Dynastic period in Egypt. First Pharaos.
  • 3118 BCE
    Pharaoh Menes Conquers lower Egypt creating a unified state of Egypt.
  • c. 3100 BCE
    Reign of Menes, a.k.a. Narmer, first Pharaoh and Unificator of Lower and High Egypt.
  • 3100 BCE - 2181 BCE
    Xois inscribed on Palermo Stone as an ancient city during the 5th Dynasty.
  • c. 3000 BCE
    Trade already established between Syria and Egypt.
  • 2691 BCE - 2625 BCE
    Estimated reign of power for Pharaoh Djoser.
  • 2667 BCE - 2648 BCE
    Imhotep in Egypt writes medical texts describing diagnosis and treatment of 200 diseases.
  • 2630 BCE
    First pyramid is built at Saqqara, Egypt.
  • 2600 BCE
    The step pyramid is built by Pharaoh Zoser (Djoser).
  • 2575 BCE - 2134 BCE
    The Old Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 2550 BCE - 2528 BCE
    The Great Pyramid is constructed by Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops).
  • c. 2500 BCE
    The Great Sphinx is built at Giza.
  • 2181 BCE - 2055 BCE
    1st Intermediate Period in Egypt.
  • 2064 BCE - 1986 BCE
    Twin Dynasty Wars in Egypt.
  • 2055 BCE - 1650 BCE
    The Middle Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1800 BCE
    Bronze working introduced to Egypt.
  • c. 1800 BCE
    The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus deals with women's health and contraception.
  • 1790 BCE - 1540 BCE
    Second Intermediate Period of Egyptian history.
  • 1783 BCE
    Avaris is built and set as capital of Hyksos.
  • 1720 BCE
    Egypt is conquered by the Hyksos.
  • 1700 BCE
    The Kingdom of Kush is formed to the south of Egypt.
  • 1650 BCE - 1550 BCE
    Xois serves as capital of the 14th Dynasty.
  • 1650 BCE - 1550 BCE
    2nd Intermediate Period in Egypt.
  • c. 1550 BCE
    Composition of The Book of the Dead in Egypt.
  • 1550 BCE
    Ahmoses I defeats and expels the Hyksos from Egypt and destroy their capital Avaris.
  • 1550 BCE - 1069 BCE
    The New Kingdom of Egypt.
  • 1504 BCE - 1492 BCE
    Egyptian empire reaches greatest extent under Tuthmosis I.
  • 1500 BCE
    Egyptian empire extends to the Euphrates.
  • 1479 BCE - 1458 BCE
    Queen Hatshepsut rules Egypt.
  • 1479 BCE - 1425 BCE
    Reign of Thutmose III in Egypt.
  • c. 1457 BCE
    Battle of Megiddo: Thutmose III of Egypt defeats a coalition of Canaan, Kadesh, Mitanni, and Megiddo led by Durusha, king of Kadesh.
  • c. 1450 BCE
    Kadesh and Megiddo lead a Canaanite alliance against the Egyptian invasion by Thutmose III.
  • 1390 BCE - 1352 BCE
    Reign of Amenhotep III of Egypt.
  • 1353 BCE - 1336 BCE
    The Amarna Period in Egypt.
  • 1353 BCE - c. 1336 BCE
    Reign of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun's father, `Heretic King' of Egypt.
  • c. 1336 BCE - 1327 BCE
    Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • c. 1334 BCE
    Tutankhamun initiates religious reforms returning Egypt to traditional belief structure.
  • 1327 BCE - 1323 BCE
    Reign of Ay in Egypt.
  • c. 1320 BCE
    Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Horemheb, succeeds Ay as ruler of Egypt
  • c. 1320 BCE - 1292 BCE
    Reign of Horemheb in Egypt, Tutankhamun's name erased from record.
  • c. 1303 BCE
    Birth of Ramesses II of Egypt.
  • 1295 BCE - 1294 BCE
    The reign of Ramesses I in Egypt.
  • 1295 BCE - 1188 BCE
    The Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt.
  • 1294 BCE - 1279 BCE
    The reign of Seti I in Egypt.
  • 1279 BCE - 1212 BCE
    Reign of Ramesses II (The Great) in Egypt.
  • 1274 BCE
    Battle of Kadesh between Pharaoh Ramesses II of Egypt and King Muwatalli II of the Hittites.
  • c. 1264 BCE - c. 1244 BCE
    Probable dates for the construction of Abu Simbel.
  • 1258 BCE
    The Treaty of Kadesh between Egyptians and Hittites. The world's first peace treaty.
  • c. 1244 BCE - c. 1224 BCE
    Other probable dates for the construction of Abu Simbel.
  • 1186 BCE - 1155 BCE
    Reign of Ramesses III, Pharaoh of Egypt.
  • 1180 BCE
    The Sea Peoples begin increased incursions into Egypt.
  • 1180 BCE - 1178 BCE
    Ramesses III of the 20th Dynasty fortifies Xois against the threat of the invading Sea Peoples.
  • 1178 BCE
    Rameses III defends Egypt from the Sea Peoples on the shores at Xois, defeating them completely.
  • 1069 BCE - 653 BCE
    Third Intermediate Period in Egypt.
  • 750 BCE
    Iron working is introduced to Egypt.
  • 712 BCE - 671 BCE
    Egypt is ruled by the Kushite dynasty.
  • 671 BCE
    Egypt is conquered by Assyria.
  • 671 BCE
    Second Egyptian Campaign, Assyrian army successfully captures Memphis and conquers Egypt.
  • 667 BCE - 665 BCE
    Ashurbanipal wages war in Egypt to put down rebellions.
  • 664 BCE
    Psamtik I becomes Pharoah in Egypt.
  • 653 BCE
    Egypt expels Assyrians.
  • 601 BCE
    Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon unsuccessfully attempts to invade Egypt.
  • 525 BCE
    Cambyses II of Persia takes the city of Pelusium, conquers Egypt.
  • 525 BCE - 404 BCE
  • 520 BCE
    Darius of Persia links the Nile and the Red Sea by a canal.
  • c. 398 BCE - c. 380 BCE
    Plato travels in Egypt, Cyrene, Italy, Syracuse and Sicily.
  • 341 BCE
    The Persians complete conquest of Egypt.
  • 332 BCE
    Alexander the Great conquers Syria and turns toward Egypt.
  • 331 BCE
    Alexander the Great founds Alexandria at the port town of Rhakotis in Egypt.
  • 331 BCE
    Egypt is conquered by Alexander the Great without resistance.
  • 323 BCE
    Death of Alexander the Great.
  • 323 BCE - 282 BCE
    Rule of Ptolemy I Soter.
  • 323 BCE - 31 BCE
    The Hellenistic Age.Greek thought and culture infuses with indigenous people.
  • 305 BCE - 285 BCE
    Reign of Ptolemy I in Egypt, initiated of the Great Library.
  • 305 BCE - 30 BCE
    Rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt.
  • 300 BCE
    Ptolemy I founds the Museum of Alexandria.
  • 285 BCE - 246 BCE
    Reign of Ptolemy II in Egypt, developement of Library at Alexandria.
  • 277 BCE - 276 BCE
    4,000 Celts are employed in Egypt under Ptolemy II.
  • 259 BCE
    Celts in Egypt fail to overthrow Ptolemy II and are starved to death on an island.
  • 247 BCE
    The lighthouse at Alexandria (Pharos) is completed.
  • 217 BCE
    14,000 Celts serve under Ptolemy IV in his victory at Raphia over the Seleucid King Antiochos III.
  • c. 69 BCE - 12 Aug 30 BCE
    Life of Cleopatra VII of Egypt.
  • 47 BCE
    Cleopatra VII is sole ruler of Egypt; she presents herself as the goddess Isis.
  • 32 BCE - 31 BCE
    Battle of Actium: Octavian (the later Emperor Augustus) defeats Cleopatra of Egypt.
  • 30 BCE
    Egypt becomes province of the Roman empire.
  • 30 BCE
    Death of Cleopatra VII, end of the Ptolemaic line in Egypt.
  • 30 BCE - 14 CE
    Reign of Augustus Caesar in Rome, restoration of Roman province of Alexandria.
  • c. 1 CE
    First non-stop voyages from Egypt to India.
  • 30 CE - 476 CE
    Egypt remains a province of the Roman Empire.
  • c. 50 CE - c. 60 CE
    Establishment of various Christian communities in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece, Egypt, and at least the city of Rome.
  • 232 CE
    Emperor Maximinus Thrax commands a legion in Egypt.
  • c. 527 CE - 646 CE
    The Byzantine Empire controls Egypt.
  • 646 CE
    The Arab Muslims conquer Egypt under Caliph Umar.

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