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History of ancient Egypt

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Ancient Egypt appeared as a unified state sometime around 3300 BC. It survived as an independent state until about 1300 BC. Archeological evidence indicates that a developed Egyptian society has existed for much longer.

Ongoing excavation in Egypt continually reshapes the views of scholars about the origins of Egyptian civilization. In the late 20th century archaeologists discovered evidence of human habitation before 8000 BC in an area in the southwestern corner of Egypt, near the border with Sudan. A prehistoric population of Mende-speaking peoples once populated Sudan, but later migrated westward. Nomadic peoples may have been attracted to this southern area of Egypt because of the hospitable climate and environment. Now exceptionally dry, that area once had grassy plains and temporary lakes that resulted from seasonal rains. The people who settled there must have realized the benefits of a more sedentary life. Scientific analysis of the remains of their culture indicates that by 6000 BC they were herding cattle and constructing large buildings.

The descendants of these people may well have begun Egyptian civilization in the Nile Valley. Also a recent genetic study links the maternal lineage of a traditional population from Upper Egypt to eastern Africa[1]

Attributed to the Mende-speaking peoples is our earliest indication of shipbuilding, which could explain the similarities among ancient Egyptian and West African shipbuilding. Included in the nomes of ancient Egypt are names associated with harpoons. Actual harpoons dating to 3000 BC have been found in West Africa, indicating ancient seafaring as early. See West Africa: History.

Traditionally, Egypt was said to have been unified by Meni (Min or Menes in Greek), who conquered Lower Egypt in about 3100 BC. This pharaoh may or may not have actually existed and is sometimes indentified with Narmer (the last king of Dynasty 0) or Aha (1st Dynasty) and is now thought to be proceeded by or part of pharaohs of the so-called 'Dynasty 0', a new addition that brings the number of Egyptian dynasties up to 34, roughly divided into the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom. The pyramids at Giza (near Cairo), which were built in the fourth dynasty, testify to the power of the pharaonic religion and state. The Great Pyramid, the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu (also known as Cheops), is the only surviving monument of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ancient Egypt reached the peak of its power, wealth, and territorial extent in the period called the New Empire (1567–1085 BC).

The Egyptians reached Crete around 2000 BC and were invaded by Indo-Europeans and Hyksos Semites. They defeated the invaders around 1570 BC and expanded into the Aegean, Sudan, Libya, and much of southwest Asia, as far as the Euphrates.


Egyptian chronology

Egyptian history is broken into several different periods according to the dynasty of the ruling pharaoh. The dating of events in Egyptian history is still a subject of research. The conservative dates are not supported by any reliable absolute date for a span of about three millennia. There is a recommended revision of the chronology of Egypt. See Egyptian chronology for further discussion, and the King List.

Early Dynastic Period

Ancient Egyptians considered themselves to be The People of Two Lands, these lands being Lower and Upper Egypt.

The earliest known Pharaoh of the 1st Dynasty is Menes. We know his name because it is written on a ceremonial palette used for make-up. Funeral practices for the peasants would have been the same as in pre-Dynastic times, but the rich demanded something more. Thus, the Egyptians began construction of the mastabas.

Menes unified Upper and Lower Egypt in 3100 BC. Before this period the land was settled with autonomous villages, called nomes. Menes established a national administration and appointed royal governors.

The buildings of the central government were typically open-air temples constructed of wood or sandstone.

Old Kingdom

Egyptologists consider that the Old Kingdom began with the Third dynasty. Around about the 4th Dynasty, the art of embalming began. A cautionary note about embalming, mummification and preservation:

To embalm and to mummify essentially mean the same thing. To embalm (from the Latin 'in balsamum' means to 'put into balsam', a mixture of aromatic resins) and the process of mummification are very similar in that the corpses were anointed with ointments, oils and resins. The word 'mummy' comes from a misinterpretation of the process. Poorly embalmed bodies (from the Late Period) are often black and very brittle. It was believed that these had been preserved by dipping them in bitumen, the Arabic word for bitumen being mumiya.

There are many modern techniques for preserving a body; however, these were not available to the ancient Egyptians (freezing, pickling etc). The only method that they were aware of was by drying the body out in the hot sand. This left the body looking most un-lifelike, and not a very suitable home for the 'Ka'. Also not a very reverent way to treat your Pharaoh. The answer came from the Nile.

The Nile floods every year. Without it Egypt would be no more than a desert with a river going through it. The flooding brought with it essential silt which made the land fertile. when the waters subsided, it left pools of water behind which dried out in the sun. Once the water had evaporated it left behind a white crystalline substance called natron. The most notable thing about this substance is that it is highly hygroscopic: it will draw and absorb moisture. During the Old Kingdom, Queen Hetepheres' internal organs were removed and placed in a solution of natron (about 3%). When the box was opened it contained just sludge, which was apparently all that remained of the Queen. Early attempts at mummification were total failures. This was recognised by the embalmers and so they took to preserving the shape of the body. They did this by wrapping the body in resin soaked bandages. They became so good at this that one example from the 5th Dynasty of a court musician called Waty, still holds details of warts, calluses, wrinkles and facial details.

A word about Upper and Lower Egypt. Lower Egypt is to the north and is that part where the Nile Delta flows into the Mediterranean Sea and Upper Egypt is to the South from the Libyan Desert down to just past Abu Simbel. The reason for this apparent upside-down naming is that Egypt is the 'Gift of the Nile' and as such everything is measured in relation to it. The Nile enters Egypt at the top, winding its way down until exiting via the fertile delta into the Mediterranean Sea in Lower Egypt.

After this first one, several other Pyramids were built and some abandoned before they were finished. One notable example is the 'Bent Pyramid': about halfway up it appears that the builders feared they would not be able to maintain the angle they were already building at, and decided to change it to a less steep angle. This resulted in an odd looking Pyramid whose top sloped in suddenly.

There is some evidence that around 2675 BC, Egypt started to import timber from Lebanon.

At around 2575 BC Pharaoh Khufu (aka. Cheops) makes his mark on the landscape. For him the greatest and most famous pyramid of all was constructed, the Great Pyramid of Giza. When looking at the pyramid group on the Giza plateau it does not seem to be the largest. This is because the tallest looking one has been built on higher ground, but is 10 metres smaller.

The Pharaoh Khufu was also responsible for sending expeditions into Nubia for slaves and anything else of value. It is unlikely that these people would have been used for the building of the monuments, at least not at first, as there would not have been enough of them. One popular and convincing theory is that the peasant farming people of Egypt built all of the temples and monuments, during the floods. This is an attractive theory for many reasons. When the Nile floods the people of Egypt would have had nowhere to live. The Nile floods up to the edge of the desert and would have covered all of the farming and living areas. If there was work to be had building monuments during the flooding season, then the peasant farmers would have had the chance to feed and house their family. Of course all of this would have been paid out of the taxes that the farmers would have paid during the harvest season, but that is the nature of government. This would also account for how the country had become, and stayed, so stable for several hundred years.

Pyramid building continued for some time, in fact there are 80 known pyramid sites, although not all of them are still standing.

First Intermediate Period

This takes us through the 5th and 6th dynasties and into the First Intermediate Period. The Old Kingdom was weakened by famine and weak leadership. One theory holds that a sudden, unanticipated, catastrophic reduction in the Nile floods over two or three decades, caused by a global climatic cooling which reduced the amount of rainfall in Egypt, Ethiopia and East Africa, contributed to the great famine and the subsequent downfall of the Old Kingdom.

The last Pharaoh of the 6th dynasty was Pepi II who is believed to have reigned for 94 years, longer than any monarch in history. He was 6 when he ascended the throne and 100 years old when he died. The latter years of his reign were marked by ineffeciency because of Pepy's advanced age. When he died the Old Kingdom collapsed.

A dark time marked by unrest followed. The Union of the Two Kingdoms fell apart and regional leaders had to cope with the famine.

Around 2160 BC a new line of Pharaohs tried to reunite Lower Egypt from their capital in Heracleopolis. In the meantime, however, a rival line based at Thebes was reuniting Upper Egypt and a clash between the two rival dynasties was inevitable.

The Pharaohs from Heracleopolis descended from a Pharaoh named Akhtoy and the first four Pharaohs from Thebes were named Inyotef or Antef.

Middle Kingdom

Around 2055 BC Pharaoh Amenemhat I ended this period of unrest and united the country again and moved the capital to North (lower) Egypt. Senusret I (son of Amenemhat I) co-reigned with him until his assassination. Senusret I was able to take control immediately without the country degenerating into unrest again. Senusret I continued to wage war on Nubia.

In 1878 BC the Pharaoh Senusret III became king. He continued the military campaigns in Nubia and was the first to try to extend Egypt's power into Syria.

Later Amenemhat III came to power. He is regarded as being the greatest monarch of the Middle Kingdom and did much to benefit Egypt. He ruled for 45 years.

Much of the greater activities done by the 12th dynasty kings took place outside the valley of the Nile. As was done before there were many expeditions into Nubia, Syria and the Eastern Desert, searching for valuables to be mined and wood to bring back. Also trade was established with Minoan Crete.

During the middle kingdom the next phase in tomb design was the rock-cut tomb. The best examples of these can be seen in the Valley of the Kings. They still had grand temples built in more visible areas.

The 13th Dynasty is often entered as a part of the Middle Kingdom, although the period seems to be a time confusion and of foreign princes from Asia known as the Hyksos who took advantage of the political instabilities of the Nile Delta to take control of it and later extend their powers south. They brought with them the horse-drawn war chariot. It didn't take the Egyptians long to realise the power of this chariot and use it themselves. This breakdown of central control marks the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period.

Second Intermediate Period

The 13th Dynasty, and later the 14th dynasty , continued to rule from either Itjtaway or Thebes, but their control over the rest of Egypt gradually ebbed away. According to the Turin King List, 57 kings made up the 13th dynasty, indicating that it was a time of disruption. A 15th dynasty ruled from the Delta. However, the principal threat rival to the pharaohs in Thebes was the 16th dynasty , also known as the Great Hyksos dynasty who ruled from Avaris. These kings managed to extend their rule as far south as Thebes.

The Hyksos dynasty was ended by the members of the 17th Dynasty . These kings drove the Hyksos and their followers out of Egypt, and succeeded in villifying them as outsiders who threatened the culture and tradition of the Middle Kingdom.

New Kingdom

The 18th Dynasty heralds the beginning of the New Kingdom. In this New Kingdom, coffins changed shape from the Middle Kingdom rectangle to the familiar mummy-shape with a head and rounded shoulders. At first these were decorated with carved or painted feathers, but later were painted with a representation of the deceased. They were also put together like Russian Dolls, in that a large outer coffin would contain a smaller one, which contained one that was almost moulded to the body. Each one was more elaborately decorated than the one larger than it. It is from this time that most mummies have survived.

The soft tissues like the brain and internal organs were removed. The cavities were washed and then packed with natron, and the body buried in a pile of natron. The intestines, lungs, liver and the stomach were preserved separately and stored in Canopic Jars protected by the four sons of Horus: Duamutef (stomach), Qebhsenuef (intestines), Hapy (lungs), and Imsety (liver). Such was the perceived power of these jars that even when the 21st Dynasty started to return the organs to the body after preservation instead of using the jars, the jars continued to be included in the tombs.

Various Pharaohs extended the control of Egypt further than ever before, retaking control of Nubia and extending power northwards into the Upper Euphrates, the lands of the Hittites, and Mitanni.

This was a time of great wealth and power for Egypt. By the time of Amenophis III (1417 BC1379 BC), Egypt had become so wealthy that he did nothing to further extend its powers and instead rested upon his throne gilded with Nubian gold.

He was succeeded by his son Amenophis IV who changed his name to Akhenaton. He moved the capital to a new city he built and called Akhetaten. Here with his new wife Nefertiti, he concentrated on building his new religion and ignored the world outside of Egypt. This allowed various underground factions to build that were not happy with his new world. The new religion was something that had never happened before in Egypt. Previously, new gods came along and were absorbed into the culture, but no god was allowed to push out any old ones. Akhenaton, however, formed a monotheistic religion around Aten, the sun disc. Worship of all other gods was banned, and this caused the majority of the internal unrest. A new culture of art was introduced that was more naturalistic and a complete turnabout from the stylised frieze that had ruled Egyptian art for the last 1700 years. Concering art and Akhenaton, an area of interest to many Egyptologists is the peculiarity of Akenatons' physical features. Many pharaohs are portayed in a stylized manner however, Akenhaten is shown in paintings and carvings with unusually feminine features,specifically wide hips and elongated, delecate facial features. Some theories assume that the depiction is accurate and not stylized, suggesting that Akenhaton suffered from birth defects which were common among the royal families.

Towards the end of his 17-year reign he took a co-regent Smenkhkare, who is sometimes considered to be his brother. Their co-reign lasted only two years. When Akhenaton died, worship of the old gods was revived. In truth, their worship had never ended, but had instead gone underground. Smenkhkare died after a few months of solo reign, and in his place was crowned a young boy. He was not ready for the pressure of ruling this great country and the advisors that surrounded him made the decisions for him. His given name was Tutankhaton, but with the resurgence of Amun he was re-named Tutankhamun. One of the most influential advisors was General Horemheb. Tutankhamun died while he was still a teenager and was succeeded by Ay, who probably married Tutankhamun's widow to strengthen his claim to the throne. It is possible that Horemheb made Ay a monarch to act as a transitional king until he was ready to take over. In any case, when Ay died, Horemheb became ruler and a new period of positive rule began. He set about securing internal stability and re-establishing the prestige that the country had before the reign of Akhenaton.

The 19th dynasty was founded by Rameses I. He only reigned for a short time, and was followed by Seti I (or Sethos I). Sethos I carried on the good work of Horemheb in restoring power, control and respect of Egypt. He also was responsible for creating the fantastic temple at Abydos. Seti I and his son Rameses II are the only two Pharaohs known to have been circumcised. Rameses II carried on his father's work and created many more splendid temples. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a poem about him called Ozymandias.

The reign of Rameses II is often given as the most likely date for the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. There are no records in Egyptian history of any of the events described in the Bible, nor any archaeological evidence.

Rameses II was succeeded by his son Merneptah and then by Seti II. Rameses III was a Pharaoh of the 20th Dynasty who, after a couple of battles, was followed by a number of short-lived reigns by Pharaohs all called Rameses.

Third Intermediate Period

After the death of Rameses XI, the High Priests of Amun at Thebes in the person of Herihor wrested control of Egypt away from the Pharaohs. The country was once again split into two parts with Herihor controlling Upper, and Smendes controlling Lower Egpyt. Smendes founded the 21st Dynasty, also known as The Tanites. Their reign seems to be without any other distinction and they were replaced without any apparent struggle by the Libyan kings of the 22nd Dynasty .

Egypt has long had ties with Libya, and the first king of the new Dynasty, Shoshenq I, served as a general under the last ruler of the 21st Dynasty. It is known that he appointed his own son to be the High Priest of Amun, a post that was previously a hereditary appointment. The scant and patchy nature of the written records from this period suggest that it was unsettled. There appear to have been many subversive groups which eventually led to the creation of the 23rd dynasty which ran concurrent with the 22nd dynasty. After the withdrawal of Egypt from the Sudan, a Nubian prince took control of lower Nubia. He was succeeded by Piye, and it was this Piye who decided to push north in an effort to crush his opponent ruling in the Delta of the Nile. He managed to attain power as far as Memphis. His opponent Tefnakhte ultimately submitted to him, but he was allowed to remain in power in Lower Egypt and founded the short-lived 24th Dynasty.

Late Period

Memphis and the Delta region became the target of many attacks from the Assyrians, until Psammetichus managed to reunite Middle and Lower Egypt under his rule forming the 26th Dynasty and the start of the Late Period. Eventually he extended his control over the whole of Egypt in 656 BC. He eventually felt strong enough to sever all ties with Assyria, and Assyrian control lapsed. The Saite period, as the 26th Dynasty is also known, was a century of revived splendour for Egypt. During the reign of Apries, an army was sent to help the Libyans to eliminate the Greek colony of Cyrene. The disastrous defeat of this army brought about a civil war which resulted in Apries being replaced by Amasis II. According to contemporary Greek records, Amasis was mostly concerned with Egyptian domestic affairs and the promotion of good relations with its neighbours. He died in 526 BC, and the next year Egypt fell under Persian power and the Perisan king Cambyses II became the first king of the 27th Dynasty.

The 30th Dynasty was established in 380 BC and lasted until 343 BC. This was the last native house to rule Egypt. The brief restoration of Persian rule is sometimes known as the 31st Dynasty.

See also

External links

  • The Ancient Egypt Site
  • The History of the Ancient Near East
  • Nile File — an interactive introduction to Ancient Egypt for children (and adults!)
  • Seven Wonder of the World — Ancient Times
  • Ancient Egypt Discussion Group

Last updated: 05-02-2005 17:42:15
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55