Ancient Egypt, An Overview
The origins of ancient Egyptian civilization, which many regard as one of the fountainheads of Western culture, cannot be established with certainty. Archaeological evidence suggests that early dwellers in the Nile Valley were influenced by cultures of the Near East, but the degree of this influence is yet to be determined. Describing the development of Egyptian civilization, like attempts to identify its intellectual foundations, is largely a process of conjecture based on archaeological discoveries of enduring ruins, tombs, and monuments, many of which contain invaluable specimens of the ancient culture. Inscriptions in hieroglyphs, for instance, have provided priceless data.
The framework for the study of the Dynastic period of Egyptian history, between the 1st dynasty and the Ptolemaic period, relies on the Aegyptiaca of Manetho, a Ptolemaic priest of the 3rd century BC, who organized the country’s rulers into 30 dynasties, roughly corresponding to families. General agreement exists on the division of Egyptian history, up to the conquest of Alexander the Great, into Old, Middle, and New kingdoms with intermediate periods, followed by the late and Ptolemaic periods, but chronology and genealogy are continually being refined in light of new evidence and by the use of increasingly sophisticated dating techniques.
Prehistory Some 60,000 years ago the Nile River began its yearly inundation of the land along its banks, leaving behind rich alluvial soil. Areas close to the floodplain became attractive as a source of food and water. In time, climatic changes, including periods of aridity, further served to confine human habitation to the Nile Valley, although this was not always true. From the Chalcolithic period (the Copper age, beginning about 4000 BC) into the early part of the Old Kingdom, people apparently used an extended part of the land.
In the 7th millennium BC, Egypt was environmentally hospitable, and evidence of settlements from that time has been found in the low desert areas of southern, or Upper, Egypt; remains of similar occupation have been discovered at Nubian sites in modern Sudan. Enough pottery has been found in Upper Egyptian tombs from the 4th millennium BC (in the Predynastic period) to establish a relative dating sequence. The Predynastic period, which ends with the unification of Egypt under one king, is generally subdivided into three parts, each of which refers to the site at which its archaeological materials were found: Badarian, Amratian (Naqada I), and Gerzean (Naqada II and III). Northern sites (from about 5500 BC) have yielded datable archaeological material of apparent cultural continuity but no long-term sequences such as those found in the south.
Early Dynastic (or Archaic) Period
The Old Kingdom
A Golden Age
The 4th Dynasty began with King Snefru, whose building projects included the first true pyramid at Dahshor (south of ªaqqârah). Snefru, the earliest warrior king for whom extensive documents remain, campaigned in Nubia and Libya and was active in the Sinai. Promoting commerce and mining, he brought prosperity to the kingdom. Snefru was succeeded by his son Khufu (or Cheops), who built the Great Pyramid at Giza. Although little else is known of his reign, that monument not only attests to his power but also indicates the administrative skills the bureaucracy had gained. Khufu’s son Redjedef, who reigned about 2613-2603 BC, introduced the solar element (Ra, or Re) in the royal titulary and the religion. Khafre (or Chephren), another son of Khufu, succeeded his brother to the throne and built his mortuary complex at Giza. The remaining rulers of the dynasty included Menkaure, or Mycerinus, who reigned about 2578-2553 BC; he is known primarily for the smallest of the three large pyramids at Giza.
Under the 4th Dynasty, Egyptian civilization reached a peak in its development, and this high level was generally maintained in the 5th and 6th dynasties. The splendor of the engineering feats of the pyramids was approximated in every other field of endeavor, including architecture, sculpture, painting, navigation, the industrial arts and sciences, and astronomy; Memphite astronomers first created a solar calendar based on a year of 365 days. Old Kingdom physicians also displayed a remarkable knowledge of physiology, surgery, the circulatory system of the body, and antiseptics.
Beginning of Decline Although the 5th Dynasty maintained prosperity with extensive foreign trade and military incursions into Asia, signs of decreasing royal authority became apparent in the swelling of the bureaucracy and the enhanced power of nonroyal administrators. The last king of the dynasty, Unas, who reigned about 2428-2407 BC, was buried at ªaqqârah, with a body of religious spells, called Pyramid Texts, carved on the walls of his pyramid chamber. Such texts were also used in the royal tombs of the 6th Dynasty. Several autobiographical inscriptions of officials under the 6th Dynasty indicate the decreasing status of the monarchy; records even indicate a conspiracy against King Pepi I, who reigned about 2395-2360 BC, in which the ruler’s wife was involved. It is believed that during the later years of Pepi II, who reigned about 2350-2260 BC, power may have been in the hands of his vizier (chief minister). Central authority over the economy was also diminished by decrees of exemption from taxes. The nomes (districts) were rapidly becoming individually powerful, as the nomarchs—governors of the districts—were beginning to remain in place rather than being periodically transferred to different nomes.
First Intermediate Period
The Middle Kingdom Without one centralized government, the bureaucracy was no longer effective, and regional concerns were openly championed. Egyptian art became more provincial, and no massive mortuary complexes were built. The religion was also democratized, as commoners claimed prerogatives previously reserved for royalty alone. They could, for instance, use spells derived from the royal Pyramid Texts on the walls of their own coffins or tombs.
Reunification Although the Middle Kingdom (2134-1784 BC) is generally dated to include all of the 11th Dynasty, it properly begins with the reunification of the land by Mentuhotep II, who reigned 2061-2010 BC. The early rulers of the dynasty attempted to extend their control from Thebes both northward and southward, but it was left to Mentuhotep to complete the reunification process, sometime after 2047 BC. Mentuhotep ruled for more than 50 years, and despite occasional rebellions, he maintained stability and control over the whole kingdom. He replaced some nomarchs and limited the power of the nomes, which was still considerable. Thebes was his capital, and his mortuary temple at Dayr al Baḩrî incorporated both traditional and regional elements; the tomb was separate from the temple, and there was no pyramid.
The reign of the first 12th Dynasty king, Amenemhet I, was peaceful. He established a capital near Memphis and, unlike Mentuhotep, de-emphasized Theban ties in favor of national unity. Nevertheless, the important Theban god Amon was given prominence over other deities. Amenemhet demanded loyalty from the nomes, rebuilt the bureaucracy, and educated a staff of scribes and administrators. The literature was predominantly propaganda designed to reinforce the image of the king as a "good shepherd" rather than as an inaccessible god. During the last ten years of his reign, Amenemhet ruled with his son as co-regent. "The Story of Sinuhe," a literary work of the period, implies that the king was assassinated.
Amenemhet’s successors continued his programs. His son, Sesostris I, who reigned 1962-1928 BC, built fortresses throughout Nubia and established trade with foreign lands. He sent governors to Palestine and Syria and campaigned against the Libyans in the west. Sesostris II, who reigned 1895-1878 BC, began land reclamation in Al Fayyûm. His successor, Sesostris III, who reigned 1878-1843 BC, had a canal dug at the first cataract of the Nile, formed a standing army (which he used in his campaign against the Nubians), and built new forts on the southern frontier. He divided the administration into three powerful geographic units, each controlled by an official under the vizier, and he no longer recognized provincial nobles. Amenemhet III continued the policies of his predecessors and extended the land reform.
A vigorous renaissance of culture took place under the Theban kings. The architecture, art, and jewelry of the period reveal an extraordinary delicacy of design, and the time was considered the golden age of Egyptian literature.
Second Intermediate Period
The New Kingdom With the unification of the land and the founding of the 18th Dynasty by Ahmose I, the New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC) began. Ahmose reestablished the borders, goals, and bureaucracy of the Middle Kingdom and revived its land-reclamation program. He maintained the balance of power between the nomarchs and himself with the support of the military, who were accordingly rewarded. The importance of women in the New Kingdom is illustrated by the high titles and position of the royal wives and mothers.
The 18th Dynasty Kings
The Ramesside Period
Third Intermediate Period The 21st through the 24th dynasties are known as the Third Intermediate period. Kings ruling from Tanis, in the north, vied with a line of high priests, to whom they appear to be related, from Thebes, in the south. The rulers of the 21st Dynasty may have been partially Libyan in ancestry, and the 22nd Dynasty began with Libyan chieftains as kings. As the Libyans’ rule deteriorated, several rivals rose to challenge them. In fact the next two dynasties, the 23rd and 24th, were contemporaneous with part of the 22nd Dynasty, just as the 25th (Kushite) Dynasty effectively controlled much of Egypt during the latter years of the 22nd and the 24th dynasties.
The Hellenistic and Roman Periods
The Ptolemaic Dynasty
Partly because native Egyptian rulers had a reduced role in affairs of state during the Ptolemaic regime, they periodically demonstrated their dissatisfaction by open revolts, all of which were, however, quickly suppressed. In the reign of Ptolemy VI, Egypt became a protectorate under Antiochus IV of Syria, who successfully invaded the country in 169 BC. The Romans, however, forced Antiochus to give up the country, which was then divided between Ptolemy VI and his younger brother, Ptolemy VIII; the latter took full control upon the death of his brother in 145 BC.
The succeeding Ptolemies preserved the wealth and status of Egypt while continually losing territory to the Romans. Cleopatra VII was the last great ruler of the Ptolemaic line. In an attempt to maintain Egyptian power she aligned herself with Julius Caesar and, later, Mark Antony, but these moves only postponed the end. After her forces were defeated by Roman legions under Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BC.
Roman and Byzantine Rule For nearly seven centuries after the death of Cleopatra, the Romans controlled Egypt (except for a short time in the 3rd century AD, when it came under the power of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra). They treated Egypt as a valuable source of wealth and profit and were dependent on its supply of grain to feed their multitudes. Roman Egypt was governed by a prefect, whose duties as commander of the army and official judge were similar to those of the pharaohs of the past. The office, therefore, was one with which the native population was familiar. Because of the immense power of the prefects, however, their functions were eventually divided under Emperor Justinian, who in the 6th century AD put the army under a separate commander, directly responsible to him.
Egypt in the Roman period was relatively peaceful; its southern boundary at Aswân was only rarely attacked by the Ethiopians. Egypt’s population had become Hellenized under the Ptolemies, and it included large minorities of Greeks and Jews, as well as other peoples from Asia Minor. The mixture of the cultures did not lead to a homogeneous society, and civil strife was frequent. In 212, however, Emperor Caracalla granted the entire population citizenship in the Roman Empire.
Alexandria, the port city on the Mediterranean founded by Alexander the Great, remained the capital as it had been under the Ptolemies. One of the great metropolises of the Roman Empire, it was the center of a thriving commerce between India and Arabia and the Mediterranean countries. It was the home of the great Alexandrian library and museum and had a population of some 300,000 (excluding slaves).
Egypt became an economic mainstay of the Roman Empire not only because of its annual harvest of grain but also for its glass, metal, and other manufactured products. In addition, the trade brought in spices, perfumes, precious stones, and rare metals from the Red Sea ports. Once part of the empire, Egypt was subject to a variety of taxes as well.
In order to control the people and placate the powerful priesthood, the Roman emperors protected the ancient religion, completed or embellished temples begun under the Ptolemies, and had their own names inscribed on them as pharaohs; the cartouches of several can be found at Isna, Kawn Umbu, Dandara, and Philae. The Egyptian cults of Isis and Serapis spread throughout the ancient world. Egypt was also an important center of early Christendom and the first one of Christian monasticism. Its Coptic or Monophysite church separated from mainstream Christianity in the 5th century.
During the 7th century the power of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire was challenged by the Sassanids of Persia, who invaded Egypt in 616. They were expelled again in 628, but soon after, in 641, the country fell to the Arabs, who brought with them a new religion, Islam, and began a new chapter of Egyptian history.