Before we dive into things, I want to take a moment to talk about studying history. Think about what you did yesterday. I’ll bet you can remember almost everything you did yesterday. What about a week ago? What were you doing 38 days ago? I’ll bet you can’t remember everything, or even most of the things, of what you were doing on any given day last year. But that’s okay, you think, because you have social media, or a calendar of events that helps you remember. Or perhaps you keep a journal. So you can go back and look at those sources to figure out pretty closely what you were doing. But have you ever been, say, studying for a test and as you’re reading through your notes found them nearly useless? Maybe you used shorthand that made sense at the time but you can’t remember what it means now, or your handwriting is a mess, or your notes were just too sparse to be helpful. These are the exact problems that plague our understanding of history. They’re also part of what makes studying history so fun, as you begin to piece the puzzle together and figure things out! That being said, let’s jump into it!
To start, we need to talk about what is perhaps the most important key to Ancient Egyptian civilization: The Nile river. Once described by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus as the “Gift of the Nile,” the civilization was almost entirely confined to the immediate vicinity of the great river, making it a good deal smaller than modern Egypt is today. The lands around the Nile were settled as early as 6000 BC. Because the land was extremely fertile and the seasonal flooding was so predictable, an abundance of food was consistently produced each year despite the extreme rarity of rain. Not a single patch of fertile land was wasted by the Egyptians, as settlements were concentrated in deserts on either side of the valleys. The long and narrow confines of the land made it difficult to govern from a central position, which meant there were essentially two Egypts: Upper and Lower Egypt.
The names can be a little misleading. Upper Egypt was the meandering southern half of the realm which stretched toward the deserts of modern-day Sudan. Lower Egypt included the Nile Delta which flared out toward what we now call the Mediterranean Sea.
The nomenclature came from the unique fact that the Nile flows north from its spring in the heart of Africa, which meant that Upper Egypt was upstream. Citizens of Upper Egypt were considered hardy and forthright; they had limited interaction with the outside world due to the natural barrier of the desert. Conversely, the people of Lower Egypt were on the doorstep of the Levant region and the Mediterranean and were considered more outward looking. The differences between the two should not be exaggerated, however; most Egyptians lived in much the same way as each other. The population can only be guessed at, but it is generally agreed that it would have not exceeded 5 million.
As well as bountiful harvests, the Nile offered other significant advantages. Traversable in either direction, the Nile was effectively the world’s first great highway. Trade over water was far easier than by the overland caravans of Egypt’s neighbors. The Nile also gave Egypt access to both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, making trade from most of the known world possible. The only local resource the Egyptians truly lacked was quality lumber for shipbuilding, which they imported from Lebanon. The Nile was also very useful for communication. As every Egyptian lived beside the Nile, word and orders could travel quickly.
Over time, Egyptian society evolved and the power of the pharaoh varied, but Ancient Egypt was a naturally conservative society that valued balance and stability. The pharaoh was considered the divine ruler of Egypt, the earthly embodiment of the gods, and the conduit between the earth and the heavens. His responsibilities extended to the spiritual world as he was to be ever vigilant against the forces of evil. The crowns came with innumerable religious responsibilities. The symbols of the pharaoh were the crook and the flail, a symbol of the king’s power to persuade or to compel.
In daily life, the pharaoh was surrounded by the esteemed nobles of court, the Honored Ones, and an army of servants. Upon the Honored Ones he could bestow such grand titles as the King’s Friend or even Unique Friend. The Valet of the Hands, Director of Oils, and Keeper of the King’s Wigs were just some of the jobs held by the pharaoh’s personal servants. Because the pharaoh was a divine being, the purity of the bloodline was considered essential and few were considered worthy of royal marriage.
Because of this, Egyptian royal family trees were about as narrow as the Nile itself. The pharaoh was wed to the most suitable younger sister or cousin and expected to raise as many children as possible. Marriages between pharaohs and daughters were not uncommon. The practice of incestuous marriage led to the downfall of most ruling dynasties within a few generations; most fell after about a century to be replaced by another. In all, there were 31 dynasties of Ancient Egypt.
There are a couple of important jobs to make note of before we continue. First is the vizier. The vizier was a distant second in power in Ancient Egypt. He was the most trusted advisor who oversaw a multitude of administrative and legal duties on the king’s behalf. In later periods, there were two viziers: one for Upper and one for Lower Egypt.
Another important job in Ancient Egypt was the Royal Scribe, a position open to anyone regardless of background. The Ancient Egyptians wrote using hieroglyphs that they would chisel into stone, wood, and plaster, or use a reed pen to write on papyrus. Over time, the scribes developed a shorthand for hieroglyphics called Hieratic, a more practical form of writing for the large amount of correspondence the job required. Hieroglyphics were still used for religious texts and to decorate the tombs of the deceased. For millennia, the elegant scripts were largely indecipherable to the generations who followed. It wasn’t until the 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone during Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition that significant progress in translation was made.
It’s important that we take a moment and talk about Egyptian art before we get too far down the road of history. Ancient art remained mind-bogglingly consistent for thousands of years. Even with King Narmer, the first king to rule Egypt as a whole, we see the beginnings of the classic Egyptian style and the use of registers.
Registers in art are lines separating the artwork into different levels. Modern comic books are laid out in a similar way. The Ancient Egyptians took these registers, along with symmetry, very seriously, using them to denote social significance and perspective. Unlike some of the Greek and Roman art that was inspired by Egyptian pieces, Egyptian art doesn’t seem to have been intended for purely aesthetic purposes. Rather, it was used more functionally.
The more extensive paintings appear in funeral contexts. These were intended to help the deceased spirit navigate the afterworld. Religious statues and monuments were often built or drawn from a frontal position, to replicate how two humans might approach one another. The famous two-dimensional look of paintings and illustrations was meant to increase recognizability of the human form, particularly to help spirits remember what people looked like.
Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about the religious aspects of the time. The importance of religion and certainly the priests in Ancient Egypt can scarcely be overstated. The religion of Ancient Egypt proved even more durable than the society which birthed it. Even as Egypt was invaded by foreign powers, cultural and religious practices continued largely undisturbed until shortly after the birth of Christ. Egyptians viewed the universe as a balance between the forces of good and evil, and celebrated the idea of a cyclical nature of life. Ra, the god of the Sun, made a daily journey across the sky. Every night, he passed through Duat, a shadowy realm where the unworthy dead were doomed to spend eternity. He began his descent into Duat in the west, rising in the east in a reborn form the following morning. Most of the gods rose and fell from favor over the years, with some 2000 deities of great and minor power being held in the Egyptian pantheon.
The most notable included the jackal-headed Anubis, Osiris, Isis, and Set. Set was the god of chaos and violence and the antagonist in the Osiris myth. Upon death, Egyptians faced judgement by Ma’at, the goddess of justice and harmony. Only those deemed worthy could ascend to the afterlife. Initially, it was believed that only a pharaoh could ascend to the afterlife, but, eventually, this view was broadened to include all Egyptians. So long as one lived according to the principles of Ma’at, one could find eternal happiness in the afterlife.
Egyptians believed the soul contained a physical element, called the ka, and the spiritual essence, called the ba. Upon death the physical lifeforce left the body while the ba remained tied to the deceased’s corpse. Funerary rites were performed to release the ba from the body in order to be reunited with the physical essence. If deemed worthy in judgement, the two forces would be reunited and the deceased would live a wondrous afterlife as a spirit known as an akh. Each night, the spirit essence would have to return to the body so it was essential to preserve the body and to leave behind offerings to sustain the ka after death. This made the Egyptian embalmer an enormously important figure in Ancient Egyptian culture.
The Egyptian embalmer was a member of a privileged and secretive order. Unfortunately, they were not known for recording their practices, which means that most of their practices are lost to history. But, we do know some details. The embalming process was an intricate practice that started with the removal of the brain with an iron hook. After an abdominal incision was made by a servant, the organs and intestines were removed for storage in canopic jars with preserving chemicals. The heart was returned to the body and the cavity was filled with sawdust and linen. The body was then immersed in natron, a complex form of salt, and dried out for 70 days. After being anointed with cinnamon and myrrh, the body was then wrapped several times in ceremonial bandages. With such a fixation on death, it’s little wonder so much energy was expended in the construction of such grand final resting places.
The Egyptians were skilled in many areas, becoming pioneers of masonry, skilled carpenters, and famed physicians. The detailed medical texts written by Egyptian doctors laid the foundations for succeeding research by generations of Greek and Persian medics. Ancient Egypt was also credited with the invention of the calendar and advances in astronomy and mathematics.
Now that we have a grasp on the Ancient Egyptian people and culture, let’s gain a better understanding of the narrative of Ancient Egyptian history. Such a lengthy period of history so far removed from our time can be difficult to grasp all at once. Scholars have broadly organized the history of Ancient Egypt into three distinct eras:
Each era was separated by an intermediate period of around a century, usually characterized by instability over succession from one dynasty to the next. Some left behind great monuments and records, others are largely lost to history.
The story of Ancient Egypt is generally held to begin in 3100 BC with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by King Narmer. Narmer’s son Hor-Aha was recognized as the first king of the first Egyptian dynasty. Hor-Aha founded the first Egyptian capital, Memphis, during his exceptionally long reign, claimed to be 62 years. His lengthy rule came to an abrupt end when he was carried off by a hippopotamus during a hunting expedition. The succeeding pharaohs who were not abducted by wildlife had their remains entombed in a royal burial site outside of Memphis.
During the Second Dynasty, around 2890-2686 BC, conflict between Upper and Lower Egypt broke out, with Upper Egypt prevailing after thousands perished in battle. The troubles were settled by a marriage between the Pharaoh and a northern princess, Nemathap, which began the era of the Old Kingdom.
The Old Kingdom was a period of 500 years marked by relative stability. This was the period of pyramid building, as a succession of pharaohs dedicated much of their reigns and mortal lives preparing for the afterlife.
The first pyramid was constructed by King Djoser: The Step Pyramid of Saqqara.
The idea behind the design of this first pyramid was to construct levels of mastaba, traditional tombs, on top of one another to form a staircase to the sky. In addition to the pyramid, a funerary complex was constructed by Djoser’s vizier Imhotep. So pleased was the pharaoh with the finished result, he had his advisor’s name carved into the complex in recognition of his work.
The greatest of the pyramids of the Old Kingdom were the three pyramids constructed at Giza. The first and largest was constructed in the name of King Khufu; this was an enormous project which occupied the entirety of the pharaoh’s 24-year reign.
The second pyramid was constructed on behalf of Khufu’s son Khafre. Khafre’s pyramid was smaller but appears taller as it was constructed on higher ground. In addition, the Sphinx was built as part of Khafre’s funerary complex.
The last of the great pyramids was smaller than the first two but made distinct by its red granite base and three smaller supplemental pyramids.
Other pyramids would be built over the ages but none would reach the scale of the great pyramids of Giza. The enormous expense, time, and effort required, not to mention to the human cost of construction, was unsustainable for succeeding pharaohs who did not hold the same level of absolute power.
The last pharaoh of the Old Kingdom, Pepi II, lived to be 92 years old, which proved quite troublesome as he outlived all of his heirs. The kingdom was gradually decentralizing and a series of droughts leading to famines all contributed to the instability of the First Intermediate Period. A series of rulers came and went without success; as one ancient scholar quipped, it was the time of “70 pharaohs in 70 days.” The records from this time are varied, so no one knows exactly how many pharaohs actually ruled during this time, nor for how long.
The city of Thebes superseded Memphis during the power struggle and eventually order was restored by the southern lords of Upper Egypt. The squabbles between Upper and Lower Egypt were settled, at least for the time being, by around 2040 BC. This was the start of the Middle Kingdom.
The reunification of Egypt was completed by Menthuhotep of the 11th Dynasty, “the unifier of two lands” as his tomb inscription read. The last pharaoh of the 11th dynasty was overthrown by his vizier, Amenemhet, the first ruler of the 12th. The 12th dynasty was one of the most stable and successful of all the ruling families of Ancient Egypt.
This stability came in part due to Amenemhet’s choice to appoint his son and heir, Senusret, as co-regent to ensure a smooth succession. While Senusret was on an expedition to secure the kingdom with the army, Amenemhet was murdered as he slept. The speed and ferocity of Senusret’s response crushed the rebellion before it started.
During his rule, trade was established on the Somalian peninsula and with Mesopotamia. The 12th dynasty pharaohs also made improvements to land around the Faiyum Oasis, an incredibly fertile depression in the desert just west of the Nile. Successful expeditions were launched against the Nubians to the south and in the Levant in the north. The last pharaohs of the 12th dynasty were less successful and the Second Intermediate period began around 1782 BC.
Little evidence survives the Second Intermediate period. Since it was a time of foreign rule of Egypt, later rulers expunged the records of the foreign pharaohs from the official Abydos King List. An influx of Canaanites, Semites, and Phoenicians arrived in this period until being driven out in 1570 BC.
The New Kingdom, the period following the expulsion of the foreign pharaohs, is broadly considered to be the highpoint of Ancient Egyptian civilization. This period more than others is far better understood by scholars thanks to the survival of records and artifacts from the time. This was due to a decision made by the Egyptians to place older tombs under protection in one place in order to deter graverobbers. While there were certainly moments of great drama and chaos, the New Kingdom was a period of sustained prosperity and stability. One its most successful Kings was the second-ever female pharaoh, Hatshepsut.
Hatshepsut instigated a coup to seize power from her nephew and co-regent Tutmosis III and ruled successfully for 20 years, the longest of the female pharaohs. Tutmosis is thought to have been involved in his aunt’s murder in 1458 BC, as well as the destruction of most of his aunt’s monuments upon his succession. He led 17 successful military campaigns in Syria and Nubia; the wealth plundered from Egypt’s neighbors greatly enriched the kingdom.
One of the most famous pharaohs of all was also one of the least effective. Tutankhamun’s prominence owes far more to the splendor of his funerary complex than any known tangible achievements in his own short life. His tomb was accidentally concealed shortly after his death and remained completely untouched for millennia until it was unearthed to global fanfare in 1922. His golden funeral mask is one of the more widely-used artifacts to represent the era of Ancient Egypt. The ornate mask weighs 10 pounds while his coffin is a hefty 240 pounds of solid gold.
The remains of the young king within were well-preserved, and studies indicated a sickly and weak youth no more than 19 years old. The product of generations of inbreeding, Tutankhamun would not have been able to walk without the use of a cane. There are many theories as to how the young king died; some say he was murdered, while others point to his broken and infected left leg as a sign of gangrene and blood poisoning.
The most accomplished of the New Kingdom pharaohs was Rameses II, known as Rameses the Great. The crowning glory of Rameses’s reign was his victory over the Hittites in the battle of Kadesh. The battle has the historical distinction of being the first to be recorded in any great detail. Ramesses II also initiated some of the largest building projects in Egyptian history since the great pyramids of the Old Kingdom.
His successors, all named Rameses, had a tougher time of things. The cost of the incessant wars and natural disasters weakened their grip on power and led to the fragmentation of the Nile Delta into the hands of local warlords and power struggles in the south.
The Third Intermediate Period lasted almost 500 years but this wasn’t necessarily a time of constant turmoil. For many commoners, life went on as normal; secular local rulers carved out lands in the north while Thebian priests ruled the south. The divisions saw Egypt fall under the rule of a Nubian leader who reunified Egypt into one realm once more in 727 BC.
Another threat was looming with the notoriously aggressive Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians swept across the ancient middle east and invaded Egypt in 670 BC, sacking Memphis and Thebes in quick succession. Nubian rule of Egypt came to an end with the installation of an Assyrian puppet ruler in lower Egypt.
The Assyrian grip on Egypt weakened as internal troubles forced their attention elsewhere and the Egyptians managed to regain their independence in 656 BC. The Third Intermediate Period gave way to the Late Period and the final years of Ancient Egypt’s status as an independent power.
In 525 BC yet another threat loomed in the east. The Achaemenid Persian Empire rose from the ashes of the Median Empire to dominate the ancient world. Egypt fell under Persian rule along with most of the known world. Unable to rule such a vast empire unilaterally, the Persians installed a series of local rulers, called Satraps, to rule on their behalf. Rule over the Egyptians proved troublesome for the Persians, and more than one expedition was required to pacify the region. As the Persians dealt with internal problems following the death of Darius II in 405 BC, the Egyptians enjoyed a final half-century of independence. They were reconquered a half-century later by the Persians aided by the 20,000 Greek mercenaries hired for the campaign.
The second Persian occupation would be short-lived. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great and his army “liberated” Egypt from their Persian rulers. His Egyptian conquest was little more than a grand procession through the lands of the pharaohs. After being proclaimed the son of Zeus and founding a city that still bears his name today on the northern coast, Alexander left Egypt never to return. Like the Persians before him, Alexander chose to rule Egypt through a local ruler and took little interest in the region as he set off to conquer the rest of the Persian Empire.
The story of Ancient Egypt does not end with Alexander. One of his generals, Ptolemy, established a long-lasting dynasty after Alexander’s death. The wars between Alexander’s successors, the Diadochi, waged for generations. Egypt would later fall under Roman dominion but those years are a topic for another day.
Okay, before we go let’s go over a few review questions to test your memory!
1. Which of the following was one of the most important keys to Ancient Egyptian civilization?
A. Embalming techniques
B. The Nile
C. The daily journey of Ra into Duat
The correct answer is B! The Nile was a hugely important aspect of life for the Ancient Egyptians, as it provided fertile land, faster trading, and speedy communication.
2. Which pharaoh built the first pyramid?
D. Rameses II
The correct answer is A! The idea behind the design of this first pyramid was to construct levels of mastaba, traditional tombs, on top of one another to form a staircase to the sky.
3. What era is considered the highpoint of Ancient Egypt?
A. Old Kingdom
B. Middle Kingdom
C. New Kingdom
D. Second Intermediate
The correct answer is C! The New Kingdom was a period of sustained prosperity and stability. This period more than others is far better understood by scholars thanks to the survival of records and artifacts from the time.
Okay, that’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!