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An Introduction to Understanding Ancient Egyptian History
Ancient Egyptian history is often lumped all together as the time of the pharaohs, the bit before, and then the Roman bit after that. However, the time of the pharaohs lasted for 2,000 years. This is the same period of time covered from the birth of Jesus Christ, through the Roman empire, the Dark Ages and Medieval times, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the settlement of American and Australia by the Europeans, the rise of America as a nation, the invention of computers until the time two planes flew into the World Trade Center. It was a very long period of time with a bit going on.
This 2,000 years of Egyptian history is broken up into a series of Ages. These are focused around three main periods: the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom. In between each of these were period of civil war or invasion which broke the ruling line of kings.
Please note that all dates used are rough, as there is debate about Egyptian dating. They should be used only as a general guide.
The very early history of Egypt is known as the Predynastic Period, with evidence of early settlers in the Nile Valley from 3500 – 3100 BCE. During this period the two parts of Egypt: Upper and Lower Egypt, were not unified or under one king. It was in this early period, around 3200, that hieroglyphics developed. Evidence of hieroglyphs can be seen on pots and palettes, as well as in basic tomb paintings.
Early Dynastic Period:
The Early Dynastic period is often separated from the beginning of the Old Kingdom, as it took a while to develop. It began around 3100BC when a king Narmer unified Upper and Lower Egypt. The major primary source we have from this event is the Narmer Palette, which already has a lot of the common imagery surrounding Egyptian kingship that we can see later.
This was the beginning of Egyptian dynastic rule, and so between 3100-2700 is generally referred to as the Early Dynastic period. Most of the primary evidence studied comes from the first royal tombs at Abydos, and the founding of the capital city at Memphis.
The Old Kingdom period ran from 2700-2200BCE and has the major claim to fame of the development of the pyramids. These evolved in architectural designs up until the 4th Dynasty who built the great Pyramids we all go and see on holidays. After this for the next two dynasties pyramids became smaller and less solid again. The primary sources used to study this period include the pyramids themselves, their development, and the Pyramid texts.
First Intermediate Period:
The Old Kingdom came to an end when multiple people claimed kingship and tried to rule Egypt. The political structure of the Old Kingdom collapsed and there was general civil disorder and famine. The end of this period and the beginning of the Middle Kingdom overlap as individuals tried to regain control.
In 2055 Mentuhotep II gained control of the entire country again. His father is also generally included in the Middle Kingdom because he built himself a huge mortuary complex, but did not have control over all of Egypt. During this time the capital is moved from Memphis to Thebes and then back again, and the earliest parts of the famous Temple of Karnak are built.
While the Old Kingdom is symbolized by the pyramids, the Middle Kingdom is more famous for its writing, as there is lots of it. Towards the end of the period the reigns of kings become shorter and shorter, which is always a bad sign, and some rulers were even born commoners.
Second Intermediate Period:
Between 1690-1560, foreigners, known as the Hyksos, took control of the Delta and ruled in their own dynasties. Two interesting facts about this period: first, the spells known as the Book of the Dead which you might know from movies such as The Mummy first appear. Second, in Biblical history it is believed this was the period when Joseph came to Egypt. Later the Old Testament refers to a new pharaoh coming to power who did not know Joseph, which is assumed to be one of the Egyptians regaining the throne at the beginning of the New Kingdom.
New Kingdom Period:
In 1560 Ahmose unified the country again under Egyptian rule. The New Kingdom period between 1560-1069 is famous for big architecture, particularly temples and palaces, but burial was in the Valley of the Kings rather than large mortuary complexes or pyramids. Also, this period has a lot of really interesting characters (possibly just because we know more about them).
There is Hatshepsut who becomes a pharaoh, which is cool because she’s a woman. Instead of fighting wars she builds Egypt up through trade. Then there is Akhenaten who is a little bit weird and tries to change Egyptian religion and politics and builds his own capital. After he dies, everyone goes back to the way it was before. His son is Tutankhamen the boy king, who is famous mostly because we found his tomb intact. Then there is Ramses II who is possibly the pharaoh of the Moses story and was big into fighting battles. Ramses III after him is considered one of the greatest kings of Egypt.
However, around 1186-1089 the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings were plundered, indicating a problem with the pharaohs’ power, and in 1100 BCE Upper and Lower Egypt split, which is the end of the great era of Egypt.
That is a brief overview of Egyptian history. When talking about Ancient Egypt, try to differentiate at least between Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, because while they might use some of the same imagery, they were really very different.