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Ancient Egypt was a civilization that flourished along the Nile River in north west Africa from before 3400 B.C. until 30 B.C., when the last Egyptian king, Ptolemy XIV, was put to death by order of Octavian (later Roman Emperor Augustus), and Egypt was annexed to Rome. As a result of the extensive scholarship of Egyptologists of the 19th and 20th centuries, a considerable body of information exists on Egyptian history, even from the earliest periods. Traditionally, Egyptian history is separated into five periods: the Old Kingdom (or Old Empire); the First Intermediate Period; the Middle Kingdom (or Middle Empire): the Second Intermediate Period; and the New Kingdom (or New Empire). The individual dynasties are numbered, generally in Roman numerals, from I through XXX.
The kingdoms of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt were united in about 3100 B.C. by Menes, King of Upper Egypt, and he founded the first Egyptian dynasty. From the beginning, a form of theocracy is believed to have existed, with the king, or pharaoh, regarded as divine. Elaborate burial rites and tombs, from which so much modern knowledge of Egypt derives, also developed early. By the beginning of the II dynasty, about 2890 B.C., considerable trade existed between Egypt and the Sinai; the Egyptians possibly traded as far north as the Black Sea. The Old Kingdom began in the Ill dynasty, during 2686 B.C. Khufu (or Cheops), founder of the IV dynasty, ruled circa 2600, built the great pyramid at Gizeh (al Jizah). His successors Kahfre (who is believed to be represented as the face of the Sphinx) and Menkaure built the other pyramids at Gizeh. Pepi II of the VI dynasty, who ruled from circa 2294 to circa 2188, organized the caravan trade with Nubia, the Sudan, and Punt. The capital probably was at Memphis. During the VI dynasty, priests and local governors, whose office became hereditary, achieved great power at the expense of the king. The Old Kingdom disintegrated in about 2181 B.C. Complete power passed to the provinces.
No central records were kept, resulting in a period of historical obscurity.
During the first Intermediate Period, the capital was moved to Heracleopolis, where the weak rulers of the IX and X dynasties resided. Some central authority was restored when Intel, a Theban noble, proclaimed himself king in 2134 and founded the XI dynasty. The capital was moved to Thebes, center for the worship of the god Amon.
The Middle Kingdom circa 2050-1786 B.C.
The great rulers of the XII dynasty brought the Egyptian kingdom to its highest flowering. Amenemhat I, founder of the dynasty in about 1891, centralized power at Thebes by reducing the long powerful nobles to a feudal status.
He and his successors reestablished the old trade routes, reopened mines, and extended the Egyptian border to the Second Cataract of the Nile. They irrigated al Fayyum, thereby greatly increasing the amount of arable land. They built forts along the Nile and constructed a canal that bypassed the First Cataract.
Great building projects were carried out; among the most impressive was the great temple of Amon at Karnak. A uniform writing system was adopted, and Egyptian literature reached its peak.
The XII dynasty-and the Middle Kingdom-came to an end in 1786, when the country was invaded and conquered by the Hyksos. The Hyksos were a Semitic people from Syria. Their weapons, new to Egypt, included the horse-drawn war chariot, the bronze sword, and the composite bow (made of wood, sinew, and horn). The Hyksos ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period and founded the XIII-XVII dynasties.
They adapted themselves readily to Egyptian culture but introduced Oriental deities into the Egyptian religion; artifacts of the period also show Oriental influence.
The New Kingdom
Began about 1570 B.C. when the Hyksos were expelled by an Egyptian general who assumed the throne as Amasis I and founded the XVIII dynasty. His son and successor was Amenhotep I, who continued his father's military victories by reconquering Nubia, which had been allied with the Hyksos. He also invaded Syria. Thutmose I, who became king circa 1504, extended Egypt's border to the Third Cataract and subdued Syria as far as the Euphrates River. Thutmose Ill, who assumed sole power in 1468 B.C., brought the empire of the New Kingdom to its zenith by conquering territories east of the Euphrates and by extending Egyptian power below the Third Cataract. The conquests of the kings of the XVIII, XIX, and XX dynasties brought unprecedented wealth into Egypt, including thousands of slaves. Great tombs and temples were built, the most spectacular of which were located in the Valley of the Kings, across the Nile from Thebes.
The tomb of Tutankhamen, a king of the XVIII dynasty, was discovered in 1922 and has been a source of much information about Egypt of the New Kingdom.
Amenhotep IV, who ruled circa 1375-58, changed his name to Ikhnaton in honor of the sun god Aton. He attempted to institute a monotheism with Aton as the sole god, established a new capital at Akhetaton in honor of Aton, and directed all royal artists and architects to works honoring the sun god. His lack of interest in non-religious affairs was costly; Nubia and Syria were lost during his reign. His successors ruled over a greatly weakened and reduced empire. Even his religious reforms did not survive him; a conservative priesthood restored the old polytheism at his death.
Ramesses I founded the XIX dynasty in about 1320 and his successors gradually rebuilt the empire until it reached the splendor of Ramesses II. Some of the greatest wonders of Egypt were built under his reign, including Abu Simbel , the Ramesseum, and temples at Luxor and Karnak. He also carried on a long war against the Hittites, a war that only ended when he married (1267) a Hittite princess.
The wars with the Hittites weakened Egypt and a series of ineffectual rulers followed Ramesses II, who ruled with his wife, Queen Tiy. After them, the New Kingdom declined, and foreign influence was increasingly felt in the country. The capital was moved to Tanis in 1085, marking the end of the New Kingdom. The Tanite (or XXI) dynasty was replaced by the Libyan dynasty, which ruled from Bubastis. It was replaced by Nubian conquerors, who founded the XXII dynasty. The capital was moved to Sa'is in 712, and the country tell under Assyrian domination. In 525 the Persians took control until 405, when the Egyptians revolted, and the last native dynasties appeared. Unable to reestablish Egypt's former grandeur, the new ruling class fell to the armies of Alexander the Great in 332. Alexander founded the great port city of Alexandria and moved the Egyptian capital there. After Alexander's death his empire was divided among his generals and Ptolemy became the ruler of Egypt as Ptolemy I. Under him and his successors, known as the Ptolemies, Alexandria became the greatest city in the Hellenistic world. It was a great center of learning and its library was a legendary repository of ancient and modern manuscripts.
The Ptolemies maintained a powerful empire for two centuries, and Egypt under them was the greatest of the Hellenistic nations. Roman power was on the ascendancy, however, and when Ptolemy XI asked Pompey and his Roman army for aid in 58, it marked the end of Egyptian independence; Pompey restored him to the throne but he became a Roman puppet. His daughter Cleopatra tried to assert her independence by her celebrated machinations with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, but she was defeated and committed suicide. Her son Ptolemy XIV (whose father probably was Julius Caesar) was the last Ptolemy to rule; he was put to death at the age of 13 by Octavian (later Emperor Augustus). From that time, Egypt became a province of Rome and was ruled directly from there.