History of Egypt

HomePage | Recent changes | View source | Discuss this page | Page history | Log in |

Printable version | Privacy policy

Ancient Egyptian history is broken in ten different periods:

Pre-Dynastic Period (Prior to 3100 BC)
Archaic Period (1st - 2nd Dynasty)
Old Kingdom (3rd - 6th Dynasty)
1st Intermediate Period (7th - 11th Dynasty)
Middle Kingdom (12th - 13th Dynasty)
2nd Intermediate Period (14th - 17th Dynasty)
New Kingdom (18th - 21st Dynasty)
Libyan Period (22nd - 25th Dynasty)
Late Period (26th - 30th Dynasty)
Ptolemaic Period (304 - 30 BC)
Roman Empire (31 BC - 200 AD)

The changes in periods indicate a time of social and political upheaval.

The earliest 'mummified' individual dates back to approx 3300BC, although it is not a 'true' mummy. The body is on display in the British Museum and has been given the nickname of 'Ginger' because he has red hair. Ginger was buried in the hot desert sand with maybe some stones piled on top to prevent the corpse being eaten by jackals. The hot, dry conditions desiccated the body, preventing the muscle and soft tissues from decaying. Ginger was buried with some pottery vessels, which would have held food and drink to sustain him on his long journey to the other world. There are no written records of the religion or gods from that time, and it is not known if it was the intention of the ancient Egyptians that the deceased were being preserved. By the time of the 1st Dynasty, the ancient Egyptians were definitely aware.

The earliest known Pharaoh of the 1st Dynasty is Menes. We know his name because it is written on a palette used for make-up (only men wore make-up). Funeral practices for the peasants would have been the same as in pre-Dynastic times, but Pharaohs deserved something more. For them the 'Mastaba' tomb was invented (the word comes from modern Egyptian word for bench, because they look like a mud bench when seen from a distance). In a Mastaba tomb a deep chamber was dug out and lined with stone, mud bricks or wood. Above the ground the mud was piled up to mark the place in a shape not unlike a 'Twinkie'. Although this provided a much grander tomb, it provided a much cooler tomb. The corpse would have time to decompose and putrefy. This would have upset the early priests as they had fairly clear theories around the 'Ka' and the 'Ba' of the deceased. The 'Ka' was what we might think of as the spirit and was an essential part of both the living and the dead person, however, it was not until after death that the 'Ka' could be considered as an entity. The 'Ba' of the soul is more akin to a ghost. It was the part of the soul that roamed around the country. The 'Ba' was made up of the 'Ka' and the physical remains of the body. The lack of doors in tombs (at least a lack of real doors and not painted ones) would indicate that the ancient Egyptians felt that the 'Ba' could pass through solid material. In an attempt to preserve the bodies of the deceased Pharaohs, they were wrapped in bandages and forced in foetal positions, but nothing stopped the bodies from decomposing.

3rd 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. A modern analysis of this substance shows it to be a mixture od sodium bicarbonate and either sodium carbonate with sodium chloride (salt) or sodium sulphate. The most notable thing about this substance is that it s highly hydroscopic. It will draw and absorb moisture. It is also a little bit antiseptic. They knew about the antiseptic properties of natron 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, all that remains 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.

The next fashion in funerary arrangements began with a glorified Mastaba. The architect of this one built 6 square Mastabas, each one a little smaller than the last, and piled them on top of each other. The architect of this revolutionary design was Imhotep and the Pharaoh he built it for was Zoser (AKA Djoser). Zoser may have been the first Pharaoh of the third Dynasty, but this has not been confirmed. The design is now know as the Step Pyramid, and is considered to be the prototype pyramid. Imhotep must have been an unusual man. In this land where the Pharaoh was the walking personification of god, his greatness was recognised even in his own time (something that many geniuses have not had the pleasure of) and he was given the title of 'Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt, First after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Sculptor and Maker of Vases in Chief'. Quite a title for any age.

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 'Step 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 2675BC, Egypt started to import timber from the Lebanon.

At around 2575BC 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 at Giza. When looking at the pyramid group on the Giza plateau it does not seem to be that 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. The Great Pyramid must have taken a great many years to build. 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.

This takes us through the 5th and 6th dynasties and into the First Intermediate Period. Little is recorded of this time, as it is a period of great unrest.

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

In 1878 the Pharaoh Senusret III became the 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 hoarse-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.

The 13th Dynasty was ended by the members of the 17th Dynasty. The members of this Dynasty wanted to keep the culture and tradition of the Middle Kingdom alive and pushed The Hyksos out.

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.

Mummification techniques have gradually been perfected using crystalline natron. All 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 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, even when the organs were returned into the body after preservation (21st Dynasty) they continued to supply the jars.

Various Pharaohs extend the control of Egypt further than ever before. Re-taking control of Nubia and extending power northwards into the Upper Euphrates the lands of the Hittites and Mitanni.

This is a time of great wealth and power for Egypt. By the time of Amenophis III (1417 ~ 1379) Egypt had become so wealthy that he did nothing to further extend it's 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. New gods came along and they were absorbed into the culture, but no god was allowed to push out any old ones. Akhenaton formed a monotheistic religion, the Aton. 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 has ruled Egyptian art for the last 1700 years. Towards the end of his 17 year reign he took a co-regent his brother, Smenkhkare. The co-reign lasted only two years. When Akhenaton died some of the old god were revived. In truth they had never gone away, but underground. Smenkhkare died after a few months of solo reign. 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 Tutankhamuns widow to reinforce his right 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. Anyway when Ay died he 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 (AKA 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 Ramesses II are the only two Pharaohs known to have been circumcised. Ramesses II carried on his father work and created many more splendid temples. Percy Byshe Shelley wrote a poem about him called "Ozymandias."

During the reign of Ramesses 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 and archaeological evidence either. I shall not mention the Bible again.

Ramesses II is succeeded by Ramsesses III who after a couple of battles is follwed by a number of short-lived reigns all by Pharaohs called Ramesses.

After the death of Ramesses XI, the priesthood in the person of Herihor finally rest control of Egypt away from the Pharaohs. The country was once again split into two parts with Herihor controlling Upper and Smendes who controlled Lower Egpyt. These were the new rulers of the 21st Dynasty. These kings were also known as The Tenites. Their reign seems to be without any other distinction and they were superseded 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 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 is was unsettled. There appear to have been many subversive groups which eventually lead to the creation of the 23rd dynasty which ran concurrent with the 22nd. After the withdraw of Egyptians from the Sudan a Nubian prince took control of lower Nubia. He was succeeded by Piankhi and it is he who decided to push north in an effort to crush his opponent who ruled in the Nile Delta region. 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.

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 Egypt in 656BC. 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 Amosis II. Not very much is known about his reign except the Greeks noted that he was mostly concerned with Egyptian domestic affairs and the promotion of good relation with it?s neighbours. He died in 526BC, and one year later in 525BC Egypt fell under Persian power and Cambyses became the first king of the 27th Dynasty.

See also Egyptian Mythology