Useful Notes: Ancient Egyptian History
Egypt was the second civilization in the world (after ancient Mesopotamia) to invent writing, with bits of proto-hieroglyphs being dated to the 33rd century BCE
. As a result, its history is extremely
long. People tend to forget this: Egyptian history from the earliest extensive records in the 31st century BCE to the Macedonian Conquest in 332 BCE spans 2700 years
. Consider this: To Jesus
or Julius Caesar
, the first Pharaohs were 1000 years more ancient
than either of them is to us; to the builders of the Pantheon in Rome, the Great Pyramid was older than the Pantheon is to the designers of today's skyscrapers. Almost any trope recorded in Ancient Egypt is therefore by definition Older Than Dirt
Ancient Egyptian history is conventionally divided into ten periods. They are generally identified with dynasties, which unlike the dynasties of other states are numbered rather than named
. Not all dynasties are necessarily different families; different dynasties are often separated from each other for historical reasons. Moreover, sometimes members of the same "dynasty" were only related by marriage. The term refers more to a broad family and its followers rather than a specific patrilineal line of descent
(as was usually the case in medieval Europe and throughout history in East Asia).
Important note: Names of Ancient Egyptian places are most often not
what they were called in Ancient Egyptian. Most of the placenames in English are actually Greek, as the Greeks seem to have had a collective case of Egyptomania
(seriously, the Pharaoh gave the Greeks the entire city of Naucratis
, there were so many of them) and wrote incessantly about it (Herodotus
in particular was a big fan). Egypt's true name was "Kemet", referring to the fertile Black Silt Land that the Nile delievered to them annually to sustain their lives. An example of this is the name of the city of Thebes—that was a Greek mishearing of an Egyptian term for the big temple, which they conveniently turned into the name of a city in Greece, but the Egyptians actually called the city Waset
(or something similar). On the other hand, personal names tend to be modern guesses at the actual Egyptian—a somewhat problematic endeavor, as Egyptian writing leaves out even more vowels than modern Arabic and Hebrew—although some Greek names persist (e.g. Cheops for Khufu).
- Predynastic period (before 3150 BC): Prehistoric Egypt. Not much is known. Tradition holds that Egypt was divided into small squabbling city-states that gradually merged together into the kingdoms of Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt, which in turn were united by King Menes sometime around 3150 BC.
- Protodynastic period (much of the 32nd and 31st centuries BC): More hieroglyphic writing is from this period, but records are very sketchy. Dynasties may or may not have existed.
- Early Dynastic Period (1st and 2nd Dynasties, c. 31st century BC-2686 BC): The capital moves from Abydos in Upper Egypt to Memphis where Upper and Lower Egypt meet (just south of modern Cairo). Writing develops and becomes more common. New technologies in copper and pottery appear, possibly arriving from the southern Levant (modern Israel/Palestine and Jordan). The state becomes increasingly centralized. Rich people start building ever-larger tombs.
- Old Kingdom (3rd-6th Dynasties, 2686-2181 BC): Centralization reaches its peak. Previously independent or semi-independent states become nomes, i.e. provinces, ruled at the discretion of the Pharaoh in Memphis. This centralization makes massive projects possible; given the Lensman Arms Race in tomb-building among Egypt's nobles, the Pharaohs start building pyramids just to show who's boss. The Old Kingdom is therefore sometimes known as "the Age of Pyramids." However, this centralized state eventually falls apart, and the hereditary rulers of the nomes became increasingly rich and powerful.
- First Intermediate Period (6th-11th Dynasties, 2181-2055): Dynasties of Pharaohs continue to exist, but have little power outside their home territories (fans of Chinese history, think of the Zhou Dynasty). However, powerful families in Heracleopolis in Lower Egypt and Thebes in Upper Egypt succeeded in gradually uniting their respective parts of the country; inevitably, they clashed. In about 2055 BC, the Theban 11th Dynasty decisively defeated the Heracleopolitan Tenth Dynasty and founded the...
- Middle Kingdom (11th-13th Dynasties, 2055-c.1720 BC): Because of the way in which they conquered Egypt, the pharaohs had to deal with the nobles, who had done very well in the period of of pharaonic weakness. As a result, while a centralized state was established, the Middle Kingdom was characterized by a certain amount of power sharing between the king and the nobles in the provinces; this era is consequently called the "Feudal Age" in some sources. Surprisingly, this did not end up falling apart under its own weight, but rather ended by means of foreign invasion.
- Second Intermediate Period (14th-16th Dynasties c.1720-c-1550 BC): Specifically, a group of barbarian charioteers from Asia, known in Egyptian records as "Hyksos" (probably some flavor of Canaanite) conquered the country with what for the time was alarming speed. Chariots in particular were frightening, as both horses and wheeled vehicles had to that point in time been essentially unknown in Egypt (Egyptians probably knew what they were, but didn't really have very many of them or see what the point of having them was). They also introduced the composite bow, a far more powerful weapon than the Egyptians had yet seen. A Hyksos family took power as the Fifteenth dynasty, and Hyksos continued to dominate the native Egyptian Sixteenth Dynasty. At this point, several nomes declared independence; the most important of these is the ruling family of Thebes, which declared itself the Seventeenth Dynasty. Adopting Hyksos technology and tactics, the Seventeenth Dynasty gradually brought Egypt under its control, driving the Hyksos out of Egypt back to Asia and crushing local leaders across Egypt. This led to:
- New Kingdom (18th-20th Dynasties, 1550-1069 BC): The Eighteenth Dynasty is somewhat peculiar: its founder was Ahmose I, who was either the brother or son of the last Seventeenth Dynasty king Kamose; the division appears to be based on unification of Egypt. Finding itself in possession of all kinds of new military tech and a series of young, dynamic rulers, Egypt at this point began to expand, primarily into Canaan, but also into Libya to the west and Nubia to the south. As a result, the New Kingdom is often known as the Egyptian Empire. The Eighteenth Dynasty ended with the Amarna Period, in which the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV renamed himself and engaged in an odd religious and artistic experiment that so sapped his attention that it caused Egypt to lose its hold on much of the empire his ancestors had won. The dynasty ended in disrepute and when its last Pharaoh died, the Grand Vizier Rameses I took power, founding the Nineteenth Dynasty. During this period, Egypt reached its zenith as an imperial power, particularly under its second and third rulers Seti I and Ramses II "the Great". The world's first recorded peace treaty is from this era, settling the disputed claims of Egypt and the Hittite Empire in the Levant, and signed by Ramses II and the Hittite King Hattusili III. Eventually, however, Egypt's strength was sapped, and the empire retreated into splendid isolation.
When most people think of Ancient Egypt (besides pyramids and Cleopatra), this is what they're thinking about—especially the Eighteenth Dynasty. Pharaoh from The Bible? Mostly New Kingdom; the ones mentioned in Exodus are probably all from the Eighteenth Dynasty. The crazy king who worshiped the Sun? Akhenaten, Eighteenth Dynasty. Nefertiti? His wife. King Tut? Akhenaten's son. Hatshepsut? Tut's great-great-great-great aunt. Ramses the Great (Ozymandias, King of Kings) and those cool statutes? Nineteenth Dynasty.
- Third Intermediate Period (21st-25th Dynasties, 1069-664 BC): Yet another period of division. Several dynasties of foreigners—chiefly from Libya to the west and Nubia to the south—rule all or much of Egypt.
- Late Period (26th-31st Dynasties, 664-332 BC): The last gasp of Ancient Egypt, with two periods of rule by The Persian Empire known in Egyptian historiography as the Twenty-Seventh and Thirty-First Dynasties.
In 332 BC, Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great
and became part of Hellenistic civilization under the Ptolemy dynasty, the last (and arguably most famous) sovereign being Cleopatra VII
Philopator. Egypt would be part of various empires until the 19th century, and would not be ruled by someone of Egyptian stock (President Muhammad Naguib) until 1953.