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Useful Notes / Ancient Egyptian History

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The Abydos King List, one of the sources egyptologists have used to reconstruct the chronology of ancient Egyptian dynasties.

Ancient 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 BC. As a result, its history is extremely long. People tend to forget this: Egyptian history from the earliest extensive records in the 31st century BC to the Macedonian Conquest in 332 BC spans 2700 years. To put that into perspective: For Jesus or Julius Caesar, the first Egyptian kings 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. Even the Ancient Egyptian "golden age" of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties was as far removed from them as the Early Middle Ages are to us—the world of Ramses II was as far back for Augustus as Charlemagne is to Barack Obama. Almost every trope recorded in Ancient Egypt is therefore by definition Older Than Dirt, or at the very latest Older Than Feudalism.

Ancient Egyptian history is conventionally divided into ten periods. They are generally identified with dynasties, which unlike the dynasties of other states were numbered rather than named. Not all dynasties were necessarily different families; different dynasties were 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). Some dynasties even overlapped with one dynasty reigning over part of the country and the other over another part, sometimes on friendly terms and sometimes at de facto war with one another.

That being said, it does seem that the Egyptians generally followed old-school patriarchal royal rules: The most legitimate succession was from father to son, with elder sons being favored over younger all else being equal. The "all else being equal" includes an important caveat: since the Egyptians allowed the king (at least) to take multiple wives and even more concubines, royal sons took their precedence in the succession from their mothers' status in the harem hierarchy. Possibly as early as the late Middle Kingdom, and definitely by the New, one of the king's wives was generally designated the "Great Royal Wife" (in Egyptian, Ḥemet-Nesut Weret—more or lessnote ), i.e. Queen Consort, who in addition to her special status in the harem would also have special roles in the priesthood (generally being the chief priestess of the cult of Amun from the Middle Kingdom onward) and tended to have a lot of informal social power. Before the establishment of the official title of "Great Royal Wife" there wasn't a formal title for the role, but it seems that there was a hierarchy of wives with one recognized as the king's chief consort. Whatever her title, highest-ranked consorts tended to themselves be of the blood royal for a variety of reasons, including intra-dynastic politics, uniting competing branches of the royal family, and maintaining the purity of the royal bloodline. This meant that the chief consort was often a sister or half-sister of the king; this in turn led modern Egyptologists to (erroneously) believe that the royal title actually passed through the maternal line until later discoveries clarified the situation. Below the chief consort were other "Royal Wives" (Ḥemet-Nesut), and then concubines. A son of a Great Royal Wife would precede any sons of Royal Wives in the succession, even if they were older than him, and sons of Royal Wives would precede sons of concubines in the same fashion.

That said, a ruling family still might run out of male dynasts. In that case, a connection to the blood royal in the female line was often enough to secure recognition as the legitimate heir, though this situation often led to infighting. If neither agnatic nor cognatic descendants could be found, sometimes relatives by marriage would try to "preserve" the dynasty, but just as often senior royal officials with no clear relationship to their immediate predecessorsnote  would just step in and start a new line based on their own sheer competence.

Important note: names of Ancient Egyptian places are most often not what they were called in Ancient Egyptian. Most of the place names in English are actually Greek, as the Greeks seemed 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). 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).

This extends to the name of Egypt itself, which derives from the Greek Aigyptos (via the Latin Aegyptus). Aigyptos in turn appears to derive from the Greeks' best attempt to render "Hwt-ka-Ptah" ("Home of the Soul of Ptah"), a New Kingdom-era name for Memphis (originally applied to the city metonymically from the great temple to Ptah it housed); Memphis (which throughout Egyptian history was usually the largest and richest city of Lower Egypt, if not all Egypt, and the administrative center of everything from the Faiyum to the coast) appears to have been the main destination of the Mycenaean-era Greeks who traveled to Egypt for trade and diplomatic missions. To the Egyptians, their country was most usually called "Kemet", i.e. "the Black [Land]", referring to the black silt that made it so fertile, in contrast to "Deshret", i.e. "the Red [Land]", i.e. the desert all around the Nile Valley.note  In certain contexts, however, Egypt was also called "Tawy", "the Two Lands",note . referring to the political union of Upper and Lower Egypt. It should be noted that we're not entirely sure about the actual name of Ancient Egypt. "Kemet" is an educated guess based on the letters K-M-T, so for all we know it might be Komet or Kamat or Kumat or whatever. note 

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).note 

What follows is a very high-level overview of the history. Many, many sources are available for more detailed histories; for an accessible narrative audio history, The History of Egypt Podcast by Dominic Perry is a good (and engrossing) introduction in English (in a delightful Kiwi accent)—and by a trained Egyptologist no less!

  1. 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 (possibly the same as Narmer, for whom evidence exists from this period) sometime around 3150 BC.
  2. Protodynastic Period (much of the 32nd and 31st centuries BC): More hieroglyphic writing is from this period, but records are very sketchy. Dynasties might or might not have existed.
  3. Early Dynastic Period (1st and 2nd Dynasties, c. 31st century BC-2686 BC): The capital moved from Abydos in Upper Egypt to Memphis where Upper and Lower Egypt meet (just south of modern Cairo). Writing developed and became more common. New technologies in copper and pottery appeared, possibly arriving from the southern Levant (modern Israel/Palestine and Jordan). The state became increasingly centralized. Rich people started building ever-larger tombs.
  4. Old Kingdom (3rd-6th Dynasties, 2686-2181 BC): Centralization reached its peak. Previously independent or semi-independent states became nomes, i.e. provinces, ruled at the discretion of the King in Memphis. This centralization made massive projects possible; given the Lensman Arms Race in tomb-building among Egypt's nobles, the kings started building pyramids just to show who's boss. The Old Kingdom is therefore sometimes known as "the Age of Pyramids."

    The first pyramid was built for the founder of the Third Dynasty, King Netjerikhet Djoser. This was not a "true" pyramid, but a step pyramid in seven layers, but it still represents a masterful feat of ancient engineering—and by one of history's first identified engineers, no less, the King's vizier Imhotep. (No he is not going to try to kill youhe is also one of history's first identified doctors, at least according to tradition). Later Third Dynasty monarchs built a variety of tombs—including some step pyramids (the last king, Huni, appears to have built several small pyramids, though not as tombs).

    By the time we get to the Fourth Dynasty, its first monarch, King Sneferu, seems to have thought these step pyramids were old hat. He wanted something...prettier. He liked pretty things,note  and these step pyramids weren't doing it for him. (His name, fittingly, comes from the same root as the Egyptian word for "beauty".) So his architects got to work and designed him the smooth-sided pyramid. It took a couple of tries (one collapsed and another had to be modified halfway through), but he finally got what he wanted with the famous Red Pyramid at Dahshur. His descendants in the Fourth Dynasty—his son Khufu, grandson Khafre, and great-grandson Menkaure—took the idea and ran with it, building the famous pyramids of the Giza Necropolis. This structure, the smooth-sided "true" pyramid, encased in shining white limestone and possibly topped with gold—became the standard form of royal tomb (assuming the king in question had enough time and resources to build one) for the rest of the Old Kingdom, and indeed for the next thousand years of Egyptian history (at which point the monarchs realized that pyramids just told would-be thieves "the gold is here").

    The Fourth Dynasty was the height of the Old Kingdom's centralization and power. Over the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, the hereditary rulers of the nomes became increasingly rich and powerful. This was gradual at first, but it became an increasing problem in the last years of the long but ineffectual reign of King Pepi II. By the end of the Sixth Dynasty just a few years after Pepi II's death, all pretense of central control had collapsed.
  5. First Intermediate Period (7th-11th Dynasties, 2181-2055): Dynasties of kings continued to exist, but had little power outside their home territories (fans of Chinese history, think of the Zhou Dynasty).

    However, two powerful families gradually arose in Egypt. In the Lower Egyptian city of Het-Nesut (literally "Child of the King", known to the Greeks as Heracleopolis Magna and known today as Beni Suef, about 100 km upstream of Cairo), a line of local rulers descended from a man named Khety dominated the country from the Mediterranean coast in the north to as far as Asyut in the south; they are known as the Tenth Dynasty. In competition, a line of local rulers based in the city of Waset (literally, "City of the Sceptre", known to the Greeks as Thebes and known today as Luxor, the principal city of Upper Egypt) in Upper Egypt conquered the whole south, establishing what is now known as the Eleventh Dynasty. These two families clashed until, around 2055 BCE, the Eleventh Dynasty decisively defeated the Tenth and founded the...
  6. Middle Kingdom (11th-13th Dynasties, 2055-c.1720 BC): The first period during which the capital was at Thebes. That said, the Twelfth Dynasty later moved it to the new city of Itjtawy (now the archaeological site at Lisht, about halfway between Cairo—and thus Memphis—and Beni Suef).

    Because of the way in which they conquered Egypt, the kings had to deal with the nobles, who had done very well in the period of of royal 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.

    The Middle Kingdom is often overlooked, sitting as it does between the pyramid-studded grandeur (and intimidating antiquity) of the Old Kingdom and the imperial splendor (and relative wealth of historical sources) of the New Kingdom. Many Egyptologists consider this a crying shame. Those in the know regard the Twelfth Dynasty in particular as a cultural height not just for the Middle Kingdom but for ancient Egypt in general, with a relative wealth of surviving writings showing a real cultural flowering during the period. The Coffin Texts (the predecessor to the Book of the Dead) that first showed up in the coffins of nobles of the First Intermediate Period became more widespread and sophisticated, and the coffins in which the texts were inscribed became increasingly fine and beautiful. Several major Egyptian literary texts come from this period, including two of the most famous ancient Egyptian works of fiction, The Eloquent Peasant and The Story of Sinuhe.

    The Middle Kingdom—especially the Twelfth Dynasty—also just has some fascinating stories around the monarchy. For instance, the founder of the Twelfth Dynasty, Amenemhat I, was assassinated in his bed by his own royal guards. This appears to be the first recorded assassination of anyone anywhere, and is a key event both in the aforementioned Story of Sinuhe and the "nonfictional" Instructions of Amenemhat (itself a major work of ancient Egyptian didactic literature and one of the earliest mirrors for princes). Amenemhat I's successors, the Twelfth Dynasty monarchs Senusret III and Amenemhat III, are widely regarded as some of the greatest kings ancient Egypt ever saw, and led Egypt to some successful campaigns in Nubia (somewhat foreshadowing the imperialism of the New Kingdom).

    There is one very important way in which cultural influence of the Middle Kingdom has endured, and that is its language: the Middle Egyptian dialect would survive for over two millennia as the "prestige" dialect of Ancient Egypt, even as the vernacular language shifted to Late Egyptian, Demotic, and finally Coptic.

    The Middle Kingdom kings also built themselves pyramids, but the weaker centralization deprived them of resources, so the pyramids were built more cheaply (generally limestone around cores of mudbrick rather than limestone all the way through). This was fine so long as nobody messed with the limestone casing, but later generations (especially during the Roman/Byzantine and Islamic periods) pilfered the limestone for their own cities and monuments, and so the Middle Kingdom pyramids do not survive as anything more than misshapen mounds of weathered brick. (The later generations did not discriminate between Old and Middle Kingdom pyramids when stealing stone, but because the Old Kingdom ones—especially the giant Third and Fourth Dynasty ones—were generally limestone all the way through, they survive better.)

    Surprisingly, the less-centralized regime did not end up falling apart under its own weight but rather through disasters.
  7. Second Intermediate Period (14th-17th Dynasties c.1720-c-1550 BC): Specifically, a famine followed by a plague in the Nile Delta, about which the king in Itjtawy did nothing (whether because he couldn't or because he didn't want to is unclear). This led to a revolt, which it appears was led by the region's substantial immigrant/naturalized immigrant population of Semitic Canaanites. The Canaanite leaders established themselves as the Fourteenth Dynasty, ruling over the Delta from their capital at Avaris (which conveniently had a secondary royal palace).

    This dynasty seems to have been at least somewhat Egyptianized and accepted by the Egyptian population of the Delta. Later, a group of barbarians from Asia, known in Egyptian records as "Hyksos" (almost certainly Semitic-speakers, probably some flavor of Canaanite, though possibly proto-Arabs, and either way not Egyptianized, at least not at first) conquered the country with what for the time was alarming speed. 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 in Lower Egypt, and cowed into submission the native Egyptian Sixteenth Dynasty that ran Upper Egypt from Thebes.

    In time, the Sixteenth Dynasty died out and was replaced by the seemingly-similar Seventeenth Dynasty. However, the Seventeenth Dynasty turned out to have a much stiffer backbone than their predecessors. Adopting Hyksos technology and tactics, the Seventeenth Dynasty gradually brought Upper and Middle Egypt under its control.

    Around 1555 BCE, the Seventeenth Dynasty king Seqenenre Tao appears to have built up the base needed to strike the final blow against the Hyksos center of power in Lower Egypt. He just needed a trigger—and he got one. According to later Egyptian records (read: propaganda), the Fifteenth Dynasty king sent him an insulting missive comparing Seqenenre to a noisy hippopotamus. Of course, that meant war.

    Seqenenre now attacked the northern kingdom, seeking to reunite the Two Lands under his banner—and failed. He appears to have run a brilliant campaign, using combined-arms operations on the Nile to devastating effect, but was defeated in a key battle. He was then captured and brutally executed, hands tied behind his back, by an axe-blow to his temple. The northerners also pierced his skull with a spear, beat his body with maces and clubs, and stabbed him repeatedly with daggers or small swords. His body, apparently still tied up, was then sent upriver to his family in Thebes for mummification and burial.note 

    His widow Ahhotep and son Kamose remained committed to the cause of reunification, and pursued renewed campaigns against the Hyksos. Kamose succeeded, driving the Hyksos back to Asia, but died shortly thereafter.
  8. 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. Why Manetho (the Egyptian priest and historian in Hellenistic Egypt who assigned the dynasty numbers) calls this a new dynasty is unclear, but it seems to be based on unification of Egypt.note  In either event, Ahmose was either the son or grandson of Ahhotep, and as the king was a child, Ahhotep served as his regent during his minority.

    Finding itself in possession of all kinds of new military tech and a series of young, dynamic rulers, Egypt began to conquer. Successive rulers pushed outward, primarily into Canaan and Syria, 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, and the Eighteenth Dynasty was the exuberant peak of Egypt as a major power of the Bronze Age Near East.

    This expansionist phase culminated in the long and overlapping reigns of Hatshepsut and her nephew Thutmose III. Hatshepsut wasn't much of a conqueror herself, but she consolidated her ancestors' empire, built up the economic base, and forged trading and diplomatic links with Egypt's neighbors (most famously Punt). Oh, and she built a bunch of pretty monuments; her mortuary temple is one of the most beautiful and iconic works of ancient Egyptian architecture, and she contributed other, smaller works to the ancient Egyptian architectural treasury. Her efforts to legitimate her reign also had lasting effects; in particular, the story she cooked up about actually being the child of Amun in disguise as her official father Thutmose I later became standard royal propaganda. Meanwhile, her patriarchal bureaucrats and courtiers seem to have started to use the word "Pharaoh" (which had previously meant "the Palace") to refer to the monarch to assuage their discomfort at taking orders from a woman.

    After Hatshepsut died, much of her work was useful to Thutmose—who was technically joint monarch with her the whole time, but was just a toddler when she took the royal title—when he became sole ruler at about the age of 21. An energetic and thoughtful king, he was also something of a military genius and spent most of his early reign expanding Egyptian territory. Most of his campaigns were in the rich lands of Canaan and Syria, pushing farther into these regions than any previous Egyptian monarch. He crossed the River Euphrates during a raid against the Mittani, and solidified the hold his grandfather Thutmose I had established on the lands of the coastal Levant.

    Thutmose III, unlike many young conquerors, lived long enough to enjoy his conquests, reigning over 30 years after becoming sole king. At some point he stopped seriously pursuing conquests, focusing instead on monument-building and administration. He did, however go on one last campaign/discovery expedition/pleasure cruise up the Nile late in his reign that managed to nab some extra territory in Nubia (even though it didn’t really fight anyone and wasn’t really supposed to).

    The Eighteenth Dynasty reached the height of its splendor and territory during the century from about 1455 BCE-1355 BCE, starting with the beginning of the sole reign of Thutmose III and ending with the death of Amenhotep III. During this period, the pharaohs fought to cement their overlordship in the empire their ancestors had conquered; built themselves ever-bigger and more beautiful monuments, palaces, and tombs; maintained diplomatic links as far afield as Babylon and Mycenaean Greece; traded extensively around the Mediterranean world (and beyond); and generally enjoyed life as rulers of the premier Great Power of the Late Bronze Age. Amenhotep III in particular lived and reigned long and peacefully, building himself splendid palaces and beautiful temples during his 38 or 39 years on the throne. He also left more (surviving) statutes than any other ancient Egyptian monarch.

    The Eighteenth Dynasty ended with the Amarna Period. Amenhotep III's son and heir Amenhotep IV was actually the Spare to the Throne, the second son of Amenhotep III and his Great Royal Wife, the formidable Tiye. Young Amenhotep trained for a career in the priesthood while his older brother, the Crown Prince Thutmose, prepared for kingship. However, Prince Thutmose died in his late teens or early 20s (possibly from a plague that struck Egypt during the middle years of his father's reign), leaving his brother Amenhotep the new heir to the throne.

    Fortunately for young Amenhotep, his father lived a few years longer after Prince Thutmose's death. Thus when Amenhotep III finally died, Amenhotep IV was a vigorous youth—probably in his late teens or early 20s—ready to take the reins. He had also developed a distinctive view of his role as monarch and as intermediary between the divine and the worldly, particularly focusing on the Aten, the deified representation of the disc of the sun. He thus renamed himself Akhenaten and engaged in an odd religious and artistic experiment that led him to move the capital to a brand-new city he called Akhetaten (at the modern site called El-Amarna) several hundred kilometers downriver from Thebes. The effects of his rule were sufficiently destabilizing that Egypt lost hold on much of the empire his ancestors had won, especially in the northernmost part of Syria.

    It's possible (which isn't to say likely) that Akhenaten would have resolved these issues had he lived longer. But as it was, he died after 17-18 years on the throne. His successors did try to keep control of events, but the limited records we have suggest this was not easy.note  What records exist suggest his widow Nefertiti ruled a few years from Akhetaten under the name of Neferneferuaten, trying to reach a compromise with the old Amun priesthood while maintaining the Aten cult, but died before this could become established state policy. She would at some point be succeeded by the boy-king Tutankhamun, whose ministers Ay and Horemheb are probably responsible for abandoning both Aten and Akhetaten and moving the court to Memphis, the better to get a handle on the priesthood and on Canaan, respectively.

    For all that Tutankhamun was a physically-challenged boy-king, things looked like they might be stabilizing by about the tenth year of his reign. While he seems to have had a cleft palate and a limp, he also seems to have led a pretty active life, even going on campaign at some point in his late teens. (Armor found in his tomb bears the distinctive marks of real battle.) While he had thus far been unable to beget an heir with his queen, this was because his daughters with her had been stillborn—so his equipment clearly worked, and any problems were either chance or the pairing.note  Tutankhamun was still young; since even sickly kings tended to survive their 20s at least, Tutankhamun could expect at least 10 years to father an heir with a junior wife or concubine even if his queen remained barren. This was in fact almost a tradition in the Eighteenth Dynasty—both Thutmose II and Thutmose IV had been in chronic mild-to-moderate poor healthnote  and been unable to produce an heir with their (closely related) queens, but did father children with their lower-born concubines/minor queens, including their ultimate successors to the throne. Since those successors were Thutmose III and Amenhotep III—i.e. two of the greatest kings Egypt had yet seen—the courtiers may well have been in a "we've seen this movie before, it turns out OK in the end" kind of mindset.

    In short, Tutankhamun was hardly the kind of impotent palace-bound monarch that might cause a dynasty concern.note  Thus for a moment, around the ninth and tenth years of the boy-king's reign, it seemed like the Eighteenth Dynasty, the bloodline of Seqenenre Tao and Ahmose I and Thutmose III and Amenhotep III, would endure with a new lease on life.

    Alas, it was not to be. Tutankhamun died at about the age of 19, apparently in a chariot accident.note  He had no surviving issue. After a weird incident in which Tutankhamun's widow asked the Hittites to send her a prince to marry and therefore serve as king,note  Ay, advisor to the late king (and possibly his grandfather or great-uncle) took the throne. However, Ay was an old man without any clear male heirs (he may have had at least one son, but none who were directly related to the royal house) and generally understood to be something of a caretaker until the Egyptian elite could pick a new ruler. Eventually, Horemheb—Tutankhamun's top general-was chosen,note  and he married a princess to cement his relationship with the royal house.

    However, Horemheb also died without royal issue. (He did, however, leave behind an insanely beautiful tomb that set the direction for Egyptian tomb decoration for centuries.) His Grand Vizier Rameses was therefore allowed to take power, becoming Rameses I and founding the Nineteenth Dynasty. During this period, Egypt reached a new zenith as an imperial power, particularly under its second and third rulers Seti I and Ramses II "the Great", who reigned for nearly 70 years. (It never did extend as far into Syria as it had in the days of Thutmose III and Amenhotep III, though.) 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. The rest of the Nineteenth Dynasty was a bit of a mess—Ramesses II being something of a Tough Act to Follow and also having way too many male heirs, leading to no small amount of political strife for the rest of the dynasty.

    The New Kingdom ends with the Twentieth Dynasty, which started strong with Ramesses III's long and successful reign. However, the Twentieth Dynasty coincided with the general Late Bronze Age collapse across the whole Eastern Mediterranean region. One of Ramesses III's big achievements as pharaoh was repelling the Sea Peoples, which was an integral part of the turmoil of the era, but even this victory could not stop the general chaos from setting in. Ramesses III himself was assassinated by a conspiracy of courtiers surrounding his junior consort Tiyenote  trying to get her son elevated over his chosen successor; they failed (the chosen successor took the throne as Ramesses IV and had the conspirators tried and executed/"allowed" to commit suicide), but this could not stem the tide. Egypt's strength sapped and the whole Levant in disarray, the empire retreated into splendid isolation.

    Important note: While popular history holds the capital to be Thebes during this period, that's not quite right; while it was founded by the originally-Theban Eighteenth Dynasty, and the capital was Thebes throughout the Eighteenth (except for when Akhenaten moved it during his reign) and the first half of the Nineteenth Dynasty, Ramses II moved the capital to the new purpose-built capital Pi-Ramesses in the Delta, and his successors moved it all the way back to Memphis, where it remained into the Third Intermediate Period. Moreover, even when Thebes was accorded the dignity of capital, the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Dynasty rulers were at least as likely to be governing from Memphis as from Thebes, if not more so. Memphis was closer to the richer territories of the Delta and the Faiyum, and to Egypt's imperial holdings in Canaan and Syria (which were lucrative but also vulnerable to attack by any number of neighbors). Thutmose III is known to have maintained his court at Memphis between campaigns to Canaan and Syria—when he wasn't in Avaris (which still had its Middle-Kingdom-to-Hyksos-period palace and was conveniently located at a spot where ships could be launched to head for Canaan). It also seems that Tutankhamun's regime set itself up in Memphis for this very reason while dealing with the imperial fallout of the end of Akhenaten's reign. (Thebes was better for controlling Nubia, but Nubia wasn't as rich, was much more Egyptianized culturally,note  and there weren't any big foreign powers threatening it, so it wasn't as important to defend.)

    Also, for most of this period, the palace housing the Royal Harem was at the palace of Merwernote  in the Faiyum, which is 5-6 times closer to Memphis than Thebes.note  This last bit meant that while Thebes was "capital", home to the largest palace, and center of the cult of the chief state god Amun, pharaohs were likely to have been born in or near Memphis and view that as their home.

    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 king who invented monotheism? Akhenaten, Eighteenth Dynasty. Nefertiti? His wife. King Tut? Akhenaten's son.note  Hatshepsut? Tut's great-great-great-great aunt. Ramses the Great (Ozymandias, King of Kings) and those cool statutes? Nineteenth Dynasty.
  9. Third Intermediate Period (21st-25th Dynasties, 1069-664 BC): Yet another period of division. From the 21st Dynasty onward, the High Priests of Amun in Thebes exercise various levels of political control over Upper Egypt, while the "official" dynasties control Lower Egypt. Several dynasties of foreigners—chiefly from Libya to the west and Nubia to the south—ruled all or much of Egypt.
  10. Late Period (26th-31st Dynasties, 664-332 BC): The last gasp but also last flowering of Ancient Egypt, with two periods of rule by The Achaemenid Empire known in Egyptian historiography as the Twenty-Seventh and Thirty-First Dynasties. The Thirtieth Dynasty was the last time Egypt was ruled by someone of native stock, with the defeat of the Egyptians against the Achaemenids in the Battle of Pelusium in 343 BC marking the start of over two millennia rule by Foreign Ruling Class.

In 332 BC, Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great and became part of Hellenistic civilization under the Ptolemy dynasty following the Macedonian Succession Wars, the last (and arguably most famous) sovereign being Cleopatra VII Philopator. Egypt would be part of various empires until the 19th century; while it fairly frequently hosted the capital of such empires, and was almost as frequently rather autonomous when it didn't, these empires were uniformly ruled by and for people of non-Egyptian stock. Egypt would not be ruled by someone of Egyptian stock (President Muhammad Naguib) until 1953. Egypt has since changed its religion twice (first to Christianity, then to Islam, though a Christian minority remains) and its language once (from Coptic, the descendant of Ancient Egyptian that still sees limited use as a liturgical language in Egyptian Coptic Christianity, to Arabic) but still markets itself as a continuation of the old pharaohs (just look at any tourism advert).

The legacy of Ancient Egypt in the modern country is mixed. On the one hand there's no doubting that Egypt is now part of a wider Islamic and Arabic-speaking culture—and is indeed the heart of the Arab World. On the other, certain aspects of life in Egypt—particularly aspects of music, cuisine, and certain holidays and folkways—still bear echos of the time of the pharaohs. An old joke in the Arab World is that "he who rules in Damascus is always a governor, and he who rules in Cairo is always a pharaoh." On an economic front, there has also been both continuity and change. On the one hand, until the completion of the Aswan Dam in the 20th century, the rhythm of the agricultural year was unchanged since the time of the men who built those pyramids on the Giza Plateau so many millennia ago. On the other hand, since then, the rhythm has been lost, as has the old crop profile—Egyptian farmers now mostly raise rice (and tomatoes) for domestic food needs and sugarcane and fruit for export to Europe, instead of raising wheat and barley as staples and grapes for the pharaoh's wine cellar. On the other other hand, Egyptians both ancient and modern are known to have favored alliums—particularly onions, but also garlic. And while one of modern Egypt's three major candidates for national dish—koshary, a lentil-and-rice affair topped with a vinegar-tomato-garlic sauce, chickpeas, pasta, and fried onions—would be largely alien to the ancients (though probably much appreciated)—the other two would either be completely familiar (foul mudammes, slow-cooked fava beans with onions, garlic, and cumin, usually eaten with bread) or nearly so (molokheyya, a stew of finely chopped jute leaves and meat with vinegar and garlic, made somewhat different by the modern addition of tomato sauce and usual presentation over ricenote ).

One final note. It's important to note too that there isn't a monolithic, unchanging "Ancient Egypt" and a clear demarcation where it becomes "Modern Egypt". Egypt, throughout its history, from the early Bronze Age to the 21st century, went through several changes, invasions, golden ages, migrations, etc... It's easy to see the Arabs as "invaders" who "ended" the "real" Egypt, but the Romans, the Greeks (Macedonians), the Persians (Achaemenids), the Nubians, the Assyrians, the Sea Peoples, the Lybians, etc... were also invaders who left their marks on Egypt. The Arabs did manage to change the language of the people (something none of the others did), but otherwise their impact is of a piece with the others.note  The Egypt of Cleopatra might seem ancient and "different" from 21st century Egypt, but to her contemporaries the Egypt of the Pyramid builders would be just as ancient and "different". Like any other society Egypt, both ancient and modern, changed and adapted and will continue to do so.

Alternative Title(s): Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Egypt