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History of Egypt
 
 
 

The Ancient Empire of the Nile

The valley of the “long river between the deserts,” with the annual floods, deposits of life-giving silt, and year-long growing season, was the seat of one of the earliest civilisations built by humankind. The antiquity of this civilisation is almost staggering, and whereas the history of other lands is measured in centuries, that of ancient Egypt is measured in millennia. Much is known of the period even before the actual historic records began. Those records are abundant and, because of Egypt's dry climate, have been well preserved. Inscriptions have unlocked a wealth of information; for example, the existing fragments of the Palermo stone are engraved with the records of the kings of the first five dynasties. The great papyrus dumps offer an enormous amount of information, especially on the later periods of ancient Egyptian history.

Among the many problems encountered in Egyptology, one of the most controversial is that of dating events. The following dates have a margin of plus or minus 100 years for the time prior to 3000 B.C. Fairly precise dates are possible beginning with the Persian conquest (525 B.C.) of Egypt. The division of Egyptian history into 30 dynasties up to the time of Alexander the Great (a system worked out by Manetho) is a convenient frame upon which to hang the succession of the kings and a record of events. In the table entitled Dynasties of Ancient Egypt, the numbers of the dynasties are given in Roman numerals, and the numeral is followed by the dates of the dynasty and a notation of famous monarchs of the era. Since there are many gaps and periods without well-known rulers (occasionally without known rulers at all), those are given simply with dates or are combined with better-recorded periods.

The Old and Middle Kingdoms

A high culture developed early, and the Old Kingdom is notable for artistic and intellectual achievements. From the beginning there was a concept of the divinity or quasi-divinity of the king (pharaoh), which lasted from the time that Egypt was first united (c.3200 B.C.) under one ruler until the ultimate fall of Egypt to the Romans. According to tradition, it was Menes (or Narmer) who as king of Upper Egypt conquered the rival kingdom of Lower Egypt in the Nile delta, thus forming the single kingdom of Egypt. In the unified and centralised state created by Menes, the memory of the two ancient kingdoms was preserved in formalities of administration. Trade flourished, and the kings of the I dynasty appear to have sent trading expeditions under military escort to Sinai to obtain copper. Indications show that under the II dynasty, trade existed with areas as far north as the Black Sea.

A high culture developed early, and the Old Kingdom is notable for artistic and intellectual achievements. From the beginning there was a concept of the divinity or quasi-divinity of the king (pharaoh), which lasted from the time that Egypt was first united (c.3200 B.C.) under one ruler until the ultimate fall of Egypt to the Romans. According to tradition, it was Menes (or Narmer) who as king of Upper Egypt conquered the rival kingdom of Lower Egypt in the Nile delta, thus forming the single kingdom of Egypt. In the unified and centralised state created by Menes, the memory of the two ancient kingdoms was preserved in formalities of administration. Trade flourished, and the kings of the I dynasty appear to have sent trading expeditions under military escort to Sinai to obtain copper. Indications show that under the II dynasty, trade existed with areas as far north as the Black Sea.

The III dynasty was one of the landmarks of Egyptian history, the time during which sun-worship, a new form of religion that later became the religion of the upper classes, was introduced. At the same time mummification and the building of stone monuments began. The kings of the IV dynasty (which may be said to begin the Old Kingdom proper) were the builders of the great pyramids at Giza. The great pyramid of Khufu is a monument not only to the king but also to the unified organisation of ancient Egyptian society. The V to the VII dynasties are remarkable for their records of trading expeditions with armed escorts. Although Egypt flourished culturally and commercially during this period, it started to become less centralised and weaker politically. The priests of the sun-god at Heliopolis gained increasing power; the office of provincial rulers became hereditary, and their local influence was thereafter always a threat to the state.

In the 23d cent. B.C. the Old Kingdom, after a long and flourishing existence, fell apart. The local rulers became dominant, and the records, kept by the central government, tended to disappear. Some order was restored by the IX dynasty, but it was not until 2134 B.C. that power was again centralised, this time at Thebes. That city was to be the capital for most of the next millennium.

The Middle Kingdom, founded at the end of the XI dynasty, reached its zenith under the XII. The Pharaoh, however, was not then an absolute monarch but rather a feudal lord, and his vassals held their land in their own power. The XII dynasty advanced the border up the Nile to the Second Cataract. Order was preserved, the draining of El Faiyum was begun (adding a new and fertile province), a uniform system of writing was adopted, and civilisation reached a new peak. After 214 years the XII dynasty came to an end in 1786 B.C. In the dimly known period that followed, Egypt passed for more than a century under the Hyksos (the so-called shepherd kings), who were apparently Semites from Syria. They were expelled from Egypt by Amasis I (Ahmose I), founder of the XVIII dynasty, and the New Kingdom was established.

The New Kingdom

The XVIII dynasty is the most important and the best-recorded period in Egyptian history. The local governors generally opposed both the Hyksos and the new dynasty; those who survived were now made mere administrators, their lands passing to the crown. Ancient Egypt reached its height. Its boundaries were extended into Asia, with a foreign province reaching the Euphrates. Letters known as the Tell el Amarna tablets are dated to this dynasty and furnish the details of the reigns of Amenhotep III and his son, Akhnaton. As Akhnaton neglected his rule in the pursuit of religion, letters from local rulers became increasingly urgent in begging help, especially against the Hittites. Of the rulers following Akhnaton in this dynasty, Tutankhamen is important for his law code and his enforcement of those laws through the courts. Architecture was at its zenith with the enormous and impressive buildings at and around Thebes.

Egyptian civilisation seems to have worn out rapidly after conflicts with the Hittites under the XIX dynasty and with sea raiders under the XX dynasty. With a succession of weak kings, the Theban priesthood practically ruled the country and continued to maintain a sort of theocracy for 450 years. In the delta the Libyan element had been growing, and with the disappearance of the weak XXI dynasty, which had governed from Tanis, a Libyan dynasty came to power. This was succeeded by the alien rule of Nubians, black Africans who advanced from the south to the delta under Piankhi and later conquered the land. The rising power of Assyria threatened Egypt by absorbing the petty states of Syria and Palestine, and Assyrian kings had reached the borders of Egypt several times before Esar-Haddon actually invaded (673 B.C.) the land of the Nile.


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