History of Ancient Egypt

Egyptian civilization endured for more than three thousand years. The more that we learn about Predynastic Egypt, the more it seems that this figure should be extended. In a work of this scale, therefore, only a very basic outline of Egyptian history can be provided.

Prior to the Neolithic, the Nile Valley was not suitable for significant habitation. Indeed, with the river swollen by heavy Holocene rainfall, the Nile Valley itself could hardly be considered to exist at all until some time during the fifth millennium BC. It was the Sahara, lush and green, that supported human habitation.

As the quantity of rainfall subsided, the Sahara began a process of drying out that would take a couple of thousand years to complete, while the Nile subsided to a level that allowed for the regular flooding that has made it famous. The Nile Valley, therefore, became an attractive place for Saharan migrants to settle. These settlements grew during the fifth millennium BC, making possible the creation of towns during the fourth millennium. It is perhaps strange to note that the Nile settlers were slow to adopt agriculture and animal husbandry, but the plenitude of fish and fowl made such adoption unnecessary for a time.

When these early Egyptians did adopt the agricultural lifestyle, however, they soon learned what an asset the Nile was to settled life. As the fourth millennium BC proceeded, distinct cultural complexes developed in the heart of the Nile Valley and in the Delta to the north. The former is often known by the collective name of Naqada, encompassing three distinct phases, while the latter is known as the Ma’adi culture. They did enjoy some common characteristics, but where they differed, it is the norms of the southern culture that eventually came to dominate the future state.

The process of consolidation and assimilation is still being studied, and there are few solid conclusions, but during the last two centuries of the fourth millennium BC, a powerful state in the south of the country came to extend its control all the way downriver to the Mediterranean. This was a bureaucratic state that focused its legitimacy on a god-king who was identified with the falcon god, Horus.

This was a period of setting precedents, and to a people as conservative as the ancient Egyptians, precedents are neither lightly adopted nor easily discarded. The Archaic period is roughly five hundred years in length, including both the “proto-dynastic” Dynasty 0 and the “early dynastic” Dynasties 1 and 2. The nature of the kingship, its relationship with the priesthood and the bureaucracy (the latter two groups are very closely intertwined), the mortuary cult and its importance as a share of the economy, are among the precedents laid down during this period.

This period was not without its instability. The Second Dynasty, in particular, seems to have a great deal of unrest. Some have seen in the patchy evidence signs of a civil war, with two factions rallying around the early forms of two gods whose conflict is later a staple of Egyptian mythology: Horus and Set. What is known is that the tradition of a “Horus name” is interrupted by a king known as Peribsen, who took instead a “Set name,” and that the period ends with a possible compromise by the last king of the Second Dynasty, Khasekhem, who changed his name to Khasekhemwy as a dual “Horus and Set name.”

It is with the Third Dynasty and the stability and prosperity that it ushered in that the Old Kingdom, proper, begins. The scale of the mortuary cult takes on a new dimension with the reign of Djoser, who commissions a grandiose monument that becomes the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Sakkara. It is an enterprise that requires a massive outlay of manpower and resources, all of which have one end: the eternal maintenance of the king. It should also be noted that the economic ramifications of a pyramid complex do not end with the edifice’s completion, nor yet with the king’s interment therein. A team of priests, renewed over generations, must serve in his mortuary temple, and a host of artisans are needed to support their work. Each pyramid complex was therefore endowed with farmland to cover such costs, because ancient Egypt did not issue true coinage until the Greek period, and all wealth was exchanged in kind.

The Step Pyramid was the model for only a brief period; an unusually experimental king, Sneferu, began the Fourth Dynasty with a transition from the Step Pyramid to the true Pyramid. This shift in form may reflect an ideological shift that went on as well, in which the royal cult took on an increasingly solar orientation. The god Horus and his link with the kingship were never discarded, but his importance dwindled in the face of the rising significance of Ra-Atum of Heliopolis. It is here that the king began to take additional names, a “Son of Ra” name (which is generally the name that is most familiar to us today) and a throne name that in some way incorporated the name of Ra. To use a later example that will be familiar to all, Tutankhamun was the king’s Son of Ra Name, while his Throne Name was Nebkheperura. Another sign of this solar orientation was the practice of encapsulating these two names inside of the oval figure that we have traditionally called a cartouche.

What Sneferu began, his son Khufu perfected in the form of the Great Pyramid at Giza. With the construction of the pyramid complexes of Khafra and Menkaura, however, the space available at Giza was exhausted, and future kings returned to Sakkara for their burial spots. The growth of the pyramid fields also stimulated settlement in the Memphis area, and the capital swelled as a result.

Other factors spelled decline. The same change in climate that was drying out the Sahara also reduced Nile flooding, while the parceling out of land to endow pyramid complexes and to reward faithful officials dissipated the wealth and power of the central government. Local officials gained hereditary office and increasing wealth and power. The overlong reign of Pepi II, reportedly just over 90 years in length, but at least 60 according to documentary evidence, gave final impetus to fragmentation. With the end of the Sixth Dynasty came a feudal period known as the First Intermediate Period.

This period lasted about a century, but it was a trauma from which the Egyptian culture never fully recovered. Several kings tried to restore central order, first from Memphis, and then from Herakleopolis, but it was eventually a Theban family that managed to unite, first Upper Egypt, and then all of Egypt, under its aegis. When the Theban king finally defeated the Herakleopolitans, the Middle Kingdom was said to have begun properly.

The Middle Kingdom was a period of chastened reassertion. The kings returned to the construction of pyramids, but ones built of mud brick rather than stone. They began to reach out to the Nubian frontier again, but were more careful about the construction and garrisoning of fortresses. Egypt flourished, and in many senses it is this period that was considered “classical” in Egyptian history.

In time, a new threat from the Near East brought down the Middle Kingdom. A Canaanite people generally known as the Hyksos swept down into Lower Egypt. Among other things, they came with the chariot, a tool of war that overwhelmed the strictly infantry forces of the Egyptians. The Hyksos conquered the Delta and set up a capital at Avaris, while using a combination of diplomacy and force to keep Upper Egypt at bay.

This period, known as the Second Intermediate Period, only ended when the Theban ruling family managed to gather enough support to finally defeat the Hyksos and again assert control over all of Egypt. It was this resurgent state, dominated by kings of the Thutmosid line, that established the grandeur of the New Kingdom. In the 18th Dynasty, these pharaohs (as they now began to be called) were not content with protecting the borders of Egypt, but embarked upon Empire, conquering Lower Nubia outright and setting up client states in Canaan, Syria and the Lebanon. At its height, the Thutmosid empire reached the Euphrates river. As old enemies were defeated, however, new ones emerged, such as the Hittites, and Egypt needed constantly to reinforce its empire.

All was not quiescent at home, however. Thebes had taken on the status of a second capital, and with this development, the cult of Amun at Thebes assumed an ever-greater role in the state. Success in battle also had the effect of increasing endowments to the cult of Amun, and its priesthood gained an unusual degree of independence. Amunhotep III tried to reduce their influence by cultivating a renewed solar orientation through the encouragement of the Aten cult, but his son took the experiment too far. Renaming himself Akhenaten and relocating the capital to a new city called The Horizon of the Aten, he eventually outlawed the worship of all other gods. Spending more time in the writing of hymns and other ceremonies, he neglected rule at home and military activities abroad, and Egypt suffered under a rising lawlessness and the loss of most of its empire.

This interlude, known as the Amarna Period, did not long outlive Akhenaten, but the confusion that it had sown soon consumed the royal family. When Tutankhamun died around the age of 19 (by Egyptian standards, a man already for about five years), the line of the Thutmosids died with him. After a couple of stopgap kings, a new family ascended the throne with the general Ramesses, who founded the 19th and most opulent Dynasty.

The Ramessids covered two very successful dynasties and produced some very effective monarchs in such kings as Seti I, Ramesses II, Merenptah and Ramesses III. They restored Egypt’s empire and brought it to its greatest heights, and at the end of the period, in the reign of Ramesses III, it fought off the greatest threat to the old orders of the eastern Mediterranean in the invasion of the Sea Peoples. After his death, however, lesser scions took his place, and the New Kingdom ended.

Weakened by poor rule, Egypt suffered the indignity of invasion by the Assyrians, but rallied under the leadership of Egyptianized Libyans. For a time, the southern Egyptians were ruled by Nubians, but in time a cycle of fragmentation and re-consolidation was ended by Persian rule. The Persian period, briefly interrupted by a native resurgence, was finally ended by Alexander the Great. The new Greek rulers of Egypt saw the wisdom of maintaining the old forms, seeing that the Egyptians would gladly follow any who respected their ways, and this policy persisted throughout the Ptolemaic period. The Romans were less patient with the diplomacy in the Greeks’ game, but outside of Alexandria, Egyptian life proceeded more or less as it always had until Christianity came to dominate the Roman Empire. After persecution gave way to state support, Egypt’s Christians shut down the old temples and got rid of the old priests, and Egyptian civilization per se came to an end.


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