Ancient Egypt was an ancient African civilization that flourished in the lower banks of the Nile River, in what is now the country of Egypt. The political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Menes circa 3100 BC (according to standard Egyptian chronology) marked the beginning of ancient Egyptian civilization (often identified with Narmer). The Old Kingdom of the Early Bronze Age, the Middle Kingdom of the Middle Bronze Age, and the New Kingdom of the Late Bronze Age formed a sequence of stable kingdoms separated by periods of relative instability known as Intermediate Periods.
Egypt's authority peaked in the New Kingdom, when it ruled most of Nubia and a large chunk of the Near East, before slipping into a long era of decline. Egypt was attacked or conquered by a number of foreign countries during the course of its history, including the Hyksos, Libyans, Nubians, Assyrians, Achaemenid Persians, and the Macedonians under Alexander the Great. Egypt was ruled by the Greek Ptolemaic Kingdom following Alexander's death until 30 BC, when it succumbed to the Roman Empire and became a Roman province under Cleopatra.
The ability of ancient Egyptian civilisation to adapt to the agricultural circumstances of the Nile River valley contributed to its prosperity. The lush valley's predictable flooding and managed irrigation generated excess harvests, which supported a denser population, as well as social development and culture. With extra funds, the administration supported mineral mining in the valley and surrounding desert regions, the early creation of an independent writing system, community construction and agricultural projects, trade with other regions, and a military to maintain Egyptian authority. A bureaucracy of elite scribes, religious leaders, and bureaucrats under the supervision of a pharaoh motivated and organized these efforts, ensuring the Egyptian people's collaboration and unity in the context of an extensive system of religious beliefs.
Quarrying, surveying, and construction techniques that supported the construction of monumental pyramids, temples, and obelisks; a system of mathematics, a practical and effective system of medicine, irrigation systems, and agricultural production techniques; the first known planked boats, Egyptian faience and glass technology, new forms of literature; and the earliest known peace treaty, made with the Hittites, are just a few of the ancient Egyptian achievements. Ancient Egypt has left an indelible mark. Its art and architecture were extensively imitated, and its artifacts were transported to distant lands. For millennia, its colossal remains have captivated the minds of tourists and writers. In the early modern period, Europeans and Egyptians developed a fresh regard for antiquities and excavations, which led to scientific examination of Egyptian civilisation and a greater appreciation of its cultural legacy.
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The Nile has been the lifeline of its region for much of human history. The fertile floodplain of the Nile gave humans the opportunity to develop a settled agricultural economy and a more sophisticated, centralized society that became a cornerstone in the history of human civilization. Nomadic modern human hunter-gatherers began living in the Nile valley through the end of the Middle Pleistocene some 120,000 years ago. By the late Paleolithic period, the arid climate of Northern Africa became increasingly hot and dry, forcing the populations of the area to concentrate along the river region.
The Egyptian climate was substantially less dry in Predynastic and Early Dynastic times than it is today. Grazing ungulates roamed large areas of Egypt, which were covered with treed savanna. In all areas, vegetation and fauna were significantly more abundant, and the Nile valley supported vast populations of waterfowl. Hunting would have been prevalent among Egyptians, and many animals would have been tamed at this time.
Small tribes living in the Nile valley had developed into a series of cultures by around 5500 BC, identified by their pottery and personal items such as combs, bracelets, and beads, and displaying strong control of agriculture and animal husbandry. The Badarian civilization, which developed in the Western Desert and was notable for its high-quality ceramics, stone tools, and copper use, was the largest of these early cultures in upper (Southern) Egypt.
The Badari was succeeded by the Naqada culture, which included the Amratian (Naqada I), Gerzeh (Naqada II), and Semainean (Naqada III) (Naqada III).
[needs a page] This resulted in a number of technological advancements. Predynastic Egyptians imported obsidian from Ethiopia as early as the Naqada I Period, and utilized the flakes to create blades and other things. Early evidence of contact with the Near East, particularly Canaan and the Byblos coast, dates back to Naqada II. The Naqada culture grew from a few tiny farming towns into a great civilisation whose leaders had complete control over the people and resources of the Nile valley during a period of around 1,000 years. Naqada III's leaders stretched their rule of Egypt northwards along the Nile, establishing a power center at Nekhen (in Greek, Hierakonpolis) and later at Abydos. They also traded with Nubia to the south, the western desert oasis to the west, and the eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures to the east, kicking off a period of Egypt-Mesopotamia connections.
Combs, tiny sculptures, painted ceramics, high quality decorative stone vases, cosmetic palettes, and jewelry made of gold, lapis, and ivory were among the products produced by the Naqada civilization, which reflected the growing power and riches of the elite as well as society personal-use items. They also created faience, a ceramic glaze that was used to embellish cups, amulets, and figures far into the Roman period. The Naqada culture began using written symbols during the last predynastic era, which eventually evolved into a full system of hieroglyphs for writing the ancient Egyptian language.
Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150–2686 BC)
The Early Dynastic Period was roughly contemporaneous with Mesopotamia's early Sumerian-Akkadian civilisation and ancient Elam. Manetho, an Egyptian priest from the third century BC, divided the long line of monarchs from Menes until his own time into 30 dynasties, a system that is still used today. He began his official history with the monarch "Meni" (or Menes in Greek), who was thought to have united the Upper and Lower Egyptian kingdoms.
There is no contemporary record of Menes, and the transition to a unified state occurred more slowly than ancient Egyptian poets depicted. However, some academics now believe that the fabled Menes was the king Narmer, who is shown on the ceremonial Narmer Palette wearing royal regalia as a symbolic act of unification. The first of the Dynastic kings solidified control over lower Egypt by establishing a capital at Memphis, from which he could control the labor force and agriculture of the fertile delta region, as well as the lucrative and critical trade routes to the Levant, in the Early Dynastic Period, which began around 3000 BC. The early dynasty monarchs' growing authority and wealth were mirrored in their ornate mastaba tombs and mortuary ritual buildings at Abydos, which were used to commemorate the deified king after his death. The monarchs' strong institution of kingship served to legitimize governmental control over the land, labor, and resources that were critical to the ancient Egyptian civilization's survival and progress.
Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC)
During the Old Kingdom, major developments in architecture, art, and technology were produced, propelled by rising agricultural output and population, which was made feasible by a well-developed central administration. The Giza pyramids and the Great Sphinx, two of ancient Egypt's finest achievements, were built under the Old Kingdom. State officials collected taxes, coordinated irrigation projects to increase crop productivity, enlisted peasants to work on construction projects, and built a justice system to maintain peace and order under the authority of the vizier.
As the importance of central administration in Egypt grew, a new class of educated scribes and officials emerged, who were given estates by the monarch in exchange for their services. To ensure that their funerary cults and local temples had the resources to worship the monarch after his death, kings offered land endowments to them. Scholars argue that these tactics weakened Egypt's economic health over five centuries, to the point that the economy could no longer support a big centralized administration. As the power of the monarchs waned, regional rulers known as nomarchs began to contest the king's supremacy. This, together with severe droughts between 2200 and 2150 BC, is thought to have triggered the First Intermediate Period, a 140-year period of starvation and strife.
First Intermediate Period (2181–2055 BC)
The administration was unable to support or stabilize Egypt's economy after the central government fell with the end of the Old Kingdom. Food shortages and political conflicts erupted into famines and small-scale civil wars as regional governors were unable to rely on the king for assistance in times of crisis. Despite the difficulties, local leaders used their newfound liberty to build a thriving culture in the provinces, owing no tribute to the monarch. The provinces were economically richer once they gained control of their own resources, as seen by larger and better graves among all social strata. Provincial artisans appropriated and modified cultural elements previously reserved for the Old Kingdom's royalty, while scribes established literary styles that conveyed the period's optimism and innovation.
Local rulers, no longer bound by the king's fealty, began contending for geographical control and political power. By 2160 BC, authorities in Herakleopolis had taken control of Lower Egypt in the north, while the Intef family of Thebes had taken control of Upper Egypt in the south. A battle between the two opposing dynasties seemed inevitable as the Intefs increased in strength and stretched their influence northward. Around 2055 BC, Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II's northern Theban army overcame the Herakleopolitan monarchs, reuniting the Two Lands. They ushered in the Middle Kingdom, a period of economic and cultural revival.
Middle Kingdom (2134–1690 BC)
The Middle Kingdom's kings restored the country's stability and prosperity, resulting in a revival of art, literature, and enormous construction projects. Mentuhotep II and his Eleventh Dynasty successors ruled from Thebes, but the vizier Amenemhat I, upon assuming the kingship at the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty around 1985 BC, shifted the kingdom's capital to the city of Itjtawy, located in Faiyum. The kings of the Twelfth Dynasty launched a long-term land restoration and irrigation project from Itjtawy to boost agricultural productivity in the region. Furthermore, the military reclaimed territory in Nubia that was rich in quarries and gold mines, while workmen constructed the "Walls of the Ruler" in the Eastern Delta to defend against foreign attack.
The nation's population, arts, and religion prospered when the monarchs had militarily and politically secured the land and had immense agricultural and mineral wealth at their disposal. In contrast to the elite views toward the gods in the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom saw an upsurge in personal piety. Themes and characters in Middle Kingdom literature were sophisticated, and they were written in a confident, lyrical style. Relief and portrait sculpture throughout this time period caught subtle, distinctive features that achieved unprecedented technical heights.
Amenemhat III, the Middle Kingdom's final great ruler, authorized Semitic-speaking Canaanite settlers from the Near East to settle in the Delta region in order to provide enough labor for his particularly vigorous mining and building activities. However, the economy was stretched by these ambitious building and mining efforts, which, along with devastating Nile floods later in his reign, accelerated the steady collapse into the Second Intermediate Period during the later Thirteenth and Fourteenth dynasties. During this period of collapse, Canaanite settlers began to exert increased dominance over the Delta region, eventually rising to power as the Hyksos in Egypt.
Second Intermediate Period (1674–1549 BC) and the Hyksos
As the Middle Kingdom kings' influence waned, the Hyksos, a Western Asian nation who had previously established themselves in the Delta, gained control of Egypt and founded their capital at Avaris, compelling the former central government to flee to Thebes. The king was considered a vassal and was required to pay tribute. The Hyksos ("foreign rulers") incorporated Egyptian components into their culture by retaining Egyptian patterns of government and identifying as kings. They, along with other invaders, introduced new weapons to Egypt, including the composite bow and the horse-drawn chariot.
The native Theban rulers were stuck between the Canaanite Hyksos in the north and the Hyksos' Nubian allies, the Kushites, in the south after withdrawing south. Thebes developed enough strength after years of vassalage to oppose the Hyksos in a struggle that lasted more than 30 years, until 1555 BC. The monarchs Seqenenre Tao II and Kamose eventually defeated the Nubians in southern Egypt, but they were unable to destroy the Hyksos. That task came to Kamose's successor, Ahmose I, who was successful in eradicating the Hyksos' foothold in Egypt through a series of campaigns. He founded a new dynasty, and the military became a top concern for the monarchs during the New Kingdom, as they strove to expand Egypt's frontiers and acquire control of the Near East.
New Kingdom (1549–1069 BC)
By protecting their boundaries and building diplomatic ties with their neighbors, like as the Mitanni Empire, Assyria, and Canaan, the New Kingdom pharaohs achieved a time of extraordinary wealth. Tuthmosis I and his grandson Tuthmosis III fought military operations that extended the pharaohs' dominion to the biggest empire Egypt had ever seen. Egypt's kings began to use the title of pharaoh with Merneptah.
Hatshepsut, a queen who established herself as pharaoh between their reigns, embarked on a number of construction projects, including the rebuilding of temples damaged by the Hyksos, and dispatched commercial missions to Punt and Sinai. Egypt had an empire ranging from Niya in northwestern Syria to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in Nubia when Tuthmosis III died in 1425 BC, solidifying allegiance and allowing access to key imports such as bronze and wood.
The pharaohs of the New Kingdom undertook a massive construction program to promote the god Amun, whose cult was centered on Karnak. They also built monuments to honor their own accomplishments, real and imagined. The Karnak Temple is the world's largest Egyptian temple.
When Amenhotep IV succeeded to the throne in 1350 BC, he undertook a series of dramatic and chaotic reforms that jeopardized the New Kingdom's stability. After changing his name to Akhenaten, he proclaimed the previously unknown sun god Aten as the supreme deity, outlawed the worship of most other gods, and relocated the capital to Akhetaten (modern-day Amarna). He was completely devoted to his new religion as well as his new artistic style. The Aten cult was rapidly abandoned after his death, and the established religious order was restored. The following pharaohs, Tutankhamun, Ay, and Horemheb, sought to remove all mention of Akhenaten's heresy throughout the Amarna Period, which is now known as the New Kingdom.
Ramesses II, commonly known as Ramesses the Great, rose to the throne in 1279 BC and went on to construct more temples, erect more statues and obelisks, and father more children than any other pharaoh in history. Ramesses II, a fearless military leader, led his army against the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh (modern-day Syria) and, after a stalemate, signed the first recorded peace treaty in 1258 BC.
Egypt's richness, on the other hand, made it an enticing target for invasion, especially by the Libyan Berbers to the west and the Sea Peoples, a rumored confederation of Aegean Sea mariners. The Egyptian military was able to oppose the incursions at first, but Egypt soon lost control of its remaining territory in southern Canaan, with the Assyrians gaining control of much of it. Internal issues including corruption, tomb robbery, and civil instability amplified the effects of foreign threats. The high priests of Thebes' Amun temple amassed huge swaths of territory and money after regaining control, and their expanded dominance split the kingdom during the Third Intermediate Period.
Third Intermediate Period (1069–653 BC)
Following Ramesses XI's death in 1078 BC, Smendes ascended to the throne of Egypt's northern provinces, governing from Tanis. The High Priests of Amun at Thebes practically dominated the south, and Smendes was only known in name. Libyans began to settle in the western delta during this period, and the chieftains of these settlers began to assert greater authority. Under Shoshenq I, Libyan rulers acquired control of the delta in 945 BC, establishing the so-called Libyan or Bubastite dynasty, which would govern for about 200 years. Shoshenq also consolidated his grip over southern Egypt by appointing members of his family to significant priestly positions. As a rival monarchy in the delta developed in Leontopolis, and Kushites threatened from the south, Libyan hegemony began to weaken.
The Kushite monarch Piye moved northward in 727 BC, capturing Thebes and subsequently the Delta, establishing the 25th Dynasty. Pharaoh Taharqa built an empire nearly as great as the New Kingdom's during the 25th Dynasty. Twenty-fifth Dynasty pharaohs built, or restored, temples and monuments throughout the Nile valley, including at Memphis, Karnak, Kawa, and Jebel Barkal. Since the Middle Kingdom, the Nile valley saw the first extensive construction of pyramids (several of which are still standing today).
Near the conclusion of the Third Intermediate Period, Egypt's global prestige began to dwindle. By 700 BC, the Assyrian sphere of influence had engulfed its foreign allies, and war between the two states had become unavoidable. The Assyrian conquest of Egypt began in 671 BC and lasted until 667 BC. Both Taharqa's and his successor, Tanutamun's administrations were marked by persistent conflict with the Assyrians, who Egypt defeated multiple times. The Assyrians eventually drove the Kushites back into Nubia, seized Memphis, and looted Thebes' temples.
Late Period (653–332 BC)
The Assyrians handed Egypt up to a group of vassals known as the Saite monarchs of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. With the support of Greek mercenaries who were hired to create Egypt's first navy, the Saite king Psamtik I was able to evict the Assyrians by 653 BC. As the city-state of Naucratis became the home of Greeks in the Nile Delta, Greek influence grew significantly. The Saite kings based in the new capital of Sais witnessed a brief but spirited resurgence in the economy and culture, but in 525 BC, the powerful Persians, led by Cambyses II, began their conquest of Egypt, eventually capturing the pharaoh Psamtik III at the Battle of Pelusium. Cambyses II was given the title of pharaoh, yet he ruled Egypt from Iran, leaving Egypt in the hands of a satrap. The 5th century BC saw a few successful revolts against the Persians, but Egypt was never able to completely oust the Persians.
Egypt was united with Cyprus and Phoenicia in the Achaemenid Persian Empire's sixth satrapy after its capture by Persia. The Twenty-Seventh Dynasty, the first period of Persian domination over Egypt, ended in 402 BC, when Egypt recovered independence under a series of native dynasties. The Thirtieth Dynasty, the last of these dynasties, was ancient Egypt's last native royal house, ending with the reign of Nectanebo II. In 343 BC, the Persian monarch Mazaces launched a brief restoration of Persian power, known as the Thirty-First Dynasty, but shortly after, in 332 BC, he turned Egypt up to Alexander the Great without a fight.
Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BC)
Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC with little resistance from the Persians, and the Egyptians embraced him as a deliverer. The Macedonian Ptolemaic Kingdom, formed by Alexander's successors, was based on an Egyptian model and based on Alexandria, the new capital city. The city became a center of scholarship and culture, centered on the famous Library of Alexandria, demonstrating the power and grandeur of Hellenistic control. The Ptolemies made commerce and revenue-generating enterprises, such as papyrus making, their top priority, therefore the Lighthouse of Alexandria lit the way for the many ships that kept trade flowing through the city.
The Ptolemies protected time-honored traditions in order to secure the loyalty of the public, so Hellenistic civilization did not supplant native Egyptian culture. They erected new Egyptian-style temples, supported old rituals, and pretended to be pharaohs. Some traditions intermingled, such as when Greek and Egyptian gods were combined into composite deities like Serapis, while classical Greek sculpture affected traditional Egyptian motifs. Despite their best efforts to placate the Egyptians, the Ptolemies were confronted by native insurrection, bitter family feuds, and the formidable Alexandrian mob that developed following Ptolemy IV's death. Furthermore, because Rome relied more heavily on grain imports from Egypt, the Romans were keenly interested in the country's political status. Continued Egyptian uprisings, ambitious politicians, and powerful opponents from the Near East made the situation dangerous, prompting Rome to dispatch troops to secure Egypt as a province of its empire.
Roman Period (30 BC – AD 641)
Following the defeat of Mark Antony and Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII by Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) in the Battle of Actium in 30 BC, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire. The Roman army, led by a prefect selected by the emperor, quelled rebellions, rigidly enforced the collection of high taxes, and prevented bandit raids, which had become a known problem during the period. As exotic luxury were in high demand in Rome, Alexandria became an increasingly significant center on the trading route with the Orient.
Despite the fact that the Romans were more antagonistic to the Egyptians than the Greeks, some customs such as mummification and worship of the old gods persisted. Mummy portraiture became popular, and certain Roman emperors were represented as pharaohs, though not to the level that the Ptolemies were. The former did not execute the ceremonial functions of Egyptian royalty because he lived outside of Egypt. Local government adopted a Roman style and became closed to native Egyptians.
Christianity began to take root in Egypt in the mid-first century AD, and it was once regarded as just another acceptable cult. It was, however, a tenacious faith that sought converts from the pagan Egyptian and Greco-Roman religions while also endangering popular religious traditions. Converts to Christianity were persecuted as a result, culminating in Diocletian's Great Purges in 303, but Christianity eventually triumphed. Theodosius, the Christian emperor, passed legislation in 391 prohibiting pagan practices and closing temples. Anti-pagan riots erupted in Alexandria, with public and private religious symbols being destroyed. As a result, Egypt's native religious culture continued to deteriorate. While the native inhabitants retained their language, the ability to read hieroglyphic writing gradually faded as the position of Egyptian temple priests and priestesses dwindled. Some temples were converted into churches, while others were abandoned in the desert.
When the Roman Empire split in the fourth century, Egypt became part of the Eastern Empire, which had its capital at Constantinople. Egypt fell to the Sasanian Persian army in the latter years of the Empire, in the Sasanian conquest of Egypt (618–628). It was recaptured by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (629–639) before being taken by the Muslim Rashidun army in 639–641, putting an end to Byzantine control.
The ancient Egyptian military was in charge of defending Egypt from foreign invasion and ensuring Egypt's dominance in the ancient Near East. During the Old Kingdom, the military protected mining expeditions to Sinai and fought civil wars during the First and Second Intermediate Periods. The military was in charge of fortifications along vital trade routes, such as those found on the way to Nubia near the city of Buhen. Military bases were also built, such as the castle at Sile, which served as a base of operations for expeditions to the Levant. A series of pharaohs utilized the standing Egyptian army to assault and conquer Kush and parts of the Levant during the New Kingdom.
Bows and arrows, spears, and round-topped shields constructed by stretching animal hide over a wooden frame were common military items. The military in the New Kingdom began to use chariots that had been introduced by the Hyksos invaders. After the adoption of bronze, weapons and armor continued to improve: shields were now made of solid wood with a bronze clasp, spears were topped with a bronze point, and Asiatic warriors adopted the khopesh. The pharaoh was frequently shown riding at the head of the army in art and literature, and it has been suggested that at least a few pharaohs, including Seqenenre Tao II and his sons, did so. However, "kings of this period did not personally engage as frontline combat leaders, fighting with their troops," according to others. Soldiers were recruited from the common populace, although mercenaries from Nubia, Kush, and Libya were contracted to fight for Egypt during and after the New Kingdom.
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Ancient Egypt's culture and monuments have left an indelible mark on the world. With the adoption of Egyptian religious and architectural conventions (hundreds of pyramids (6–30 meters high) were created in Egypt/Sudan), as well as the use of Egyptian writing as the basis of the Meroitic alphabet, Egyptian civilisation had a tremendous impact on the Kingdoms of Kush and Mero. Other than Egyptian, Meroitic is Africa's oldest written language, dating from the 2nd century BC until the early 5th century AD. As obelisks and other relics were taken back to Rome, the goddess Isis' religion became prominent throughout the Roman Empire. The Romans also imported building materials from Egypt in order to construct structures in the Egyptian style. Herodotus, Strabo, and Diodorus Siculus were among the first historians to study and write about the area, which the Romans grew to regard as a mysterious location.
After the introduction of Christianity and later Islam, Egyptian pagan culture declined during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but interest in Egyptian antiquity persisted in the writings of medieval academics such as Dhul-Nun al-Misri and al-Maqrizi. European travelers and tourists brought antiquities back to Europe throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, resulting in a surge of Egyptomania across Europe. Collectors were drawn to Egypt by this revived interest, and many major antiquities were taken, purchased, or gifted to them. When Napoleon brought 150 scientists and artists to Egypt to investigate and chronicle the country's natural history, the result was published in the Description de l'Égypte.
The Egyptian government and archaeologists both acknowledged the importance of cultural sensitivity and integrity in excavations in the twentieth century. All excavations that are intended at uncovering information rather than riches are now approved and overseen by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (previously the Supreme Council of Antiquities). The council is also in charge of overseeing museum and monument reconstruction programs aimed at preserving Egypt's historical legacy.