People have long been fascinated by ancient Egypt, which was one of the oldest and longest lasting of humanity’s civilizations. For 3000 years, the people of Egypt built impressive pyramids, innovated in science and technology, developed a rich religion, and created influential art and literature. Historians divide Egypt’s history into various eras – the Early Dynastic Period, the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom – each of which lasted hundreds of years.
From 3100 BC to 332 BC, this civilization went through many changes while remaining a pivotal part of the ancient world. Pharaohs ruled over Egypt as their ultimate leader, and these rulers were thought of as being akin to gods. The ruins and remains of ancient Egypt still entrance people today, with the pyramids, the Great Sphinx of Giza, sarcophagi, and hieroglyphics symbolizing their extraordinary culture.
The pyramids – those huge and majestic symbols of Egyptian culture – were built as tombs for the pharaohs, kings, queens, and other royalty. A total of eighty pyramids are known to have been built through the Old and Middle Kingdoms, though who knows how many experiments the pharaohs had to go through to get their design right! The ancient Egyptians believed that whatever someone was buried with would be brought to them to the next life. So, when rulers died, they were usually surrounded by jewels and treasure, wrapped in linen to be preserved (becoming “mummies”), and placed in richly-decorated sarcophagi inside a pyramid. Many of these sarcophagi have since been rediscovered and are displayed in museums across the world. We’ll talk more about the pyramids in the sections on the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom.
The ancient Egyptians were polytheistic, which means that they believed in many gods and goddesses. Some of these deities were widely known and considered to have great power while others were more specific and regional. But all of them were used to try and explain some part of the world. Consider the influential myth of Osiris, for instance. Osiris is said to have been a god-king of Egypt, but he was murdered by his brother, Set. The story varies depending on who is telling it, but Osiris is sometimes thought of as having been drowned in the Nile River, after which Set cut his body into many pieces and scattered them either in the Nile or throughout Egypt. Osiris’ connection to the Nile River was used to explain the river’s annual flooding which sustained Egypt’s agriculture, while Osiris’ wife, Isis, was used to explain the long journeys and plaintive cries of birds as they looked for Osiris. This is just one example of Egyptians using their religious stories to make sense of the world, building a divine narrative from their observations of reality. Some of the other main gods which Egyptians worshipped and told stories about were Amun, Anubis, Bastet, Hathor, Horus, Ra, and Sekhmet.
Hieroglyphic writing can be traced back to the Early Dynastic Period under King Menes, around 3100 BC. It’s the most famous Egyptian script, but they used other writing forms as well, some of which were actually more widely used.
Hieroglyphs are pictures that represent words (or sometimes numbers or sounds). The pictures might be of things like a scarab beetle or a basket, each with its own meaning. This brightly-colored writing was often used to formally tell stories and record information, whether it was written on papyrus scrolls or the inside of a pyramid. For example, they might describe the history of a pharaoh, worship a beloved goddess, or record government taxes. To be a scribe (that is, to be able to read and write) was an incredibly valued position and was only open to the top tiers of society, such as priests.
Because these hieroglyphic pictures took so much time to draw, the Egyptians also used a quicker script called hieratic. Hieratic was generally far more common than hieroglyphics because of its relative ease of writing, and it was used for a wide variety of purposes, such as in religious, mathematical, medical, and legal texts.
There was also a third script, called demotic, which was a popular form of writing found in more everyday use.
The Rosetta Stone is a large part of the reason that we know how to interpret and translate Egyptian writing. This stone was discovered by Captain Pierre Bouchard during Napoleon’s 1799 Egyptian invasion. The Rosetta Stone was useful for deciphering the Egyptian script because it features the same text written in three different languages: two different kinds of Egyptian script, plus ancient Greek. Since scholars knew how to read ancient Greek, they were able to decipher the Egyptian texts by comparing them to the Greek text. The French scholar Jean-François Champollion was instrumental in translating the ancient hieroglyphs in the 1820s after he figured out that the script used a combination of phonetic signs (which represent sounds) and ideographic signs (which represent ideas, concepts, and things).
Built within the Nile River delta, the Egyptian kingdoms gradually emerged after the first settlers began to live along the valley shores of the river. We know very little about this early time, and much of our information comes from bits and pieces of archeological finds. But we do know that most people were farmers, and their agriculture was sustained by the water provided by the annual flooding of the Nile River, which consistently allowed their crops to grow. They developed small villages and began to trade with others as a larger society formed. The Egyptians thought of their area as being distinguished by two different types of land: the ground on which they built their cities and farms was black land because it was fertile with black silt, and the desert surrounding their civilization was red land. The “red” desert was impossible to farm on, and these huge expanses of sand made it difficult for hostile powers to invade Egypt.
Early Dynastic Period
Around 3400 BC, two different kingdoms were founded in Egypt and were governed separately. 300 years later, King Menes managed to conquer and merge the two kingdoms, creating the first unified Egyptian dynasty, which lasted from 3100 to 2900 BC. According to legend, Menes founded the capital of Egypt, the city which would later be known as Memphis. King Menes started something else, too: In becoming the first king, he began the tradition of Egyptians viewing their leaders (whether kings or pharaohs) as godlike and closely entangled with their religion.
The Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom, the Age of the Pyramids, lasted from 2686 BC to 2181 BC, and its rulers (a series of pharaohs) certainly left a long-lasting legacy. Imhotep, a prominent architect, was approached by King Djoser with an odd demand. Djoser wanted to be remembered long after he was dead and so asked for a monument to be built in his honor. Imhotep rose spectacularly to the challenge, creating the Pyramid of Djoser. This was not only the first pyramid, but it was also humanity’s first major stone building.
As impressive as this was, the Egyptians’ next achievements are still making modern architects scratch their heads in amazement: King Khufu (2589-2566 BC) ordered the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Still standing tall outside of Cairo (alongside two smaller pyramids later built by Khafra and Menkaura), it remains a mystery exactly how this early civilization could have managed to build such a grand monument. However they did it, the Great Pyramid is as breathtaking today as it was thousands of years ago. Used as a tomb for pharaohs, the Great Pyramid was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and was the tallest man-made structure in the world for almost four thousand years.
The Egyptians expanded their reach throughout the history of the Old Kingdom, and the governments headed by the pharaohs cultivated a powerful civilization along the Nile. But their good fortune took a turn for the worse during the fifth and sixth dynasties, when the pharaohs used too much of their resources to construct the pyramids and stretched their reserves too thin. With the rise of nobles who began to challenge the pharaoh’s absolute power, the period of the Old Kingdom drew to a close. This was a time of uncertainty and civil war, and in around 2160 BC, Egypt became embroiled in in-fighting. The central government had largely collapsed, and secondary rulers clamored to take advantage of this vacuum of power. Egypt was temporarily broken into two kingdoms before Mentuhotep reunited Egypt around 2055 BC.
The Middle Kingdom
The period of chaos and quick succession of leaders at the end of the Old Kingdom at last gave way to the Middle Kingdom, a time from 2055 to 1786 BC when Egypt once again became a colossal power and demonstrated their cultural link with the Old Kingdom by returning to building pyramids. This age also included the 12th dynasty, in which the pharaohs used both diplomacy and warfare to expand their borders. The Middle Kingdom also included the first female ruler of Egypt, Queen Sobekneferu (1789-1786 BC).
The end of the Middle Kingdom spiraled Egypt into chaos, with separate governments warring to be the “official” power. Because of this, Egypt was vulnerable to outside invasion. The 15th dynasty thus consisted of the Hyksos, foreign people who ruled northern Egypt, while at the same time, southern Egypt was under the control of the 17th dynasty from the capital Thebes. This uncertain divided rule came to an end when King Ahmose I of Thebes defeated the Hyksos in approximately 1570 BC, taking over all of Egypt. This development marked the beginning of the New Kingdom.
The New Kingdom
During the New Kingdom (1567-1085 BC), Egypt became the world’s first great empire. Notable rulers included Amenhotep I (1546-1526 BC), Queen Hatshepsut (1503-1482 BC), and Amenhotep IV (who controversially restricted the Egyptian religion).
King Ramses began the period of the 19th and 20th dynasties (“the Ramesside period”), which rejuvenated Egypt’s empire. The tombs of nearly all of these New Kingdom rulers were buried in the valley known as the Valley of the Kings, but raiders pillaged almost all of them long ago–except for King Tutankhamen, commonly known as “King Tut,” whose tomb was found in 1922.
Just as with the fall of the other Egyptian Kingdoms, the end of the New Kingdom saw a stark shrinking of Egyptian territory, and Egypt became vulnerable to foreign invasions. The years from 1085 BC to 664 BC was yet another period of disintegration for the pharaohs’ power. The new power lay in local areas, many of which were being taken over by invaders who chipped away at Egypt’s borders – especially the Assyrian Empire, whose ruler ended up destroying Memphis.
Following this, rule over Egypt switched from Assyrian to Persian hands in 525 BC, and there was a period of alternating peace and civil war. But Persia suffered a massive defeat when Alexander the Great, the conqueror from Macedonia, swept in and conquered Egypt in 332 BC. His rule began a series of Macedonic rulers over Egypt, whose leaders would eventually include the infamous Cleopatra VII. It was under her that Egypt fell under Roman rule, in 31 BC.