Ancient Egypt is the last of what we often refer to as the 'River Valley Civilizations'. Located on the Nile which flooded seasonally it created the perfect fertile land. Soon we saw the rise of urban areas, writing, a bureaucratic government and a clear social hierarchy. Pharaonic Egypt caught the attention of people throughout history with everyone knowing who Tutankhamen is where far fewer know who Sargon of Akkad is, the Pyramids of Giza are the last standing Wonders of the World and Egyptian religion and culture has been shown throughout pop culture. Ancient Egypt spanned thirty-one dynasties with the first dynasty starting in 3100 BCE and ending in 30 BCE when conquered by the Romans. These dynasties are sorted into the Early Dynastic Period, the Old Kingdom, the First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom, the Second Intermediate Period, the New Kingdom, the Third Intermediate Period, the Late Period and finally the Ptolemaic Period.
The Rise of Pharaohs
The area around the Nile was settled around 3500 BCE. The extremely fertile land of the Nile meant hunter-gatherers could easily grow crops without the extensive irrigation which was needed in Mesopotamia and quickly a society developed based on trade. In fact there were two societies: Upper Egypt located on the mouth of the Nile and Lower Egypt located further down the river. These societies regularly traded with one another. Lower Egypt had vast resources of gold which they traded with Upper Egypt for pottery, metals and luxury goods. Upper Egypt with its strategic position managed to trade with Mesopotamia and we find many goods exported from great distances here like lapis lazuli all the way from Afghanistan. This trade showed some cultural interactions with Mesopotamia with Mesopotamian art styles being found at tombs in Hierakonpolis. Writing likely developed here due to this trade to keep track on everything. Around 3300 BCE at the site of Abydos the first hieroglyphics were found, close to two hundred years before Mesopotamian writing developed at Uruk!
From the gold laden tombs at Hierakonpolis we know that Lower Egypt started to gain greater power than their northern neighbor. In 3100 BCE the king of Lower Egypt, Narmer, conquered Upper Egypt. Henceforth all art (such as the palettes found at Narmer's tomb) showed a king with the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt merged together to form a new crown. Thus we now see the rise of Old Dynastic Egypt. Under the First Dynasties of Egypt a bureaucracy was created to manage the united kingdoms with main cities, such as Memphis, ensuring that the king's work got done. Irrigation work was set up to ensure crops like barley, wheat and emmer while scribes were trained at Thebes to ensure there was an efficient government. Of course slavery was a key player in Egypt, slaves were used to create the infrastructure and irrigation systems, and local free citizens worked alongside said slaves.
The Old, Middle and New Kingdoms
Like in Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica and China the monarchs of Egypt during the Old Kingdom (2686-2160 BCE) the monarchs of Egypt gained a godly position in society. Unlike China, Mesopotamia and other Bronze Age societies the monarchs of Egypt were not seen as ruling through the grace of god/s: they were gods. The king/queen of Egypt was seen as the human personification of the god Horus, later Ra, and after death they became a literal god. Hence the word of the monarch was the word of the gods. Whatever the king liked was justice and whatever he hated was evil. A civil servant in 1500 BCE said 'He is a god by whose dealing one lives, the father and mother of all men, alone by himself, without equal'. They did have other responsibilities though such as making offerings to the Nile to continue the fertility of the land. Around this time the word 'pharaoh' came into usage although it initially meant the court, it was used to mean the king/queen themselves during later kingdoms. During this time we see the first pyramids. The earliest known was built by the orders of the first king of the Old Kingdom, Djoser, between 2667-2648 BCE at Saqqara (pictured above). a
At 60 meters high and and containing up to 330,400 cubic meters of clay it was the largest structure of its kind in the world. However over a hundred years later a more impressive pyramid was constructed.
Around 2580 BCE the Great Pyramid of Giza was built by Cheops (also called Khufu) and is currently the last remaining of the Ancient Wonders of the World. The pyramid was built using a mixture of slaves and local citizens pulled from their daily jobs to aid in construction. Ancient Greek sources depicted Cheops as a tyrant who even forced his daughter into prostitution to fund the construction of the pyramid while Egyptian sources painted Cheops as a benevolent ruler (although it is likely Cheops or his descendants had these sources written). Why did the pharaohs have these pyramids built? Around the same time the just as impressive Valley of the Kings was being built as well. How did the pharaohs justify using so many slaves and pulling so many workers to build such extravagant tombs? It shows both how effective the Egyptian government was if they managed to organize the construction of such huge tombs and also how important they were in the eyes of the people. In a world where your king is a god, where their word is law and when they govern how you live your life it is best to venerate them. In 2181 BCE the Old Kingdom collapsed due to the failure of administration. Pepi II died in 2184 BCE at the age of 100, ruling for 94 years, and with his weak old in old age with a mixture of poor successors the Upper and Lower Kingdoms splintered starting the First Intermediate Period.
In 2055 BCE Mentuhotep II reunited the kingdoms, through force, thus starting the Middle Kingdom. During this time Egypt started to trade with a vast new area created by a new political stability. Trade began with cultures in Palestine to the north-west and Nubia to the south. It is thought that the kingdom of Kush, which would be founded after the collapse of the New Kingdom, had its roots with trade settlements founded by the Egyptians. This period saw the term pharaoh become synonymous with the king/queen which emphasized the idea that he was a god but also descended from a god and so his descendants would also be gods. In 1802 BCE the Second Intermediate Period started when political rivalries caused a decline in administration but this was made worse in 1630 BCE when the Hyksos from Asia invaded. The Egyptian government fled from Thebes and went south. This period saw several Nubians become pharaoh and the interaction with southern kingdoms led to new technological innovations within Egypt such as bronzeworking, the creation of composite bows and the introduction of new crops. By 1520 BCE the Egyptians managed to expel the Hyksos and formed the New Kingdom.
The New Kingdom, founded by Amenhotep III, saw the peak of Egypt. With a capital at Thebes the military grew the borders of the kingdom further while trade widened the economic links. The Uluburun Shipwreck, which was a Mycenaean trading ship, (the Mycenaeans were a group of people from mainland Greece) had various objects from Egypt including ostrich eggs, hippo tusks, elephant tusks and a gold pendant with Queen Nefertiti's seal on it thus showing the wide trade links Egypt had developed. Elaborate burials with golden death masks were created for pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings showed the prosperity. The second woman pharaoh, Hatshepshut, has been regarded as one of the greatest pharaohs expanding the kingdom via trade, building vast temples and even leading wars against Nubia and Canaan although she was almost lost to history. Her successor and nephew/stepson, Thutmose, tried to eradicate her name from history by having all tablets/writing depicting her or her name destroyed or altered in revenge for her 'usurping' the throne of his father. Amenhotep IV was a strange pharaoh. He tried to start a new religion in Egypt based on a new god named Aten. Instead of the normal polytheistic Egyptian religion Atenism was monotheistic and this greatly upset the conservative priests, a bad idea considering they helped rule the kingdom. Amenhotep was so devoted to this idea that he changed his name to Akhaton, created a new capital Amarna and created a secret police to enforce his new religion. With his wife Nefertiti this cult lasted throughout his reign and even got his son-in-law (also his son) Tutankhaten to change his name to Tutankhamon. In 1333 BCE Tutankhamon came to power, ended his father's religious policies and died of a broken leg accompanied with malaria. The only reason why he is famous is because his tomb when discovered had not been looted by grave robbers. By the end of the New Kingdom Egypt was losing ground to the Hittites, with Tutankhamon's widow/sister almost marrying a Hittite prince, which was made worse by 1150 BCE when the Jews left Egypt alongside mass political turmoil. However Egypt would go on after the collapse of the New Kingdom with it surviving the conquests of Alexander the Great only to finally end in 30 BCE when Rome conquered Egypt.
Religion, Life and Culture
We do know religion played a massive part of Egyptian life. People regularly bought amulets to keep away evil and to please the gods, the pharaoh had to make sacrifices on the Nile to win the favor of them and priests played a huge role in governing the kingdom. Religion helped cause a downfall of the idea that pharaohs were gods: if they were gods how then could New Kingdom pharaohs lose to the Hittites and other cultures? Even Egyptian marriage of son to daughter was a part of religion. The blood of the gods could not mix with an ungodly person so incest was seen as keeping the blood line clean. The lavish tombs featured heavily in the life of Egyptians as death was not seen as a bad thing in Egypt like it was in other places. When you died you merely went to a new state and continued living so all the gold, chariots, weapons, toys, shoes and even slaves were buried with the dead to ensure they could be used in the afterlife. Life revolved around religion.
However, we have spoken little about life for women and the common people. Women were relatively equal to men in Egypt. They could own property, get divorced, appear in court, borrow money and have multiple husbands. The pharaohs chief wife held vast amounts of power and could inherit the throne and even the harems had great sway over the pharaoh. Ramses III was even brought down thanks to a conspiracy in his harem. Although society was still patriarchal. Sons had greater chance on inheritance than daughters and only women were punished for adultery. Life was hard though for common people. Egyptian art and literature has shown that most of the population worked in agriculture. Farmers and laborers hard to work long hours with a poor diet, rickets and syphilis have been found in large numbers, and there was a chance that they could be drafted into the army (where there was a high chance of being enslaved by the enemy if not killed) or forced to work on the tombs. Infant mortality was very high so this could explain why polygamy was a regular part of life. Like in Mesopotamia though there were growing amounts of specialized people. Traders, potters, glassblowers and other good makers were common in Egypt. Unlike Mesopotamia though you could not rise through the ranks of the military, it was not a meritocracy.
One final point to make is how culturally continuous Ancient Egypt was. Hieroglyphs were used all the way from 3300 BCE up until 400 CE, just 34 years before Attila the Hun attacked Rome! Cleopatra actually lived closer to the Moon Landing than the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza! This cultural continuity lasted for 3070 years which is over a thousand years longer than which Christianity has been in existence, almost two thousand years longer than Ancient Rome's existence and almost thirteen times the length of time that the USA has been in existence. Egypt shows us how cultures no matter how solid can change and how enduring others can be.
The sources that I have used are:
-The Human Past by Chris Scarre
-Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was by Susan Pollock
- The Penguin History of the World by J.M. Roberts
-Crash Course World History: Ancient Egypt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3Wvw6BivVI
-Women in Ancient Egypt: http://www.womenintheancientworld.com/women_in_ancient_egypt.htm
-The lectures of Professor Edgar Peltenburg of the University of Edinburgh
Thanks for reading and the next World History will cover the rise of a civilization with 4000 years of history: China.
For a list of other World History posts please see here
For a list of other World History posts please see here