Early Ancient Egypt

Geography | Beginnings | The Old Kingdom | Government | Middle Kingdom
New Kingdom | Decline

Ancient Egypt, like Mesopotamia grew up in a river valley. It probably began as an imitation of some of the first city states in Sumer and Akkad. However, the development of the area was quite independent of any other region, and soon came to exert its own force upon the civilized world.

Geographic Influences on Egypt

Map of Ancient Egypt

Geography has a huge impact on history. The Nile River, which runs north through the heart of the country begins in a tropical forest high in the mountains to the south of Egypt. The water runs over several falls or cataracts into a valley. Here begins what historians refer to as the Upper Nile. It is considered to be the area of higher ground where the river winds through a valley which is surrounded by limestone cliffs. It is south of the Lower Nile which fans out as the river hits an alluvial plain and forms a delta, finally pouring into the Mediterranean Sea. Because of its relative isolation, the region, at least early on, was relatively free of outside invaders. This allowed for the growth of a culture different from that which grew up in the Fertile Crescent.

Herodotus, the "Father of History", visited the region in the 5th century B.C. He came from Greece. Herodotus called Egypt, "The Gift of the Nile". He found the land near the river up to the cataracts intensively farmed. Flooding kept the soil fertile, and irrigation kept it watered. The ease with which it could be cultivated explains how resources were built up that provided the manpower to build this great civilization. The river is an easy means of transport up and down the region making it easier to unify. Generally, food was grown on the good farm land, and the living areas were positioned along the edges of it.

Egypt's Beginnings

The peoples who populated this river region are thought to have been mainly from along the North African coast. They were forced into the Nile Valley by progressively dryer weather in the region. Later, Semitic peoples came in from the east. Some evidence of stamps in the shape of cylinders and mud brick buildings shows that invaders likely came from the area around Uruk in about 3200 B.C. The idea of writing was likely borrowed from Mesopotamia. However, its form was different. While Mesopotamia relied on clay tablets, the Egyptians developed two styles of writing, one relying on hieroglyphics which was used mainly on monuments, and another using a kind of cursive script, which was written on papyrus. Papyrus reeds were found in abundance along the Nile. They were glued together to form sheets. Because the dry climate of Egypt prevents the breakdown of papyrus, a plenitude of writing from ancient times still exists.

The regions of Upper and Lower Egypt were separate states until about 3100 B.C. when they were united under one ruler, a figure now shrouded in the mists of time, Menes. The tomb of this first ruler of the first dynasty has been found. Dating in Egypt was based on the reigns of kings or pharaohs and dynasties. (This is called eponymous dating.) In all there were 31 dynasties up to the time when Alexander the Great conquered the region in 332 B.C.

The Old Kingdom

The "Old Kingdom" in Egypt is considered to begin with the third dynasty in the 2700s B.C. It marks a relatively stable period, politically, economically, and in the arts. The regularity of the seasons and the relatively small amount of influences from outside the region meant that change was slow. Though attitudes in this period were stagnant, they were generally positive in nature. People looked forward to comparably comfortable lives. The weather was consistent, and the river ensured regularity in the food supply. Nevertheless, the structure of the state focused on the few people who lived at the top of the social structure. All land was considered to be held by the pharaoh; all surplus was his. Though much was spent maintaining the structure of the state, much was also expended providing the pharoah's lavish life style both in this life and the after-life.

The Egyptians believed that the soul lived on as long as the body survived and was provided with the necessaries of life. Since a dead Semitic was divine, he was thought to protect Egypt. This explains the process of mummification or embalming. In the later eras, even members of the lower classes were treated to this process when they died. The great pyramids were built as both a house for the dead and protection of the body. The massive labor that went into the pyramids and their adjacent temple complexes had to be diverted from other pursuits, and though they are certainly impressive may have stifled advancements in other areas.

While most building in Egypt was done with mud bricks, stone was quarried and used to build religious structures such as the pyramids and temples. The most famous pyramids in Egypt were built at Giza, where the famous sphinx also resides. These massive structures as well as other tombs have preserved much of the history of ancient Egypt. The tombs were decorated with carvings and paintings of daily life activities. Food, furniture, toys, pottery, everything that a person might need in a new life were stored in many of these pyramids. While some were destroyed or robbed over the centuries, many have been found that are completely intact, giving much material for archaeologists and historians to study. Remarkably, many of these structures were built before the wheel was invented.

Government and Religion of Ancient Egypt

The government of Egypt was a rigid absolutist structure. The pharaoh was at the top. He ruled through a "grand vizier" and a relatively small central administration which was dominated by members of his family. Both Upper and Lower Egypt were each divided into just over twenty nomes (like a county or a shire). The nomes were under the control of a nomarch who reported to the Semitic. The people who worked the land were basically serfs. A middle class lived in the towns and cities. They mainly worked to serve the needs of the administrative class and the priests.

Everything in life in Egypt was thought to be through the king. He was said to be a walking deity, a son of Re. When he died he was to merge with another god, Osiris. Thus, his word was law, and his pronouncements had the sanction of his divinity. Religion in Egypt underwent changes over time. However, through most of the ages Egypt had a multiplicity of gods. Each nome had its minor deity, which was often an animal. Over these there were greater gods. Among them were Anubis (who conducted souls to the underworld) and Seth (god of the desert). Osiris was the god of agriculture. He was killed by Seth, but resuscitated temporally by his wife Isis who bore him a child. Horus was the result of this union. Osiris became the judge of souls and ruled in the underworld.

The Old Kingdom was marked by an optimistic outlook on life. The literature and art emphasized the power of man to channel nature and marshal human resources. Yet, about the time of the fifth dynasty, the Egypt was in decline. The pyramids, after great Khufu in Giza, began to be diminished in size. The pharaohs began having difficulties among their families. The nomarchs governing the various regions became stronger, taking power and wealth away from the central government. The priests in all the various temples dedicated to the previous generations of Semitic/gods became an excessive burden on the economy. The lowest classes of serfs came under a continuously growing strain. Outside peoples began to filter into the area. This would prove a catalyst for both change and destruction. The Old Kingdom ended in about 2200 B.C.

The Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom is usually dated from about 2000 B.C. The intervening years between the first two kingdoms was marked by civil strife, a breakdown in social order. The pharaohs finally reimposed order on Egypt when they ended the rule of the nomarchs who had been arbitrary in ruling their petty domains. With the return of central control there was also a cautious optimism. In the Middle Kingdom, the pharaohs refrained from building showy pyramids and concentrated more on public works. They placed emphasis on trade with outside regions. (It was this trade that probably helped to spark the Minoan civilization which began in Crete.)

Though still the focus of Egyptian life, the pharaohs were not as powerful in the Middle Kingdom as they had been in ages past. The nobles had come to claim a bigger stake in society. Where once only the pharaohs were to merge with Osiris in the afterlife, now the nobles claimed that honor as well. They formed a more important part of the government. Now it was not just the family of the Semitic which formed the administration. In fact, the mastery of reading and writing could catapult people from the lower classes to high positions.

Nevertheless, a civil service founded on merit and for the most part conscientious pharaohs could not forever keep peace in Egypt. After about 1800 B.C. the country again fell into disorder. It lasted for two hundred years.

The New Kingdom

A second period of disorder began with the end of the Middle Kingdom (1786 B.C.). The Hyksos (meaning "outside rulers" in Egyptian) invaded Lower Egypt, taking control of the Nile's delta region. These invaders introduced better weapons, especially the wheeled chariot which was manned by archers, lancers, and spearmen. The advent of mobile and heavy vehicles temporally gave the invaders a decisive advantage. The native kings, still in power in upper Egypt, were strong enough to resist incursions to the south. However, it was not until about 1575 B.C. that they were able to expel the Hyksos and again unify Egypt. The leaders of the New Kingdom upon expelling the invaders decided on a project of expansion. This had many purposes. First, by controlling greater areas it would be more difficult for invaders to make incursions into Egypt proper. Second, the pharaohs and military classes found that war was profitable, at least for those running it. Much booty was brought into the country. Finally, military glory seemed attractive to this group.

The New Kingdom became an empire. Expansion up the Nile was pushed deep into "Nubia", up to the fourth cataract of that river. Trade routes to the east were also dominated with outposts along the Red Sea. Thutmose I (r. 1528-1510 B.C.) invaded the area of Palestine and Syria, extending Egyptian influence as far as the Euphrates River. His daughter, Hatshepsut, became one of the more celebrated rulers of Egypt. She put aside conquests during her reign (1490-1468 B.C.). However, her stepson, Thutmose III resumed his grandfather's course and further extended Egyptian control over the Middle East. However, Egyptian power receded under Amenhotep III and IV. The latter king also known as Akhenaten (r. 1367-1350 B.C.) actually refused to hear bad news from the Middle East. No help was sent to Egyptian agents there and the region fell to the Hittites.

It was during the height of Egyptian imperial glory that a complex of temples was built near Thebes at Karnak, to the god of victory, Amen. It was continually upgraded, improved, and extended, even after the Alexandrian conquest. It became, and remains the largest religious complex ever built. It was feared by some, under Amenhotep IV, that the priests were subverting Amenhotep's power. For this reason, the king's advisors encouraged him to start a new religion which worshipped Aten. The king changed his name to Akhenaten ("It Pleases Aten") and attempted to efface the god "Amen" from the records and thoughts of Egypt.

Decline of Imperial Egypt

After Akhenaten's death, Tutankhamun (r. 1347-1339 B.C.) returned to the worship of the old god, Amen. The throne was seized by a general, Haremhab, in 1335 B.C., beginning the 19th Dynasty. But the power of the pharaohs, as well as Egypt itself was again on the wane. The priests continued to gain power, taking control of as much as 1/8th of the farmland along the Nile. The Nile valley soon came to be split up into small states ruled by petty monarchs. It would become unified once again, but only to be finally over-run by a new and potent force, the Assyrian Empire.


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