Fascinating and mysterious, complex and long, the history of Egypt is one continuous arc that spans nearly 30 centuries.
During that time, the land has seen such impactful events as dynastic rule and bitter civil war, hostile takeovers, foreign leadership and the proposed bite of a hippopotamus – more on that later.
From the long history unearthed in the Nile River delta, we’ve learned that the people of Egypt loved board games and kept pets, were not shy about engaging in conflicts on foreign soil and were perhaps some of the most enlightened people in the annals of early humanity.
They were adroit craftsmen and master architects, fierce warriors given to excess and, above all, firm believers in romantic love... believe it or not!
Although the tales and legends – even the timeline of Ancient Egypt are long, your Superprof now attempts to condense salient aspects of life in Egypt’s earliest days.
Timeline for Ancient Egypt
Much like the Greek civilization, another that has endured for millennia, Ancient Egypt is neatly broken down into discrete periods.
- 5000 – 3100 BC; the Pre-Dynastic Period: over 2,000 years of civilization development
- The Red Land, based in the Nile River Delta and the White Land in the south were united under King Menes, thus establishing the first dynasty.
- 3100 – 2686 BC, the Archaic Period: Memphis founded as the capital city; foundation of Egyptian society and ideology is laid.
- 2686 – 2181 BC, the Old Kingdom: the time of pyramid building. King Djoser tasks architect Imhotep to create his funerary monument; his pyramid became the world’s first built stone structure.
- 2181 – 2055 BC, the First Intermediate Period: the Old Kingdom collapsed and central leadership dissolved, leading to civil war within the provinces
- 2055 – 1786 BC, the Middle Kingdom: peace returns to the land; leaders adopt an aggressive foreign policy agenda that includes diplomatic and trade relations with Syria and Palestine
- 1786 – 1567 BC, the Second Intermediary Period: Rival powers attempt to gain control over all of Egypt but fail to consolidate their power
- 1567 – 1085 BC, the New Kingdom: Egypt is reunited and power consolidated under the first king of the 18th dynasty. A dramatic shift of religious beliefs ensues.
- 1805 – 664 BC, the Third Intermediate Period: massive upheaval in society, politics and culture; a return to local governance.
- 664 – 332 BC, the Late Period: Egypt is reunited but becomes a part of the Persian Empire.
In 332 BC, Alexander the Great fought the Persians and won control of Egypt. After his death in 323 BC, Egypt was ruled by Macedonian general Ptolemy, who formed his own dynasty by passing leadership to his descendants.
Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic ruler, surrendered Egypt to Roman forces in 31 BC, an act that placed Egypt under Roman rule for the next six centuries.
During this era, a burgeoning new religion called Christianity was replacing ancient Roman deities that so closely aligned with Egyptian ones.
This new faith spread through the Roman Empire – of which Egypt was now a part of, putting that ancient civilization in the crosshairs of Arab invaders, who took over the land in the 7th Century AD and promptly converted the people to Islam.
Their doing so eradicated any outward resemblance to ancient Egyptian culture.
This timeline is obviously very condensed. It glosses over virtually every aspect of life in Egypt, from the grandiose pharaohs to the laments of the poets and the slaves in the fields to the silent Sphinx – the very symbol of Egypt.
On the other hand, now that we’ve laid out the epochs, we can easier illustrate which changes were wrought at what time during the long existence of this magnificent civilization.
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Basic Facts About Ancient Egypt
The Nile River Delta was a lush and verdant region with an abundant supply of water; settling along its banks must have seemed like an attractive option to those migrating out of Africa.
Much like the people who eventually settled along the Tigris River to build the Mesopotamian civilizations, the earliest Egyptians founded small colonies. They hunted and gathered their food.
Once they mastered the cycle of the Nile’s flooding and draining, they were able to plant crops, thus transitioning into an agrarian society. They cultivated wheat, flax and, most importantly, papyrus, which gave them a means of establishing their written language.
As the Nile is quite long, it was both a generous resource and a means of achieving dominance in the region.
Although the period known as Ancient Egypt spanned more than three millennia and was ruled by no fewer than 31 dynasties – periods where members of a single family ruled, only a handful of pharaohs were truly remarkable.
Khufu commissioned the Great Pyramid at Giza but Djoser was responsible for the first step pyramid. At the time of its building (and still today), it signalled great advances in engineering and architecture.
Amenhotep was remarkable for his diplomatic skill; under his rule, Egypt enjoyed a long period of peace and prosperity. By contrast, Thutmose III was military-minded to the utmost degree; in fact, he left his stepmother in charge of government affairs, taking over only after she died.
You most likely know her name: Hatshepsut. She was the one of only a handful of female rulers in Ancient Egypt.
You probably know this name as well: Tutankhamun.
Known as ‘The Boy King’, he was not famous for his rule but for his burial – the magnificent treasure found intact in spite of a penchant for grave robbing in that area.
What is even more remarkable was the fact that he was mummified and buried without his heart or chest wall – a practice completely contrary to traditional Egyptian burial.
Egyptologists suspect that his death was caused by a hippopotamus bite, citing as proof the physical evidence – his missing body parts, as well as a statue he was buried with, that depicts him throwing a spear.
Apparently, hunting those great beasts was a common pastime, at least for royals, in Ancient Egypt.
Ramses II was perhaps the most ostentatious pharaoh; it is thought that his extravagance nearly drove the monarchy close to bankruptcy.
He ruled Egypt for 67 years and reportedly fathered 97 children. He left behind an extensive architectural legacy; some monuments were erected in honour of his greatness while others already standing were modified to reflect his power and allegedly divine nature.
Ramses the Great, son of Seti I, ultimately declared himself a god. No one argued the point.
Akhenaten brought about a revolution in Egyptian religion. In fact, such a devout was he that he changed his own name from the dynastic Amenhotep to the one we know him by, which means ‘he who is in service to Aten’ - Aten being a sort of über-god that supplanted all of the others.
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Religion in Ancient Egypt
In Ancient Egypt, religion was woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Religious practices did not consist merely of a panoply of deities but in communing with the dead, consulting oracles and performing magic and divinations.
The focus of public religion was twofold: on the gods and on the king (or queen, in those infrequent instances). The pharaohs were seen as being the intermediaries between the people and the gods or, more specifically, divine power incarnate.
The gods themselves were depicted as otherworldly; often as having the head of a human on an animal’s body or vice versa. This was most likely due to their early religious beliefs being animistic rather than divine.
To compound the intricacy of the Egyptian belief system, each region had its own particular deities.
When a new family took power - became king, his region’s gods took centre stage. For instance, when the seat of power shifted from Memphis to Thebes, Amun, their principle god became the national chief-god.
The most dramatic example of such a religious reversal was when Amenhotep proclaimed Aten to be the only deity. This was the closest that Ancient Egypt ever got to believe in only one god.
Atenkhamen’s decision to invoke that obscure aspect of the sun god must not have been a popular one; after his death, all of Egypt reverted to worshipping their entire array of gods.
The sun god ranked highest in their pantheon – even over local gods. He had many names; the most popular one being Ra or Re.
Outranking Ra, Amun-Ra was the supreme deity, comparable to Zeus in Greek mythology. He was married to Mut – ‘mother’ in Egyptian, represented in hieroglyphs as a vulture, a cat, a cobra or a cow, depending on the region.
Osiris was the god of the afterlife and, curiously enough, vegetation. Anubis, a jackal, is said to help in the afterlife and protect the dead.
Horus was the god of vengeance or, alternatively, war, the sky, protection and light.
You may wonder why Egyptian gods have such diverse or even contradictory roles.
Aspects of life needing a god did not change from region to region or rule to rule. The provenance of the gods did, though, and that lent them new powers and responsibilities.
For instance, Horus is said to be the child of Osiris and Isis, which lent him qualities suitable for vengeance and war. Conversely, he is also said to be the product of Zeb and Nut. The latter, being the sky goddess, lends her son qualities that make it possible for him to be of light and sky.
Other important gods include Thoth (god of wisdom), Hathor (goddess of motherhood), Seknet (goddess of healing) and Geb (god of earth).
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Society in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians firmly believed in social stratification.
Naturally, at the very top of social ranking came the pharaohs, who were believed to be descended from the gods. Next came the pharaoh’s advisers – some of whom were consorts, and then high-ranking government officials.
After that came the nobles, lower-ranking government officials, soldiers and scribes. Finally, at the lowest ranks of society, came merchants and artisans. Under them were ranked workers farmers and slaves.
People could improve their lot in life by getting an education – either academic or an apprenticeship. If one went the academic route, it would be possible to become a scribe or government official.
Otherwise, positions held by the parents would be inherited by the children: farmers’ offspring would be farmers themselves while a trader’s son would himself become a trader in time.
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Education in Ancient Egypt
Schools in ancient Egypt taught reading and writing, maths, religious instruction and social values.
Then as today, people believed that education could open doors to a better life, so the people with the means to do so would send their sons to school.
Yes, only sons; daughters were educated at home.
Through their mothers’ tutelage, girls too learned to read and perhaps to write but math was probably not a part of the curriculum unless the child belonged to a merchant family.
Overall, the focus of girls’ education was more on the domestic arts: cooking and caring for husband and children.
Children of peasants and slaves generally did not go to school because there were so few schools and what places might have been open were reserved for wealthy families’ children.
Anyway, the poorer classes would not have had the money to spend on education.
Gender Roles in Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was one of the most advanced civilizations in terms of gender equality.
While it is true that men held most of the power and government positions, women enjoyed great financial, legal and civil independence. Women could enter into contracts, buy and sell property and serve on juries.
Generally, women did not work outside of the home, or the family fields if she was a farmer’s wife. On the rare occasions that women may have worked outside the home, she generally received compensation equal to that of men.
Perhaps most remarkable was the clothing worn by both men and women, and how they adorned themselves.
While women wore shifts – short, sleeveless dresses, men wore skirts, leaving their upper body bare. This was no doubt a means of beating the heat. Both men and women wore makeup, too.
Children, boys or girls, wore nothing at all until they became adolescent.
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For Love or Marriage?
We mentioned earlier that the ancient Egyptians were quite romantic; nowhere is that better seen than in the images of Tutankhamun with his young wife who, by all appearances, praised and adored him.
Likewise, poetry points to the fact that ancient Egyptians were quite romantic, especially in the papyrus from the New Kingdom era.
It is a bit off-putting when one reads ‘My sister is unique, no one can rival her...’ until you realise that, in general, women were referred to as ‘sister’.
All older women were called ‘mother’ whether any of them were the writer’s actual mother or not so we must conclude that the sister in question was actually the writer’s wife and his words are a testament to his deep love for her.
Nevertheless, in spite of ample evidence that ancient Egypt was rife with romantic love, marriages were arranged for social or family stability rather than out of any glow of adoration.
Legacy of Ancient Egypt
Besides the pyramids and tons of sand to dig through to discover artefacts, the legacy left by the Ancient Egyptians is vast.
Being surrounded by harsh terrain is one reason that the Egyptians did not suffer many invasions. Their territory was easy to defend, which relieved them of the obligation of constantly fighting off those who would endanger their way of life.
Thus protected, they could devote almost all of their time to develop their cities, religion and society. They had time to ponder and create architectural marvels and technological wonders.
From the papyrus to the ink to write with; from toothpaste to ox-drawn ploughs: some early Egyptian discoveries are still in use today, although in an updated form.
Let’s not gloss over Egyptian writing! Samples of Egyptian hieroglyphs have been dated as far back as the 28th Century BC.
Egyptologist Geoffrey Sampson contends that ancient Egyptians got the idea of creating a written language from Mesopotamia because there is some evidence of cultural exchange between the two civilizations but, so far, the theory has not been substantiated.
Still, it is important to know that the Egyptian scripts paved the way for the Phoenician alphabet which, in turn, evolved into the Greek and Aramaic writing scripts.
Bottom line: the Egyptian script is the root of most scripts being used today.
If that were all the claim to fame that ancient Egypt could make, it would still be substantial, wouldn’t it?
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