Ancient Egypt

Through the Ages – Ancient Egypt

A time and place renowned for its architecture, mythology and pharaohs, ancient Egypt’s history is well preserved.

Some 60,000 years ago the Nile River began its yearly inundation of the land along its banks, leaving behind rich soil. Areas close to the floodplain became attractive as a source of food and water and served to confine human habitation to the Nile Valley. In the 7th millennium BC, Egypt was environmentally hospitable, and evidence of settlements from that time has been found in the low desert areas of southern, or Upper, Egypt. Remains of similar occupation have been discovered at sites in modern Sudan. Enough pottery has been found in Upper Egyptian tombs from the 4th millennium BC to establish a relative dating sequence.

Archaeological sources indicate the emergence, (about 3200 BC), of a dominant political force that was to become the first united kingdom of ancient Egypt. The earliest known hieroglyphic writing dates from this period. The names of early rulers began to appear on monuments. Some of the earliest massive mortuary structures (predecessors of the pyramids) were built during this period.

Religion played an important role. Pharaohs, as the rulers were called, were both absolute monarchs and, possibly, gods on earth. They were considered the high priest of every temple.

Gods such as Isis (the goddess of fertility and motherhood); Hathor (the goddess of sky and queen of heaven); Ra (the sun god, the creator and controller of the universe); and Anubis (the god of the dead) had cult followings and played important roles in the lives, beliefs and ceremonies of the people of ancient Egypt.

Magic also played a huge role in the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. This is evident in their frequent use of amulets and magical statues. Usabi statues are found in many tombs. They were believed to hold powers to protect in the afterlife, and to act as an intermediary between the deceased person and Osiris (the ruler of the realm of the dead). They were also expected to come to life and be servants in the afterlife.

Around 2500BC, Egyptian civilization reached a peak in its development. The splendor of the engineering feats of the pyramids was mirrored in other areas, including architecture, sculpture, painting, navigation, the industrial arts and sciences, and astronomy. These astronomers created the first solar calendar based on a year of 365 days. The physicians also displayed a remarkable knowledge of physiology, surgery, the circulatory system of the body, and antiseptics.

Although this era maintained prosperity with extensive foreign trade and military incursions into Asia, signs of decreasing royal authority became apparent in the swelling of the bureaucracy and the enhanced power of nonroyal administrators.

Without one centralized government, the bureaucracy was no longer effective, and regional concerns were openly challenged. Egyptian art became more provincial, and no massive mortuary complexes were built. The religion was also democratized, as commoners claimed prerogatives previously reserved for royalty alone. They could, for instance, use spells derived from the royal Pyramid Texts on the walls of their own coffins or tombs.

2061BC began the reunification of the land by Mentuhotep II, who ruled from his capital of Thebes. Mentuhotep ruled for more than 50 years, and despite occasional rebellions, he maintained stability and control over the whole kingdom.

The reign of King Amenemhet I, was peaceful. He established a capital near Memphis and, unlike Mentuhotep, de-emphasized Theban ties in favor of national unity. Nevertheless, the important Theban god Amon was given prominence over other deities. Amenemhet demanded loyalty, rebuilt the bureaucracy, and educated a staff of scribes and administrators. The literature was predominantly propaganda designed to reinforce the image of the king as a “good shepherd” rather than as an inaccessible god. During the last ten years of his reign, Amenemhet ruled with his son as co-regent.

Amenhotep I, who reigned 1551-1524 BC, began to extend Egypt’s boundaries in Nubia and Palestine. A major builder at El-Karnak, Amenhotep, unlike his predecessors, separated his tomb from his mortuary temple; he began the custom of hiding his final resting place.
Tutankhamen, who returned the capital to Thebes, is known today chiefly for his richly furnished tomb, which was found nearly intact in the Valley of the Kings.

In 525 BC, the country entered a period of Persian domination, but the occupation of Egypt by the forces of Alexander the Great in 332 BC brought an end to Persian rule. Alexander appointed Cleomenes of Naucratis, a Greek resident in Egypt, and his Macedonian general, known later as Ptolemy I, to govern the country. Although two Egyptian governors were named as well, power was clearly in the hands of Ptolemy, who in a few years took absolute control of the country.

Rivalries with other generals, who carved out sections of Alexander’s empire after his death in 323 BC, occupied much of Ptolemy’s time, but in 305 BC he assumed the royal title. Ptolemaic Egypt was one of the great powers of the Hellenistic world, and at various times it extended its rule over parts of Syria, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Libya, Phoenicia, and other lands.

Native Egyptian rulers, who had a reduced role in affairs of state during the Ptolemaic regime, demonstrated their dissatisfaction by open revolts, all of which were, however, quickly suppressed. In the reign of Ptolemy VI, Egypt became a protected by Syria, who successfully invaded the country in 169 BC. The Romans, however, forced Syria to give up the country, which was then divided between Ptolemy VI and his younger brother, Ptolemy VII; the latter took full control upon the death of his brother in 145 BC.

The succeeding Ptolemies preserved the wealth and status of Egypt while continually losing territory to the Romans. Cleopatra VII was the last great ruler of the Ptolemaic line. In an attempt to maintain Egyptian power she aligned herself with Julius Caesar and, later, Mark Antony, but these moves only postponed the end. After her forces were defeated by Roman legions under Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BC.

For nearly seven centuries after the death of Cleopatra in 30BC, the Romans controlled Egypt. They treated Egypt as a valuable source of wealth and profit and were dependent on its supply of grain to feed their multitudes. Roman Egypt was governed by a prefect, whose duties as commander of the army and official judge were similar to those of the pharaohs of the past. The mixture of the cultures did not lead to a homogeneous society, and civil strife was frequent. In 212, however, Emperor Caracalla granted the entire population citizenship in the Roman Empire.

Alexandria, the port city on the Mediterranean founded by Alexander the Great, remained the capital as it had been under the Ptolemies. One of the great metropolises of the Roman Empire, it was the center of a thriving commerce between India and Arabia and the Mediterranean countries.

Egypt became an economic mainstay of the Roman Empire not only because of its annual harvest of grain but also for its glass, metal, and other manufactured products. In addition, the trade brought in spices, perfumes, precious stones, and rare metals from the Red Sea ports. Once part of the empire, Egypt was subject to a variety of taxes as well. In order to control the people and placate the powerful priesthood, the Roman emperors protected the ancient religion, completed or embellished temples begun under the Ptolemies, and had their own names inscribed on them as pharaohs; the cartouches of several can be found at Isna, Kawn Umbu, Dandara, and Philae. The Egyptian cults of Isis and Serapis spread throughout the ancient world. Egypt was also an important center of early Christendom and the first one of Christian monasticism. Its Coptic or Monophysite church separated from mainstream Christianity in the 5th century.

During the 7th century the power of the Eastern Roman Empire was challenged by Persia, who invaded Egypt in 616. They were expelled again in 628, but soon after, in 642, the country fell to the Arabs, who brought with them a new religion, Islam, and began a new chapter of Egyptian history.

Another Through the Ages article coming soon…