Egyptian history in brief: from the ancient gods to tourism
Entire books are written about the history of Egypt, the Egyptian civilization is one of the oldest on the planet.
We will try to describe it briefly enough, so that you don’t get tired while reading this article, but also fully enough to give tourists an idea of the history of Egypt and the possibility to understand during the tour what you’re looking at and to which period the exhibits in the museums belong.
The history of Egypt is divided into dynastic (the time when Pharaohs ruled), Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Turkish and modern periods. Of course, we are primarily interested in the ancient dynastic period, the time of the pharaohs.
Civilization in Egypt began 7,000 years ago. At that time, conditions in Egypt were much better than they are now. Many people find it hard to believe, but back then the Sahara Desert did not exist at all, there was a savannah in that place.
This is what the space now occupied by the Sahara Desert looked like. Unfortunately, civilization could not arise in such an area, as this terrain is not a good source of food.
Civilization emerged in the valley of the Nile River. The large amount of water made it possible to develop efficient agriculture.
Along with agriculture in the 4th millennium B.C., the communal system decayed and small states called “nomes” were formed. In turn, the nomes united into large states, which we call “Upper Egypt” and “Lower Egypt.
At the end of the 4th century B.C. the conflict of the two kingdoms becomes inevitable, and the history of Egypt as a single state begins.
The north (Upper Egypt) won. The first pharaoh was Namer, who founded the “zero dynasty”. After some period of turmoil and the end of the formation of a unified state, the period of the “early kingdom” begins under the rule of Pharaoh Menes, around 3100 BC.
For an easy understanding of the eras and dynasties, visit our dynasty chronology page, it will make it easier for you to navigate through the eras and dynasties of the pharaohs.
The Dynastic Period of Egyptian History
The next 1000 years Egypt prospered, agriculture developed, the Egyptians were able to build a unified irrigation system, crafts flourished. Egypt successfully fought with its neighbors and struggled with nomads, and trade with other nations developed. During this period six dynasties of pharaohs succeeded in Egypt.
The 1st and 2nd dynasties belonged to the period of the “early kingdom”, the 3rd-6th dynasties ruled in the period of the “ancient kingdom”.
During this period, the Egyptians invented the solar calendar, studied the stars, and accumulated knowledge in geometry. All this allowed them to build the pyramids, create very beautiful ceramics and gold jewelry.
It was during this period that the ancient Egyptian script was fully formed. In the following periods the writing changed a little, the meanings of some hieroglyphs changed, and some symbols changed their inscription.
It was during the ancient kingdom period that the pyramids were built, from the first six-step pyramid of Djoser to the great pyramids at Giza. The oldest literary work in the history of Egypt also belongs to this period, inside the pyramids were found, the so-called “pyramid texts”. They are sets of stories and instructions about the afterlife and rituals of ancient Egyptians.
Around 2260 B.C. the 200-year period of Egypt’s decline begins. This time is called the “first transitional period. The reason for the decline was most likely the weakening of the power of the pharaohs and the general dissatisfaction of the people. Some historians attribute this period of anarchy to climate change, it became much drier, which led to a decrease in harvests. The state collapsed into nomes, the rulers of which had full power, while the pharaohs had only nominal power.
In 2040 BC the ruler of Thebes (not to be confused with the Greek city of Thebes) united the whole country, and the era of the “middle kingdom” began. This era lasted about 250 years, but it was during this era of serious development of architecture and construction of the most grandiose temples, the papyrus was actively used and the schools appeared. The system of irrigation of the fields was seriously modernized, and Egypt became a state with strong central authority. During the Middle Kingdom the 11th and 12th dynasties ruled.
Around 1780 B.C. the history of Egypt experienced a major rebellion, which greatly weakened the country. The Hyksos tribes (emphasis on the first syllable, don’t get it wrong) invaded Egypt from the north. They took over most of the country, but could not settle here. This period is called the “second transition period. Around 1550 BC the Hyksos were kicked out of Egypt, and the “New Kingdom” period began.
The New Kingdom period lasted 500 years. During this period the 17th-20th dynasties of pharaohs ruled. Pharaoh Yahmos expelled the invaders from the country, he is the founder of the 18th dynasty. In fact, no new dynasty he founded, but because of his great merits, it is believed that his descendants have the right to be called a separate dynasty.
The new kingdom is the most brilliant period in the history of Egypt, the territory of the state expanded all the way to Persia, many temples were built. It was during this period that famous pharaohs such as Ramses 2, Thutmose (the most famous general of all the pharaohs) and Queen Nefertiti (in some sources Nefertari) ruled.
During this period, the Egyptians mastered bronze casting, used chariots en masse in battle, and invented a new, mechanized irrigation system using special shaduf wells.
By 1080 B.C., the priests of the god Amon seized power. As is often the case in history, the rule of religious figures did not bring anything good. Egypt collapsed into noms. Egypt fell into chaos for 400 years, which is called the “third transition period.
During these 400 years different dynasties ruled, power was constantly divided, and lands belonged to one faction or another. The number of kings in this era is so huge that a whole book could be written from their names alone.
In 664 BC the era of the “late kingdom” began, which was a series of military conflicts to regain independence from Persia. This era of Egyptian history was ruled by the 26th-30th dynasties.
For most of the era Egypt was subordinate to or part of the Persian empire, even in the battle of the Persians with Alexander the Great at Issus units of Egyptians fought as part of the Persian army.
That part of Egyptian history, which is called the “dynastic period” ended in 332 BC, when Alexander the Great entered here, began that part of Egyptian history, which is commonly referred to as the “Hellenistic period”.
The Hellenistic period of Egyptian history
Along with Alexander the Great, who was proclaimed Pharaoh and incarnation of the god Amon, Greek culture came to Egypt. Alexander founded Alexandria of Egypt (there were several dozen Alexandria’s founded, it is better to specify) on the Mediterranean coast, which became the capital of the country.
After Alexander’s death, his empire was divided into parts by his associates, who were called “Diadochos.” Egypt went to Ptolemy, who founded the dynasty that ruled before the Romans came here. Ptolemy was Alexander’s most successful associate; he was the only one who died his own death and founded a successful dynasty.
It was Ptolemy who took Alexander the Great’s body out and buried it in Egypt. However, the body was lost after the Ptolemy dynasty, in the Roman era. Where Alexander’s body is now is unknown.
On the left is a shot from the movie “Alexander”. The role of the aged Ptolemy in this movie was played by Anthony Hopkins.
During this period, the distinctive Egyptian culture merges with the Greek culture. Greek became the official language of the country and all official correspondence was conducted only in it. The laws of this time were a mixture of Egyptian and Greek traditions.
During this period of Egyptian history, the famous Library of Alexandria, the largest in the ancient world, emerged, and all areas of science were actively developed. It was one of the Ptolemies who proposed the first system of the structure of the cosmos (incorrect, by the way), and it was here that the first historical work on the classification of Egyptian history was written, by the priest Manethon.
History of Egypt as part of the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire
In 30 B.C., Egypt came under the rule of the Roman Empire. The Ptolemaic dynasty had weakened by this point, the last being Queen Cleopatra and King Ptolemy the 14th. The latter was poisoned, and Cleopatra herself married Julius Caesar and, after his death, Mark Antony. She was not destined to become empress of Rome and committed suicide.
Cleopatra and Julius Caesar had a son named Caesarion. He, too, was assassinated by the first emperor of Rome, Octavian Augustus. The Ptolemaic dynasty was finally interrupted.
Egypt became a Roman province, and stayed in this status until 395, that is, over 400 years, after which it became part of the Byzantine Empire. As a part of the Byzantine Empire Egypt remained until 642.
In the photo on the right is the Roman amphitheater in Alexandria, Egypt.
All this time Egypt was not the center of civilization, but rather a source of food for these empires. Of course, the great library still existed and the title of “center of science” remained with Alexandria.
The Arab Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire
Around 640, troops of the Arab Caliphate entered Egypt. This was a momentous event. The Arabs brought Islam to Egypt, and within a few centuries the population of Egypt became almost entirely Arab culturally, but not genetically. This situation has persisted to this day, details in our article “The Population of Egypt.
There is a very important misconception, some unscrupulous sources say that the Arabs allegedly destroyed the great library and burned all the books. In fact, there is no evidence of this fact, not a single source mentions this burning. Unfortunately, by this time the library had already lost most of its works. The first time the fire occurred during the conquest of the city by the Romans, the second time many books were lost during the suppression of a rebellion by the Emperor Aurelianus, and the last time in 391 during the conflict between Christians and pagans.
Around 870, Egypt, already Muslim, left the Arab Caliphate and became independent. Different dynasties ruled here until 1517, and the most famous ruler in the history of Egypt in the Muslim era was Saladin (the name Salah ad-Din is more common), who is very famous for his victories over the Crusaders.
On the left is a shot from the movie Kingdom of Heaven; it is believed that Saladin’s image in this movie is shown beautifully.
In 1517 Egypt fell under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, becoming part of the Ottoman Empire. Viceroys were replaced, but no serious events took place, except, of course, changes in the political situation and the norms of subordination of these territories to Istanbul.
Of interest, one might note Napoleon’s campaign to Egypt in 1798-1801. It was a venture he undertook to challenge British domination of Asia.
In 1799 a very important event happened, the “Rosetta Stone” was found. Many tourists often hear this phrase, but do not know what it is. We will tell you. The writing of ancient Egypt was not used for a long time, and the meaning of the hieroglyphs was forgotten. Scientists simply could not translate the inscriptions.
And in 1799, a stone was found on which the same text was written in three languages. In Ancient Egyptian, Demotic script (later writing in Egypt) and Ancient Greek. Since the ancient Greek language was well known to scholars, it became possible to decipher the ancient writing of Egypt.
Egypt’s recent history
By 1914 Egypt fell entirely under British rule, and remained in this status until 1936, when it gained independence.
The recent history of independent Egypt is full of events which have to do with either wars with Israel, or with a “power sharing” which has never ended and is not likely to end any time soon.
The unrest in Egypt has attracted a lot of attention, not just because Egypt is a popular tourist destination, but rather because Egypt is home to the Suez Canal, the most important transport artery for all of Europe.
More interesting things about Egypt
– A very interesting fact that modern Egyptians in everyday life do not speak the official language of their country. How could this be? Read in our article “What language do Egyptians speak?”
– Some holidays in Egypt have ancient roots, these holidays have been celebrated since the time of the pharaohs. Details in our article “Holidays in Egypt”;
– About the most interesting personalities in Egyptian history, read our article “10 Famous Egyptians”.
Other interesting facts about Egypt read in our articles (links below).
The fascinating history of ancient Egypt: all the most interesting about the country of Pharaohs
In times immemorial, in the territory of modern Egypt in the valley of the Nile arose a civilization that left behind many mysteries and riddles. It now attracts the attention of researchers and ordinary people with its color, its strangeness and rich heritage.
Thirty Dynasties of the rulers of Egypt.
It is not known exactly when the hunting tribes came into the Nile valley and found there a lot of food and a wide river as a reliable source of water. As the years passed. The rural communities organized there increased in size and became richer. Then they divided into two kingdoms, the Lower Kingdom (in the south) and the Upper Kingdom (in the north). And in 3200 BC the ruler Menes was able to conquer Lower Egypt and organized the first dynasty of pharaohs, under whose control were both the delta and the valley of the great Nile.
Map of Unified Ancient Egypt
During the dynastic period Ancient Egypt often became the dominant state in the region. This state had a complex social structure, advanced technology for its time, a powerful army and developed internal trade. Besides, the Egyptians managed to achieve fantastic successes in construction – they were able to build efficient irrigation systems on the banks of the Nile, huge temples and pyramids, striking the imagination even of modern man. Besides, the Egyptians invented the hieroglyphic writing system, organized an effective judicial system and did many other important and amazing things.
Hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians
There were a total of thirty dynasties of Egyptian rulers from 3200 B.C. until the conquest of the Egyptians by the Persians in 342 B.C. These are truly Egyptian dynasties-that is, their representatives were themselves Egyptians, not conquerors from distant lands. The last pharaoh of the thirtieth dynasty was Nektaneb II. When the Persians invaded his state, he gathered his treasures and fled south.
However, this is not the end of the history of ancient Egypt, as many believe. Then Alexander the Great was able to recapture Egypt from the Persians, and subsequently Ptolemy, Alexander’s military commander, began to rule the region. Ptolemy I proclaimed himself king of Egypt in 305 B.C. He used local traditions, preserved from the ancient pharaohs, to gain a foothold on the throne. This (and the fact that he died of his own accord rather than by conspiracy) shows that Ptolemy was a rather clever ruler. In the end he managed to create his own special dynasty, which ruled here for over 250 years. By the way, the last representative of the Ptolemy dynasty and the last queen of Egypt was the legendary Cleopatra VII Philopator.
Some legendary pharaohs
Pharaohs stood at the top of the social ladder and were considered equal to the gods. Pharaohs were accorded great honors and were considered so powerful that they were literally feared to be touched.
Pharaohs were worshipped as deities.
Pharaohs traditionally wore ankh around their necks, a magical symbol and talisman to which the Egyptians attached great importance. There were many pharaohs during the centuries and millennia of Egypt’s existence, but several of them deserve a special mention.
Almost the most famous Egyptian pharaoh was Ramses II. He ascended the throne when he was about twenty years old, and he ruled the country for almost seven decades (from 1279 to 1213 BC). During this time, several generations succeeded him. And many of the Egyptians who lived at the end of the reign of Ramses II believed that he was a real immortal deity.
The sculpture of Ramses II.
Another pharaoh worthy of mention is Djoser . He ruled in XXVII or XXVIII century BC It is known that during his reign, the capital city of Memphis became the capital of the state. However, Djoser went down in history primarily because he built the first pyramid in ancient Egypt (it is also the first stone architectural structure in the world). To be more exact, it was built by Djoser’s vizier – a man with outstanding abilities named Imhotep. Unlike the later Cheops pyramid, Djoser’s pyramid consists of steps. Originally it was surrounded by a wall with 15 doors, of which only one was open. At the moment there is nothing left of the wall.
The oldest pyramid – the pyramid of Djoser
There were several female pharaohs in the history of ancient Egypt. One of them was Hatshepsut, who ruled in the 15th century B.C. Her name can be translated as “being ahead of the noble ladies”. Having removed from the throne of the juvenile Thutmose III and declared herself a pharaoh, Hatshepsut continued the reconstruction of Egypt after the Hyksos raids, erected a large number of monuments on the territory of her state. She surpassed many male pharaohs in the number of progressive reforms she carried out.
At the time of Hatshepsut it was believed that the pharaohs were incarnations of the god Horus in the earthly world. So as not to sow confusion among the people, the priests reported that Hatshepsut was the daughter of the god Amon. But at many ceremonies Hatshepsut still appeared in male attire and with a false beard.
In modern Western culture, Queen Hatshepsut is associated with the image of an intelligent, energetic, analytical woman. A place for Hatshepsut was found, for example, in the famous “Dinner Party” exhibition by artist Judy Chicago, dedicated to the great women who influenced the history of mankind.
This is how the conditional seat for Hatshepsut is decorated in the “Dinner Party” exhibit
Pharaoh Ehnaton, who ruled in the 14th century B.C., is another popular figure in the history of ancient Egypt. He undertook truly revolutionary religious reforms. He decided to make the previously insignificant god Aton, associated with the solar disk, the center of all religion. At the same time, the cults of all other gods (including Amon-Ra) were forbidden. That is, in fact, Ehnaton decided to create a monotheistic religion.
In his transformations, Ehnaton relied on people who held high positions in the state, but came from commoners. On the other hand, much of the hereditary priestly nobility actively resisted reform. In the end Ehnaton lost – after his death the usual religious practices returned to the everyday life of Egyptians. The representatives of the new XIX dynasty, which came to power ten years later, rejected the ideas of Ehnaton, these ideas were discredited.
Pharaoh-reformer Ehnaton, who, according to many scholars, was just ahead of his time.
And a few more words should be said about Cleopatra VII, who ruled Egypt for 21 years. She was really extraordinary and, apparently, very attractive woman. It is known that she had an affair first with Julius Caesar, and later with Mark Antony. By the former she bore a son, and by the latter two sons and daughters.
So looks one of the sculptures of Cleopatra (however, we have no exact information about her appearance)
And one more interesting fact: Mark Antony and Cleopatra, when they realized that they could not resist the Emperor Octavian, who wanted to capture Egypt, began to organize the endless drinking parties and celebratory feasts. Soon Cleopatra announced the creation of the “Union of Death Penalty,” whose members (and all those close to them were invited to join) swore that they would die together. During the same period, Cleopatra tested poisons on slaves, wanting to know which one could bring death quickly and without great pain.
Anyway, in 30 B.C., Cleopatra, like her lover Antony, committed suicide. And Octavian, having established his control over Egypt, turned it into one of the provinces of Rome.
Unique buildings on the Giza plateau
The pyramids on the Giza Plateau are the only one of the so-called Seven Wonders of the World that have survived to this day.
The Three Pyramids of the Giza Plateau: View from Above
The pyramid of Cheops is of the greatest interest to Egyptologists and laymen. Its construction lasted about two decades and was probably completed in 2540 B.C. For its erection 2,300,000 volumetric stone blocks were needed, their total mass was seven million tons. The height of the pyramid is now 136.5 meters. The architect of this pyramid is called Chemiun, vizier of Cheops.
The pharaoh Cheops has a reputation as a classic despot. Some sources report that Cheops used harsh measures to force the population to work on the pyramid. The very name of Cheops after he died was allegedly forbidden to be pronounced. And the resources of Egypt as a result of his rule were so depleted that it led to the weakening of the country and the end of the Fourth Dynasty.
The second largest ancient Egyptian pyramid on the same plateau is the pyramid of Chephren , son of Cheops. It is actually slightly smaller, but located on a higher hill and has a steeper slope. Chephren’s pyramid is shaped like a regular quadrilateral figure with sides of 210.5 meters. Inside is one burial chamber measuring 71 m 2 , which once housed the pharaoh’s sarcophagus. This chamber can be accessed by one of two tunnels.
The third pyramid – the pyramid of pharaoh Mikerin – was erected later than the other two. Its height barely reaches 66 meters, the length of the square base is 108.4 meters, and the volume is 260 thousand cubic meters. It is known that once the lower part of the pyramid was decorated with red Aswan granite, a little higher the granite was replaced by white limestone. And at last at the top again red granite was used. Unfortunately the facing has not been kept, in the Middle Ages the Mamelukes took it away and used it for their needs. The burial chamber in this pyramid is located at ground level.
Next to the three pyramids everyone can see the Big Sphinx – a statue of a lion with a human face. This statue is 72 meters long and 20 meters high. Once between the front paws was a sanctuary. The exact time of the Sphinx’s creation is unknown – there is some debate about it. Some think that it was built by Chephren, others say that it was Jephedra – another son of Cheops. There are also versions that the Sphinx appeared much earlier, about twelve thousand years ago (supposedly the ancient Egyptians just dug it out during the dynastic period), and very doubtful versions that the Sphinx was created by aliens.
It is still not clear who exactly created the Big Sphinx.
Features of the society and lifestyle of the ancient Egyptians
The Egyptians believed that after death they would be judged by the god Osiris, who would put on different scales their good and bad deeds. And for the good deeds to outweigh the good deeds, one had to behave properly in mortal life.
The judgment of the god Osiris
In addition, it was important to the inhabitants of ancient Egypt that their afterlife was similar to the earthly life. Therefore, the transition to the other world had to be carefully prepared. A wealthy Egyptian would build an afterlife home for himself beforehand. When a pharaoh died, in his tomb were placed not only his body, but also many things that could be useful in another life – clothes, jewelry, furniture, etc. In this connection the fact that the first pyramids were stepped – probably, the steps were required so that the pharaoh could as if ascend to the world of gods becomes important.
Egyptian society consisted of several classes and social status was of great importance here. The wealthy Egyptians wigs and elaborate headdresses were in vogue, and they got rid of their hair. This was a way of solving the problem of lice. But poor people had a hard time – among them it was not customary to cut their hair “to zero”.
The main clothing of the Egyptians was the usual loincloth. But rich people, as a rule, also wore shoes. And the pharaohs were accompanied by sandal bearers everywhere – there was such a special position.
Another fun fact: for a long time in Egypt, transparent dresses were popular among wealthy women. In addition, Egyptian women (and Egyptians too) wore necklaces, bracelets and other similar accessories to demonstrate their social status.
Wealthy Egyptian women wore numerous ornaments and intricate headdresses
Some professions in ancient Greek society – warrior, official, priest – were inherited. However, to achieve a significant position, thanks to their talents and skills, was also quite realistic.
Most of the able-bodied Egyptians were employed in agriculture, handicrafts, or service industries. At the very bottom of the social ladder were slaves. They usually performed the role of servants, but also had the right to buy and sell goods and gain their freedom. And when they became free, they could eventually even become part of the nobility. The humane treatment of slaves was evidenced by the fact that they were entitled to medical care in the workplace.
In general, Egyptian healers were very enlightened for their time. They were well versed in the peculiarities of the human body and performed very complex operations. According to researches of Egyptologists, even the transplantation of some organs for local physicians was not a problem. It is also interesting that in Ancient Egypt some of the infectious diseases were treated with bread covered with mold – it can be considered a kind of analog of modern antibiotics.
Also the Egyptians actually invented mummification. The process was as follows: the internal organs were extracted and placed in vessels, and soda was applied to the body itself so that it would not decompose. After the body dried, its cavities were filled with linen impregnated with a special balm. Finally, in the final step, the body was bandaged and sealed in a sarcophagus.
Mummification was quite common in Egypt
Relationships between Men and Women in Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, men and women had virtually equal legal rights. The mother was considered the head of the family. The lineage was strictly maternal and land property also passed from mother to daughter. Of course, the spouse had the right to dispose of the land as long as the spouse was alive, but when she died, the daughter received the entire inheritance. It appears that marriage to an heiress to the throne may well have given a man the right to rule the country. This was also the reason why the pharaoh took his sisters and daughters as wives, thus protecting himself from other possible claimants to power.
Women in ancient Egyptian society had almost the same rights as men
Marriages in ancient Egypt were mostly monogamous. However, a wealthy Egyptian man, along with his lawful wife, could support a concubine. On the other hand, a woman who had more than one man could also be punished.
Marriage in ancient Egypt was not sanctified by priests, nor did the Egyptians hold lavish wedding parties. For a wedding to be valid, the man had to say, “I take you as my wife,” and the woman had to say, “You take me as your wife. It is important to add that the Egyptians were the first to wear wedding rings on the ring finger, a custom that was later adopted by the Greeks and Romans.
The tradition to wear wedding rings on the ring finger came to us exactly from Ancient Egypt.
Ancient Egyptian newlyweds also exchanged gifts with each other. And when they divorced, they could get their gift back (a very good custom). And in the later periods of Ancient Egyptian history it became quite common practice to conclude marriage contracts.
The documentary “Ancient Egypt. History of Ancient Egyptian Civilization.”