The Ancient Egyptian civilisation was remarkable in many ways, not least in its durability. For over two thousand years their culture dominated the area leaving memorable monuments to their ingenuity and skill and their love of beauty and art. Unfortunately, there are many gaps in our knowledge of this ancient civilisation, and many arguments which may never be settled. For further information on the sources of Egyptian history and some of the areas of contention please refer to the chronology section.
With the development of farming, writing, animal husbandry and religion the ancient peoples of Egypt moved away from their nomadic past and established the foundations of the Ancient Egyptian culture.
The unification of Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt is thought to have taken place around 3100 B.C during Dynasty "Zero". There is some debate regarding the identity of the first Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt. The most likely contenders are Narmer and Hor-aha. The First and Second Dynasties are often grouped together as the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt. Many of the standard elements of Pharaonic power (such as the five names of the King and a complex state bureaucracy) were developed during this period. Their capital city was Tjeny (generally known by the Greek name Thinis or This), possibly located under the modern town of Girga.
Egypt became a very wealthy and powerful nation. Improvements in state bureaucracy and the development of the idea that the King was an incarnation of the god Horus allowed the construction of impressive monuments to Pharaonic power - pyramids. During Dynasty Three, Djoser instructed his (postumously deified) chief architect, Imhotep, to construct the Step Pyramid Complex. In the Fourth Dynasty, the Pharaohs constructed the Pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx. During the Fifth Dynasty, the Pyramid Texts were developed to assist the decased in their journey through the afterlife. These texts are the oldest known religious writings. During the Sixth Dynasty central authority weakened as local leaders and religious officials became more powerful. This trend resulted in the collapse of the state during the First Intermediate period.
When Pepi II died, the authority of the central government broke down and the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt crumbled. Manetho claims that the Seventh Dynasty was composed of seventy Kings who ruled for seventy days. There is no evidence to support this unlikely assertion, and it is generally thought that the statistic was not exact but instead used to express the chaotic nature of the period. The Pharaohs of Dynasty Eight ruled from Memphis and claimed to be descended from Pepi II, but left little evidence of their impact. Dynasties Nine and Ten ruled from Herakliopolis (in middle Egypt) while Dynasty Eleven ruled from Thebes. The country was re-unified by Montuhotep I towards the end of the Eleventh Dynasty.
The Middle Kingdom saw the return of central authority and Pharaonic power. The craftsmen of the period excelled themselves using the wide range of materials obtained by trade and conquest, and Egypt became very wealthy. The Kings of the Middle Kingdom built inferior pyramids (which have largely crumbled away) but they undertook many civil and religious building projects, and developed the sensible practice of nominating their successor (avoiding some of the dynastic problems that affected earlier kings). While Senusret III was a highly accomplished military leader his son Amenemhet III fostered diplomatic relationships throughout the near east, and made Egypt the wealthiest nation of the time.
Although the Second Intermediate period is generally considered to start at the beginning of the Thirteenth Dynasty, it is now thought that central authority was maintained until the later part of the dynasty. However, by the end of the dynasty, the obscure Fourteenth Dynasty had established an alternative power centre in the eastern delta. Around this time, the semitic Hyksos (Hikau-khoswet, or desert princes - sometimes inaccurately called the "shepherd kings") invaded the eastern desert delta and established a base at Avaris. They formed the Fifteenth Dynasty in Lower (northern) Egypt, while the native Egyptian Sixteenth Dynasty operated from Thebes. The Hyksos were eventually expelled and Egypt reunited by the last king of the Seventeenth Dynasty (Kamose) and his son Amose (the first King of the Eighteenth Dynasty).
The New Kingdom was arguably the height of Egyptian civilisation. Dynasty Eighteen ruled from Thebes and included notable Pharaohs such as Hatshepsut (the most famous female ruler), Tuthmosis III (often called the Napoleon of Egypt) and Akhenaten, the "heretic" Pharaoh who introduced a form of monotheistic religion based on the Aten (the sun disc). Following the disruption caused by the Atenist heresy a new Dynasty was founded by a soldier and vizier Ramesses I. His successors Seti I and Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great) left their mark on the ancient world both in terms of their military campaigns and their building works. The kings of the Twentieth Dynasty took the name Ramesses to connect them with their illustrious predecessors, but they did not live up to the name. This was partly due to a mass displacement of people around the Mediterranean (caused by the Trojan War and the fall of the Mycenaean culture) and a series of poor harvests causing widespread famine. A confederation of races known as the "Sea Peoples" destroyed Egypt's historical enemy, the Hittites, and threatened Egypt's borders. By the end of the dynasty, Egypt was torn by civil war and the treasury was empty.
During the New Kingdom there had been a marked increase in the power of the priests of Amun in Thebes. By the end of the Twentieth Dynasty, they owned two-thirds of the land granted to temples, nine-tenths of the ships and four-fifths of the factories. During the reign of Ramesses XI, the High Priest, Herihor, established a rival kingdom. On the death of Ramesses XI, Smendes (the first king of Dynasty Twenty-one) ruled from Tanis while a Dynasty of High Priests ruled from Thebes. Dynasty Twenty-two succeeded Dynasty Twenty-one in Tanis, but Dynasty Twenty-three (in Leontopolis) and Dynasty Twenty-four (in Sais) held also power towards the end of Dynasty Twenty-one.
The kings of Napata had aligned themselves with Amun since the New kingdom, and moved into Egypt to re-establish central authority with their favoured god. They formed Dynasty Twenty-five. However, Egypt was also threatened by the Assyrian expansion. The attempts of the Nubian kings to defy the Assyrians resulted in the sacking of Thebes. Dynasty Twenty-six overlapped with Dynasty Twenty-five, and ruled with Assyrian approval but could do nothing to prevent the invasion by the Persians in 525BC.
The Persian king, Cambyses, subdued Egypt and established Persian control. However, their reign was not welcomed and guerrilla warfare continued for some time. When Darius II died in 405 B.C, Amyrtaeus (a prince of Sais) managed to take control briefly as the only member of Dynasty Twenty-eight. He was succeeded by the kings of the Twenty-ninth Dynasty who ruled from Mendes. They in turn were succeeded by the short-lived Dynasty Thirty before the Persians reasserted their control in 343 B.C with Dynasty Thirty-one.
Alexander the Great marched into Egypt in 332 B.C and expelled the hated Persians. He ordered that the temples damaged during the Persian period be rebuilt and was proclaimed the son of the god Amun by the oracle at Siwa. On Alexander's death, Egypt was ruled briefly by his successors before passing to his general, Ptolemy. He founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty which ruled Egypt until the famous suicide of Queen Cleopatra VII.copyright J Hill 2010
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