Brief history of Egypt

Egypt has a long and fascinating history. The civilisation of ancient Egypt lasted some 3000 years, longer than any other civilization in world history. At its peak it was remarkable for it cultural, religious and economic achievements. After the Roman invasion in the first century AD Egypt has been conquered many times, each new culture adding to the rich tapestry that is modern Egypt. Each new conqueror has also added to the fabric of the country, especially in Cairo, where many buildings of previous periods are still there for visitors to enjoy.

Pre-Dynastic Period < 3100 BC
Seven or eight thousand years ago the wet climate of North Africa gradually changed and the Sahara Desert slowly replaced the pasture lands, pushing the inhabitants closer to the river where the Nile still renewed the land with rich nutrients. Communities began to be created along the Nile and from ca 3900 to 3100 BC the villages grew in wealth and power.

Early Dynastic Period c.3200 BC to c.2750 BC
Around 3200 BC the ancient Egyptians perfected their writing system (enabling government bureaucracies to develop) and around 3100 BC Upper and Lower Egypt joined to create a single state which extended from Aswan in the south (Upper Egypt, i.e. along the Upper Nile) to the Mediterranean in the north. By 3000 BC papyrus was being used for writing.

The Pharaonic period
Egyptian known history begins in around 3120 BC. Previously, the various Neolithic peoples with common social organization, religion and writing lived in two different regions: Upper Egypt, stretching along the Nile Valley to Aswan, and Lower Egypt, which occupied the Delta. King Narmer (also known by the name of Menes, although some say this is a different king) is attributed with the union of the two regions and is considered the founder of first of the 31 Pharaonic dynasties.

Narmer Palette

The Narmer Palette on display in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo

The Narmer Palette, which you can see in the Egyptian Museum, depicts the pharaoh, represented as the Pharaoh of both Upper and Lower Egypt, killing a defeated enemy. The Museum identifies the palette as coming from the First Dynasty and it is one of Egypt’s oldest surviving historical records. On one side the Pharaoh is represented conquering the Delta, while he wears the Crown of Upper Egypt. On the other side he wears the crown of Lower Egypt while he inspects corpses. The palette is in fabulous condition and the carving very clear.

The Old Kingdom c.2685 BC to c.2185 BC
The first capital was Tinis or Thinis, in Upper Egypt, and the first two dynasties are known as Thinite. The Old Kingdom began around 2700 BC with a Pharaoh of the 3rd Dynasty, Djoser, who transferred the capital to Memphis and built the Saqqara pyramids complex. The first pharaohs continued to rule from Memphis in the north, the site of which you can still visit today, while they were buried in cemeteries at Abydos and later Saqqara. Notable events of this period include the establishment of trade with Palestine and Nubia and even more advances in the arts and sciences. The Pharaohs of the 4th Dynasty, Sneferu, Khufu, Khefre and Menkaura, are famous for building the pyramids at Dahshur and Giza between 2600 and 2400 BCE. This is considered a period of great achievement in Egyptian history, and under the rule of Dynasties III to VI, Egypt became the greatest civilization the world had seen.

The step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara

The step pyramid of King Djoser, designed by Imhotep, at Saqqara

The Old Kingdom came to an end with the reign of Pepi II. Pepi II came to the throne when he was six years old and is said to have been over 100 when he died, making his reign the longest in Egyptian history.

Pharaohs include:
Pepi II

First Intermediate Period c.2185 BCE to c.2045 BCE
At the end of the 6th Dynasty, civil war broke out between the followers of different gods and as the power of Memphis had declined, with the priests and nobles becoming ever more powerful, the Pharaoh’s position grew weaker. The first Intermediate Period began with this war, continuing through Dynasties 7 to 10.

The Middle Kingdom c.2045 BCE to c.1760 BCE
The Middle Kingdom was another period of prosperity. The capital was first located in Thebes (Luxor) and later Ithi-tawy, south of Memphis, during the 12th Dynasty. Memphis became the centre of the empire which now extended south to the third cataract of the Nile with the conquest of Nubia and its gold mines. Important temples devoted to Amun began to be built in Thebes, which were improved and extended by later dynasties. The pharaohs continued to be buried in pyramids on the west bank of the Nile.

Overseeing this golden age were the pharaohs of Dynasty 12. Outstanding among them were Amenemhet I, who brought local governors back under Pharaonic control; Senusret I, who recaptured lost territory and made Egypt stable and prosperous; Senusret III, who strengthened Egyptian defenses in Nubia; and Amenemhet III who consolidated the power of the royal court.

Among the most significant achievements of this period was the introduction of a standardized writing system and the compilation of the first major body of literary texts.

Pharaohs include:
Mentuhotep I
Senusret I
Senusret II
Senusret III
Amenemhet I
Amenemhet II
Amenemhet III

Pyramid  Amenemhet III

The pyramid of Amenemhet III at Dahshur

Second Intermediate Period c.1760 BCE to c.1675 BCE
This period was marked by the Hyksos invasion and occupation. The Hyksos were militarily powerful and introduced the horse-drawn chariot to Egypt, using them in battle. They occupied the Nile Delta and conquered Memphis. The Theban kings continued to fight against the invaders and finally emerged victorious, expelling the Hyksos.

The New Kingdom c.1550 BCE to c.1160 BCE
The New Kingdom commenced with the 18th Dynasty. The 18th Dynasty (1550-1292 BCE) is perhaps the best known of all the dynasties of ancient Egypt. As well as boasting a number of Egypt’s most powerful pharaohs, it included Tutankhamun, perhaps the most famous of all the pharaohs due to the amazing grave goods found in his tomb.

The first pharaohs of the dynasty, Amenophis I and Thuthmose I, launched military campaigns to extend the empire to the east, towards Asia and south of the Nile, annexing Nubia. Another member of this Dynasty was Queen Hatshepsut, who took the throne on the death of her husband, Thuthmose II.

Amenophis IV also gave up military campaigns and tried to impose his monotheistic beliefs, replacing the cult of Amun with that of Aten, the sun god. He founded a new capital, Akhetaton (Tell el Amarna), where, taking on the name Akhenaten, he ruled in isolation with his wife Nefertiti. Under his reign there were changes in art and culture, as well as religion.

After his death the priests of Thebes took back the power and restored the old polytheist religions through Tutankhamun who moved the capital of the empire back to Thebes.

Deir el-Bahari with temples of Hatshepsut, Thutmosis III and Mentuhotep II, Luxor, Egypt

Deir el-Bahari with temples of Hatshepsut, Thutmosis III and Mentuhotep II, Luxor, Egypt

The 19th Dynasty had more ambition for empire and included Seti I and his son the famous Ramesses II (the Great) who fought the Hittites, signing the earliest known peace treaty. Ramesses II ruled for 60 years and his monuments and statues are found all over Egypt. They include the awesome temple at Abu Simbel dedicated to him and his beloved wife Nefertari.

Pharaohs include:
Tuthmosis III
Queen Hatshepsut
Amenhotep III
Seti I
Ramesses I – XI

Third Intermediate Period c.1070 BCE to c. 670 BCE
The empire fell into decline after the assassination of 20th Dynasty Pharaoh Ramesses III. During the Third Intermediate Period the capital was moved to Tanis in the Nile Delta. Dynasties of Nubian origin ruled the country and the empire became divided and weak, almost disappearing by the year 666 BCE when the Assyrians conquered Egypt, then the Persians, who turned it into a province of Persia.

Late Period c.664 BCE to 332 BCE
After many years of instability Egypt enjoyed a late flowering under Dynasties 26 to 31, although it was dominated by Persia for much of this time. Egyptian influence beyond its borders was however, a shadow of the greatness it had achieved in earlier years.

Egypt remained a province of Persia until 404 BCE when a native Egyptian pharaoh returned to the throne. Egyptian rulers held power as Dynasties 28 to 30, but a second Persian invasion in 343 BCE toppled Nectanebo II who is considered the last native Egyptian pharaoh.

Graeco-Roman Period
In 332 BCE Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and was acclaimed as the liberator from Persian oppression. Alexandria became the capital for the Greek monarchs of the dynasty starting with Ptolemy of Lagos and ending with Cleopatra VII, Egypt’s most famous Queen. Despite all Cleopatra’s efforts to maintain Egypt’s independence, the country became a Roman province in the year 30 BCE. The Ptolemies made Alexandria the most important eastern Mediterranean city both politically and culturally.

The Roman Amphitheatre, Alexandria

The Roman Amphitheatre, Alexandria

Christian Egypt
Christianity has had many associations with Egypt, including the flight of the Holy Family from Herod. The Coptic Christians of Alexandria continued Greek cultural traditions, differentiating themselves from Orthodox Christians. Although persecuted by the Romans, Christians were made welcome in Egypt. The first Coptic monastery was founded by the Egyptian monk Saint Pachom in El Minya (Upper Egypt). More were later founded under his rule and when Christianity became the official religion of the Byzantine Empire the Coptic Orthodox Church became the Egyptian national church in the 5th century. Many works from the Pharaonic period were destroyed and a number of temples were converted into Christian monasteries.

Wall detail at Santa Caterina

Wall detail at Santa Caterina Monastery, Sinai

There are still a number of ancient monasteries in Egypt including Santa Caterina in the Sinai, built on the site of the Burning Bush.

Islamic Egypt
In the 7th century the Byzantine army was easily vanquished by Arabic forces led by Amr Ibn el A’as, who conquered Egyptian Babylon and founded Fustat, the first urban nucleus of Cairo. The Ummayyad Dynasty ruled Egypt from Damascus until the Abbasids took control and shifted the political capital of Islam to Baghdad. In the 9th century the Iraqi governor of Samara, Ibn Tulun, established the first independent Islamic state of Egypt. In the mid 10th century, Fatimid Caliph Al-Muezz seized power and founded the new Egyptian capital, Al Qahira, which later became Cairo. Under the Fatimids, Egypt enjoyed a period of economic and cultural splendour.

The Fatimid dynasty was abolished in 1171 by the Kurdish general Salah al-Din (Saladin) who defended his people against the Crusaders, becoming a hero of Islam. Saladin established the Ayyubid Dynasty, formed by Egypt and Syria. To control the territory he established an army of Mamluk mercenaries who eventually, in 1250, seized power for themselves. The Mamluks defeated the forces of Genghis Khan and throughout their reign of over two centuries promoted trade and built magnificent palaces and mosques. However, they could not withstand the Turkish armies and the Ottoman Empire conquered in 1517.

Sultan Selim I

Sultan Selim I

In 1517 the troops of the Ottoman sultan Selim I put an end to the Mamluk dynasty. Egypt thus lost its independence and became a province of the Ottoman Empire.
In the mid 18th century Ali Bey al-Kabir tried to restore the Mamluk Empire but civil war broke out and lasted almost until the Napoleonic campaign of 1798.

Modern Egypt
The French were only in Egypt for three years but it was long enough for them to have significant influence and for interest to be aroused in modernising the country. Mohammed Ali, an Ottoman general was appointed Pasha in 1805 and he began the work of modernisation. His successors continued his work and with the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, Egypt’s importance in the Mediterranean was substantially increased, but the country had incurred substantial debt and was forced to sell its share in the Canal to Britain. This was not enough to stop British intervention in 1882 however.

Eventually frustration with foreign rule led to a new nationalist movement opposed to Europeans and Ottoman alike. Egypt regained independence in 1922 under the rule of King Fouad I, though it remained under British control. Fouad was succeeded in 1936 by his son Farouk, who inherited a precarious situation which was exacerbated by the excesses of the monarchy and corruption.

In 1952 revolt broke out against the British and a military coup forced Farouk to abdicate. In 1953 the monarchy was abolished and Nasser appointed the first president of the Egyptian Republic. Nasser negotiated the peaceful withdrawal of the British troops, nationalised the Suez Canal and with the proceeds built the Aswan High Dam. However he also became involved in the Six Days War with Israel, losing the Sinai oil wells and seeing the Suez closed to shipping.

Nasser was succeeded in the presidency by Anwar Sadat who launched an attack on Israel which saw the recovery of almost the whole of Sinai. Later, he made peace with Israel. He was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in 1981 during the celebrations for the re-opening of the Suez Canal. Sadat was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak who finally stood down during the revolution of January 2011.

Tahrir Square 9 Feb 2011

Tahrir Square 9th February 2011

Monuments, buildings and artefacts from all periods of Egypt’s history can be seen when you visit this incredible country.


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