The Ancient Egyptian civilisation has its roots in cultures that flourished in the Nile Valley from the late 4th millennium BC. Subsequently, Pharaonic culture, statecraft, literature, law, religious belief, scientific and technological advantages left a profound legacy upon the world, moulding Western civilisation. So profoundly influential was it that Ancient Egyptian culture and religion continued to flourish in Egypt even under the rule of the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, ending only with the Christianisation of Egypt itself in the 6th century CE.
The Old Kingdom
Egypt’s climate varied over time and location, through during the Dynastic era was, as it is today, predominantly a desert climate, with long, hot summers and short, relatively mild winters, with rainfall being insignificant, with a Mediterranean climate prevailing in the Delta and far north. Thus, the Nile Valley had a profound impact upon Egyptian culture and thinking. Its natural boundaries of almost empty deserts to east and west, the first cataract in the south, and Mediterranean sea in the north fostered the early adoption of a nation-state identity. These boundaries also protected Egypt in times of strife elsewhere in the region. Despite this, Egypt was not an island, and traded with neighbours in Nubia, Libya and the Levant, as well as further afield.
The inundation defined the seasons. The Nile, swollen by rains in Ethiopia, never failed to rise each summer, though the level of rise varied greatly. As it rose, the water spread over the flood plain, depositing large amounts of mud, silt and organic matter, laying down a nutrient rich layer, replenishing the soil and soaking it. For three months the water remained before retreating, leaving enough moisture in the ground that no further irrigation would be necessary on the first harvest. It was this inundation that would be the foundation for Egypt’s great wealth, built not on gold, but on grain.
Ancient Egypt was a culture focused around the Nile Valley, and it was here the Predynastic confederacies and petty chieftains were finally united to begin the Dynastic period at the end of the fourth millennium BC.
Egyptian history is split up into distinct periods, with the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms separated from each other and the Late Period by so-called “Intermediate Periods”, times of disunity and apparent unrest, or of foreign occupation. All dates before the Late Period are circa, and when dealing with purely Egyptian issues, it is common to work only within a framework of reigns and dynasties, rather than absolute dates.
The Old Kingdom covers Dynasties 3 to 6 (circa 2800 – 2186 BC). Although it has been argued by some that it should include Dynasties 1 – 3, and by others that it should only cover Dynasties 4 – 6, though 3 to 6 is the most widely accepted, beginning as it does with the revolutionary architecture of Djoser.
During this period the Egyptian state developed an all encompassing and highly organised bureaucracy, organised into a strictly hierarchical and highly centralised structure dominated by the Pharaoh, who exercised an extremely high degree of control over resources.
The Old Kingdom came to an end in circumstances that are far from clear, but seem to be linked to the extremely long rule of Pepi II, at 96 years, the longest reigning monarch in history.
Following this, Egypt lapsed into a period of national fragmentation, called the First Intermediate Period, lasting approximately 105 years.
The Middle Kingdom sees the Egyptian nation engage for the first time in serious warfare. Under the great military Pharaohs Sensuret I and Senusret III, Egypt annexed Lower Nubia, fixing a realm of Egyptian domination that extended south of the Second Cataract for the first time in history, reinforced by a series of fortresses with an unprecedented degree of sophistication.
A similar chain of fortresses secured the Sinai peninsula and Eastern delta, known as the Horus Road and Walls of the Ruler. These secured the overland route to Asia, and defended the boarder. Despite this military strength, only a single expedition into Asia itself was carried out,
The grim work of re-unification and securing the borders left an indelible mark of the ideology of the period. Literature of the time often harks back to the chaos of the 1st Intermediate Period, and the ideal of importance of loyalty to, and adoration of, the ruler is also a strong theme.
Statuary of the time shows the great Pharaohs of the period with serious, stern expressions, showing a human side that planned and fought long and hard to reunify a fractured nation and to push on to new boundaries deep into hostile territory. This signaled a break with the past, and the future, for both the Old Kingdom and all successive periods (with the exception of Amarna) showing the Pharaoh in the traditional manner, in a state of divine serenity.
The Middle Kingdom met it’s end in the mid-13th Dynasty, as foreign influence permeated the heavily defended Sinai, eventually providing the momentum for an Asiatic dynasty to seize the Delta and Middle Egypt, and hold it for approximately 100 years.
The New Kingdom is often called Egypt’s “Age of Empire”. Following the war of Reunification led by the 17th Dynasty, Ahmose I finally managed to liberate and reunify Egypt, founding the 18th Dynasty and the New Kingdom in approximately 1500BC.
The Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty re-invented the Egyptian military forces, adopting the most advanced weapons of the day. Egyptian tactics were also revolutionized, becoming highly innovative. Many Egyptian campaigns of this period are regarded as military genius, with Thutmose III being regarded by most as the “Napoleon of Egypt”. These campaigns ultimately created a sprawling and varied Egyptian empire, stretching from Gebel Barkal to the Euphrates, and a zone of influence far beyond.
It was at the height of this time of greatness that Egypt was plunged into turmoil. The heretical ruler, Amunhotep IV, changed his name to Akhenaten and embraced a corrupted form of the Solar Cult as an absolutist monotheistic belief. Traditional temples were closed, and the capital city moved to a desert plain in Middle Egypt, where a new capital was established, named Akhetaten. Akhenaten died after 17 years on the throne, and both his cult and capital both died with him.
The Egyptian empire proved resilient to such trauma, and the traditional New Kingdom capital and cults were immediately restored, and the empire remained essentially unchallenged in Asia until the time of Ramesses III in the 20th Dynasty, and maintained it’s grip on Nubia until the fall of the New Kingdom at the close of the 20th Dynasty.
It was with a sense of irony, that the impetus for re-unifying Egypt and rebuilding her former power would come from Nubia. The 25th Dynasty advanced out of their base at Napata, and secured all of Upper Egypt by a process of gradual conquest, winning recognition from local nonarchs and forming a confederacy. The Assyrians, with their vassals in the Delta, were alarmed, advanced south and sacked Thebes. However, the example had been made, and with the help of Greek mercenaries, Psamtik I of Sais freed himself from his Assyrian overlord, and reunified Egypt.
The Late Period saw increased contact with the Hellenic world, with many Greek mercenaries serving in the Egyptian military, and a Greek merchants settling in the purpose built trading center of Naukratis. This ultimately proved fatal, and in 525 BC, Persian forces, with a large number of Greek mercenaries conquered Egypt following the defection of a key Egyptian mercenary commander, Phanes of Hallicarnassus.
Egypt liberated herself from Perisan rule in 404BC, bringing to power the 29th and 30th Dynasties, the last sustained period of Egyptian native rule. The second Persian occupation was much more brief, lasting just over a decade from 343BC until the invasion of Alexander in 332BC.
Throughout the Dynastic Period, Egypt was an absolute monarchy, ruled by a monarch regarded as divine. Egypt was a centralized state, with the monarch having the positions of head of state, head of government, head of the judiciary, commander in chief of the armed forces, and high priest of every temple. The monarch had several titles, the most well known being from the Greek derived “Pharaoh” (Egyptian: pr-aA, reconstructed as Per-‘a), though the more common Egyptian title was nsw-bity (Nesu-Bity), possibly translated as “King of Upper and Lower Egypt"). Day-to-day administration was overseen by a vizier (Egyptian: TAty, reconstructed as Tjaty), and in some periods of Egyptian history two viziers were appointed, one for Upper and one for Lower Egypt, reflecting a duality present in much of the administration.
The treasury, likewise, reflected the natural separation of the country, though a single treasurer oversaw both “The Overseer of the Double Granaries” being a common title for this role.
From at least the New Kingdom, Egypt maintained a full-time professional military force consisting of an army and naval fleet, as well as a separate police and patrol force, the mDAw (reconstructed as Medjay).
Labour for large-scale state works was provided by the public under a corvee requirement. See: Labour in Ancient Egypt.
The economy of Ancient Egypt has sometimes been described as a command economy. There is insufficient information available to determine to exactly what degree the state directed economic activity, but that it played a very large role in the economy is clear, and in keeping with the Egyptian doctrine that the land and its resources belonged to the Pharaoh. The view of many scholars is that this position was more literally true in the Old Kingdom, and over time, as the population expanded and economy became more complex, more delegation and autonomy became necessary, and towards the end of Late Period, land could be brought and sold by private individuals.
The bedrock of the Egyptian economy, and source of its wealth, was irrigation-assisted agriculture. The Nile valley was an almost perfect environment for agriculture to thrive, with abundant water and fertile top soil. The Nile flooding, almost every year, would deposit extremely rich and continually refreshed soil, and the floods made Egypt one of the only places where soil salinisation did not occur. The principal crops were emmer wheat, barely and flax, backed up by market gardening (onions, garlic, lettuce, cabbages etc.). However, a variety of luxury goods were also grown, and it is known the grapes for wine were cultivated, alongside orchards, almonds and olives, dates, and bee-keeping for honey. Animal rearing, particularly cattle ranching, was also important.
Mining and quarrying were important state industries, supplying the raw materials for tools and luxury goods. Egypt had abundant limestone, sandstone, granite, gold and copper reserves, along with precious and semi-precious gemstones. Quarrying was almost entirely a royal monopoly, but small-scale private extraction by monarchs occurred in sites nearest to the river. (see: Ancient Egyptian Mining).
For most of Egyptian history, the international trade was a royal monopoly, and was enforced through a system of border checkpoints. Merchants mostly operated by acting as agents for the state and essentially trading on their behalf, and goods in international trade were taxed. Major transactions and contracts were put in writing, and records survive. In the Ptolemaic period, a sales tax was also levied.
From the time of unification onwards Egypt traded with her immediate neighbors in Nubia and southern Palestine, and by the 2nd Dynasty royal trading expeditions traded regularly with Bybos, a key Egyptian partner in foreign affairs throughout much of the Pharaonic period. Trade with Punt, a land generally regarded as lying in the region of Eritrea was established by the 5th Dynasty, if not earlier.
Egyptian society was bureaucratic, deeply conservative and hierarchical. The pyramid analogy is perhaps over used to describe Egyptian society, but nonetheless remains accurate, with the Pharaoh at the apex, above the vizier and other prominent courtiers, some with seemingly trivial titles but great influence, such as Fan Bearers, Sandal Bearers, Seal Bearers etc.
Beneath these were the Great Nobles, followed by Egypt’s large bureaucracy and officialdom. Beneath them stood the artisans and craftsmen. At the bottom of society proper, and accounting for circa. 80% of the population, the farmers. In addition to this, as in all societies, there also existed the “classless” people. Convicts, captives and the unfree, as well as the desert nomads and oasis dwellers who lives within Egypt’s area of influence, but never entirely integrated into Egyptian society.
The place of the military fluctuated, from a minor an important role in the Old Kingdom, which fielded no standing army, to a prominent role in the New Kingdom, where the 19th Dynasty bloodline is descended from military routes.
It is generally held that Pharaonic civilization left behind no direct cultural decedents. The Egyptian language survived into Coptic, and much Egyptian iconographic conventions were adopted into the Christian religion, particularly the Coptic church. Some Egyptian loan words survive today in Egyptian Arabic, which is distinctly different to other dialects, and, particularly in Upper Egypt, a few folk customs also survived at least until the early 20th century. Besides this however, there is little continuity in traditions.
Indirectly, Pharaonic culture left huge contributions to the world. Egypt was the first true nation-state, laying the foundations upon which the modern world is built. The development of bureaucratic administration based on writing, education, merit based selection, are all found in Egyptian culture. Technologically, the use of finished stone for construction, the use of paper, the art of architectural design, site surveying etc. are first noted in Egypt, and possibly the disposable drill bit marks the first use of multi part disposable tools.
Academically, the science of medicine in Egypt was well understood, and the Greeks, often considered the fathers of western medicine, acknowledged the Egyptians as the finest physicians in the known world.
- David, R. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt (1998)
- Dodson, A. & Hilton, D. Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt (2004)
- Gardiner, A. Egyptian Grammar (3rd edition 1957)
- Montet, P. Eternal Egypt (1964)
- Mysliwiec, K. The First Millennium BCE: The Twilight of Ancient Egypt (2000)
- Newby, P. H. Warrior Pharaohs : The Rise and Fall of the Egyptian Empire (1980)
- Shaw, I et al. (2000), Oxford History of Ancient Egypt,
- Thompson, Jason. A History of Egypt: From Earliest Times to the Present (2009) 432 pages
- online books and articles