Ancient Egypt Wiki

The history of ancient Egypt began around 3100 BC when Egypt became a unified Egyptian state. It survived as an independent state until about 343 BC, but archaeological evidence indicates that a developed Egyptian society existed for a much longer period.

Egyptian chronology[]

Dynasties of Ancient Egypt
Predynastic Period
Protodynastic Period
Early Dynastic Period
1st 2nd
Old Kingdom
3rd 4th 5th 6th
First Intermediate Period
7th 8th 9th 10th 11th
Middle Kingdom
11th 12th
Second Intermediate Period
13th 14th 15th 16th 17th
Abydos Dynasty
New Kingdom
18th 19th 20th
Third Intermediate Period
21st 22nd 23rd 24th 25th
Late Period
26th 27th 28th
29th 30th 31st
Hellenistic Period
Argead Dynasty
Ptolemaic Dynasty

Egyptian history is broken into several different periods according to the dynasty of the ruling pharaoh. The dating of events in Egyptian history is still a subject of research. The conservative dates are not supported by any reliable absolute date for a span of about three millennia. The following is the list according to conventional Egyptian chronology.

Note: For alternative 'revisions' to the chronology of Egypt, see Egyptian chronology.

Predynastic Period[]

Along the Nile, in the 10th millennium BC, a grain-grinding Kubbaniya culture using the earliest type of sickle blades was replaced by another culture of hunters, fishers and gathering peoples using stone tools. Climate changes and/or overgrazing around 8000 BC began to desiccate the pastoral lands of Egypt, eventually forming the Sahara (c. 2500 BC). Early tribes naturally migrated to the Nile river where they developed a settled agricultural economy and more centralized society Evidence of pastoralism and cultivation of cereals in the East Sahara dates to the 7th millennium BC.

Ongoing excavation in Egypt continually reshapes scholars' views about the origins of Egyptian civilization. In the late 20th century archaeologists discovered evidence of human habitation before 8000 BC in an area in the southwestern corner of Egypt, near the border with Sudan. Nomadic peoples may have been attracted to this southern area of Egypt because of the hospitable climate and environment. Now exceptionally dry, that area once had grassy plains and temporary lakes that resulted from seasonal rains. Scientific analysis of the remains of their culture indicates that by 6000 BC they were herding cattle and constructing large buildings.

Early Dynastic Period[]

The origins of the unified Egyptian state are unclear. There are no contemporaneous sources, and later sources are unclear and contradictory. Around 3100 BC a king unified the whole of the Nile Valley between the Delta and the First Cataract at Aswan, with the centre of power in Memphis. Traditionally (according to Manetho), this king was known as Menes. This king may be identified as one the individuals known to historians as Narmer or Hor-Aha, or another person entirely.

The unified state seems to have arrived at the same time as the development of writing, the start of large scale construction and the venturing out from the Nile Valley to trade (or perhaps campaign) in Nubia and Syria/Palestine.

Old Kingdom[]

Egyptologists consider the Old Kingdom as beginning with the Third Dynasty, and around the time of the Fourth Dynasty, the art of embalming began.

Embalming, mummification and preservation[]

A cautionary note about embalming, mummification and preservation: To embalm and to mummify essentially mean the same thing. To embalm (from Latin in balsamum, meaning to "put into balsam," a mixture of aromatic resins) and the process of mummifcation are very similar in that corpses were anointed with ointments, oils, and resins. The word mummy comes from a misinterpretation of the process. Poorly embalmed bodies (from the Late Period) are often black and very brittle. It was believed these had been preserved by dipping them in bitumen, the Arabic word for bitumen being mumiya.

There are many modern techniques for preserving a body, however, these were not available to the ancient Egyptians (freezing, pickling etc). The only method they were aware of was drying the body out in the hot sand. This left the body looking most un-lifelike, and not a very suitable home for the Ka. The answer came from the Nile.

The Nile flooded every year. Without it Egypt would be no more than a desert with a river going through it. The flooding brought with it essential silt which made the land fertile. When the waters subsided, it left pools of water behind which dried out in the sun. Once the water had evaporated it left behind a white crystalline substance called natron. The most notable thing about this substance is that it is highly hygroscopic: it will draw and absorb moisture. During the Old Kingdom, Queen Hetepheres' internal organs were removed and placed in a solution of natron (about 3%).

When the box was opened it contained just sludge, which was apparently all that remained of the Queen. Early attempts at mummification were total failures. This was recognized by the embalmers, so they took to preserving the shape of the body. They did this by wrapping the body in resin soaked bandages. They became so good at this that one example from the Fifth Dynasty of a court musician called Waty still holds details of warts, calluses, wrinkles and facial details.

The embalming process took 70 days. A few centuries later came a new technique for mummification. First, the embalmers would wash the inside and outside of the body and fill it with special wine and spice mixtures. They would then take out all the internal organs, removing the brain with a hook through the nose, and stuff the body with a natron salt solution. The heart was left inside the body because the Egyptians believed it was where the person's Ka resided. When this was done they would put all the organs pulled from the body in canopic jars to be buried with the body

They would then leave the body to dry for about 40 days, then wash it out again with wine and spice mixtures. The body would be wrapped in wet bandages and dried. This procedure ensured that the body would not swell, but rather retain its normal shape and size. The embalmers would then put scented oils, perfumes and jewelry on the body, put it in a coffin, and bury it.

Upper and Lower Egypt[]

Geographically, Egypt is viewed as two distinct sections: Upper and Lower Egypt. Lower Egypt is to the north and is that part where the Nile Delta flows into the Mediterranean Sea and Upper Egypt is to the South from the Libyan Desert down to just past Abu Simbel. Egypt is the 'Gift of the Nile' and as such everything is measured in relation to it. The Nile enters Egypt at the top, winding its way down until exiting via the fertile delta into the Mediterranean Sea in Lower Egypt.

It was in this era that formerly independent ancient Egyptian states became known as Nomes, ruled solely by the pharaoh. Subsequently the former rulers were forced to assume the role of governors or otherwise work in tax collection. Ancient Egyptians in this era emphatically believed that their pharaoh could assure the annual flooding of the Nile for their crops. They also perceived themselves as a specially selected people, "as the only true human beings on earth" ([1]). There is some evidence that around 2675 BC, Egypt started to import timber from Lebanon.


Several Pyramids were built and some abandoned before they were finished. Around 2575 BC, Pharaoh Khufu (aka. Cheops) made his mark on the landscape. For him, the greatest and most famous pyramid of all was constructed, the Great Pyramid of Giza. When looking at the pyramid group on the Giza plateau, it does not seem to be the largest. This is because the tallest looking one was built on higher ground, but is 10 meters smaller.

One notable example is the Bent Pyramid—about halfway up it appears that the builders feared they would not be able to maintain the angle they were already building and decided to change it to a less steep angle. This resulted in an odd looking pyramid, whose top sloped in suddenly. The Pharaoh Khufu was also responsible for sending expeditions into Nubia for slaves and anything else of value. It is unlikely that these people would have been used for the building of the monuments, at least not at first, as there would not have been enough of them. One popular and convincing theory is that the peasant farmers of Egypt built all of the temples and monuments during the floods. This is an attractive theory for many reasons.

During the inundation season, the Nile flooded up to the edge of the desert and would have covered all of the farm lands. If there was work to be had building monuments during the inundation season, then the peasant farmers would have had the chance to feed their family. This would also account for how the country had become, and stayed, so stable for several hundred years. Pyramid building continued for some time, in fact there are 80 known pyramid sites; although not all of them are still standing.

The Old Kingdom continued with the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. The last pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty was Pepi II, who was believed to have reigned for 94 years, longer than any monarch in history. He was 6 when he ascended the throne and 100 years old when he died. The latter years of his reign were marked by inefficiency because of Pepi's advanced age. When he died the Old Kingdom collapsed.

First Intermediate Period[]

A dark time, marked by unrest, followed upon the end of the Sixth Dynasty. The Union of the Two Kingdoms fell apart and regional leaders had to cope with famine. One theory [citation needed] holds that a sudden, unanticipated, catastrophic reduction in the Nile floods over two or three decades, caused by a global climatic cooling, reduced the amount of rainfall in Egypt, Ethiopia, and East Africa, contributing to the great famine and subsequent downfall of the Old Kingdom.

Around 2160 BC, a new line of pharaohs tried to reunite Lower Egypt from their capital in Herakleopolis Magna. In the meantime, however, a rival line based in Thebes was reuniting Upper Egypt, and a clash between the two rival dynasties was inevitable.

The pharaohs from Herakleopolis descended from a pharaoh named Akhtoy and the first four pharaohs from Thebes were named Inyotef or Antef.

Middle Kingdom[]

Around 2055 BC, Mentuhotep II from Thebes ended this period of unrest and united the country again. He installed a new administration and started a royal scale building programme. There is also good evidence for military campaigns against foreign countries.

Amenemhat I moved the capital to North Egypt (Lower Egypt). His son, Senusret I, co-reigned with him until Amenemhat was assassinated. Senusret I was able to take control immediately without the country degenerating into unrest again. Senusret I continued to wage war on Nubia.

In 1878 BC, the Pharaoh Senusret III became king. He continued the military campaigns in Nubia and was the first to try to extend Egypt's power into Syria. Later, Amenemhat III came to power. He is regarded as being the greatest monarch of the Middle Kingdom and did much to benefit Egypt. He ruled for 45 years. During the Middle Kingdom, the next phase in tomb design was the rock-cut tomb. The best examples of these can be seen in the Valley of the Kings. They still had grand temples built in more visible areas. Much of the greater activities done by the Twelfth Dynasty kings took place outside the valley of the Nile. As before, there were many expeditions into Nubia, Syria, and the Eastern Desert, searching for valuable minerals and timber. Also, trade was established with Minoan Crete.

The Thirteenth Dynasty is often considered part of the Middle Kingdom, although the period seems to be a time of confusion and of migration into Lower Egypt by Semitic tribes from Western Asia.

Second Intermediate Period[]

A Semitic people known by the Egyptians as the Hyksos, took advantage of the political instabilities of the Nile Delta to take control of it and later extend their powers south. They reputedly brought with them the horse-drawn war chariot. This breakdown of central control marks the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period. It did not take the Egyptians long to realize the power of the war chariot and use it themselves. The Seventeenth Dynasty from Thebes finally defeated the Hyksos and reunited Egypt.

New Kingdom[]

The Eighteenth Dynasty marks the beginning of the New Kingdom. Various pharaohs extended the control of Egypt further than ever before, retaking control of Nubia and extending power northwards into the Upper Euphrates, the lands of the Hittites, and Mitanni.

Eighteenth Dynasty[]

Tutanchamun Maske

Golden mask from the mummy of Tutankhamun

This was a time of great wealth and power for Egypt. Hatshepsut was a pharaoh at this time. Hatshepsut is unusual as she was a female pharaoh, a rare occurrence in Egyptian history. She was an ambitous and competent leader, extending Egyptian trade south into present-day Somalia and north into the Mediterranean. She ruled for twenty years through a combination of widespread propaganda and deft political skill. By the time of Amenhotep III (1417 BC–1379 BC), Egypt had become so wealthy that he did nothing to further extend its powers and instead rested upon his throne gilded with Nubian gold. He was succeeded by his son Amenophis IV, who changed his name to Akhenaten. He moved the capital to a new city he built and called it Akhetaten. Here with his new wife Nefertiti, he concentrated on building his new religion and ignored the world outside of Egypt. This allowed various underground factions to build that were not happy with his new world. The new religion was something that had never happened before in Egypt. Previously, new gods came along and were absorbed into the culture, but no god was allowed to push out any old ones. Akhenaten, however, formed a monotheistic religion around Aten, the sun disc. Worship of all other gods was banned, and this move is what caused the majority of the internal unrest. The relationship between Akhenaten's introduction of monotheism, and the biblical character of Moses, who is located in Egypt at a similar (although not necessarily simultaneous) period, is both unclear and controversial.

A new culture of art was introduced during this time that was more naturalistic and a complete turnabout from the stylised frieze that had ruled Egyptian art for the last 1700 years. Concerning art and Akhenaten, an area of interest to many Egyptologists is the peculiarity of Akhenaten's physical features. Many pharaohs are portrayed in a stylized manner however, Akhenaten is shown in paintings and carvings with unusually feminine features, specifically wide hips and elongated, delicate facial features. Some theories assume that the depiction is accurate and not stylized, suggesting that Akhenaten suffered from birth defects which were common among the royal families.

Towards the end of his 17-year reign, Akhenaten took a co-regent, Smenkhkare, who is sometimes considered to be his brother. Their co-reign lasted only 2 years. When Akhenaten died, worship of the old gods was revived. In truth, their worship had never ended, but had instead gone underground. Smenkhkare died after a few months of sole reign, and in his place was crowned a young boy. He was not ready for the pressure of ruling this great country, and the advisors that surrounded him made the decisions for him. His given name was Tutankhaton, but with the resurgence of Amun, he was re-named Tutankhamun. One of the most influential advisors was General Horemheb. Tutankhamun died while he was still a teenager and was succeeded by Ay, who probably married Tutankhamun's widow to strengthen his claim to the throne. It is possible that Horemheb made Ay a monarch to act as a transitional king until he was ready to take over. In any case, when Ay died, Horemheb became ruler, and a new period of positive rule began. He set about securing internal stability and re-establishing the prestige that the country had before the reign of Akhenaten.

Nineteenth Dynasty[]

The Nineteenth Dynasty was founded by general Ramesses I, appointed heir by Horemhab. He only reigned for about a year and was followed by his son Seti I (or Sethos I). Sethos I carried on the good work of Horemheb in restoring power, control, and respect to Egypt. He also was responsible for creating the fantastic temple at Abydos. Seti I and his son Ramesses II are the only two pharaohs known to have been circumscribed, although quite why they had this performed is somewhat of a mystery. Ramesses II, his son and successor, reigned for 67 years from the age of 18 and carried on his father's work and created many more splendid temples, such as that of Abu Simbel. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a poem about him called Ozymandias.

The time frame for the reign of Ramesses II is often believed to have coincided with the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, as Rameses II built his capital Per-Ramses, on the site of Hyksos Avaris, shifting the capital of Egypt to the Delta (the land of Goshen). Others dispute this claim, setting exodus as an earlier or later event, or disputing whether Exodus was a historical event at all. There are no records in Egyptian history of any of the events described in the Bible, nor any archaeological evidence. Indeed, even though there are records so detailed as to describe the escape of a pair of minor convicts from Egyptian territory, there is no such record for hundreds of thousands of Israelite slaves. Linguistic studies have drawn certain potential origins for elements of biblical history, although they do conflict substantially with the biblical accounts - for example, records about the Sea Peoples may indicate that the Israelite tribe of Dana and possibly Asher attacked Egypt during the later 19th and early 20th Dynasty, although they also indicate that these tribes were allied with the Philistines rather than against them.

Ramesses II was succeeded by his son Merneptah and then by Merenptah's son Seti II. Seti II's throne seems to have been disputed by his half-brother Amenmesse, who may have temporarily ruled from Thebes. Upon his death, Seti II's polio afflicted son, Siptah, was appointed to the throne by Chancellor Bay, an Asiatic commoner who served as vizier behind the scenes. On Siptah's early death, the throne was assumed by Twosret dowager queen of Seti II (and possibly Amenmesses's sister). A period of anarchy at the end of Twosret's short reign, saw a native reaction to foreign control, led by Setnakhte who reigned for less than 12 months before passing the throne to his mature son, Ramesses III. These last two kings were pharaohs of the Twentieth Dynasty. Rameses III, after saving Egypt through a number of battles, with Libyans and Sea Peoples, was followed by a number of short-lived reigns by pharaohs all called Ramesses.

New Kingdom mummies[]

In this New Kingdom, coffins changed shape from the Middle Kingdom rectangle to the familiar mummy-shape with a head and rounded shoulders. At first these were decorated with carved or painted feathers, but later were painted with a representation of the deceased. They were also put together like Russian Matryoshka dolls in that a large outer coffin would contain a smaller one, which contained one that was almost moulded to the body. Each one was more elaborately decorated than the one larger than it.

It is from this time that most mummies have survived. The soft tissues like the brain and internal organs were removed. The cavities were washed and then packed with natron, and the body buried in a pile of natron. The intestines, lungs, liver and stomach were preserved separately and stored in Canopic Jar protected by the Four Sons of Horus. Such was the perceived power of these jars that even when the Twenty-First Dynasty started to return the organs to the body after preservation instead of using the jars, the jars continued to be included in the tombs.

Third Intermediate Period[]

After the death of Ramesses XI, the High Priest of Amun at Thebes Piankh, assumed control of Upper Egypt, ruling from Thebes, with the northern limit of his control ending at Al-Hibah. (The High Priest Herihor had died before Ramesses XI, but also was an all-but-independent ruler in the latter days of the king's reign.) The country was once again split into two parts with the priests in Thebes and the Pharaohs at Tanis. Their reign seems to be without any other distinction, and they were replaced without any apparent struggle by the Libyan kings of the Twenty-second Dynasty.

Egypt has long had ties with Libya, and the first king of the new dynasty, Shoshenq I, was a Meshwesh Libyan, who served as the commander of the armies under the last ruler of the Twenty-First Dynasty, Psusennes II. He unified the country, putting control of the Amun clergy under his own son as the High Priest of Amun, a post that was previously a hereditary appointment. The scant and patchy nature of the written records from this period suggest that it was unsettled. There appear to have been many subversive groups, which eventually led to the creation of the Twenty-third Dynasty, which ran concurrent with the latter part of the Twenty-Second Dynasty. After the withdrawal of Egypt from Nubia at the end of the New Kingdom, a native dynasty took control of Nubia. Under king Piye, the Nubian founder of Twenty-fifth Dynasty, the Nubians pushed north in an effort to crush his Libyan opponents ruling in the Delta. He managed to attain power as far as Memphis. His opponent Tefnakhte ultimately submitted to him, but he was allowed to remain in power in Lower Egypt and founded the short-lived Twenty-fourth Dynasty at Sais.

Late Period[]

Memphis and the Delta region became the target of many attacks from the Assyrians, until Psammetichus managed to reunite Middle and Lower Egypt under his rule forming the Twenty-sixth Dynasty.

The Thirtieth Dynasty was established in 380 BC and lasted until 343 BC. This was the last native house to rule Egypt. The brief restoration of Persian rule is sometimes known as the Thirty-first Dynasty.

Open problems[]

There are several open problems concerning ancient Egyptian history. Conclusions on the origins of the Hyksos and their first leaders are disputed. It is unclear if the "Nubian Dark Age" really occurred in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt. There is question if the First Intermediate Period of Egypt really was a Dark Age. It is unknown why there were Minoan paintings in Avaris. The exact relationship between the Minoan civilization and the Egyptian civilization is debated. The Battle of Qadesh is ambiguous and who was its victor is open to debate.

There are several events concerning ancient Egyptian history that are questioned. The exact nature of the reign of Pharaoh Smendes I's is unknown. It is unknown if Egypt was split during his governance. The facts are obscure as to whether Ramesses II defended Egypt against the Sea People because they were invading, or if they were people fleeing to Egypt in the middle of a war. Data is either not available or not known as to if Ramesses III or Amenemhat I were assassinated. The exact causes concerning the disappearance of Nefertiti are unknown. It is debated if Necho II really sent out an expedition that sailed from the Red Sea around Africa back to the mouth of the Nile. The Tulli Papyrus is a controversial topic and it is debated if it comes from the reign of Thutmose III.

The events that Herodotus records of Egypt are suspicious to some scholars, and there is question on what he actually witnessed in Egypt. Exactly who Herodotus exchanged ideas with and had conversations with is debated. It is uncertain who Sonchis was, an Egyptian priest of Thebes, and why Plato wrote about Atlantis as described by this priest. It is questioned if Solon met Sonchis. It is unclear why Solon visited Egypt (if he really did).

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