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A Quick History of Ancient Egypt
by Neil Blackmore
Predynastic Egypt
The Old Kingdom
The Middle Kingdom
The New Kingdom
Ptolemaic Egypt
Ancient Egyptian Society
Egyptian Art & Architecture
Religion & Death In Ancient Egypt
Quick Timeline
Copyright © 2016 by Neil Blackmore/Quick Histories
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used
in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the accepted use of brief, attributed quotations in a book review.
All images were labelled as licensed for reuse at time of first publication.
First published 2016
Why I Started Quick Histories
I am someone who always understood history. As a child, I pored over history books
and eventually I studied history at university. When I became a writer, I published
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Egypt, its empire, cities and neighbours c.1500 BCE: dark green, direct
control; pale green, nominally under control (desert)
Predynastic Egypt
What is now the Sahara Desert was once a vast, diverse area of lush pasture and
forest. It was well-populated, at least in terms of the time (in comparison, to Britain,
which at times, was unpopulated during the parts of the Stone Age).
Across the Sahara, cave paintings have been found showing life in the regions. One of
the best examples is at Tassili n'Ajjer in Algeria which shows everyday life for
prehistoric Algerians who expertly hunted elephants, rhinoceroses and giant buffalo,
which then still existed in the region.
About 5000 BCE, Africa entered its current dry phase. Over several centuries, the
entire ecosystem of the Sahara began to collapse. Sand and rock deserts began to
emerge and engulfed more and more habitable land.
Almost a third of the African continent was given up to desert and the peoples who
lived there had to move. Some eventually moved hundreds of miles and in every
Most important of these movements was towards the Nile Valley, where a suddenly
hugely expanded population developed into the most famous of the ancient African
civilisations: Egypt.
Eventually, a larger population in this small river zone needed someone to be in
charge. Chiefdoms appeared and eventually, these too began to unite into larger
units, into what we might recognise as small kingdoms.
These kingdoms struggled for supremacy over one another, and eventually for overall
supremacy. And so, eventually, larger kingdoms were formed. Government became
more complex, over groups of people numerous and distant enough for a codified
system of rules and regulations, known as law.
Ancient Egypt provides many great examples of the markers of why societies became
civilised. The most important of these was writing.
Language & Writing In Egypt
Writing is particularly useful in government, as complex information - for raising
taxes or issuing laws - can be relayed consistently and easily. The earliest Egyptian
rulers recognised the usefulness of writing in governing a state that began to extend
several hundred kilometres along the River Nile.
The Ancient Egyptian language survives today mainly as the liturgical language of the
Coptic Church (modern Egyptian Christians speak Arabic in daily life). It is a
northern Afro-Asiatic language related to the Berber languages of North Africa and
the Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic.
This language became the basis of hieroglyphics, one of the most iconic aspects of
Ancient Egyptian civilisation. Hieroglyphic writing dates from before 3000 BCE.
Egyptian existed as a living written language from the fourth millennium BCE to the
Middle Ages, one of the longest linguistic survivals ever.
A hieroglyph can represent a word or a sound, or even silence. The same symbol can
serve different purposes in different contexts making hieroglyphics sometimes
difficult to translate definitively or at least open to interpretation.
Hieroglyphs rendered as works of art on stone monuments and in tombs was the
most formal kind of script. In day-to-day writing, a more informal, "cursive" form
was used for speed and ease.
Eventually, as Greek became an important language in Ptolemaic (late Ancient)
Egypt, hieroglyphs became less prevalently used and were eventually replaced by the
Greek-influenced Coptic alphabet.
Quick Question: Who Was The First Person Named In History?
Eventually around 3100 BCE, a man named Narmer (traditionally identified as
Menes but archaeology suggests Narmer is more likely the correct name) became the
first person to unite these small kingdoms and chiefdoms into a recognisable
Egyptian state: the first pharaoh.
There is some debate about whether Narmer was a real or legendary character, but
he is often cited as the first person whose name is recorded in human history. As
history is the period from which written records survive, Narmer is thus the first
(named) person in history.
Egypt Emerges
Regardless, the very earliest kings solidified control over lower Egypt by establishing
a capital at Memphis, from which he could control the labour force and agriculture of
the fertile delta region, as well as the lucrative and critical trade routes abroad.
A strong institution of divine kingship developed which gave weight to increasing
state control over land, labour, and resources, a form of central authoritarianism that
became a distinguishing feature of Ancient Egyptian life.
Quick Question: What does "pharaoh" mean and when did the word first
come to mean..."pharaoh"?
The word "pharaoh" actually derives from the hieroglyphs for "house" and "column".
This appears to mean "Great House," or palace, and possibly initially referred to the
building itself, rather than its occupant.
In fact, it was not until around the 15th century BCE that the pharaoh Thutmose III
was addressed as Pharaoh as a person and then only in writing. This means that for
up to the first 1500 years of Egyptian history, the word "pharaoh" was not used for
the person of the king, although it may have referred to the institution of the
monarchy before then.
The earliest known pharaoh to have been directly as such as the controversial
Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), who lived in the 14th century BCE who was so
addressed in a letter. Even after this, it was only one of a number of titles used for the
Egyptian god-monarch. Only in the New Kingdom, 2000 years into Egyptian
history, did it become a primary title.
For most of Ancient Egyptian history, the word was pronounced pr-aa. When the
Greek-speaking Ptolemaic Dynasty took control around 322 BCE, this changed
towards pharaō from which a recognisable modern pronunciation derives today.
The Old Kingdom
Quick Question: How do we know the names of all these pharaohs and
numbers of the dynasties from so long ago?
Around 300 BCE, near the end of the three-thousand-year expanse of Ancient
Egyptian history, a priest named Manetho wrote a history of the country, possibly the
first comprehensive history written in the country. This was likely under the
influence of the Greek historian Herodotus who had written a history of Egypt, which
was significantly ruled by the Greek Ptolemaic Dynasty. Manetho compiled lists of
kings, by numbered dynasty, back to Menes/Narmer.
Although no full text of the work survives, fragments of the lists survive in other
historians' work such Josephus, the first non-Christian writer to mention Jesus
Christ. These lists of kings were repeated in many classical histories in the first
centuries CE, after Ancient Egypt had faded into history.
In 1820, an Italian Egyptologist discovered a list of kings (and gods) on scraps of
papyrus in Luxor. These fragments, the so-called Turin King List (as it now resides
in a Turin museum), confirmed and expanded Manetho's list. This chronology is
widely accepted as the most complete list of Egyptian pharaohs from the beginning
to the end of Ancient Egypt.
2686–2181 BCE The Rise And Fall of the Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom is most commonly regarded as spanning the period of time when
Egypt was ruled by the Third Dynasty through to the Sixth Dynasty.
The royal capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom was at Memphis at the southern
edge of the Nile Delta. This suggests the focus of power was further north than at
some later stages of Egyptian history, when the capital moved southwards to Thebes
and Luxor, much further from the Mediterranean.
Despite its historically early placing, the Old Kingdom was one of the most
productive eras of building in Ancient Egypt. Pyramids, already used as a royal
burial places, now grew to a massive scale.
During this period, two key elements of Egyptian architectural history were
established. First was this massiveness, and secondly, a continuity of style which has
been called a deep conservatism. Nonetheless, during the Old Kingdom, many of
these developments were very new and an astonishing testament to the ingenuity
and ambition of Ancient Egyptian builder-engineers.
The first truly great pyramid, built of millions of stone blocks, was that built for
Djoser by the architect Imhotep at Saqqara around 2630BCE. Stone was a new
building medium in Egypt then, replacing mud bricks, but its stepped style (it is
often called the Step Pyramid) is probably close to those older styles of building in
mud brick.
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Great Pyramid of Khufu/Cheops
was built a century later, and shows how stone techniques had moved dramatically
forwards, with a cool, smooth finish that shows incredible technical ability and
A century after this, the Great Sphinx at Giza was built (or possibly rebuilt), around
2450 BCE, and demonstrates the continued development of sculptural architecture.
The Great Sphinx was not a tomb but merely a monument to the Pharaoh Khafra,
whose likeness is said to be the origin of the sphinx's face.
The pyramids were not primarily built by slaves. These enormous building projects
instead were made possible by ordinary people being required to give up their labour
to help the state. It is likely they did this work as a form of national service during
the period every year when the Nile flooded, rendering farm work difficult.
Many would have died through exhaustion or accident during the construction
process. This suggests that Egypt must have been a highly controlled society with
strong belief in the divinity of the pharaoh.
Contrary to popular belief, there are not mazes of tunnels inside the pyramids to
confuse tomb robbers. The shafts are actually quite simple, leading directly to a small
central tomb. Often additional tunnels which exist were overhangs from the building
process as the foundations of the pyramid were being explored.
Another popular belief is that royal burial moved south to the Valley of the Kings
because of the threat of robbery. This too is a myth. The Old Kingdom was the
highpoint of pyramid building and after this, building preferences shifted.
Pyramid-building was always an enormous cost, which was a huge drain on the
Egyptian economy and workforce.
By the Third Dynasty, Egypt had begun expanding its power to neighbouring
kingdoms and forced the ruling classes there to rule in Egypt's name. This, plus the
sophistication of Egyptian society, meant that many peoples in North-East Africa,
most notably the Nubians to the south, began to look to, and contribute to, Egyptian
culture and politics.
The Old Kingdom reached its zenith under the Fourth Dynasty. Its pharaohs were
the greatest pyramid-builders, including the Great Pyramid of Giza. Recent
excavations revealed a large city constructed purely to house the pyramid workers.
During the Fifth Dynasty, from around 2500 BCE, the religious pre-eminence of the
sun-god Ra emerged. This seems to have shifted monumental building projects away
from pyramids towards more open-space temples where Ra could be worshipped.
Nonetheless the massiveness of Egyptian building remained in force.
As Egypt's power expanded, the country began to import and run a trade network
based on luxury goods such as ebony, myrrh, incense, frankincense, copper, gold and
exotic animal hides from the African interior.
As a result of this, and the unique position of the Nile to transport goods, Egyptians
began to develop maritime and naval technology and became highly experienced sea
travellers. Trade links expanded northwards to Palestine and Syria, across the Red
Sea into Arabia, and south beyond Nubia towards Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.
Egypt regarded itself, and was likely regarded, as at the centre of this world.
By the Sixth Dynasty (2345–2181 BCE), central control was waning. By the allegedly
94-year reign of Pepi II (2278–2184 BCE) the Old Kingdom was in crisis. After his
death, Egypt was plagued by civil wars and famines and the Old Kingdom collapsed.
2181-2055 BCE The First Intermediate Period
After the Old Kingdom, for a century and a half, Egypt was ruled by the Seventh to
the Eleventh Dynasties. However, it is unlikely that these pharaohs were rulers as
the Old Kingdom's had been.
It is more likely that Egypt had dissolved into a number of small states and the
pharaohs were associated with one of these, or may even have been more mythical
than historical.
Society appears to have declined and this was a period of invasion and uncertainty.
Many of the pyramids were robbed.
Eventually, Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt emerged as two separate but more stable
Around 2055 BCE Upper Egypt, the more southerly state with a capital at Thebes,
conquered Lower Egypt, in the Nile Delta, and reunited the country. The Middle
Kingdom had begun.
Quick Question: Who were the Nubians?
Nubia was, and still is, an area of Northeast Africa, a border region between modern
Egypt and Sudan. It was once a great civilisation that existed to the south of Ancient
Egypt, with which it had a long and complex relationship. But Nubia was very far
from just a satellite of Egypt and at times, overshadowed its more famous, northern
Initially, two early Nubian states emerged: the Sai kingdom, immediately south of
Egypt, and Kingdom of Kerma at the third cataract, in northern modern Sudan.
Eventually, Kerma and Sai united.
A united Nubia was a rival to Egypt, controlling the confluences of the Blue Nile,
White Nile, and Atbarah Rivers, and a political and trade struggle ensued. A long
period of conflict between Nubia and Egypt ended when the latter, at the height of its
power in the New Kingdom, conquered the former and ruled it for almost 500 years.
The Egyptians called this region Kush, and when it revived its independence around
1070 BCE, it was widely known by this name. Many historians believe that during
this time, the two countries became virtually culturally indistinguishable.
In the eighth century BCE, Kush invaded Egypt, taking over Thebes, becoming
pharaohs and beginning a great Empire. It did not last long: Assyrians arrived in
Egypt in the seventh century and drove the Kushites south. Kush entered into a long,
slow decline although the kingdom existed for several more centuries.
As Egypt's power also began to diminish during the last centuries of the BCE period,
Nubian culture became more unique again, an influence on later Ethiopian and
Sudanese cultures.
Nubian dominance in the area was later replaced by the related Aksum culture,
which controlled much of northeastern Africa in the first millennium CE.
The Middle Kingdom
In this chapter, you will learn about the Middle Kingdom, when Egypt began to
look towards Africa as much as the Mediterranean, and the arrival of mysterious
invaders who brought instability and violence.
2055-1650 BCE The Middle Kingdom
As stated, during the mid-21st century BCE, Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt,
and reunited the country as the Middle Kingdom.
The Upper Egyptian capital was Thebes, much further south than Memphis, and as
such the focus of Egyptian government moved further south. Additionally, a priority
for the early Middle Kingdom was dealing with Egypt's southern neighbour, Nubia.
The early pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom reformed the administration and created
the role of vizier, as close advisor and most senior administrator in the kingdom. A
new capital, known as Itjtawy, was built although some historian believe that Thebes
remained the preeminent city.
A number of demographic problems seem to have emerged. Population growth
required increases in food production, greater irrigation and more land development.
However, despite a growing population, there were regional labour shortages. This
appears to have led to planned immigration from the Near East into the Nile Delta.
But eventually, a series of failures of the Nile Delta flood brought devastation,
however. The inability of the Middle Kingdom to deal with these competing
pressures led to its eventual unravelling.
Quick Question: How did the Nile bring life - and death - to the Ancient
The Nile Delta, the area on the Mediterranean coast, where the river breaks into a
number of smaller rivers which flow into the sea, flooded naturally every summer. It
was caused by rain levels earlier in the year thousands of miles south in the Sudanese
and Ethiopian highlands. It was so regular that the Ancient Egyptians planned their
whole calendar around it.
The Nile flood essentially created the conditions by which the Nile river zone itself
could support the massive population growth that produced Ancient Egypt in the
first place. It ensured an intensely fertile area of land for hundreds of miles along the
river, almost entirely bordered by the desert.
But the system upon which millions of Ancient Egyptians depended was fragile. If
the rains failed in the south, the Nile might not flood which was disastrous for crops,
bringing famine to the country.
On the other hand, too much rain could cause excessive flooding, washing whole
towns away, leading to hunger and disease. In a densely populated country like
Egypt, a poor or an excessive flood could bring social or political chaos as well as
widespread death.
In modern times, the Egyptian dam built the remarkable Aswan High Dam in
southern Egypt to control the flow of water, and the age-old annual cycle of the flood
ended in the Nile Delta.
1650 BCE The Second Intermediate Period
The Hyksos were a people from the Near East, possibly modern Israel, although they
remain essentially fairly mysterious to historians. Traditional histories told of
violent invasion but some modern historians think that they may have been part of
the planned immigration to help with Egypt's labour shortage.
However, the decline of the Middle Kingdom allowed the Hyksos to seize power in
the north, creating a kingdom based at the ancient capital, Memphis. Having taken
the Nile Delta, the Hyksos pushed south and briefly occupying almost the whole
After this, Egyptian independence was restored in the south but the country
remained fragmented. Eventually, the 17th Dynasty led a war of liberation that drove
the Hyksos out of Egypt. Pursuing them, the pharaoh Ahmose I conquered Palestine
(he also later conquered Nubia). Thus Egypt was restored under the New Kingdom.
Quick Question: Were the Jews really enslaved by the Egyptians?
A modern historian might wish to find some connection between historical events
such as the presence of the Hyksos with less historically verifiable ones such as the
Bible story of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt.
The Bible version of the story tells of 600,000 Jewish families being taken into
generations-long bondage in Ancient Egypt until Moses eventually led them home in
a 40-year trek. Its commemoration in the Passover festival is one of the most
important in Judaism.
The Ancient Egyptians regularly mention the Habiru, a word often taken to mean
"Hebrew" but actually a more general term for the various tribes and races in secondmillennium BCE Palestine.
However, there is not one reference to their enslavement en masse in the entire
record of Ancient Egypt. It is almost impossible that in a society in which the glories
of kings' lives were endlessly recorded in tombs and on monuments that not once
would the enslavement of a whole people for many decades would not be mentioned.
It appears that the story is a myth with no historical basis.
The New Kingdom
In this chapter, you will learn about the dramatic revival of Ancient Egypt under
the New Kingdom, its famous rulers, and the unprecedented wealth and power of
the country during this period. But you will also learn about the New Kingdom's
steady decline and the centuries of disorder which preceded the last great phase of
Ancient Egyptian history.
Quick Biography: Who was Hatsheput?
Hatshepsut was a pharaoh in the early New Kingdom. She was one of the few women
in Ancient Egypt to become pharaoh, which shows though not a usual occurrence,
the society accepted female rulers. She ruled for 20 years from around 1479 BCE and
used propaganda, based around her image and divinity, to inspire loyalty among
Ambitious and talented, Hatsheput concentrated on rebuilding the economy and
infrastructure (after the Hyksos period) and extending Egyptian trade zones from
modern Somalia to across the Mediterranean. She was also an active builder,
restoring and beautifying the temples at Karnak and across the country.
She ruled with her nephew and stepson, Thutmose III, a very talented soldier, who
rebuilt the Egyptian army as she rebuilt the country. The range of talents between
them effected a miraculous recovery.
1550-1070 BCE The New Kingdom
The New Kingdom was a time of great wealth and power for Egypt. Some of the most
important and best-known Pharaohs ruled at this time such as Hatsheput and
Thutmose III, and many others.
Ancient Egypt's power peaked during the 67-year reign of Ramesses the Great in the
thirteenth century BCE, with the country's power extended far north into the Near
East, along the Libyan coast, and south into Nubia and Kush and beyond.
However, the New Kingdom was the most militarily active phase of Egyptian history
and eventually this began to exhaust the country's treasury - and increasingly
economically burdened people. During the otherwise highly successful reign of
Ramesses III, around 1200 BCE, the first-ever recorded strike took place, when food
supplies for royal-tomb builders were not supplied. This was even more remarkable
in a society known for its social control.
Through the 12th century BCE, regular droughts and flood failures brought further
Quick Biography: Who Were Akenhaten, Nefertiti and Tutankhamun?
Akenhaten's original pharaonic name was Amenhotep IV. Ascending the throne
around 1350 BCE, he was initially a fairly conventional ruler, much given to building
projects. However, in the fifth year of his reign, he changed his name to Akenhaten
and declared that he was the chosen of a new god, Aten. Worship of Aten (and
Akenhaten) would now replace the polytheistic religion that had dominated Egypt for
a millennium or more.
It is not clear why he did such a thing. Although some historians claim that
Akenhaten was religiously tolerant, the archaeological record shows that ordinary
Egyptians scratched the names of older gods like Amun/Ra out of personal
possessions, possibly out of social pressure or personal fear. Akenhaten also planned
a brand-new capital at enormous expense but this never came to pass, as he died,
and his religion quickly faded.
Akenhaten's wife was one of the most famous women of Ancient Egyptian history:
Nefertiti. Her name means "the beautiful woman has come," and her extraordinary
beauty was celebrated in her lifetime and after. Her origins are mysterious but she
rose to become the Great Royal Wife, effectively queen.
She actively supported her husband's religious reforms and appears to have acquired
great power personally. In fact, Akenhaten went to lengths to promote her as his coruler and wisest advisor.
Her name suddenly disappears without explanation in the historical record. Many
historians assumed this was because she died, but others believe she became the
Pharaoh Smenkhkare, who briefly succeeded Akenhaten.
Smenkkhare's reign did not last long and the Aten reforms were overthrown. The
next pharaoh was the boy king Tutankhamun, Akenhaten's son by one of his sisters.
Intermarriage in the Egyptian royal family was common long before the connection
between incest and birth defects were known.
These issues may well have been the cause of Tutankhamun's death at the age of
about 18. Two stillborn children buried with him also show signs of deformity.
Tutankhamun's short reign and young death meant that his reign was of little
interest to Egyptologists until in 1922, his tomb was discovered by Howard Carter
and George Herbert, revealing the most lavishly intact royal burial chamber ever
Quick Question: Did Ancient Egyptian brothers and sisters really get
There is considerable evidence of brother-sister - and even father-daughter marriage in Ancient Egypt, especially at the highest levels of society. Unlike most
societies in human history, there was no particular taboo around incest. As stated,
there was little understanding that incestuous relationships produced much higher
levels of birth defects.
Egyptian mythology also included stories of marriages between genetically related
gods and this would have greatly legitimised the practice. It was likely that such
relationships strengthened the unity of family wealth and loyalty. Although some of
these marriages were probably in name only, very many of them were fully sexual
relationships which produced children.
Incestuous marriage was well-documented at all levels of society, however. Marriage
between cousins and uncles and nieces were well-recorded, although these would
have had fewer genetic consequences.
It was previously believed that eventually the practice began to die out except at the
highest levels of society. However, one study of Ptolemaic-era Egypt showed that
24% of marriages at all levels of society were between a brother and a sister.
Cleopatra married not one but two of her brothers.
1070 BCE Third Intermediate Period
After the death of Ramesses III, the royal family entered a long period of squabbling.
Eventually, corruption grew and a period of drought and famine weakened society.
The New Kingdom fragmented and was followed by the Third Intermediate Period,
which lasted an extraordinary 700 years.
Although still a wealthy and advanced region, Egypt's prestige declined considerably,
eclipsed by the rise of new cultural and political forces such as Persia and Assyria as
well as the continued power and influence of Nubia.
There was a long period of first Libyan and then Nubian rule, which effectively ended
Egyptian independence for several centuries, although at times a native pharaoh was
in place.
From 671 BCE, the Assyrians began to push the Nubians out and then by around 500
BCE, the Persians took over. In the fourth century BCE, Egypt briefly recovered its
independence but it was to be very short-lived. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great
appeared with his much-feared forces on the Egyptian border. The country almost
immediately surrendered to him.
Alexander died nine years later, but not before founding a new city, Alexandria,
which would become one of the most important and famous in Egypt's history. At
his death, Alexander's Greek generals dismembered his empire.
One of these, Ptolemy, gained the prize of Egypt, and so gave his name to the next and last- phase of Ancient Egyptian history.
Ptolemaic Egypt
In this chapter, you will learn about the last great phase of Ancient Egypt,
dominated by a remarkable Greek family who took the country in a new direction.
You will also learn how the country came to be viewed hungrily by rising Rome,
and the valiant efforts of its final pharaoh to preserve her country's independence:
All the male rulers of the new Greek dynasty were named Ptolemy. They adopted the
Egyptian custom of brother-sister marriage, which at first strengthened their
position but later created birth defects and deep family conflicts. Several women in
the family also ruled, either officially or semi-officially, in their own name.
Although the Ptolemies initially showed little interest in changing Egyptian society or
religion, they themselves clung to Greek culture. Inevitably, Greek civilisation then
became prestige throughout the country. Additionally, immigration from Greece was
encouraged. A Greco-Egyptian ruling class emerged and Greeks remained a
privileged minority.
The early decades of the dynasty, under Ptolemy I, were occupied with securing the
country in the ongoing struggles following the collapse of Alexander's empire.
Ptolemy I died leaving a stable and well-run country in 283 BCE at the age of 84.
Not always well-remembered now, Ptolemy I had been one of the greatest pharaohs,
rescuing Egypt from obscurity and neglect.
His son, Ptolemy II, was a strong ruler too, and did much to restore Egypt's sphere of
influence in Africa and the Middle East. He also oversaw a cultural and intellectual
revival with his wife, Arsinoe.
Ptolemy II beautified Alexandria as the new capital (the most northerly yet) and
attracted scholars to his court, particularly at its world-famous Library. He made
Alexandria the economic, artistic and intellectual capital of the Hellenistic (i.e. late
Ancient Greek) world as well as the capital of Egypt.
For the first time, Egypt was dominated by another culture. The elite began speaking
Greek and eventually hieroglyphics were abandoned in favour of a Greek-derived
His son, Ptolemy III, fought successfully against the Seleuccid Empire (another postAlexander Greek state, this time in Persia) and extended Egyptian power across the
Near East. This was the height of Ptolemaic Egypt.
After this, the Ptolemies faced two problems: increasing bad feeling and plotting
among the family itself and the emergence of Rome as the dominant power in the
Mediterranean. A Seleuccid invasion in 170 BCE was successful enough to depose
one Ptolemy in favour of another, who briefly became a humiliated puppet.
In 146 BCE, Rome conquered both Carthage and Greece, leaving only Egypt as a rival
power in the Mediterranean. The Ptolemies by this stage were busy murdering each
other so that the country fell into a decline just at the wrong time.
Rome gained more and more economic power over Egypt, a typical method Rome
used to gain political influence over a country before eventual military occupation.
The later Ptolemies were too weak to resist this. Finally, with the rise of the
ambitious and brilliant Julius Caesar to power in Rome, these pressures came to a
But one last person was prepared to fight for Egypt and so became one of the most
famous women in human history.
51 BCE Cleopatra Becomes Pharaoh
Cleopatra was in fact, the seventh Egyptian female monarch of that name, and
therefore Cleopatra VII. Egyptian monarchs were often brother-sister duos who
shared power, at least in name. She was married, in turn, to her brothers, Ptolemy
XIII and XIV. Cleopatra herself had no children with her brothers and the
relationships may not have been consummated.
Cleopatra quickly outlived or outwitted her brothers and assumed sole control of
Egypt. A highly educated woman, who reputedly spoke seven languages, she broke
with her family's Greek tradition and strongly associated herself with Egyptian
culture. She did this in part to strengthen the country's national consciousness and
desire for survival.
Julius Caesar arrived Alexandria in 48 BCE. This was a significant, and dangerous,
political moment, for Egypt. He had just conquered Gaul and become the most
powerful person in Rome. He came looking for alliance with Egypt but, a sharp
operator, Cleopatra understood the risks of having him on her territory.
Whilst married to her ineffectual younger brother Ptolemy XIV, Cleopatra became
sexually involved with Caesar and they had a son, Caesarion. Eventually she visited
Rome, feeling she had secured Egyptian independence by giving the brilliant general
a child. Then, in 44 BCE, Caesar was murdered. Cleopatra must have known, if
anything now, her situation was even worse. Not only was her ally dead, his enemies
might take control.
She began a relationship with the leader of one faction, Mark Antony, and became an
enemy of Julius Caesar's heir, Octavian. She convinced Mark Antony to protect
Egyptian independence, which outraged the Senate in Rome. When it became clear
that Mark Antony's loyalties now lay in Egypt, Octavian attacked.
Mark Antony and Cleopatra lost the battle of Actium in 31 BCE and Egyptian
independence collapsed. Octavian entered Alexandria in 30 BCE. Cleopatra was
captured but unlike his predecessors, Octavian was immune to either her sexual or
political charm.
Realising that she had lost, Cleopatra committed suicide to save her honour but she
could not save Egyptian independence. Cleopatra killed herself soon after, although
many historians believe the traditional manner of her suicide, clasping an asp snake
to her breast, is a romantic invention. She was more likely to have drunk a poison of
hemlock, wolfsbane and/or opium. She was around 39 at her death.
Her children were spirited away or murdered and no new pharaoh was appointed.
Rome made Egypt just another province of its growing empire. It is often tempting
to see Cleopatra as the romantic heroine (or even villain) of fiction.
She was in fact, a clever politician in a desperate situation under enormous pressure
from a vastly more powerful enemy, doing all she could to keep her country free.
That she ultimately failed brought to an end not only her Ptolemaic Dynasty but the
history of independent Ancient Egypt.
Ancient Egyptian Society
In this chapter, you will learn about Egypt as a well-run but tightly controlled
country and about daily life and social - and sexual - values in Egyptian society,
some of which may surprise you.
Administration & Economy
The pharaoh was an absolute monarch and, in theory, had complete control. He was
literally the owner of Egypt and most people believed wholeheartedly its living god.
He was the head of the government, though reliant on a vast bureaucracy of court
and provincial officials.
Although he was occasionally seen in public, there was a carefully constructed
mystique of splendour and mysticism surrounded him - or her, in the case of
Hatsheput, who was, as stated, the master royal propagandist.
The vizier was the senior administrator of the kingdom, heading the treasury,
building projects, and the legal and judicial system. The country was then divided
into 42 administrative regions called nomes each governed by a governor directly
responsible to the vizier.
Much of the country was centrally organized and strictly controlled. Prices were
fixed. Grain could be traded for goods and was used as payment for labourers, who
could also then trade it. Only in the fifth century BCE was coinage introduced. Even
artists worked for the state.
The Nile flood made dense population in the river valley possible and farming was
dependent upon its good operation each year. As we have seen, any repeated failure
of the flood could cause chaos in Ancient Egyptian society, even its total breakdown.
The year had three, not four, seasons: Akhet (Flood, summer/autumn), Peret
(Planting, winter), and Shemu (Harvest, spring). During Akhet, Egyptians could be
conscripted into major public projects like pyramid building.
Egyptians grew a variety of familiar and unfamiliar grains, such as emmer and
barley. Vegetables and fruits were grown in gardens. Flax was grown to create
clothes. Grapes were produced for commercial production of wine, though Egyptians
generally drank beer.
Egyptian cuisine remained remarkably stable. The staple diet was bread and beer,
made from barley, plus vegetables like leeks, onions and garlic (often made into
soups and stews) and fruit like melons, dates and figs.
Fish, both fresh and salted, was often eaten, if available. Wine and meat were
reserved for more special occasions. Modern Egyptian cookery retains a number of
elements of ancient cuisine.
Fishing in the Nile was both an industry and a common activity for individuals and
families. Egypt also had considerable mineral resources and mining for domestic
and export was a significant industry.
Perhaps the most important industry of all to Egypt, both politically and
economically, was international trade, which served, from the Old Kingdom
onwards, as a means to advance the country's influence and power.
Uniquely it was able to connect the luxury-goods markets of the Middle East, Africa
and Southern Europe. During periods of governmental revival, economic recovery
was at least as important as military or political activities.
Society & Status
In Ancient Egyptian society, social status was particularly important. Scribes and
officials formed an upper class below the immediate royal circle, followed by priests,
physicians and engineers.
Farmers made up the bulk of the population, but agricultural produce was owned
directly by the state. Ordinary people were heavily taxed to pay for the endless
building projects or the much-needed irrigation systems which supported
Despite our perception of the pyramids being built by armies of slaves, it is not well
understood how many slaves there were in ancient Egypt and it is possible there were
relatively few. The level of control exercised over ordinary people's lives enabled the
state to be able to demand people give up time to contribute their labour to major
public projects.
Perhaps to be expected in such a tightly controlled society, punishment could be
hard: for minor crimes, fines, beating, facial mutilation, or banishment, and for more
serious crimes, including the great but common offence of theft from tombs,
decapitation, drowning, or most gruesomely, impaling. Another chillingly
totalitarian form of punishment was extension of the punishment to one's otherwise
innocent family.
Quick Question: What is the Egyptian Book of the Dead?
The existence of an Egyptian Book of the Dead was known throughout history, and
fragments survived, but in an age before the translation of hieroglyphics, was not
understood. One theory included that it served the same purpose to the Egyptians as
the Bible or the Qur'an.
However, in 1842, an Egyptologist named Lepsius realised that it was a book of
spells. A whole field of Egyptology has developed since dedicated to unifying and
understanding various books of the dead.
It is now understood to be a flexible funerary text, usually as a papyrus document, an
expensive item which suggests they were usually reserved for the wealthy.
There was no single, official version. Almost 200 spells have been discovered in
total, and they generally serve to help the deceased person in the afterlife or to
protect the dead from hostile elements encountered there.
As traditional Egyptian religion faded after the Roman occupation, so too did the use
of books of the dead.
Life In Egypt
Ancient Egyptian culture put great emphasis on leisure and comfort. Games and
music - percussion, bells, harps and flutes - were popular. Board games were very
popular, including senet, a game of chance possibly with significant spiritual
Wrestling and hunting were popular sporting activities which would have attracted
audiences as well as participants. Unsurprisingly, with the dominance of the Nile,
boating was a very popular pastime, although it became more luxurious higher up
the social scale.
Many ordinary Egyptians would have enjoyed relaxing, bathing and swimming in the
water, although at the time, the Nile had a large crocodile population - so Egyptians
would have been very careful to avoid their reptilian neighbours!
Personal Appearance
Ancient Egyptians were very concerned with personal appearance.
Linen was by far the most common fabric and was cool in the heat, spun from widely
grown flax. It helped people to be comfortable in the heat. Dyeing was well
understood but clothes were usually left undyed. Animal skins were a more
luxurious form of clothing, with the Pharaoh often wearing a leopard skin or a lion's
Old Kingdom men wore short wrap-around skirts but these grew longer after the
Middle Kingdom. Their chests might be left bare. Women's clothing covered more of
the body, although the breasts were sometimes exposed. The more covered her
body, the higher status the woman. Slaves and children were often left naked.
Wigs were worn by wealthy people of both genders, made from human and horse
hair. These were often decorated and perfumed. Perfumes were also used to scent
and soothe the skin.
Jewellery was very popular in Ancient Egypt. The preference was towards heavy,
large pieces with bright colours and precious metals and stones. Gold was not
especially rare in North Africa at the time but had significant meaning for Ancient
Egyptian men and women both wore cosmetics, especially black kohl made from
galena, around their eyes, green eye shadow made from malachite, and red lipstick,
made from ochre.
Unlike many pre-modern cultures, the ancient Egyptians placed a great value on
hygiene. Most bathed in the Nile very frequently, using a soap made from animal fat
and chalk. Men shaved their entire bodies, believed to be a sign of cleanliness.
Although hotly disputed by academics, the sexual culture of Ancient Egypt is often
one of the most surprising aspects of those reading its history.
Sex appears to have been openly and enthusiastically discussed by Ancient Egyptian
society. There were few taboos around sex and the idea of feeling guilty about sexual
desires or behaviours would have been very strange to Egyptians.
Men and women were allowed to have sex before marriage. Masturbation was
openly regarded as entirely normal and a pleasure which should be enjoyed.
However once married, Egyptian society had strong views on what was expected of
the couple. The production of children was seen as hugely important and the failure
to have children was seen as very much a personal failure -by the rest of society.
As noted, there was no social taboo against incest, and brothers and sisters often
However, this should not be taken as a sign of a wholesale liberalism around sex.
Adultery was regarded as taboo and might lead to divorce, which was legally possible
for a wider number of reasons.
Furthermore, there are stories of women - but not men - being killed for adultery.
Although Ancient Egyptian men and women were equal before the law, women were
generally socially judged more strongly than men on sexual matters.
Male, more so than female, homosexuality appears to have been accepted as a
natural sexual occurrence and was not particularly condemned (although sometimes
regarded humorously). Concepts such as "gay" or "straight" did not really exist
before the Victorian era, and thus would have been very strange to Ancient
One tomb painting depict a pair of men buried there together embracing and
touching each other nose-to-nose which denotes kissing in Egyptian art. Another
famous story tells of Pharaoh Pepi II visiting a favoured soldiers of his and "doing
what one desires," a euphemism of Ancient Egypt for sex. Same-sex encounters,
sometimes violent, sometimes romantic, are also featured in Egyptian mythology.
In the more conservative sexual world of the ancient Jews, Talmudic literature makes
primly salacious reports on the shocking sexual behaviour of their Egyptian
Egyptian Art & Architecture
In this chapter, you will learn about some of the greatest cultural achievements of
the Egyptians, such as the pyramids, and why building mattered in their culture.
The pyramids served as a testament to the power of the Pharaoh. Their size and
simple elegance show astonishing engineering knowledge and skill. A fuller history
of the pyramid is included in the chapter on the Old Kingdom.
Over time, the preference for building shifted away from pyramids towards temples.
As well as the economic forces described above, this reflected the increasing
importance of the sun god Ra, whose sunlight could be worshipped in temples' more
open spaces.
The temple complex of Karnak near Luxor was one of the most spectacular temple
complexes, consisting of four main parts, the Precinct of Amon-Re, the Precinct of
Montu, the Precinct of Mut and the Temple of Amenhotep IV (later dismantled). It
was one of the few temple complexes which was regularly rebuilt or beautified,
underlining its cultural importance.
The nearby Luxor temple is a huge complex located on the east bank of the Nile. It is,
in part, a highly decorated paean to the achievements of Ramesses the Great.
Ancient Egyptian art did not change significantly over the thousands of years of the
culture's survival, although Greek influences increased during the Ptolemaic period.
Simple lines, shapes, and blocks of unchanging colour combined with flat figures and
spatial depth and the mixing of images and writing create the iconic Ancient
Egyptian painting style.
Paints were obtained from minerals such as iron ores (red and yellow ochres), copper
ores (blue and green), soot or charcoal (black), and limestone (white).
Egyptian art was highly symbolic and was not intended to be naturalistic or realistic.
Its textures are flat and make no attempt at perspective. The important function was
to commemorate and celebrate, and so art mixed writing, painting and sculptural
relief quite easily.
Colours were expressive rather than natural. Sizes of figures had no realistic
meaning but rather showed the importance of that particular figure. Animals might
denote a god, a human being or describe some magical or spiritual force.
Skin colour in art denoted class rather than skin tone: red skin implied those worked
outside, yellow skin women or those who worked indoors, blue or gold skin the
divine, black skin royalty.
Death masks and burial sarcophagi, sculpture and jewellery, in gold and precious
stones, were very important, for those who could afford them. The discovery of the
tomb of Tutankhamun enormously helped Egyptologists understand the techniques
and skills used in their production.
Quick Question: Were Ancient Egyptians black or white?
During the 20th century, a debate raged first in American universities and later more
generally in US society about whether Ancient Egyptians were black Africans. At
times, this discussion became fierce with accusations of racism.
Outside the US, the discussion itself was criticised. In North African and other
academic circles, the argument itself has been called racist for being about American
racial politics and nothing to do with the genetic or cultural history of Northeast
As we have seen, arguments around skin colour in Egyptian art - that pharaohs were
painted black and so therefore racially black - misunderstand academic consensus on
representation in Ancient Egyptian art.
It also misunderstands how race was viewed in the ancient world. Few of the major
civilisations of the ancient Mediterranean-Middle East-North Africa were much
concerned with skin colour. They distinguished themselves by language or cultural
distinctions far more. Ancient Egyptians probably would not have understood our
racial descriptions "black" or "white".
Recent genetic studies have moved the discussion further. DNA tests on mummies
show that Ancient Egyptians were primarily related to the historic populations of
North and Northeast Africa, the Berber and Semitic peoples whose languages they
spoke. Meanwhile, one skull analysis of a number of mummies demonstrated that
Ancient Egypt was a multicultural society with good representation of the indigenous
populations of the wider region, no doubt attracted by the many opportunities
Egypt's wealth and sophistication offered.
Religion & Death In Ancient Egypt
In this chapter, you will learn about the intense and central role religion played in
Ancient Egypt, the great importance of preparing for death to Egyptians, and its
complex funeral customs.
Religion was integrated into almost every part of life. Egyptians believed strongly in
many deities who were present in and controlled life, nature and fate.
The gods' forms were fluid, moving between human and animal, and between
genders. They were supernatural and magical beings who could be called on for help
but who were temperamental and occasionally cruel.
Religious emphases did change over time. The Egyptians had no unified religious
scripture to discourage change. There were many writings on religion but these were
never unified into a single, definitive text such as the Bible. At various times, certain
gods became more important, notably the sun god Ra, the creator god Amun, and the
mother goddess Isis.
Some of the most important gods with their representative animals were:
God of the Sun
The most important god, who died every day and went to the Underworld, only to
return the next day
Head of a falcon crowned with the sun and a cobra
King of the Gods
He could combine with Ra he to form the all-powerful Amun-Ra
Head of a ram
God of mummification
Head of a jackal
God of the afterlife, death and renewal
Usually shown in human form
Goddess of Protection and of household entertainment
Head of a cat
Earth God whose laughter caused earthquakes
Head of a goose
Goddess of love, joy, music and dance .
Head of a cow
Goddess of war
Head of a lioness
God of the desert and violence
Head of a mysterious aardvark-like animal
God of the sky, whose spirit entered the Pharaoh
Head of a falcon
Goddess of the rain
Head of lioness
God of wisdom and knowledge
Head of an ibis bird
Ancient Egyptians were intensely concerned with the afterlife, how to prepare for it
and what they would experience during it. The Egyptians made great efforts to
ensure the survival of their souls after death. They spent lavishly and attributed to
tombs, grave goods, and offerings to the gods.
Religion centred on the person of the Pharaoh, who was himself a god and an
intermediary to the main pantheon of gods. This connection to the gods hinged on
the building and maintenance of large, numerous temples, staffed by a large
population of elite priests.
Temples were not places of public worship but were seen as places were priests who
worked for the good of the whole population performed sacrifices to appease these
temperamental gods.
Egyptians believed that they should try to win the favour of gods in order to prosper
or avoid bad luck. Individuals tried to interact with the gods through prayer and
magic, which reflected temple practices.
Animals were very important to ancient Egyptians, both spiritually and personally,
and pets and other animals were often killed and mummified to accompany the dead
in their tombs. This was not seen as cruel but as an act of honour and love for the
The Afterlife
Ancient Egyptians believed in an eternal soul which would be judged worthy or
unworthy. Burial customs were elaborate and were seen as preparation for the
afterlife. These involved mummification, burial ceremonies, and interring with the
body with useful or valuable goods for the afterlife.
They believed that humans possessed ka, a soul-like life-force, which left the body at
death. Ka needed food even in death, hence the importance of food offerings in the
A person also had ba, a distinct, second life-force, which included their own
characteristics, which did not naturally leave the body at death. Funeral customs
were designed to release ba from the body and to rejoin it with ka and live on
reunited in the afterlife as a full soul called akh. The body was mummified to
preserve so that the ba could return to it, if necessary, as the journey of the ba was
often difficult.
Initially it was believed that only the Pharaoh had an afterlife but by the Middle
Kingdom, it was believed that everyone lived on after death and faced a final
judgement by the gods. At this judgement, a person's heart would be weighed which
would show the honour and honesty of their actions.
Those who passed would see their akh reunited in the afterlife. Several different
beliefs prevailed over what this afterlife meant, from a pleasant wonderland to
journeys between the lands of the living and the dead.
It was believed that in the afterlife, one could face danger and hazards as well as
pleasures and that one had to work much as one had before in the land of the living.
Egyptians believed in a system of magic known as heka, which was understood as a
natural force which could be harnessed and employed. Both gods and humans could
use heka.
People believed objects could be imbued with heka, such as the magically protective
amulets routinely worn by ordinary Egyptians.
Magic was associated with the priesthood who were believed to be great experts in
spells and the nuances of magic. Magic was used by other professions too, especially
doctors. The making of amulets to be worn with magical intent was a whole separate
Much of ordinary religious practice was believed to contain some element of magic.
Casting of spells, singing of hymns and other private religious practice all used heka.
Magic was seen as a good force and a way to overcome or prevent the negative in life.
As stated, it was considered essential that the body was preserved because it was not
straightforward how ba left the body and could return to it, unlike ka. This
necessitated the development of complex techniques to preserve the body so that it
could (in theory) go into the afterlife or remain whole in the tomb as a refuge for the
ba's difficult journey.
Originally the dead were taken out to the desert to be buried, where the body
naturally mummified. Very early on, though, tombs were used for greater protection
both from the desiccating effects of sand on the body and from theft.
Elaborate embalming practices developed, in which the corpse was artificially
desiccated, cured and wrapped to preserve it in the coffin. Mummification became a
prized and sophisticated art form taking 70 days and involving removing the internal
organs, removing the brain through the nose, and salting and wrapping the body.
Tombs could contain many items including small models of the deceased and of
imagined others, who could do work for them in the afterlife. Wealthier individuals
were buried with furniture, clothing, amulets and other items to provide magical
protection in the sometimes hazardous afterlife. Funeral texts, such as the Book of
the Dead, or wall paintings might also be added for the rich.
Before burial, priests performed the Opening of the Mouth ritual. This was designed
to bring the dead back to a form of consciousness, ready for the afterlife. Then the
mummy was buried and the tomb sealed.
The relatives of the deceased believed that they had an ongoing relationship with the
deceased, and remained very concerned that they had provided sufficient supplies
and spells to help them in death.
Pyramids were burial chambers reserved for royalty in the Old Kingdom and parts of
the Middle Kingdom. After this, more and more people at all aspects of society
acquired formal rock tombs, with mortuary temples nearby. By the New Kingdom
even pharaohs were buried in rock tombs.
A Quick Timeline of Ancient Egypt
All years BCE
c.5000 The coming of farming to the Nile Valley as the Sahara dries out
c. 3500-3000 The Pre-dynastic period, leading to the unification of Egypt
c. 2650 The beginning of the Old Kingdom
c.2575-2465 The Great Pyramids of Giza built
c. 2150 The fall of the Old Kingdom leads to the 1st Intermediate period begins
2074 The Middle Kingdom begins; Egypt is united and powerful again
1759 The fall of the Middle Kingdom leads to the 2nd Intermediate period, and the
occupation of northern Egypt by the Hyksos
1550 The reunification of Egypt and the expulsion of the Hyksos begins the New
Kingdom, a period when Egypt became a leading power in the Middle East
1344-1328 The pharaoh Akhenaton carries out a short-lived religious reformation
1336-1327 Tutankhamen reigns
1279-1213 The reign of Ramses II brings Egypt to the height of its power
c. 1150 onwards The New Kingdom falls into decline
728 Egypt is conquered by the Nubians
671 Egypt is occupied by the Assyrians
639 The Egyptians expel the Assyrians and begin a period of revival
525 Egypt is conquered by the Persians
332 Egypt is conquered by Alexander the Great
322 Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great's generals, founds a Greek-speaking
dynasty and revives independent Egypt
30 Cleopatra, the last queen of independent Egypt in ancient times, dies, and Egypt
is annexed by the Roman Empire