Michael A. Stecker

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photo by Michael Stecker in Cairo museum


"From atop these pyramids, forty centuries look down upon you."
-- Napoleon Bonaparte to his soldiers before the Battle of Giza, 1798 --

To some it is hard to believe there was an Egypt before the Pharaohs, but many signs point to one of the first civilizations created by human-like beings might have been in the Nile Valley around 700,000 years ago, if not earlier. Stronger archaeological evidence suggests that Egypt was inhabited by primitive people as far back as 250,000 years ago. Later the Badarian (farmers) and Faiyum (oasis dwellers) peoples formed cultures based on farming, hunting and mining. Then around 4000 BC the Naqada created larger settlements. They were a war-like people that showed further development around 3300 BC when they developed an irrigation system for cultivation. Throughout most of its pre-dynastic history Egypt encompassed a multiplicity of settlements which gradually became small tribal kingdoms. These kingdoms evolved into two loosely confederated states. The one in the south (upper kingdom) encompassed the Nile valley up to the Delta (the Naqada) with Hierakonpolis as its capital and represented by the deity Seth. Its ruler wore a White Crown. The other one in the north (lower kingdom) encompassed the Nile Delta, with Buto as its capital and represented by the deity Horus. Its ruler wore the Red Crown. The two kingdoms vied for power over all the land of Egypt. This struggle led to a victory by the south and the unification of the two lands in 3100BC under the command of King Narmer ("the founder" -- later called Menes). This was the beginning of the dynastic era of the Pharaohs. The period had its ups and downs, but lasted nearly 2800 years. It has been divided into the following seven periods representing 30 dynasties (ruling families):

Archaeic Period (3100-2686BC)
Little is known of Menes, his "divine ancestry" and the complex social system he led. His capital was at Memphis, the world's first imperial city. From Memphis the third and fifth kings of the First Dynasty which extended from 3100 to 2890BC set out to conquer the Sinai. During the First Dynasty culture became increasingly refined. The royal burial grounds at Saqqara and Abydos became sites of highly developed mastabas (rectangular brick tombs). The Second Dynasty lasting from 2890 to 2686BC was characterized by regional disputes and a decentralization of Pharaonic authority.

The Old Kingdom (2686-2181BC)
The first of Egypt's pyramids were constructed during the 27th century BC. The Step Pyramid of Saqqara built for King Zoser by his chief architect Imhotep was the first major pyranid used as a burial structure. During Zoser's rule the Sun God Ra attained a pre-eminent place over all other Egyptian deities.
The Fourth Dynasty (2613-2494BC) was characterized by expansionism and pyramid construction. King Sneferu constructed the Red Pyramid at Dahshur near Saqqara and the Pyramid of Meidum in Al-Fayoum. He also sent military expeditions as far as Libya and Nubia. During his reign trading along the Nile flourished. Sneferu's descendants, Cheops (Khufu), Chephren (Khafre) and Mycerinus (Menkaure) were the last three kings of the Fourth Dynasty. These three pharaohs built the great pyramids of Giza. In its totality, the pyramid complex served the dead king but also linked kingship and cosmos together. The complex consisted of temple and imitation palace, with the pyramid a means of ascent. Scenes within the complex, however, depicted the king's role in the cosmos as overthrower of chaos, and the pyramid also represented the primeval mound upon which the creation of the universe had taken place. The materials, organization, and labor required by the pyramids, and the many estates supporting the cult and personnel of each, clearly reveal the king's firm control over Egypt and its resources. Egypt under Cheops became the first state in the history of the world to be governed according to an organized
system. This was achieved through a complex government, consisting of a central bureaucracy, directly under the pharaoh's supervision, and more than 30 provincial bureaucracies reporting to the center. During the Fourth Dynasty trade relations with the Near East and mining and smelting of copper flourished. The Fifth Dynasty (2490-2330BC) was marked by a relative decline in pharaonic power and wealth. The pharaohs ceased to be absolute monarchs and began to share power with the aristocracy and high officials. Worship of the sun god Ra also spread during the Fifth Dynasty. It was during the reign of Unas that religious texts were placed in the pyramids bearing descriptions of the afterworld which were later gathered into the Book of the Dead. By the end of the reign of the last Sixth Dynasty pharaoh, Pepi II, the Old Kingdom had decayed and was volnerable to revolution.

The First Intermediate Period (2181-2050BC)
The demise of the Old Kingdom brought a period of chaos and anarchy which characterized the Seventh Dynasty (2181-2173BC). Civil disorders multiplied and a drought struck Egypt. Out of the turmoil and pharaonic inertia, principalities within the realm rose up to challenge the authority of the kings. Achthoes, ruler of Heracleopolis, took control of Middle Egypt, seizing the throne and founding the Ninth Dynasty (2160-2130BC). The kings of Heracleopolis maintained control over northern Egypt through the Tenth Dynasty (2130-2040BC). However, the rulers of Edfu and Thebes fought over control of Upper Egypt. The battle over Upper Egypt was won by Thebes and its ruler Inyotef Sehertowy founded the Eleventh Dynasty (2133-1991BC).

The Middle Kingdom (2050-1786BC)
The north-south battle for control of Egypt ended with the victory of Nebhepetre. Mentuhotep I reunited the country under one king and launched the Middle Kingdom. His successor, Mentuhope II reigned over Egypt for fifty years and re-established political and social order which in turn revived the economic and artistic development that characterized the glory of the Pharaohs. Pharaohs' Mentuhope III and Mentuhope IV continued to rule from Thebes, building and expanding their kingdom until Amenemhat, a minister during the Eleventh Dynasty, assumed the throne and founded the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1786BC). Amenemhat moved his capital from Thebes back to Memphis. From here he annexed Nubia and extended his kingdom to the land of Sham, as far as Syria and Palestine. His successors Amenemhat II and Senusert III built the last pyramids in Lahun, Lisht and Hawara. Over time the central authority weakened, leading to civil disorder and instability and a prolonged period of upheaval.

The Second Intermediate Period (1786-1567BC)

The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasties were powerless to put down the Hyskos -- tribal warlords with foreign support who seized control of the Delta, establishing the capital of Avaris. Despite their alien origins (Hyskos means "Princes of Foreign Lands") and foreign ties, the Hyskos assumed an Egyptian identity and ruled as pharaohs. In 1567 BC Ahmose (Ahmosis) expelled the Hyskos from Egypt and the New Kingdom was born.

The New Kingdom (1567-1085BC)
Ahmose (Ahmosis) founded the Eighteenth Dynasty (1567-1320BC) reigning over the first part of a prosperous and stable imperial period during which Pharaonic culture flowered and Egypt became a world power . During the Eighteenth Dynasty ("Egypt's golden age") Nubia was subdued and its wealth of gold, ivory, gemstones and ebony flowed into Egypt. Pharaonic armies conquered the Near East, Syria and Palestine and workers from these new-established colonies, and a cultural cross-fertilization took place as artisans and intellectuals transplanted their knowledge, skills and culture onto Egyptian soil. The temple of Karnak at Thebes grew with the expansion of empire. Tuthmosis I constructed the first tomb in the Valley of the Kings. His daughter, Queen Hatshepsut (1498 - 1483 BC), reigned as pharaoh and built the temple of Deir Al-Bahri. Tuthmosis III expanded the empire beyond Nubia and across the Euphrates to the boundaries of the Hittites. Imperial expansion continued under Amenophis II and Tuthmosis IV. The reign of Amenophis III was the pinnacle of Egyptian Pharaonic power. Under Amenophis III the kingdom was secure enough for the Pharaoh to build many of the greatest Pharaonic structures including the Temple of Luxor. His son Amenophis IV fought with the priesthood of the god Amun and changed his name to Akhenaten in honour of the god Aten. With his wife Nefertiti, Akhenaten established a new capital at Tel El-Amarna dedicated to the worship of Aten, which many believe was the first organized monotheistic religion. During their short reign (1379-1362BC) pharaonic obsession with the afterlife was banished as was the old idolatry. Art began to reflect human concerns. This was called the Amarna revolution, which barely survived Akhenaten's reign. His successor Smenkhkare upheld Akhenaten's ideals but died within a year, leaving the child pharaoh Tutankhamen under the influence of the priesthood who easily convinced him to renounce the monotheism of his father-in-law and return rule to Thebes. This period has been called the Theban counter-revolution during which time the priesthood destroyed any traces of Akhenaten's reign. Tutankhamen ruled for nine years until just before reaching manhood, when he died. He is most remembered in modern times for the fabulous and pristine treasures uncovered when his tomb was discovered in 1922. The Nineteenth Dynasty (1320-1200BC) was established by the Horemheb's wazir or minister, Ramses I, who reigned for two years. Ramses and his descendants were warrior kings who recaptured territories lost under Akhenaten. His successor Seti I regained control over Egypt's eastern colonies in Palestine, Nubia and the Near East. Seti I also began construction on a majestic temple at Abydos which was completed by his son Ramses II who reconquered Asia Minor. Ramses II also constructed monumental structures like the Ramesseum in Thebes and the sun temples of Abu Simbel. His son Merneptah spent much of his reign driving back invaders from Libya and the Mediterranean. Seti II was the last king of the Nineteenth Dynasty. The Twentieth Dynasty (1200-1085BC), established by Sethnakhte, signaled the end of Egypt's glory days. By the reign of his successor Ramses III, the kingdom was occupied with defending itself against Libyan and "Sea People" invasions. Ramses III successors, who were all named Ramses, presided over the decline of their empire until Ramses XI withdrew from active control over his kingdom, delegating authority over Upper Egypt to his High Priest of Amun -- Herihor, and of Lower Egypt to his minister Smendes. These two rulers were the last of the New Kingdom.

The Late Period (1085-322BC)
The Twenty-First Dynasty was established by successors of Herihor and Smendes who continued to rule Upper and Lower Egypt separately from Thebes and Tanis. But by this period external threats from Libyan invaders and others were eroding Egypt's power. The Tanites in the north (lower Egypt) were driven from power by Libyan warriors who established their own Twenty-Second Dynasty. Upper Egypt held out longer against Nubian invaders until being overrun by the armies of their ruler Piankhi all the way to Memphis. Piankhi's brother Shabaka marched north to conquer the Delta and reunite Upper and Lower Egypt under the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty of Nubian Kings (747-656BC). The Twenty-Fifth Dynasty ended when Assyrian armies captured Memphis and attacked Thebes, driving the Nubian pharaoh Tanutamun back to Nubia. The Assyrians found a willing Egyptian collaborator in the form of a prince from the Delta. Psammetichus I governed on behalf of the Assyrians until they were forced to withdraw their forces to wage war against the Persian Empire. On the departure of the Assyrians, Psammetichus I declared himself pharaoh and established the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, ruling over a re-united Egypt from his capital at Sais in the Delta. This was to be the last great Pharaonic age which witnessed the revival of majestic art and architecture and the introduction of new technologies. Gradually, though, the power of the kingdom was eroded through invasion. The Persians first invaded Egypt in 525BC, initiating a period of foreign domination of the country which lasted until 1952. The conquering Persians established the Twenty-Seventh Dynasty (525-404BC) which ruled Egypt with an iron hand. The Persians, under the emperors Cambyses and Darius, completed a canal connecting the Nile with the Red Sea which had been started by the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty king Necho II. They also constructed temples and a new city on the site of what is now called Old Cairo. This was called Babylon in Egypt. The harshness of Persian rule resulted in revolts, which led to the Twenty-Eighth dynasty of the Egyptian ruler Amyrtaeus. The Egyptian kings of succeeding dynasties were under continual attack by Persians until the Thirtieth and final Pharaonic dynasty was overthrown by Artaxerxes III, remaining under Persian domination until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332BC. This ended the 30 pharaonic dynasties.

Greek Rule (332-30BC)
After centuries of upheaval and foreign incursions, Egypt was in disarray when Alexander the Great established his own Pharaonic rule. He reorganizing the country's government, validated the religion of the pharaohs and founded a new capital city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. Upon his death in 323BC, Alexander's empire was divided among his Macedonian generals. One of them, Ptolemy I, thus established the Ptolemaic Dynasty which ruled Egypt for three centuries. Under the Ptolemys Greek became the official language of Egypt and Hellenistic culture and ideas were introduced and synthesized with indigenous Egyptian theology, art, architecture and technology. The Ptolemy's synthesis of religious ideas resulted in the construction of the temples of Edfu and Kom Ombo, among other sacred structures. Alexandria became a great capital, housing one of history's greatest libraries. The Romans made inroads into Ptolemaic Egypt, supporting various rulers and factions until attaining total control over the country when Julius Caesar's armies attacked Alexandria. Queen Cleopatra VII was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers who reigned under the protection of Caesar with whom she had a son. With the assassination of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony arrived in Egypt and fell in love with Cleopatra, living with her for 10 years and helping Egypt retain its independence. The fleets of Octavian Caesar destroyed the Egyptian navy in the battle of Actium, driving Antony and Cleopatra to suicide and Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.