An introduction to the world of Ancient Egypt

Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/aswan-nile-felucca-cataract-3344729/
Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/aswan-nile-felucca-cataract-3344729/

Ancient Egypt is one of the most well-known of all ancient societies, because it seems incredibly mysterious. Pyramids, tombs, mummies, and strange gods have fascinated people for thousands of years.

 

The period known as ‘Ancient Egypt’ lasted from around 3100 BC until 30 BC. During this 3000-year period, kings, known as ‘pharaohs’ ruled Egypt. When the last pharaoh, Cleopatra VII died in 30 BC, Egypt was controlled by Ancient Rome, and the culture known as Ancient Egypt came to an end.

 

Geography

Before the first pharaohs took control of Egypt, climate played a key role in the culture’s development. 

 

Egypt is located in north-east Africa. Most of northern Africa is covered by the Sahara Desert, and people quickly die in deserts without access to fresh water. Therefore, rivers and lakes became the most important locations where communities and cities developed. The largest river in all of Africa is the Nile, and this is where Ancient Egypt would eventually spring from. The Nile would become the most important location in all of Ancient Egypt. All of the most famous Egyptian buildings and sites are located somewhere along this river. 

 

Even though the deserts to the east and west of the Nile were considered extremely dangerous, they also provided safety for the Egyptians: other nations did not want to march their armies across these deserts for fear of losing thousands of soldiers to dehydration.


The Nile

The Nile is one of the longest rivers in the world, measuring 6500 kilometres (over 4000 miles) from its beginning in Ethiopia to its end, at the Nile Delta at the Mediterranean Sea.

A modern satellite image of Egypt. Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/map-land-egypt-geography-11043/
A modern satellite image of Egypt. Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/map-land-egypt-geography-11043/

This river is not only important because it provided fresh water, but because it brought rich soil to Egypt every year. In spring, heavy rains in Ethiopia would produce floods which flowed throughout Egypt. As the flood waters receded, rich, black, fertile soil was left across the banks of the Nile. This helped Egyptians grow lots of crops every year.  

 

Due to the distinctive black colour of this soil, the people of ancient Egypt called the land along the river, where they lived, the ‘Black Land’ (in ancient Egyptian, kemet), and they called the red sands of the desert around them the ‘Red Land’ (in ancient Egyptian, deshret).

 

A photograph showing the difference between the fertile river banks of the Nile and the desert nearby. Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/river-nile-egypt-sailboat-dhow-378495/
A photograph showing the difference between the fertile river banks of the Nile and the desert nearby. Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/river-nile-egypt-sailboat-dhow-378495/

 

The Nile was also the most important transport route for the Egyptians. Travelling by foot in the desert was slow and dangerous. Therefore, most people preferred to sail up and down the Nile on boats. It was quicker, safer and more reliable. Those sailing down the Nile (from south to north) could simply use the river current to move, while those sailing up the river (from north to south) had to use the wind to move against the current. 

 

Finally, the plants and trees that grew along the river, particularly in the delta region in the north, provided materials for making buildings, clothes, and even paper from the papyrus plant.


Pharaohs and dynasties

The Ancient Egyptian culture began around 3100 BC when the first pharaohs took control of Egypt. The very first pharaoh was known as King Narmer (in Greek, Menes). He was able to maintain military control over most of the Nile in Egypt and set up his capital city in Memphis. 

A carving from an Egyptian temple showing the pharaoh as a military conqueror. Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/egypt-thebes-medinet-habu-temple-3352740/
A carving from an Egyptian temple showing the pharaoh as a military conqueror. Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/egypt-thebes-medinet-habu-temple-3352740/

The role of the pharaoh began as a military warlord who had the power to capture the entire land and maintain control. However, it also became a religious position, as it was believed that the pharaoh was a god. As a result, the pharaoh usually passed his power onto his first-born male child to keep it in the family. One family line could control Egypt for centuries. The period when one family was in power was called a ‘dynasty’.

 

However, there were times in Egyptian history where a pharaoh did not have son to pass the power to, or he was overthrown by someone else who wanted to be pharaoh. As a result, one family’s control was replaced by another. A new dynasty started when a new leader took power from the old one. 


Ancient Egyptian chronology

These dynasties became a useful way of measuring time in Ancient Egypt. In the 3rd century BC, pharaoh Ptolemy I asked a priest called Manetho to write him a book about Egyptian history. Manetho organised his history around these dynasties.

 

Modern historians then developed a chronology of ancient Egyptian history based upon his work. They also divided Egypt’s 3000-year history into three large sections, called ‘kingdoms’, known as the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. These kingdom periods indicated when Egypt was controlled by pharaohs. However, there were times when pharaohs lost control and the country fell into civil war. These periods of civil wars were known as Intermediate Periods.

 

Using the work of Manetho and modern historians, this is what Egyptian history looks like:

Time Period Approximate Dates
 Early Dynastic Period  3150–2686 BC
Old Kingdom 2686–2181 BC
1st Intermediate Period 2181–2055 BC
Middle Kingdom 2055–1650 BC
2nd Intermediate Period 1650–1550 BC
New Kingdom 1550–1069 BC
3rd Intermediate Period 1069–664 BC
Late Period 664–332 BC
Ptolemaic Period 332-30 BC