PRE-DYNASTIC PERIOD: c.5000-3100 BC
This period predates the unification of the northern and southern parts of Egypt. Settlements were established beside the Nile River. By 3500 BC, Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt was the largest Egyptian settlement with the busy town spread out along the Nile for over three kilometres. Hieroglyphs made their first appearance toward the end of this period, around 3250 BC by the latest estimates.
Toward the end of this time, around 3250 to 3100 BC, a period sometimes referred to by Egyptologists as Dynasty 0, there were kings in Upper (Southern) Egypt with Narmer being of particular prominence. The unification of Upper and Lower Egypt is often attributed to a king called Menes or Narmer, who may be the same person. The so-called Narmer Palette shows Narmer in battle and wearing the crown of Upper Egypt on one side and the crown of Lower Egypt on the reverse side.
EARLY DYNASTIC PERIOD: 3100-2686 BC; Dynasties 1/II
It may be that Narmer handed on a newly unified country to his son, Hor-Aha, who is considered to be the first king of the first Dynasty. He took a second royal name, Men, meaning “established” which may be another explanation for the name Menes referred to by Manetho as the first king of Upper and Lower Egypt. Hor-Aha also established Memphis, in Lower Egypt, as the country’s capital – it became one of the ancient world’s greatest cities for thousands of years.
OLD KINGDOM: 2686-2181BC; Dynasties III-VI
A Golden Age for Egypt. The king was considered the incarnation of the god Horus and from the 5th Dynasty, the son of Re, the sun god. The first major stone building in the world, the famous Step Pyramid, was constructed at Saqqara for Djoser, one of the kings of the 3rd Dynasty. During the 4th Dynasty, a number of large pyramids were built, including Khufu’s (Cheops) Great Pyramid at Giza – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one still standing. The priesthood of the god Re became powerful at Heliopolis and some of the kings of the 5th Dynasty built solar temples adjacent to their relatively small pyramids at Abusir near Saqqara. For the first time, a king (Unas – the last ruler of the 5th Dynasty) had his pyramid’s burial chamber inscribed with spells for the afterlife. These are the famous Pyramid Texts. A bodyguard may have murdered Teti, the first king of the 6th Dynasty. The dynasty ended with the exceptionally long reign of Pepi II, perhaps 94 years, which saw centralised power dwindle away.
FIRST INTERMEDIATE PERIOD: 2181-2040 BC; Dynasties VII-XThis period saw a breakdown of central government. Local governors who would not answer to any king governed provinces. Major building projects are not found from this time, indicating the weakness of the kings. Dozens of kings are listed for the period, meaning that perhaps they had either very short or overlapping reigns. Famine affected the country as a result of a number of poor annual inundations of the Nile. Some scenes on tomb walls depict people suffering from malnutrition. Memphis may have remained the principal administrative centre for much of the First Intermediate Period, although by the 9th Dynasty the town of Herakleopolis Magna was producing rulers. They came into conflict with a family line from Thebes in the early part of the 11th Dynasty, which Egyptologists often include in this period.
MIDDLE KINGDOM: 2040-1782 BC; Dynasties XI/XII
Reunification of Egypt occurred in the 11th Dynasty under the rule of Mentuhotep I, fourth king of that dynasty, whose family was based in Thebes (modern Luxor). After a series of battles with northern rulers, Mentuhotep I controlled the whole of Egypt by the 39th year of his reign. The administrative centre of the country became a place called Itj-tawy which is believed to have been located near the Faiyum Oasis.
The 12th Dynasty began, it seems, when king Mentuhotep III was overthrown by Amenemhet I (probably the former’s vizier) who ruled for about 29 years. It was under him that the Theban god Amun began his rise to prominence. Amenemhet began to share his rule with his son Senusret I for the last 10 years of his reign until the former’s murder. Later in the Dynasty, Senusret III pushed beyond Egypt’s boundaries, including campaigns into Nubia to the south. The move was to protect the southern border and safeguard access to trade routes and Nubia’s abundant gold resources. The Middle Kingdom is well known for being the highpoint in Egyptian literature and it also saw a revival in the quality of art.
SECOND INTERMEDIATE PERIOD: 1782-1570 BC; Dynasties XIII-XVII
A period about which not a lot is known and rulers did not last very long. Invaders (known as the Hyksos) came from Asia and moved into the Delta. They introduced the Egyptians to the horse-drawn chariot, the composite bow and bronze weapons. This period of instability lasted two centuries and was brought to an end by a Theban family, one of whom (Ahmose) finally expelled the Hyksos.
NEW KINGDOM: 1570-1070 BC Dynasties XVIII-XX
The New Kingdom’s first king was Ahmose who reunified Upper and Lower Egypt. This was another Golden Age for Egypt as it expanded its empire. Memphis was the administrative capital again. The term pharaoh began being applied to the king. Queen Hatshepsut became pharaoh by default while acting as regent for a young Tuthmosis III. He eventually came to power and became the “Napoleon” of ancient Egypt. The empire spread far to the south into ancient Nubia (south of modern Aswan and into northern Sudan), while in the north the territory under control was expanded well into the Near East.
It was in the New Kingdom that most of the pharaohs’ tombs were located in the Valley of the Kings and their mortuary temples were separately located. Egypt became incredibly wealthy through trade and foreign conquests. The country’s religious orders also benefited – particularly that of the state god Amun-Re with its powerful clergy and vast temples and estates. The existing religious orders were deposed for a while during the 14th century BC when the heretic king Akhenaten established a new religious order – that of the sun god Aten. The old temples were abandoned and a new capital, Akhetaten, was established to the north. Attention to international affairs waned.
Soon after the death of Akhenaten, his probable son – Tutankhaten – became pharaoh at about the age of nine. His was a short reign, but the old religious orders rose again and Akhenaten’s city was destroyed. Tutankhaten’s name was changed to Tutankhamun, but his reign was only about nine years. He was followed as pharaoh, by the elderly Ay. Several years later, a general by the name of Horemheb came to power and started a campaign to eliminate evidence of his immediate predecessors for whom he had served.
His successor was Ramesses I who was the first in a long line of Ramesside kings in the 19th and 20th Dynasties. (Note that some Egyptologists list Horemheb as the first king of the 19th Dynasty.) Ramesses I’s grandson, Ramesses II, is often referred to as Ramesses the Great. He became one of Egypt’s greatest builders and signed the first recorded peace treaty in history. By the 20th Dynasty the power of the pharaohs had waned and there were battles with invaders called the Sea Peoples under Ramesses III, the last significant pharaoh of the New Kingdom. Egypt would never rule again with the same power. Ramesses XI was the last of the rulers of the New Kingdom. The Theban priesthood virtually controlled Upper Egypt by the end of the New Kingdom, while the pharaoh had ruled from the Delta.
THIRD INTERMEDIATE PERIOD: 1070-525 BC; Dynasties XXI-XXVI
After the end of the New Kingdom, Egypt was virtually bankrupt. Despite this some of the pharaohs of the 21st Dynasty were buried in the Delta with considerable wealth which came to light in 1939-40 – the discovery did not receive much publicity because of World War II. Smendes, the first king of the 21st Dynasty, ruled from Tanis in the Delta, while the high priest of the god Amun, Pinudjem, ruled from Thebes in the south despite intermarrying between the two lines to smooth relations. By the 22nd Dynasty, pharaohs of Libyan descent came to power in the Delta while the Theban rulers weakened and some unity was re-established for a short time.
By the 8th century BC, the influence of Nubia on Egypt’s southern border was being felt. Nubia had been strongly influenced by the cult of Amun which had been introduced to them during the New Kingdom. Now the Nubians saw an opportunity to re-establish the old order of Amun in Thebes, which they did by becoming rulers of Egypt in the 25th Dynasty. In the early 7th century BC, the country was ruled by Taharqa who began to have problems with the Assyrians and their expansionist policies. Finally, in 671 BC, the Assyrians, under Esarhaddon, pushed into Egypt and captured the capital Memphis and most of the royal family. Taharqa fled south to Thebes.
Two years later Taharqa regained control, but Esarhaddon’s son Ashurbanipal attacked and recaptured Memphis. Taharqa’s successor, Tanutamun, managed to regain control of the country, but eventually Ashurbanipal returned with a vengeance and moved to Thebes where the temples were raided of their treasures. Nubia would never again rule Egypt. Psamtik (Psammetichus) was recognised by the Assyrians as the king of Egypt from 664 BC and the country began to enjoy peace for about the next 140 years. The old crafts reached a very high standard again and many of the styles of the Old Kingdom were copied. Assyria began to have internal problems and by 653 BC, Psamtik asserted independence for Egypt which was once again becoming a power in the region, although never like it once was.
LATE DYNASTIC PERIOD: 525-332 BC Dynasties XXVII-XXXI
Peace for Egypt ended when it was invaded by the Persian king Cambyses II in 525 BC. When the Greeks defeated the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC, the Egyptians took advantage of the distraction and in 486 BC they revolted. However, Egypt repeatedly had to deal with Persian invasions over nearly two centuries. The last Persian invasion took place in 343 BC during the reign of the Nectanebo II, the last Egyptian pharaoh. Egypt would not see another Egyptian as ruler until AD 1952.
MACEDONIAN/PTOLEMAIC PERIOD: 332-30 BC
In 332 BC, the Macedonian empire expanded into Egypt with the arrival of Alexander the Great. The Egyptians welcomed Alexander after all the troubles of the Persian occupations. He ordered the restoration of temples sacked by the Persians in 343 BC. On the western side of the Delta, construction began on the city of Alexandria. When Alexander died suddenly in Babylon in 323 BC, control of Egypt fell into the hands of his half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus and posthumous son Alexander IV. By 305 BC, the Macedonian general Ptolemy I became the first in a long line of Ptolemaic rulers.
During the 3rd century BC, Alexandria began to flourish as the jewel of the Ancient World. The city became famous for its Great Library and the lighthouse, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ptolemaic rule was stable and a number of major temples were constructed in Upper Egypt. The Ptolemaic line lasted until the reign of Cleopatra VII, the daughter of Ptolemy XII. Cleopatra later became the mistress of Julius Caesar from Rome and bore him a child. After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra sided with Mark Antony against Caesar’s heir, Octavian. Following the sea battle of Actium in 31 BC where Cleopatra’s ships fled home followed by Antony, Octavian went to Alexandria but was denied the capture of the two when both suicided in 30 BC.
ROMAN PERIOD: 30 BC-c.AD 450Egypt came under Roman influence and was ruled by a prefect for Octavian, who became Augustus, the first Roman Emperor in 27 BC. The country was considered a “breadbasket” for centuries under successive emperors.
In AD 384, Theodosius ordered the closing of Egypt’s pagan temples and adherence to Christianity (although the temple dedicated to the goddess Isis at Philae in the country’s far south continued to function until AD 536). In AD 395, the Roman Empire split into west and east with Egypt becoming part of the Byzantine Empire. This lasted until the arrival of Islam in AD 641.