The Predynastic Period

The river Nile, snaking its way across the desert and into the sea, first attracted people to its banks many thousands of years ago. At first, they moved around and survived by hunting animals and gathering what they could to eat. Then, by around 5500BC, people started to settle along the riverbank and grow crops.

Until around 3500BC, things changed slowly. This time is called the Predynastic Period. People farmed the land along the Nile, and began to dig irrigation canals to make more use of its water. They kept animals, too – many sheep, goats and pigs.

There were two main groups of villages – one in the south (Upper Egypt), and one in the north (Lower Egypt). These areas gradually became two kingdoms (which means they were ruled by kings). In Upper Egypt, early mud-brick tombs or “mastabas” have been found that contain beautiful pots and objects. These suggest that a sophisticated culture and religion were already developing, and a belief in life after death.

The kings of Upper and Lower Egypt had their own separate gods and crowns. The southern king was guarded by the vulture goddess Nekhmet, and wore a tall white crown. In Lower Egypt, the king wore a red crown and was protected by the cobra goddess Wadjet.

Around 3100BC, it seems that Upper Egypt defeated Lower Egypt in a battle, and the two areas were united for the first time. The man who then became king is a slightly mysterious figure, because three different names appear in records: Menes, Narmer and Hor-Aha. This could be because kings always had more than one name. It’s also possible that Hor-Aha was Narmer’s son. Whatever the truth is, the Narmer palette is one of the earliest records of a king who ruled both Upper and Lower Egypt.

Once Egypt was united, the land was ruled by kings for more than 3,000 years. The 1st and 2nd dynasties form the Archaic period, which lasted about 400 years. Menes (or Narmer) created a capital city for the whole country between Upper and Lower Egypt, at the bottom of the Nile Delta. This was called Memphis, which became a great city with it own special god called Ptah.

Source: The Usbourne Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt

The King’s Name

The king was considered so important that people didn’t refer to him directly. They spoke of the “Palace” or “per-aa” instead. This is the origin of the title “pharaoh”. Kings had two different names: their “Son of Re” name, received at birth, and their nsw-bity name, received when they were crowned. Nsw-bity means “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”. We usually refer to kings by their Son of Re name.

Source: The Usbourne Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt

Egyptian Timeline

Ancient Egyptian history is divided into three large parts, known as the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Smaller parts are known as periods. The pharaohs are ordered into 31 dynasties, or groups. This simplified table lists the dynasties, their approximate dates and the dates that some pharaohs reigned.

All dates are BCE (before the Common Era). BCE dates are counted back from the year 1, which is taken to be the beginning of the Common Era. There was no year 0. These dates work in the same way as BC (before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini, “the year of Our Lord”). Some dates have a “c” in front of them. This stands for “circa“, which means “about”. These dates are mainly guesses, because no one knows what the real date is.

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The Rosetta Stone

RosettaStoneFor European explorers in the 18th century, it was difficult to make sense of the ancient monuments. They couldn’t tell who had built them, when or why, because they couldn’t read hieroglyphs, the Egyptian picture writing.

Then, in 1798, Britain and France went to war, and fought in Egypt. Napoleon, the French general, took a big term of scholars with him to study the monuments. But it was his soldiers who made the most important discovery – a slab of black stone, near the Mediterranean sea, at a place called Rosetta. It had three different scripts on it – one Greek, and two Egyptian. The French scholars guessed the the texts were translations of each other.

The Rosetta Stone, as it became known, did indeed make it possible to decipher hieroglyphs. Most of the work was done by a Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion, and an Englishman, Thomas Young.

Source: The Usbourne Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt

Egyptian Dress

The most common textile in Egypt was linen. It was mostly a spotless white. Dyes such as iron (red), indigo (blue) and saffron (yellow) were sometimes used, but coloured and patterned clothes were usually the mark of a foreigner.

However, the Egyptians did decorate their clothes with beads and beautiful feathers. Wool was not used for weaving in ancient Egypt. Silk and cotton did not appear until foreign rulers came to power in Egypt, after about 1000BC.

The basic items of dress for men were a simple kilt, loin cloth or tunic. Women wore a long, closely fitting dress of fine fabric. Fashions for both men and women varied over the ages, with changes in the straps, pleating and folds. Although more elaborate styles of clothing did appear in the New Kingdom, clothing was relatively simple, with elaborate wigs, jewellery and eye make-up creating a more dramatic effect.

tutschairThe image to the right shows Tutankhamun and his wife, Ankhesenamun, in their palace. The image is made from glass, silver, precious stones and faience (glazed pottery). The queen is wearing a long, pleated dress, while the pharaoh wears a pleated kilt. Garments were draped around the wearer rather than sewn, and pleating was very popular from the Middle Kingdom onwards. Both Tutankhamun and his wife wear sandals, bracelets, wide collars and beautiful headdresses or crowns. The queen is offering her husband perfume or ointment from a bowl.

Food and Banquets

Working people in Egypt were often paid in food. They ate bread, onions and salted fish, washed down with a sweet, grainy beer. Flour was often gritty and the teeth of many mummies show signs of severe wear and tear. Dough was kneaded with the feet or by hand, and pastry cooks produced all kinds of cakes and loaves.


A big banquet for a pharaoh was a grand affair, with guests dressed in their finest clothes. A royal menu might include roast goose or stewed beef, kidneys, wild duck or tender gazelle. Lamb was not eaten for religious reasons, and in some regions certain types of fish were also forbidden. Vegetables such as leeks were stewed with milk and cheese. Egyptian cooks were experts at stewing, roasting and baking. Red and white wine were served at banquets. They were stored in pottery jars marked with their year and their vineyard, just like the labels on modern wine bottles.

Workers and Slaves

The pharaohs may have believed that it was their links with the gods that kept Egypt going, but really it was the hard work of the ordinary people. It was they who dug the soil, worked in the mines and quarries, sailed the boats on the river Nile, marched with the army into Syria or Nubia, cooked food and raised children.

Slavery was not very important in ancient Egypt, but it did exist. Most of the slaves were prisoners who had been captured during the many wars that Egypt fought with their neightbours in the Near East. Slaves were usually treated well and were allowed to own property.

Most Egyptian workers were serfs. This meant that their freedom was limited. They could be bought and sold along with the estates where they worked. Farmers had to be registered with the government. They had to sell crops at a fixed price and pay taxes in the form of produce. During the season of the Nile floods, when the fields lay under water, many workers were recruited into public building projects. Punishment for those who ran away was harsh. They might be beaten, and their tools or their house could be seized.

Ancient Egypt: Did you Know?

…Upper Egypt is actually the southern part of Egypt.

…that papyrus is a tall reedy plant that grows in the river Nile. It is used for making paper.

…that canopic jars are made of pottery and are used to hold the lungs, liver, intestines and stomach of a dead person.

…that concubine is a term applied in a historical context to a woman who lived with a man without being married. In ancient Egypt it was an officially recognised relationship and a concubine had special rights.

…God’s Wife refers to the woman who is head of the priestesses at the temple of Amun at Karnak. By the Third Intermediate Period this was a very powerful position held by a princess.

…that an Ankh is an Egyptian amulet shaped a little like a cross. It is the symbol of life.

…that an obelisk is a stone pillar, erected as a monument to the sun god, with flat sides that taper towards a pyramid-shaped top.

…that a mastaba is a brick building containing tombs, used for Egyptian royal burials before the introduction of pyramids.