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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Priest, Politician and God

crook&flailThe word pharaoh comes from the Egyptian per-aa, which meant great house of palace. It later came to mean the man who lived in the palace, the ruler. Pictures and statues show pharaohs with special badges of royalty, such as crowns, headcloths, false beards, screptres and a crook and flail held in each hand (see left).

The pharaoh was the most important person in Egypt. As a god-ruler, he was the link between the people and their gods. He therefore had to be protected and cared for. The pharaoh led a busy life. He was the high priest, the chief law-maker, the commander of the army and in charge of the country’s wealth. He had to be a clever politician too. The ancient Egyptians believed that on his death, the pharaoh became a god in his own right.

Pharaohs were generally men, but queens sometimes ruled Egypt if the pharaoh was too young. A pharaoh could take several wives. Within royal families it was common for fathers to marry daughters and for brothers to marry sisters. Sometimes pharaohs married foreign princesses in order to make an alliance with another country.

A Great Civilization

The story of ancient Egypt began about 8,000 years ago when farmers started to plant crops and raise animals in the Nile Valley. By about 3400BC the Egyptians were building walled towns. Soon after that the northern part of the country (Lower Egypt) was united with the lands upstream (Upper Egypt) to form one country under a single king. The capital of this new kingdom was established at Memphis.

During the Middle Kingdom (2050 – 1786BC), the capital was moved to the southern city of Thebes. The Egyptians gained control of Nubia and extended the area of land being farmed. Despite this period of success, the rule of the royal families of ancient Egypt was sometimes interrupted by disorder. In 1663BC, control of the country fell into foreign hands. The Hyksos, a group of Asian settlers, ruled Egypt for almost 100 years.

In 1567BC the Hyksos were overthrown by the princes of Thebes. The Thebans established the New Kingdom. This was the highest point of Egyptian civilization. Traders and soldiers travelled into Africa, Asia and the lands of the Mediterranean. However, by 525BC, the might of the Egyptians was coming to an end and Egypt became part of the Persian Empire. In 332BC rule passed to the Greeks. Finally, in 30BC, conquest was complete as Egypt fell under the control of the Roman Empire.

Valley of the Kings

In 1550BC, the capital of Egypt moved south to Thebes. This marked the beginning of the New Kingdom. The ancient Egyptians no longer built pyramids as they were obvious targets for tomb robbers. The people still raised great temples to honour their dead rulers, but now the pharaohs were buried in secret underground tombs. These were hidden away in the cliffs bordering the desert on the west bank of the Nile, where the Sun set each night. It was from here that the pharaoh would journey to meet the Sun god on his death.


The burial sites near Thebes included the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Nobles. The tombs were packed with glittering treasure. Practical items that the pharaoh would need in the next life were buried there too, such as food, royal clothing, gilded furniture, jewellery, weapons and chariots.

The tombs were guarded by a secret police force and were designed with traps to foil any intruders. Even so, many sites were robbed in ancient times. Luckily, some remained unspoiled and have given archaeologishts an amazing look into the world of ancient Egypt.

Curse of the Mummy

The Ancient Egyptian infuence on the occult is reinforced by many tales of the “mummy’s curse” which continue to capture public imagination. The earliest record of a ghost story involving a mummy was written in France in 1699. The mummy, together with Dracula and Frankenstein, prove the the theme has remained ever-popular for horror movies.

Ancient egypt’s connection with the occult was publicised when the so-called “Curse of Tutankhamun” was claimed by the press to be responsible for the death of Lord Carnarvon. Carnarvon, the expedition’s sponsor who had a history of ill-helath, died from an infected mosquito bite shortly after the tomb’s discovery. However, those wishing to support the superstition about his death never pointed out that the man mainly responsible for the famous find, Howard Carter, lived until well into his sixties.

Cleopatra’s Story

The Teenage Queen

From an early age, Cleopatra’s family were at war – not only with the people it ruled but with each other. The people suffered under the cruelty of Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, due to his alliance with Rome, the citizens rioted and chased Ptolemy out of Egypt. Berenice, Cleopatra’s older sister became queen at this time but after only three years, Ptolemy returned from Rome taking back his throne and ordered Berenice’s execution. It is rumoured that during her three years as queen, Berenice had her sister, Cleopatra Tryphaena murdered.

cleopatraMost of the royal family did not want to marry outside the family, because they thought this might weaken its power, so when her father died in 51BC Cleopatra, aged eighteen, married her twelve year old brother, Ptolemy XIII, and became queen. Fearing her enemies would try to kill her, she made friends with powerful courtiers. She prepared herself for government by learning many launguages including Egyptian (the rest of the family only spoke Greek). She also used religion to support her claim to the throne. Cleopatra called herself the Sun-God’s daughter, which was an ancient royal title.

During the first few years of her reign, Cleopatra managed to keep hold of the power. Her brother – now husband – was considered too young to reign and Cleopatra ruled alone. As Ptolemy XIII approached his sixteenth birthday, he gradually demanded his share of the power. Cleopatra’s most powerful enemy was Pothinus, her brother’s chief advisor who didn’t like the way Cleopatra made decisions without consulting him.

In 48BC, Cleopatra discovered that Ptolemy and Pothinus were plotting to send soldiers to kidnap her, and guessed that they planned to kill her. She knew that she must leave Egypt and set sail for Syria. When she left, she took her only surviving sister, Arsinoe, into exile with her. This was partly to protect her from Ptolemy and Pothinus, but more importantly to stop Arsinoe trying to seize power while Cleopatra was gone because she hoped to recruit an army to help her win back her throne from her brother.

A short time later, Caesar arrived in Egypt to collect a huge sum of money that he claimed Cleopatra’s father had owed him. He ordered Cleopatra and Ptolemy to meet with him to discuss a peace treaty. Not trusting her brother, Cleopatra knew that her life would be in real danger if she had to come face to face with any of her brother’s advisors. She knew her only option was to get Caesar’s protection.

It is said that Cleopatra sent Caesar a beautiful carpet as a gift. Caesar was astonished when the carpet was unrolled to reveal Cleopatra herself. Using her charm and intelligence she quickly gained his support.

When Pothinus, Ptolemy’s chief advisor, found out that Cleopatra had won Caesar’s support, he plotted against him. Caesar’s barbar overheard Pothinus’s plans and Pothinus was executed. Meanwhile Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s younger sister, escaped from the city to join forces with General Achillas and the Egyptian army against Caesar. When Ptolemy XIII heard that Cleopatra was with Caesar, he ran out of the palace and threw down his crown in a terrible rage. The palace was now under siege by the Egyptian army. In the hope of appeasing them, Caesar allowed Ptolemy to leave the city and join his sister, Arsinoe, and General Archillas. Days after the war in Alexandria ended, Ptolemy’s body was found in the harbour.

A Powerful Protector

Cleopatra finally felt secure. Her enemy Ptolemy XIII and his advisors were dead, and Caesar promised to protect her. She promptly married her surviving brother, 11 year old Ptolemy XIV and with Caesar at her side, she sailed down the Nile, to meet her subjects. It was believed that Cleopatra was pregnant with Caesar’s child and when he returned to Rome, he left 15,000 men to guard her.

caesarClaiming she was negotiating a peace treaty between Egypt and Rome, Cleopatra hurried to join Caesar in Rome. Cleopatra took her son, Caesarion and her teenage brother, Ptolemy XIV with her, fearing her brother or his advisors would try to seize power in Egypt while she was away.

Cleopatra stayed in one of Caesar’s splendid villas in Rome. She held court there, inviting leading Romans to visit her and offering them rich gifts. She hoped to win their friendship and support. Caesar paid for a beautiful statue of Cleopatra to be put on disply in a temple – it showed her as a mother holding Caesarion in her arms. Many Romans were shocked by the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra. They were afraid that Caesar would name Caesarion as his heir and would become ruler of Rome.

As a reward for his victories, the Senate made Caesar dictator (sole ruler) for the next ten years in 46BC. Two years later, he was made dictator for life. Some Romans feared that Caesar was becoming too powerful, and that he wanted to be king so about sixty conspirators decided he must be killed.

Julius Caesar was stabbed to death after a Senate meeting in 44BC.

Antony and Cleopatra

After Caesar’s murder, Cleopatra hurried back to Egypt. Once again her kingdom was in danger as many hostile countries saw Egypt as a rich prize, and hoped to conquer it. Fearing Caesar’s enemies would murder her son, Cleopatra kept Caesarion close by her side. At this time, Ptolemy XIV mysteriously disappeared, and people believed that Cleopatra had poisoned her brother, so that she could rule Egypt with her young son. Life in Egypt was not easy as many people saw Cleopatra as a traitor because of her friendhsip with Caesar and her long visit to Rome.

Caesar’s death led to three years of civil war in Rome. Finally, in 42BC the Roman lands were divided among the three powerful men leading the rival armies – Octavian (Caesar’s nephew), Marcus Antonius (Antony), and Marcus Lepidus. Antony took control of the whole eastern Mediterranean region, which included Egypt.

antonyAntony needed Cleopatra’s support as he feared that she might side with his enemies. He also needed Egypt’s gold to pay his armies to keep control of his share of the empire, and Egypt’s grain to feed his men. Antony wrote to Cleopatra and when she did not reply, he summoned her to meet him.

Cleopatra was no fool, she knew Antony needed her gold and she was in no hurry to respond to him. Instead, she deliberately took her time. She planned to ask for his protection and she wanted his help to kill her enemies – including her sister, Arsinoe.

After Cleopatra’s arrival in Tarsus, Antony invited her to dine with him. Cleopatra refused. Instead, she insisted that he go to her royal barge. She took great care with her preparations – she wanted Antony to be delighted and impressed by her. She arranged for her barge to be decoreated with thousands of tiny oil lamps in glittering, flickering patterns of light.

They met several times during Cleopatra’s vist to Tarsus, to discuss the terms of their alliance. Cleopatra’s plan worked and she won Antony’s support. Antony hurried to Egypt and spent the winter of 41BC at Cleopatra side. She watched him exercise with his troops, she flattered him, listened to his battle stories, and entertained him at fabulous feasts. Then she became pregnant – with twins. Antony was their father yet in 40BC, he had to return to Rome because his wife, Fulvia, was leading a rebellion against Octavian; he missed the twin’s birth. Late in 40BC, Antony’s wife Fulvia died. Antony made a peace treaty with Octavian, and as a sign of friendship he married Octavian’s sister, Octavia.

It was to be four years before Antony returned to Egypt and to Cleopatra. She needed a strong ally to help keep Egypt independent, so she welcomed him back. In 35BC, they had a third child, a son whom they named Ptolemy Philadelphus. Early in 34BC, Antony invaded Armenia and returned to Alexandria in triumph, In a magnificent ceremony Cleopatra was crowned “Queen of Kings”, and all her children were given special royal titles.

With Antony to help her, Cleopatra hoped to reclaim many of the lands once owned by Ptolemies, including Syria, Lebanon and Phoenicia. When Octavian heard about Antony and Cleopatra’s ambitious plans, he made powerfut speeches in the Roman senate, declaring Antony as a traitor. War was declared against Cleopatra – and all Egypt.

Naturally, Antony joined Cleopatra in the war against Rome but he did not want to lose control of his lands in the east, which included Greece. They sailed to Greece with a huge fleet of warships. In spring 31BC, the Roman forces arrived and for several months Octavian’s fleet patrolled the Greek coast, fighting Antony’s soldiers, capturing his forts and sinking his ships. Trapped in the Gulf of Ambracia, Antony’s soldiers became very ill with malaria. Food and water supplies ran out and many of them deserted. In a last effort, Antony and Cleopatra decided to smash through the Roman blockade.

Once out in the open sea, Cleopatra realised she could escape. She took her chance, and sailed away. She hoped to save her ships and her treasure so that she could fight another day. Antony managed to sail after Cleopatra, but the rest of his warships could not get past the Romans. His ships were destroyed, many of his soldiers were killed and the rest surrendered to Octavian.

Antony went into hiding on Pharos, an island in Alexandria harbour, and refused to see anyone after the defeat and dishonour of the Battle of Actium. Cleopatra planned to continue to rule Egypt. Almost one year later, they faced Octavian for the final time when he invaded Egypt.

Forced to flee Octavian’s army when most of his soldiers refused to fight, Antony was disgraced and ashamed, and blamed Cleopatra. Afraid of his anger, Cleopatra had locked herself in her mausoleum and sent a message saying she was dead. In despair, Antony stabbed himself. When she heard the news, Cleopatra sent her servants to carry Antony to her, and he died in her arms.

Octavian allowed Cleopatra to arrange Antony’s funeral and to take part in the ceremony. He refused, however, to allow her children to rule Egypt on behalf of Rome. Cleopatra could not bear to live while forenigners ruled her land. The most popular story about Cleopatra’s death says that she was bitten by a small poisonous snake, called an asp yet her mausoleum has not been found, so historians do not know exactly how she died.