Few human civilisations have a history as long as that of Ancient Egypt. The earliest pyramids had already been standing for well over 2,000 years by the time Cleopatra was born.
The first evidence of state formation in the perfect agricultural conditions along the Nile is from Upper Egypt (the country’s southernmost region), where the Naqada culture is traced to around 4,000 BC.
After an early dynastic period, the evolution of the 30 dynasties of Ancient Egypt can be divided into three kingdoms.
Early Dynastic Period (c. 3100-2575 BC: 1st-3rd Dynasties)
King Narmer is regarded as the founder of the 1st dynasty of Ancient Egypt.
The gradual integration of the human communities of the Nile early in the Bronze Age culminated with Narmer’s unification of the white crown of Upper Egypt with the red crown of Lower Egypt.
Before the emergence of the kingdoms came many developments now synonymous with Ancient Egypt.
Papyrus was invented in this period, and basic hieroglyphs first appeared.
Among the earliest pyramids ever built was the Step Pyramid of Djoser – the oldest large stone structure in the world, built over 4,600 years ago at Ṣaqqārah, near Memphis. It’s architect was possibly the high priest and chief councillor Imohtep, who later became considered the god of healing.
The term ‘Pharaoh’ didn’t appear for over 1,000 years (during the New Kingdom). But, to varying degrees, the monarchs of Egypt considered themselves gods on earth from the very beginning.
Finally, although King Narmer’s capital was at Abydos, he built Memphis (near modern Cairo) 500 km north to control his northern conquests.
The Memphite area would see the vast majority of construction projects during Egypt’s first golden age, the Old Kingdom.
Old Kingdom (c. 2575-2130 BC: 4th-8th Dynasties)
King Sneferu, 4th dynasty founder, built three pyramids, while his sons and grandsons created the only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World: The Pyramids of Giza (completed around 2,500 BC).
These massive building projects of the Old Kingdom were made possible by efficient agriculture. Egypt’s farmers had significant free time after the harvest and were supplied with bread rations and up to five litres of beer a day when they were pyramid-building.
This most likely kept slaves few in number throughout Ancient Egyptian history.
Trade was widespread and the Palermo Tablet recorded a military campaign southwards to secure trade routes with Eritrea and beyond, allowing access to products like incense and myrrh.
Increasingly, kings came to associate themselves with Re, the sun god. Whilst later dynasties shifted toward Osiris, god of the dead, with spells and rituals ensuring a ‘good’ afterlife.
First Intermediate Period (c. 2130-1938 BC: 9th-11th Dynasties)
Overuse of economic resources and severe droughts brought Egypt’s first golden age to an end. A new dynasty declared rulership from the south as the Old Kingdom dwindled, but its authority was only nominal.
Instead, ‘nomarchs’ (local leaders) seem to have assumed functional control, with their inscriptions notably focusing on the provision of food and improvement of irrigation systems in these times of climatic change.
Middle Kingdom (c. 1938-1630 BC: 12th-13th Dynasties)
The nomarchs were eventually brought under the authority of the 12th dynasty, which revived the styles of the Old Kingdom.
Pyramids continued to be built during the Middle Kingdom but as they comprised of mud bricks with stone casing, they have not survived.
Hieroglyphs became regularised into their classical form, ‘Middle Egyptian’, producing the first datable collection of full texts, like the Instruction for Merikare, a discussion of kingship and moral responsibility.
Military expeditions south to the Second Cataract (now inside modern Sudan) and east into Syria-Palestine saw the development of an Egyptian standing army.
After the rule of Sobekneferu, the first indisputably female monarch, 70 kings ruled in just over a century. An effective bureaucracy existed, however, to support Egypt through this instability.
Meanwhile several waves of immigrants came from Palestine to the Nile Delta; Kerma invaders made incursions from the south; and Medjay tribes people from the eastern deserts settled around Memphis.
Second Intermediate Period (c. 1630-1540 BC: 14th-17th Dynasties)
Increasing competition caused the end of the Middle Kingdom. The foreign Hyksos (meaning ‘ruler of foreign lands’) dynasty established their new kingdom’s capital in the Delta, while an opposing native dynasty ruled from Thebes (around 800 km south).
The Hyksos brought many innovations into long-isolated Egypt, including new musical instruments, loan words, animal breeds and crops.
Bronze-working, pottery and weaving techniques were changed, while the composite bow and, most crucially, the chariot were introduced to Egypt for the first time.
Eventually, the Theban 17th dynasty triumphed against the Hyksos, once again reuniting Egypt.
New Kingdom (c. 1539-1075 BC: 18th-20th Dynasties)
The founder of the 18th dynasty, Ahmose I, completed a reunification which resulted in a wealthy and powerful military class, members of which eventually took over the traditionally hereditary administrative roles.
The rule of the second certainly female monarch, Hatshepsut (famous for her Mortuary Temple in Thebes), was followed by that of Thutmose III, who oversaw the expansion of the Egyptian ‘Empire’ to its greatest extent.
Later, under Amenhotep I, the use of pyramids declined, replaced by rock-cut tombs, and all subsequent Egyptian rulers were buried in the Valley of the Kings, some among them having made more of an impact than others.
The New Kingdom was ruled by Akhenaten, a radical figure, for 16 years. He ordered the abandonment of traditional Egyptian polytheism in favour of a single deity, the sun-disc Aten, a change quickly rejected after his death.
His son Tutankhamun only lived to 17, so his impact on Egyptian history was minimal. But unlike most Pharaonic tombs, his was never plundered, surviving undisturbed for 3,000 years until its miraculous discovery in 1922.
Sometimes called Ramses the Great, Ramses II embarked on impressive construction projects, including the famous Abu Simbel Temple.
His military campaigns against the Hittites (the dominant force in Asia), resulted in the first recorded peace treaty in history (both Egyptian and Hittite versions survive).
The exodus of the Jews from Egypt is also thought to have occurred during his reign.
Ramses and his successors over the next 100 years repelled numerous invasions, from the west, east and north (the conjectured ‘Sea Peoples’).
But, despite the victories, Egypt’s star was waning. The economy became unstable, the administration inefficient, and Ramses III had to deal with the first recorded strike in history.
By the reign of Ramses IX, Pharaonic tombs were being widely pillaged. A common expression appeared in surviving letters:
“I am all right today; tomorrow is in the hands of god”.
It was a period of decline. At the same time religiosity was on the rise, with local priests and temples gaining new authority.
Third Intermediate & Late Period (1075-332 BC: 21st-30th Dynasties)
Egypt was now destined (despite a few brief resurgences) to become a province of greater empires, never again to enjoy true self-rule.
It’s ‘Three Kingdoms’, however, remain an unparalleled achievement of culture, religion and identity, leaving behind physical wonders that have left other cultures awe-struck for 3,000 years.