Deep diving into Ancient Egypt
Early on, Egypt was united into a single kingdom, which allowed it to enjoy a high degree of unity, stability, and cultural continuity over a period of 3,000 years, thus becoming a great civilization.
How was the geography of Egypt?
From the highlands of East Africa to the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile River flows northward across Africa for over 4,100 miles, making it the longest river in the world. A thin ribbon of water in a parched desert land, the great river brings its water to Egypt from distant mountains, plateaus, and lakes in present-day Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia.
Egypt’s settlements arose along the Nile on a narrow strip of land made fertile by the river. The change from fertile soil to desert—from the Black Land to the Red Land—was so abrupt that a person could stand with one foot in each.
What is “the Gift of the Nile”?
As in Mesopotamia, yearly flooding brought the water and rich soil that allowed settlements to grow. Every year in July, rains and melting snow from the mountains of East Africa caused the Nile River to rise and spill over its banks. When the river receded in October, it left behind a rich deposit of fertile black mud called silt.
Before the scorching sun could dry out the soil, the peasants would prepare their wheat and barley fields. All fall and winter they watered their crops from a network of irrigation ditches.
In an otherwise parched land, the abundance brought by the Nile was so great that the Egyptians worshiped it as a god who gave life and seldom turned against them. As the ancient Greek historian Herodotus remarked in the fifth century B.C., Egypt was the “gift of the Nile.”
What environmental challenges did Egyptians face?
The Nile was as regular as clockwork. Even so, life in Egypt had its risks. When the Nile’s floodwaters were just a few feet lower than normal, the amount of fresh silt and water for crops was greatly reduced. Thousands of people starved.
When floodwaters were a few feet higher than usual, the unwanted water destroyed houses, granaries, and the precious seeds that farmers needed for planting.
The vast and forbidding deserts on either side of the Nile acted as natural barriers between Egypt and other lands. They forced Egyptians to live on a very small portion of the land and reduced interaction with other peoples.
However, the deserts shut out invaders. For much of its early history, Egypt was spared the constant warfare that plagued the Fertile Crescent. Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt Ancient Egyptians lived along the Nile from the mouth well into the interior of Africa. River travel was common, but it ended at the point in the Nile where boulders turn the river into churning rapids called a cataract.
This made it impossible for riverboats to pass this spot, known as the First Cataract, to continue upstream south to the interior of Africa. Between the First Cataract and the Mediterranean lay two very different regions. Because its elevation is higher, the river area in the south is called Upper Egypt. It is a skinny strip of land from the First Cataract to the point where the river starts to fan out into many branches.
To the north, near the sea, Lower Egypt includes the Nile delta region. The delta begins about 100 miles before the river enters the Mediterranean. The delta is a broad, marshy, triangular area of land formed by deposits of silt at the mouth of the river.
The Nile provided a reliable system of transportation between Upper and Lower Egypt. The Nile flows north, so northbound boats simply drifted with the current. Southbound boats hoisted a wide sail. The prevailing winds of Egypt blow from north to south, carrying sailboats against the river current. The ease of contact made possible by this watery highway helped unify Egypt’s villages and promote trade.
How did Egypt unite into a kingdom?
Egyptians lived in farming villages as far back as 5000 B .C ., perhaps even earlier. Each village had its own rituals, gods, and chieftain. By 3200 B .C ., the villages of Egypt were under the rule of two separate kingdoms, Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt. Eventually the two kingdoms were united.
There is conflicting historical evidence over who united Upper and Lower Egypt. Some evidence points to a king called Scorpion. More solid evidence points to a king named Narmer.
The king of Lower Egypt wore a red crown, and the king of Upper Egypt wore a tall white crown shaped like a bowling pin. A carved piece of slate known as the Narmer Palette shows Narmer wearing the crown of Lower Egypt on one side and the crown of Upper Egypt on the other side. Some scholars believe the palette celebrates the unification of Egypt around 3000 B.C.
Narmer created a double crown from the red and white crowns. It symbolized a united kingdom. He shrewdly settled his capital, Memphis, near the spot where Upper and Lower Egypt met, and established the first Egyptian dynasty. Eventually, the history of ancient Egypt would consist of 31 dynasties, spanning 2,600 years. Historians suggest that the pattern for Egypt’s great civilization was set during the period from 3200 to 2700 B.C. The period from 2660 to 2180 B.C., known as the Old Kingdom, marks a time when these patterns became widespread.
Why did pharaohs rule as gods?
The role of the king was one striking difference between Egypt and Mesopotamia. In Mesopotamia, kings were considered to be representatives of the gods. To the Egyptians, kings were gods. The Egyptian god-kings, called pharaohs, were thought to be almost as splendid and powerful as the gods of the heavens. This type of government in which rule is based on religious authority is called a theocracy.
The pharaoh stood at the center of Egypt’s religion as well as its government and army. Egyptians believed that the pharaoh bore full responsibility for the kingdom’s well-being. It was the pharaoh who caused the sun to rise, the Nile to flood, and the crops to grow. It was the pharaoh’s duty to promote truth and justice.
Builders of the Pyramids Egyptians believed that their king ruled even after his death. He had an eternal life force, or ka, which continued to take part in the governing of Egypt. In the Egyptians’ minds, the ka remained much like a living king in its needs and pleasures. Since kings expected to reign forever, their tombs were even more important than their palaces.
For the kings of the Old Kingdom, the resting place after death was an immense structure called a pyramid. The Old Kingdom was the great age of pyramid building in ancient Egypt.
These magnificent monuments were remarkable engineering achievements, built by people who had not even begun to use the wheel. Unlike the Sumerians, however, the Egyptians did have a good supply of stone, both granite, and limestone.
For the Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, the limestone facing was quarried just across the Nile. Each perfectly cut stone block weighed at least 2 1/2 tons.
Some weighed 15 tons. More than 2 million of these blocks were stacked with precision to a height of 481 feet. The entire structure covered more than 13 acres.
The pyramids also reflect the strength of the Egyptian civilization. They show that Old Kingdom dynasties had developed the economic strength and technological means to support massive public works projects, as well as the leadership and government organization to carry them out.
How was Egyptian culture?
With nature so much in their favor, Egyptians tended to approach life more confidently and optimistically than their neighbors in the Fertile Crescent. Religion played an important role in the lives of Egyptians.
Like the Mesopotamians, the early Egyptians were polytheistic, believing in many gods. The most important gods were Ra, the sun god, and Osiris, the god of the dead. The most important goddess was Isis, who represented the ideal mother and wife. In all, Egyptians worshiped more than 2,000 gods and goddesses.
They built huge temples to honor the major deities. In contrast to the Mesopotamians, with their bleak view of death, Egyptians believed in an afterlife, a life that continued after death. Egyptians believed they would be judged for their deeds when they died.
Anubis, the god and guide of the underworld, would weigh each dead person’s heart. To win eternal life, the heart could be no heavier than a feather. If the heart tipped the scale, showing that it was heavy with sin, a fierce beast known as the Devourer of Souls would pounce on the impure heart and gobble it up. But if the soul passed this test for purity and truth, it would live forever in the beautiful Other World.
People of all classes planned for their burials, so that they might safely reach the Other World. Kings and queens built great tombs, such as the pyramids, and other Egyptians built smaller tombs. Royal and elite Egyptians’ bodies were preserved by mummification, which involves embalming and drying the corpse to prevent it from decaying. Scholars still accept Herodotus’s description of the process of mummification as one of the methods used by Egyptians.
Attendants placed the mummy in a coffin inside a tomb. Then they filled the tomb with items the dead person could use in the afterlife, such as clothing, food, cosmetics, and jewelry. Many Egyptians purchased scrolls that contained hymns, prayers, and magic spells intended to guide the soul in the afterlife. This collection of texts is known as the Book of the Dead.
How was life in Egyptian society?
Like the grand monuments to the kings, Egyptian society formed a pyramid. The king, queen, and royal family stood at the top. Below them were the other members of the upper class, which included wealthy landowners, government officials, priests, and army commanders. The next tier of the pyramid was the middle class, which included merchants and artisans. At the base of the pyramid was the lower class, by far the largest class. It consisted of peasant farmers and laborers.
In the later periods of Egyptian history, slavery became a widespread source of labor. Slaves, usually captives from foreign wars, served in the homes of the rich or toiled endlessly in the gold mines of Upper Egypt.
The Egyptians were not locked into their social classes. Lower-and middle-class Egyptians could gain higher status through marriage or success in their jobs. Even some slaves could hope to earn their freedom as a reward for their loyal service. To win the highest positions, people had to be able to read and write.
Once a person had these skills, many careers were open in the army, the royal treasury, the priesthood, and the king’s court.
Women in Egypt held many of the same rights as men. For example, a wealthy or middle-class woman could own and trade property. She could propose marriage or seek divorce. If she were granted a divorce, she would be entitled to one-third of the couple’s property.
How was Egyptian writing?
As in Mesopotamia, the development of writing was one of the keys to the growth of Egyptian civilization. Simple pictographs were the earliest form of writing in Egypt, but scribes quickly developed a more flexible writing system called hieroglyphics. This term comes from the Greek words hieros and gluph, meaning “sacred carving.”
As with Sumerian cuneiform writing, in the earliest form of hieroglyphic writing, a picture stood for an idea. For instance, a picture of a man stood for the idea of a man. In time, the system changed so that pictures stood for sounds as well as ideas.
The owl, for example, stood for an m sound or for the bird itself. Hieroglyphs could be used almost like letters of the alphabet.
Although hieroglyphs were first written on stone and clay, as in Mesopotamia, the Egyptians soon invented a better writing surface—papyrus reeds. These grew in the marshy delta. The Egyptians split the reeds into narrow strips, placed them crosswise in two layers, dampened them, and then pressed them. As the papyrus dried, the plant’s sap glued the strips together into a paper-like sheet.
How was Egyptian science and technology?
Practical needs led to many Egyptian inventions. For example, the Egyptians developed a calendar to help them keep track of the time between floods and to plan their planting season. Priests observed that the same star—Sirius—appeared above the eastern horizon just before the floods came.
They calculated the number of days between one rising of the star and the next as 365 days—a solar year. They divided this year into 12 months of 30 days each and added five days for holidays and feasting. This calendar was so accurate that it fell short of the true solar year by only six hours.
Egyptians developed a system of written numbers for counting, adding, and subtracting. The system would have helped to assess and collect taxes. Scribes used an early form of geometry to survey and reset property boundaries after the annual floods.
Mathematical knowledge helped Egypt’s skillful engineers and architects make accurate measurements to construct their remarkable pyramids and palaces. Egyptian architects were the first to use stone columns in homes, palaces, and temples.
Egyptian medicine was also famous in the ancient world. Egyptian doctors knew how to check a person’s heart rate by feeling for a pulse in different parts of the body. They set broken bones with splints and had effective treatments for wounds and fevers. They also used surgery to treat some conditions.
Which invaders succeeded in controlling Egypt?
The power of the pharaohs declined about 2180 B.C., marking the end of the Old Kingdom. Strong pharaohs regained control during the Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 B.C.) and restored law and order. They improved trade and transportation by digging a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea. They built huge dikes to trap and channel the Nile’s floodwaters for irrigation. They also created thousands of new acres of farmland by draining the swamps of Lower Egypt.
The prosperity of the Middle Kingdom did not last. In about 1640 B.C., a group from the area of Palestine moved across the Isthmus of Suez into Egypt. These people were the Hyksos, which meant “the rulers of foreign lands.” The Hyksos ruled much of Egypt from 1630 to 1523 B.C.
Egypt would rise again for a new period of power and glory, the New Kingdom. During approximately the same time period as the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom existed in Egypt, civilization was emerging in the Indus River Valley.
Which nomadic invaders finally rule Egypt?
After the prosperity of the Middle Kingdom, Egypt descended into war and violence. This was caused by a succession of weak pharaohs and power struggles among rival nobles. The weakened country fell to invaders who swept across the Isthmus of Suez in chariots, a weapon of war unknown to the Egyptians.
These Asiatic invaders, called Hyksos, ruled Egypt from about 1640 to 1570 B.C. The Hyksos invasion shook the Egyptians’ confidence in the desert barriers that had protected their kingdom.
During the Hyksos rule, some historians believe that another Asiatic group, the Hebrews, settled in Egypt. According to the Bible, Abraham and his family first crossed the Euphrates River and came to Canaan around 1800 B.C. Then, around 1650 B.C., the descendants of Abraham moved again—this time to Egypt. Some historians believe that the Hyksos encouraged the Hebrews to settle there because the two groups were racially similar. The Egyptians resented the presence of the Hyksos in their land but were powerless to remove them.
But around 1600 B.C., a series of warlike rulers began to restore Egypt’s power. Among those who helped drive out the Hyksos was Queen Ahhotep. She took over when her husband was killed in battle.
The next pharaoh, Kamose, won a great victory over the hated Hyksos. His successors drove the Hyksos completely out of Egypt and pursued them across the Sinai Peninsula into Palestine. According to some Biblical scholars, the Hebrews remained in Egypt and were enslaved and forced into hard labor. They would not leave Egypt until sometime between 1500 and 1200 B.C., the time of the Exodus.
How was the New Kingdom of Egypt?
After overthrowing the Hyksos, the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (about 1570–1075 B.C.) sought to strengthen Egypt by building an empire. As you may recall, an empire brings together several peoples or states under the control of one ruler. Egypt entered its third period of glory during the New Kingdom era. During this time, it was wealthier and more powerful than ever before.
Equipped with bronze weapons and two-wheeled chariots, the Egyptians became conquerors. The pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty (about 1570–1365 B.C.) set up an army including archers, charioteers, and infantry, or foot soldiers.
Among the rulers of the New Kingdom, Hatshepsut, who declared herself pharaoh around 1472 B.C., was unique and started a prosperous rule. She took over because her stepson, the male heir to the throne, was a young child at the time. Unlike other New Kingdom rulers, Hatshepsut spent her reign encouraging trade rather than just waging war.
The trading expedition Hatshepsut ordered to the Land of Punt, near present-day Somalia, was particularly successful. Hatshepsut sent a fleet of five ships down the Red Sea to Punt in search of myrrh, frankincense, and fragrant ointments used for religious ceremonies and in cosmetics.
In addition to these goods, Hatshepsut’s fleet brought back gold, ivory, and unusual plants and animals.
Hatshepsut’s stepson, Thutmose III, proved to be a much more warlike ruler. In his eagerness to ascend to the throne, Thutmose III may even have murdered Hatshepsut. Between the time he took power and his death around 1425 B.C., Thutmose III led several victorious invasions eastward into Palestine and Syria. His armies also pushed farther south into Nubia, a region of Africa that straddled the upper Nile River. Egypt had traded with Nubia and influenced the region since the time of the Middle Kingdom.
Egypt was now a mighty empire. It controlled lands around the Nile and far beyond. Also, it drew boundless wealth from them. Contact with other cultures brought Egypt new ideas as well as material goods. Egypt had never before—nor has it since—commanded such power and wealth as during the reigns of the New Kingdom pharaohs.
Who were the Hittites?
The Egyptians’ conquest of parts of Syria and Palestine around 1400 B.C. brought them into conflict with the Hittites. The Hittites had moved into Asia Minor around 1900 B.C. and later expanded southward into Palestine.
After several smaller battles, the Egyptians and Hittites clashed at Kadesh around 1285 B.C. The pharaoh Ramses II and a Hittite king later made a treaty that promised “peace and brotherhood between us forever.” Their alliance lasted for the rest of the century.
Why was the New Kingdom considered “an Age of Builders”?
Like the rulers of the Old Kingdom, who built the towering pyramids, rulers of the New Kingdom erected grand buildings. In search of security in the afterlife—and protection from grave robbers—they hid their splendid tombs beneath desert cliffs. The site they chose was the remote Valley of the Kings near Thebes. Besides royal tombs, the pharaohs of this period also built great palaces and magnificent temples.
Indeed, the royal title pharaoh means “great house” and comes from this time period.
Ramses II, whose reign extended from approximately 1290 to 1224 B.C., stood out among the great builders of the New Kingdom. At Karnak, he added to a monumental temple to Amon-Re, Egypt’s chief god. Ramses also ordered a temple to be carved into the red sandstone cliffs above the Nile River at Abu Simbel. He had these temples decorated with enormous statues of himself. The ears of these statues alone measured more than three feet.
Why did the Empire Decline?
The empire that Thutmose III had built and Ramses II had ruled slowly came apart after 1200 B.C. as other strong civilizations rose to challenge Egypt’s power. Shortly after Ramses died, the entire eastern Mediterranean suffered a wave of invasions.
Both the Egyptian empire and the Hittite kingdom were attacked by invaders called the “Sea Peoples” in Egyptian texts. These invaders may have included the Philistines, who are often mentioned in the Bible. Whoever they were, the Sea Peoples caused great destruction.
The Egyptians faced other attacks. In the east, the tribes of Palestine often rebelled against their Egyptian overlords. In the west, the vast desert no longer served as a barrier against Libyan raids on Egyptian villages.
So, Egypt’s Empire started fading and after these invasions, Egypt never recovered its previous power. The Egyptian empire broke apart into regional units, and numerous small kingdoms arose. Each was eager to protect its independence. Almost powerless, Egypt soon fell to its neighbors’ invasions.
How did the Kushites conquer the Nile Region?
For centuries, Egypt dominated Nubia and the Nubian kingdom of Kush, which lasted for about a thousand years, between 2000 and 1000 B.C. During this time, Egyptian armies raided and even occupied Kush for a brief period. But as Egypt fell into decline during the Hyksos period, Kush began to emerge as a regional power.
Nubia now established its own Kushite dynasty on the throne of Egypt. Nubia lay south of Egypt between the first cataract of the Nile, an area of churning rapids, and the division of the river into the Blue Nile and the White Nile. Despite several cataracts around which boats had to be carried, the Nile provided the best north-south trade route.
Several Nubian kingdoms, including Kush, served as a trade corridor. They linked Egypt and the Mediterranean world to the interior of Africa and to the Red Sea. Goods and ideas flowed back and forth along the river for centuries. The first Nubian kingdom, Kerma, arose shortly after 2000 B.C.
With Egypt’s revival during the New Kingdom, pharaohs forced Egyptian rule on Kush. Egyptian governors, priests, soldiers, and artists strongly influenced the Nubians. Indeed, Kush’s capital, Napata, became the center for the spread of Egyptian culture to Kush’s other African trading partners.
Kushite princes went to Egypt. They learned the Egyptian language and worshiped Egyptian gods. They adopted the customs and clothing styles of the Egyptian upper class. When they returned home, the Kushite nobles brought back royal rituals and hieroglyphic writing.
With Egypt’s decline, beginning about 1200 B.C., Kush regained its independence. The Kushites viewed themselves as more suitable guardians of Egyptian values than the Libyans. They sought to guard these values by conquering Egypt and ousting its Libyan rulers.
In 751 B.C., a Kushite king named Piankhi overthrew the Libyan dynasty that had ruled Egypt for over 200 years. He united the entire Nile Valley from the delta in the north to Napata in the south. Piankhi and his descendants became Egypt’s 25th Dynasty. After his victory, Piankhi erected a monument in his homeland of Kush. On the monument, he had words inscribed that celebrated his victory. The inscription provided a catalog of the riches of the north:
However, Piankhi’s dynasty proved short-lived. In 671 B.C., the Assyrians, a warlike people from Southwest Asia, conquered Egypt. The Kushites fought bravely, but they were forced to retreat south along the Nile. There the Kushites would experience a golden age, despite their loss of Egypt.
Just for Fun
- Explore Ancient Egypt with an interactive exploration tool from the Children’s University
- Walk around the Sphinx, clamber inside the Great Pyramid of Giza and seek out the pharaoh’s burial chamber!
- Are you fit to rule as a pharaoh? Put your knowledge of Ancient Egypt to the test with a quiz!
- Take an Ancient Egyptian art lesson
- Use an interactive timeline of the Ancient Egyptian period
- Try some Ancient Egyptian number puzzles
- Write using a hieroglyphic typerwriter!
- Complete an Ancient Egypt online jigsaw puzzle
- Play the temple stores game
- Excavate an Egyptian tomb in an interactive game
- Make your own Egyptian amulet, Egyptian mask and Egyptian costume with step-by-step guides and videos from Hobbycraft
- Learn how to sound out your name in hieroglyphs, just like a scribe in Ancient Egypt
- Make a miniature cartonnage mummy case to discover how the Ancient Egyptians prepared for the journey to the afterlife
- Dress like an Egyptian princess or a craftsperson
- Write your name in hieroglyphs in a cartouche and learn some Egyptian Maths with King Khasekhem
See for yourself!
- At the British Museum, you can see the Rosetta Stone and a statue of King Rameses II
- See Ancient Egyptian artifacts from the Art Institute Chicago’s collection
- Browse through a huge collection of Egyptian artifacts at the Manchester Museum
- Look closely at Egyptian statues in the Brooklyn Museum
- Explore a Pharaoh’s boat
Find out more about Ancient Egypt
- Watch BBC Bitesize animations about Ancient Egypt and Ancient Egypt BBC video clips
- A DKfindout! children’s introduction to Ancient Egypt, with lots of diagrams and illustrations
- Listen to an audio tour of Ancient Egypt
- Scan through an interactive timeline of Ancient Egypt
- Read some historical fiction for kids about Ancient Egypt
- Print out Ancient Egypt resources from the British Museum
- Find out more about Egyptian myths
- The history of papyrus paper
- Read about Ancient Egyptian inventions
- Understand more about Ancient Egyptian gods and see Egyptian gods’ animal heads
- Explore the Ancient Egyptian number system and writing system (hieroglyphics)
- The Egyptians’ society
- Find out about living near the Nile, and farming techniques used by Egyptians today
- Find out about everyday life in Ancient Egypt
- Experience a day in the life of ordinary Egyptians
- Visit National Museums Scotland’s Ancient Egyptian collection
- See games from Ancient Egypt: a senet board game and a wooden toy cat