Whenever we reminisce about Egypt, the golden sand and the Pyramids are the foremost stills that come to our minds. Let’s take a deep dive into some history, religion, and politics. Shall we?
The North-Eastern corner of Africa presents this diverse country, Egypt. One of the major ancient civilizations of the ancient Middle East was situated in the heartland of Egypt, as we all know, the Nile River valley and Delta. For instance, Mesopotamia, located in the far east, was one of the first literate and urban societies. The Pharaohs in Egypt thrived for almost three thousand years with periods of small dynasties that were native and dispersed with brief phases of foreign rulers.
During my research, I came to know that Egypt was actually an integral part of the Hellenistic age as Alexander the Great had conquered that portion in 323 BCE, which was later won over by the Romans in 30 BCE. The city of Alexandria was developing under the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty as a great literate society. However, what the Romans conquered is what new Egypt is. It stayed a part of the Roman Republic and Empire and later its successor state, the Byzantine Empire, till it was vanquished again by the Arab Muslim armies in 639-642 CE.
Since the conquest of the Muslim Armies, the great success that symbolized Egyptian culture started to adopt the Arabic culture as the Egyptian language was replaced by an Arabian dialect as the commonly spoken language. Until the conquest, despite the incompatible ethnicity of the successive groups of leaders, the lives of the masses in the rural and urban parts of the region did not change much as their language and culture remained the same. Nowadays, Egypt is vastly known for its connection to the broader Islamic world and Arabic culture, even though it has been ruled by other foreign elites like Turkish, Circassian, and Kurdish.
In this blog post, I will write about not only the history but the myths, legends, and modern Egypt. In my opinion, to know or visit a country is like visiting a fictional world for the very first time. You have to read it, again and again, to discover the different layers it shows each time and then compare it with other worlds and discuss it with your peers until you know more. Just like that, you have to know a little bit about the country you’re visiting to match the distinctive secrets and layers you have read before, or it has tucked away up its sleeves.
History of Ancient Egypt
Egypt has created its own vibrant field of study for historians and archeologists called Egyptology. The major sources of information on ancient Egypt are the artifacts, objects found in the archeological sites, and the monuments. All of them are covered with hieroglyphs that have been deciphered only recently. Very few are equal to the rich religious conventions, architecture, and culture that have emerged from ancient Egypt which consists of almost thirty centuries, from 3100 B.C. to 323 B.C.
- Predynastic Period: This Period represents almost two thousand years of development in Egypt as there are very few written artifacts and records. I was mesmerized to find out that Nefertiti, who had a vital religious and political role within the rule of Akhenaton, was worshiped as a living goddess of fertility due to her beauty. From C. 5000 to 3100 B.C., the late Stone Age or Neolithic communities alternated hunting with agriculture and became a pioneer after the development of arts and crafts, religion, politics, and technology. Around 3400 B.C. there were two kingdoms named the Red Land and the White Land. In 3200 B.C., the southern King Scorpion will conquer the north of the Red Land. And after a century, King Menes would defeat the north and unite the nation and become the first King of the first dynasty.
- Archaic (Early Dynastic) Period: The Capital was founded on the White wall, which was known as Memphis afterwards by King Menes. The capital was located in the north, at the pinnacle of the Nile River delta, which would be developed into a magnificent metropolis that would dominate the society of Egypt within the period of the Old Kingdom rule. The growth of the foundation of Egyptian society was marked by the Early Dynastic or Archaic period, which also involved the significant ideology of Kingship. The ancient Egyptians considered the King a Godlike creature, closer to the omnipotent Horus. The hieroglyph, which was also in and of itself is an enigma, is also dated back to this period. People in small villages depended on agriculture, mainly harvesting barley and wheat, which constructed the economic structure of the Egyptian Society.
- Old Kingdom: This was the period of the third dynasty of the pharaohs. The old Kingdom marks the establishment of the greatest stone building, recognized as the Step-Pyramid at Saqqara, just near Memphis. The pyramid was a result of a demand for a funerary monument by King Djoser to the priest, healer, and architect Imhotep about 2630 B.C. Egyptian Pyramid, another enigma we find ourselves in which reaches its apex by building the Great Pyramid at Giza. It was built on the outskirts of Cairo for Khufu who was king from 2589 B.C. to 2566 B.C. Herodotus, the great ancient Greek historian, had calculated that it took twenty years and ten thousand men to build the pyramid. The third and fourth dynasties saw prosperity and peace. The epitome of power, the pharaohs succeeded in forming a stable central government and, at the same time, there were no foreign threats from nations like Libya and Nubia. However, during the periods of the fifth and sixth dynasties, due to the steadily increasing influence of the priesthood and the nobility and the decreasing of the pharaoh’s wealth, the absolute power of the King was faltering. Around the rule of King Pepy II of the sixth dynasty, this period ended in disarray.
- First Intermediate Period: The central government collapsed entirely around 2160 B.C. after the rapid succession of Memphis-based seventh and eighth dynasties. The civil war in the provinces, the Bedouine invasion, along with disease and famine intensified the chaotic predicament in ancient Egypt. About 2055 B.C., Mentuhotep defeated Heracleopolis in the early eleventh dynasty and unified Egypt, and ended the first intermediate period.
- Middle Kingdom (12th Dynasty): During the time of the twelfth dynasty, founded by Amenenhet I, Egypt flourished once again. The kings of the Middle Kingdom had ensured the trouble-free succession of their line by making each descendant co-regent since the time of Amenemhet I. With an aggressive foreign policy, Egypt colonized Nubia with its precious resources and repelled the Bedouine who plagued the land since the first intermediate period. The Kingdom also formed trade and diplomatic relationships with Palestine, Syria, and other countries. The period peaked around 1842-1797 B.C. during the reign of Amenemhet III and started to deplete about 1798-1790 B.C. under Amenemhet IV and his sister Queen Sobekneferu who was the first female ruler and the last of this period.
- Second Intermediate Period: From the fourteenth dynasty to the seventeenth, the era has been known as the “second intermediate period.” Egypt saw the full collapse of the central government during this period once again, with a portion of the country being controlled by the Hyksos about 1650 B.C. The Hyksos were a group of Levant, a locality that encompasses Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel of the modern-day. One horrendous find from this period was several cut-off hands which were discovered at the palace of Avaris, a place in the Hyksos-controlled Egypt. It was to be believed that the hands were paid by soldiers as a replacement for gold to a conqueror. Eventually, the conflict between Thebans and the Hyksos flared up and the Thebans were successful in driving them out of the country around 1570 B.C., ending the “second intermediate period.”
- New Kingdom: Egypt has reunited again under the rule of Ahmose I, the first king of the eighteenth dynasty. From this dynasty to the twentieth, scholars have often referred to this period as the “new kingdom” which lasted from ca. 1550 to 1070 B.C. The most popular archeological site from this time might be called the “Valley of the Kings”, which keeps the burials of several rulers from this period. One of the most famous burial sites would be Tutankhamun, whose tomb is still intact. The treasure found in the tomb from this era was a testament to the good fortune Egypt was blessed with during this reign. The successors of the last great King, Ramses III, failed momentarily and the provinces were lost to Palestine and Syria and also suffered from foreign invasions and the wealth was steadily destroyed by the end of the period.
- Third Intermediate Period: The next four hundred years known as the “third intermediate period” witnessed some spectacular transformation in Egyptian culture, politics, and society. This period lasted from ca. 1070 to 713 B.C. During this era, the country was not always united, and the central government was oftentimes weak. It was the period when civilizations and cities were ruined by a group of people from the Aegean sometimes known as the “sea people” by modern scholars. Though the rulers of Egypt had claimed to defeat the “sea people”, the central government also collapsed. The loss of trade revenues and routes perhaps was the cause of the weakening state of the government.
- From the Late Period to Alexander’s Conquest: Historians have often referred to the time between the twenty-fifth dynasty to the thirty-first dynasty, which lasted from ca. 712 to 332 B.C., as the “late period.” Sometimes, Egypt was under the reign of foreign powers. During this late period, Nubia, the Persians, and Assyrians also became the rulers of Egypt.
Alexander the Great had driven out the Persians from Egypt in 332 B.C. while incorporating the country into the Macedonian Empire. After his death, a line of successors descended from Ptolemy Soter, a general of Alexander. Cleopatra VII was the last ruler of this succession who had committed suicide after her forces were defeated in 30 B.C. by the Roman emperor Augustus at the “Battle of Actium.” Egypt was included in the Roman empire after her death.
While the Roman emperors were in Rome, the Egyptians still treated them as Pharaohs. Recently, an excavated carving has shown the Roman emperor Claudius dressed as a pharaoh. The carving also had hieroglyphic inscriptions that state Claudius is the “Son of Ra, Lord of the Crowns,” and he is also the “King of upper and lower Egypt, Lord of the two lands.” Neither the Romans nor the Ptolemaic are concerned as one of the dynasties.
Egypt showcased one of the largest and most complicated pantheons of Gods of any human civilization in the ancient world. During the time of history, many gods and goddesses were worshipped in Egypt. I have enlisted a few of the significant deities here in this post.
- Anubis: Anubis was affiliated with the care of the dead and funerary practices. In the Old Kingdom (C. 2575-2575 B.C) before the rise of Osiris as the god of the underworld, Anubis was considered as the major god of the underworld and death. With the head of a jackal and the body of a human, he was also represented as a jackal.
- Hathor: The Goddess Hathor was usually depicted as a human with a cow’s ears or head or just a cow. She is associated with fertility and motherhood. It was considered that she protected women during childbirth.
- Re: One of the many Sun gods, Re was normally presented as a human with a head of a hawk. It was believed that he would sail on a boat in the sky in the day and make his way into the underworld at night to defeat the snake god Apopis to rise again.
- Ptah: The head of the triad Gods who were worshipped at Memphis, while the other two are his wife, the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet and probably the couple’s son Nefertem. Ptah was associated with builders and craftsmen.
- Seth: Seth was the god of violence, deserts, chaos, and storms. According to the Osiris mythology, he killed his brother by tricking him. Due to its unusual animal head or animal body, scholars have come to the conclusion that there was no animal like that and the animal god was some sort of mythical composite.
- Horus: As Horus was described as the falcon or the god with a falcon head, he symbolized a sky god affiliated with hunting and war.
- Isis: Though the origin of her is murky, over time she became one of the important deities of Egypt. As she resurrected Osiris and conceived Horus, she was conventionally the representation of mother and wife. She was also one of the last worshipped ancient Godesses and was recognized as Aphrodite in the ancient Graeco-Roman period. It is often believed that the imagery of Isis with infant Horus influenced the Christian imagery of Mary with infant Jesus.
- Osiris: The God of the underworld also represented resurrection, death, and the annual flood of Nyle that Egyptian agriculture relied upon. According to myth, his brother Seth killed and disassembled him while his wife Isis reassembled and resurrected him. He was also symbolized as the mummified god, leaving his hands and face exposed.
I found this amazing, blog where the influence of ancient mythology and gods and goddesses on world literature is depicted beautifully. Whether it was a comparison between Dante’s Divine Comedy and Message of Forgiveness by the Arabic poet Abul-Alaal-Maari as they both dealt with the topic of the afterlife or the resemblance of Cinderella found in the Papyrus of the fourth dynasty, the article is really informative.
Places to Visit in Egypt
Home of the intersection of ancient and modern culture, Egypt is a place of activities, adventure, and tranquility. I am inviting just three places that you have to visit but to know more visit here.
Information About Giza Pyramids Credit: Egypt Tours Portal
Karnak Temple and Valley of Death Credit: Leisure Travel Egypt
- Valley of the Kings and Luxor’s Karnak Temple
- Islamic Cairo
Here you go! I have just given you one drop of an ocean. To drink in the history and culture of Egypt, you have to wait for more future posts. Until then, make do with this one!