The History of Egypt


The outline of the history of Egypt has long been known.  In the early 5th century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt and devoted a whole book to Egypt based in the stories that he, as a tourist, was told by the priests who were his guides.  He paced out the sides of the Pyramids, and said that they were built by Cheops, which was at least partially right.

However, the first proper history of Egypt was written in the 3rd century BC by Manetho, an Egyptian priest who carried out extensive research on the all the documents and inscriptions he could discover and wrote a full account of the history of Egypt in Greek.  The actual text is now sadly lost but extracts of it provide the main outline.

He divided the history of Egypt into 30 dynasties beginning around 3000 BC and ending in his own times with the Macedonian conquest of Egypt around 330 BC. Subsequently the dynasties have been subdivided into three major kingdoms:  the Old Kingdom when the pyramids were built, which lasted from 3000 – 2200 BC.  This was followed by the first Intermediate Period, a ‘dark’ age when the unity of Egypt became divided.  Then from 2050 – 1650 was the Middle Kingdom, a period of few major monuments but when poetry and literature were at their height.  This was followed by the second Intermediate Period when again Egypt split, with one dynasty ruling in the south around Thebes, while in the north, in the delta of the Nile, the Hyksos kings, were foreigners who had penetrated down from the area of Palestine and set up a rival kingdom based on their city of Avaris.

Then around 1550 BC Egypt was once again united and the New Kingdom was established; the period to which the majority of the surviving monuments, apart from the pyramids, belong.  The capital which had mostly been centred on Memphis, twenty miles south of modern Cairo, and where the pyramids had been built in the desert fringes, was now moved 400 miles south to the town which the Greeks called Thebes and which today we call Luxor. The town was situated on the east bank of the Nile, but on the west bank was the Valley of the Kings, where all the great Pharaohs were buried, and where the tomb of one of the most insignificant of the Pharaohs, Tutankhamen, was discovered intact in 1923.

The New Kingdom continued until around 1069 when it too collapsed.  This was a period of collapse throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt had for some time been threatened by the mysterious ‘Sea peoples’ whose attacks on Egypt itself were repelled, but whose attacks seem to have led to the downfall of the Hittites and their neighbours, and are often implicated in the collapse of Mycenaean Greece and the ending of Minoan Crete.

A revival of sorts came in 664 with the advent of the Saite dynasty, to be followed by the conquest  by the Persians in 525 BC. Then in 332 BC, Egypt was ceded to Alexander the Great and a new set of Pharaohs called the Ptolemies preserved an Egyptian format, but were wholly Greek and are sometimes called the 32nd dynasty.  This continued down to 30 BC when the last ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra, who  was actually wholly Greek but pretended to be a pharaoh,  having seduced the wrong side in the Roman civil wars, committed suicide and Egypt became a Roman province.

Under the Romans with their remarkable religious tolerance, much of the external show of ancient Egypt survived: indeed at Dendera an apparently Egyptian temple is in fact mostly Roman.  However the coming of Christianity in the 3th century AD in the form of the Coptic Church began to see a new intolerance, and the destruction of the ancient gods and their temples;  and then in the 7th century AD with the coming of Islam, the last flicker of the Egyptian civilisation was finally extinguished, and the ancient language of the Egyptians – still preserved by the Coptic Christians – was replaced by Arabic.


Either read the excursus on hydraulic civilisations


On to How Petrie discovered Pre-dynastic Egypt


May 2012