Ancient Egypt was one of the world's great early civilizations, a nation and culture that dominated northern Africa for nearly 3,000 years and saw hundreds of kings rule over some 30 dynasties. Factors like climate and geography, together with innovative leadership and bureaucratic organization, made possible a legacy that continues to fascinate scholars and amateurs alike: the pyramids, with their staggering scale and mathematical ingenuity; mummies and tombs that provide modern researchers with an enormous body of material to examine; and innumerable carvings of pictures and writing, made decipherable by the Rosetta Stone. The unusually high status of women, the worship of gods of sun and nature, and a fixation on the afterlife are some of the themes that make ancient Egypt alluring to modem students.
As the Ganges was to India and the Yangtze to China, the Nile River was the mother of Egyptian civilization, spurring the rise of agriculture, trade, and one of the most successful societies in the ancient world. Flowing northward out of Burundi into Lake Victoria then through Uganda and Sudan on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile is the longest river in the world, traversing more than 4,000 miles of the African continent.
Although the Nile flooded wildly during the postglacial period, by 6000 B.C. it was stable enough to support permanent settlements of migrants from the Near East or elsewhere in Africa. By about 4000 B.C., the descendants of those prehistoric settlers had built a network of farming villages dong the 660-mile-long Nile River Valley. Over the next thousand years, the Nile River tribes consolidated into small kingdoms, and then into two large groups -- one occupying the lower delta and another in the upper valley. The Nile River peoples traded throughout the Near East and especially borrowed many agricultural and cultural ideas from the thriving Sumerian society across the Red Sea. However, while Sumer was organized into 12 autonomous city-states, the Nile groups finally united under one leader, known to legend as Menes, who founded his capital at Memphis around 3100 B.C. and began the first dynasty of the Old Kingdom (ca. 3100-2200 B.C.). From then until the Roman conquest more than 3,000 years later a total of 30 dynasties, each with a succession of kings known as pharaohs, ruled ancient Egypt.
Unlike Sumerian kings who ruled on behalf of the gods, the Egyptian pharaoh was regarded as a divine being in his own right, and much wealth and time was spent building an appropriate tomb to help him reenter the land of the gods after his death. The pharaoh employed an array of officials to organize all aspects of society, and the tightly ordered Egyptian state promoted the implementation of technological and artistic advances throughout the Nile villages.
Egyptian farmers perfected many tools originally invented in Asia; these improved production techniques made Egypt the wealthiest state in the ancient Middle East, and the forbidding desert to the south ensured relative freedom from invasion. With these advantages, the population of the region rose from about 1 million in 3000 B.C. to about 3 million by 1000 B.C.
As the temporal and religious leader, the pharaoh theoretically owned all the land in ancient Egypt, although private citizens were able to buy and sell some property. Farmers were obligated to pay a portion of their output to high-ranking officials. Old Kingdom inhabitants grew crops such as wheat and barley - used for both bread and beer - and probably domesticated cattle and donkeys. They kept cats, dogs, and monkeys as pets, and sheep, goats, pigs, and fowl for meat. Hunting, however, was a pastime for the elite, and the hunting of lions and wild cattle was reserved for royalty alone. True slavery was uncommon, although slaves were often conscripted as construction workers for tombs or other state buildings.
The oral language of ancient Egypt shared similarities with the Semitic languages of the Near East-Hebrew, Arabic, and the Hamitic languages of Africa. But Egyptians were among the first to develop a comprehensive written language, as they began using their system of hieroglyphic symbols about 3000 B.C., soon after the Sumerians invented cuneiform writing. Hieroglyphics evolved from pictures used on tomb paintings and were used to tell stories about the deceased, but they also allowed a permanent record of laws, rituals, and business transactions. Scribes wrote religious and administrative texts on papyrus, a form of paper made from reeds that grew along the Nile.
The prosperity of the Old Kingdom produced a burst of creativity in architecture and the arts. For the Egyptians, this cultural expression served the twin goals of organizing earthly existence and guaranteeing smooth entry into the afterlife. Architects mastered stone-working techniques for massive tombs. Painters and sculptors created realistic portraits and life-sized Statues of the dead. Scribes developed the tradition of tomb writing into the art of biography. Others wrote Sebayt ("instructions") to preserve important teachings, like the lpuwer papyrus, a poem about natural disasters, including the Great Flood.
Beginning around 2181 B.C., this stable society collapsed as northern and southern leaders clashed when an old pharaoh outlived his heirs, causing a rift over succession. As the fighting dragged on, provincial officials became more powerful, further splintering rule. Meanwhile, low river levels brought widespread famine, and factional fighters destroyed monuments and artwork. These "dark ages” are known as the First Intermediate Period.
However, around 2030 B.C., Nebhepette Mentuhotep II reunited Egypt and established a new capital at Thebes. During the subsequent Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030-1640 B.C.), a cultural revival restored much of the Old Kingdom architecture and sculpture. Artists created impressive new works, and a court official compiled the Story of Sinuhe - a classic of Egyptian literature that recounts the life of a nobleman in the aftermath of the assassination of Amenemhet I. Despite such attainments, the warlike Hyksos invaded Egypt from Syria-Palestine with fast-moving chariots, which gave them a unique advantage in battle.
The Hyksos ruled Egypt during the century-long Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1640-1550 B.C.). They brought a variety of technological advances to Egypt, including new weapons and tools and techniques for metalwork and pottery. The Eighteenth Dynasty drove out the conquerors and, from their capital at Thebes, reestablished royal authority throughout the valley.
Almost immediately after they expelled the Hyksos, the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (1550-1070 B.C.) began to expand northward into Syria. Thutmose I (d. 1495 B.C.) sent an invading army as far as the Euphrates River, but Thutmose II (ca. 1495-1490 B.C.) could not sustain his father's conquests and lost power to his half-sister and wife, Hatshepsut (ca. 1473-58 B.C.). Upon the death of Thutmose II, Hatshepsut initially served as a regent to his son, Thunnose III. But as the stronger ruler, and possibly due to Thutmose II’s youth, she eventually assumed the position of pharaoh. Some monuments from the period dedicated by Hatshepsut portray both as rulers. Hatshepsut maintained her control over the throne during the first 20 years of the reign of Thutmose III until her death around 1458 B.C.
Hatshepsut's reign was primarily peaceful; she expanded trade and developed natural resources, including mining at Sinai. She also supported construction, restoring numerous monuments and adding to the famous mortuary complex at Deir-el-Bahri. In reliefs and statuary, Hatshepsut was often depicted as male, including a false beard, although texts usually indicated her female gender in some way. Hatshepsut was not the only female ruler of ancient Egypt; she was one of several women, including Nefertiti and Cleopatra, who each reigned for brief periods. Less is known about their ascents to power and subsequent reigns, due to limited records.
After Hatshepsut died, Thutmose III became a powerful ruler sending armies to the east and establishing an Egyptian empire in Palestine and Syria. These colonies were ruled by local princes, while Egyptian bureaucrats and garrison commanders oversaw imperial interests and collected tribute payments. Thutmose III also pushed Egyptian control southward into Sudan and Nubia and built more than 50 new temples throughout the thriving empire. However, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (ca. 1372-1354 B.C.), husband to Queen Nefertiti, instigated radical religious reforms that disrupted these political gains. The pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaton and relinquished all the Egyptian gods except for a sun god named Aton and his incarnation on Earth, the pharaoh. This quasi-monotheistic revolution did not fully succeed, but it absorbed the attention of the monarchy to such an extent that the empire crumbled. Akhenaton's young son-in-law, Tutankhamen (1361-52 B.C.), returned the country to the older religious traditions and began an arduous recovery period. During his 10-year reign, Tutankhamen (whose almost-intact tomb was discovered in 1922, shedding great light on the culture of the Eighteenth Dynasty) reestablished the rule of law and sponsored new buildings in the capital at Thebes. But by 1200 B.C., a series of invasions by Hittites and others forced the Egyptians to abandon the outposts of their empire and defend the Nile Valley. Still, the Eighteenth Dynasty may have been the height of culture in ancient Egypt. It was also better recorded than most; a set of tables called Tell el Amarna yielded information on the reigns of Amenhotep III and his son, Akhenaton.
Egyptian rule splintered again after the death of Ramses XI and, during the Third Intermediate Period (1065-525 B.C.), the priesthood gained influence over a series of ineffective monarchs. The state, weakened by invasions of Libyans from the western desert and Nubians from Upper Nile, finally fell victim to conquest by the Assyrians (671 B.C.), who had already absorbed Syria and Palestine, and later the Persians (525 B.C.) under Cambyses II. Cambyses II was succeeded by Darius I, who was held in higher esteem by Egyptians for his attempts to improve temples and codify earlier laws. The centuries under Persian rule were a difficult period, however, as Egypt faced true foreign domination for the first time. In 332 B.C., Alexander the Great invaded Egypt with an army of Greeks and Macedonians. Alexander faced little resistance from Egyptians, who regarded his takeover as their liberation from Persian rule. His general, Ptolemy I, founded the last Egyptian dynasty as an essentially Greek state in which Greek language and culture dominated. After Ptolemy I, there followed a succession of kings also called Ptolemy. When Ptolemy XI sought help from the Roman leader Pompey, the Romans were able to establish a foothold in Egypt. Later, Cleopatra, daughter of Ptolemy XI, tried to retain power for Egypt, calling on the Roman emperor Julius Caesar for help. But the Roman Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) annexed Egypt for Rome, putting Cleopatra's son, Ptolemy XIN to death. Egypt became a Roman province in 30 B.C.
(‘The New York Times ‘Smarter by Sunday – 52 Weekends of Essential Knowledge for the Curious Mind’)