Ancient Egypt

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Ancient Egypt was a long-lived civilization in north-eastern Africa. It was concentrated along the middle to lower reaches of the Nile River, reaching its greatest extension during the second millennium BC, which is referred to as the New Kingdom period. It reached broadly from the Nile Delta in the north, as far south as Jebel Barkal at the Fourth Cataract of the Nile. Extensions to the geographical range of ancient Egyptian civilization included, at different times, areas of the southern Levant, the Eastern Desert and the Red Sea coastline, the Sinai Peninsula and the Western Desert (focused on the several oases)

Ancient Egypt developed over at least three and a half millennia. It began with the incipient unification of Nile Valley polities around 3150 BC and is conventionally thought to have ended in 31 BC when the early Roman Empire conquered and absorbed Ptolemaic Egypt as a state. This last, however, did not represent the first period of foreign domination; the Roman period was to witness a marked, if gradual transformation in the political and religious life of the Nile Valley, effectively marking the termination of independent civilizational development.

The civilization of ancient Egypt was based on a finely balanced control of natural and human resources, characterised primarily by controlled irrigation of the fertile Nile Valley; the mineral exploitation of the valley and surrounding desert regions; the early development of an independent writing system and literature; the organization of collective projects; trade with surrounding regions in east / central Africa and the eastern Mediterranean; finally, military ventures that exhibited strong characteristics of imperial hegemony and territorial domination of neighbouring cultures at different periods. Motivating and organising these activities were a socio-political and economic elite that achieved social consensus by means of an elaborate system of religious belief under the figure of a (semi)-divine ruler (usually male) from a succession of ruling dynasties and which related to the larger world by means of polytheistic beliefs.



Main article: History of Ancient Egypt
Dynasties of Pharaohs
in ancient Egypt
Predynastic Egypt
Protodynastic Period
Early Dynastic Period
1st 2nd
Old Kingdom
3rd 4th 5th 6th
First Intermediate Period
7th 8th 9th 10th
11th (Thebes only)
Middle Kingdom
11th (All Egypt)
12th 13th 14th
Second Intermediate Period
15th 16th 17th
New Kingdom
18th 19th 20th
Third Intermediate Period
21st 22nd 23rd 24th 25th
Late Period
26th 27th 28th
29th 30th 31st
Graeco-Roman Period
Alexander the Great
Ptolemaic dynasty

Archaeological evidence indicates that a developed Egyptian society extends far into prehistory (see Predynastic Egypt). The Nile River, around which much of the population of the country clusters, has been the lifeline for Egyptian culture since nomadic hunter-gatherers began living along the Nile during the Pleistocene. Traces of these early peoples appear in the form of artifacts and rock carvings along the terraces of the Nile and in the oases.

Along the Nile, in the 10th millennium BC, a grain-grinding culture using the earliest type of sickle blades had been replaced by another culture of hunters, fishers, and gathering peoples using stone tools. Evidence also indicates human habitation in the southwestern corner of Egypt, near the Sudan border, before 8000 BC. Climate changes and/or overgrazing around 8000 BC began to desiccate the pastoral lands of Egypt, eventually forming the Sahara (c.2500 BC), and early tribes naturally migrated to the Nile River where they developed a settled agricultural economy and more centralized society. There is evidence of pastoralism and cultivation of cereals in the East Sahara in the 7th millennium BC.

By about 6000 BC, organized agriculture and large building construction had appeared in the Nile Valley. At this time, Egyptians in the southwestern corner of Egypt were herding cattle and also constructing large buildings. Mortar was in use by 4000 BC. The Predynastic Period continues through this time, variously held to begin with the Naqada culture. Some authorities however place the start of the Predynastic Period earlier, in the Lower Paleolithic.

Between 5500 and 3100 BC, during Egypt's Predynastic Period, small settlements flourished along the Nile. By 3300 BC, just before the first Egyptian dynasty, Egypt was divided into two kingdoms, known as Upper Egypt (Ta Shemau) and Lower Egypt (Ta Mehu).<ref name = "Adkinsp155">Adkins, L. and Adkins, R. (2001) The Little Book of Egyptian Hieroglyphics, p155. London: Hodder and Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-79485-2.</ref> The dividing line was drawn roughly in the area of modern Cairo.

The history of ancient Egypt proper starts with Egypt as a unified state, which occurred sometime around 3150 BC. Menes, who unified Upper and Lower Egypt, was the first king. Egyptian culture was remarkably stable and changed little over a period of nearly 3000 years. This includes religion, customs, art expression, architecture and social structure.

Egyptian chronology, which involves regnal years, began around this time. The conventional Egyptian chronology is the chronology accepted during the 20th century, but it does not include any of the major revision proposals that have also been made in that time. Even within a single work, often archeologists will offer several possible dates or even several whole chronologies as possibilities. Consequently, there may be discrepancies between dates shown here and in articles on particular rulers. Often there are also several possible spellings of the names. Typically, Egyptologists divide the history of pharaonic civilization using a schedule laid out first by Manetho's Aegyptaica (History of Egypt).


See also: Egyptians

A 2006 bioanthropological study on the dental morphology of ancient Egyptians shows dental traits most characteristic of indigenous North Africans and to a lesser extent Near Eastern populations. The study also establishes biological continuity from the predynastic to the post-pharaonic periods. Among the samples included is skeletal material from the Hawara tombs of Fayum, which was found to most closely resemble the Badarian series of the predynastic.<ref>Template:Cite journal</ref><ref>Template:Cite web</ref> A study based on stature and body proportions also suggests that Nilotic or tropical body characteristics were also present in some later groups, as the Egyptian empire expanded southward during the New Kingdom.<ref>Template:Cite journal</ref>

Genetics analysis of modern Egyptians reveals that they are characterized by paternal lineages common to North Africans primarily, and to some Near Eastern peoples. These lineages spread during the Neolithic and were maintained by the predynastic period.<ref>Template:Cite journal</ref><ref>Template:Cite journal</ref> Studies based on the maternal lineages also show that Egyptians are related to people from the Horn of Africa.<ref>Template:Cite journal</ref><ref>Template:Cite journal</ref>

Champollion the Younger, who deciphered the Rosetta Stone, claimed in Expressions et Termes Particuliers that kmt referred to a 'negroid' population. Modern day professional Egyptologists, anthropologists, and linguists, however, overwhelmingly agree that the term referred to the dark soil of the Nile Valley rather than the people, which contrasted with dSrt or the "red land" of the Sahara desert, a claim denied by Afrocentrists who contend that the term refers to the people.

In c. 450 BC, Herodotus wrote, "the Colchians are Egyptians... on the fact that they are dark-skinned (melanchrôs) and wooly-haired (oulothrix)" (Histories Book 2:104). Melanchros was also used by Homer to describe the sunburnt complexion of Odysseus (Od. 16.176).

Many mainstream references allude to the racial complexity of North Africa and Egypt, going back to pre-dynastic times. These complexities do not yield easily to modern racial controversies or terminologies like "Mediterranean" or "Middle Eastern." For example, one Encyclopaedia Britannica article, "Populations, Human" states: "In Libya, which is mostly desert and oasis, there is a visible Negroid element in the sedentary populations, and at the same is true of the Fellahin of Egypt, whether Copt or Muslim. Osteological studies have shown that the Negroid element was stronger in predynastic times than at present, reflecting an early movement northward along the banks of the Nile, which were then heavily forested."<ref>Encyclopaedia Britannica 1984 ed. Macropedia Article, Vol 14: "Populations, Human" - p. 842-844</ref> As regards mixed populations, the same reference states: "Four different kinds of peoples are native to Africa: Caucasoids, Pygmies, Capoids (mostly Bushmen and Hottentots), and Negroes, as well as many mixed populations."<ref>Encyclopaedia Britannica 1984 ed. Macropedia Article, Vol 14: "Populations, Human" - op.cit.</ref> Such blended populations require caution in assigning rigid racial, ethnic and geographic categories to ancient peoples.

Although analyzing the hair of ancient Egyptian mummies from the Late Middle Kingdom has revealed evidence of a stable diet,<ref>Template:Cite journal</ref> mummies from circa 3200 BC show signs of severe anemia and hemolytic disorders.<ref name="">Template:Cite web</ref><ref name="">Template:Cite web</ref><ref>Template:Cite journal</ref>

18 m (59 ft) high sandstone statues of Amenhotep III, flanking the entrance to his mortuary temple in Western Thebes - erroneously identified as the Colossi of Memnon by Greek travellers in antiquity

Administration and taxation

For administrative purposes, ancient Egypt was divided into nomes (the Greek word for "district"; they were called sepat in ancient Egyptian). The division into nomes can be traced back to the Predynastic Period (before 3100 BC), when the nomes originally existed as autonomous city-states. The nomes remained in place for more than three millennia, with the area of the individual nomes and their order of numbering remaining remarkably stable. Under the system that prevailed for most of pharaonic Egypt's history, the country was divided into 42 nomes: 20 comprising Lower Egypt, whilst Upper Egypt was divided into 22. Each nome was governed by a nomarch, a provincial governor who held regional authority. The position of the nomarch was at times hereditary, at times appointed by the pharaoh.

The ancient Egyptian government imposed a number of different taxes upon its people. As there was no known form of currency during that time period, taxes were paid for "in kind" (with produce or work). The Vizier (ancient Egyptian: tjaty) controlled the taxation system through the departments of state. The departments had to report daily on the amount of stock available, and how much was expected in the future. Taxes were paid for depending on a person's craft or duty. Landowners paid their taxes in grain and other produce grown on their property. Craftsmen paid their taxes in the goods that they produced. Hunters and fishermen paid their taxes with produce from the river, marshes, and desert. One person from every household was required to pay a corvée or labor tax by doing public work for a few weeks every year, such as digging canals or mining. However, a richer noble could hire a poorer man to fulfill his labor tax.


Main article: Egyptian language

Ancient Egyptian constitutes an independent part of the Afro-Asiatic language phylum. Its closest relatives are the Berber, Semitic, and Beja groups of languages. Written records of the Egyptian language have been dated from about 3200 BC, making it one of the oldest and longest documented languages. Scholars group Egyptian into six major chronological divisions:

  • Archaic Egyptian (before 3000 BC)
Consists of inscriptions from the late Predynastic and Early Dynastic period. The earliest known evidence of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing appears on Naqada II pottery vessels.
The language of the Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period. The Pyramid Texts are the largest body of literature written in this phase of the language. Tomb walls of elite Egyptians from this period also bear autobiographical writings representing Old Egyptian. One of its distinguishing characteristics is the tripling of ideograms, phonograms, and determinatives to indicate the plural. Overall, it does not differ significantly from the next stage.
Often dubbed Classical Egyptian, this stage is known from a variety of textual evidence in hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts dated from about the Middle Kingdom. It includes funerary texts inscribed on sarcophagi such as the Coffin Texts; wisdom texts instructing people on how to lead a life that exemplified the ancient Egyptian philosophical worldview (see the Ipuwer papyrus); tales detailing the adventures of a certain individual, for example the Story of Sinuhe; medical and scientific texts such as the Edwin Smith Papyrus and the Ebers papyrus; and poetic texts praising a god or a pharaoh, such as the Hymn to the Nile. The Egyptian vernacular already began to change from the written language as evidenced by some Middle Kingdom hieratic texts, but classical Middle Egyptian continued to be written in formal contexts well into the Late Dynastic period (sometimes referred to as Late Middle Egyptian).
Records of this stage appear in the second part of the New Kingdom. It contains a rich body of religious and secular literature, comprising such famous examples as the Story of Wenamun and the Instructions of Ani. It was also the language of Ramesside administration. Late Egyptian is not totally distinct from Middle Egyptian, as many "classicisms" appear in historical and literary documents of this phase. However, the difference between Middle and Late Egyptian is greater than that between Middle and Old Egyptian. It's also a better representative than Middle Egyptian of the spoken language in the New Kingdom and beyond. Hieroglyphic orthography saw an enormous expansion of its graphemic inventory between the Late Dynastic and Ptolemaic periods.
Main article: Demotic Egyptian
  • Coptic (3rd–17th century AD)
Main article: Coptic language
An Obelisk with Egyptian writing.


For many years, the earliest known hieroglyphic inscription was the Narmer Palette, found during excavations at Hierakonpolis (modern Kawm al-Ahmar) in the 1890s, which has been dated to c.3150 BC. However recent archaeological findings reveal that symbols on Gerzean pottery, c.3250 BC, resemble the traditional hieroglyph forms.<ref name="">Template:Cite web</ref> Also in 1998 a German archeological team under Günter Dreyer excavating at Abydos (modern Umm el-Qa'ab) uncovered tomb U-j, which belonged to a Predynastic ruler, and they recovered three hundred clay labels inscribed with proto-hieroglyphics dating to the Naqada IIIA period, circa 33rd century BC<ref name="" />.<ref name="" />

Egyptologists refer to Egyptian writing as hieroglyphs, today standing as the world's earliest known writing system. The hieroglyphic script was partly syllabic, partly ideographic. Hieratic is a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphs and was first used during the First Dynasty (c. 2925 BC – c. 2775 BC). The term Demotic, in the context of Egypt, came to refer to both the script and the language that followed the Late Ancient Egyptian stage, i.e. from the Nubian 25th dynasty until its marginalization by the Greek Koine in the early centuries AD. After the conquest of Amr ibn al-A'as in the 7th century AD, the Coptic language survived as a spoken language into the Middle Ages. Today, it continues to be the liturgical language of the Christian minority.

Beginning from around 2700 BC, Egyptians used pictograms to represent vocal sounds -- both vowel and consonant vocalizations (see Hieroglyph: Script). By 2000 BC, 26 pictograms were being used to represent 24 (known) main vocal sounds. The world's oldest known alphabet (c. 1800 BC) is only an abjad system and was derived from these uniliteral signs as well as other Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The hieroglyphic script finally fell out of use around the 4th century AD. Attempts to decipher it in the West began after the 15th century, though earlier attempts by Muslim scholars are attested (see Hieroglyphica).



See also: Ancient Egyptian architecture

The Egyptian religion, embodied in Egyptian mythology, is a succession of beliefs held by the people of Egypt, as early as predynastic times and all the way until the coming of Christianity and Islam in the Graeco-Roman and Arab eras. These were conducted by Egyptian priests or magicians, but the use of magic and spells is questioned.

Every animal portrayed and worshipped in ancient Egyptian art, writing and religion is indigenous to Africa, all the way from the predynastic until the Graeco-Roman eras, over 3000 years. The Dromedary, domesticated first in Arabia, first appears in Egypt (and North Africa) beginning in the 2nd millennium BC.

The temple was a sacred place where only priests and priestesses were allowed. On special occasions people were allowed into the temple courtyard.

The religious nature of ancient Egyptian civilization influenced its contribution to the arts of the ancient world. Many of the great works of ancient Egypt depict gods, goddesses, and pharaohs, who were also considered divine. Ancient Egyptian art in general is characterized by the idea of order.

Evidence of mummies and pyramids outside ancient Egypt indicate reflections of ancient Egyptian belief values on other prehistoric cultures, transmitted in one way over the Silk Road. Ancient Egypt's foreign contacts included Nubia and Punt to the south, the Aegean and ancient Greece to the north, the Levant and other regions in the Near East to the east, and also Libya to the west.

Some scholars have speculated that Egypt's art pieces are sexually symbolic.[citation needed]

Ancient achievements

See Predynastic Egypt for inventions and other significant achievements in the Sahara region before the Protodynastic Period.

The art and science of engineering was present in Egypt, such as accurately determining the position of points and the distances between them (known as surveying). These skills were used to outline pyramid bases. The Egyptian pyramids took the geometric shape formed from a polygonal base and a point, called the apex, by triangular faces. Hydraulic cement was first invented by the Egyptians. The Al Fayyum Irrigation (water works) was one of the main agricultural breadbaskets of the ancient world. There is evidence of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs of the twelfth dynasty using the natural lake of the Fayyum as a reservoir to store surpluses of water for use during the dry seasons. From the time of the First dynasty or before, the Egyptians mined turquoise in the Sinai Peninsula.

One of the more extreme claims of recent years is that the ancient "tet" or "djed" has been experimentally identified as an ancient battery.[citation needed] If true this technology would anticipate by thousands of years its rediscovery in the 19th century. The sarcophagus found in the great pyramid has been recently re-examined. According to the author Nigel Appleby ('Hall of the Gods') the holes drilled in the sides were considered to have been drilled at a speed and bore rate that cannot be reproduced today. Independent published corroboration by scientists and engineers is awaited for both of these claims.

The earliest evidence (circa 1600 BC) of traditional empiricism is credited to Egypt, as evidenced by the Edwin Smith and Ebers papyri. The roots of the scientific method may be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians created their own alphabet (however, it is debated as to whether they were the first to do this because of the margin of error on carbon dated tests), decimal system<ref>Template:Cite web</ref> and complex mathematical formularizations, in the form of the Moscow and Rhind Mathematical Papyri. The golden ratio seems to be reflected in many constructions, such as the Egyptian pyramids,<ref name=phi>Template:Cite web</ref> however this may be the consequence of combining the use of knotted ropes with an intuitive sense of proportion and harmony.<ref>Kemp, Barry J. (1989). Ancient Egypt. Routledge, p. 138. ISBN 0-415-01281-3.</ref>

Glass making was highly developed in ancient Egypt, as is evident from the glass beads, jars, figures and ornaments discovered in the tombs.<ref>Template:Cite web</ref><ref>Template:Cite web</ref> Recent archeology has uncovered the remains of an ancient Egyptian glass factory.<ref>Template:Cite web</ref>


(All dates are approximate; see Egyptian chronology for a detailed discussion.)


See main article and timeline: Predynastic Egypt.


Open problems

There is a question as to the sophistication of ancient Egyptian technology, and there are several open problems concerning real and alleged ancient Egyptian achievements. Certain artifacts and records do not fit with conventional technological development systems. It is not known why there seems to be no neat progression to an Egyptian Iron Age nor why the historical record shows the Egyptians possibly taking a long time to begin using iron. A study of the rest of Africa could point to the reasons: Sub-Saharan Africa confined their use of the metal to agricultural purposes for many centuries. The ancient Egyptians had a much easier form of agriculture with the annual Nile floods and fertile sediment delivery. They thus had no impetus for the development of agricultural implements that would have spurred the adoption of iron. It is unknown how the Egyptians shaped and worked granite. A clue is found in the exquisite granite carvings of the Yoruba in West Africa. For years researchers could not fathom how they were carved so smoothly until contemporary workmen demonstrated the simple system of rubbing the quartz with sand and water. The exact date the Egyptians started producing glass is debated.

There is some question whether the Egyptians were capable of long distance navigation in their boats and when they became knowledgeable sailors. It is also contentiously disputed as to whether or not the Egyptians had some understanding of electricity and if the Egyptians used engines or batteries. The relief at Dendera is interpreted in various ways by scholars. The topic of the Saqqara Bird is controversial, as is the extent of the Egyptians' understanding of aerodynamics. It is unknown for certain if the Egyptians had kites or gliders.

Beekeeping is known to have been particularly well developed in Egypt, as accounts are given by several Roman writers — Virgil, Gaius Julius Hyginus, Varro and Columella. It is unknown whether Egyptian beekeeping developed independently or as an import from Southern Asia.

See also

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Further reading

Ancient Egypt has inspired a vast number of English-language publications, ranging from scholarly works to generalised accounts (in addition to a large number of speculative, supernatural or pseudo-scientific explorations). A selection of generally reliable survey treatments, published within the last two decades, includes:

External links

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Ancient Egypt

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