Ancient Egypt

Without the Nile, most of Egypt would be a barren desert unable to provide a home for a flourishing civilization. Over many millennia the Nile carved a channel through the rocks of the Egyptian plateu. The flood brought large quantities of silt from the Ethiopian mountains, depositing it in the Nile valley where it provided a supply of fertile soil that was renewed each year and that is now over ten metres thick in much of the valley.

Settlements around grew in size and labour was organized in the communities to attend to the seasonal work of irrigation, drainage, building to control and use the annual Nile flood for the benefit of agriculture. The ancient Egyptian period of civilization is traditionally considered to have begun about 3100 BC when Menes (Narmer) united his own kingdom of Upper Egypt with that of Lower Egypt in the Delta.

The dynasties may be grouped to form several main periods:

  • Early Dynastic Period (1st and 2nd Dynasties; 3100 – 2686 BC)

A new capital was founded at Memphis, royal tombs were built at Saqqara and at Abydos. They were buried with rich tomb furniture and their servants were sacrificed at the time of king’s death, to serve him in the afterlife. After the 2nd Dynasty only models of servants were buried with the king, in the belief that magical spells could bring them back to life to serve their master.

  • Step Pyramid

    Step Pyramid

    Old Kingdom (3rd – 6th Dynasties; 2686 – 2181 BC)

Important buildings began to be built in stone rather than mud – brick. The Step Pyramid at Saqqara for the 3rd Dynasty ruler Djoser. Trading expeditions to Nubia, Libya were organised. Worship of the sun god Ra of Heliopolis increased.

  • First Intermediate Period (7th – 10th Dynasties; 2181 – 2055 BC)

Instable period with declining central power. Thebes became important and strong centre and its ruler gained control of the whole country.

  • Hatshepsut

    Hatshepsut

    Middle Kingdom (11th – 13th Dynasties; 2055 – 1700 BC)

Memphis was the capital. Central power was increased. Expansion into Nubia.

  • Second Intermediate Period (14th – 17th Dynasties; 1700 – 1550 BC)

Eastern Delta came under the rule of the Hyksos kings who came from Palestine. Egyptian kings ruled from Thebes. The Hyksos introduced the use of horses and chariots in warfare.

  • New Kingdom (18th – 20th Dynasties; 1550 – 1069 BC)
Ramses II
Ramses II

The Thebes eventually took power from the Hyksos rulers and under Ahmose I they gained control of the Delta and of the whole Egypt. Later Egyptian empire was expanded into the land of Kush in the south and to Euphrates in the east. It is a period of great architectural, artistic and literary achievements. Many famous rulers as Queen Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, Horemheb, Seti I, Rameses I, Rameses II made their mark on the face of the flourishing empire. However at the end of the 20th Dynasty there were increasing attacks from abroad, notably by the Sea Peoples and power shifted away from the kings towards the priests of Amun.

  • Third Intermediate Period (21st – 24th Dynasties; 1069 – 747 BC)

Power was decentralized. Northern Egypt was ruled from Tanis in the Delta and souther Egypt was controlled by the priests of Amun in Thebes.

  • Late Dynastic Period (25th – 30th Dynasties; 747 – 332 BC)

When the Assyrians withdrew from Egypt, Psamtek I established the Saite Dynasty as the major power in Egypt. In 525 BC Persians invaded Egypt and established 27th Dynasty, but Egyptians shook them off and during 28th – 30th Dynasties ruled their land themselves until Persians returned and held Egypt again.

  • Cleopatra VII

    Cleopatra VII

    Macedonian and Ptolemaic Period (332 – 30 BC)

In 332 BC Alexander the Great haven beaten Darius III of Persia set Egypt free from Persians. After Alexander’s death Egypt passed to Ptolemy I Soter, who had been the Macedonian administrator of Egypt. The Ptolemies established a new capital at Alexandria, increased Hellenistic world upon Egypt but also retained Egyptian political and religious system.  They repaired, enlarged and built new temples and introduced the cult of Serapis which assimilated Egyptian and Greek religious ideas.

  • Roman Period (30 BC – 550AD)

Cleopatra VII and her son Caesarion were the last of Ptolemies. The Roman Emperors succeeded as Pharoahs, but Egypt was seen only as a source of goods, exotic foods and taxes. Later all Egyptians had to become christians as it became the only official religion in whole Roman Empire. In 553 AD the Emperor Justinian ordered to close the last temples and it was the end of the ancient Egyptian religion.

Egypt became part of the Byzantine Empire until in the 7th century a successful invasion established the Arabs and Islamic religion in Egypt.

Hieroglyphs

Rosetta Stone
Rosetta Stone

So the old ways were forgotten and there was no one left alive who could read the messages left on the temples. People called these writings hieroglyphs (sacred writing). They believed hieroglyphs were magic spells used by the ancient priests.

Hieroglyphs
Hieroglyphs

In 1799 an old slab of stone was found near the town of Rosetta in Egypt. It had a message carved in it in three different languages. Top part was in hieroglyphs, middle – in signs never seen before and the third part was in ancient Greek which was known. Scholars were scratching their heads for a long time until finally in 1822 Jean – Francois Champollion cracked the code. Working with cartouches (a group of Egyptian hieroglyphs, typically representing the name and title of a monarch) on other monuments, he showed that the hieroglyphs stood for sounds, just like the letters of our alphabet.

Papyrus

The ancient Egyptians wrote on an early kind of paper called papyrus, which was made from a river reed. To make sheets of papyrus, the bushy tops of the plants were cut and stripped of their coating.Then they cut the inner part of the stem into long strips. The strips were laid out, forming a mat. Then another layer of strips was added, crosswise to the first layer. The layers were pounded with a heavy mallet. Juice oozed out of the papyrus. The two layers of strips were mashed together into a single sheet which was pressed under a heavy weight until it was flat and dry. Finally, a worker rubbed the papyrus sheet with a flat stone to make it smooth. Ancient Egyptian books were just sheets of papyrus glued together into long scrolls. These were rolled up and saved in clay jars. If it stayed dry, it lasted for a very long time. Some scrolls found in tombs thousands of years old are still in good shape.

Papyrus

Papyrus

Egyptians valued science, knowledge, books. The Royal Library of Alexandria was the largest and most significant great library of the ancient world. It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty and functioned as a major center of scholarship from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. During his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC Julius Caesar accidentally burned the library down. Now we just can imagine what was lost forever…

Mummies

Egyptian Mummy

Egyptian Mummy

The Egyptians believed in the Afterlife where they still need their bodies. They thought that if the dead were buried properly, they would be able to eat, drink and move around in the Afterlife. So they buried them with everything from food and drink to clothes and games. Mummification was a process that dried a dead body out, stopping it from rotting away and saving it for the Afterlife. The Egyptians used a salt called natron to dry dead bodies out. This stage lasted 40 days. The heart was left in the body, but the brain was pulled out through the nose and thrown away. The lungs, liver, stomach and intestines were taken out of the body and preserved. They were sealed in containers called Canopic jars for burial with the coffin. The body was rubbed with special oils and wrapped in fine linen bandages. Finally the mummy was placed in a coffin and buried. The Egyptians were so skilled that their mummies have lasted for thousands of years – they can still be seen today in museums all around the world. Animals were mummified too. Many mummies of cats, crocodiles, bulls, lions, cobras and birds were found in Egypt.

Gods

The Egyptians had hundreds of gods and goddesses. Some were more important than others. The chief god was Amun and his temple in Karnak was the biggest and wealthiest in Egypt. People believed their temples were the homes of the gods and ordinary people weren’t normally allowed inside them to worship. At the temple’s heart was a shrine with a statue of the god inside. Only the pharaoh and his priest were allowed here. Priests visited the statue every day. they washed it and then dressed it in clean clothes at down. They brought fresh food and drink for the god statue everyday. Here are some most important and popular gods of Egypt:

  • Amun – Ra – the most powerful god. God of sun, light.
  • Anubis – god of cemeteries and of the embalmers who turned dead bodies into mummies.
  • Horus – is probably most well-known as the protector of the ruler of Egypt. He was a god of the sky.
  • Isis – was the wife of Osiris. She was the protector of children and a very popular goddess.
  • Tefnut – was the goddess of moisture.
  • Sobek – was the crocodile god. At his temple the priests kept sacred crocodiles. The crocodiles were treated well and even wore jewelry.
  • Seth – was the brother of Osiris. He ruled over desert and was a god of chaos. Sometimes he is described as an evil god.
  • Ptah – was the god of craftsmen.In one creation myth Ptah was a creator god. He spoke the words and the world came into being.
  • Osiris – was god of the earth and plant life. He also ruled the Land of the Dead, so he is usually shown in the form of a mummy.
  • Aten – During the reign of Akhenaten, the Aten was made the ‘king’ of the gods. Akhenaten declared that Aten was not merely the supreme god, but the only god, and that he, Akhenaten, was the only intermediary between Aten and his people. He ordered the defacing of Amun’s temples throughout Egypt. The Pharaoh wanted to gain more power this way, because priests became more and more wealthy and started to interfere in countries political life too much. However after Akhenaten’s death people returned to their old gods.

Everyday Life

Old Mud House
Old Mud House

The ancient Egyptians didn’t have fancy kitchens or cooking equipment. Food was stored in baskets or clay pots. Grain was ground into flour between stones, and bread was baked in a clay oven. Meat was roasted over an open fire. Ordinary Egyptians lived on bread and vegetables with beer to wash their meals down. sometimes they ate fish, but meat was mainly for the rich ones.

Most Egyptians wore rough linen clothes and children often wore no clothes at all! Wealthy Egyptian men were wearing a kilt under a shirt – like top for special occasions. Women wore a long tunic – like dress, often with a cloak on top. Men and women painted their eyes and wore lipstick. They also loved jewellery. Rich Egyptians wore rings, earrings, anklets, necklaces, bracelets etc. Men and women wore wigs made of real human hair. Overall Egyptians were vain about their looks.

House of a Rich Family
House of a Rich Family

Although very few trees grew in Egypt, there was plenty of mud. So houses were built from mud – bricks baked hard in the hot sunshine. An ordinary family’s home would have 2 -3 rooms on the ground floor with an outside staircase leading to a roof terrace. The homes of the wealthy were larger, with many more rooms. These were decorated with beautiful wall paintings. Outside there was a garden, often with a fish pool. There were no taps or running water inside the houses, but wealthy families had a bathroom with a washing slab and a sand toilet.

The Egyptians had a ten – day week, with just one day at the end for a holiday. People worked in the early morning and late afternoon. They broke for lunch and snooze in the middle of the day, when it was hottest. Egyptians didn’t use money. Goods were bartered or swapped. After scribes (educated men), the next most important people in Egyptian society were the craftworkers.

Wealthy and poor people in Egypt liked to spend their free time hunting. They also loved to play different sorts of games like senet (draughts), leapfrog, tug-of-war.