Egyptian History

 

Ancient Egypt was one of the earliest civilizations  which had a continuous evolving culture.  Egypt's hieroglyphic writing, mythology, art, and architecture influenced other ancient kingdoms. Egyptian Gods and Goddess had followers in Rome and Greece.  The western alphabets were influence by hieroglyphic writing. The influence  of ancient Egyptian philosophies are evident in the Judaic and Christian religious texts. Greek sciences and art were directly inspired from the early Egyptians.

The art found in temples and commissioned by the royal's represented and idealized society. Today much is being learned about the real ancient Egyptian culture from papyrus and pottery fragments (ostraca) by the working class.

Although neighboring civilizations alternated between being Egypt's friends and enemies, there was no serious threat to Egypt's independence before 700 B.C.An abundance of food and materials combined with a strong religious and political structure kept ancient Egypt's civilization stable. 

Hieroglyphics made literacy possible and promoted development in science and art.  This enabled the Egyptians to create the most magnificent art and architecture of that historical period.

A common belief in a mythology describing an orderly cosmos, maintained by a divine pharaoh, supported by the church and state government, kept Egypt's civilization virtually unchanged for over 3,000 years.  Without the influence of different cultures the majority of the population remained constant and loyal to the pharaoh. By continuing to practice traditional basic beliefs and cultural norms the society remained stable and intact.

The period of history before written records exist (before 3100BC) is known as the Predynastic Era. Before 5000 BC hunters and gatherers lived in the Nile valley.  As the environment changed and the land became drier (after 4000 BC) human settlements became restricted to the valley areas. This change in living conditions developed early agricultural communities.   Eventually trading along the Nile between villages became common. By 3300 BC the land was divided between two kingdoms of upper (Northern land) and lower Egypt (Southern land).   King Narmer (also known as Menes) united the two kingdoms.  King Narmer was succeeded as pharaoh by the kings of the 1st and 2nd dynasties.  Memphis was the capital of the united Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians were preoccupied with the afterlife of the pharaoh. Pharaohs began building large pyramid complexes around 2686-2613 BC.  Large tombs dominated by step pyramids were built at Saquarra. One of the best preserved
of these step pyramids is King Zoser's (Djoser's). This pyramid is in the middle of a funerary complex.

Later during the 4th dynasty the more impressive pyramids of Giza were built. The largest pyramid at Giza was built for Khufu (Cheops).  Due to a shrinking economy the pyramids of the 5th and 6th dynasties at Abusir and Saqqara were smaller.

During the 5th dynasty, temples of the sun god Ra (Re), were built close to the pyramids, connecting the sun god to the pharaoh. Starting in the 6th dynasty the phar-
aoh was called "son of the sun god Ra".

During the 4th and 5th dynasties Egypt remained internally strong.  The government developed an aggressive, expansionist attitude towards their neighboring countries.  By the 6th dynasty the neighboring countries governments were stronger and Egypt 's government was on the defensive.

Mastabas were rectangular structures of brick or stones where royal families were buried.  They contained chapels and rooms depicting murals on the walls.

In art realism was not the primary concern.  The goal in early Egyptian art was to represent the ideal and the most recognizable characteristics of a person or subject. For instance a human being's head is drawn in profile but arms and torso are drawn from the frontal perspective. The most important person in the picture was the largest, thus a realistic perspective or representation was ignored. The pharaoh was shown as an ideal, regardless of age, disease, or injury.

Egypt's strong centralized government control began to break down under the 7th dynasty (2181-2040 BC).  The pharaohs were unable to keep the area warlords from fighting each other. The kingdom became divided, later in 2000 BC the 11th dynasty reunited Egypt. This began the period known as the Middle Kingdom. These changes in government created social changes in the people.  Individuals were now more aware of their personal rights. The government had to recognize and accommodate this change. Religion was also affected.  The average citizen began participating in burial practices that were once limited to the kings. During the 12th dynasty the government encouraged the development of a middle class. The funerary god Osiris was now available to everyone to worship.

Although the art was still idealized, some statues began to represent more realistic figures.

From 1786-1567 BC social decline and invasions impacted Egypt’s civilization.  During the 13th dynasty high officials became extremely powerful, sometimes fighting over the right to succeed the pharaoh.   This created much shorter reigns due to assassinations and depositions of the kings. This weakened Egypt militarily and left the land vulnerable to invasions.

The 18th dynasty (1570-1085 BC) is known as the New Kingdom period.

This was an extremely important era for ancient Egypt. During this period the country was ruled by pharaohs Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Akhenaten, Seti I, and Ramses II. Under their rule Egyptians became more powerful and aggressively expansionists.  These rulers recaptured Nubia and Palestine. Egypt reestablished diplomatic and business ties with other countries.

Hatshepsut, one of the rare female pharaohs assumed reign while acting as regent for Thutmose III. Her reign lasted 22 years, After her death Thutmose became pharaoh and destroyed Hatshepsut's monuments. During this time the priesthood became more lucrative. Often the king would give estates to the priests. Eventually priests owned one-third of the best land in Egypt. The pharaoh always represented the ruler of both church and state. Divinity was always an important feature in the belief of the pharaoh's right to rule.  The pharaoh represented the living Horus, who in Egyptian mythology was the son of Osiris. He was also divinely related to the sun god Amun-Ra.

The pharaoh Akhenaten (1379-1362 BC) is one of the most controversial figures in pharaonic history. He developed a monotheistic religion (belief in one God) during his reign.  He believed in a single god, the Aten represented as the sun disk.   Along with a new religion, he moved the capitol from Thebes to Tell el Amarna. He broke with tradition and married Nefertiti a non-royal. A sculpture of Nefertiti is considered one of the greatest works of art in history.  In his new capitol Akhenaten reigned as the Aten on earth.


These radical changes in religious beliefs and governmental traditions caused resentment towards the pharaoh. When Akhenaton died the state and church returned to their previous way of life.  Egypt's capitol returned to Thebes and all of the  gods were once again being worshipped in the temples.

Akhenaten's successor Tutankhamen assumed reign at the age of nine. His reign was not long, but his tomb was the only tomb that was not looted by grave robbers.
Ramses II had the longest known reign. During his leadership a peace treaty was signed with the Hittites.  In the 19th dynasty the king's divine role was still supported by government and church.  Therefore it was not possible
that any priest could become too powerful

and threaten the pharaoh’s control over the country.

Women’s status was high by ancient standards. Women could own property, initiate divorce and officiate for their husbands on certain occasions when they were unable to perform in an official capacity

 The pyramid tomb was forgotten, and the pharaohs had smaller tombs cut into the walls of rock in the Valley of the Kings.

During the 20th dynasty (1198-66 BC) the strong nation of Egypt lost power.   Royal building programs were unsuccessful.  Corruption and the inefficient New Kingdom government led by Ramses XI ended in civil war.  Sometime after 1085 BC, Egypt became divided. By 800 BC there were individual states, run by local governments and worshipping local gods.  This weakened government allowed the Cushites to invade and occupy the country until the Assyrian invasion and occupation during 667-665 BC. 

A 26th dynasty managed to regain independence from foreign invaders, only to be overthrown by the Persians.  Egypt was ruled by the Persians from 525-404 BC and also from 341 to 333 BC.

During the 4th century BC Alexander the Great conquered Egypt from the Persians.  Alexander declared himself pharaoh.  When Alexander died his general Ptolemy became pharaoh and established the last dynasty of Egypt.  The Ptolemeic dynasty ruled for over 300 years.

 At first the Ptolemy’s had a prosperous reign, but internal conflict caused rebellion. The native Egyptian people resented being governed by Greeks.  The last Ptolemy to rule Egypt was Cleopatra VII who committed suicide in 30 BC.  Egypt was conquered by the Romans’ after Cleopatra’s death. The country was under Roman rule for two centuries.   During this period the Romans protected Egypt from other invasions.

Egyptian life remained fundamentally the same except in Alexandria where the Greek influence made art a mixture of the Egyptian and Greek culture. The Roman government began taxing the Egyptians and peasants began fleeing the rural areas. This developed into an economic crisis. Governmental control had begun to crumble.

Eventually the Christian religion became the major religion and Egypt was ruled by four families. The country became divided by these four families,

In 641 AD the Byzantines were defeated by Arabs, and a new capitol was established in Cairo.  After wards the country was invaded by the Ottomans. In 1798 Napolean conquered Egypt, but withdrew after a defeat in battle near Alexandria. Mohamed Ali declared himself ruler and reigned from 1805-1849. Under the reign of his grandson the British ruled.

 In 1952 Egyptian  army officers forced King Farouk (the last of the dynasty established by Mohamed Ali) to abdicate the throne, and in 1954 Gamal Abdel-Nassar became president. Nassar died in 1970 and was succeeded by Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 and Mohamed Hosni Moubarak became president.

 

 
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