Thursday, 3 November 2011

Ancient Egyptian History

Cleopatra (left)

When people think of ancient civilisations one of the first ones that spring to mind is the Egyptian civilisation. It left behind some of the worlds’ most impressive monuments and has a very distinctive culture and art. Television history channels love to show documentaries about periods of Egyptian history and most of us have a vague knowledge of the names of some of the Pharaohs. However, ancient Egyptian culture lasts for over three thousand years and it can be very easy to think of the entire civilisation as one static unity. This was not the case and in this blog I shall try and give some rough outlines on Egyptian history that will hopefully allow you to make more sense of it overall and enable you to find your place the next time you see a documentary on the Egyptians on the History channel.

           Firstly, Egyptian artwork is a bad thing to go on. I have shown pictures of the first Pharaoh (Narmer) and the last one (Cleopatra VII). As you can see, the artwork, while not identical, is very similar indeed, despite the fact that the two monarchs are separated by nearly three thousand years.
            Roughly around 3000 BC Egypt was comprised of two kingdoms. The first king to unite the two kingdoms and form Egypt, as we know it was a king known as Narmer. Egyptian history was relatively uneventful for the next few hundred years. The period between 2700 BC and 2200 BC is known as the Old Kingdom. The Old Kingdom is most notable for the way it buried it’s kings. They invented and perfected the art of pyramid building and the great pyramids at Giza and elsewhere were built almost entirely during the Old Kingdom. It’s unclear why they stopped building them thereafter but if you see a documentary dealing with pyramid building in Egypt you can be almost sure that it is dealing with the Old Kingdom.

Old Kingdom pyramids at Giza
            In the period 2200-2000 BC it seems that social order broke down. Kings still reigned but they had little power and there are few great buildings or writings from this time. This is referred to as the First Intermediate Period, a sort of Dark Ages. Of course, this is based on our source material. If more source material comes to light it may emerge that conditions were not as bad as was said.

An Egyptian Scribe
            From around 2000-1600 BC the Middle Kingdom reigned. The Middle Kingdom was a period of order but they built no pyramids like the Old Kingdom’s and their Pharaoh’s have not been known in popular culture. Their greatest contribution to world heritage is the creation of a book known as the Tale of Sinuhe, which is probably the finest work of ancient Egyptian literature despite being difficult to read because of cultural differences. 

A Picture of an Egyptian Chariot
            In the 1600’s BC the Middle Kingdom broke down and invaders from Syria migrated to Egypt and ruled the land for around one hundred years. These invaders were known as the Hyksos and the technology they brought allowed them to conquer Egypt. The most significant technological advantage they brought to Egypt was the chariot. If you see an Egyptian temple with a picture of a chariot you can be almost sure that it is not older than the time of the Hyksos. Many commentators have tied the tale of the Hyksos to the narratives in Genesis about the tale of Joseph but the connection is as yet unproven. This period is also referred to as the Second Intermediate Period.

            The Hyksos never fully conquered the land and a king from the southern city of Thebes was able to eventually throw out the invaders. The newly unified Egypt was now strengthened by the technology the Hyksos had brought and the next three hundred years saw Egypt reach the height of its power and influence. Notable Pharaoh’s were Hatshepsut (the brilliant woman pharaoh), Tuthmosis III (the conqueror), Rameses II (the greatest builder of the Pharaohs), Akhenaten (the heretic), Tutankhamun (whose tomb later became famous) and Rameses III who saved Egypt from invasion.

Valley of the Kings
            Egypt created a large empire stretching down into what is now Sudan and comprising what is now Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and parts of Syria. Many of the famous monuments in Luxor and Karnak were built at this time, as the New Kingdom Pharaohs embellished their southern capital. They did not however bury their Pharaohs in pyramids. Instead, to prevent robbery they made tombs in the western desert, in what is now known as the Valley of the Kings.

The one great exception to Egyptian art occurred at this time, when the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten moved the capital and changed the royal artwork. Instead of the idealised identical faces and bodies of traditional art, Akhenaten chose to have himself portrayed with a drawn face and distended stomach. The brief time of Akhenaten’s reign (1353-1336 BC: worth a post in its own right) is referred to as the Amarna Period because he moved his capital to what is now Amarna so if you come across this you know when it is from.

            Around 1200 BC the great Bronze Age civilisations began to break down all across the Near East. The last notable Pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Rameses III spent most of his reign fighting constant invasions of migrating peoples. In the 1100’s the New Kingdom broke down.
Invaders from the Sea

            From this point onwards Egypt goes into decline. At various points the kingdom was ruled by Pharaohs from what is present day Libya and Sudan. These kings were often very successful but Egypt was no longer able to control the newly independent kingdoms in Syria and the Levant or compete with the rising empires of Assyria or Babylon. This is known as the Third Intermediate Period.

            Around 671 BC the fearsome Assyrian Empire conquered Egypt but could not hold it for long. The Egyptians left in charge of the province became independent almost immediately and ruled successfully until 525 BC when the Persian Empire conquered Egypt. This period of independence is referred to as the Late Period.

            Persian rule was deeply unpopular and Egyptian princes revolted against the Persians with the aid of Greek mercenaries and the city of Athens. Some of the rebellions were successful but eventually the Persians regained control. Alexander the Great passed through Egypt in 332 BC while conquering the Persian Empire.

A much later picture of the Battle of Actium
            After Alexander’s death his Macedonian generals seized portions of the empire and Egypt was taken by an enterprising general called Ptolemy. His descendents ruled Egypt for the next 300 years and are referred to as the Ptolemaic Dynasty (partly because all of their kings were unimaginatively named Ptolemy). They portrayed themselves as Egyptian Pharaohs to the Egyptians, building traditional temples and writing in hieroglyphics. But they also facilitated Greek culture and built the famed Library of Alexandria and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the ancient Wonders of the World. The dynasty went into decline and survived by playing a dangerous diplomatic game with the Roman Republic. The last Ptolemaic ruler, Cleopatra VII (the only Ptolemaic Pharaoh who bothered to learn Egyptian) was defeated along with her Roman allies by Caesar Augustus at the Battle of Actium (31 BC). Antony (the Roman general) and Cleopatra committed suicide shortly afterwards and Egypt was absorbed as a province in the Roman Empire.

            This has been a very long blog post but it has been a summary of over three thousand years of history so it is difficult to keep it short. I hope that this is of some help to people in understanding the broad trends of Egyptian history.