The Egyptian culture was one of the oldest and most long-lived of antiquity. It benefited from an abundance of good farmland, nearby mineral resources, and a good strategic position. Despite occasional invasion and internal strife, it endured as a distinctive culture for nearly 5000 years.
Ancient Egypt occupied almost the same area as modern Egypt does today. Its civilization stayed very close to the Nile River. Because it was almost entirely surrounded by desert, enemies could approach only from the west and northeast along the Mediterranean coast, from the south down the river valley, or directly over the sea.
During its long history, the capital of Egypt was located at various times in Hierakonpolis, Memphis, Herakleopolis, Thebes, It-towy, Akhetaten, Tanis, Sais, and Alexandria. The most important of these were Memphis and Thebes. Alexandria was founded as the capital by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Greek overlords, the Ptolemaic dynasty, ruled from here until 30 BC.
Rise to power
Agriculture was brought to the Nile Valley prior to 5000 BC by immigrants from the highlands of Palestine. By 3000 BC, agriculture had spread southward up the Nile. Flooding was under control and irrigation put much more land under cultivation. The abundance of food led to large populations and increased wealth for the area.The early history of Egypt was a period of consolidation. Two separate kingdoms rose and vied for power along the river. Around 3100 BC, King Menes of Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt (centered on the lowland river delta) and established the First Dynasty.Between 3100 BC and 1300 BC, the Egyptians struggled with Nubians and Kushites up the Nile to the south. Forts and garrisons held the frontier but during periods of weakness these were destroyed. Around 1300 BC the Nubians suffered an important defeat and were neutralized as a threat for about 500 years.Egypt’s Dynasty XIII, 1783 to 1640 BC, was very weak. During this period the frontier forts to the south were lost and Semitic immigrants from the east moved into the delta. These immigrants, called the Hyksos, took control of the entire delta region in 1674 BC. The Hyksos eventually adopted Egyptian culture and language, and introduced the horse and chariot.The New Kingdom was founded by Dynasty XVIII in 1552 BC, following a successful war to drive out the Hyksos. This dynasty was the great age of the warrior pharaohs and Egyptian empire. To prevent further incursions from the east, the Egyptians attempted to establish control over the kingdoms in the Levant and Palestine. During this period they vied for control with the Hittites and Mitanni, as well as the local kings. The Egyptians were the dominant power in the Near East until around 1200 BC when the entire area was overrun by barbarians.
Egypt was an agricultural society dependent on the water and soil brought down each year by the Nile from the highlands of Ethiopia. Extensive irrigation made it possible to farm fields not adjacent to the river but still close enough to be inundated each year and receive new sediments. The principal crops were wheat and barley that were used to make bread and beer, the staples of their diet. They also grew fruits and vegetables and raised cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, geese, ducks, and pigeons. The abundance of food meant a large population and allowed the export of food.The Nile passes through several hilly regions and some of these were rich in minerals. The nearby Sinai Peninsula also held mineral riches. Unlike some other ancient cultures, the Egyptians had relatively easy access to copper and gold, further increasing their wealth. The hills were sources of granite, limestone, and sandstone that they used for construction.The Egyptians were one of the first cultures to build boats and they eventually took these out into the Mediterranean. Egypt became an important Mediterranean port of call as trade increased because it was a rich market for both buying and selling. Principal Egyptian exports were grain, food, linen, perfume, and manufactured goods. Important imports were timber, slaves, silver, horses, pottery, and wine.
Religion and culture
The Egyptian religion had over 2000 gods, though only a few of these were predominant. The important gods had a home town where their principal temple was located. One of the most important was Ra, the sun god, understandably critical to an agricultural society.They believed in a life after death. They referred to this as the “next world,” and thought it was somewhere to the west. They developed elaborate burials and embalming to preserve the body for this second life. Goods and servants were buried with royalty and nobles to serve them.
The ancient Egyptians believed their kings were descended from the sun god Ra. They believed they could communicate with the gods through the king.The king had absolute power but was required to perform several important duties. He was responsible for the harvest and irrigation of crops. He directed the government, trade, and foreign policy. He enforced the laws and led the army. During the New Kingdom, the pharaohs usually commanded their armies in the field.Reporting directly to the pharaoh were two viziers, one for Lower Egypt based in Memphis and one for Upper Egypt based in Thebes. Below the viziers were rural districts controlled by governors and towns controlled by mayors. These officials carried out the pharaoh’s orders and collected taxes. Scribes kept the records.The Egyptians had no coinage until they were conquered by Alexander the Great. All workers paid taxes by turning over a percentage of their production, whether it was fish, grain, trade goods, pottery, or other goods. In addition, each household had to provide a laborer for several weeks each year for mining or public works. The pyramids were probably built by laborers putting in their annual service.
The Egyptians were among the first cultures to possess the necessary population and wealth to build standing armies of professional soldiers. Prior to the Hyksos invasion around 1675 BC, Egyptian soldiers were equipped with simple bows, maces, and spears. The Hyksos introduced the horse and chariot, which were quickly adopted by the Egyptians in turn. The dominance of the Near East by New Kingdom Egypt, from 1600 to 1200 BC, was primarily due to the large and powerful chariot armies sent into battle there. These chariots carried a driver and composite bow archer and were the elite of the army.
Egypt survived the catastrophe of 1200 BC by fighting off several major attempted invasions. They went into decline, nevertheless, following the death of Rameses III who was the last of the great warrior pharaohs. Their decline was partly due to trade coming to a virtual halt for several generations. A series of weak kings and civil wars over succession to the throne also eroded their strength.In 728 BC Egypt was conquered by Nubia and held for 60 years. In 665 BC the Assyrians completed a conquest of Egypt by sacking Thebes. A new native Egyptian dynasty arose in 664 BC, eventually throwing out the Nubians and asserting their independence from Assyria by stopping payment of tribute. In 525 BC Egypt was conquered again from the east, this time by Cambryses II of Persia. When the Persians faltered in their war with the Greeks, the Egyptians reclaimed their independence briefly before succumbing once more to Persian invasion by 332 BC. Within a year, however, the Persians themselves were gone, destroyed by Alexander the Great who was accepted by the Egyptians as their pharaoh.Greeks ruled Egypt as overlords from the time of Alexander the Great until 30 BC when Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and Mark Antony were defeated by Octavian. Egypt thereafter became part of the Roman Empire.
The ancient Egyptians are remembered for the quality and quantity of cultural objects that have survived to the present, including the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the treasures of Tutankhamen’s tomb, the other monuments and temples of the Nile Valley, hieroglyphics, mummies, and papyrus. They are also remembered in the West because of their prominent role in the history of ancient Israel as recounted in the Old Testament.
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