Archaeological evidence suggests that over 250,000 years ago roaming hunter-gatherers inhabited Egypt, which at the time was rolling grassland. During the Palaeolithic period, around 25,000 BC, climatic changes turned Egypt into a desert. During this period a shift to primitive forms of cultivation occurred as communities began to settle in Middle Egypt and the Nile Delta. Soon these farmers were growing wheat, flax and weaving linen fabrics, as well as tending flocks. Gradually the primitive settlements became small tribal kingdoms, which eventually evolved into two loosely aligned kingdoms - one in the Nile valley (worshiping the god Horus) and the other in the Nile Delta (worshiping the god Seth). The two kingdoms vied for control over all the lands of Egypt, and in 3100 BC unification of Egypt, under the command of Menes, marked the beginning of the dynastic period of the Pharaohs.
This period of Egyptian history is mostly shrouded in mythology and little is known of Menes and his descendants other than their divine ancestry and that they developed a highly stratified social system, patronized the arts and built many temples and public buildings. Menes established his new capital at Memphis, the world's first imperial city, which lies just 24 km south of Cairo.
During the First Dynasty (3100 - 2890 BC) Egyptian culture became increasingly refined, examples of which can still be glimpsed today at the royal burial grounds of Saqqara and Abydos.
The Second Dynasty (2980 - 2686 BC) was marked by a breakdown of Pharaonic authority and a series of regional disputes - probably the result of religious rivalry between the two deities Horus in the south, and Seth in the Delta. These rivalries seem to have been resolved by Khasekhem, the last Pharaoh of the Second Dynasty.
The Old Kingdom was the period in which most of Egypt's pyramids were built. Built during the Third Dynasty (2686 – 2613 BC) by Zoser’s chief architect Imhotep, the impressive Step Pyramid at Saqqara is believed by many to be the first true pyramid in Egypt, and seems to have been the inspiration for the many pyramids that followed. Also during Zoser’s rein, the Sun God Ra rose in importance above all other Egyptian deities.
The Fourth Dynasty (2613 – 2494 BC) is where pyramid building reached its pinnacle. King Sneferu constructed the Bent and Red Pyramids at Dahshur near Saqqara and the Pyramid of Meidum in Al-Fayoum, and his descendants, Cheops (Khufu), Chephren (Khafre) and Mycerinus (Menkaure), built the Great Pyramids of Giza. During Sneferu’s reign trading along the Nile flourished and military expeditions into Libya and Nubia were undertaken. By the end of the reign of Mycerinus trade had expanded into the Near East and Egypt had developed the world’s first truly organised form of government.
The Fifth Dynasty (2490 – 2330 BC) brought a relative decline in Pharaonic power and wealth, which can be seen in the smaller pyramids built at Abu Sir during this period. This was the result of a gradual shift away from the absolute power enjoyed by earlier Pharaohs to power sharing with the aristocracy and high officials. Worship of the sun god Ra also increased during this period.
The erosion of Pharaonic authority continued during Sixth Dynasty (2330 – 2170 BC) as small provincial principalities emerged to challenge Pharaonic power. The Pharaohs became more warlike and during the reign of Pepi I the Egyptian army was organized and a warrior caste developed. The Old Kingdom came to an end with the death of Pepi II and following his death, the central government collapsed. This brought about a period of turmoil known as the First Intermediate Period.
During the chaotic Seventh Dynasty (2181 - 2173BC) and Eighth Dynasty (2173 – 2160 BC), civil disorders multiplied, and drought and famine struck Egypt leading to even more social upheaval and anarchy. As a result of the turmoil small local principalities rose up to challenge the rule of the kings and, at the beginning of the Ninth Dynasty (2160 - 2130BC), a second capital was established by Achthoes at Heracleopolis, near present-day Beni Suef. The kings of Heracleopolis ruled northern Egypt throughout the Tenth Dynasty (2130 – 2040 BC). However, rebellion in the south and subsequent civil war marked the start of the Eleventh Dynasty (2133 – 1991 BC), and eventually saw the reunification of Egypt by Nebhepetre Mentuhope II, from his base in Thebes. This marked the beginning of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt.
Mentuhope II reign over Egypt lasted for fifty years and during this period he re-established political and social order. This in turn helped to regenerate the economic and artistic development that so characterized the glory of the past Pharaohs. Trading was resumed and mines were reopened. Campaigns were undertaken against Libya and Nubia, and local and foreign trade flourished.
Mentuhope III and Mentuhope IV continued to rule from Thebes, building and expanding their kingdom until Amenemhat, assumed the throne and founded the Twelfth Dynasty (1991 – 1790 BC). Amenemhat moved his capital back to Memphis and pushed the boundaries of Egyptian rule deep into Nubia to the south and the land of Sham, as far as Syria and Palestine, to the north. Pyramid building was re-established and every Pharaoh was buried in their own pyramid. It was Amenemhat II and Senusert III who built the last pyramids in Lahun, Lisht and Hawara.
There appears to have been a smooth transition to the Thirteenth Dynasty (1790 – 1700 BC), but the Middle Kingdom eventually came to a close, as over time the central authority weakened, leading to civil disorder and instability and a prolonged period of upheaval. The close of the Middle Kingdom is a little sketchy, but is believed to be due to the arrival in the Eastern Nile Delta, and subsequent rise to power, of Asiatic settlers from the Near East, known as the Hyksos. The Fourteenth Dynasty took control of the western Delta and the Hyksos led Fifteenth Dynasty took control of the eastern Delta.
By 1600 BC the Hyksos had made their way down the Nile and captured Memphis. Their influence on Egypt’s dying culture was marked by the introduction of new animals and plants, the potter’s wheel and the vertical loom, and various new musical instruments. They also brought with them new instruments of war like the composite bow, chariot and scale armour. The advance of the Hyksos was finally halted at Thebes, thus establishing the Seventeenth Dynasty and, by 1550 Kamose, the Theban king, had cornered the Hyksos in Avaris. When his successor Ahmosis drove the last of the Hyksos from Egypt, the New Kingdom was born.
Ahmosis founded the Eighteenth Dynasty (1567 - 1320BC), and started a period of great stability and prosperity during which Pharaonic culture flowered and Egypt once again became a world power. Nubia, to the south, was conquered and its vast wealth of gold, ivory and gemstones flowed into Egypt. To the north, the Near East, Syria and Palestine also fell to the Pharaohs and a vast assimilation of cultural and knowledge took place through the immigration of slaves and workers from these newly established colonies. The temple of Karnak at Thebes grew with the expansion of the empire, and Tuthmosis I constructed the first tomb in the Valley of the Kings. His daughter Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s few female rulers, reigned as pharaoh and built the temple of Deir Al-Bahri. Tuthmosis III continued to expand the empire beyond Nubia and across the Euphrates to the land of the Hittites. Imperial expansion continued under Amenophis II and Tuthmosis IV, and the reign of Amenophis III was the pinnacle of Egyptian Pharaonic power. During the reign of Amenophis III the kingdom was secure enough for the Pharaoh to build many of Egypt’s finest Pharaonic structures, including the Temple of Luxor.
His son Amenophis IV was more wayward and, after breaking away from the priesthood of the god Amun, changed his name to Akhenaten in honour of the new sun god Aten. He also broke with Thebes and, with his wife Nefertiti, moved north to establish a new capital called Akhetaten. Some historians believe his single devotion to one god is the first example of an organized monotheistic religion. The scant remains of Akhetaten can still be seen today at Tell al-Amarna, near the town of Minya. Upon Akhenaten death the old priesthood at Thebes destroyed all signs of his rule and religion and the throne was passed on to his son-in-law, the boy king Tutankhamun. Best remembered today for the fabulous and pristine treasures uncovered when his tomb was discovered in 1922, he ruled for only nine years until just before reaching manhood, when he mysteriously died.
The Nineteenth Dynasty (1320 - 1200BC) saw the rise to power of a line of warrior kings. Ramses and his descendants, Ramses II and III and Seti I and II, set about recapturing territories lost under Akhenaten. They also built colossal structures like the majestic temple at Abydos, the Ramesseum in Thebes, and the sun temples of Abu Simbel.
The Twentieth Dynasty (1200 - 1085BC) was to be the last of the New Kingdom and was first established by Sethnakhte. However by the reign of his successor Ramses III, the kingdom was beset with provincial unrest and foreign invaders. Ramses’ III successors, all of whom were named Ramses, presided over the decline of their empire until during the reign of Ramses XI the New Kingdom drew to a close with the outbreak of civil war.
During the start of this period external threats from Libyan invaders and others were eroding Egypt's power to defend itself. Eventually Libyan warriors established their own Dynasty in the Nile delta from their capital at Tanis, until later replaced by the princes of Sais. Upper Egypt held out longer against Nubian invaders but eventually the armies of their ruler Piankhi overran Thebes. In 671 BC Assyrian armies captured Memphis and attacked Thebes, driving the Nubian pharaoh Tanutamun back to Nubia. By 525 BC the Assyrians were in turn swept aside by the armies of the Persian Empire. The rule of the Persian lasted for almost 200 years, during which time they built a canal connecting the Nile with the Red Sea and also constructed temples and a new city on the site of what is now called Old Cairo. Eventually Persian rule gave way to Greek rule in 332 BC, under the leadership of perhaps the world’s greatest conqueror Alexander the Great.
In 332 BC, Egypt became a part of the new Macedonian Empire after Alexander the Great’s destruction of the Persians. Alexander was greeted as something of a liberator from Persian rule due to his respect of the local deities, and was immediately accepted as a Pharaoh. After founding the new capital of Alexandria, one of many cities named after him, he soon left Egypt to resume his campaign against the Persians. In 323 BC, Alexander died suddenly and one of his generals Ptolemy I became the satrap of Egypt.
By 305 BC Ptolemy I had become the king and founder of a dynasty that would rule over Egypt for the next 300 years. Under his rule Greek became the official language of Egypt and Hellenistic culture and ideas were introduced and assimilated into traditional Egyptian theology, art, architecture and technology. The legacy of Ptolemaic rule can still be seen today at the temples of Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae. The city of Alexandria also became a great capital, housing one of history's greatest libraries.
By the early first century BC internal control had slackened and gradually Ptolemaic rule was eroded. The Romans were largely responsible, supporting various rulers and factions until attaining total control over the country when Julius Caesar's armies attacked Alexandria. Queen Cleopatra VII was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers to reign, albeit under the protection of the Caesar. After his assassination, Cleopatra VII found a new protector in Mark Anthony, a strong contender for the vacated role of emperor of Rome, who helped her retain Egypt’s independence for a further 10 years. Eventually the fleets of Octavian Caesar destroyed the Egyptian navy in the battle of Actium, causing Anthony and Cleopatra to commit suicide and Egypt to become a province of the Roman Empire.
Octavian became the first Roman ruler of Egypt, reigning as the Emperor Augustus but did little to develop the country, which served ostensibly as a granary for the Roman Empire. He did, however, establish a number of trading posts along the Red Sea coast and across the Western Desert extending into Cyrenaica (modern day Lybia) The Romans, like their Greek predecessors, incorporated many of their own beliefs into Egyptian culture, but Hellenism remained a dominant cultural force and Alexandria continued to be a centre of Greek learning.
Christianity appeared in Egypt around 40 AD with the arrival of Saint Mark who began preaching the gospel and established the Patriarchate of Alexandria in 61 AD. The Egyptian Coptic Church expanded over the next 300 years despite the Roman persecution of Christian converts throughout the empire. In AD284, the persecution of Coptic Christians reached a low point under the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, with a series of bloody massacres, from which the church has dated its calendar. However, such was the universal appeal of Christianity that in 323 AD it was legalized and adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine.
Soon after the Roman Empire fell into decline as a result of internal strife, famine and war, finally splitting into eastern and western empires. The eastern empire was based in Constantinople and became known as the Byzantine Empire and the western empire remained centred in Rome. The legalization of Christianity did not stop the Roman persecution of Coptic Christians, because the Byzantine church deemed the Copt’s monophysitic doctrine (the belief that Christ is divine, rather than both human and divine) as heretical, and expelled them from the Orthodox Church in 451 AD. This schism between the Byzantine and Coptic churches was never closed.
The fifth century saw the emergence of monasticism in Egypt, and the construction of the Coptic monasteries of Saint Catherine, Saint Paul and Saint Anthony. The continued oppression by their Roman overlords eventually came to an end in Egypt with the arrival of Islam in 639 AD.
Abu Bakr, the successor to the prophet Mohammad, led the invasion of Egypt and defeated the Byzantine army in 636. Establishing a capital called Fustat, just north of the Roman fortress Babylon, Egypt was ruled as a province and used primary as a granary for the larger Arab empire.
In 658 the Umayyads of Damascus seized control of Egypt and ruled for around 100 years before losing out to the Abbassids of Baghdad who ruled for another 200 years.
In 969 the North African Fatamid dynasty spread east to envelope Egypt and continued on into Syria and Arabia. The Fatamids were deeply unpopular and held themselves separate and above the indigenous population. They were also Shi’a Muslims, a branch of Islam at odds with the orthodox Sunnism of the locals. It was also during the Fatamid reign that the first Christian crusaders started their campaign to regain the holy sites of the Bible, and in particular Jerusalem (which they captured in 1099).
By 1167 the crusaders had reached Cairo, but were soon driven back by the Seljuks of Damascus who had responded to a call for help from the beleaguered Fatamids. After the expulsion of the crusaders the Seljuk leader Salah ad-Din (known as Saladin in the west) replaced the Fatamids as ruler in Egypt and established the new Ayyubid dynasty in 1171; however by 1250 the Ayyubids had been replaced by their former mercenaries, the Mamlukes.
The Mamlukes were a Turkish slave-soldier class used by Salah ad-Din and rewarded for service with gifts of land. Renowned for military prowess and savagery the Mamlukes rise to power in Egypt was bloody, and they soon expanded into Syria and Palestine.
During their three centuries of rule they also left a great architectural legacy in Cairo and transformed the city into the intellectual and cultural centre of the Arab world. The Mamlukes’ power and riches came from trade and in particular the canal connecting the Red Sea with the Nile. This vital commercial link between Europe and Asia was ruthlessly exploited, in partnership with the Venetians, and yielded fantastic riches to its Mamluke overlords. However, by the end of the 15th century the discovery of a sea route around the Cape of Good Hope, by Vasco da Gama, brought an end to Egypt’s fabulous wealth.
At around the same time the Ottoman Turks were emerging as the main power in the region and were seeking to unify the Muslim world under one mighty empire. Forced to face the Turks in battle in 1516, near Aleppo in northern Syria, the Mamluke army was completely defeated and the following year the Turkish sultan Selim I entered Cairo.
After the Turkish conquest, Egypt once again became just another far-flung province in a larger empire. Trading revenues and taxes went back to Constantinople and local administration was left to the Mamlukes, who retained considerable power in the form of local lords known as beys. In time the Turkish hold over Egypt weakened and by 1796 the Ottomans had been push back out of Egypt by the Mamlukes, only to be replaced two years later by a new world power, Napoleon and the French army.
In an attempt to disrupt commerce and weaken British control over India, the French decided to land its fleet at Alexandria in 1798. Napoleon’s musket-armed forces quickly defeated the Mamlukes and took control of Cairo, proclaiming the liberation of Egypt and setting up a French style government. Less than a month later the British, under Admiral Nelson destroyed the exposed French fleet at the bay of Abu Qir and soon after the Ottomans sent an army to recapture Egypt, and with the aid of Britain forced the French to surrender in 1801. Under the Capitulation Agreement all the treasures gathered by the French were surrendered to the British, including the Rosetta stone (that depicted inscriptions in both Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphics), which now resides in the British Museum.
After the expulsion of the French, Mohammed Ali, an Ottoman army officer, forced his way to control over Egypt, and in 1805 was confirmed as Pasha by the Ottoman Empire. He promptly set about smashing the remaining Mamlukes power structure starting with the bloody massacre of nearly 500 beys after a feast at his citadel in Cairo. Although often barbaric in his actions, Mohammed Ali is widely credited with modernising Egypt. He introduced a public education system, large-scale cotton production, and built factories, railways and canals.
After his death in 1849 his successors continued with grand projects of social and industrial reform, the grandest of which was the construction of the Suez Canal, which opened to great international acclaim in 1869. To fund these ever more ambitious projects, Khedive Ismail (1863 - 1879) relied upon larger and larger loans from the British bankers. They advanced sums of money, and at such extortionately high interest rates, that Egypt could never hope to repay them, and this provided Britain with a convenient excuse in 1882 to announce that, until Egypt could repay its debts, it was taking control of the country.
The British allowed the heirs of Mohammed Ali to remain on the throne but to all intents and purposes power was in the hands of the British. Under the illusion of putting things in order and then leaving, the British soon tightened its control over Egypt and by 1917 had declared it a British protectorate. This action was precipitated by the outbreak of the First World War and Turkey, who still considered Egypt as a province of the Ottoman Empire, deciding to side with the Germans.
Following the war anti-British feeling increased, leading to riots in 1922 and, under King Farouk, the move to independence gathered pace. However, the outbreak of the Second World War halted Egypt’s move to complete independence.
During World War II the deserts of Egypt played an important strategic role for the British against Rommel and his Afrika Korps, who almost reached Alexandria before being repulsed by the Eighth Army, under General Montgomery, at the battle of El-Alamein in October 1942. Throughout the war the Egyptians had seen the Germans as potential liberators from the British, and collaborators included future presidents Nasser and Sadat.
After the war anti-British riots resumed and the formation of Israel in 1948, with the resulting military defeat of the Arab forces, eventually led to revolution in 1952, in which a group of army officers, led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power, forcing King Farouk to abdicate.
In 1953 Egypt was declared a republic, and elections in 1956 confirmed Nasser as the countries first president. Almost immediately he forced the British once and for all to give ups its attempts to control the Suez Canal - and subsequently nationalised the canal. He also secured finance for construction of the Aswan High Dam and to rearm the Egyptian army. Other communist style reforms were introduced, like the nationalisation of land and other private assets, and Nasser forged new and closer links with the Soviet Union.
Increasing anti-Israeli rhetoric and support for the Palestinians culminated in 1967 by Egypt moving troops into the UN controlled Sinai Peninsular; this triggered a pre-emptive strike by Israel, which wiped out the entire Egyptian air force in a surprise attack. The following Six Day War saw a humiliating defeat. Elsewhere in Egypt radical progress in education and health care and increases in land cultivation and power production from the Aswan Dam had to be tempered by an intolerant, heavily bureaucratic soviet style political system. Nasser’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1970 came as a profound shock throughout the entire Arab world and his funeral procession in Cairo was the largest the country had ever seen.
Vice president Anwar Sadat succeeded Nasser and was confirmed as president of Egypt in October 1970. His main objective was social reform and economic decentralisation, but this was soon overshadowed again by military developments. Allied with Jordan and Syria, Egypt launched an attack on the Israeli controlled Sinai Peninsular in October (the Yom Kippur War) 1973. Although defeated again, the Egyptians regained a strip of land east of the Suez Canal, and extensive post war changes were undertaken by the Sadat government. Political prisoners were released, press censorship lifted, and some political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, were allowed.
Sadat’s economic policies also helped to encourage foreign investment and reduce the states role in the countries economy. These reforms and a general opening to the west, and in particular the US, culminated in the 1978 Camp David Agreement. Egypt recognised Israel’s right to exist and in return the Israelis agreed to withdraw from the Sinai. This treaty did nothing to resolve the Palestinian issue and caused outrage in the Arab community, to such and extent that the Arab League Council withdrew its ambassadors from Egypt. At home the Islamic Brotherhood protested against growing economic problems and the Camp David Agreement and the subsequent clamp down by Sadat led, unsurprisingly, to his assassination by Islamic militants in October 1981.
Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak, a former air force general and vice-president, carried out an obvious crackdown on suspected Islamic extremist, and managed to successfully balance home and foreign policies whilst still honouring the Israeli treaty. In 1990 the Arab League returned its headquarters to Cairo and for over a decade it seemed as if Mubarak had managed to keep the extremists under control.
However, this all changed in the early 1990s after a number of bomb and gun attacks against tourists. Another crackdown by the government succeeded in pushing the extremists back to their religious heartland of middle Egypt, but the 1997 Luxor massacre, in which 58 tourists were gunned down at the temple of Hatshepsut, provoked international condemnation and plummeting tourists figures. A partial recovery in tourist numbers was setback again in 2001 by the September 11th terrorist attacks but today, 2004, tourist numbers are well on the way to complete recovery.
The social and economic situation in Egypt is still far from ideal and continuing bribery scandals, rising inflation, and widespread poverty will provide ample challenges for any future governments. However, the country's immensely rich history and numerous monuments continue to bring huge numbers of tourists and foreign currency into the country, and new projects such as the Toshka Project which aims to irrigate and bring into development a huge area to the west of the Nile in southern Egypt, give a positive look to the future.
Cairo's bustling capital city and home to the Pyramids, Sphinx and Egyptian Museum.
A history of this fascinating country from the time of the Pharaohs to modern day Egypt.
Short guide about the island temple of Philae, dedicated to the Goddess Isis, situated in Aswan.
Interesting guide about how women should dress when visiting Muslim countries.
Short guide about the pros and cons of boat diving.
Detailed look at the various courses offered by PADI.
"Thanks for organising such a great trip for us! We all had an amazing time and it really opened our eyes to the country, both ancient and modern. Our guide, Emad Hussain was wonderful – very knowledgeable, friendly, accommodating and willing to put up with four archaeologists (including one Egyptologist) for the 12 days. I’m just downloading my 1200-odd photos now..."
Tim Dawson (Egypt Revisited)
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