The Course of Egyptian History

the sphinx at giza ii

Historians have divided Egyptian history into three major periods, known as the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom. These periods were times of stability. Between these periods were times of chaos and invasion, known as intermediate periods.
Egyptian history begins around 3100 BCE, when King Menes united Upper and Lower Egypt into one kingdom. King Menes also created the first dynasty. A dynasty is a family of rulers who’s right to rule is passed on within the family.

            The Old Kingdom lasted from about 2700 to 2200 BCE. It was a time of prosperity and splendor. The monarchs of the Old Kingdom were powerful rulers.  The most common title for Egyptian monarchs was pharaoh. The word pharaoh originally meant “great house” or “palace.” The Egyptians believed that pharaohs were gods. By obeying their pharaoh, they believed that they were helping to keep their world stable. Pharaohs had unlimited power to rule their people, but they developed a bureaucracy to help them rule. A bureaucracy is an administrative organization with officials and regular procedures. The most important official was the vizier (“the steward of the whole land”).  He reported directly to the pharaoh and was in charge of the government bureaucracy.

            One of the greatest achievements of Egyptian civilization was the building of the pyramids. This took place during the Old Kingdom. Pyramids were tombs for the bodies of dead pharaohs. The tombs were stocked with food and other supplies. The Egyptians believed that human beings had two bodies, a physical one and a spiritual one. The spiritual body was called the ka. If the physical body was preserved after death and its tomb and its tomb was stocked with food and supplies, the ka could return. To preserve the physical body after death, the Egyptians used mummification. Mummification is the process of slowly drying a dead body to prevent it from rotting.

            The largest of the pyramids was built at Giza around 2540 BCE. It was built by King Khufu and is called the Great Pyramid. Tradition says that it took 100,000 Egyptians 20 years to build the Great Pyramid. Guarding this pyramid is a huge statue, known as the Great Sphinx. It has the body of a lion and a human head. The Great Pyramid still stands as a symbol of the power of the Egyptians pharaohs.

            The Old Kingdom eventually collapsed. It was followed by a period of chaos that lasted about 150 years. Around 2050 BCE, a new dynasty gained control of Egypt. This marked the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom lasted until 1652 BCE and was a time of stability. During the Middle Kingdom, Egypt conquered Nubia and sent armies to Syria and Palestine. The pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom were concerned about their people. They drained the swampland in the Nile Delta to give the people more land to farm. They also dug a canal to connect the Nile and the Red Sea. This aided trade and transportation.

            The Middle Kingdom ended around 1652 BCE, when the Hyksos invaded Egypt. The Hyksos were people from western Asia who used horse-drawn chariots. They ruled Egypt for almost a hundred years. The Egyptians learned some important skills from the Hyksos. They learned how to make bronze tools and weapons. They also learned how to use chariots.

            Eventually a new dynasty of pharaohs used the new skills and weapons to drive out the Hyksos.  The New Kingdom lasted from about 1567 to 1085 BCE. During the period of the New Kingdom, Egypt created an empire and became the powerful state in Southwest Asia. The pharaohs of the New Kingdom built new temples. Hatshepsut, the first woman to become a pharaoh, built a great temple at Deir el Bahri, near Thebes.

            There were also problems during the New Kingdom. The pharaoh Amenhotep IV forced the people to worship a single god, Aton. He closed the temples of the other gods, and changed his name to Akhenaton (“it is well with Aton”). After he died, the new pharaoh, Tutankhamen, restored his old gods. But the problems caused by Amenhotep’s changes led to a loss of Egypt’s empire.

            Under Ramses II, the Egyptians tried to regain control of their earlier empire, but they were only partly successful. During the thirteenth century BCE, “Sea Peoples” invaded the Egyptian Empire and it came to an end. The New Kingdom itself ended in 1085 BCE.

            For the next thousand years, Libyans, Nubians, Persians, and Macedonians dominated Egypt. In the first century BCE, the pharaoh Cleopatra VII tried to regain Egypt’s independence. But she was defeated, and Egypt became part of the Roman Empire

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