The civilization of ancient Egypt lasted about 30 centuries—from the 30th century b.c.e. to 30 b.c.e., when it became part of the Roman Empire.
Egypt was significant for its size and longevity, retaining a strong continuity of culture despite several periods of turmoil. Egypt developed along the valley surrounding the Nile River in northeast Africa, extending into the desert and across the Red Sea. Ancient Egyptians traced their origins to the land of Punt, an eastern African nation that was probably south of Nubia, but their reasons for this are unclear.
As early as the 10th millennium b.c.e., a culture of hunter-gatherers using stone tools existed in the Nile Valley, and there is evidence over the next few thousand years of cattle herding, large building construction, and grain cultivation. The desert was once a fertile plain watered by seasonal rains, but may have been changed by climate shifts or overgrazing.
At some point the civilizations of Lower Egypt (in the north, where the Nile Delta meets the Mediterranean Sea) and Upper Egypt (upstream in the south, where the Nile gives way to the desert) formed; the Egyptians called them Ta Shemau and Ta Mehu, respectively, and their inhabitants were probably ethnically the same and culturally interrelated. By 3000 b.c.e. Lower and Upper Egypt were unified by the first pharaoh, whom the third-century b.c.e. historian Manetho called Menes. Lower and Upper Egypt were never assimilated into one another—their geographical differences ensured that they would retain cultural differences, as the peoples of each led different lives—but rather, during the Dynastic Period that followed, were ruled as a unit. Each had its own patron goddess—Wadjet and Nekhbet—whose symbols were eventually included in the pharaoh’s crown and the fivefold titular form of his name. The fi rst Pharaoh also established a capital at Memphis, where it remained until 1300 b.c.e. The advent of hieroglyphics and trade relations with Nubia and Syria coincide with the Early Dynastic Period.
The history of ancient Egypt is traditionally divided into dynasties, each of which consists of rulers from more or less the same family. Often, a dynasty is defined by certain prevailing trends as a result of the dynastic family’s interests—many of the significant pyramid builders in ancient Egypt were from the Fourth Dynasty, for instance. In the early dynasties, we have little solid information about the pharaohs, and even our list of their names is incomplete.
The dynasties are organized into broad periods of history: the Early Dynastic Period (the First and Second Dynasties), the Old Kingdom (Third through Sixth), the First Intermediate Period (Seventh through Tenth), the Middle Kingdom (Eleventh through Fourteenth), the Second Intermediate Period (Fifteenth through Seventeenth), the New Kingdom (Eighteenth through Twentieth), the Third Intermediate Period (Twenty-first through Twenty-fifth), and the rather loosely characterized Late Period (Twenty-sixth through Thirty-first). Ancient Egypt essentially ends with the Thirty-first Dynasty: For the next 900 years Egypt was ruled first by Alexander the Great, then the “Ptolemaic dynasty,” founded by Alexander’s general Ptolemy, and finally by Rome directly.
Ancient Egyptian religion can be described through syncretism, the afterlife, and the soul. Syncretism refers to the merging of religious ideas or figures, usually when disparate cultures interact. In the case of ancient Egypt, it refers to the combination and overlapping of local deities.
Many sun gods (Ra, Amun, Horus, the Aten) were first worshipped separately and then later in various combinations. This process was a key part of Egyptian polytheism and likely helped preserve the nation’s cultural continuity across its vast life.
Mortal life was thought to prepare Egyptians for the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that the physical body would persist in the afterlife and serve the deceased, despite being entombed and embalmed. Amulets, talismans, and sometimes even mummified animals were provided for the deceased’s use. As described in the Book of the Dead (a term referring to the corpus of Egyptian funerary texts), in later stages of Egyptian religious history the deceased was judged by the god Anubis. The god weighed the heart, which was thought to hold all the functions of the mind and therefore a record of the individual’s life and behavior, against a single feather. Those judged favorably were ushered on to the afterlife; those who were not had their hearts eaten by the crocodile-lion-hippopotamus demon Ammit and remained in Anubis’s land forever.
The different parts of the soul—or different souls—included the ba, which developed from early predynastic beliefs in personal gods common to the ancient Near East, and which was the manifestation of a god, a full physical entity that provided the breath of the nostrils, the personality of the individual, and existed before the birth of the body; the ka, the life power which comes into existence at birth and precedes the individual into the afterlife to guide their fortunes; the akh, a kind of ghost that took many different forms in Egyptian religion over the dynastic era; the khaibut, the shadow; the ren, or name; and the sekhu, or physical body.
Language And Math
Egyptian writing dates as far back as the 30th–50th centuries b.c.e. Early Egyptian—divided into the Old, Middle, and Late forms—was written using hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts. Although hieroglyphs developed from pictographs—stylized pictures used for signs and labels—they included symbols representing sounds (as our modern alphabet does), logographs representing whole words, and determinatives used to explain the meaning of other hieroglyphs.
Translation of ancient Egyptian writing was nearly impossible for modern Egyptologists until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by an army captain in Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt, in 1799. When the French surrendered in 1801, the stone was claimed by the British forces and sent to the British Museum, where it remains today.
The stone was a linguist’s dream come true, the sort of find that revolutionizes a field. Upon it was written a decree by Pharaoh Ptolemy V in 196 b.c.e., not only in hieroglyphics and Demotic but in Greek. Since ancient Greek was well known, this allowed Egyptologists to compare the two line by line and decipher the meaning of many of the hieroglyphs. Much work and refinement has been done since, receiving a considerable boost from the archaeological finds of the 19th and 20th centuries. The hieratic numeral system used by the Egyptians had similar limitations to the Roman numeral system: It was poorly suited to anything but addition and subtraction. As attested in the Rhind and Moscow papyri, the Egyptians
were capable of mathematics including fractions, geometry, multiplication, and division, all of which were much more tedious than in modern numeral systems but were required for trade and timekeeping. Like other ancient civilizations, the Egyptians lacked the concept of zero as a numeral, but some historians argue that they were aware of and consciously employed the golden ratio in geometry.