Few civilizations have left such an indelible mark on history as that of Egypt. Living astride the mighty Nile River for some 5,000 years, Egypt is one of the oldest surviving civilizations on the planet. Among many other firsts, Egypt is credited with the invention of writing around 3000 BC. Using sophisticated mathematics, Egyptian scholars plotted the movement of the planets with great precision. And of course, the Egyptians were the ancient world's greatest architects, creating monuments and temples that still awe and inspire us today.
Egypt is a riparian (river-based) civilization lying alongside the Nile, which, at some 4000 miles in length, is the longest river on the planet. Egypt occupies the northern section of this river in a narrow but extremely fertile corridor running through otherwise harsh desert terrain of the North African Sahara desert. While the physical area of Egypt extended a great distance to the east and west, the vast majority of that terrain is empty useless desert, and through its history almost all Egyptians have lived within walking distance of the river. Until the implementation of damming projects in the 20th century, the Nile flooded its banks in the summer of every year. Egyptian farmers relied on these floods to bring water and fresh nutrients to their fields, and a dry year could easily spell famine and disaster to the population. The Nile also provided a good deal of protein to the Egyptians, who were adept fishermen and who early on mastered the construction and handling of small watercraft. The Mediterranean Sea lies to the north of Egypt. A mild and generous sea, the Mediterranean encourages exploration and trade between all civilizations who live on its borders.
The first settlers of the Nile valley are thought to have arrived around 7,000 BC, driven to the river as climate change turned the surrounding once-fertile lands to desert. By 5000 BC crops were being raised in local settlements along the river, and as agriculture improved the settlements grew in size and power. Luxury items such as mortuary pottery, copper ornaments, beads, and cosmetics begin to be seen in burial sites from that period, suggesting a significant growth in wealth and leisure in the culture. Increased wealth also allowed for the creation and maintenance of military forces which could be used to conquer other nearby cultures. By approximately 3000 BC much of Egypt was unified. The first king mentioned in the historical records is Menes, who founded the capital, Memphis, is credited with many irrigation works. His "First Dynasty" would last for some two centuries.
The Early Dynastic PeriodEdit
The First and Second and Dynasties are known collectively as the "Early Dynastic Period" and last from approximately 3100 BC to 2600 BC. During this period Egypt extended its control south along the Nile and east and west along the coast of the Mediterranean.
The Old KingdomEditThis period spans the years from approximately 2600 BC to 2100 BC. The Old Kingdom period is best known for the large number of pyramids constructed as tombs for pharaohs. Egyptian vessels traveled the Mediterranean and Red Seas, trading for items such as food, spices and Lebanese cedar, as well as luxuries like myrrh (a type of incense), ebony, and gold. The Old Kingdom ended when a severe drought caused the collapse of the central government, already weakened by corruption and civil war.
The Old Kingdom Period is followed by the First Intermediate Period, then the Middle Kingdom Period, the Second Intermediate Period, the New Kingdom Period, the Third Intermediate Period, then the Late Period. During these periods (lasting from 2100 BC to perhaps 600 BC) the Egyptian government would rise and fall several times, and periods of strife and internal conflict would be followed by periods of great peace and prosperity. External foes would invade when Egypt was weakened, and the pharaohs would extend their empire when Egypt was strong. In 525 BC Egypt was captured by Persia, who would control the country until it was taken by Alexander the Great in 332 BC as he systematically dismantled the Persian Empire. After Alexander's death the Greeks established the Ptolmeic Dynasty. The able Ptolemies ruled in an unbroken line until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC. Her suicide marked the end of Pharaonic rule and the beginning of Egypt's centuries as a Roman and Byzantine province. Although swept by the Islamic tide in 642 AD, Egypt was to remain under foreign occupation - Arabic, Ottoman, French, and British - until after World War I, when she finally gained her independence from a British administration weary of overseas conflict. From 1922 through 1952, Egypt appeared to be one of the world's most successful constitutional monarchies. But it was ripe for revolution; the military coup of July 1952 led by Gamal Nasser, ironically, finally made Egypt an island of stability in a turbulent Middle East.
Art and CultureEditEgypt's mastery of monumental architecture is virtually unmatched in history. The Egyptians were also great sculptors, creating many quite beautiful statues of their pharaohs and gods. They also made beautiful and delicate works of gold, jewels and other precious metals, many of which have been discovered in tombs and vaults. Actually, much of Egyptian culture and arts seems to have been dedicated to death, entombment and the afterlife (or perhaps art on those subjects was most likely to have been entombed and thus has survived better than non-death-related artwork).
Religion was extremely important to Egyptian society. The religion has an incredibly rich pantheon of gods, and a detailed and complex creation mythos. The pharaoh was both a man and a god, and he was responsible for interceding with the gods on his subjects' behalf. The priests also served as the society's civil servants. (If the Egyptians ever heard of the concept of separation of church and state, they wanted nothing to do with it.) The Egyptians believed in an afterlife for those judged worthy, and they believed in sorcery and magic. Many historians believe that the Egyptians saw the pyramids as pathways to the realm of the gods for those buried inside.