Ancient Egypt was a civilisation of ancient Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River, situated in the place that is now the country Egypt. Ancient Egyptian civilisation followed prehistoric Egypt and coalesced around 3100 BC (according to conventional Egyptian chronology) with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Menes, often identified with Narmer. The history of ancient Egypt occurred as a series of stable kingdoms, separated by periods of relative instability known as Intermediate Periods. These stable kingdoms were the Old Kingdom of the Early Bronze Age, the Middle Middle Bronze Age, and the New Kingdom.
Egypt reached the pinnacle of its power in the New Kingdom. By then, it ruled much of Nubia and a sizable portion of the Near East, after which it entered a period of slow decline. During its history, several foreign powers invaded or conquered Egypt. These invaders included the Hyksos, the Libyans, the Nubians, the Assyrians, the Achaemenid Persians, and the Macedonians under Alexander the Great. The Greek Ptolemaic Kingdom, formed after Alexander’s death, ruled Egypt until 30 BC. However, under Cleopatra, ancient Egypt fell to the Roman Empire and accordingly became a Roman province.
Factor of Success
The success of ancient Egyptian civilisation came partly from its ability to adapt to the conditions of the Nile River valley for agriculture. The predictable flooding and controlled irrigation of the fertile valley produced surplus crops. This advantage supported a more dense population and social development and culture. The administration sponsored mineral exploitation of the valley and surrounding desert regions with resources to spare and the early development of an independent writing system. Also, it funded the organisation of collective construction and agricultural projects and trade with surrounding areas. They also financed a military intended to assert Egyptian dominance.
Motivating and organising these activities was a bureaucracy of elite scribes, religious leaders, and administrators under the control of a pharaoh. These administrators ensured the cooperation and unity of the Egyptian people in the context of an elaborate system of religious beliefs.
What makes the accomplishments of the Ancient Egyptians all the more remarkable is that Egypt was historically a place of significant political turbulence. Its position made it valuable and vulnerable to tribes across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Certainly, Ancient Egypt had no shortage of internecine warfare. Its most famous conquerors would come from Europe. Alexander the Great laid the groundwork for the Hellenic Ptolemy line. However, the Romans extinguished that line after defeating Cleopatra and driving her to suicide. The many achievements of the ancient Egyptians included:
- The quarrying, surveying and construction techniques supported the building of monumental pyramids, temples, and obelisks.
- A system of mathematics.
- A practical and effective system of medicine.
- Irrigation systems and agricultural production techniques.
- The first known planked boats, Egyptian faience.
- And glass technology.
- New forms of literature.
- Moreover, the earliest known peace treaty with the Hittites.
Ancient Egypt has left a lasting legacy. Its monumental ruins have inspired the imaginations of travellers and writers for millennia. Its art and architecture spread widely, and its antiquities were carried off to far corners. Europeans and Egyptians’ newfound respect for antiquities and excavations in early modern history led to the scientific investigation of Egyptian civilisation and a greater appreciation of its cultural legacy.
The Nile has been the lifeline of its region for much of human history. Nomadic modern human hunter-gatherers began living in the Nile valley through the end of the Middle Pleistocene some 120,000 years ago. By the late Paleolithic period, the arid climate of Northern Africa became increasingly hot and dry. Thus, it forced the population to concentrate along the river region. The fertile floodplain of the Nile allowed humans to develop a settled agricultural economy and a more sophisticated, centralised society. This community accordingly became a cornerstone in the history of human civilisation.
In Predynastic and Early Dynastic times, the Egyptian climate was much less arid than it is today. Large regions of Egypt were covered in treed savanna and traversed by herds of grazing ungulates. Foliage and fauna were far more prolific in all environs, and the Nile region supported large populations of waterfowl. Hunting would have been common for Egyptians, and this was also the period when many animals were first domesticated.
By about 5500 BC, small tribes living in the Nile valley had developed into a series of cultures demonstrating firm control of agriculture and animal husbandry. In upper (Southern) Egypt, the largest of these early cultures in upper (Southern) Egypt was the Badarian culture, probably in the Western Desert. It was famous for its high-quality ceramics, stone tools, and copper. It is identifiable by their pottery and personal items, such as combs, bracelets, and beads.
The Badari paved the way for the Naqada culture: the Amratian (Naqada I), the Gerzeh (Naqada II), and Semainean (Naqada III). These brought several technological improvements. As early as the Naqada I Period, predynastic Egyptians imported obsidian from Ethiopia shaped blades and other objects from flakes. In Naqada II times, early evidence exists of contact with the Near East, particularly Canaan and the Byblos coast.
For about 1,000 years, the Naqada culture developed from a few small farming communities into a powerful civilisation. Leaders also were in complete control of the people and resources of the Nile valley. Establishing a power centre at Nekhen (in Greek, Hierakonpolis) and later at Abydos, Naqada III leaders expanded their control of Egypt northwards along the Nile. They also traded with Nubia to the south and the western desert oases to the west. Also, they had trade relationships with the eastern Mediterranean cultures and Near East to the east, initiating a period of Egypt-Mesopotamia relations.
The Naqada culture manufactured a diverse selection of material goods, reflective of the increasing power and wealth of the elite. It also produced societal personal-use items, including combs, small statuary, painted pottery, high-quality decorative stone vases, cosmetic palettes, and jewellery made of gold, Lapis, and ivory. In addition, they developed a ceramic glaze, known as faience, used well into the Roman Period to decorate cups, amulets, and figurines. During the last predynastic phase, the Naqada culture began using written symbols. Eventually, the ancients developed these symbols into an entire system of hieroglyphs for writing the ancient Egyptian language.
Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150–2686 BC)
The Early Dynastic Period was approximately contemporary to the early Sumerian-Akkadian civilisation of Mesopotamia and ancient Elam. He began his official history with the king named “Meni” (or Menes in Greek), who united the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The third-century BC Egyptian priest Manetho grouped the long line of kings from Menes to his own time into 30 dynasties. Modern Egyptians still use this system today.
The transition to a unified state happened more gradually than ancient Egyptian writers represented, and there is no contemporary record of Menes. However, some scholars now believe that the mythical Menes may have been king Narmer. Ancient Egyptians depict him wearing royal regalia on the ceremonial Narmer Palette in a symbolic act of unification.
The vital institution of kingship developed by the kings served to legitimise state control over the land, labour, and resources. Undoubtedly, these elements were essential to the survival and growth of ancient Egyptian civilisation. In the Early Dynastic Period, which began about 3000 BC, the first Dynastic kings solidified control over lower Egypt by establishing a capital at Memphis. He could control the fertile delta region’s labour force, agriculture, and lucrative and critical trade routes to the Levant. The increasing power and wealth of the kings during the early dynastic Period were apparent in their elaborate mastaba tombs and mortuary cult structures at Abydos. Ancients used it to celebrate the deified king after his death.
Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC)
Significant advances in architecture, art, and technology occurred during the Old Kingdom. It was fueled by the increased agricultural productivity and resulting population, made possible by a well-developed central administration. Ancient Egypt’s crowning achievements constructed the Giza pyramids and Great Sphinx during the Old Kingdom. Under the direction of the vizier, state officials collected taxes, joint irrigation projects to improve crop yield, and drafted peasants to work on construction projects. Also, they established a justice system to maintain peace and order.
With the rising importance of central administration in Egypt, educated scribes and officials arose. Pharaohs granted them estates in payment for their services. Kings also made land grants to their mortuary cults and local temples to ensure that these institutions had the resources to worship the king after his death.
Scholars believe that five centuries of these practices slowly eroded the economic vitality of Egypt and that the economy could no longer afford to support an extensive centralised administration. As the power of the kings diminished, regional governors called nomarchs began to challenge the king’s office supremacy. This event, coupled with severe droughts between 2200 and 2150 BC, caused the country to enter the 140 years of famine and strife known as the First Intermediate Period.
First Intermediate Period (2181–2055 BC)
After Egypt’s central government collapsed at the end of the Old Kingdom, the administration could no longer support or stabilise the country’s economy. Regional governors could not rely on the king for help in times of crisis. Moreover, the ensuing food shortages and political disputes escalated into famines and small-scale civil wars. However, despite complex problems, local leaders, owing no tribute to the king, used their newfound independence to establish a thriving culture in the provinces. Once in control of their resources, the areas became economically more affluent, demonstrating more extensive and better burials among all social classes.
In bursts of creativity, provincial artisans adopted and adapted cultural motifs formerly restricted to the royalty of the Old Kingdom. Scribes developed literary styles that expressed the optimism and originality of the Period.
Free from their loyalties to the king, local rulers began competing for territorial control and political power. By 2160 BC, rulers in Herakleopolis controlled Lower Egypt in the north. On the other side, a rival clan based in Thebes, the Intef family, took control of Upper Egypt in the south. As the Intefs grew in power and expanded their control northward, a clash between rival dynasties became inevitable. Around 2055 BC, the northern Theban forces under Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II finally defeated the Herakleopolitan rulers, reuniting the Two Lands. They inaugurated a period of economic and cultural renaissance known as the Middle Kingdom.
Middle Kingdom (2134–1690 BC)
Middle Kingdom kings restored the country’s stability and prosperity, thereby stimulating a resurgence of art, literature, and monumental building projects. Mentuhotep II and his Eleventh Dynasty successors ruled from Thebes. However, the vizier Amenemhat I, upon assuming the kingship at the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty around 1985 BC, shifted the kingdom’s capital to the city of Itjtawy, located in Faiyum. From Itjtawy, the kings of the Twelfth Dynasty undertook a far-sighted land reclamation and irrigation scheme to increase agricultural output in the region. Moreover, the military reconquered territory in Nubia rich in quarries and gold mines. At the same time, labourers built a defensive structure in the Eastern Delta, called the “Walls of the Ruler”, to defend against foreign attack.
With the kings having secured the country militarily and politically and vast agricultural and mineral wealth at their disposal, its population, arts, and religion flourished. In contrast to elitist Old Kingdom attitudes towards the gods, the Middle Kingdom displayed an increase in expressions of personal piety. Middle Kingdom literature featured sophisticated themes and characters written confidently and eloquently. The relief and portrait sculpture of the period captured subtle, individual details that reached new heights of technical sophistication.
The last great ruler of the Middle Kingdom, Amenemhat III, allowed Semitic-speaking Canaanite settlers from the Near East into the Delta region. Thus, Amenemhat III provided a sufficient labour force for his especially active mining and building campaigns. However, these ambitious building and mining activities combined with the severe Nile flood later in his reign. Consequently, it strained the economy and precipitated the slow decline into the Second Intermediate Period during the later Thirteenth and Fourteenth dynasties. During this decline, the Canaanite settlers assumed greater control of the Delta region. Eventually, they came to power in Egypt as the Hyksos.
Second Intermediate Period (1674–1549 BC) and the Hyksos
Around 1785 BC, as the power of the Middle Kingdom kings weakened, a Western Asian people called the Hyksos, who had already settled in the delta, seized control of Egypt. Furthermore, they established their capital at Avaris, forcing the former central government to retreat to Thebes. The king was treated as a vassal and expected to pay tribute. The Hyksos (“foreign rulers”) retained Egyptian models of government and identified them as kings, thereby integrating Egyptian elements into their culture. They and other invaders introduced new warfare tools into Egypt, most notably the composite bow and the horse-drawn chariot.
After years of vassalage, Thebes gathered enough strength to challenge the Hyksos in a conflict of more than 30 years, until 1555 BC. After retreating south, the native Theban kings found themselves trapped between the Canaanite Hyksos ruling the north and the Hyksos’ Nubian allies, the Kushites, to the south. The kings Seqenenre Tao II and Kamose ultimately defeated the Nubians to the south of Egypt. However, they failed to defeat the Hyksos. However, that task fell to Kamose’s successor, Ahmose I. Pharaoh successfully waged a series of campaigns that permanently eradicated the Hyksos’ presence in Egypt. He established a new dynasty in the New Kingdom that followed. The military became a central priority for the kings, who sought to expand Egypt’s borders and attempted to gain mastery of the Near East.
New Kingdom (1549–1069 BC)
The Egyptian Empire c. 1450 BC
Beginning with Merneptah, the rulers of Egypt adopted the title of pharaoh. The New Kingdom pharaohs established a period of unprecedented prosperity by securing their borders and strengthening diplomatic ties with their neighbours, including the Mitanni Empire, Assyria, and Canaan. Military campaigns were waged under the reign of Thutmose I. Moreover, his grandson Tuthmosis III extended the influence of the pharaohs to the largest empire Egypt had ever seen.
Hatshepsut, a queen who established herself as pharaoh, launched many building projects between their reigns. These projects included the restoration of temples damaged by the Hyksos and sent trading expeditions to Punt and the Sinai. When Tuthmosis III died in 1425 BC, Egypt had an empire extending from Niya in northwest Syria to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in Nubia. It cemented loyalties and opened access to critical imports such as bronze and wood.
The New Kingdom pharaohs began a large-scale building campaign to promote Amun‘s growing cult in Karnak. They also constructed monuments to glorify their achievements, both real and imagined. The Karnak temple is the largest Egyptian temple ever built.
Around 1350 BC, the stability of the New Kingdom was under threat when Amenhotep IV ascended the throne and instituted a series of radical and chaotic reforms. Changing his name to Akhenaten, he touted the previously obscure sun deity Aten as the supreme deity, suppressed the worship of most other gods, and moved the capital to the new city of Akhetaten, modern-day Amarna. He was devoted to his new religion and artistic style. After his death, the ancients quickly abandoned the cult of the Aten and restored the traditional religious order. The subsequent pharaohs, Tutankhamun, Ay, and Horemheb, worked to erase all mention of Akhenaten’s heresy, now known as the Amarna Period.
Around 1279 BC, Ramesses II, also known as Ramesses the Great, ascended the throne and built more temples, erected more statues and obelisks, and sired more children than any other pharaoh in history. A bold military leader, Ramesses II led his army against the Hittites in the Battle of Kadesh in modern Syria. After fighting a stalemate, he finally agreed to the first recorded peace treaty around 1258 BC.
Egypt’s wealth, however, made it a tempting target for invasion, particularly by the Libyan Berbers to the west, and the Sea Peoples, a conjectured confederation of seafarers from the Aegean Sea. Initially, the military was able to repel these invasions. However, Egypt eventually lost control of its remaining territories in southern Canaan, falling to the Assyrians. Internal problems such as corruption, tomb robbery, and civil unrest exacerbated the effects of external threats. After regaining their power, the high priests at the temple of Amun in Thebes accumulated vast tracts of land and wealth. Consequently, their expanded power splintered the country during the Third Intermediate Period.
Third Intermediate Period (1069–653 BC)
Following the death of Ramesses XI in 1078 BC, Smendes assumed authority over the northern part of Egypt, ruling from the city of Tanis. The High Priests of Amun effectively controlled the south at Thebes, who recognised Smendes in name only. During this time, Libyans settled in the western delta, and chieftains of these settlers began increasing their autonomy. Libyan princes took control of the delta under the reign of Shoshenq I in 945 BC, founding the so-called Libyan or Bubastite dynasty that would rule for some 200 years. Shoshenq also gained control of southern Egypt by placing his family members in important priestly positions. Libyan regime began to erode as a rival dynasty in the delta arose in Leontopolis, and Kushites threatened the south.
There are statues of two pharaohs of Egypt’s Twenty-Fifth Dynasty and several other Kushite kings. From left to right: Tantamani, Taharqa (rear), Senkamanisken, again Tantamani (rear), Aspelta, Anlamani, again Senkamanisken. Kerma Museum.
Around 727 BC, the Kushite king Piye invaded northward, seizing control of Thebes and eventually the delta, which established the 25th Dynasty. During the 25th Dynasty, Pharaoh Taharqa created an empire nearly as large as the New Kingdom. Twenty-fifth Dynasty pharaohs built or restored temples and monuments throughout the Nile valley, including Memphis, Karnak, Kawa, and Jebel Barkal. The Nile valley saw the first widespread construction of pyramids (many in modern Sudan).
Egypt’s far-reaching prestige declined considerably toward the Third Intermediate Period. Its foreign allies had fallen under the Assyrian sphere of influence, and by 700 BC, the war between the two states became inevitable. Between 671 and 667 BC, the Assyrians began the Assyrian conquest of Egypt. The reigns of both Taharqa and his successor, Tanutamun, were filled with constant conflict with the Assyrians, against whom Egypt enjoyed several victories. Ultimately, the Assyrians pushed the Kushites back into Nubia, occupied Memphis, and sacked the temples of Thebes.
Late Period (653–332 BC)
The Assyrians left control of Egypt to a series of vassals who became known as the Saite kings of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. By 653 BC, the Saite king Psamtik I was able to oust the Assyrians with the help of Greek mercenaries, who were recruited to form Egypt’s first navy. Greek influence expanded greatly as the city-state of Naukratis became the home of Greeks in the Nile Delta.
The Saite kings based in the new capital of Sais witnessed a brief but spirited resurgence in the economy and culture. Nevertheless, in 525 BC, the mighty Persians, led by Cambyses II, began their conquest of Egypt, eventually capturing the pharaoh Psamtik III at the Battle of Pelusium. Cambyses II then assumed the formal title of the pharaoh but ruled Egypt from Iran, leaving Egypt under the control of a satrap. A few successful revolts against the Persians marked the 5th century BC, but Egypt could never permanently overthrow the Persians.
Following its annexation by Persia, Egypt joined with Cyprus and Phoenicia in the sixth satrapy of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. This first Persian rule over Egypt, also known as the Twenty-Seventh dynasty, ended in 402 BC. By then, Egypt had regained independence under a series of native dynasties. The last of these dynasties, the Thirtieth, proved to be the last native royal house of ancient Egypt, ending with the kingship of Nectanebo II. A brief restoration of Persian rule, sometimes known as the Thirty-First Dynasty, began in 343 BC. However, shortly after, in 332 BC, the Persian ruler Mazaces handed Egypt over to Alexander the Great without a fight.
Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BC)
In 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt with little resistance from the Persians and welcomed the Egyptians as a deliverer. The administration established by Alexander’s successors, the Macedonian Ptolemaic Kingdom, was based on an Egyptian model. Also, it was found in the new capital city of Alexandria. The city showcased the power and prestige of Hellenistic rule. Soon, it became a seat of learning and culture, centred at the famous Library of Alexandria. The Lighthouse of Alexandria lit the way for the many ships that kept trade flowing through the city. It was essential to build the lighthouse as the Ptolemies made commerce and revenue-generating enterprises, such as papyrus manufacturing, their top priority.
Hellenistic culture did not supplant native Egyptian culture, as the Ptolemies supported time-honoured traditions to secure the populace’s loyalty. They built new temples in Egyptian style, supported traditional cults, and portrayed themselves as pharaohs. Some practices merged as Greek and Egyptian gods were syncretised into composite deities, such as Serapis, and classical Greek forms of sculpture influenced traditional Egyptian motifs.
Despite their efforts to appease the Egyptians, the Ptolemies were challenged by native rebellion, bitter family rivalries, and Alexandria’s powerful mob after Ptolemy IV’s death. Continued Egyptian revolts, ambitious politicians, and powerful opponents from the Near East made this situation unstable, leading Rome to send forces to secure the country as a province of its empire. In addition, as Rome relied more heavily on imports of grain from Egypt, the Romans took great interest in the political situation in the country.
Roman Period (30 BC-AD 641)
Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire in 30 BC, following the defeat of Mark Antony and Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII by Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) in the Battle of Actium. The Romans relied heavily on grain shipments from Egypt. Moreover, under the control of a prefect appointed by the emperor, the Roman army quelled rebellions, strictly enforced the collection of heavy taxes, and prevented attacks by bandits, which had become a notorious problem during the Period. Alexandria became an increasingly important centre on the trade route with the orient, as Rome demanded exotic luxuries.
Although the Romans had a more hostile attitude than the Greeks towards the Egyptians, some traditions such as mummification and worship of the traditional gods continued. The art of mummy portraiture flourished, and some Roman emperors had themselves depicted as pharaohs, though not to the extent that the Ptolemies had. The former lived outside Egypt and did not perform the ceremonial functions of Egyptian kingship. Local administration became Roman in style and closed to native Egyptians.
From the mid-first century AD, Christianity took root in Egypt, and the ancients initially saw it as another cult that could be accepted. However, it was an uncompromising religion that sought to win converts from the pagan Egyptian and Greco-Roman religions and threatened popular religious traditions. This threat led to the persecution of converts to Christianity, culminating in the great purges of Diocletian starting in 303, but eventually, Christianity won out. In 391, the Christian emperor Theodosius introduced legislation that banned pagan rites and closed temples. Alexandria became the scene of great anti-pagan riots with destroyed public and private religious imagery.
As the Roman Empire divided in the fourth century, Egypt found itself a part of the Eastern Empire; its capital was Constantinople. In the waning years of the Empire, Egypt fell to the Sasanian Persian army in the Sasanian conquest of Egypt (618–628). The Byzantine emperor Heraclius (629–639) recaptured it and was finally captured by the Muslim Rashidun army in 639–641, ending Byzantine rule.
Government and economy
Administration and commerce
The pharaoh was the country’s absolute monarch and, at least in theory, wielded complete control of the land and its resources. The king was the supreme military commander and head of the government, who relied on a bureaucracy of officials to manage his affairs. In charge of the administration was his second in command, the vizier, who acted as the king’s representative and coordinated land surveys, the treasury, building projects, the legal system, and the archives. At a regional level, the country comprised as many as 42 administrative regions called nomes, each governed by a nomarch, accountable to the vizier for his jurisdiction. The temples formed the backbone of the economy. They were places of worship, but they were also responsible for collecting and storing the kingdom’s wealth in granaries and treasuries administered by overseers, who redistributed grain and goods.
Much of the economy was centrally organised and strictly controlled. Workers were paid in grain; a simple labourer might earn 51⁄2 sacks (200 kg or 400 lb) of grain per month, while a foreperson might earn 71⁄2 sacks (250 kg or 550 lb). Although the ancient Egyptians did not use coinage until the Late Period, they used a money-barter system. This system included standard sacks of grain and the deben, a weight of roughly 91 grams (3 oz) of copper or silver, forming a common denominator.
Prices were fixed across the country and recorded in lists to facilitate trading; for example, a shirt cost five copper deben, while a cow cost 140 Deben. According to the fixed price list, Egyptians traded grain for other goods. During the fifth century BC, coined money was introduced into Egypt abroad. At first, the Egyptians used the coins as standardised pieces of precious metal rather than actual money, but international traders came to rely on coinage in the following centuries.
Egyptian society was highly stratified, and social status was expressly displayed. Farmers made up the bulk of the population. Nevertheless, agricultural produce was owned directly by the state, temple, or noble family that owned the land. Farmers were also subject to a labour tax and were required to work on irrigation or construction projects in a corvée system. Artists and artisans were of higher status than farmers. Nevertheless, they were also under state control, working in the shops attached to the temples and paid directly from the state treasury.
Scribes and officials formed the upper class in ancient Egypt, known as the “white kilt class”, of the bleached linen garments that served as a mark of their rank. Below the nobility were the priests, physicians, and engineers with specialised training in their field. The upper class prominently displayed their social status in art and literature. It is unclear whether slavery existed in ancient Egypt; there is a difference of opinions among authors.
Punishment in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians viewed men and women as essentially equal under the law, including people from all social classes. Even the lowliest peasant was entitled to petition the vizier and his court for redress. Enslaved people, mainly used as indentured servants, could buy and sell their servitude and work their way to freedom or nobility. Moreover, they were usually treated by doctors in the workplace. Both men and women had the right to own and sell property, make contracts, marry and divorce, receive the inheritance, and pursue legal disputes in court. Married couples could own property jointly and protect themselves from divorce by agreeing to marriage contracts, which stipulated the husband’s financial obligations to his wife and children should the marriage end.
Compared with their counterparts in ancient Greece, Rome, and even more modern places worldwide, ancient Egyptian women had a more excellent range of personal choices, legal rights, and opportunities for achievement. Women such as Hatshepsut and Cleopatra VII even became pharaohs, while others wielded power as Divine Wives of Amun. Despite these freedoms, ancient Egyptian women did not often take part in official roles in the administration, aside from the royal high priestesses. Women served only secondary roles in the temples (not much data for many dynasties) and were less likely to be as educated as men.
The head of the legal system was officially the pharaoh, who was responsible for enacting laws, delivering justice, and maintaining law and order, a concept the ancient Egyptians referred to as Ma’at. Although no legal codes from ancient Egypt survived, court documents show Egyptian law was based on a common-sense view of right and wrong. Thus, the law emphasised reaching agreements and resolving conflicts rather than strictly adhering to a complicated set of statutes. In court cases involving small claims and minor disputes, local councils of elders, known as Kenbet in the New Kingdom.
More serious cases involving murder, significant land transactions, and tomb robbery were referred to as the Great Kenbet, over which the vizier or pharaoh presided. Whether the charges were trivial or profound, court scribes documented the case’s complaint, testimony, and verdict for future reference. Plaintiffs and defendants were expected to represent themselves and were required to swear an oath that they had told the truth. In some cases, the state took on both the prosecutor and judge roles. In addition, it could torture the accused with beatings to obtain a confession and the names of any co-conspirators.
Punishment for minor crimes applied either imposition of fines, beatings, facial mutilation, or exile, depending on the severity of the offence. Serious crimes such as murder and tomb robbery were punished by execution, carried out by decapitation, drowning, or impaling the criminal on a stake. Sometimes, judges extend the punishment also to the criminal’s family. In the New Kingdom, oracles played a significant role in the legal system, dispensing justice in civil and criminal cases. The procedure was to ask the god a “yes” or “no” question concerning the right or wrong of an issue. The god, carried by several priests, has rendered judgement by choosing one or the other, moving forward or backwards, or pointing to one of the answers written on a piece of papyrus or an ostracon.
A combination of favourable geographical features contributed to the success of ancient Egyptian culture. The most crucial factor was the rich fertile soil resulting from annual inundations of the Nile River. The ancient Egyptians were thus able to produce abundant food, allowing the population to devote more time and resources to cultural, technological, and artistic pursuits. Land management was crucial in ancient Egypt because taxes were assessed based on land a person owned.
Farming in Egypt was dependent on the cycle of the Nile River. The Egyptians recognised three seasons: Akhet (flooding), Peret (planting), and Shemu (harvesting). The flooding season lasted from June to September, depositing a layer of mineral-rich silt ideal for growing crops on the river’s banks. After the floodwaters had receded, the growing season lasted from October to February. Egypt received little rainfall, so farmers relied on the Nile to water their crops. Egypt received May. Farmers ploughed and planted seeds in the fields irrigated with ditches and canals. Farmers used sickles to harvest their crops and then threshed with a flail to separate the straw from the grain. Winnowing removed the chaff from the grain, and the grain was then ground into flour, brewed to make beer, or stored for later use.
The ancient Egyptians cultivated emmer and barley and several other cereal grains. They used all these products to make bread and beer’s two main staples. Flax plants, uprooted before they started flowering, were grown for the fibres of their stems. These fibres were split along their length and spun into thread, used to weave linen sheets and make clothing. Ancients used the papyrus growing on the banks of the Nile River to make paper. Vegetables and fruits were grown in garden plots, close to habitations and higher ground, and watered by hand. Vegetables included leeks, garlic, melons, squashes, pulses, lettuce, and other crops. In addition, they used grapes to make them into wine.
The Egyptians believed that a balanced relationship between people and animals was an essential element of the cosmic order; thus, humans, animals and plants were an entire unit. Animals, both domesticated and wild, were, therefore, a critical source of spirituality, companionship, and sustenance to the ancient Egyptians. Cattle were the most important livestock; the administration collected taxes on livestock in regular censuses.
The size of a herd reflected the prestige and importance of the estate or temple that owned them. In addition to cattle, the ancient Egyptians kept sheep, goats, and pigs. Poultry, such as ducks, geese, and pigeons, were captured in nets and bred on farms, where they were force-fed with dough to fatten them. The Nile provided a plentiful source of fish. Bees were also domesticated from the Old Kingdom and provided honey and wax.
The ancient Egyptians used donkeys and oxen as beasts of burden, and they were responsible for ploughing the fields and trampling seeds into the soil. The slaughter of a fattened ox was also a central part of an offering ritual. The Hyksos introduced horses in the Second Intermediate Period. Although known from the New Kingdom, Egyptians did not use camels as beasts of burden until the Late Period. Evidence suggests that elephants were briefly utilised in the Late Period but largely abandoned due to lack of grazing land.
During the Late Period, the gods’ worship in their animal form was prevalent, such as the cat goddess Bastet and the ibis god Thoth. Therefore, the ancients kept these animals in large numbers for ritual sacrifice. Herodotus observed that the Egyptians were the only people to keep their animals in their houses. Cats, dogs, and monkeys were common family pets. However, more exotic pets imported from the heart of Africa, such as Sub-Saharan African lions, were reserved for royalty.
Egypt is rich in building and decorative stone, copper and lead ores, gold, and semiprecious stones. These natural resources allowed the ancient Egyptians to build monuments, sculpt statues, make tools, and fashion jewellery. Embalmers used salts from the Wadi Natrun for mummification, providing the gypsum needed to make plaster. Geologists found ore-bearing rock formations in distant, inhospitable wadis in the Eastern Desert and the Sinai. Therefore, it required large, state-controlled expeditions to obtain natural resources found there.
There were extensive gold mines in Nubia, and one of the first maps known is of a gold mine in this region. The Wadi Hammamat was a significant granite, greywacke, and gold source. Flint was the first mineral collected and used to make tools, and flint handaxes are the earliest pieces of evidence of habitation in the Nile valley. Nodules of the mineral were carefully flaked to make blades and arrowheads of moderate hardness and durability. It happened even after Egyptians adopted copper for this purpose. Ancient Egyptians were the first to use minerals such as sulfur as cosmetic substances.
Copper was the most important metal for toolmaking in ancient Egypt and was smelted in furnaces from malachite ore mined in the Sinai. The Egyptians worked in the lead ore galena deposits at Gebel Rosas to make net sinkers, plumb bobs, and small figurines. Workers collected gold by washing the nuggets out of sediment in alluvial deposits. Alternatively, they obtained it by the more labour-intensive grinding and washing of gold-bearing quartzite.
Iron deposits found in upper Egypt prove that the ancient Egyptians utilised it in the Late Period. High-quality building stones were abundant in Egypt. the ancient Egyptians quarried limestone along the Nile valley and granite from Aswan. Also, they quarried basalt and sandstone from the valleys of the Eastern Desert. They also quarried decorative stones such as porphyry, greywacke, alabaster, and carnelian, which dotted the Eastern Desert. Egyptians started to collect them before the First Dynasty. In the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, miners worked deposits of emeralds in Wadi Sikait and amethyst in Wadi el-Hudi.
The ancient Egyptians traded with their foreign neighbours to obtain rare, exotic goods not found in Egypt. In the Predynastic Period, they established trade with Nubia to bring gold and incense. They also launched an exchange with Palestine, as evidenced by Palestinian-style oil jugs found in the burials of the First Dynasty pharaohs. An Egyptian colony stationed in southern Canaan dates slightly before the First Dynasty. Narmer had Egyptian pottery produced in Canaan and exported back to Egypt.
By the Second Dynasty, ancient Egyptian trade with Byblos yielded a critical source of quality timber not found in Egypt. Trade with Punt provided gold, aromatic resins, ebony, ivory, and wild animals such as monkeys and baboons by the Fifth Dynasty. Egypt relied on trade with Anatolia for essential quantities of tin and supplementary supplies of copper. Both metals were necessary for the manufacture of bronze. The ancient Egyptians prized the blue stone lapis lazuli and thus imported it from far-away Afghanistan. Egypt’s Mediterranean trade partners also included Greece and Crete, which provided, among other goods, supplies of olive oil.
The Egyptian language is a northern Afro-Asiatic language closely related to the Berber and Semitic languages. It has the second-longest known history of any language (after Sumerian), written from c. 3200 BC to the Middle Ages and remaining longer spoken. The phases of ancient Egyptian are Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian (Classical Egyptian), Late Egyptian, Demotic and Coptic. Egyptian writings do not show dialect differences before Coptic. However, Egyptians probably spoke it in regional dialects around Memphis and later Thebes.
Ancient Egyptian was a synthetic language, but it became analytic later. Late Egyptians developed prefixal definite and indefinite articles, which replaced the older inflectional suffixes. There was a change from the older verb–subject–object word order to subject–verb–object. The more phonetic Coptic alphabet eventually replaced the Egyptian hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic scripts. Coptic is still in use in the liturgy of the Egyptian Orthodox Church. And traces of it still exist in modern Egyptian Arabic.
Sounds and grammar
Ancient Egyptian has 25 consonants similar to those of other Afro-Asiatic languages. These consonants include pharyngeal and emphatic consonants, voiced and voiceless stops, voiceless fricatives, and voiced and voiceless affricates. It has three long and three short vowels, which expanded in Late Egyptian to about nine. In Egyptian, the basic word, similar to Semitic and Berber, was a triliteral or biliteral root of consonants and semiconsonants. Egyptians also added suffixes to form words. The verb conjugation corresponds to the person. For example, the triconsonantal skeleton S-Ḏ-M is the word ‘hear’; its basic conjugation is sḏm, ‘he hears’. Linguists don’t add suffixes to the verb if the subject is a noun: sḏm ḥmt, ‘the woman hears’.
Adjectives are derived from nouns that Egyptologists call nisbation because of their similarity with Arabic. The particle n negates verbs and nouns, but Egyptians used NN for adverbial and adjectival sentences. The word order is predicate–subject in verbal and adjectival sentences and subject-predicate in nominal and adverbial sentences. The subject can be moved to the beginning of sentences if long and followed by a resumptive pronoun. Stress falls on the ultimate or penultimate syllable, open (CV) or closed (CVC).
Hieroglyphs were a formal script used on stone monuments and tombs that could be as detailed as individual works of art. Hieroglyphic writing dates from c. 3000 BC and is composed of hundreds of symbols. A hieroglyph can represent a word, a sound, or a silent determinative. Furthermore, the same symbol can serve different purposes in different contexts. In day-to-day writing, scribes used a cursive form of writing, called hieratic, which was quicker and easier. Formal hieroglyphs may be read in rows or columns in either direction (though typically written from right to left). However, hieratic was always written from right to left, usually in horizontal rows. A new form of writing, Demotic, became the prevalent writing style. This form of writing—along with formal hieroglyphs—accompanied the Greek text on the Rosetta Stone.
Coptic is a modified Greek alphabet with the addition of some Demotic signs. Around the first century AD, the ancients used the Coptic alphabet alongside the Demotic script. Although they used formal hieroglyphs in a ceremonial role until the fourth century, towards the end, only a small handful of priests could still read them. As the government disbanded the traditional religious establishments, hieroglyphic writing knowledge mainly disappeared. Only in the 1820s, after discovering the Rosetta Stone and years of research by Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion, they substantially deciphered hieroglyphs. The attempts to decipher them date to Egypt’s Byzantine and Islamic periods.
Ancient Egyptians wrote some of the best-known pieces of ancient Egyptian literature, such as the Pyramid and Coffin Texts in Classical Egyptian. This Classical language continued to be the language of writing until about 1300 BC. The writing first appeared associated with kingship on labels and tags for items found in royal tombs. It was primarily an occupation of the scribes, who worked out of the Per Ankh institution or the House of Life. The latter comprised offices, libraries (House of Books), laboratories and observatories.
Poetry and Tales
The ancient Egyptians spoke the late Egyptian language from the New Kingdom onward. It was present in Ramesside administrative documents, love poetry and tales, and Demotic and Coptic texts. During this period, the tradition of writing evolved into tomb autobiographies, such as those of Harkhuf and Weni. Egyptians developed the genre known as Sebayt (“instructions”) to communicate teachings and guidance from famous nobles. A notable example is the Ipuwer papyrus, a poem describing natural disasters and social upheaval.
The Story of Sinuhe, written in Middle Egyptian, might be a classic of Egyptian literature. Also written at this time was the Westcar Papyrus, a set of stories told to Khufu by his sons relating to the marvels performed by priests. The Instruction of Amenemope is a masterpiece of Near Eastern literature. Towards the end of the New Kingdom, ancient Egyptians more often employed vernacular. This employee wrote popular pieces like the Story of Wenamun and the Instruction of Any. The former tells a noble, robbed to buy cedar from Lebanon and his struggle to return to Egypt.
From about 700 BC, ancient Egyptians wrote narrative stories and instructions, such as the popular Instructions of Onchsheshonqy. They also wrote personal and business documents in Egyptian demotic script and phase. Many stories written in Demotic during the Greco-Roman period were set in previous historical eras when Egypt was an independent nation, ruled by great pharaohs such as Ramesses II.
Most ancient Egyptians were farmers with labour ties to the land. They dedicated their dwellings to immediate family members. At the same time, they constructed them of mudbrick designed to remain calm in the day’s heat. Each home had a kitchen with an open roof, which contained a grindstone for milling grain and a small oven for baking the bread. Ceramics served as household wares for storing, preparing, transporting, and consuming food, drink, and raw materials. Ancients painted walls white and covered them with dyed linen wall hangings. They also covered floors with reed mats, while wooden stools, beds raised from the floor and individual tables comprised the furniture.
Hygiene and Appearance
The ancient Egyptians placed a great value on hygiene and appearance. Men shaved their bodies for cleanliness; perfumes and aromatic ointments covered foul odours and soothed skin. Most bathed in the Nile used a pasty soap made from animal fat and chalk. Also, Egyptians made clothing from simple linen sheets, bleached white. Children went without clothing until maturity, at about age 12.
Further, parents circumcised males and had their heads shaved at this age. Also, both men and women of the upper classes wore wigs, jewellery, and cosmetics. Mothers were responsible for taking care of the children, while the father provided income.
Music and Dance
Music and dance were popular entertainments for those who could afford them. Early instruments included flutes and harps, while tools like trumpets, oboes, and pipes developed later and became popular. In the New Kingdom, the Egyptians played on bells, cymbals, tambourines, drums, and imported lutes and lyres from Asia. The sistrum was a rattle-like musical instrument that was especially important in religious ceremonies.
The ancient Egyptians enjoyed various leisure activities, including games and music. Senet, a board game where pieces moved according to random chance, was particularly popular from the earliest times; another similar game was mehen, which had a circular gaming board. “Hounds and Jackals”, also known as 58 holes, is another example of board games in ancient Egypt. Archaeologists discovered The first complete set of this game from a Theban tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhat IV that dates to the 13th Dynasty. Juggling and ball games were popular with children, and burial at Beni Hasan documented wrestling. The wealthy members of ancient Egyptian society enjoyed hunting, fishing, and boating.
The excavation of the workers’ village of Deir el-Medina has resulted in one of the most thoroughly documented accounts of community life in the ancient world, spanning almost four hundred years. Archaeologists studied this site widely; no similar site has such detail. They researched the organisation, social interactions, and working and living conditions of a community.
Egyptian cuisine remained remarkably stable over time; indeed, the cooking of modern Egypt retains some striking similarities to the cuisine of the ancients. The staple diet consisted of bread and beer, supplemented with onions and garlic, fruit, dates, and figs. Fish, meat, and fowl could be salted or dried and cooked in stews or roasted on a grill. All enjoyed wine and meat on feast days, while the upper classes indulged more regularly.
The architecture of ancient Egypt includes some of the most famous structures: the Great Pyramids of Giza and the temples at Thebes. The ancient Egyptians were professional builders. Architects could build large stone structures with great accuracy and precision using only simple but effective tools and sighting instruments. These structures are still envied today. The state organised and funded building projects for religious and commemorative purposes and reinforced the pharaoh’s wide-ranging power.
The ancient Egyptians alike constructed the domestic dwellings of elite and ordinary people from perishable materials such as mudbricks and wood. Therefore, these dwellings have not survived. Peasants lived in simple homes, while the palaces of the elite and the pharaoh were very elaborate structures. A few surviving New Kingdom palaces, such as those in Malkata and Amarna, show richly decorated walls and floors with scenes of people, birds, water pools, deities and geometric designs. Essential structures such as temples and tombs intended to last forever were stone instead of mudbricks. The architectural elements used in the world’s first large-scale stone building, Djoser’s mortuary complex. It included post and lintel supports in the papyrus and lotus motif.
The earliest preserved ancient Egyptian temples, such as those at Giza, consist of single, enclosed halls with roof slabs supported by columns. This style was standard until the Greco-Roman Period. In the New Kingdom, designers added the tower, the open courtyard, and an enclosed hypostyle hall to the front of the temple’s sanctuary.
Egyptians built pyramids during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, but most later rulers abandoned them, favouring less conspicuous rock-cut tombs. The earliest and most popular tomb architecture in the Old Kingdom was the mastaba. This mastaba represented a flat-roofed rectangular mudbrick or stone shape built over an underground burial chamber. The step pyramid of Djoser is a series of stone mastabas that stack on top of each other. The use of the pyramid form continued in private tomb chapels of the New Kingdom and the royal pyramids of Nubia.