A Land of Pharaohs
Ancient Egypt was a dominant civilization in the Mediterranean region for nearly three thousand years. From its unification in 3100 B.C. to its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., Ancient Egypt’s advanced agriculture, monumental architecture, and intricate religious beliefs shaped human civilization for centuries to come.
Around 3400 B.C., two kingdoms emerged near the Fertile Crescent, a region in Western Asia shaped by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the Mediterranean Sea. It was within this land that some of the world’s earliest civilizations emerged. Then, around 3100 B.C., King Menes accomplished the unification of the country, becoming the first pharaoh of the first dynasty.
The golden mask from the mummy of Tutankhamun, c. 1323 B.C.
The capital city of Memphis arose in the northern part of the country near the Nile River delta. Each year, the mighty river flowed from deep within Africa, bringing floods that provided essential irrigation and fertile sediment. This fertile land allowed farmers to cultivate abundant crops of wheat and barley, sustaining their livelihoods and contributing to the prosperity of ancient Egypt.
The pharaoh, also known as the king, held a revered position as the embodiment of Horus, a falcon-shaped deity. Regarded as a god in human form, the pharaoh undertook the responsibility of constructing temples and monuments to honor the gods and showcase their own accomplishments.
Around 2630 B.C., the first Egyptian stone monument was completed, serving as a funerary structure for Pharaoh Djoser. This architectural marvel, known as the Pyramid of Djoser, stood an impressive 204 feet (62 meters) tall, making it one of the world’s earliest large-scale stone-cut constructions. Located near Memphis, in Saqqara, the pyramid was meticulously designed to expedite the king’s rebirth in the afterlife.
The Great Pyramid of Giza
On the outskirts of Cairo, Egyptian pyramid-building reached its pinnacle with the creation of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Standing at a height of 481 feet (146.6 meters), this monumental structure was dedicated to Pharaoh Khufu, also known as Cheops in Greek, and earned its place as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, this colossal structure required the labor of approximately 100,000 men over a span of 20 years. Remarkably, the Great Pyramid held the title of the tallest man-made structure for over 3,800 years.
Ancient Egypt reached the zenith of its power from 1550 B.C. to 1077 B.C. Under a succession of powerful kings, one of the world’s earliest great empires was established, stretching from Nubia in the south to the Euphrates River in the north.
The maximum territorial extent of ancient Egypt (15th century B.C.)
In this era, the traditional pyramid burial for pharaohs gave way to a new practice. Instead, mummified bodies of the pharaohs, along with the artifacts needed in the afterlife, were laid to rest in deep, rock-cut tombs situated in the renowned Valley of the Kings.
In ancient Egypt, life was so cherished that people believed the afterlife would mirror their earthly existence, but without sadness, illness, or bothersome mosquitoes. Even beloved pets, such as cats, dogs, and monkeys, were thought to join their owners in the afterlife.
According to legends, the gods of ancient Egypt played a crucial role in the afterlife. For example, Anubis, the jackal-headed god, guided people to the underworld, where they faced judgment by the ruler of the underworld, Osiris. Egyptians also believed that gods assisted them in their daily lives. The goddess Isis, Osiris’s wife, was revered for her ability to heal human sickness, while the goddess Tefnut was believed to bring life-giving rain.
Anubis depicted in the Tomb of Nefertari
Women in ancient Egypt held a remarkable level of freedom and autonomy, surpassing their counterparts in many other ancient cultures. They had the same opportunities as men to become scribes, priests, and doctors, and their rights were often equal to those of men. Women could even own homes and businesses. Notably, in the 18th century B.C., Pharaoh Sobekneferu made history as the first confirmed female ruler of Egypt, further exemplifying the elevated status of women in ancient Egyptian society.
The ancient Egyptians were the inventors of papyrus, a strong and durable paper-like material made from the river plant of the same name. This remarkable invention remained in use in Egypt for over 3000 years and served as the precursor to modern paper, which derived its name from “papyrus.”
In addition, the ancient Egyptians developed a unique writing system known as hieroglyphs, meaning “sacred words” in Greek. This script, along with Mesopotamia’s cuneiform (see our previous episode), constituted the oldest writing systems in the world. Hieroglyphs were used for writing on papyrus, carving on stone walls in tombs and temples, and decorating various objects in religious and daily life.
Although visually appealing, hieroglyphs required scribes to invest significant time in writing them. To streamline the process, the Egyptians created a cursive version called hieratic. Hieratic was mainly used for writing on papyrus and ostraca using reed brushes and later reed pens.
Hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti I, 13th century B.C.
In 525 B.C., Egypt fell under the rule of the Persian Empire. This happened after Cambyses, the king of Persia, emerged victorious over Pharaoh Psammetichus III in the Battle of Pelusium. Later, in 332 B.C., Alexander the Great of Macedonia (we covered him in our previous episode) defeated the Persian armies, establishing his control over Egypt.
Following Alexander’s death, a series of Macedonian kings governed Egypt, starting with Ptolemy, a former general under Alexander, and continuing through his descendants. Eventually, Cleopatra VII, one of the most renowned rulers of Ptolemaic Egypt, surrendered the kingdom to the armies of Octavian (later known as Augustus) in 31 B.C. This marked the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the beginning of Roman dominance, which lasted for the next six centuries. During this period, Christianity became the official religion of Rome and its provinces, including Egypt.
In the 7th century A.D., the Arabs conquered Egypt, introducing Islam and paving the way for the decline of ancient Egyptian culture. This significant event set the stage for Egypt’s transformation into its modern form.
“Egypt gave birth to what later would become known as ‘Western Civilization,’ long before the greatness of Greece and Rome.” —John Henrik Clarke
“A book has got smell. A new book smells great. An old book smells even better. An old book smells like ancient Egypt.” —Ray Bradbury
“From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us.” —Napoleon Bonaparte
“The Pyramids are perfect, but you can’t put the Pyramids in the middle of Manhattan. In the desert, the combination of light and form makes it perfect.” —I. M. Pei
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