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Ancient Egypt presents us with one of the longest-lasting, most stable political adaptations in human history. It provides a vivid contrast to the Aztec empire (separately discussed on this site [Link]), another, later, archaic state that was far from stable. Taken together, these two examples incorporate many important themes about the analysis of human society. Like other ancient empires, Egypt and the Aztecs involved large populations, with strong regional traditions, engaged in vigorous trade in luxury goods, under totalitarian governments supported in part by systems of religious myth, constricted by the natural world of geography and climate.
This essay is about the earliest emergence of the Egyptian state and the processes by which it moved from a hodgepodge of little Neolithic villages to a stable empire, headed by a totalitarian ruler considered to be a god. The essay introduces some of the archaeological evidence that must be taken into account in developing our best guess reconstruction of the story. It is a complicated story, and you may wish to read the Conclusions at the end before you start in order to see where it is all leading. Words with dotted underlining will be found in the glossary in the frame at the right, where additional information is sometimes provided.
The expression "ancient Egypt" refers to the civilization of a region that extends along the Nile River from its several mouths at the Mediterranean sea southwards, uphill and upstream, to a southern boundary that was different in different eras. In most periods the southern boundary was at a point near the modern town of Aswan, where the first of a series of formidable rocky areas in the river (called cataracts) always made river navigation difficult. This is where in modern times the Nile was dammed, forming Lake Nasser to the south, extending over the international border from Egypt into northern Sudan. The area to the north and south of Lake Nasser, as well as the area occupied by the lake itself, is referred to as Nubia, and throughout most of antiquity it was a tributary state to Egypt.
South (upstream) from Nubia, the Nile is really a group of feeder rivers, and it has always been difficult to be certain which one should be understood as the fabled "source of the Nile." The Blue Nile and White Nile meet in Khartoum, capital of the modern nation of Sudan, the Blue Nile system originating in Ethiopia, the White Nile fed through the Ghazal river system coming from central Africa and through the Mountain Nile river system flowing mostly from the famous East African "Great Lakes" (Lakes Victoria and Albert). The important point here is that several great rivers join to the south of Egypt to create "the Nile," so the whole system extends over half the length of Africa. North of Lake Nasser, it is a single river flowing northward in a single valley, referred to as "Upper Egypt" until it reaches roughly the area of modern Cairo (ancient Memphis), where it splits again into myriad different streams which spread out across a vast, often marshy river delta ("Lower Egypt") before spilling through many different mouths into the Mediterranean. (Caution: "Upper Egypt" is really "upstream Egypt," the narrow river valley in the South. "Lower Egypt" refers to "downstream Egypt," the delta lands in the North.)
"Ancient Egypt" extends in time from the appearance of written records and the founding of a unified state about 3100 BC through a sequence of 31 numbered dynasties up until the conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Since Alexander was immediately acclaimed as Pharaoh, he actually founded the 32nd dynasty, even though the numbering conventionally stops with him. Since Alexander was from Macedonia, in northern Greece, scholars speak of the "Macedonian Kings" (332-305 BC), followed by a "Ptolemaic dynasty" (305-30 BC), named after a series of monarchs descended from Alexander's friend Ptolemy, who had governed Egypt for Alexander from 323 to 305. When Alexander died and his empire disintegrated, making Egypt became "independent" again in 305, Ptolemy continued to rule it "in his own right" as Pharaoh "Ptolemy I." He was succeeded by his son, who took the throne name Ptolemy II. In total, Greek rule over Egypt under a succession of Ptolemys was about 300 years, longer than the independent history of the United States.
The last of the Ptolemaic monarchs was, of course Cleopatra VII, memorialized in the famous story in which she and her lover Marc Anthony, the Roman general, tried and failed to prevent Egypt's absorption into the Roman Empire by Marc Anthony's nemesis, Octavian, who later become Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. But this gets us way ahead of our story.
For convenience historians have blocked Egyptian dynasties together into three great "Kingdoms" (each lasting about twice as long as the United States has lasted so far), separated by almost equally long periods of less united or enduring rule, as shown in the following table. Experts disagree about the details, so I have tended to prefer round numbers here.
|Predynastic Period||4000-3100 BC||(900 years)|
|Early Dynastic Period (1-2)||3100-2700||(400 years)|
|Old Kingdom (3-6)||2700-2230||(470 years)|
|First Intermediate Period (7-10)||2230-2140||(90 years)|
|Middle Kingdom (11-12)||2140-1750||(390 years)|
|Second Intermediate Period (13-17)||1750-1550||(200 years)|
|New Kingdom (18-20)||1550-1080||(470 years)|
|Third Intermediate Period (21-26)||1080-664||(416 years)|
|Saïte Period (26) (Assyrian Domination)||664-525||(139 years)|
|Late Period (27-31) (Persian Domination)||525-332||(193 years)|
|Macedonian & Ptolemaic Period ("32")||332-30||(302 years)|
|Roman & Byzantine Periods ("33")||30 BC -AD 641||(671 years)|
Much of our basic knowledge about Egyptian history comes from the writings of a certain Manetho, whom the Roman writer Plutarch describes as having been an adviser to Ptolemy I, Alexander's friend. It was Manetho, in his Notes About Egypt, who divided pre-Ptolemaic Egyptian history into the numbered dynasties. His work does not survive except in fragments quoted by later Greek and Roman authors, who used him as an important source for their own histories. (There is a whole field of "Manethology" for anyone who wants to get into the business of trying to reconstruct the true and full text from these scattered sources.)
Other important text sources are ancient "king lists," fragments of which occasionally survive on stone or, in one case, papyrus. To the extent that they overlap, most of these lists seem to agree with each other, and with Manetho.
Manetho wrote in Greek, and so the kings, gods, and places in his account had Greek (or more exactly "Hellenized" or "Grecized") names, and many Egyptian archaeological sites therefore have three names: The ancient Egyptian name (if known), the Greek name by which it may have been discussed by Manetho or subsequent writers, and the Arabic name given to it by local people today.
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More or less throughout this long period Egypt had several quite constant characteristics which are important for our understanding of the origin of the Egyptian state and for its extraordinary stability for so many centuries:
Through most of its history, Egypt was prosperous and powerful among the states of the eastern Mediterranean, protected by natural boundaries [Note 7] from serious competition with other peoples, and sufficiently well organized to sustain tremendous productivity internally. It is no wonder that Octavian wanted it to be part of the Roman Empire. But how did it come to be this united and dynamic civilization? That is the question that will concern us here.