Ancient Egypt

North Africa Geography

North Africa Map

North Africa's landscape is covered by the world's largest hot desert--the Sahara Desert.  This massive Arid climate makes it a strange place for a large population of people.  Most of the Sahara is too harsh for people to live today. The Nile Valley, coastal areas, and the rare oases (plural for oasis) provide the only places that can support life.  An oasis is an area of natural water in a desert that allows plant life.


The Nile River is the world’s longest river. It flows north through the Sahara creating a long oasis in the desert eventually dumping into the Mediterranean Sea. You can see the Nile Valley in the red rectangle on the left. The Nile’s water comes mainly from highland areas near the center of Africa that receives frequent rain, which flows north, downhill into the Nile.  The Nile is divided into sections by cataracts.  A cataract is a rocky area that creates a waterfall or rapids.  There are six cataracts in the Nile river.  

For thousands of years the Nile has flooded when the rainy season begins in central Africa.  The Nile flows over the riverbanks and after several months it soaks into the ground, evaporates, or flows into the Mediterranean.  As the water level lowered, it would leave behind rich fertile soil for farmers. The flooding usually began around June and it happens every year, so it was a dependable source of water and fertilizer for farmers.  Egyptians dug canals to pull water out of the flooded river, which they saved for irrigation later on.  It doesn't rain in the Sahara, so Egyptians relied completely on irrigation from the Nile to farm.   Fresh water, irrigation, fertile soil--this is why people called it the "gift" of the Nile.

North Africa Early History

The oldest human fossils have been found near North Africa, but the land was very different 200,000 years ago. 10,000 years ago North Africa was a grassland with many plants and animals.  North Africa took its current desert form around 6000 BCE. Around 6000 BCE the climate began to change, which might explain why many humans changed from hunting and gathering to farming.  Before civilization, early humans came to the Nile River to hunt, fish, and gather food, but gradually as people learned to farm and domesticate animals (about 7000 BCE and 5500 BCE), and therefore live in permanent settlements, areas around the Nile became more crowded. Several towns grew and eventually kingdoms developed. The change from nomadic hunter-gatherers to civilized living followed the same pattern as other places around the world: farming provided extra food, which allowed the division of labor, which allows the development of government and religion and creates social classes. 

Ancient Egyptian Civilization

Starting around 5500 BCE two major kingdoms developed along the Nile.  Historians call them Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.  Around 3200 BCE, Egypt was brought together under one ruler—King Narmer (sometimes called Menes).  This is recognized as the beginning of the Egyptian civilization.  We know so much about the Egyptians because there are so many written resources and because their culture lasted so long with few interruptions.  Mesopotamian culture was constantly changing and disrupted by war.  Another reason we know so much about Egypt is because they made their architecture out of stone, which has lasted for the most part. 

Mummy with exposed, dried skin

Religion was a the center of Egyptian life.  Egyptians believed in many Gods, so they were polytheistic.  The Egyptian king was the absolute ruler, and owner of all the land, water, people, etc. in his or her kingdom.  Later Egyptians would call their kings “pharaoh”.  Egyptian people believed the pharaoh was a living God, so the Egyptians developed a theocracy, or a government ruled by religious leaders.  This is important to understanding why Egyptian people were so willing to give their grain to the Pharaoh and build him or her incredible temples—they thought the Pharaoh was a living God that would be with them forever in eternity.

Map of Lower and Upper Egypt

The first pharaohs established a dynasty, or family control of government, and a capital city at Memphis from which they could control the work force, agriculture, and trade routes in and out of Egypt.  A total of 31 dynasties controlled Egypt during nearly 4000 years of history.  Egyptians had many religious rituals and ceremonies.  The most well-known ritual was mummification.  Egyptians believed in life after death, and they wanted the body to look life-like.  Anyone could be mummified if they had enough money.  First they removed the organs.  Then they removed as much moisture from the body as possible using a salt called natron to preserve the body and then wrapped it in linen cloth.  The body was placed in a sarcophagus, which is similar to a coffin. This process changed over time along with many of the ceremonies. Egypt lasted nearly 4000 years, think of how much our lives have changed in the last few hundred years! 

Photograph of the Rossetta Stone slab

Egyptians were a very advanced civilization due to their inventions and technology.  Egyptians developed a writing system called hieroglyphs that combined pictures and symbols.  Eventually, they created an alphabet from their symbols.  In 1822 CE a European explorer found what is called the Rossetta Stone (left picture)--a stone with the same message written in 3 different languages, which finally allowed historians to translate ancient hieroglyphs. Egyptians developed a 365-day calendar and used a number system based on 10. Egyptians figured out amazing ways to cut stone to use in their temples and obelisks.  An obelisk is a tall narrow monument that becomes more narrow as it goes up.  They created a writing material similar to paper called papyrus from reeds found in the Nile.  Egyptians were excellent ship builders and excelled at mathematics.  They used fractions, decimals, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and basic ideas of geometry.  Egyptian art and architecture is famous and has been reused and copied by many other civilization including Greece, Rome, and even the United States.

Egyptian Writing called hieroglyphs

Egyptian life depended on what social class you were a part of.  At the top of society was the Pharaoh.  Below the Pharaoh was the royal court (Pharaoh's family), high priests, government officials, and scribes and nobles (rich land owners).  Below them were doctors and engineers, craftsman, and then farmers and unskilled workers at the bottom.  Egyptians did use some slaves, but slavery is hardly mentioned in their writings.  Most people lived in mud-brick homes.  Women raised the children and men usually made an income for the family.  Egyptians enjoyed music, dancing, and playing games such as Senet. When farmers were not working the fields they often worked on construction projects including temples and irrigation canals.  Bread was the main food source, but they would have eaten meat during festivals. 

Ancient Egypt's History

Egypt's history is divided into six different time periods.  Old Kingdom, First Intermediate Period, Middle Kingdom, Second Intermediate Period, New Kingdom, and the Third Intermediate Period.  The “Kingdom” periods were times of peace and prosperity when new temples were built, plenty of food was harvested, and things were basically good. “Intermediate” periods were times when Egypt was invaded, experienced civil war, bad food harvests, or other difficult times.  Historians call the time period before the Old Kingdom the Early Dynastic Period.  During this time, the first Pharaoh Narmer started the tradition of passing power to members of his family, usually the son--creating Egypt's first dynasty.  He defeated some enemies and united Upper and Lower Egypt into one civilization.  Egyptians didn't build pyramids during this time, but they did build a burial building called a Mastaba.  A Mastaba has a flat roof, similar to the base of a pyramid without a top.  The building of a Mastaba clearly led to the building of pyramids during the Old Kingdom.

Mastaba graphic showig underground tombs
This is a picture of an early step pyramid

The Old Kingdom includes the 3rd dynasty through the 6th dynasty, which lasted from 2686 BCE to 2181 BCE.  During this time the Egyptian kingdom was divided into states or provinces called nomes.  One of the first major Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom was Djoser.  His temple was one of the first pyramids Egyptians tried to build.  It was a "step pyramid" and it started the tradition of building pyramids as a burial ground for Pharaohs. Although the term "Pharaoh" wasn't used until much later, we will keep using it to refer to Egyptian kings. 


The more well known pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx were built for Pharaoh Khufu during this time. Old Kingdom Pharaohs had complete power and were treated as living Gods.  During this time Ra became the most important Egyptian God.  The pyramids were meant to honor the Pharaoh, but also keep his grave safe from robbers.  Towards the end of the Old Kingdom a period on instability began the First Intermediate Period.

The Middle Kingdom includes the 11th, 12th, and 13th dynasties which lasted from 2055 BCE to 1650 BCE.  The eleventh dynasty ruled from a new capital city called Thebes.  A new capital city was created with the 12th dynasty.  The Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom were less powerful than the Old Kingdom Pharaohs.  The leaders of each nome (nomarch) became more powerful during this time. This type of change in power is similar in the United States to times when states have more power than the national government in certain ways. 


The Middle Kingdom was a busy time for the Egyptian military.  They made several invasions into Nubia, which is south of Egypt in the modern nation of Sudan.  They also moved military forces into Asia across the Sinai Peninsula toward Jerusalem and Jericho.  Some smaller pyramids were built during this time, but since grave robbers were able to break into the old pyramids, these large expensive structures were ineffective.  Toward the end of the Middle Kingdom Pharaohs were buried in hidden tombs, many still undiscovered.  The Middle Kingdom ended when foreign armies called "hyksos" in the north and began the Second Intermediate Period.

Picture of Kufu Pyramid with Sphinx in th foreground
Photograph of the Valley of the Kings

The New Kingdom includes the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties, and lasted from 1550 BCE to 1069 BCE.  Egyptians kicked out the "hyksos" and wanted to stop foreign invaders, so they pushed their military far into Asia and battled with the Assyrians in Mesopotamia.  They also invaded southern areas of the Nile often called the "Punt" where Nubian Kingdoms and Kush Kingdoms could be found.  This military expansion created the largest Egyptian Empire of their history, but it would be hard to maintain.  Some of the most famous Pharaohs of Egyptian history ruled in the New Kingdom, in fact it was during this time that Egyptian kings began to be called "Pharaoh".  

Hatshepsut was a women Pharaoh.  Her tomb is an amazingly long ramp leading to a temple that has been cut out of a mountain.  Pharaoh Akhenaten tried to start a new religious tradition of worshipping only one God.  Worshipping one God is called monotheism.  This did not sit well with the polytheistic population that has honored many gods for thousands of years.  After Akhenaten's death his monuments were destroyed and his name was removed from the list of kings. Years later he was often referred to as, "the enemy". Akhenaten's son would also become famous, thousands of years later when his tomb was found perfectly preserved. His name was Pharaoh Tutankhamen--he is known and King Tut. He became Pharaoh at age 9 or 10 and ruled for only 9 years. 

This is an graphic of the New Kingdom Map
Abu Simbel temple for Ramesses the Great

During the 19th and 20th dynasty of the New Kingdom many of the Pharaohs were named Ramesses.  Ramesses II was probably the greatest Pharaohs in Egyptian history--They call him Ramesses the Great.  He had an amazing tomb built in Abu Simbel with massive statues of Ramesses the Great.  It took over 20 years to build this temple, which was next to the river to serve as a warning to anyone trying to invade his kingdom.  A few different invasions in the north weakened the empire and used up their resources--this began the Third Intermediate Period.   

The amazing and mysterious civilization lasted from around 3200 BCE until about 525 BCE before outsiders completely conquered them.  Even after they were conquered Egyptian culture existed until about 300 CE (AD) before it was mostly replaced with Greek, Christian, and later Islamic culture.  Today Islamic culture is the most dominate force, but Ancient Egyptian characteristics can still be seen. Egyptians created one of the most advanced civilizations that included some of the world’s most amazing art and architecture—the art of building structures or buildings.

Attacks from nearby civilizations especially Persia, Greece, and Roman took control of Egypt away from Egyptians. One of the greatest stories in history—the story of Cleopatra—tells the tale of how Egypt was under Greek control, but still keeping most Egyptian cultural traditions.  Cleopatra wanted to become the Pharaoh of Egypt, so she had her brother killed and lured Julius Caesar into a relationship to help her regain power.  After many twists and turns, the story ends with complete Roman control of Egypt in 30 BCE when the Roman Emperor Octavian conquered Egypt, officially making it part of the Roman Empire.  The story of Cleopatra is one of thousands of exciting stories that make up the 4000 year epic of Ancient Egyptian history.


Roman control of Egypt was the beginning of the end of Ancient Egyptian culture.  Rome controlled Egypt for several centuries until Arab Muslims from the Middle East (Southwest Asia) took control.  They discouraged the old Egyptian culture and many Egyptians converted to Islam.  Over 700 years of foreign control of Egypt, the traditions faded away, the language was forgotten, and sand covered up many of the temples. Today Egypt’s culture is completely different.    Luckily in the 1800's historians and archeologists began a new adventure to uncover the past of the once mighty Ancient Egypt.