In this chapter you will learn about the civilization of ancient Egypt and how it developed along the Nile River. This photo shows an ancient temple of Ramses II, one of Egypt’s most powerful rulers.
Section 1: Geography and Early Egypt
THE GIFT OF THE NILE The existence of Egypt was based solely around the Nile, the world’s longest river. The Nile carries water from central Africa through a vast stretch of desert land. The river was so important to people that Egypt was called “the gift of the Nile.”
Ancient Egypt developed along a 750-mile stretch of the Nile, and was originally organized into two kingdoms—Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt was located upriver in relation to the Nile’s flow. Lower Egypt was the northern region and was located downriver.
Cataracts, or steep rapids, marked the southern border of Upper Egypt. Lower Egypt was centered in the river delta, a triangle-shaped area of land made of soil deposited by the river. In midsummer, the Nile would flood Upper Egypt and in the fall the river would flood Lower Egypt. This made sure that the farmland would stay moist and fertile. As the land surrounding the Nile Valley was arid desert, this watered area was the lifeline for everyone who lived in the region.
CIVILIZATION DEVELOP IN EGYPT With dry desert all around, it is no wonder that ancient settlers were attracted to this abundant and protected area of fertile farmland. Hunter-gatherers first moved to the area around 12,000 years ago and found plenty of meat and fish to hunt and eat. By 4500 BC farmers were living in villages and growing wheat and barley. They were also raising cattle and sheep.
Around 3200 BC the Egyptian villages became organized into two kingdoms. The capital of Lower Egypt was located in the northwest Nile Delta at a town called Pe. The capital city of Upper Egypt was called Nekhen. It was located on the west bank of the Nile. KINGS UNIFY EGYPT Around 3100 BC Menes (MEE-neez), the king of Upper Egypt, invaded Lower Egypt. He married a princess there in order to unite the two kingdoms under his rule. Menes was the first pharaoh, which literally means ruler of a “great house.” He also started the first Egyptian dynasty, or series of rulers from the same family. He built a new capital city, Memphis, which became a popular cultural center. His dynasty ruled for nearly 200 years.
Section 2: The Old Kingdom
LIFE IN THE OLD KINGDOM Around 2700 BC the third dynasty, or OldKingdom, came to power in Egypt. During the next 500 years, the Egyptians developed a political system based on the belief that the pharaoh was both a king and a god. The most famous pharaoh of the Old Kingdom was Khufu, in whose honor the largest of the pyramids was built.
Although the pharaoh owned everything, he was also held personally responsible if anything went wrong. He was expected to make trade profitable and prevent war. To manage these duties, he appointed government officials, mostly from his family. Social classes developed, with the pharaoh at the top and nobles from rich and powerful families making up the upper class. The middle class included some government officials, scribes, and rich craftspeople. Most people, including farmers, belonged to the lower class. Lower-class people were often used by the pharaoh as labor.
Trade also developed during the Old Kingdom. Traders sailed on the Mediterranean and south on the Nile and the Red Sea to acquire gold, copper, ivory, slaves, wood, incense, and myrrh.
RELIGION AND EGYPTIAN LIFE The Old Kingdom formalized a religious structure that everyone was expected to follow. Over time, certain cities built temples and were associated with particular gods.
Much of Egyptian religion focused on the afterlife. Each person’s ka (KAH), or life force, existed after death, but remained linked to the body. To keep the ka from suffering, the Egyptians developed a method called embalming to preserve bodies. Royalty and other members of the elite had their bodies preserved as mummies, specially treated bodies wrapped in cloth.
THE PYRAMIDS Pyramids, spectacular stone monuments, were built to house dead rulers. Many pyramids are still standing today, amazing reminders of Egyptian engineering.
Section 3: The Middle and New Kingdoms
THE MIDDLE KINGDOM The Old Kingdom ended with the pharaohs in debt. Ambitious nobles serving in government positions managed to take power from the pharaohs and rule Egypt for nearly 160 years. Finally, a powerful pharaoh regained control of Egypt around 2050 BC and started a peaceful period of rule. This era was called the Middle Kingdom and lasted until Southwest Asian invaders conquered Lower Egypt around 1750 BC.
THE NEW KINGDOM When an Egyptian named Ahmose (AHM-ohs) drove away the invaders and declared himself king of Egypt in 1550 BC, he ushered in Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty and the start of the New Kingdom. Responding to invasions, Egypt took control ofpossible invasion routes and quickly became the leading military power in the region, with an empire extending from the Euphrates River in the northeast to Nubia in the south. These conquests also made Egypt rich, through gifts and vastly expanded trade routes. One ruler in particular, Queen Hatshepshut, was active in establishing new paths for traders.
Despite the strong leadership of Ramses theGreat, a tide of invasions from Southwest Asia and from the west eventually reduced Egypt to violence and disorder.
WORK AND DAILY LIFE During the Middle and New Kingdoms, Egypt’s population continued to grow and become more complex. Professional and skilled workers like scribes, artisans, arrtists, and architects were honored. These roles in society were usually passed on in families, with young boys learning a trade from their fathers.
For farmers and peasants, who made up the vast majority of the population, life never changed. In addition to hard work on the land, they were required to pay taxes and were subject to special labor duty at any time. Only slaves were beneath them in social status.
Most Egyptian families lived in their own homes. Boys were expected to marry young and start their own families. Women focused on the home, but many also had jobs outside the home. Egyptian women had the legal rights to own property, make contracts, and divorce their husbands.
Section 4: Egyptian Achievements
EGYPTIAN WRITING Egyptians invented one of the world’s first writing systems, using a series of images, symbols, and pictures called hieroglyphics (hy-ruh-GLIH-fiks). Each symbol represented one or more sounds in the Egyptian language.
At first hieroglyphics were carved in stone. Later, they were written with brushes and ink on papyrus (puh-PY-ruhs). Because papyrus didn’t decay, many ancient Egyptian texts still survive, including government records, historical records, science texts, medical manuals, and literary works such as TheBook of the Dead. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 provided the key to reading Egyptian writing, as its text was inscribed both in hieroglyphics and in Greek. EGYPT’S GREAT TEMPLES Egyptian architects are known not only for the pyramids but also for their magnificent temples. The temples were lavishly designed with numerous statues and beautifully painted walls and pillars. Sphinxes and obelisks were usually found near the entrances to the temples.
EGYPTIAN ART Ancient Egyptians were masterful artists and many of their greatest works are found in either the temples or the tombs of the pharaohs. Most Egyptians, however, never saw these paintings, because only kings, priests, or other important people could enter these places.
Egyptian paintings depict a variety of subjects, from crowning kings to illustrating religious rituals to showing scenes from daily life. The paintings also have a particular style, with people drawn as if they were twisting as they walked, and in different sizes depending upon their stature in society. In contrast, animals appear more realistically. The Egyptians were also skilled stone and metal workers, creating beautiful statues and jewelry.
Much of what we know about Egyptian art and burial practices comes from the tomb of KingTutankhamen, one of the few Egyptian tombs that was left untouched by raiders looking for valuables. The tomb was discovered in 1922.