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A Very Short History of the Ancient World

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Ancient Egypt (The Nile Valley)


Seven or eight thousand years ago, at the farthest reaches of human memory, North Africa was a lush and green place with vast grasslands and green forests stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Over this enormous green area, humans wandered in small groups. Eventually, some of these small groups began to plant and cultivate their food. You might say that this change, which happened over the course of a millennium, was the single most important event in human history. For it turned humans from hunter-gatherers into agriculturalists. As farmers, these wandering human groups settled down in one place, and human life, confined now to villages, radically changed shape.

While this transition from hunter-gatherer to cultivator of crops happened in various parts of the world, North Africa was a special case. For about the time humans began becoming farmers, North Africa started to die. It died slowly and imperceptibly, but generation after generation noticed that it was raining less frequently and that there were fewer plants. The grasslands and forests slowly gave way to sand; in a few thousand years, North Africa became "The Sahara" ("sahara" means "desert" in Egyptian/Arabic). Humans were pushed relentlessly by the encroaching dry and sand. Some were pushed south, some were pushed north and east into the Middle East, and some were pushed towards the Nile River -- a thin sliver of green, growth, and life in a sea of dead sand.

This is where the great Nile civilizations were fostered and grew: Egypt, Nubia & Meroe. Around 5000 B.C., people began to live in villages up and down the Nile Valley, and one thousand years later these people were burying their dead with great care and ornamentation. Around 3800 B.C., Nile culture began to flourish. Egyptians discovered the world and began to interact and trade with other cultures as far away as Mesopotamia. Egyptians became master craftspeople; they buried their dead in coffins in lavishly equipped graves; and they began to develop sophisticated technologies.

And out of this crucible would rise "The Two Lands" -- the first states in human history.

The Nile Civilization

The Nile River, which at 4,260 miles is the longest in the world, flows in a northerly direction. It is formed by two main tributaries: The White Nile, fed by Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, coming from Ethiopian mountains. These two main branches join near Khartoum, capital of Sudan, and they continue northward through Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. Swollen by rains, each year the river floods the Nile Valley, bringing nutrient-rich silt that it deposits on the farmland land near the river.

Along this narrow strip of life, ranging from 1 to 2 miles wide in the south to 5 to 10 miles wide in the north before reaching the delta, one of the greatest and most enduring human civilizations established itself. It was an African civilization that fed off human cultures to the south, the west, the east, and eventually, the north. At times it was the greatest power in the world; at other times, Egyptians groaned under the domination of foreign powers.

From 3900 to 3100 B.C., the villages along the Nile valley grew in wealth and power. Two of these became particularly powerful and wealthy and Egypt eventually was divided into two kingdoms known as Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. In the north, the city of Nekheb (named by the Greeks Hieraconpolis or "city of the falcon") grew powerful, while in the south, Nekhen gained power. Around 3100 B.C., their rivalry erupted into war. Upper Egypt (the south) emerged victorious under their warrior-king Menes, whose name in Egyptian was Narmer. Narmer is among the most legendary of the kings of Egypt for he united Upper and Lower Egypt, thus not only becoming the first king of "The Two Lands" but also founding the First Dynasty. The symbol of this unification was the combination of the white crown (Upper Egypt) and the red crown (Lower Egypt).

Unification of the two lands was the single most important event in Egyptian history. It allowed for a centralization of authority, which then undertook massive administrative and building projects. Large-scale irrigation projects were begun as well as large-scale distribution of food and regulation of trade. Egypt's wealth increased exponentially. The first kings of Egypt were so successful that they could build expensive tombs for themselves.

At the same time, the Egyptians invented writing. Large-scale bureaucracy and the need for record-keeping certainly motivated this development. This early form of writing, which took the form of pictures (pictographic writing), eventually developed into hieroglyphics or medu netcher ("words of the gods") in ancient Egyptian.

The early dynastic kings and their administrators also adopted a concept under which the king was regarded as a divine being -- a living god -- who brought about fertility and life to the people he ruled. This institution of a "divine king" lasted for almost 3,000 years and gave the Egyptian state a stability unseen by any other early civilization.

The Old Kingdom -- 2686-2181 B.C.

This period, covering four dynasties (the Third through the Sixth), was called "The Old Kingdom" and was the richest and most creative period in Egyptian history. Egypt prospered and was growing beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Agricultural production had been revolutionized by the building of massive irrigation projects; trade had ballooned; and the population had swelled exponentially. Suddenly Egypt found itself wealthy. All of the pyramids were built during this period.

And the first to build one was Djoser, second king of the Third Dynasty. Djoser's pyramid, called the Step Pyramid, was not a smooth pyramid, but a series of six bases built one on top of another. Although a later king, Sneferu (or Snofru), built a pyramid closer to the classic design of a "real" pyramid, it was his son, Khufu (or Cheops in Greek), who built the largest of them all, the Great Pyramid of Giza. All of these enormous pyramids were built in the lifetimes of only four kings: Sneferu, Cheops, Khafra (also spelled Chephren) and Mycerinus, but they remain a symbol of the richest and most creative period of Egyptian culture.

Although the Old Kingdom lasted for four dynasties (the Third through the Sixth), it declined rapidly near the end of the Sixth. For some unknown reason, the annual floods of the Nile, which watered the ground and brought rich soil, fell off precipitously. People began to starve, and the once proud United Kingdom fell into disarray and chaos until it fell completely into the darkness of what is known as the First Intermediate Period, which lasted from 2181 to 2040 B.C. The country splintered apart into dozens of chiefdoms and local governors. During this time, officials associated themselves with their own region rather than with a central king.

The Middle Kingdom -- 2040-1640 B.C.

For more than 100 years after the decline of the Old Kingdom, it seemed as if the king of the Two Lands would never appear again; but two Pharaohs, Intef I and Mentuhotep I, in the region of Luxor, re-established order. The dynasty they began, the Eleventh, marked the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. Trade with foreign countries began again, irrigation projects were repaired, and the writing of texts started up from scratch. The power of the king, however, did not return. Only well into the Middle Kingdom period did a king, Senusret III, finally break the power of the local governors and return the monarchy to its previous authority.

Around 2000 B.C., cats became domesticated in Egypt. Their original use was to keep the Egyptian royal granaries free of vermin. The cat's job itself was not simple; the vermin bred quite rapidly and ate like kings in the mountains of grain. The Pharaoh realized that he needed all the cats he could get and, being a king-god himself, he made the cats demigods. Thus, cats became a revered animal in Egypt. Egypt even had a cat goddess: Bast or Bastet.

The Second Intermediate Period -- 1640-1550 B.C.

As the kings of Egypt slowly regained their authority, Egypt again grew in wealth and population, but a large part of that population were non-Egyptians who had migrated to the Nile Valley in order to enjoy the prosperity there. As the numbers of foreigners increased, they settled in increasingly large communities and their leaders became kings in their own rights. Their power grew as rapidly as their numbers until the power of the Egyptian Pharaoh fell into oblivion and Egypt entered another period of disorder called The Second Intermediate Period, which lasted from 1640 to 1550 B.C. During this period, Egypt was ruled by foreign kings for almost 100 years. In fact, Egypt consisted largely of independent states under a variety of foreign kings. The Egyptians, ashamed and angered at the loss of their state, called these kings Heka-Khaswt, or "Rulers of the Foreign Lands." The Greeks later perverted this word to Hyksos.

As rulers, the Hyksos adopted Egyptian manners, laws and theories of monarchy. And as so often happened in the ancient world, outside foreign conquerors soon adopted the ways of the conquered. However, the Hyksos dream of becoming Egyptian died within a century. A ferocious Egyptian family from Luxor waged a brilliant and fierce set of wars with the Hyksos kings and finally drove them out of Egypt by 1550 B.C. Ahmose I, the great general who did this, then founded a new dynasty, the Eighteenth, which ushered in the era of the New Kingdom.

The New Kingdom -- 1550-1070 B.C.

After Ahmose I drove out the Hyksos, the Egyptian Pharaohs dedicated themselves to preventing the Hyksos disaster from ever happening again. They subjugated foreign lands and exacted high taxes, making Egypt wealthy and powerful again. They also didn't tolerate foreigners, who were treated relatively badly. Among those foreigners or sojourners were the Hebrews (in Egyptian "apiru" means "foreigner"), whose national identity was formed in their epic migration or exodus from Egypt somewhere midway in this era about 1300 to 1290 B.C.

These warrior kings, the greatest of whom was a brilliant and fierce general named Tuthmosis III, built mighty statues to their greatness and adorned their tombs with lavish wealth.

Queen Hatshepsut

Thutmose II, who ruled from about 1493 to 1479 B.C., married his half sister Hatshepsut and succeeded his father, Thutmose I. After his death, Hatshepsut assumed power, first as regent for her son Thutmose III, and then a year later as Pharaoh in her own right. One of the few women to rule Egypt as a Pharaoh, she encouraged commercial expansion, sent a trading expedition to Punt and sponsored a major building program. Monuments of her reign include the temple at Deir el-Bahri.

When Thutmose III finally became sole monarch in 1457 B.C., he tried to erase the memory of Hatshepsut by destroying many of the monuments that bore her name or effigy. From that time onward, he devoted himself to the expansion of the Egyptian empire, leading many campaigns into Canaan, Phoenicia and Syria. He expanded the Egyptian navy and used it to transport his armies swiftly to the Phoenician coast. He extorted large amounts of tribute from the defeated kings and chiefs, much of which was used to build temples at Karnak (the Festival Hall of the temple of Amun-Ra), Heliopolis and Abydos.

The "One God" Pharaoh

But the period of warrior-kings came to a crashing halt when a young, possibly ill- formed boy came to the throne in the middle of the fourteenth century B.C. -- around 1350 B.C. Amenhotep IV had a religious conversion and rejected the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Rather, he believed that one and only one god existed and deserved to be worshiped; that god was the sun god Aten. Usurping the place of Horus or Amun-Ra, the traditional Egyptian sun gods, Amenhotep made Aten the sun god and created a city dedicated to his worship. Renaming himself Akhenaten, the young king with his wife, Nefertiti, moved into this new city of Aten to concentrate on his new religion. This religion is the first monotheistic ("one god") religion we know of in human history. But during his 17-year reign, Akhenaten devoted himself to his new religion and neglected the storm brewing on the Egyptian horizon. For the Hittite empire was pushing against the Egyptian frontier.

Ramses II, known as Ramses the Great, was the third pharaoh in the Nineteenth Dynasty. He ruled for some 66 years from 1279 to 1213 B.C. and is often regarded as Egypt's greatest, most celebrated, and most powerful pharaoh. He is remembered for his military campaigns and his extensive building program. Like his father, Seti I, he pursued a vigorous foreign policy by attacking the Hittites, the chief opponents of the Egyptian empire in the East at that time. A peace treaty was finally signed in 1258 B.C., marking the earliest known peace treaty in world history.

Ramses II was responsible for building many large temples, most notably that at Abu Simbel in Nubia. During his long reign, he had more than 100 children, and by his death in 1213 B.C., he had outlived his 11 eldest sons.

Ramses III - The Last Great Pharaoh

For 2,000 years, Egyptian civilization had been pre-eminent; indeed, Egypt had enjoyed a prestige second to none throughout the known world. By the time of Rameses III (1186-1155 B.C.), however, the world was going through great upheavals. That long period of stability in the Middle East brought about by Thutmose III and continued by Rameses II's treaties with the Hittites was about to come to an end. This was the time of the Trojan Wars and the fall of the great city of Mycenae in Greece. A time when age-old empires were weakened by complacent rulers and failed harvests.

Ramses III, the second king of the Twentieth Dynasty, ruled for about 31 years during the period known as the New Kingdom. He ruled during a time when the rest of the Mediterranean World was in flux. The fall of Mycenae and the Trojan War caused many displaced peoples to relocate. During the fifth and eighth years of his reign, a combination of several different peoples, known as the "Sea Peoples," who had relocated to the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, ravaged the Near East (obliterating the Hittite Empire) and headed south towards Egypt.

These unidentified seafaring warriors (who may have been Achaeans, Etruscans or Philistines) had, by now, desolated much of the Late Bronze Age civilizations and were ready to make a move on Egypt. A vast horde, which may have been driven by who knows what from what may have been their origin in an area west of the Black Sea, was marching south with a huge fleet at sea supporting their progress on land. Wherever they came from, they were a force that disrupted the ancient world. On land, they came with carts, livestock, wives and children, ready to settle the areas they conquered.

After repelling an invasion of the Sea Peoples 3 years before, in 1176 B.C., Ramses III Egyptian force met another army of the Sea Peoples at Egypt's eastern border and defeated them. At the same time the naval force of the Sea Peoples tried to sail up the Nile, but was intercepted by Ramses' ships. The Egyptians were possibly inferior as sailors and their ships seem to have been technologically less advanced -- but they were powered by both sail and oars and thus were much more maneuverable inshore than the ocean sailing ships of the attackers.

The power of the Sea Peoples was broken in the Nile delta but some, the biblical Philistines, settled in Palestine. With the exception of one more conflict with the Libyans, the rest of Ramses III's long reign was peaceful. Trading contacts were revived with the Land of Punt, and law and order was reestablished throughout the country. Ramses III died in 1155 B.C. and was buried in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor (the ancient city of Thebes).

Ramses III's death marked the end of an era. He had ruled for 31 years and was the last of the great Pharaohs. Egypt now began to suffer economic problems and was unable to exploit the revolution of the Iron Age (which began around 1200 B.C.) because the country had no sources of iron ore.

But the most important factor in Egypt's decline was a breakdown in the fabric of society. There were disputes between officials and governors and infighting between the north and south. The priesthood became ever more powerful and eventually the priests took control of the government. At this point, Egypt finally collapsed into another period of political chaos called the Third Intermediate Period, which began in 1070 B.C. From this time onwards, others would determine the destiny of the Mediterranean world. The Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and eventually the Romans were to become the lead players on the stage of Egyptian politics.

The Late Period (712-332 B.C.)

In 728 B.C., after 300 years of political chaos, Egypt was invaded by its sister civilization to the south, Nubia. The Nubians had built a civilization on the model of the Egyptians and had maintained Egyptian values and culture. Under the command of a man named Piankhy, the Nubians rushed northwards and conquered Egypt in order to return the land to traditional Egyptian ways and Egyptian religious practices. Many Egyptian traditions that had died out were restored by the Nubian conquerors. But the Nubian renaissance lasted less than a century, for they wilted under the ferocity of the Assyrians and their king Ashurbanipal.

In 670 B.C., Ashurbanipal placed another Egyptian on the throne of the Two Lands and so established the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. It took a couple generations to bring peace once again to Egypt, but the country would never accede to its former power and influence. Soon, the empire of the Babylonians fell to the Persians, and Egypt came under the control of Persia when the son of Cyrus the Great conquered the land in 525 B.C.

The Egyptians writhed and suffered under Persian control so much so that nearly 200 years later in 332 B.C. they welcomed the Greek conqueror of Persia, Alexander the Great, into their country as a great liberator. When Alexander the Great entered Egypt, he intended to found a universal empire. At its height, Alexander's brief empire included all of Egypt, Greece, Thrace, Turkey, the Near East, Mesopotamia, and Asia all the way to India. Nothing of the kind had ever been seen before or since. The Egyptians thought of Alexander as their great liberator, but soon they found themselves under Alexander as their king. He built a magnificent new capital called Alexandria at the very mouth of the Nile on the Mediterranean. It became known for the great library that developed there.

But the huge empire that Alexander built did not last longer than his lifetime. After its death, the empire was divided among his three most powerful generals, and Egypt came under the control of the Ptolemies, who began a new dynasty in Egypt (the Thirty-Second), and the last in the history of that land. Although Ptolemy was Greek, he adopted Egyptian customs and the Egyptian theory of kingship. Like the Egyptians, the Ptolemaic kings married their sisters, who were all named Cleopatra ("kleos" meaning "famous" and "patris" meaning "parents").

Even though they adopted many Egyptian customs, the Ptolemaic kings and queens were still Greek. They spoke Greek and thought that Greek culture and peoples were better than Egyptian culture and peoples. Greek became the state language, and cities were renamed. In fact, the word "Egypt" is a Greek word (the Egyptian word for the country is "Kmt" or Kemt or Kemet, which means "black land"). On the whole, native Egyptians occupied the lowest social positions. The Ptolemies, though, as well as their Greek administrators, were highly tolerant and even interested in foreign religions. The most enduring cultural product they produced was a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures; the Ptolemies were interested in the Hebrew religion because of the large number of Jews living in Egypt at the time. Because of this translation, the Hebrew scriptures became one of the most important documents in the history of Western culture; had they ignored the book, it could have faded into the dust of history within a few hundred years.

The final queen of the Ptolemaic line, Cleopatra VII, fell into a dispute with her half- brother over the succession and invited Julius Caesar and the Romans to intervene. Caesar then brought Egypt under the control of Rome under the nominal queenship of Cleopatra. However, after Caesar's death when she sided with Mark Antony against Augustus Caesar and lost, Egypt became a Roman province.

In the long history of Egypt, many foreigners have dominated the peoples of the Two Lands, but none were more hated than the Romans. Anti-Roman sentiment soon crystallized around a new religion, Christianity, introduced by the evangelist Mark sometime in the middle of the first century A.D. These Egyptian Christians, called "Copts," saw this religion as a tool to use in anti-Roman propaganda and agitation. For this reason, the Romans severely persecuted these early Egyptian Christians, whose religion survived in a form far different than the form it assumed in Europe.

Egypt remained under the control of Rome and then the Byzantine Empire until 641 A.D., when it was conquered by Arab Muslims.

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Egyptian Timeline:

Around 3100 B.C., two kingdoms that had grown up along the Nile river were united when the ruler of Upper Egypt (the south) conquered Lower Egypt. This began what is now generally accepted as the first of at least thirty Egyptian dynasties. Ancient Egyptian dynasties are grouped into periods of stability referred to as "Kingdoms," while periods of fragmentation and chaos are referred to as "Intermediate Periods."

The Early Dynastic Period (3100-2686 B.C.)

(Includes the 1st and 2nd Dynasties. The first king is considered by some to be named Menes. Others believe Narmer was the unifier of the two Egyptian kingdoms. Still others consider Menes and Narmer to be the same person.)
  • Egyptians begin to measure time through a calendar based on the three natural cycles (the solar day, the lunar month and the solar year)
  • Earliest evidence of hieroglyphic writing
  • Earliest evidence of sun worship
  • Egyptians write on papyrus
The Old Kingdom (2686-2181 B.C.)
(Includes 3rd through the 6th Dynasties; sometimes called the "Age of Pyramids." There were great achievements in art and architecture, including the completion of 20 major pyramids. During this time, the kings of Egypt were totalitarian dictators. The strong centralized government of the king was broken down into provinces with appointed officials. Gradually these positions became hereditary and a class of nobles was created. The Old Kingdom ended in confusion as the centralized government lost power to provincial nobles who began to struggle against one another.)
  • "Step pyramid" built at Saqquara overlooking Memphis (1620 B.C.)
  • "Red pyramid" (first one with straight sides) built in Dahshur (2575 B.C.)
  • "Great pyramid" at Giza (considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) constructed for Pharaoh Khufu/Cheops over a 20-year period ending in 2551 B.C.
  • Oldest version of the "Book of the Dead" (a collection of spells and instructions for entering the afterlife) found in the pyramid of Unas (2375-2345 B.C.), last king of the 5th Dynasty
First Intermediate Period (2181-2040 B.C.)
(This was a time of great upheaval in political, religious and cultural structures. The 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th Dynasties are included in this time period.)
The Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 B.C.)
(After a century and a half of conflict, Thebian nobles reunited Egypt. During this time period, the king had less absolute power and more emphasis was placed on concepts of justice. Unlike the Old Kingdom, the Egyptian religion began to accept the idea that the afterlife was for common people as well as the king. The Middle Kingdom includes the 12th and 13th Dynasties. During this period, under King Amenemhet III [1860-1814 B.C.], Egypt began to greatly expand its trade and developed colonies south of Upper Nubia.)
  • First obelisk erected by Senusret I at Heliopolis (near Cairo), site of the cult of the sun god (Amun-Ra)
  • Senusret I builds a series of 13 fortresses along the west side of the Nile to protect against invaders
  • Thebes again comes into prominence, serving as the capital and artistic center during the 12th Dynasty
The Second Intermediate Period (1640-1550 B.C.)
(A series of weak rulers causes a new breakdown in centralized authority during the 14th through 17th Dynasties. The Hyksos from Asia took advantage of Egypt's internal conflicts, using horses, chariots, body armor and new types of bronze weapons -- none of which the Egyptians had. The Hyksos superior military weaponry, along with internal turmoil in Egypt, allowed the Hyksos to conquer and rule for nearly 100 years.)
The Early New Kingdom (1550-1300 B.C.)
(The Egyptians learn to use the same weapons and warfare as their captors and eventually drive the Hyksos from the kingdom. Queen Hatshepsut again increases trade and begins building new temples and palaces. She rules jointly with her step-son King Thutmose III for awhile and there is relative peace in the land. When King Thutmose III becomes sole ruler, he begins a series of military campaigns, conquering land as far as the fourth cataract, which takes Egyptian borders to their largest size. When Amenhotep IV [Akhenhaten] becomes king around 1350 B.C., he tries to drastically change Egypt's religion from a polythiestic worship of many gods to a worship of one: Aten the sun god. He outlaws all other religions and for the first time Egyptians begin to call their king Pharaoh. During his reign, the outlying control of Egypt's far borders is lost and the Hittites take over portions of Asia formerly ruled by Egypt. When his son and successor, Tutankhamon or King Tut, becomes king at an early age, the priests force him to return the country to the worship of many gods.)
  • Temple building period, including the huge Temple of Karnak at Luxor
  • Thutmose I is the first Pharaoh buried in the Valley of the Kings outside of Thebes (1493 B.C.)
  • Thutmose III defeats the King of Kadesh at the battle of Megiddo in Caanan (1457 B.C.)
The Later New Kingdom (1300-1070 B.C.)
(Also known as "Egypt's Golden Age," Egypt regains its lands in Asia and although Ramses II begins with a very strong reign, by 1150 B.C., the country again begins to lose control of its outlying areas. This time it isn't bronze weapons but new iron weapons that help others to encroach on Egypt's borders. The Hebrew exodus of Egypt dates to around 1300 to 1290 B.C.)
  • King Tut is killed at age 19 and buried in the Valley of the Kings (1323 B.C.)
  • Ramses II constructs temple at Abu Simbel (1244-1224 B.C.)
  • Egypt and the Hittites sign first peace treaty in world history (1258 B.C.)
  • Ramses III repels land and sea invasions of the Sea Peoples in the fifth and eighth years of his reign
Period of Invasions (1070-30 B.C.)
(Sheshonq I of Libya seizes Egypt's throne in 945 B.C. During this period, the Nubians/Sudanese, Assyrians, Persians and then the Greeks take turns ruling Egypt. Alexander the Great's conquest in 332 B.C. leaves a new dynasty -- the Ptolemies -- in control until finally the death of Cleopatra ends the reign of the Pharaohs and Rome takes control in 30 B.C.)
  • The great Library of Alexandria founded at the beginning of the third century B.C. under the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (305-282 B.C.)
  • The world's first lighthouse, the Pharos of Alexandria, is constructed (285-247 B.C.). Standing between 380 and 440 feet high, it was the world's third tallest building (after the two great pyramids of Khufu and Khafra) and was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
  • The Rosetta Stone is carved in Greek plus Egyptian hieroglyphics (196 B.C.)

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