Brief History Of Egypt

Archaic Period
The incredibly fertile plains of the Nile river encouraged settlement of Neolithic communities. From these communities arose (circa 5000 BCE) the villages and towns that would form the regional districts of Egyptian history. These districts were later called "nomes" by the Greeks. The nomes were united broadly in culture, but each was ruled separately by what amounted to a tribal chieftain. Each nome also seemed to have its own tutelary god, for whom the tribal chieftain was considered the sacral king. The basis of Egyptian religion and government, and the almost total lack of distinction between them, was already lain.

Sometime before 3000 BCE the nomes around the Delta region of the Nile which entered into the Mediterranean were united into what was called the Red land. Similarly, the nomes in south of the Delta were united into the White Land. Over the course of a few generations, kings from the south established control over the north. Egypt was united as the Two Lands around 2700 BCE, with the capital at Memphis. The Egyptians also referred to their land as "Kemet," meaning "Black Land" after the color of the fertile silt of the Nile River.

Old Kingdom
Within several generations of the Unification of the Red and White Lands, Egypt became a highly centralized state, united by a god-king and an imperial bureaucracy. The King was in essence a god on earth, and the chief mediator between humanity and the higher gods of the heavens. This was much like the archaic nome chieftains and their tutelary demons, but on a much grander scale. The Kings ordered construction of pyramids, specialized burial chambers from whence it was believed their souls would ascend to the heavens and reside with the gods. At this point in history, eternal life was considered the province of the King only.

Beneath the king were his priests, the nobles of the court, the local notables in the nomes, the scribes and other staff of the bureaucracy. A small part-time army was retained, but Egypt's vast deserts helped defend the country from outsiders. The remaining 80% of the population were serfs. They spent three months of the year farming the Nile. The rest of the year they were conscripted by the State for various building projects. The Biblical account of foreign slaves constructing pyramids is not supported by history or archaeology. Egypt traded with some of her neighbors and occasionally went to war.

First Intermediate period
The God-Kings of the Old Kingdom had built so lavishly on their burial chambers that it actually placed a severe strain on the economy. Furthermore, the nobles and the priests were wresting power and money away from the central court. The central government at Memphis collapsed circa 2180 BCE. The local notables staged civil war for the throne. In the chaos that resulted, Asiatic nomads infiltrated the country. Everywhere there was chaos, followed by famine and disease.

The illusion of an all-powerful God-King ruling timelessly over Egypt was shattered. People no longer felt that the King alone was entitled to eternal life or protection of the gods. "The Democratization of the Afterlife" began in this phase, in which all those who submitted to such venerable deities as Aset (Isis) and Wesir (Osiris) could be granted eternal life. This was one of the most profound moments in the evolution of Religious Thought, exerting a strong influence on Paganism ever since, and providing fertile ground for the later Christian religion to follow.

Middle Kingdom
The chaos gradually subsided and a new line of Kings emerged around 1991 BCE. It-Towy became the political capital, and Thebes the chief religious city. The powers of the nobles were curtailed by the central court, and a new middle class of skilled labor and traders emerges to replace them. However, about this time the King came increasingly to share power with his deputy, called the vizier, who would later become a force in politics in his own right.

On the foreign front, Egypt re-initiated trading relations and military campaigns to regain the international status it had lost in the previous anarchy. It was during this time frame that Egypt made contact with Minos, the proto-Hellenic civilization. On the domestic front, the new kings reordered the construction of pyramids and other burial chambers, despite the fact that their economic burden had contributed to the social collapse of the previous era.

Second Intermediate Period
By 1786 BCE, Egypt had again fallen into chaos. A series of weak kings came to the throne. During this time frame, the Vizier, the kings deputy, may have been the actual power behind the throne. Rival pretenders to the throne established separate dynasties. With the country weakened, a group of Asiatic invaders called the Hyksos gradually infiltrated the country. They took over the North. The South was not conquered but had to pay taxes in tribute.

Later Egyptians would say the Hyksos were cruel, malicious tyrants, though the archaeological records do not bear this out. In any event, the Egyptian psyche was so disturbed by this conquest that they grew increasingly xenophobic. Rulers from the religious center of Thebes in the south organized a revolt and expelled the Hyksos back to West Asia.

New Kingdom
The Theban princes established themselves as the new rulers of Egypt around 1570 BCE. The mood of Egypt had changed. A once generally peaceful people were altered by the Hyksos invasion. They grew increasingly warlike and Xenophobic, and desired overseas empire to defend themselves and increase their status. The Thebans used the military lessons fighting the Hyksos to establish Egypt's first professional army and conquered parts of West Asia. The military became the second most important institution in the New Kingdom.

The most important institution was the clergy. The Thebans attributed to their success to their chief god Amun. The Egyptians, already a deeply religious people, became all the more so after the Hyksos were repelled. Amun, the Theban god of Winds, was associated with Re, the Memphis solar god of the Old Kingdom. This new "Amen-Re" was regarded as an all-powerful creator and warrior deity, the patron of the New Kingdom. The Theban priests of Amen-Re became the powers behind the throne as they confirmed the right of the king to rule. The priesthood also came to exercise considerable influence over the New Kingdom's burgeoning economy.

In an effort to wrest political and religious authority from the priesthood and return it to the Monarchy, a King by the name of Amenhotep revolted. Amenhotep denied the existence of Amen-Re, and indeed all other gods. According to him, the only god was Aten, the sun disk, and he was the high priest of this one true god. Amenhotep renamed himself Akhenaten ("servant of Aten"). He closed all the temples and constructed a new capitol around his solar monotheism. Not only the priests but the people at large were scandalized. Once he died, the Theban priests again took control. The cults of the old gods were restored and it would be centuries before Monotheism was again inflicted upon the population.

Bolstered by a strong military and a feeling of religious patriotism, the Egyptians of the New Kingdom successfully repelled an invasion of the Sea Peoples. The Sea Peoples were a mysterious race of marauders who had managed to destabilize other parts of the Mediterranean. The New Kingdom finally abandoned the practice of Pyramid building. Instead they buried kings in rock-cut tombs. It was in such a tomb where Tutankhamun was famously discovered.

Third Intermediate Period
Egypt reached the height of power in the New Kingdom that it would never recover. Around 1089 BCE the Theban princes took full control of the south of the country, leaving the monarchy with the north. The country was divided, and the monarchy of the north was weak. Kings from Libya and then from Nubia took over parts of Egypt. Foreign ruled Egypt came into conflict with the new power in the Ancient world, Assyria. The Assyrians destroyed Memphis and placed puppet rulers in parts of Egypt.

Late Period
The Egyptians gradually regained control of their country from all foreign influences, but their international power and overseas empire was ruined. The Kings could only retain control by hiring large numbers of mercenaries, who were increasingly Greek.

At this time Assyria fell to Babylon, which in turn fell to Persia. Persia then subjected Egypt to foreign control again. Xerxes was considered a cruel occupier, and when the Persian Empire was overthrown the Egyptians welcomed their new liberator, though he was also foreign.

Ptolemaic Period
Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire. So the legend goes, the Egyptians greeted him with open arms after the oracle of Amun declared him a god on earth and the rightful King of Egypt. Alexander founded Alexandria on the Delta to become the new administrative capitol, and it quickly became the largest port city in the eastern Mediterranean. Alexandria would become a melting pot of Egyptian, Greco-Macedonian, Jewish and other foreign influences.

Alexander died and leadership of Egypt passed to his governor, Ptolemy. Ptolemy ruled as a Pharaoh. Ptolemy and his successors tried to "modernize" the economic and political administration of the Egypt to increase output. This seems to have worked, and the new-found wealth was poured into massive building projects and other affairs of state. The majority of Egyptians did not benefit. The reforms and new economy favored the new regime and its new Greco-Macadonian administrative class. Some Egyptians did move up the social hierarchy by becoming "Greek" in educational terms, but the majority of the populace did not seem able or inclined to trade their culture for that of the occupiers. Despite the Ptolemaic regime taking a relatively innocuous approach in ruling its Egyptian subjects, there were frequent uprisings by the natives.

Roman and Byzantine Period
The growing shadow of Rome from the Mediterranean coincided with the successive degeneration of the Ptolemaic regime. Under weak rulers, Ptolemaic Egypt watched as Rome devoured the other Hellenistic kingdoms. Only one Ptolemy was wily enough to meet the Romans at their game, and that was Cleopatra (the VII). After wooing Julius Caesar and using him for internal Egyptian politics, Cleopatra turned to Marc Antony when Caesar was assassinated. After a failed bid for military supremacy of the Roman world, Cleopatra and Antony killed themselves. Augustus poised himself as Pharaoh and had an equestrian appointed to rule Egypt as a direct imperial territory.

The main Roman interest in Egypt was the grain of the fertile Nile. However, the general economic power of Alexandria, the second largest city in the Empire, was not ignored. The Romans retained the Ptolemaic administration but did introduce Roman legal reforms. The Romans allowed the remains of the Egyptian priesthood to operate so long as they supported the imperial cult. The Egyptians for their part seemed to have largely been apathetic to the Romans, but a few Egyptians (no doubt largely Hellenized by education) did become Senators.

The main event in the Roman rule was the introduction of Christianity. Introduced by Hellenized Jews in Alexandria, it spread quickly to the rest of the population. The Cult of Mary and Jesus was facilitated by its iconographic resemblance to the cult of Isis and Horus, and perhaps to the extent that early Christianity was anti-Roman it was taken up enthusiastically by the lower urban classes. Coptic was developed as a literary and religious language at this point.

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As the Western Empire degraded, the grain supply shifted to the new Eastern capitol of Constantinople. Egypt would become a province of the East, one involved in the various religious controversies of the Byzantines.

Egypt was later conquered by Islam, and its culture completely taken over by the new faith. Not until French and British troops in the nineteenth and twentieth century occupied the country would Egypt and its past be significantly reintroduced into the Western conscious.


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