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Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt (-2900 to -30) lasted from its first king, Namer, to its last queen, Cleopatra.  Its glory days were from -2900 to -1069. After that it fell under foreign rule. It is famous for its pyramids, the huge buildings where they buried their pharaohs (god kings) as mummies.

Egypt was, compared to later times, a small and weak country. Its army was no match for the Persians or the Greeks, much less the Romans. All the same, before -1100 few could match Egypt in learning, art, invention or warfare.

Most of Ancient Egypt – its cities and towns – were on or close to the Nile river. Yet the fertile land was not completely farmed – there was still a lot of wilderness left.

Egypt comes in two parts:

  • Lower Egypt: the north, the Delta, where the Nile branches out before it reaches the sea.
  • Upper Egypt: south Egypt where the Nile follows a single course.

The two chief cities were Memphis in the north where all the great pyramids are, and Thebes in the middle, where its great temples are. For most of its history Egypt was ruled from Thebes.

There were three great periods in Egypt’s ancient history:

  • -2686 to -2160: Old Kingdom
  • -2055 to -1650: Middle Kingdom
  • -1550 to -1069: New Kingdom

Each period lasted about 400 to 500 years, when there was peace and prosperity. In between each was a hundred years of war, when royal families fought one another – or foreigners came to make themselves kings.

The Great Sphinx and most of the famous pyramids were built during the Old Kingdom. The picture that most people have of Egypt, however, comes from the New Kingdom, particularly the time of King Tut (-1300s) and Ramesses II (-1200s).

The most famous book of Ancient Egypt is the “Book of the Dead”, written about -1550, at the beginning of the New Kingdom. Some of the Proverbs of the Bible come from the “Instruction of Amenemope”, written during the later half of the New Kingdom.

Ancient Egyptian writing is known as hieroglyphics. For over a thousand years people had forgotten how to read them, till the early 1800s when Napoleon’s army found the Rosetta Stone in Egypt. It had hieroglyphics translated into Greek.

Hieroglyphics are a kind of picture writing. Some of the pictures tell you what a word means, some tell you how to say it. It is more a system of suggestions for those who already know Egyptian than a faithful record of a spoken language. Most English letters come from an Egyptian hieroglyph.

Since -1069, Egypt has repeatedly fallen under foreign rule:

  • c. -780: Nubian,
  • -525: Persian,
  • -323: Greek (Ptolemaic),
  • -30: Roman / Byzantine,
  • +642: Arab,
  • +1517: Turkish (Ottoman),
  • +1882: British,
  • c. +1980: American (as a banana republic).

After Cleopatra:

Religion: By +200, Christianity had spread throughout Egypt. In +391 public worship of the old gods was outlawed. By the 600s even their private worship had probably died out. It was not till the 1300s that most people were Muslim.

Language: Starting in the -300s, the top people became Greek-speaking. Most people, though, continued to speak Coptic, a late form of Egyptian. From the 600s to the 1600s, Arabic slowly took the place of Coptic. Now you only hear Coptic in church.

– Abagond, 2006, 2016.

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