Sharp Blue: Ancient Egypt in ten paragraphs


About This Article

comments feed

Tips Jar

Paypal Pixel

Related Books

Related Books


This is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series of “Histories in Ten Paragraphs”. In this installment, my aim is simply to provide the basic chronological framework for the history of Egypt for readers who have only a passing familiarity with that civilisation; I make no claims of originality of interpretation. Of necessity I have condensed many important and complex eras into brief sketches or neglected them entirely. I hope that experts will forgive these simplifications but equally I hope that they will point out my more obvious errors. The absolute chronology of dynastic Egypt is subject to many uncertainties, but for the sake of brevity I have used the dates given by Grimal throughout this essay.

If there’s sufficient interest in this article, I’ll probably write a similar one about either Rome or ancient Mesopotamia next.

1. The Old Kingdom, 2700-2200BC

The first state controlling all of Egypt was formed in around 3150BC with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by Narmer-Menes. It’s conventional to divide ancient Egyptian history into a sequence of dynasties (some of which were contemporaneous), and Narmer-Menes is traditionally the first pharaoh of the First Dynasty. The archetypal pattern of Egyptian state and society was laid down some four hundred years later during the Old Kingdom, four successive dynasties (29 kings in all) that ruled from Memphis in Lower Egypt. The civil, military and religious administrations were centred on the person of the pharaoh, who was believed to have a special relationship with the gods. The ideology of this strong centralised state was given concrete form through monumental architecture: the famous pyramid tombs (including the three gigantic pyramids at Giza), stone temples and presumably also mud-brick palaces which have not survived. Egyptian military power expanded beyond the first Nile cataract into Lower Nubia in the south and into Sinai in the north (the former the major source of the gold on which the Egyptian economy depended, the latter of turquoise). Egyptian commercial interests reached further afield, to Byblos in the Levant (an important source of timber) and Punt on the Red Sea coast of eastern Africa (source of incense, ebony, ivory, animal skins and other luxury goods). This state endured for centuries.

2. The First Intermediate Period, 2200-2040BC

The power of the centralised state ultimately depended on the agricultural surplus of the fertile soils of the Nile flood-plain (one role of the pharaoh was to intercede with the gods to control the Nile innundations vital to Egyptian agriculture). In the 22nd century BC, a temporary shift in climate reduced the level of these innundations, causing widespread famine, which eroded the religious authority of the pharaohs and, more practically, undermined the economic and military power of the regime. Both trade beyond Egypt and mining expeditions were abandoned, Asiatic invaders seized the Nile Delta, and the country slid towards anarchy as the reach of the pharaoh contracted towards Memphis. During the later Old Kingdom local dynasties of provincial governors had emerged and now the state fractured along these pre-existing faultlines as people looked to regional powers for their security. Eventually, the process of disintegration halted and reversed as rival dynasties at Herakleopolis and Thebes consolidated and extended their control.

3. The Middle Kingdom, 2040-1674BC

Mentuhotep II, who became King of Thebes in 2061BC, eventually defeated the Herakleopolitan pharaohs and his other rivals, ushering in a period of renewed unity. The centuries that followed were the classical period of Egyptian civilisation and the Twelfth Dynasty - which followed Mentuhotep’s Eleventh Dynasty - was one of the most powerful in Egyptian history. The Twelfth Dynasty pharaohs pacified Nubia as far as the region of Kush around the third cataract, exploited the gold mines of the Eastern Desert, built impressive irrigation works, extended Egyptian influence into Syria-Palestine, developed a balanced and elegant architectural style, and presided over an efflorescence of literature. The Middle Kingdom also saw subtantial immigration from Syria-Palestine as people moved to Egypt to provide labour for the booming economy. After a complex problem of succession following the long reigns of Senusret III and Amenemhat III, the Twelfth Dynasty ended with the death of Queen Sobekneferu in 1802BC. Although the transfer of power to the Thirteenth Dynasty was smooth, the golden age of the Middle Kingdom gradually began to fade.

4. The Second Intermediate Period, 1674-1553BC

Under the Thirteenth Dynasty, Egypt once again began to fragment politically. As the power of the pharaohs diminished, a new political power irrupted into Egyptian history: the Hyksos, a group of semitic peoples who crossed from Asia into northern Egypt and established their own kingdom in the Nile delta, with its capital at Avaris. The Hyksos brought new military technologies - chariots and composite bows - with them to Egypt but it’s likely that the defection of already politically powerful asiatic immigrants to the Hyksos cause rather than sheer military power was the deciding factor in the takeover of northern Egypt. Contrary to the impression given by the propaganda of the New Kingdom pharaohs, the Hyksos rapidly adopted most aspects of Egyptian culture. The Hyksos kings brought a measure of renewed stability and prosperity to the Delta, and earned the support of many native Egyptians. Soon the situation in the rest of the country stabilised too and a new equilibrium emerged, each of whose parts considered the others as equals: a network of northern city-states with varying degrees of loyalty to the Hyksos king in Lower Egypt, a powerful breakaway state ruled from Thebes by native Egyptian kings in Upper Egypt, and a newly emerged semi-Egyptianised kingdom of Kush in Nubia.

5. The New Kingdom, 1552-1352BC: Tuthmosids

Just as the First Intermediate Period ended with the wars of the Theban king Mentuhotep II, so the Second Intermediate Period ended with the wars of Theban kings Kamose (last pharaoh of the Seventeenth Dynasty) and his brother Ahmose I (first pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the first of the New Kingdom). A branch of the family related by marriage to Ahmose were to rule Egypt for two centuries. This period saw the construction of the Egyptian Empire as the warrior pharaohs Tuthmose I, Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II pushed Egypt’s borders deep into Nubia and to the Euphrates in Syria. The reign of Hatchepsut, the first (and perhaps only) woman to rule not as queen regent but pharaoh provided a relatively peaceful interlude during which a trading expedition was sent to the exotic land of Punt. During this period Egypt prospered as never before, and its power dominated the Mediterranean world. The Egyptian New Kingdom became part of an international system of great powers: Egypt, Babylonia, Elam (in western Iran), Mycenaean Green, Arzawa (in south-western Asia Minor), Alashiya (Cyprus), Mittani (in Syria), Hatti (the kingdom of the Hittites in central Anatolia) and Assyria (in northern Mesopotamia). The rulers of each of these powerful states, the Great Kings, considered the others as both peers and rivals, and they competed with each other in limited ways through vassal-state proxies. The system was bound together by diplomatic correspondence, mostly in Babylonian, and the exchange of luxury gifts. Much of the wealth that poured into Egypt from international trade and tribute was used to fund monumental architecture: the Karnak temple of the state god Amun at Thebes was repeatedly expanded and elaborated by successive pharaohs, substantial mortuary temples such as Djeser-Djeseru, the temple of Hatchepsut at Deir el-Bahri, were built and extensive tombs were cut out of the rock of the Valley of the Kings in the Theban necropolis and filled with treasures. The apogee of the Tuthmosid era was the long, glorious reign of Amenhotep III, whose son, the heretical pharaoh Akhenaten, was to plunge Egypt into turmoil.

6. The New Kingdom, 1352-1295BC: The Amarna Interlude

Throughout the New Kingdom, the priesthood of Amun grew in wealth and power, eventually coming to rival and then exceed the power of the pharaoh. By the time of Amenhotep III this potential for rivalry was becoming apparent and Amenhotep actively promoted the cult of the sun-god Re in an attempt to counterbalance the Amun priesthood. This, though, was nothing next to the religious revolution ushered in by his son, who came to the throne as Amenhotep IV but soon changed his name to Akhenaten. Under Akhenaten the old religion of Egypt was largely swept away - at least so far as the court was concerned - and replaced by the worship of the sun’s disc, the Aten. This was the earliest recorded monotheistic religion. Conveniently for the royal family, only Akhenaten (and perhaps his famously beautiful queen, Nefertiti) could directly worship the Aten and receive life from it and all other Egyptians had to worship through the pharaoh. Akhenaten also moved the capital from Thebes to a new city called Akhetaten (“Horizon of the Aten”) that he ordered built in the middle Egyptian desert at what is now el-Amarna. It’s clear that much of this was achieved against widespread resistance only through the loyalty of the army to the Tuthmosid family. Akhenaten’s reign also brought a revolution in Egyptian art, which for a short period cast aside the ancient formalism and embraced a new mood of naturalism, innovation and finally downright weirdness. While the court threw itself into Aten worship in splendid isolation at Akhetaten, the situation in the colonised territories grew desperate. For a decade, Akhenaten simply ignored letters from vassal kings begging for help against the ascendant power of the Hittites. His death was followed rapidly by that of the next pharaoh, the elusive Smenkhkare, and then of Akhenaten’s young son Tutankhaten/Tutankhamen. The Tuthmosid dynasty rapidly imploded as the Egyptian Empire teetered on the brink of chaos. That the empire didn’t collapse was due to three men who in turn became pharaoh: the Amarna regime’s elder statemen Ay (the father of Amenhotep III’s queen Tiy), who masterminded the restoration of the worship of the traditional gods, and the generals Horemheb and Ramesses I, who stabilised the military situation. The last became the founder of the new Nineteenth Dynasty. The aftermath of the Amarna debacle saw a concerted attempt to erase all traces of Akhenaten and his new religion from Egyptian history.

7. The New Kingdom, 1295-1069BC: Ramessids

During the post-Amarna period the equilibrium of the great states had begun to shift dramatically as Hatti swallowed Arzawa, partitioned Mittani with Assyria and began to detach Egypt’s vassals in Syria-Palestine, where Akhenaten’s neglect had weakened Egypt’s position. Containing the threat of Hittite expansion was the great challenge for the early Nineteenth Dynasty pharaohs. Their efforts culminated in one of the great battles of the ancient world, the immense but somewhat inconclusive battle fought between Ramesses II and the Hittite king Muwatallis II in 1274BC at Kadesh in Syria. After Kadesh, the war continued on a less epic scale until 1258BC when Ramesses and the new Hittite king Hattusili III agreed the world’s earliest known peace treaty, after which relations between the two great powers were generally friendly. However, the challenges faced by the last pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty and the Twentieth Dynasty pharaohs were of an altogether greater magnitude and they proved themselves only barely equal to them. During this period, the system of great states beyond Egypt’s northern borders entirely collapsed and the Near East plunged into a “dark age” that lasted for centuries. The events during this collapse and its causes are generally obscure. What is clear is that a combination of factors contributed. The increasing burden of taxes required to support the palace elites caused large numbers of people to drop out of the economy and become “habiru” living on the margins of civilisation. There was an extremely serious debt crisis in Babylonia. War between states in the east may have been an important factor, as may migrations of Aramaean tribes into the region. Along the Mediterranean, armies of “Sea Peoples” were probably both a cause and an effect of the collapse. The state of Hatti, weakened by civil wars, was swept away, leaving only relatively small and impotent successor states. The pharaohs Merenptah and Ramesses III defeated attempted invasions by the Sea Peoples in 1209BC and 1180BC respectively. Ramesses III, though, was to be the last powerful pharaoh of the New Kingdom. The Twentieth Dynasty continued to rule a unified Egypt for a century after his death, but his successors were generally weak and ineffectual. Furthermore, climate change once again caused crop failures and famine. In the end, the New Kingdom was fatally weakened by the troubles beyond and within its borders, and Egypt declined into a third period of disunity and foreign domination.

8. The Third Intermediate Period, 1069-664BC

Following the death of Ramesses XI in 1069BC, power was split between Piankh, the High Priest of Amun at Thebes and the pharaoh Smendes who ruled from Tanis in the Nile Delta. This was the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period, a confused and confusing period of Egyptian history that would last for four centuries, during which parts of Egypt were ruled by a range of dynasties related to each other by complex family relationships. In essence, the Third Intermediate period can be roughly divided into three phases. During the first phase, from 1069BC to 945BC, pharaohs of the Twenty-First Dynasty nominally ruled the country but power in the south remained in the hands of Piankh’s successors (who occasionally even claimed royal titles). The second phase, from 945BC to 747BC, saw the emergence of Libyans as an important new factor in Egyptian politics. The Nile Delta had been slowly infiltrated by Libyans tribes from the west since the Twentieth Dynasty but during this period they formed their own tribal confederacies that were independent of the rule of the pharaoh. With the death of Psusennes II, last pharaoh of the Twenty-First Dynasty, Shoshenq I, Great Chief of the Meshwesh [Libyans] became king. He and his successors dominated Egypt for two centuries and even extended Egyptian power once more into Palestine. During the third phase, Egypt was conquered by Egyptianised Kushite pharaohs from Nubia who ruled for almost a century. The last part of Kushite rule, under the great Taharqa, was overshadowed by a desperate struggle with Assyria, which had by now recovered from its own dark age and was busily building an empire in Syria and Palestine. The Assyrians launched a series of invasions of Egypt between 671BC and 664BC, eventually defeating the Kushites and making Egypt a vassal of the Assyrian Empire. Ironically, it was this foreign conquest that would restore Egypt’s unity under a native dynasty.

9. The Late Period, 664-525BC

At first, the Assyrians attempted to control Egypt through twenty native governors. Then, in 664BC, they recognised the remarkable Psamtik, the governor of Sais in the Delta, as sole king of Egypt. With the Assyrians distracted by their own internal struggles, Psamtik spent twenty years making this nominal power into a concrete reality in a series of campaigns against Egypt’s other semi-independent powers. The Saite king bolstered his own forces by importing large numbers of mercenaries from Caria in Asia Minor and from Greece. Henceforth, Greeks would always be entangled with Egyptian history. In 656BC Psamtik’s forces finally took control of Thebes and he appointed his daughter Nitocris as the next Divine Adoratrice of Amun, thus guaranteeing his control of the formerly independent priesthood. For the first time in four centuries, Egypt was united under an Egyptian pharaoh. For a century and a half, he and his successors, the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty presided over the “Saite renaissance”, a period of renwed prosperity in which the pharaohs made a concerted effort to reestablish Egyptian greatness. However, the world beyond the Saite monarchy was a much more dangerous place than that inhabited by the New Kingdom pharaohs: if the New Kingdom’s world had been one of rival kingdoms, the Egypt of the Late Period was part of a world of great empires. Following the destruction of the Assyrian Empire, Egyptian armies and their Greek mercenaries attempted to restablish Egyptian control of Palestine but the Saite kings soon found themselves embroiled in war with the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which had also expanded into the vacuum left by the Assyrian collapse. Finally, Egypt became drawn into the struggle between the vigorously expansionistic Persian Empire, which had eclipsed the Babylonians, and the Greeks. The Persian king Cambyses II invaded Egypt in 525BC, defeated and captured the pharaoh, Psamtik III, ending both the Saite dynasty and Egypt’s independence.

10. The End of Ancient Egypt

The post-pharaonic history of ancient Egypt extended a millennium beyond the Persian conquest. Save for a brief interlude from 404BC to 343BC beteen two periods of Persian occupation, ancient Egypt would never again be ruled by Egyptians. The second Persian occupation was terminated in 332BC by the conquests of Alexander the Great. From 304BC till 30BC, Egypt was ruled by Alexander’s general Ptolemy and his descendents. Then, following the defeat of Cleopatra VII and Marcus Antonius by Octavian (later Augustus) at Actium in 31BC, Egypt became part of the Roman Empire. Both Greeks and Romans preserved much of the administrative machinery of the pharaonic state, and Egypt flourished once again. Indeed, it was the richest and perhaps most important province of the Roman Empire, and for a long time was the personal property of the emperor himself. Furthermore, Egyptian culture and religion proved very popular across the Graeco-Roman world. The Greeks and Romans even continued to build monuments in the formal Egyptian style until the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. In the end, it was the fanaticism of the Christians that fueled the final onslaught that swept away the culture of the pharaohs. The last hieroglyphic inscription was carved at the temple complex at Philae in the far south of Egypt in AD394. At that point, we can say that the civilisation that began in the Nile Valley in the fourth millennium BC finally ended. The Egypt of Late Antiquity and the Islamic Egypt of later times would be very different places.

Hi Rich, I came across your blog after reading your comments on Adrian's and found this wonderful post. I have to commend you on a job well done- you certainly know your stuff and I'm sure it wasn't easy to compress such a lengthy history into such a concise article. The only quibble I have is your emphasis on the low innundations as the cause of the failure of the Old Kingdom, as this was likely only one of the factors, about which we are still unclear. The undermining of the state due to the decentralization of the administration and the ineffectual reign of Pepi II during the later part of his 94-year reign were probably even more responsible for the decline. Thanks again for a great read- I'm going to post a link to this on the Egyptology blog I just started.

Well, just after I make my comments about the decline of the Old Kingdom, more evidence comes along suggesting that the climate change and drought then was way more devastating than previously thought! So basically you're probably right! Though I'm still not sure how effective Pepi II would have been in his zimmerframe at 100...

I think that I first read about the role of climate change towards the end of the Old Kingdom in New Scientist, but now I can't find the article so I may be wrong. I suspect that the role of climate in the history of most civilisations has been underestimated. I seem to recall, for example, that an earlier change in climate across the eastern parts of northern Africa might have been responsible for concentrating pastoral populations in the Nile valley and so putting in place the conditions for the formation of states in the first place.

Having said that, I think most of the major transformations in the histories of states and civilisations have been caused by the interaction between multiple intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Arguments are then really about the relative weights accorded to these factors and their distribution along the spectrum from proximate to ultimate causes. In centralised, autocratic states the competence of the ruler is certainly a key factor in the effectiveness of response to perturbations. Long, weak reigns followed by succession crises are clearly not conducive to effective responses to internal or external problems. So I think we might both be right: the political difficulties caused by Pepi II's ineffectual dotage and the subsequent successional difficulties would have weakened the ability of the Old Kingdom state to deal with the issues caused by the changing climate, and if the nomarchs were more able to provide security to the people during the time of crisis then the state would have been torn apart.

The collapse of other states can be analysed along similar lines. The New Kingdom, for example, was subject to external pressures from the collapses of its neighbours and to global climate changes brought on by volcanic eruptions in Iceland. It's unfortunate that these stresses coincided with internal political developments that saw a series of old men come to power between the long reigns of Ramesses III, IX and XI (none of whom save the first were particularly effective). The troubles of the western Roman Empire under the hopeless Honorius provide another obvious example: would the western Empire have collapsed so rapidly if its emperor had been of the calibre of Augustus or Diocletian?

Hmm, just realized that I should probably post my reply here too for the continuity of the discussion:

Well, we're both right then. While a clear-cut answer looks good in a journal article, there are always multiple factors at work in any event, and when that event happened thousands of years ago it becomes practically impossible to pinpoint one single cause. You mention the 'weakened ability of the Old Kingdom state to deal with the issues caused by the changing climate' and the nomarchs representing an alternate source of security. All of these factors are actually what the nomarchs themselves mention in their tomb biographies. A number of them claim to have fed the people of their nome while the rest of the country was plunged in famine (e.g. Anktifi of Moalla:, or Ameni of Beni Hasan: Although they were never ones to skimp on the self-aggrandizement, perhaps for once we should actually take the nomarchs' word for what actually happened.

I think you're probably right though about the underestimation of the impact of climate on history. Detrimental environmental conditions can also be caused by human influence though. A prime example that springs to mind is the collapse of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Southern Levant. In the 7th millenium BC, there were major changes in settlement patterns with most sites being abandoned. Archaeologists have alternately suggested that it was caused by a decrease in rainfall, also reflected in pollen evidence, or a cultural degradation of the environment, in which human impact on the land resulted in erosion and deforestation. (Articles about this: and Either way, the culture was certainly a fascinating one- the products of their obsession with plaster, which may have caused their own downfall, were the extraordinary statues and plastered skulls found at Ain Ghazal (

WHERE DOES IT SAY THE CITY-STATES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

who was the first pharaoh to control all of egypt

That's a great piece of writing there. You've managed to cram all the salient factors into a very concise piece of work.

As an aside, I tried clicking the Smenkhkare link and got a bizarre 404 page not found message - is that your humour or has someone been fooling around with it?

who was second pharaoh of egypt?

my 1905 greats grandpa was in the old kingdom when it started

Wait it was actually 2095 greats but well write Richard

Leave a comment