No other country—not even China or India—has such a long unbroken history as Egypt. Nearly 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus, the Egyptians had reached a high stage of civilization. They lived under an orderly government; they carried on commerce in ships; they built great stone structures; and, most important of all, they had acquired the art of writing. Because they lived so long ago, the Egyptian people had to find out for themselves how to do many things that are easily done today. They adopted some inventions of the Sumerians but made more extensive use of them. In the Nile Valley the early development of the arts and crafts that formed the foundation of Western civilization can be traced.

The traveler along the Nile sees many majestic monuments that reveal the achievements of ancient Egypt. Most of these monuments are tombs and temples. The ancient Egyptians were very religious. They believed in a life after death—at first only for kings and nobles—if the body could be preserved. So they carefully embalmed the body and walled it up in a massive tomb. On the walls of the tomb they carved pictures and inscriptions. Some private tombs were decorated with paintings. They put into the tomb the person's statue and any objects they thought would be needed when the soul returned to the body. The hot sand and dry air of Egypt preserved many of these objects through the centuries. Thousands of them are now in museums all over the world. Together with written documents, they show how people lived in ancient Egypt.

The desert sands have also preserved the remains of prehistoric people. By their sides, in the burial pits, lie stone tools and weapons, carved figures, and decorated pottery. These artifacts help archaeologists and historians piece together the story of life in the Nile Valley centuries before the beginning of the historical period.

Prehistoric Era

Ages ago the land of Egypt was very different from what it is today. There was rain. There was no delta, and the sea extended far up the Nile Valley. The plateau on each side of the water was grassland. The people wandered over the plateau in search of game and fresh pastures and had no permanent home. They hunted with a crude stone hand ax and with a bow and arrow. Their arrows were made of chipped flint.

Very gradually the rains decreased and the grasslands dried up. The Nile began to deposit silt in the valley and to build up the delta. The animals went down to the valley. The hunters followed them and settled at the edge of the jungle that lined the river. In the Nile Valley the people's way of life underwent a great change. They settled down in more or less permanent homes and progressed from food gathering to food producing. They still hunted the elephant and hippopotamus and wild fowl, and they fished in the river. More and more, however, they relied for meat on the animals they bred—long-horned cattle, sheep, goats, and geese.

The early Egyptians learned that the vegetables and wild grain they gathered grew from seeds. When the Nile floodwater drained away, they dug up the ground with a wooden hoe, scattered seeds over the wet soil, and waited for the harvest. They cut the grain with a sharp-toothed flint sickle set in a straight wooden holder and then ground it between two flat millstones. The people raised emmer (wheat), barley, a few vegetables, and flax. From the grain they made bread and beer, and they spun and wove the flax for linen garments.

The first houses were round or oval, built over a hole in the ground. The walls were lumps of mud, and the roofs were matting. Later houses were rectangular, made of shaped bricks, with wooden frames for doors and windows—much like the houses the Egyptian farmers live in today. To work the lumber, the people used ground stone axheads and flint saws. Beautiful clay pottery was created, without the wheel, to hold food and drink. They fashioned ornaments of ivory, made beads and baskets, and carved in stone the figures of people and animals. They built ships that had oars, and they carried on trade with nearby countries. Instead of names, the ships had simple signs, probably indicating the home port. These signs were an early step in the invention of writing.

Good farmland was scarce. The desert came down close to the marshes that edged the river. To gain more land, the people rooted out the jungle, filled in marshes, and built mud walls to keep out floodwater. In time they engaged in large-scale irrigation work, digging canals that cut across miles of land. This required the cooperation of many people living in different places. Leaders became necessary to plan the work and direct the workers. Because of this need, orderly government arose.

Population and wealth grew with the increase in farmland. There was food enough to support a professional class, who worked at crafts instead of farming. Villages grew into towns. Large towns spread their rule over nearby villages and became states.

At the end of the prehistoric period, there were only two political units—Lower Egypt (the delta) and Upper Egypt (the valley). Later, when Egypt was united, the people still called it the Two Lands, and the king of all Egypt wore a double crown combining the white crown of the south with the red crown of the north.

Before the prehistoric period ended, the Egyptians were stimulated by their contact with people who lived in a Mesopotamian river valley in Asia. These people were more advanced than the Egyptians in working metal, and they also had writing. Although this was probably the inspiration for Egyptian writing, the Egyptians did not take over the Mesopotamian script but developed a script of their own. This great invention brought Egypt abruptly to the threshold of history, for history begins with written records.


The beginnings of writing in Egypt go back to about 3100 BC, when the Two Lands became united in a single kingdom. According to tradition, it was Menes, a king of Upper Egypt, who brought about the union. He stands first in the long line of kings who ruled Egypt for about 3,000 years. Egyptian priests made lists of their kings, or pharaohs, and noted the most important events of their reigns. About 280 BC one of these priests, Manetho, grouped the pharaohs into 30 dynasties. (A dynasty is a succession of rulers of the same line of descent.) Modern historians group the dynasties into periods. The periods when Egyptian civilization flourished are the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. These are separated by periods of decline called the First Intermediate Period and the Second Intermediate Period. The final period of decline is called the Late Period.

The Old Kingdom

Little is known of Menes' successors until the reign of King Zoser, or Djoser, at the end of the 3rd dynasty. Zoser's capital was located at Memphis, on the Nile's west bank near the point where the Two Lands met. Imhotep, a master builder, erected Zoser's tomb, the step pyramid of Saqqara, on high ground overlooking the city. This monument—the first great building in the country made entirely of stone—marked the beginning of Egypt's most creative period, the Pyramid Age.

Later kings built their tombs in true pyramidal form. Each pyramid guarded the body of one king, housed in a chamber deep within the pile. The climax of pyramid building was reached in the three gigantic tombs erected for Kings Khufu (Cheops), Khafre, and Menkure at Giza (Gizeh). Near them in the sand lies the Great Sphinx, a stone lion with the head of King Khafre.

The Old Kingdom lasted about 500 years. It was an active, optimistic age, an age of peace and splendor. Art reached a brilliant flowering. Sculpture achieved a grandeur never later attained. The pharaoh kept a splendid court. The people worshiped him as a god on Earth, for they believed him to be the son of Ra, or Re, the great sun-god. They called him pr-'o (in the Bible, pharaoh), meaning "great house."

About 2200 BC the Old Kingdom came to an end. Nobles became independent and ruled as if they were kings. The country was split up into small warring states. Irrigation systems fell into disrepair. According to writers of the time: "The desert is spread throughout the land. The robbers are now in the possession of riches. Men sit in the bushes until the benighted traveler comes to . . . steal what is upon him." Thieves broke into the pyramids and robbed them of their treasures. The archaeologists of today can only imagine the splendid treasures they might have unearthed had thieves not stolen them first.

The Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom period began about 2050 BC. After a long struggle, the rulers of Thebes won out over their enemies and once again united Egypt into a single state. Thebes was then a little town on the Nile in Upper Egypt. In the New Kingdom it became one of the ancient world's greatest capitals.

The pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom constructed enormous irrigation works in the Faiym. Noting the annual heights of the Nile flood at Aswn, they laid plans to use the Nile water wisely. They sent trading ships up the Nile to Nubia and across the sea to Mediterranean lands. They got gold from Nubia and copper from the mines in Sinai. Construction of the most colossal temple of all time, the Temple of Amen (Amon) at El Karnak, was begun.

After two centuries of peace and prosperity, Egypt entered another dark age. About 1800 BC it fell for the first time to foreign invaders. Down from the north came the Hyksos, a barbarian people who used horses and chariots in combat and also had superior bows. The Egyptians, fighting on foot, were no match for them. The Hyksos occupied Lower Egypt, living in fortified camps behind great earthen walls; but they failed to conquer Upper Egypt. When the Egyptians had learned the new methods of warfare, the ruler Kamose began a successful war of liberation.

The New Kingdom

A new era dawned for Egypt after the Hyksos had been expelled. This period, the New Kingdom, was the age of empire. The once-peaceful Egyptians, having learned new techniques of warfare, embarked on foreign conquest on a large scale. The empire reached its peak under Thutmose III, one of the first great generals in history. He fought many campaigns in Asia and extended Egypt's rule to the Euphrates.

Slaves and tribute poured into Egypt from the conquered nations. The tribute was paid in goods, for the ancient world still did not have money. Wall paintings show people from Nubia, Babylonia, Syria, and Palestine bearing presents on their backs and bowing humbly before the pharaoh. The Egyptian rulers used their new wealth and slaves to repair the old temples and build new ones. Hatshepsut, Egypt's first great female leader, enlarged the great Temple of Amen at El Karnak. She also built her own beautiful temple at Deir el Bahri.

Amenhotep III built the wonderful temple at Luxor and put up the famous pair of colossal seated statues called the Colossi of Memnon. In the Middle Kingdom period, the pharaohs of Thebes had built modest brick pyramids for their tombs. In the New Kingdom period they broke with this tradition and began to hew tombs deep in the cliffs of an isolated valley west of Thebes. About 40 kings were buried in this Valley of the Tombs of the Kings.

In the last years of his reign Amenhotep III paid little attention to the empire. It was already decaying when his son Amenhotep IV came to the throne. This king was more interested in religion than in warfare. Even before his father's death, he began to promote a new religious doctrine. He wanted the people to give up all their old gods and worship only the radiant sun, which was then called Aten. He changed his name from Amenhotep ("Amen is satisfied") to Ikhnaton (Akhenaton) ("It is well with Aten"). He left Thebes and built a splendid new capital sacred to Aten at El Amarna in middle Egypt. Throughout the land he had the word "gods" and the name "Amen" removed from tombs and monuments.

Ikhnaton's idea of a single god gained no hold on the Egyptian people. His successor, Tutankhamen, moved the capital back to Thebes and restored the name of Amen on monuments. Tutankhamen is famous chiefly for his lavishly furnished tomb, discovered in 1922. Its treasures reveal the luxury of the most magnificent period of Egyptian history.

Half a century later Ramses II completed the gigantic hall at El Karnak and set up many statues of himself. He also had his name carved on monuments built by earlier rulers, so that he became better known than any other king. He regained part of Egypt's Asian empire. But the kings who followed him had to use the army to defend Egypt against invaders.

The Late Period

In the Late Period, the final decline of Egypt's power set in. The treasury had been drained by extensive building projects and by the army. Hungry workers had to resort to strikes to get their wages in grain. The central government weakened, and the country split up once more into small states.

About 730 BC, Ethiopian invaders entered Egypt and established a strong, new dynasty. However, they were unable to withstand an invasion from the north by the Assyrians. When Assyria's power waned, a new Egyptian dynasty reorganized the country. Persia conquered Egypt in 525 BC and held it until 404 BC. Three brief Egyptian dynasties followed, ending with the 30th, which fell to a second Persian conquest in 341 BC.

Postdynastic Periods

Persian rule lasted until Alexander the Great invaded Egypt in 332 BC. After Alexander's death, Ptolemy, one of his generals, seized the throne. The Ptolemys introduced Greek manners and ideas into Egypt. The city of Alexandria became the center of Greek civilization in the Near East.

The rule of Egypt by the Ptolemaic line ended with the beautiful Queen Cleopatra, who reigned first with her brother Ptolemy XIII, then with her brother Ptolemy XIV, and finally with Caesarion, her son by Julius Caesar.

In 30 BC Egypt was proclaimed a province of Rome.

After the Roman Empire was divided in half in the 4th century AD, Egypt was ruled from Constantinople by the Byzantine emperors. During this period most Egyptians were converted to Christianity. In the 7th century, Egypt fell to the Arabs. (Encyclopaedia Britannica Article)