added by archaeologs The history of ancient Egypt is traditionally tied to a framework of 30 dynasties of kings, or pharaohs, who ruled over the country from the time of its unification into a single kingdom in about 3100 bc until its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 bc. This scheme, summarized below, is based upon the records of the historian Manetho who wrote in Greek during the 3rd century BC. The great wealth of ancient Egypt was based primarily upon the annual Nile flood which deposited fertile silts of high agricultural productivity: thus crop yields were sufficient to support a substantial population concentrated in the narrow Nile Valley. Secondly, control was exercised over valuable natural resources, and these were supplemented by extensive foreign trade. The pharaohs, of the 1st Dynasty are frequently depicted as conquerors, and it appears that unification of the kingdom was brought about by means of conflict. These political developments were accompanied by major growths in craftsmanship, industry and trade in raw materials. It has been claimed that these developments owed much to contact with Mesopotamia, and certainly some innovations may have been so derived, although there is no reason to suggest that the Egyptian statesystem itself was of foreign inspiration. The Egyptian state was headed by the divine ruler, the pharaoh, to whom the whole of its complex bureaucracy was ultimately resposible. In the earlier periods, the pharaoh’s position was strengthened by the appointment of members of the royal family as senior officials. The pharaoh was also the figurehead of the official religion, the personification of the sun god Ra, counterpart of Osiris, the god of the land of the dead. Preparation for life after death was of very great importance to the ancient Egyptians, as is shown by the complex and costly efforts made to protect the bodies of the dead by mummification and secure entombment. It is thus hardly surprising, but nevertheless unfortunate, that archaeological research has for many years tended to concentrate on the tombs of the dead rather than on the settlements of the living. The royal tombs in particular reflect the great wealth and concentration of resources, both human and material, at the pharaoh’s disposal,whether at the Old Kingdom pyramids at Giza or in the underground chambers of the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. In evaluating the technological achievements of the ancient Egyptians it is necessary to remember the limitations under which they worked. The wheel was unknown before the New Kingdom; the pyramids, for example, were built of stone blocks weighing over 2.5 tonnes which were presumably moved and erected with the aid of levers and rollers. Copper, bronze and gold were effectively the only metals used, for iron did not come into regular use before the 26th Dynasty in the 8th century bc. Much of our information about ancient Egyptian history comes from the records that were carefully maintained by the Egyptians themselves, notably by the priests who were regarded as the guardians of the state’s accumulated wisdom. Scenes of everyday life, at least for the upper classes of society, were often depicted on the walls of tombs. The political history, largely derived from written sources, has a detailed and, for the most part, precise chronology. After the Early Dynastic period, during which the unification of the Egyptian state was consolidated, the accession of the 3rd Dynasty in about 2700 bc marks the start of the first major period of prosperity, the Old Kingdom. Through patronage and the control of trade, power and wealth were effectively concentrated in the hands of the ruling dynasty. This is reflected most clearly in the scale at which resources and manpower were devoted to state works, notably to the construction of pyramids for the burial of deceased pharaohs. By later Old Kingdom times the pharaoh’s control over the state bureaucracy seems to have weakened, and the proportion of the state’s resources devoted to royal works was consequently diminished. This process may be seen reflected in the smaller size of the 5th Dynasty pyramids after those of the 4th Dynasty. Shortly after 2000 bc, following a period of contraction from the peak of Old Kingdom prosperity and wide-ranging trade, Egyptian political unity broke down for some 200 years during the First Intermediate period. Famine may have added to the general impoverishment of this time. Reunification under the 11th Dynasty heralded the Middle Kingdom, based at a new capital at Thebes. The new-found stability was short-lived, however, and during the 13th and 14th Dynasties there was a rapid succession of pharaohs as different factions competed for supremacy. Early in the resultant Second Intermediate period a group of invaders from Palestine, the so-called Hyksos rulers, took advantage of Egypt’s weakness and established themselves in Lower Egypt as the 15 th Dynasty in about 1670 bc. Increased frequency of trade-goods of Palestinian origin, particularly in the Nile Delta, indicates greater contact with southwest Asia during the period of Hyksos rule. Eventually, a dynasty (the 17th) from Thebes achieved the expulsion of the Hyksos rulers and the re-establishment of Egyptian unity and independence. From this base developed the greatest florescence of ancient Egyptian power and prosperity in the New Kingdom. Egyptian control was established over Nubia and substantial areas of the Near East, all governed by a complex imperial bureaucracy set up by the pharaoh Tuthmosis III. Egyptian trade ranged far and wide, even to the Land of Punt in eastern Africa. During the 18th Dynasty occurred the remarkable reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten who, from his new but short-lived capital at El-Amarna, attempted to impose monotheism in place of the traditional religion. Akhenaten’s successor was the young Tutankhamun, the only pharaoh whose grave, near Thebes, has survived virtually undisturbed and unrobbed to reveal the full richness and splendour which surrounded the New Kingdom rulers. From the 21st Dynasty onwards, Egypt’s cohesion once again broke down, and from the 11th to the 7th centuries bc Libyan, Asian and Nubian contenders vied with Egyptians for control of the state. The 25th Dynasty originated in Nubia and finally lost control of Egypt to an invasion from Assyria, after which ancient Egypt never regained its independence.
The Macmillan dictionary of archaeology, Ruth D. Whitehouse, 1983