The 1,850 years of Egypt’s Predynastic era (5000 B.C.E.–3150 B.C.E.) were busy times of intense cultural and agricultural development, population growth, widespread settlement, and the adoption of hieroglyphic writing.
Egypt’s population was about 1 million by the time King Narmer united the “two lands” in 3100 B.C.E. The 375 years of the Early Dynastic Period (3000 B.C.E.–2625 B.C.E.) saw the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under strong central rule. During Dynasties 0 to 3 the capital city of Memphis was founded, and Egypt’s huge, bureaucratic government rapidly developed.
The Old Kingdom (2625 B.C.E.–2130 B.C.E.) was the age of the great pyramids. In statues of themselves, Old Kingdom rulers have a calm, god- like peacefulness. They knew they were assured of eternal life. They prob- ably did not care much about everyday, earthly matters or the troubles of the peasants.
They are portrayed speaking directly to the gods and thinking lofty thoughts. They did not hesitate to pour all Egypt’s resources into building lavish tombs for themselves. By the end of the Old Kingdom, Egypt’s population had grown to 2 million, mostly extremely poor peasants.
There was general unhappiness with increasingly expensive royal building projects. Powerful, wealthy local rulers started ignoring the king, and splintered Egypt into inde- pendent feudal provinces. Climate changes brought a disastrous series of low Niles, causing crop failures, widespread famine, and the miseries of the First Intermediate Period (2130 B.C.E.–1980 B.C.E.). For 150 years, Egypt suffered chaos, civil war, and famine.
The Middle Kingdom (1980 B.C.E.–1630 B.C.E.) was a glorious but restrained era of reform and cultural restoration. In statues of themselves, Middle Kingdom rulers have the worried, care-worn expressions of men facing many real-world problems. They were wealthy and powerful, but also hard workers, running a huge, unwieldy government. They saw what chaos and civil war can do to their country.
They did not want a repeat. For 350 years, Egypt enjoyed peace, prosperity, increased trade, and great practical achievements. The population grew to about 2.5 million. For the first time, Egypt had a middle class.
The Second Intermediate Period (1630 B.C.E.–1539 B.C.E.) brought Egypt’s worst nightmare: rule by foreigners. Another period of climate change and unstable Nile years brought crop failure, famine, and civil disorder. The Hyksos (“rulers of foreign lands”), foreigners of Semitic origin, took advantage and seized the throne, holding it for more than 100 years.
Because they were foreigners, the Hyksos were hated. But they brought much-needed fresh ideas and cultural innovations to Egypt. After a long, difficult power struggle, a group of princes from the city of Thebes drove the Hyksos from Egypt.
The New Kingdom (1539 B.C.E.–1075 B.C.E.) was Egypt’s imperial age. At its greatest extent, Egypt’s empire stretched from the fourth cataract of the Nile deep in Nubia all the way to the Euphrates River in Asia. Egypt was powerful and wealthy beyond compare—the world’s first superpower. The imperial pharaohs of the New Kingdom have proud, confident faces.
They owned the world. They thought extreme- ly highly of Egypt, and even more highly of themselves. No boast was too grand, no monument too large, no conquest too challenging for these mighty pharaohs. For more than 450 years, Egypt, now home to about 3 million people, was on top of the world. Gold, gifts, plunder, and tribute flowed in like the Nile floods.
But winds of change were blowing. During the 419 years of the Third Intermediate Period (1075 B.C.E.–664 B.C.E.) Egypt’s power weakened and, eventually, the empire came to an end. By around 1000 B.C.E., Egypt was just about bankrupt.
The country splintered into numerous small kingdoms and fiefdoms, constantly at war. Massive confusion reigned, enabling Egypt’s former colony, Nubia, to seize the throne, which it held for more than 100 years. During Egypt’s Late Period (664 B.C.E.–332 B.C.E.) outside influ- ences and invaders Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Macedonian Greeks dominated Egypt. A dynasty of merchant-kings, the Saites, fell to the Persian Cambyses in 525 B.C.E.
The First Persian Occupation (525 B.C.E.–405 B.C.E.) was an unhappy time. Egypt did not like being part of someone else’s empire. The Egyptians rebelled and won back their inde- pendence for 66 years. Nakhthoreb (also known as Nectanebo II), the last king of the Thirtieth Dynasty, who ruled from 362 B.C.E. to 343 B.C.E., was the last native Egyptian to rule Egypt for 2,300 years, until 1952.
The Second Persian Occupation (343 B.C.E.–332 B.C.E.) was brief and troubled. Egypt longed for a savior. In 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great drove the hated Persians from Egypt, beginning the Hellenistic (Greek) Pe- riod (332 B.C.E.–323 B.C.E.). The Egyptians considered Alexander a god— the son of their god Amun-Re. In founding the city of Alexandria, Alexander brought Egypt into the greater Mediterranean world. But Egypt’s ancient, native civilization was swiftly passing away.
The Ptolemaic Period (323 B.C.E.–30 B.C.E.) saw the end of ancient Egypt. The Ptolemies, ruling from Alexandria, were greatly influenced by the Greeks, and Greek and Egyptian culture began to blend. In 30 B.C.E., Queen Cleopatra VII committed suicide rather than face defeat by the Romans, and Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.
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