Egypt’s ancient history

The Colossi of Memnon 568

Egypt’s ancient history

Ever since man first began recording his activities, Egypt has been somewhere that it is impossible to step without discovering something historical. About 5000 years ago Egypt was actually two entirely separate kingdoms, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, which were united for the first time around 3200 BCE by the first king of the first dynasty, Narmer (Menes). Zoser, of the third dynasty, built the Step Pyramid at Sakkara and in the fourth dynasty Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren) and Menkaure (Mycerinus) built the three pyramids and sphinx at Giza. By the end of this prolific period of pyramid building, the power of the king diminished, regional governors (‘nomarchs’), took control and then a great drought plagued the Nile Valley. The 6th dynasty ended the Old Kingdom and Egypt entered a period of total chaos and what many refer to as a ‘dark period’: the First Intermediate Period.

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For about 100 years there was complete and utter political chaos, Egypt was split into 2, with Kings of Upper Egypt and Kings of Lower Egypt. Eventually, Mentuhotep II reunited Egypt, at the start of the 11th dynasty, ushering in a new age of greatness: the Middle Kingdom.

But the 11th and 12th Dynasties, or the Middle Kingdom, only lasted for about 350 years. Sobekneferu was the last ruler of the 12th dynasty and when she died, heirless, the country was once again plunged into chaos. The Middle Kingdom slowly regressed into the Second Intermediate Period.

Once again Egypt became two, but this time the Kings of Lower Egypt were not Egyptian! Towards the end of the Middle Kingdom foreigners had started to slowly enter the Delta Region from the area we call the Levant, eventually claiming autonomy and setting up their own Royal Family with their own capital city. These incomes were known as the Hyksos and ruled the Delta Region from the Mediterranean coast to as far south as Cusae (near modern-day Asyut), from their capital city Avaris (modern-day Tell El Dab’a).

The rulers of Upper Egypt, in Thebes, were not happy about the country being divided and so, at the end of the Second Intermediate Period two kings successively tried to eject the Hyksos, Seqenenre Tao and Kamose, both of whom were unsuccessful and lost their lives in the process. But their successor, Ahmose I, did manage to eject the Hyksos from Egypt, reuniting the country once more and becoming the first king in the period that produced most of the ‘famous’ rulers of Egypt: the New Kingdom!

The one thing that the majority of the kings of the New Kingdom had in common, especially those in the 18th dynasty, was to ensure that the events in the Second Intermediate Period would not happen again. Egypt’s armies became larger and more powerful, incorporating inventions from the Hyksos and improving on them; such as the chariot and the composite bow. This led to Egypt expanding its borders more than ever before: southwards into Nubia (modern-day Sudan) and upwards through the Levant as far as the Euphrates River. Egypt was now a powerful empire, feared by almost all of its neighbours, leading to great rivalries, wars and peace treaties. Egyptian Kings were now Warrior Kings: Ahmose I, Hatshepsut (to a certain degree), Thutmose III, Seti I, Ramses II, and Ramses III.

This is also the age when many structures were built that the modern day tourist can see, especially visitors to Luxor! The Valley of the Kings contains the burial tombs of the New Kingdom kings, with their mortuary temples lining the road that leads from there to Medinet Habu, including the outstanding Temple of Hatshepsut! The Colossi of Memnon, once the grandiose entrance to the temple of Amenhotep III. Deir El Medina, the village that housed the workers, and their families, that built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and elsewhere throughout this region. The Temples of Luxor and Karnak; the latter being accredited to the New Kingdom even though the first construction here was done during the Middle Kingdom. It is also the age when some of the most spectacular and beautiful jewellery was created: the treasures of Tutankhamun speak for themselves!

And it was also the age when a very unusual, and famous, event took place! When Amenhotep III died, no one would have thought that his heir, Amenhotep IV, would change the system of religion, tear down temples devoted to the gods, ban said gods, and replace them all by a, up till then, hardly known and indiscrete deity called Aten: Akhenaten had arrived, along with his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. The capital was moved to a purpose-built city, known today as Armenia, but known to the ancients as Akhetaten. The reign of the so-called ‘heretic’ king only lasted for 17 years and his son, Tutankhamun, returning Egypt to the old ways with the old religion and gods.

But all great things come to an end and once more a golden age slowly started to regress. The 19th dynasty, known as the Ramesside period, started to become weaker after the death of Ramses III. By the time of the last Ramses, the XIth, the Priests of Amun at Thebes were basically running the country. Egypt now degenerated into the Third Intermediate Period.

Again there was a period, this time for about 400 years, of instability, political chaos, internal wars, and priests grabbing power. Egypt now experienced: Libyan Kings; Nubian Kings (who built pyramids for themselves in their homeland); invasion by the Assyrians; Sais becoming the capital city; and then, finally, the 25th dynasty ruled by the Persian king Cambyses.

Egypt was still being run from Sais, and so the 27th dynasty, the period immediately after Cambyses rule, became known as the Saite Period. But this dynasty was short-lived, only lasting about 150 years, when the Persians returned and took control of Egypt, only to lose control and regain it about 60 years later.

Towards the end of the Late Period a young Macedonian, Alexander the Great, was starting to forge an empire and when he arrived in Egypt, the Persian king simply handed over the country to him; without a fight. Thus started the period of Greek rule, leading to the continual, successive, 270-year reign of the Ptolemies, which in turn culminated in the rise and fall of Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra’s suicide, in 30BCE, ceded control of Egypt to the mighty Roman Empire. This period of rule by the Greeks and Romans is referred to as the Greco-Roman era/age/period.

After the fall of Rome, Egypt came under the control of the Byzantine Empire, remaining so until 641CE when Islam came to Egypt, where it has remained, right through to the modern day.

For the next 1157 years (641-1798) Egypt was under Arab rule (641-969), Fatimid rule (969-1171), Ayyubid rule (1171-1250), Mameluke rule (1250-1517), and Ottoman rule (1517-1867). During the time of the Ottomans, a French Emperor decided to add Egypt to his little empire … Napoleon Bonaparte. Though the French occupation only lasted for 4 years (1798-1801), they turned out to be very important years in the history of Egypt: or rather, Egypt’s history!

Napoleon brought with him, not just his army, but also an army of scientists, painters and artists. When he was with his fighting army, subduing the locals, his academic army travelled the length and breadth of the Nile Valley, painstakingly painting all they could see, as a modern-day tourist would do with a camera. Once they were back in Paris, these paintings were compiled into a series of publications called “Description de l’Égypte”, which had 23 Volumes in its first edition, and 37 volumes in its second edition. The reason they are so important to Egypt’s history is that they catalogue all ancient sites in Egypt and in many, many, instances are the only record available for some sites that have been since lost to age, earthquake, theft, reuse of materials, or just plain vandalism.

A very important discovery was made by a young soldier in Bonaparte’s army. Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard, an engineer, was puzzled why one of the stones in a wall of Fort Julien, near the town of Rashid, looked out of place. He removed the stone and saw that it contained 3 different scripts: ancient Greek, Demotic and … ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Taken by the British when they expelled the French in 1801, this artefact was the key ingredient for Jean-François Champollion understanding the ancient Egyptian language. Now in the British Museum in London, the Rosetta Stone is worth a lot more than its weight in gold.

After the expulsion of French, Egypt continued to be governed by the Ottomans, albeit under the guise of Mohammed Ali and his successors. From 1867 until 1914 this was known as the “Khedivate of Egypt”. This was never a strong type of leadership and Egypt became dependent on the UK and France to help the economy. After 1869, British troops were in Egypt to help protect the newly opened Suez Canal. In 1882, after Arabi Pasha had taken control of Egypt in a military coup, Britain attacked Arabi Pasha, on behalf of the deposed Khedivate Isma’il, giving control back to the Khedivate whilst remodelling the army in a British style.

In 1914, when the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and the “Central Powers”, Britain abolished the Khedivate by declaring that Egypt was now a Sultanate: Hussein Kamel took the title of Sultan on 19th December 1914.

Egypt under British control had officially started in 1882, after the removal of Arabi Pasha, and it was not intended to be long-term: Britain only wanted to help Egypt recover its political stability and to help with international controls. However, this changed with the onset of the First World War and the subsequent removal of the Ottoman Empire.

After the war, in 1919, there was a rebellion in Egypt known as the 1919 Revolution. This had started out as demonstrations against British rule and Egyptian independence, by both male AND female groups of protesters, but swiftly turned into uprisings. Continued attempts were made to restore the peace with many talks being held in the UK and Egypt, but to no avail: the UK declared martial law in Egypt in December 1921. This decree led to more demonstrations, which in turn led to violence. The UK Government was forced to appease the Egyptians and so, at the suggestion of Lord Allenby, the High Commissioner, Egyptian independence was unilaterally declared on 28 February 1922, abolishing the protectorate and establishing the Independent Kingdom of Egypt, with King Fuad becoming the first King of Egypt since ancient times.

Britain continued to dominate Egypt’s political life, however, and nurtured fiscal, administrative, and governmental reforms. Britain also kept control of the Canal Zone, Sudan, and Egypt’s external protection. After King Fuad’s death, in 1936, his successor, the sixteen-year-old King Farouk, signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which required all British troops to leave Egyptian soil, except for the Suez Canal, which was agreed to be evacuated by 1947.

British troops were based in Egypt during the Second World War, giving them a base for their operations throughout the Middle East. After the war the British withdrew all of their troops to the Suez Canal area, as per the treaty, but nationalist, anti-British feelings that had started during the war, continued to grow afterwards and a new Egyptian-Islamic bigotry and an Arabic racial animosity arose which led to tens of thousands of Jewish, Christian, and European people, and their property, becoming victims of a new type of terrorism. This terrorism was so intense that by 1952 most of the smaller of the independent businesses, the majority of the farms, and the owned properties of the Jewish, Christian, and European population were in ruins, with only the largest of the businesses managing to survive.

The revolution of 1952 forced King Farouk to resign, with his infant son, Ahmed-Fuad, becoming King Fuad II. Administration of the country was handed over to the “Free Officers Movement”, which was being run by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

King Fuad II’s reign was more a piece of fiction than a proper reign and it only lasted until 18th June 1953: less than one year! On that day the Free Officers Movement abolished the monarchy, declaring Egypt a republic. For the first time in over 2,500 years, Egypt was an independent nation, governed by Egyptians.

 

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