Egyptian civilization is more than 5,000 years old and was established around the Nile valley, which featured access to water, good soil, and a mild climate. Ancient Egypt made great contributions to humanities in the fields of architecture, agriculture, economy, and politics. The pyramids of Egypt are landmarks attesting to the greatness of its civilization. Its topography made it subject to invasion by various groups such as the Hyksos, Nubians, Ethiopians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, French, and British.
Egypt's first dynasty dates back to 3100 B.C.E. The dynasty was able to hold against migration and invading armies, helped by natural barriers of deserts and sea. The easily navigated Nile River gave the central government access to the whole region. The entire river came under the control of the central government. The Egyptian rulers were considered divine protectors of natural forces, and their rule was based on the divine rights of kings and, therefore, merited obedience. Egypt began using a pictograph system of writing called hieroglyphics in about 3100 B.C.E., and it became essential to the administration of government. The time from 2686 to 2180 B.C.E. is called the Old Kingdom. The alphabetical system of writing in Egypt was developed later, in about 1900 B.C.E.
Egyptian religion at the time mingled hundreds of gods. New gods and doctrines were added, but when the Greeks conquered Egypt in 332 B.C.E., they accepted some of the Egyptian gods. Egyptians were known to believe in an afterlife for those deemed worthy by their gods. The Egyptian Book of the Dead contains many rituals to aid people to pass into the afterlife. For almost 3,000 years, Egyptians preserved the deceased bodies in a process called mummification.
In the Middle Kingdom (2140-1786 B.C.E.), Egypt reinstituted itself again as a dominant power through the rulers Mentuhetep II and his son Mentuhetep III, who encouraged worship of the sun god. During this era, Egypt expanded its control to Nubia and the Sudan in the south and into Palestine in the east.
The end of this period came at the hands of the Hyksos, who came from Palestine, because of their technological advancement over the Egyptians. The Hyksos were expelled by the Egyptians, and a new era from 1570 to 1085 B.C.E. followed, known as the New Kingdom. The new rulers of Egypt expanded their region, conquering Nubia and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Egyptians were able to cross the Euphrates River into Mesopotamia.
Another period of Ancient Egypt was the Amarna period, which spanned 1417-1352 B.C.E. and was known for its cultural achievement. The preserved “Amarna letters” are correspondence between the Egyptian ruler and the kings of Egypt, Babylonia, and the Hittites. During this time, the sun god Aten became an essential fixture in Egyptian religion, and other gods were excluded from being worshipped. Some argue that this idea was adopted by other religions elsewhere—to accept one god as monotheistic religions do. This practice was abandoned 50 years later, and Egypt's traditional polytheism returned, especially under the rule of Tutankhamen.
The kingdom was weakened after the death of Tutankhamen. Egypt fought to keep its expanded territories, such as Syria, Palestine, parts of Nubia, and much of the Arabian Desert. Because of invasions from the west and from the Mediterranean islands, the empire started losing its colonies. During 1085-332 B.C.E., Egypt was divided to the north and the south, each with a pharaoh. The southern kingdom of Kush in Nubia invaded Egypt, but its kings did not inhabit Egypt; they governed through their daughters, who acted as implicit kings.
Kush rule of Egypt did not last long because the Assyrians took it over from 664 to 535 B.C.E. The Assyrians left because their own nation was attacked by the Persians. A short-lived period of Egyptian rule followed, but the Persians conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E. A century later, Alexander the Great took control of Egypt—he was called a savior because he permitted Egypt to return to its cultural traditions of the pre-Persian period. Alexander the Great built Alexandria in Egypt when he conquered it in the 4th century B.C.E., making it the capital and the great city of the time. For many centuries, Alexandria became the center of art, science, and development.
When Alexander died, his generals took over his empire. Egypt was then ruled by Ptolemy I. Cleopatra was the last of ruler of this era. During this time, the Egyptian upper classes became part of the Hellenized society that subjugated the Mediterranean region.
From the time of the last pharaoh in the 6th century B.C.E. until modern independence in the 20th century, Egypt was ruled by foreigners. In the 1st century, Christianity reached Egypt, and in the 7th century, Islam approached it. Egyptians are joyful that their nation is mentioned in the holy Islamic book, the Koran. With Islam, Egypt became the heart of al-Azhar, the center of Islamic scholarship. After the arrival of Islam, Egypt continued to have a majority of Christian populations, especially Copts, whose language—a mix of ancient hieroglyphic and Greek languages—survived. With time and the Arabization and Islamization policy, Muslims became the majority of the population, speaking Arabic. The Fatimid dynasty, which was Shiite, ruled Egypt from 909 to 1171, and then the Sunni Ayubid dynasty followed, ruling Egypt from 1171 to 1250. Egypt developed during the Mamluk period (1252-1517) but declined with Ottoman rule, which lasted from 1617 until 1805.
With the emergence of the class system, Egyptians were clustered in a hierarchical system. When Egypt's civilization was recognized around 3000 B.C.E., the pharaoh was at the top and peasants and slaves were at the bottom. The powerful pharaoh was recognized as god on Earth, in charge of making laws and keeping order. Below the pharaoh was the vizier, acting as chief advisor and sometimes as the high priest, responsible for overseeing administration and official documents. Nobles were in charge of the regions of Egypt and were responsible for making local laws and keeping order. Priests mainly performed rituals and ceremonies in temples for gods rather than preaching to people. Below them was a class of scribes who were the only people able to read and write. These scribes kept records such as what was harvested and which soldiers served in the army.
Soldiers were responsible for defending Egypt, were permitted to share in treasures from enemies, and were rewarded with land. Craftsmen were skilled workers, and below them were the majority of peasants who worked the land of the pharaoh and nobles and were given housing, food, and clothing in return. Some farmers leased land and had to pay a percentage of their crop as rent. Slaves were at the bottom of the social structure (usually prisoners of war) and worked in mines or on building temples.
The core of Egyptian society was the nuclear family. Lineage was found through both the mother's and father's lines. Respect for one's parents formed the basis of morality. Egyptians were generally monogamous, and a major topic of their religion was fertility and breeding. Marriage was a social arrangement that controlled property. Legal texts indicate that each spouse maintained control of the property that he or she brought to the marriage. Egyptian women had greater freedom of choice and more equality under social and civil law than their contemporaries in Mesopotamia or even the women of the later Greek and Roman civilizations. A woman's right to initiate divorce was one of the ways in which her full legal rights were manifested. Women could serve on juries, testify in trials, or inherit real estate. Women of the peasant class worked alongside of men in the fields, but in higher classes, women were more likely to remain at home.
The great historian Herodotus attested to the status of women by stating, “Women attend markets and are employed in trade, while men stay at home and do the weaving! Men in Egypt carry loads on their head, women on their shoulder.”
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