Ancient Egypt Civilization
By 5000 BC, the Neolithic people living along the Nile River in Egypt had learned to farm and to raise cattle. One of the first civilizations from around the world developed from this primitive culture.
This civilization, which developed in Egypt was called “the gift of the Nile.” This great river watered the land along its banks, and in flood time it overflowed and deposited fertile soil on the fields.
Because rain rarely falls in Egypt, water for drinking, bathing, and farming came almost entirely from the Nile. The farmers of ancient Egypt lived in one-story, mud-brick huts in villages along the river banks. The fields were hard and dry except in September when the river overflowed and flooded them with water carrying rich soil excellent for growing crops.
During the other seasons, farmers dug irrigation ditches to divert water from the Nile into their fields. The need to dig irrigation ditches, tend them, and construct dams for the benefit of all the farmers required group effort. Each group formed for these purposes had an administrator to direct the work and to make rules for the workmen to follow.
In time the administrator assumed greater authority over the farmers. He directed the work of planting and harvesting crops, and he decided whether to store or distribute crop surpluses. These early cooperative efforts, accompanied by the rise of an administrative class, probably made up the earliest form of local government in Egypt.
Because the farmers needed to keep track of the passage of time in order to plan for planting and harvesting, they counted the days between Nile floods. To determine the seasons in which to carry out their farming duties, they studied the paths of the sun, moon, and stars.
Their studies led to the development of a calendar which, it is believed, first came into use around 4000 BC The Egyptians noticed that on one day each year about flood time a bright star—now known as the Dog Star, Sirius— appeared in the eastern sky before sunrise. By counting the days between appearances of this star, they determined that the length of a year is 365 days. By dividing the year into twelve months, each consisting of thirty days, they developed their calendar, with five days added at the end of the year.
The calendar served the Egyptians well for their purposes, although the year is actually one-quarter day longer than 365 days. Eventually, the error in the calendar became obvious.
The development of irrigation, the rise of local governments, and the invention of a calendar took place between 5000 and 3100 BC During this period the Egyptians also developed a system of writing and discovered how to make copper tools. They invented the plow, which greatly increased crop production, and much later, around 2000 BC , they learned to make bronze by combining copper and tin.
Old Kingdom of Egypt (3100-2270 BC)
At first Egypt consisted simply of a number of independent, separate villages. In time, local rulers won control over nearby villages, and then over larger areas. By 3100 BC two distinct kingdoms had developed. To the north lay Lower Egypt, which included the city of Memphis and the Nile delta, an area of land deposits at the mouth of the river .
To the south lay Upper Egypt, which extended along the river valley southward from Memphis to Aswan .About 3100 BC, the ruler of Upper Egypt, King Menes, united Upper and Lower Egypt and established a single capital city, Memphis. The reign of King Menes marked the first time in history that a strong government ruled so large an area.
He also founded the first Egyptian dynasty, that is, the first series of Egyptian rulers belonging to the same family. With the unification of Egypt, one of the great periods of Egyptian civilization began. This period is called the Old Kingdom, and it lasted for over 800 years. During the period of the Old Kingdom, merchant ships sailed up and down the Nile, and expeditions left the Nile Valley to trade with peoples in other parts of Africa and the Mediterranean.
Artists carved’ fine statues, and workmen wove soft linen cloth and made pottery with the use of a potter’s wheel. Because Egyptians of the Old Kingdom did not know how to make bronze, they continued to use stone tools. However, they did make some implements from the copper that was mined in the Sinai Peninsula. As generations passed, a ruling class of nobles and princes emerged.
Perhaps because these nobles lived in large and luxurious houses, the Egyptian word pharaoh, which means “great house,” also became the word for king. The Pyramids were built during the Old Kingdom as tombs for the pharaohs. The largest, built at Giza for Pharaoh Cheops, is about 450 feet high and each of its four sides measures 756 feet across at the base.
It is said that the building of this pyramid required twenty years and 100 thousand men. The larger stone blocks weigh several tons each. To quarry, transport, and raise these massive blocks into place with almost no machinery was a remarkable engineering feat. Almost as amazing is the fact that so early a government had the ability to organize and carry out so complex a task.
Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2060-1785 BC)
Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, the power of the pharaohs declined. Civil war brought the collapse of the Old Kingdom, and for more than two hundred years rival leaders fought among themselves for wealth and power. The struggle was won by princes from the city of Thebes, on the upper Nile, who succeeded in uniting the country for the period known as the Middle Kingdom.
The princes from Thebes became the new pharaohs, and they made Egypt strong and prosperous. They encouraged art and literature and initiated new irrigation projects that greatly increased the crop area. Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom built a canal which linked the commercial centers of the Nile Valley with the trade routes of the Red Sea.
The strong dynasty that arose during the Middle Kingdom period was succeeded by a less capable one, which proved unable to maintain control of the country. The Middle Kingdom lapsed into civil war as rival leaders struggled for power. About 1680 b.c, while weak from internal disorder, Egypt was conquered by the barbaric Hyksos from Asia. The Hyksos, who are sometimes called the “Shepherd Kings,” ruled Egypt harshly for about 100 years. However, the Egyptians learned from them how to wage war with the horses and chariots which the Hyksos had introduced into Egypt. This knowledge proved useful to the Egyptians in the next period of their history.
New Kingdom of Egypt (1580-1085 BC )
Thebes again provided leaders for Egypt. The Thebans, with the aid of the princes of the south, drove the Hyksos out, thus restoring Egyptian rule to Egypt. This victory marked the beginning of the New Kingdom, or Empire. During this period the pharaohs created an empire, which extended Egyptian rule far beyond the Nile River Valley up into western Asia. The greatest pharaoh of the New Kingdom was Thutmose III, who ruled from
1501 to 1447 BC and who led Egyptian armies to victory over Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine. During this time increased trade and bootv from conquered countries enriched Egypt, and the capital, Thebes, became a city of statues, temples, and palaces.
By 1100 BC , Egypt had again grown weak through quarrels among its leaders, rebellion among its conquered peoples, and costly battles with foreign enemies. From 1085 to 332 BC , Egypt went through a period known as the Period of Decadence, during which the country was beset by civil war and a series of foreign invasions.
Two countries that conquered Egypt were Assyria and Persia (discussed later in this chapter). Following these conquests, Egypt was ruled by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and Britons. In fact, Egypt did not again become an independent nation until 1922.