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First published: October 2000

Ancient Egypt: History

by Michael Sones

Egypt's First Dynasty began in 3100 B.C, and lasted until 2800 BC. During this time a pharaoh known as Menes united upper and lower Egypt, and he founded Egypt's capital city, the well known city of Memphis (not the one Elvis frequented). This city was strategically placed at the apex of the Nile Delta, and done so as the pharaoh wished to control both upper and lower Egypt as easily as possible. The Second Dynasty was from 2800-2700 BC. Old Kingdom Egypt lasted from 2700 until 2200 BC and was a period of relative stability.

The PyramidsThe Sinai Peninsula, and its resources of (mainly) copper and turquoise were exploited to the full, by the Egyptians as well as the Palestinians. Nearby to Memphis also lies Giza, home of some of Egypt's many pyramids, including the largest one which was built for the pharaoh Khufu. This was 480 metres high and contains over 3.2 million limestone bricks.

The papyrus plant, which grows near here, was used by the ancient Egyptians to make a material they used to write on. They would use the inside after it was cut into strips and merged together by severe beating with a hammer.

Towards the end of the Old Kingdom the control of the royals had greatly declined. This left Egypt in a state of utter turmoil until around 2055 B.C when a very wealthy family from Thebes took undisputed control over Egypt and it became settled and prosperous once again. The Middle Kingdom which lasted from 2050 to 1800 B.C. This decline in control didn't set Egypt permanently back however, and with this period began the use of the military by the new rulers. Forts were established to maintain order as they took control. One such example of one of these forts is Buhen, a great fortress that lay much further south than any Egyptian town in a deadly stretch of desert. This however, was just one of many strategically placed fortresses necessary to control the troublesome kingdom of Kush. These rulers (the Egyptian family) also began establishing links to west Asia and the Mediterranean.

During this time the Egyptians also began to use mummification, another of their 'trademark' customs. This was designed to preserve the body and involved (for the wealthy anyway) the removal of the brain via inserting a hook up the dead person's nostril and extracting it.Then all of the other organs (other than the heart) were removed and placed in canopic jars. The body was then cleaned with spices, and after a period of seventy days was wrapped in bandages and coated in resin, and then a ritual of prayer and incantation ensued.

Whilst women were rarely admitted to public office, they were employed as gardeners and weavers or could work in music, either singing or specialising in an instrument. Women's burials also seem to be very similar to those of men.

New Kingdom Egypt began in about 1550 B.C, and continued into about 1069 B.C. It began as the Theban pharaoh Ahmose the 1st, kicked out the Hyksos invaders, who had taken control of Egypt through violent invasion. After this a period of calmness would be kept and maintained for 500 years before Egypt was thrust into something of a revolution. During this period the great temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel would be constructed, as well as the seated statues named 'The Colossi of Memnon'. These new constructions were to greatly increase the wealth of Egypt during this time period, as well as their cultural standing.

Grave robbing (especially of royal tombs) was a very big problem around this time, and sometimes even kings would get involved. Eventually this became such a problem that in 1110 B.C the mayor of Thebes launched an investigation into it and found that organised gangs were raiding the tombs and dividing up the loot. Their sentences were passed to the king who usually sentenced them to death.

Tutankhamen's tomb is particularly renowned because it was not looted and contained great archaeological treasures. Among these great treasures can be found the death mask as well as well as his hunting chest. Firstly, the hunting chest was made of wood but crafted and made with extreme talent. It shows Tutankhamun sitting in a chair shooting deer and fish with a bow and arrow. The death mask, however, was made of pure gold and had been placed over his mummified head and shoulders. It had some blue stripes in it, and the eyes were made of obsidian and quartz. This acts as evidence of Egypt's wealth at the time, for whilst he may not have been greatly wealthy, his tomb was still bursting with riches.

Another famous pharaoh of this time was Rameses 2nd. He was A pendantfamous for his large empire that spanned Nubia (in Africa) as well as Syria (middle East). This period saw large clashes between Egypt and the empires of Western Asia, including the battle of Kadesh against the powerful Hittite empire. This battle was depicted on walls in a large number of his temples (this was probably due to their near victory). Egypt had phenomenal wealth at the time of his reign, and he was able to build many large monuments. Examples of these are: One at Abu Simbel (, Luxor, Memphis and Karnak. The temple at Abu Simbel was dedicated to his principal wife Nefertari, and represented the control of Egypt over Nubia. None of these, however, were the capital of Egypt, and at the time the capital was called Pi Ramesse, and was situated on the Eastern Delta.

This was an age that would also see the Egyptians having strong beliefs in various gods and deities. The Egyptians did not have one god or idol, they had many gods that y stood for different things. For example, a family would have usually two gods, and it would be believed that they would watch over the family and protect them from poor health and birth trouble. Then there were state gods, twoHorus examples being Horus and Isis. The local priests would often present offerings to the gods and would believe that they were keeping chaos at bay and the pharaoh and kingdom safe. Anyone who blasphemed or neglected his or her gods would be punished. Another thing that came about during this period of Egyptian civilisation was the 'Book of the Dead', which was a book that was originally written for the pharaoh but became very widely used. It contained over 200 spells and incantations that were designed to be said at a person's funeral to help them pass through the underworld unscathed. Whilst they were originally in only the pharaoh's book and inscribed on important figures tomb walls, they eventually were written down on papyrus or inscribed on amulets to be used by many people at all varieties of funeral.

Religion was obviously a very important part of Egyptian society and included everyone, people from every class, even those of the highest. They believed that as long as they worshipped gods divine order (or Maat) would be maintained. This put great pressure on anyone whom thought differently and they would be blamed and punished if anything was to go wrong for incorrect or no worship. Another reason for which the Egyptians were well known during this period was for their complex hieroglyphic alphabet. This comprised of about 1000 symbols (discovered so far), and was written in horizontal and vertical columns, from up to down and right to left. Hieroglyphs were basically pictures that would have meanings, much like sign language is today, except written down of course. Hardly anyone could write or understand these hieroglyphics, an estimated 1/200 of the population in fact were the only ones that could.

The Sphinx

The Sphinx

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