Ancient Egypt

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Ancient Egypt was a civilization in the Lower Nile Valley extending from as far south as Jebel Barkal, Napata [1], northward to the Mediterranean Sea, though varying in size throughout its history between circa 3200 BC and 332 BC, ending with the conquest of Alexander the Great. As a civilization based on irrigation it is the quintessential example of a hydraulic empire.


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Map of Ancient Egypt

Most of the geography of Egypt is in North Africa, although the Sinai Peninsula is in Southwest Asia. The country has shorelines on the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea; it borders Libya to the west, Sudan to the south, and the Gaza Strip, Palestine and Israel to the east. Ancient Egypt was divided into two kingdoms, known as Upper and Lower Egypt. Somewhat counter-intuitively, Upper Egypt was in the south and Lower Egypt in the north, named according to the flow of the Nile. The Nile river flows northward from a southerly point to the Mediterranean rather than southward from a northerly point. The Nile river, around which much of the population of the country clusters, has been the lifeline for Egyptian culture since the Stone Age and Naqada cultures.

Two kingdoms formed Kemet ("the black land"), the name for the dark soil deposited by the Nile floodwaters. The desert was called Deshret ("the red land"), c.f. Herodotus: "Egypt is a land of black soil.... We know that Libya is a redder earth" (Histories, 2:12). But Herodotus also says, "the Colchians are Egyptians... on the fact that they are black-skinned and have wooly hair" (Histories Book 2:104), and Champollion the Younger (who deciphered the Rosetta Stone) in Expressions et Termes Particuliers ("Expression of Particular Terms") claimed that Kmt does not actually refer to the soil but to a negroid population in the sense of "Black Nation". The fact that the term referred to the soil and not the people, however, is the accepted belief among most professional Egyptologists, linguists and historians.


Main article: History of ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians themselves traced their origin to a land they called Punt, or "Ta Nteru" ("Land of the Gods"). Once commonly thought to be located on what is today the Somali coast, Punt now is thought to have been in either southern Sudan or Eritrea. The history of ancient Egypt proper starts with Egypt as a unified state, which occurred sometime around 3000 BC. Though archaeological evidence indicates a developed Egyptian society may have existed for a much longer period (see Predynastic Egypt).

Along the Nile, in 10th millennium BC, a grain-grinding culture using the earliest type of sickle blades had been replaced by another culture of hunters, fishers, and gathering peoples using stone tools. Evidence also indicates human habitation in the southwestern corner of Egypt, near the Sudan border, before 8000 BC. Climate changes and/or overgrazing around 8000 BC began to desiccate the pastoral lands of Egypt, eventually forming the Sahara (c.2500 BC), and early tribes naturally migrated to the Nile river where they developed a settled agricultural economy and more centralized society (see Nile: History). There is evidence of pastoralism and cultivation of cereals in the East Sahara in the 7th millennium BC. By 6000 BC ancient Egyptians in the southwestern corner of Egypt were herding cattle and constructing large buildings. Mortar (masonry) was in use by 4000 BC. The Predynastic Period continues through this time, variously held to begin with the Naqada culture. Some authorities however begin the Predynastic Period earlier, in the Lower Paleolithic (see Predynastic Egypt).

Egypt unified as a single state circa 3000 BC. Egyptian chronology involves assigning beginnings and endings to various dynasties beginning around this time. The conventional Egyptian chronology is the accepted developments during the 20th century, but do not include any of the major revision proposals that have also been made in that time. Even within a single work, often archeologists will offer several possible dates or even several whole chronologies as possibilities. Consequently, there may be discrepancies between dates shown here and in articles on particular rulers. Often there are also several possible spellings of the names. Typically, Egyptologists divide the history of pharaonic civilization using a schedule laid out first by Manetho's Aegyptaica.


Nomes were the subnational administrative divisions of Upper and Lower Egypt. The pharaoh was the ruler of these two kingdoms and headed the ancient Egyptian state structure. The pharaoh served as monarch, spiritual leader and commander-in-chief of both the army and navy. The pharaoh was supposed to be divine, a connection between men and gods. Below him in the government, were the viziers (one for Upper Egypt and one for Lower Egypt) and various officials. Under him on the religious side were the high priest and various other priests. Generally, the position was handed down from father to eldest son. Sometimes this rule was broken, and occasionally a woman assumed power. [2]


Main article: Egyptian language

The ancient Egyptians spoke an Afro-Asiatic language related to Chadic, Berber and Semitic languages. Records of the ancient Egyptian language have been dated to about 3200 BC. Scholars group the Egyptian language into six major chronological divisions:


For many years, the earliest known hieroglyphic inscription was the Narmer Palette, found during excavations at Hierakonpolis (modern Kawm al-Ahmar) in the 1890s, which has been dated to c.3200 BC. However recent archaeological findings reveal that symbols on Gerzean pottery, c.4000 BC, resemble the traditional hieroglyph forms [3]. Also in 1998 a German archeological team under Gunter Dreyer excavating at Abydos (modern Umm el-Qa'ab) uncovered tomb U-j, which belonged to a Predynastic ruler, and they recovered three hundred clay labels inscribed with proto-hieroglyphics dating to the Naqada IIIA period, circa 33rd century BC [4], [5].

Egyptologists refer to Egyptian writing as hieroglyphs, today standing as the world's earliest known writing system. The hieroglyphic script was partly syllabic, partly ideographic. Hieratic is a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphs and was first used during the First Dynasty (c. 2925 BC – c. 2775 BC). The term Demotic, in the context of Egypt, came to refer to both the script and the language that followed the Late Ancient Egyptian stage, i.e. from the Nubian 25th dynasty until its marginalization by the Greek Koine in the early centuries AD. After the conquest of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the Coptic language survived into the Middle Ages as the liturgical language of the Christian minority.

Beginning from around 2700 BC, Egyptians used pictograms to represent vocal sounds -- both vowel and consonant vocalizations (see Hieroglyph: Script). By 2000 BC, 26 pictograms were being used to represent 24 (known) main vocal sounds. The world's oldest known alphabet (c. 1800 BC) is only an abjad system and was derived from these uniliteral signs as well as other Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The hieroplyphic script finally fell out of use around the 4th century and began to be rediscovered after the 15th century (see Hieroglyphica).



The Egyptian religions, embodied in Egyptian mythology, were the succession of beliefs held by the people of Egypt, until the coming of Christianity and Islam. These were conducted by Egyptian priests or magicians, but the use of magic and spells is questioned. The religious nature of ancient Egyptian civilization influenced its contribution to the arts of the ancient world. Many of the great works of ancient Egypt depict gods, goddesses, and pharaohs, who were also considered divine. Ancient Egyptian art in general is characterized by the idea of order.

Evidence of mummies and pyramids outside ancient Egypt indicate reflections of ancient Egyptian belief values on other prehistoric cultures, transmitted in one way over the Silk Road.

Some scholars have speculated that Egypt's art pieces are sexually symbolic.

Ancient Egyptian peoples

Although analyzing the hair of ancient Egyptian mummies from the Late Middle Kingdom has revealed evidence of a stable diet [6], mummies from circa 3200 BC show signs of severe anemia and hemolitic disorders [7].

A few teams of European scientists reported that cocaine, hashish and nicotine have been found in the skin and hair of Egyptian mummies [8]. The results of these studies have been harshly criticized (e.g., ref. [9]) by mainstream scientists and Egyptologists as flawed and inaccurate.

Animals were valued in the Egyptian culture, including dogs and cats, as evidenced by mummified remains.

Ancient achievements

See Predynastic Egypt for inventions and other significant achievements in the Sahara region before the Protodynastic Period. For example the world's earliest known writing system dates to the predynastic era [10].

The art and science of engineering was present in Egypt, such as accurately determining the position of points and the distances between them (known as surveying). These skills were used to outline pyramid bases. The Egyptian pyramids took the geometric shape formed from a polygonal base and a point, called the apex, by triangular faces. Hydraulic Cement was first invented by the Egyptians. The Al Fayyum Irrigation (water works) was one of the main agricultural breadbaskets of the ancient world. There is evidence of ancient Egyptian pharaohs of the twelfth dynasty using the natural lake of the Fayyum as a reservoir to store surpluses of water for use during the dry seasons. From the time of the First dynasty or before, the Egyptians mined turquoise in Sinai Peninsula.

The earliest evidence (circa 1600 BC) of traditional empiricism is credited to Egypt, as evidenced by the Edwin Smith and Ebers papyri. The roots of the Scientific method may be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. The ancient Egyptians are also credited with devising the world's earliest known alphabet, decimal system [11] and complex mathematical formularizations, in the form of the Moscow and Rhind Mathematical Papyri. An awareness of the Golden ratio seems to be reflected in many constructions, such as the Egyptian pyramids.


See main article and timeline: Predynastic Egypt.


Open problems


There is a question as to the sophistication of ancient Egyptian technology, and there are several open problems concerning real and alleged ancient Egyptian achievements. Certain artifacts and records do not fit with conventional technological development systems. It is not known why there is no neat progression to an Egyptian Iron Age nor why the historical record shows the Egyptians taking so long to begin using iron. It is unknown how the Egyptians shaped and worked granite. The exact date the Egyptians started producing glass is debated.

Some question whether the Egyptians were capable of long distance navigation in their boats and when they become knowledgeable seamen. It is contentiously disputed as to whether or not the Egyptians had some understanding of electricity and if the Egyptians used engines or batteries. The relief at Dendera is interpreted in various ways by scholars. The topic of the Saqqara Bird is controversial, as is the extent of the Egyptians' understanding of aerodynamics. It is unknown for certain if the Egyptians had kites or gliders.

Beekeeping is known to have been particularly well developed in Egypt, as accounts are given by several Roman writers — Virgil, Gaius Julius Hyginus, Varro and Columella. It is unknown whether Egyptian beekeeping developed independently or as an import from Southern Asia.

See also

Further reading

External links

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