Egypt under the Fatimids, Mamluks, and Ottomans saw different administrative controls over the country. The Fatimids established a new Berber aristocracy in Egypt. The main wealth of the country, as always, was derived from peasant agriculture. Fatimid rulers granted Berber aristocrats huge … Continue reading
Nubian concepts of kingship and religion spread northward to the Nile Delta region (known as Lower Egypt) as the desert encroached ever closer to the river a significant part of a would be ancient Egypt. The navigability of the river from the delta to the first cataract allowed for easy communication and the expansion of political authority. Kingdoms along the Egyptian Nile merged until there were only two: Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. In about 3100 BC the two kingdoms were united by Narmer, king of Upper Egypt, who thus founded the earliest dynasty of Ancient Egypt. The old Nubian gods of the individual kingdoms became regional deities in a new polytheistic religion, and the creation of this regionally diverse religion helped cement the unification.
Egyptian unity prevailed for about 900 years. The first centuries saw a strengthening of central authority until, by the time of the Third Dynasty (about 2649 to 2575 bc); the king himself was recognized as a god. Egypt then entered the era referred to as the Old Kingdom (about 2575 to 2134 bc). Around the dawn of the Old Kingdom, Egyptians began constructing great burial pyramids for their kings. The Great Pyramid of Giza was built in about 2500 bc as a tomb for Khufu, the second king of the Fourth Dynasty (about 2575 to 2467 bc), and is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World that survives intact today. Its construction required the mobilization of a huge, rotating labor force. The scope of manpower involved may have been the reason why the pyramids of Khufu’s successors were never quite as big. Grand pyramid building ceased by the end of the Sixth Dynasty (about 2323 to 2151 bc).
Farm labor by peasants, who made up the vast majority of the Egyptian population, formed the economic basis of Ancient Egypt. The annual flooding of the Nile renewed the soils of the valley with fertile silts carried down from the far-off Ethiopian Highlands. As the annual flood receded, the farmers moved back onto the floodplain, digging irrigation canals and planting their crops in the rejuvenated soil. They grew wheat, barley, flax, vegetables, and fruit. Peasants also herded cattle and goats, fished for Nile perch, and hunted wild birds in the marshes.
Every aspect of the peasants’ labor was overseen by government scribes and tax collectors, who developed hieroglyphs, possibly the earliest form of writing in the world. All agricultural surpluses went to the state to support the king in luxury and to feed and clothe his huge army of government servants, artists, artisans, builders of pyramids and temples, priests, and guardians of religious shrines.
During most of the Old Kingdom, trade remained a monopoly of the state. During the Sixth Dynasty, however, wealth became more widespread among regional princes, merchants, and priests. Around 2200 BC northeast Africa experienced several decades of cooler, drier climate. The Nile failed to flood and Egypt suffered a devastating famine. Central authority collapsed and regional princes asserted their independence.
In about 2040 BC the kings of Thebes in Upper Egypt reestablished Egyptian unity and Egypt entered what is known as the Middle Kingdom (about 2040 to 1640 bc). In this period, Egyptian trade expanded down the Red Sea coast of Africa. This time, however, the trade was run by professional merchants, and the central government taxed the trade instead of running it as a royal monopoly. Middle Kingdom kings revived pyramid building, though on a much smaller scale.
In about 1640 BC Middle Kingdom unity was destroyed by an invasion of the Nile Delta region by invaders from the Middle East known as Hyksos. These foreigners, who introduced horses to Egypt, established a rival dynasty in the delta. In about 1550 bc Ahmose I, king of Upper Egypt, defeated the Hyksos and founded the 18th Dynasty (about 1550 to 1307 bc). In doing so, he reestablished Egyptian unity and Egypt entered an era called the New Kingdom (about 1550 to 1070 bc). For the first time, Egyptian kings maintained a standing army, and military conquest was used to build an Egyptian empire from Palestine and Syria in the north to the fourth cataract of the Nile, the heart of Nubia, in the south. Pyramid building was not revived, but massive statues and temples were built. Kings, now known as pharaohs, were buried in elaborately decorated tombs cut into solid rock in the Valley of the Kings across the river from the royal capital of Thebes.
Egypt’s power declined during the 20th Dynasty (about 1196 to 1070 bc). The New Kingdom Empire broke apart as Palestine and Nubia reclaimed their independence. There followed a succession of foreign invasions and rebellions by Libyan mercenaries. From this point on, native Egyptian dynasties were interspersed by Nubian, Assyrian, and Persian ones, until the last Egyptian dynasty (ancient Egypt) fell to Greece in 332 BC.