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Brief History of Egypt

Brief History of Egypt: From Antiquity to the Present Day

The history of Egypt is a fascinating journey that spans millennia, characterized by its enduring legacy, remarkable achievements, and diverse cultural heritage. From antiquity to the present day, Egypt has captivated the imagination of people from all over the world. In fact, Egypt is often considered the world’s first tourist destination, with Herodotus being the first recorded tourist in history. In the 5th century BC, this Greek philosopher wrote that “nowhere else are there so many wonders nor such great feats of indescribable grandeur.”

On this page, we provide a brief history of Egypt to pique your interest and inspire you to follow in the footsteps of Herodotus by exploring the wonders of this ancient civilization and the cultural treasures of those who came after. Our agency is dedicated to helping you plan your trip in-depth, ensuring that you don’t miss a single detail.

Table of contents

Ancient Egypt in Remote Times

The history of Ancient Egypt dates back tens of thousands of years ago when the northeastern edge of the Sahara Desert was a lush savannah, teeming with vegetation and lakes. This is evidenced by prehistoric engravings found on the Gilf Kebir mountain plateau near the border with Libya in the 1930s. These schematic drawings, believed to be around 10,000 years old, depict animals typical of the region such as gazelles, ostriches, and giraffes. Surprisingly, the engravings also feature human figures swimming, an activity that is unimaginable today in that area, considering the nearest coast is over 600 km away!

Over time, this savannah dried up and became the world’s largest warm desert. The Bushmen in the area had to retreat to the Nile or to the different oases of this vast territory to find a suitable environment for agriculture. This marked the beginning of the Neolithic period of Egypt’s history and the start of the country’s civilization.

The Nile River was central to the development of Ancient Egypt, providing a source of water for agriculture, fishing, and transportation. The people of Ancient Egypt were skilled at producing quality textiles and ceramics, and organized themselves into nomes with two defined geographical entities: Upper and Lower Egypt, a distinction that persisted throughout all periods of Egyptian history and is still widely used today.

Ancient Egypt: A Unique and Fascinating Civilization

Until approximately 3100 BC, the benign conditions of the land (the floods of the Nile occurred periodically and the Delta was formed by seven branches of this river) and the advanced degree of development of Egyptian society led to the emergence of one of the most fascinating civilizations in human history, which still captivates the world today for its achievements… and its mysteries: Ancient Egypt. In addition, the hostile and vast deserts located on each side of the Nile represented an impassable natural barrier to external enemies, which was its best defense system. These are the so-called predynastic and protodynastic periods, the germ of what was to come.

But the turning point for the history of Egypt was carried out by King Narmer, about whom little information is available except for the very important Narmer Palette preserved in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This engraved slate plate shows a different scene on each face: on one, the king is presented with the crown of Lower Egypt, and on the other, with that of Upper Egypt. Therefore, the interpretation leaves no room for doubt: he was the architect of the first unification of the country, with both crowns on his head.

After the starting gun of King Narmer, who is associated with the mythical Menes, the history of Ancient Egypt truly begins, which experts have agreed to present in the following way: three periods of splendor, interspersed with periods of crisis and decline. And counting from Narmer, a list of about thirty dynasties has been compiled based on different archaeological findings.

This is the basic outline of this period of Egyptian history, with its reference or approximate dates. You can also consult the chronology of dynasties and epochs here:

  • Archaic Period (c. 3100-2686 BC)
  • Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC)
  • First Intermediate Period (2190-2055 BC)
  • Middle Kingdom (2050-1750 BC)
  • Second Intermediate Period (1650-1550 BC)
  • New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC)
  • Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 BC)
  • Late Period (664-332 BC)

Archaic Period, Old Kingdom (3100-2181 BC) and First Intermediate Period (2190-2055 BC)

The first major period in Ancient Egyptian history extends from the unification of Narmer around 3100 BCE to the end of the reign of Pepy II, around 2181 BCE. It spans from the First Dynasty to the Sixth Dynasty, including the Archaic Period, which culminated in Narmer’s unification and encompasses the first two dynasties. The capital was ultimately established in Memphis, a strategic location where Upper and Lower Egypt met, ideal for controlling both territories.

One of the most notable features of this period was the construction of large funerary pyramids, leading many to refer to it as the “era of the Pyramids”. The first was the stepped pyramid of Saqqara, the funerary complex of King Djoser, followed by over twenty more, with the most famous and perfect being those of Giza, dedicated to the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure.

The construction of the pyramids was not a random decision. It indicates the absolute divinization of the pharaoh and suggests a strongly centralized power in him, capable of bringing thousands of workers together for the construction of these funerary complexes, as well as other highly advanced architectural projects for the time.

However, from the last years of Pepy II’s reign (starting around 2190 BCE), the decline of the Old Kingdom is consummated as regional governors of the nomes (nomarchs) expand their power and influence, leading to a period of decentralization and shifting power to cities such as Herakleopolis and Thebes. This period of Egyptian history spans from the Seventh Dynasty to the Eleventh Dynasty (2055 BCE), a time that, despite everything, was a literary flourishing period.

Middle Kingdom (2050-1750 BCE) and Second Intermediate Period (1750-1550 BCE)

The Middle Kingdom is a relatively short period in Egyptian history, as it only extends from around 2050 BCE to 1750 BCE, from the end of the Twelfth Dynasty to the Fourteenth Dynasty. In this period, Mentuhotep II is the great architect of a new reunification, this time with Thebes as the hegemonic city and consolidating the center of power in Upper Egypt.

It is a time of economic prosperity, exemplified by complex and ambitious projects such as the irrigation system in the Fayum Oasis. There is also a certain change in beliefs: the cult of the god Amun is now the most important, displacing others that were more popular previously, such as Montu, Osiris, and Horus.

The end of this period of Egyptian history is caused by the Hyksos of the Near East and the Libyans, first through waves of migration (around 1800 BCE) and later through the military invasion of virtually the entire Egyptian territory, thanks to the use of more sophisticated battle techniques. The Hyksos rulers, who governed from Avaris in the Nile Delta, formed the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Dynasties, but Egyptian leaders in Thebes (the Seventeenth Dynasty, which only ruled in this city) proclaimed a sort of liberation war, which they won around 1550 BCE, ending the foreign domination of the Hyksos.

New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE) and Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 BCE)

The New Kingdom, the last and most glorious period of Ancient Egyptian history, began with the XVIII dynasty around 1550 BCE and continued until the XX dynasty. It was a time of great military prowess, with pharaohs serving as warrior commanders. The religious and burial center once again shifted to Thebes, except for a brief period when it was moved to Akhetaton (Amarna) under the reign of Amenophis IV (also known as Amenhotep IV or Akhenaten) with the support of the famous queen Nefertiti.

This military strength allowed for significant external expansion, reaching the Euphrates in the east and dominating Upper Nubia in the south. It also ensured solid defense against Hittite pressure (Battle of Kadesh), with periods of relative peace in between. Some of the most renowned pharaohs in Ancient Egyptian history, including Ramses II, Nefertari, Thutmose III, and Tutankhamun, reigned during this era.

The most revered god at this time was Amun-Ra, (with the exception of the period of Amenophis IV, who promoted the worship of the solar deity Aton), with some of the most spectacular temples in all of Ancient Egypt dedicated to him, such as the Karnak Temple in Thebes (now located near Luxor) and the Abu Simbel Temples in Lower Nubia. The wealth of this period is evident in the magnificent royal tombs and treasures offered by the Valley of the Kings, also located in Thebes.

The end of Ancient Egyptian history (around 1070 BC) was caused by foreign enemies who attacked and weakened Egypt’s borders, including Libyan Bedouins to the west, pirates of the ‘Sea Peoples’ in the Mediterranean, and Assyrians and Hittites to the northeast. Egypt’s wealth and resources were too tempting for emerging foreign powers, who sought to conquer the Delta and Nile Valley in the following centuries. However, internal factors such as royal corruption and social instability also contributed to Egypt’s decline.

This marked the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period, a time with different centers of power: dynasties in Lower Egypt (some of Libyan origin), ruling from Tanis, and others in Upper Egypt, ruling from Thebes. These were the XXI, XXII, XXIII, and XXIV dynasties (from around 1069 BC to 747 BC), which overlapped each other. The XXV dynasty, of Kushite (Nubian) origin, which conquered the country from beyond the Nile cataracts, is also considered a part of the Third Intermediate Period, although they were eventually forced to retreat by the powerful Assyrians.

The Late Period or Third Intermediate Period (664-332 BCE)

The Late Period or Third Intermediate Period (664-332 BCE) marked a shift from the grandeur of the previous eras in Egyptian history. Instead of being ruled by powerful pharaohs, Egypt was dominated by foreign rulers during this time.

However, the period did begin with a brief resurgence of Egyptian power under the 26th dynasty, which had a purely local character. They attempted to unify the country from their capital in Sais, giving rise to the name Saite dynasty.

Nevertheless, the administration of the country was often controlled by vassals of foreign governors, leading to a focus on the agricultural potential of the Delta region. Upper Egypt was relegated to a secondary position, leading to frequent social uprisings and a state of constant instability, with occasional local victories providing some degree of autonomy. On the religious front, some Egyptian deities were merged with foreign gods, indicating a certain cultural assimilation or subordination.

The Hellenistic Period of Egyptian History (332-30 BCE)

In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great, one of the most significant personalities in ancient history, arrived in Egypt. The country was then under the rule of the Persian Empire, which had been defeated in battles with Alexander’s Hellenic army. Alexander was welcomed as a savior, and he was proclaimed Pharaoh of Egypt, in addition to his other titles, such as King of Macedonia, Hegemon of Greece, King of Asia, and Great King of Media and Persia.

Although Alexander only stayed in Egypt for a short time, his influence was long-lasting. He consulted the oracle of Amun in Siwa, and he founded the city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. After his death in 323 BCE, his childhood friend and general, Ptolemy Lagos, established the Ptolemaic (or Lagid) dynasty, which ruled over Egypt for over three centuries.

Alexander the Great’s successors transformed Alexandria into a bustling metropolis, elevating Egypt’s status in the Mediterranean world. They also adopted and incorporated elements of Ancient Egyptian culture, including clothing, artistic styles, government structures, and religious traditions. As part of their efforts to showcase their cultural heritage, they initiated a massive plan to restore ancient temples and construct new ones. Many of these temples, such as those in Dendera, Edfu, and Kom Ombo, remain remarkably well-preserved to this day and are popular destinations for Nile tours.

However, internal power struggles weakened the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ultimately came to an end with the reign of Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator. Cleopatra has been the subject of countless works of literature, art, and film, and is often regarded as the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. Her reign marks the transition from the Hellenistic Period to the Roman Period of Egyptian history.

Roman Era of Egypt (31 BC - 395 AD)

During the mid-1st century BC, Ptolemy XII declared his children Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII as co-heirs to the throne. At this time, Egypt was already under the influence of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra’s struggle for the throne against her brother led her to meet Julius Caesar, who supported her claim and eventually became dictator of Rome. Caesar fathered a son with Cleopatra, Cesareon, before his assassination in Rome.

After Caesar’s death, Cleopatra continued to pursue a foreign and romantic policy to retain her power. She married Mark Antony, one of Rome’s new leaders, and had two children with him. However, Julius Caesar’s great-nephew, Octavian (later known as Augustus), aimed to consolidate all the power that Caesar had held. 

He declared war on Mark Antony and Cleopatra, defeating them in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC on Greek territory. The couple later committed suicide, and Cleopatra unsuccessfully tried to use her charms on Octavian. In a bid to end the Ptolemaic power once and for all, Octavian ordered Cesareon to be killed.

Thus began a new period in the history of Egypt, under Roman domination, as it became a province of the Empire that paid little attention to its cultural development. The Romans used the Nile Delta and Valley as a granary and little else, leaving hardly any architectural footprint in the country. However, this period brought relative peace and economic stability to Egypt.

One of the greatest legacies left by the Romans in the history of Egypt was the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century AD. Emperor Constantine I the Great promoted Christianity in 313 AD, and later Emperor Theodosius declared it as the official religion in 380 AD, prohibiting pagan cults and causing the religious temples of ancient Egypt to be closed.

This marked the definitive boost for the Copts, a word that literally means “Egyptian Christians.” They trace their roots back to the evangelization of the territory by St. Mark, who died in Alexandria in 68 AD, where he was the first bishop.

The Coptic Period under Byzantine Rule (395-639)

Two significant events in the history of the Roman Empire also marked a turning point for Egypt. The first was in 395 when the empire was divided into two after Emperor Theodosius’ death: the Western Empire with its capital in Rome, and the Eastern Empire with its capital in Constantinople, also known as Byzantium (now Istanbul). The second was in 476 when the Western Empire fell due to internal crises and barbarian invasions.

In this context, Egypt became definitively under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, which was the heir of the Roman Empire but increasingly different in its structures and traditions. During these two and a half centuries of Egyptian history, the culture of Ancient Egypt, including the language, gradually fell into oblivion and was replaced by the Coptic language, which was used in Christian liturgy.

Despite external threats and Christian theological disputes, there was a certain degree of peace and stability. The Monophysites believed that Christ had only one nature (the divine), while the Dyophysites believed in his duality (human and divine, but united in one being). This led to a key division that persists to this day: the former founded the Coptic Orthodox Church, while the latter founded the Orthodox Church of Alexandria. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the Coptic Catholic Church, a minority today, was founded.

During the Coptic period in Egypt, the emergence of Christian monasticism was one of the most notable aspects. This involved individuals adopting a solitary and ascetic life, and later becoming important saints for all of Christianity. Two major monasteries that arose during this period were the Monastery of Saint Anthony and the Monastery of Saint Paul in the Arabian Desert. The Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai is also worth mentioning, as it houses the relics of Catherine of Alexandria, although this martyr never resided there. Today, these monasteries are important pilgrimage destinations that Egipto Exclusivo can organize for you.

The Emergence of the Arabs (since 639)

In the midst of the religious divisions in Egypt, a new conquering force emerged that would ultimately shape the course of Egyptian history: the Arabs. Under the leadership of Umar ibn al-Khattab, who was the father-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and the second orthodox caliph, the Arabs introduced Islam in 639, which was the 17th year of the Hijra. They did so in a climate of religious tolerance, allowing Christian and Jewish religious practices to continue in exchange for special taxes.

Umayyads, Abbasids, and Fatimids

After the Arab conquest of Egypt, the country came under the dominion of the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus, who introduced the Sunni current. The dinar (or dirham) became the new currency, and the Arabic language gradually spread throughout society. A military camp called El Fustat was established in front of a Roman fortress on the Nile, which later became the nucleus of the future city of Cairo.

In 750 (128 from the Hegira), the Abbasid dynasty replaced the Umayyad rule, and they were known for being protectors of culture, commerce, and promoting greater religious tolerance. They controlled Egypt for just over two centuries and their domains extended from present-day Algeria in the west to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east.

But by the late 10th century, the Fatimid caliphate, originating from the Maghreb, represented a break with its predecessors: they conquered the country and ushered in a new period of Egypt’s history. They definitively founded Cairo, a location with a revealing name (it means “The Victorious” in Arabic), on the old permanent camp at the confluence of Upper and Lower Egypt.

As Shiites, they maintained a policy of religious tolerance, even allowing Christians, Jews, and Sunnis to reach positions of responsibility in the administration if they deserved it. Caliph Al-Hakim built the great mosque that bears his name, and the city of Cairo was filled with squares, palaces, and other ambitious constructions. At its height (early 11th century), this caliphate dominated from the Maghreb in the west to Syria in the east. Cairo was its capital and had already surpassed Baghdad, the center of power of the Abbasid caliphate.

Saladin, Mamluks, and Ottomans

At the end of the 12th century, the last Fatimid caliph died, marking the beginning of another important stage in Egypt’s history. Power effectively fell to Saladin (Al-Nasir Salah ad-Din), a military man from Iraq who came to restore order after the Fatimid caliphate’s decline. He restored Egypt to the Abbasid caliphate, re-established the Sunni branch of Islam, modernized local administration, reformed the army, lowered taxes, expanded borders, and launched a construction program whose best example is the Citadel of Cairo. Saladin ruled as the sultan of Egypt, and his fame, respect, and even fear reached all corners of the known world, including Europe.

After Saladin’s death, the country continued to be led by the warrior caste, the Mamluks, who were originally slaves (their name means “the one who has a master”) but could gain their freedom through military service and prosper in society. They reached the pinnacle of power, expanding Egypt’s territorial boundaries even further and subjugating their neighbors. Their domains extended as far north as Turkey, guaranteeing Egypt a privileged position as an intermediary in the international spice trade.

This led to one of the most prosperous periods in Egypt’s history, from which Cairo benefited greatly. Palaces and mosques were built with no expense spared, often using colorful marbles and stones. Welfare buildings, such as hospitals, and educational centers, such as Quranic schools, were also constructed. However, there was also a dark side: it was a time of internal struggles and extreme cruelty, especially during successions.

The Ottoman Empire took advantage of this and took Cairo in 1516, relegating the country to a secondary province. The reason for this can be found in two momentous events in world history, which also had consequences for the history of Egypt: the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the sea route to India by Vasco de Gama. The impact of both events meant that Egypt was no longer relevant as a mediator in trade between East and West, so the country withdrew into itself for several centuries.

From Napoleon to the British: Egypt in the 19th century

At the end of the 18th century, Egypt was still in a state of lethargy, with the recently restored Mamluks in power but without any weight in the international political arena. However, this changed when Napoleon set his sights on Egypt in 1798, eager to become a modern-day Alexander the Great. His army campaigned in Egypt and Syria, and while he won the Battle of the Pyramids against the Mamluks, he lost to the British in the Battle of the Nile.

Napoleon’s adventure lasted only three years and could be considered a military failure for not achieving his goal of expanding into these lands. However, it did yield results in terms of image, showing the world, and particularly its British enemies, the ambition of the “emperor of the French.” 

According to historians, the great legacy of Napoleon’s adventure was the resurgence of interest in Ancient Egypt, thanks to the descriptive texts of the scholars who accompanied the French army on this expedition. This led to the birth of Egyptology, which still fuels many of the tourist trips organized to this country.

Another character who encouraged the increase of international interest in the history of Egypt and its monuments was Sultan Mehmet Ali. He promoted trips to the country for scholars and members of the wealthy Western classes, and turned the remains of Ancient Egypt into a real tourist attraction. At the political level, he ruled for practically the entire first half of the 19th century, even confronting the Ottoman Empire, which recognized him in power.

His successors maintained this open policy towards foreigners, almost to the point of subservience. The best example was the construction of the Suez Canal, a milestone for maritime trade that connected the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. However, its most immediate result was the bankruptcy of the Egyptian economy, benefiting France and especially Great Britain, a power that increased its influence until it turned the country into a British protectorate.

Egypt in the 20th Century: Nasser and Today

At the start of the 20th century, Egypt was still under British influence, which continued during World War I. However, after the war, the British agreed to grant independence to Egypt, which adopted a constitutional monarchy form of government. 

Despite this, the UK retained significant influence in the country, which served as a base during World War II when Egypt became a battlefield, particularly at El Alamein on the Mediterranean coast. The British victory there halted the Nazi’s attempts to conquer the country and dominate oil fields in the Middle East.

The end of World War II did not bring peace to Egypt. Instead, it led to military conflicts with its new neighbor, the State of Israel. The Arab-Israeli War resulted in defeat for Egypt and a feeling of humiliation among the Egyptian people. This led to the abdication of the last Egyptian king (Faruk) and the rise of Gamal Abder Nasser, who became the first president of the Republic of Egypt, freed from British influence.

As president, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, angering the French, British, and Israelis, who all had interests in the infrastructure. The decision led to a military crisis that ended with Nasser solidifying his grip on power, achieving his main objective of maintaining the canal’s nationalization.

Despite Nasser’s efforts, he could not prevent Israel from occupying the Sinai Peninsula during the Six-Day War in 1967. However, the territory was later returned to Egypt in 1982 under the leadership of his successor, Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, as stipulated in the Camp David Peace Accords, which were sponsored by the United States.

During his tenure, Nasser oversaw significant infrastructure projects, such as the construction of the Aswan Dam, which controlled the Nile River’s floods and led to the creation of Lake Nasser along the Sudanese border. However, his impact went beyond these accomplishments and was crucial not only for Egypt but also for its neighbors. Nasser’s influence transcended borders and became the driving force behind pan-Arabism, an ideology aimed at uniting Arab peoples and states.

Since then, Egypt has continued to play a central role in the Arab world, acting as a necessary bridge between Africa, the Middle East, and the West. This role is supported by its strategic location, cultural traditions, and strong relationships with other countries due to its significant international tourism.

In recent times, Egypt has been working towards greater transparency and modernization of its economy and institutions, driven by vocal demands from its citizens. One of the most significant examples of this was the protests at Tahrir Square in Cairo, which became the most visible mobilization of the Arab Spring from 2010 to 2012.

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