Become a fan of h2g2
An Introduction to Pharaonic Egypt | The Rise of Egypt | Rebuilding | From the Depths to the Heights | The Amarna Period | The Long, Slow Decline | Egyptian Mummies | Egyptian Pyramids | Egyptian Legends and Theology | Egyptian Gods
Egyptian civilisation rose from the murk of pre-writing Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures nearly ten millennia ago. Its rise to power was unprecedented at the time, and it may well have seemed to the early Egyptians that their nation had a divine destiny. Even prior to the 'Old Kingdom' and the building of the pyramids, Egypt was the mightiest military power on Earth. The continued growth from this point to the heights of the Fourth and Fifth dynasties is truly remarkable.
This entry will tell the story of the remarkable first flourishing of this unique civilisation. Although this covers the period when the pyramids, the most distinctively Egyptian monuments of all, were built, it is worth pointing out that this period of Egyptian culture had not developed several of the cultural ideas that we now associate with ancient Egypt, such as the use of profile in stylised temple engravings.
The first signs of humanity in the Nile Valley are of hunter-gatherers 250,000 years ago. At this point, the land was fertile and populated by African megafauna such as elephants and giraffes. Around 25,000 years ago, an extended period of drought and desertification forced the previously nomadic people to settle around water sources: the Nile and the oases. They developed some agriculture, although they seem to have remained primarily hunter-gatherers. Around 7000 BC, there are signs that cereal, sheep and goats were introduced from the Middle East, allowing some trade in wheat, flax, linen and livestock.
Slowly, recognisable cultures emerged. The three most significant were divided between two different areas. Like many early civilisations, they did not develop writing, so we do not know what they would have called themselves; instead, they are named after the locations where their relics were found.
The Badarian culture (c 4400 - 4000 BC), from the area around el-Badara, is recognised by its style of pottery and its carved bone and ivory. They also used turquoise and wood, which they obtained by trade.
Later - sometime around 4000 BC - the Naqada I culture arose. This was more sophisticated, with larger towns. Their pottery was of red clay, with zoomorphic1 depictions in black and white. They are notable for their basalt vases2, and may have had some Libyan influence.
The Naqada II culture arose later in the same area. For the first time, cultural differences started to appear between Upper and Lower Egypt. Southern (Upper) Egypt, consisting of the fertile areas in the Nile Valley, was ruled from Naqada, and represented by Seth and the White Crown. The capital of Upper Egypt later moved to Hierakonpolis. At the same time, Lower Egypt (the Nile Delta in the north) was ruled from Behdet and represented by Horus and the Red Crown. The Lower Egyptian capital was later moved to Buto. It was also during the Naqada II period that writing first appeared in Egypt.
Early Dynastic Period (3100 - 2686 BC)
It is very likely that there was a line of kings (sometimes referred to as Dynasty 0, Naqada III or the Protodynastic Period) from around 3100 - 2920 BC, with the First Dynasty being shortened appropriately. The most famous king in this line is known only from a depiction on a ceremonial mace-head, which represents his name with the hieroglyph for a scorpion. He is thus usually referred to as 'King Scorpion'. The mace-head seems to make symbolic references to his victories over Lower Egypt, so it is possible that he was the same individual as Menes. Menes is the first king on the list made 3,000 years later by Manetho, and given in that list as the man who united Upper and Lower Egypt.
The first unification of Upper and Lower Egypt was an event of quasi-mystical significance to later Egyptians. This was achieved by an individual or individuals variously referred to as Menes, Hor-aha or Narmer. The two crowns were combined to emphasise the pharaoh's rule over both kingdoms. Menes is said to have founded Memphis as his capital, before being killed by a hippo. It is likely that Menes - if he existed - was an Upper Egyptian. Surprisingly little is known of this event - we do not know whether it was military or peaceful, and cannot even be certain who achieved it or when. Some say Menes was Narmer; others that Menes completed the unification Narmer began; or that both Menes and Narmer inherited an already unified kingdom. Narmer is the first king of Egypt who we have a name for, and that only if he was distinct from Menes.
First Dynasty (3100 - 2890 BC)
The First Dynasty was probably founded by Menes. His successors, Djer and Den, made incursions into Sinai. Burial was in low buildings called mastabas (literally 'benches'), as pyramids were not yet being constructed.
Second Dynasty (2890 - 2686 BC)
The Second Dynasty was founded by Raneb (also known as Hotepsekhemwy). In what would become a familiar pattern in Egypt's long imperial history, the territorial gains of a few individuals would be eroded over the course of many subsequent reigns. Internal strife between the pharaohs and the nobles (nomarchs) led to the decline of Egyptian power. The last king of this dynasty was Khasekhum.
Old Kingdom (2686 - 2181 BC)
The first great flourishing of Egyptian power and culture is the least well known to archaeologists, but perversely the best known to tourists since, with pharaohs ruling from the capital at Memphis, this is when the best-known Pyramids were built. Egypt rapidly recovered from the slight stumble of the Second Dynasty, and its growth continued.
Third Dynasty (2686 - 2613 BC)
The Third Dynasty was founded by Djoser, who also built the step pyramid at Saqqara3. His vizier was Imhotep, the first named physician and architect in history, who was later worshipped as a deity. It is probable that Imhotep was the first human ever to produce a written or drawn plan of a building before constructing it. For this reason, he is sometimes referred to as 'the father of architecture', and it could be said that all modern buildings owe him some debt.
Fourth Dynasty (2613 - 2494 BC)
Sneferu4 built three pyramids, including the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, and invaded Nubia and Libya. Sneferu was the father of Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid at Giza, and the next two generations of pharaohs would build the other two Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. Trade with the Near East flourished during this period, and copper was mined in Nubia. The last king, Shepseskaf, died without issue. His queen, Khentkawes, ruled after him, and may have married a priest to found the Fifth Dynasty.
Fifth Dynasty (2494 - 2345 BC)
Userkhaf carried out reforms to decentralise power. Construction at sites such as Abu Gharib, Saqqara and Abu Sir was begun, though on a smaller scale than during the Fourth Dynasty. The nomarchs began to become more independent; combined with the ruinously expensive construction projects of the Fourth Dynasty and a massive drought from 2200 to 2150 BC, central authority in Egypt declined sharply. The last monarch of this Dynasty, Unas, introduced the idea of funerary texts in tombs.
Sixth Dynasty (2345 - 2181 BC)
Some count this as the first Dynasty of the next period, the First Intermediate Period. Although invasions of Nubia, Libya and Palestine continued, Egyptian power was now declining rapidly. Pepi II is said to have ruled for 94 years, from the ages of six to 100, making him the longest-ruling pharaoh.
By this point, Egyptian society was around a thousand years old, and appeared well past its prime. Although the country remained the undisputed regional superpower, it was about to enter the first of its major periods of decline.