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An Introduction to Pharaonic Egypt

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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

The Nile Valley in Egypt was home to one of the earliest and longest-surviving of ancient cultures. There can be few people for whom the very word does not conjure up images of sand, pyramids and golden headdresses. Yet this view of Egypt can in many ways be misleading. In reality, Egyptian culture changed greatly over this time, with both long periods of stability and longer periods of decline. This series of Entries will attempt to provide an overview of the politics and rulers of classical Egypt, from the dawn of civilisation to the end of the Pharaonic period.

Since Egyptian culture is older than most of the surrounding nations, its history is largely self-contained. Egyptian records give dates in terms of the year of a pharaoh's reign. Since we know how many years each pharaoh ruled for, Egyptologists have managed to piece together a comprehensive history of the Nile kingdoms. However, there is little to connect this history to that of the outside world. Only later on, as Egypt was invaded by foreign powers that themselves kept records, is it possible to firmly tie events to AD or BC dates.

Problems with Dating

As a consequence of this, any error in the dates of a single pharaoh will have a knock-on effect on the dates of all earlier reigns. Even among 'orthodox' historians, there is much disagreement on exact dates, with greater uncertainty for the earliest dates. This project has attempted to keep dates consistent wherever possible. Some sources give dates around 37 years more recent for the Old Kingdom, with the difference diminishing irregularly towards the New Kingdom, but there is no consensus on this. To add to the complexity, historian David Rohl has suggested that several Dynasties were ruling simultaneously during the Third Intermediate Period. If so, all dates up to that time would be 200 years later than given here (eg Narmer would have unified Upper and Lower Egypt in 2900 BC, not 3100 BC), although this idea has not gained widespread support among other historians.

In other words, it would be best not to wager large sums of money on the specific details of the dates given here.

Historical Sources

The primary source for names of pharaohs and the dates for which they ruled is the history of Manetho, written during the Ptolemaic period. Since this is a single, unsupported source, written millennia after the earliest events it describes, it must necessarily be treated with some caution. The Amarna period, for instance, is not recorded by Manetho, and although what archaeological evidence is available generally backs up Manetho's account, he is clearly not infallible. For instance, he claims the 11th Dynasty consisted of 16 kings, who reigned for 43 years. Contemporary inscriptions establish that this dynasty consisted of seven kings who ruled for a total of 143 years.

Many inscriptions giving lists of rulers are also known, and these are fitted into the framework provided by Manetho to attempt to gain a more accurate picture of when and where Egyptian rulers lived. It is universally assumed that a contemporary inscription will be more accurate than Manetho's account. None of this is made any simpler by the fact that Egyptian kings often had multiple names - or that Manetho seems unaware of this.

Another important source is the papyrus scroll known as the Turin King List. Although fragmentary and often full of myths, this probably dates from around the time of Ramses II and so is a valuable source of information.

For the most part, we can be reasonably confident about the lengths of reigns of most pharaohs - it is periods of overlap, interregnums or duplication of pharaohs (eg, where sources list one pharaoh twice under different names) that are likely to cause problems.

Other Caveats

This project will attempt to cover 3,000 years of history, and so will be necessarily brief. All dates are approximate and BC, unless otherwise noted, and refer to periods of rule for both individuals and dynasties.

Egyptian records frequently refer to a foreign tribe or town being conquered or destroyed. It is clear that this is often an exaggeration; the same foreign power turns up again a few years later, still independent and very much alive. It is clear that many pharaohs conducted raids simply to extort cash from their weaker neighbours, while others chose to conquer and subdue on a more permanent basis. It is often not clear from the Egyptian records which is the case.

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