Notes on the history of Egypt I

Zahi Hawass , Sunday 17 Sep 2023

In a two-part series, Zahi Hawass gives an outline history of ancient and modern Egypt similar to the one that can be seen at Cairo’s National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation.

Narmer Palette
Narmer Palette


I am more and more convinced that it is important to publish an outline of Egyptian history from pre-Dynastic until modern times. The new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in Old Cairo can also enrich the knowledge of all visitors on the history of Egypt.

For 3,000 years, Egypt was stable and prosperous under the rule, like in most ancient cultures, of a series of kings. The history of these three millennia has been divided by scholars into kingdoms, when the Two Lands of Egypt were united under a single native ruler, and intermediate periods, when the country was divided either between competing dynasties or due to foreign invasion.

Although there were many developments over this period in areas such as art, architecture, literature, and politics, there were also certain cultural constants during the Pharaonic era.

Daily life in ancient Egypt was structured around the daily rising and setting of the sun, with a calendar composed of 36 ten-day weeks and 10 four-week months. The 360-day calendar (with five extra days added between years) was divided into three seasons defined by the annual flooding of the Nile — Akher (flooding), Peret (growing) and Shemu (harvesting). This calendar was the framework for life in the Pharaonic era.

The Early Dynastic Period in Egypt consisted of the first and second dynasties and lasted from about 3000 to 2650 BCE. The art and architecture of the period already displayed the characteristic features that would define Egyptian culture for the following 3,000 years. In these objects we can see established the regalia of kingship, for example the hedjer (White Crown) of Upper Egypt. These early kings also wore the bull’s tail, associating themselves with the virility and strength of this powerful animal, a symbol of kingship that would be worn by their descendants and heirs.

The hieroglyphic system of writing was already developing during this period along lines that would lead to its classic form. A capital was founded in the north, at the site of innebu hedj (White Walls). Located near Cairo, this ancient city lies to the north of the important tombs of the first and second dynasties at Saqqara. The customs, conventions, and institutions established during the Early Dynastic Period would lay the foundations for the whole of the Pharaonic era.

Growing directly out of the traditions and stability established in the Early Dynastic Period, the Old Kingdom (third to eighth dynasties c. 2650 BCE onwards) saw the development for administrative and other purposes of the hieratic system of cursive hieroglyphs. It is fascinating to study the literature of this era, which includes myths, cautionary tales, autobiographies, and propagandistic texts.

The Middle Kingdom was an era of internationalism with abundant evidence of Egypt’s extensive diplomatic relationships with its neighbours. There are also battle texts and images attesting to less-peaceful interactions as well as written references that refer to a chain of defensive fortifications along the country’s northeastern border and archaeological remains of actual fortresses in Nubia, built to secure Egypt’s access to luxury goods from the south.

Toward the end of the 12th Dynasty, many people from Syria-Palestine settled in Egypt. Some had been brought as prisoners of war and others apparently immigrated voluntarily for economic reasons. In the Late Middle Kingdom, a group of invaders took over the north of Egypt ruling as hekau khasut (Greek Hyksos), the rulers of foreign lands in the ancient Egyptian language.

The native Egyptian kings were pushed south to Thebes, and the divided country entered its second Intermediate Period (mid-13th Dynasty to 17th Dynasty c. 1650-1550 BCE). At the same time the powerful kingdom of Kush with its capital at Kerma arose far to the south and Egypt lost its foothold in Nubia.

It was the princes of Thebes who reunited the country. They drove out the Hyksos, building the foundations for what would become an empire that at its height stretched from the Euphrates River in the north to the fourth Nile Cataract in the south. The New Kingdom (18th Dynasty to 20th Dynasty c. 1550-1100 BCE) was a period of great kings and noble achievements.

In the early 18th Dynasty, the powerful female Pharaoh Hatshepsut ruled as senior monarch alongside the young king Thutmose Ill who would later come into his own as the greatest of the warrior Pharaohs.

A century or so later, this dynasty gave birth to the hieratic Pharaoh Akhenaton and his golden son Tutankhamun. Art and architecture reached new heights funded by the booty from Egypt’s foreign wars that flowed into the royal treasury and the coffers of the principal state god Amun-Re.

During the later New Kingdom, the Two Lands were subjected to pressure from outside, as Egypt jockeyed for position with regional superpowers in a changing world. Climate change may have led to population movements, and Egypt found itself under attack from the Sea Peoples and the Hittite Empire.

Although great kings like Ramses I and Ramses III succeeded in defending the country, in 1100 BCE the New Kingdom fell into disunity and the third Intermediate Period began.

After a series of Libyan dynasties shared the rule of Egypt with each other and with the high priests of Amun-Re at Thebes, Nubian kings conquered Egypt, inaugurating the Late Period. These kings were in turn succeeded by the Assyrians and Persians, with native kings retaking the rule of Egypt for short times in between until finally Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and entered Egypt in the late fourth century BCE.


Alexander the Great was born in 356 BCE in Pella, capital of Macedonia, to king Philip II and his queen Olympia. From his childhood, Alexander showed great promise as a warrior and leader. After his father’s death, Alexander took the throne and continued his campaign against the Persians.

In 331 BCE, when he was only 26 years old, Alexander the Great defeated king Darius III and brought down the Persian Empire. As part of his military campaigns, his armies marched across Syria southward along the Levantine coast, and Alexander turned his attention to Egypt.

For centuries, Egypt had been struggling to shake off the yoke of Persian domination, and it had succeeded in doing so for short periods. But the Persians always came back, determined to hold onto this fertile and profitable province. In October of 332 BCE, Alexander crossed the borders of Egypt at Pelusium, where he set up a garrison and ordered his fleet to sail south to Memphis. He followed behind using the costal route to enter the Delta.

Only a month after his arrival in Egypt, Alexander was crowned as a Pharaoh. He received the double crown and assumed power over the Two Lands. As he did in all the territories that become parts of his Empire, Alexander respected the ancient gods and traditions, allowing the native Egyptians to continue practicing their religion. He even ordered restoration work to be carried out at some of Egypt’s major cult centres.

Alexander stayed in Memphis for several months before travelling back into the Delta to the Greek trading colony of Naukratis.

One of the attractions of Egypt for Alexander was its position on the Mediterranean coast, and he wanted to find an ideal location for a port city. He continued north and west until he reached the small town of Rhakotis, which sat beside the sea fronted by a natural harbour. Recognising the potential of this location, Alexander chose it for his new capital.

Once his new city of Alexandria had been founded, the conqueror marched west to Marsa Matrouh and beyond into Libya. He then turned south to follow the ancient caravan route through the Western Desert. Braving great dangers, including a major sandstorm, Alexander reached Siwa, where he went immediately to consult the oracle in the Temple of Amun.

The answers given by the oracle clearly pleased the king, who continued to consult the priests of Siwa during the remainder of his short life, always sending gifts along with his questions. After his visit to the oasis, Alexander returned to Memphis, where he led a great parade and made offerings to Zeus-Amun. He left Egypt in 331 BCE.

Only eight years later, Alexander was dead at the age of 32 in Babylon in what is now Iraq. At his death, his general Ptolemy, one of the governors of Egypt, seized the king’s embalmed body, which according to legend was placed in a golden anthropoid coffin nested inside a golden sarcophagus.

Many ancient traditions including ones held by the Egyptians stated that the person who officiated at the funeral of the dead king would succeed him. Thus, the person who buried Alexander would be the one to inherit his empire.

Ancient writers recorded that Alexander’s body was brought to Memphis in Egypt and laid to rest there. For the next 40 years, Alexander’s generals jockeyed for power. Eventually the great Empire that he had built was divided into four kingdoms, each led by one of his generals. By 305 BCE, Egypt was ruled by Ptolemy, who declared himself Pharaoh and reigned over Egypt as Ptolemy I Soter.


The Ptolemies followed Alexander’s lead by continuing to honour and worship the Egyptian gods, building temples and carrying out rituals in the traditional manner but also adding a new Hellenistic flavour in both art and architecture.

It is the Ptolemaic versions of some of Egypt’s great temples like at Dendera and Edfu that have survived into the modern era.

The early Ptolemaic kings were vigorous monarchs, maintaining a strong navy, sending out expeditions around the Mediterranean, and venturing as far afield as the Horn of Africa, if not beyond. They also took care to maintain a strong and stable economy within Egypt, developing agriculture in the Fayoum region and instituting a system of coinage.

Greek became the official language of the country, though the demotic script which was developed from hieratic writing remained in use. Alexandria became a centre of Hellenistic learning and culture.

By the reign of Ptolemy XII Auletes, the father of the famous Cleopatra VII, Rome had become the greatest power in the region, and the Ptolemies, whose resources had been weakened by a series of native rebellions, were already subservient to its might.

Cleopatra VII, who was not only beautiful but also intelligent and charismatic, used her political acumen to keep Egypt independent for another 20 years. She married the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, and after his death she married his heir-apparent Mark Antony. But in 30 BCE, both she and her lover lost the decisive Battle of Actium to Octavius. With her death, Egypt lost its independence and became a Roman province.


For the next four centuries, Egypt was a part of the Roman Empire, which valued it primarily as an agricultural resource.

The Romans continued to allow the Egyptians to worship their own gods, with the Roman emperors now representing themselves in the guise of divine Pharaohs. Many of the old temples remained open, and new temples were built using Roman adaptations of the Pharaonic style.

The internal administration of Egypt developed by the Ptolemies remained in use, at least for a while. In addition to agriculture, trade was an important part of the Egypto-Roman economy with glass, linen, and papyrus becoming key exports.

During this time, life for the average Egyptian was most likely very much the same as it had been during earlier periods. Greek continued to be spoken and used for writing texts, although Latin was also attested, and the demotic Egyptian script was still used in certain contexts.

In 115-117 CE, the Roman Emperor Trajan’s soldiers massacred the Jews of Alexandria, and in 139 CE the Romans put down a major rebellion with great difficulty. Egypt was taken from the Romans in 269 CE by queen Zenobia of Palmyra (Syria), who claimed to be related to Cleopatra VII.

The Roman Emperor Aurelian reclaimed the country only five years later in 274 CE.

The fourth century CE witnessed the continued decline of the once great Roman Empire and its division into western and eastern halves. From the year 365 onwards, Egypt fell under the sway of the Eastern Roman Empire, which was ruled from the city of Constantinople founded on the site of the older city of Byzantium.

Thus, Egypt entered its Byzantine Period known in Egypt as the Coptic Period.


Politically controlled by the Byzantine emperors, Egypt was for the next three centuries a Christian state. St Mark the Evangelist came to Egypt in 60 CE, founded a community near Alexandria at the site of Bucalis, and died as a martyr. For the next two centuries, Christianity in Egypt grew from strength to strength.

Alexandria was the seat of the senior bishopric of the country, as well as the second city of the Byzantine Empire. During the fourth century CE, many monastic communities were founded in Egypt.

Egyptian Christians faced an official ban by the Emperor Septimius Severus in 188 CE. With a brief respite during the reigns of Gallienus and his immediate successors (252-280 CE), Christianity continued to grow. However, the Persecution of Diocletian in 303 resulted in the torture and massacre of thousands of Christians.

The Coptic calendar officially begins with the ascension to the throne of Diocletian in 284, which is considered the beginning of the era of martyrdom. The persecutions ended in 313, when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian and granted Christians freedom of worship throughout the Roman Empire.

In 541, Christianity became not just the official but also the only religion of the Eastern Roman Empire, and the last of the ancient Egyptian temples, including of Isis at Philae and Amun at Siwa, were closed and their priesthoods disbanded forever.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: