Ancient Egypt: An Overview of Its History
Introduction: 3,000 Years Is a Long Time
The remarkable 3000-year span of ancient Egypt makes it the equivalent of the time span between King David and our own day – and yet we tend to lump it all together in our minds as a single entity called “ancient Egypt.” To put this another way, we are now closer in time to the construction of Masada or Caesarea (about 2000 years) than King Herod was to those who constructed the Great Pyramids at Giza (c. 2500 B.C.E.).
Sources of Information about Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians compiled king lists, the most extensive of which is the Turin King List, now in the Museo Egizio (Turino), dated to the 19th Dynasty. The original must have contained the names of about 225 pharaohs, going back to the 1st Dynasty, though today only approximately 150 names are legible, given the very fragmentary state of this crucial papyrus document.
These king lists no doubt served the late Egyptian historian Manetho during the writing and compiling of his major work entitled Aegyptiaka, a history of his native land, written in Greek, most likely during the reign Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.E.). While Manetho’s original work is not extant, it is cited by a number of later historians, the earliest of whom is Josephus (c. 80 C.E.), so that we are able to reconstruct sufficient portions of the Aegyptiaka.
Division into Dynasties and Kingdoms
We are indebted to Manetho both for devising the system of dynasties and for numbering them. Dynasties represent kings who, generally speaking, are related to each other, thus, for example, all the members of the 12th Dynasty, most of the members of the 18th Dynasty, and certainly the first five pharaohs of the 19th Dynasty. The division of ancient Egyptian history into larger chunks, such as Kingdoms and Intermediate Periods, on the other hand, is the construct of modern scholars.
An Overview of Egyptian Dynastic History
Scholars divide the history of ancient Egypt into the following epochs (note that the dates for early periods are very approximate):
- Early Dynastic Period (Dynasties 1-2) (3000–2700 B.C.E.)
- Old Kingdom (Dynasties 3-6) (2700–2200 B.C.E.)
- First Intermediate Period (Dynasties 7-10) (2200–2000B.C.E.)
- Middle Kingdom (Dynasties 11-13) (2000-1700 B.C.E.)
- Second Intermediate Period (Dynasties 14-17) (1700-1550 B.C.E.)
- New Kingdom (Dynasties 18-20) (1550-1070 B.C.E.)
- Third Intermediate Period (Dynasties 21-25) (1070-670B.C.E.)
- Saite Period (Dynasty 26) (670-525 B.C.E.)
- Persian Rule (525-332 B.C.E.)
- Hellenistic Rule (332-30 B.C.E.)
- Roman Rule (30 B.C.E. – c. 300 C.E.)
In general, the Kingdoms represent times when all of Egypt was united under a single pharaoh, whereas during the Intermediate Periods frequently different pharaohs and even different dynasties ruled simultaneously over different parts of the country (with a typical division between Lower Egypt [in the north] and Upper Egypt [in the south]). Here are the main characteristics of four of these epochs.
Old Kingdom: The greatest accomplishment of the Old Kingdom was undoubtedly the construction of pyramids as royal tombs, the most famous of which are the Great Pyramids at Giza built during the 4th Dynasty.
Middle Kingdom: By contrast, the Middle Kingdom has left us little in the way of monumental architecture, but instead has provided us with the great literature of ancient Egypt. Tales such as Sinuhe and The Shipwrecked Sailor were composed during this period, with the former becoming a literary classic in later Egyptian periods (as known through multiple copies). Both stories provide us with the nostos (homecoming) motif, the same motif that dominates The Odyssey and indeed the Hexateuch (Torah + Joshua). In stories such as Sinuhe,The Shipwrecked Sailor, and The Odyssey, the title character leaves his homeland, spends years away, and then returns home in somewhat romantic fashion at story’s end.
Second Intermediate Period: The Second Intermediate Period includes most famously the Hyksos, foreign-born Semitic rulers who comprised the 15th Dynasty, centered in the eastern Delta. Many scholars associate the Pharaoh under whom Joseph served with one of the Hyksos kings, for it would make sense that a Semite such as Joseph could arise to high station in such a setting – though to my mind, this chronology does not work.
New Kingdom: The New Kingdom is comprised of three dynasties: the 18th with its capital at Thebes in the south, and the 19th and 20th with their capital in a series of proximate cities in the eastern Delta. This epoch experienced renewed monumental construction, as seen most famously in the Temple of Karnak and the Temple of Luxor, both at Thebes; the complex of structures on the east bank of the Nile across from Thebes (including various funerary temples, the Valley of the Kings, and the Valley of the Queens); and the Temple to Osiris at Abu Simbel in the far south.
Famous pharaohs from the 18th Dynasty include Hatshepsut, the greatest of all female rulers; Akhenaten, who promoted the idea of a single deity to be worshipped; and Tutankhamun, not particularly noteworthy in his own right, save for the fact that his luxurious tomb in the Valley of the Kings was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter in relatively intact condition.
The name that dominates the later New Kingdom period is Rameses, with eleven such pharaohs bridging the 19th and 20th Dynasties (two from the 19th, nine from the 20th). Of these, the most famous by far is Rameses II (1279-1213 B.C.E.), associated by most scholars, myself included, with the pharaoh who instituted the slavery of the Hebrews in Exodus. Also noteworthy is his son Merneptah (1213-1203 B.C.E.), whose famous victory stela includes the oldest extra-biblical reference (and the only such one in Egyptian annals) to Israel.
A Conservative Society
Ancient Egypt was a tenaciously conservative society, as witnessed by the fact that gods and goddesses who were worshipped in the Old Kingdom are still worshipped three millennia later, and by the fact that various religious texts persisted for centuries if not millennia.
For example, the goddess Isis is represented as the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus already in Old Kingdom texts; and the temple at Philae devoted to her was still operating in the 6th century C.E.., until it was closed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565 C.E.). In like fashion, a stable funerary tradition in ancient Egypt is revealed by the same or similar spells and passages appearing in the Pyramid Texts (Old Kingdom), Coffin Texts (Middle Kingdom), and the Book of the Dead (New Kingdom and Late Period).
This point is an important one to keep in mind when associating motifs that occur in the Bible with ancient Egyptian magic, religion, and literature. While it would be wonderful if all the parallels emerged from the New Kingdom period (the historical setting of the account of Israel in Egypt in my view), often the testimony from ancient Egypt comes from both earlier sources and later sources. The social and religious conservatism of ancient Egypt justifies using all this material in our elucidation of the biblical text.
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April 18, 2016
October 4, 2019
Professor Gary Rendsburg serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His Ph.D. and M.A. are from N.Y.U. Rendsburg is the author of seven books and about 190 articles; his most recent book is How the Bible Is Written.
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