Eras and Their Highlights
What were the hallmarks of ancient Egypt?
One of the world’s oldest civilizations, ancient Egypt developed about 3000 B.C., or 5,000 years ago, in the Nile River valley; it lasted until 332 B.C., when it was conquered by Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.). In that time, Egypt was ruled by 30 dynasties. Most of those dynasties fall into three kingdoms: Old Kingdom (during the third millennium B.C.), Middle Kingdom (early second millennium B.C.), and New Kingdom (mid-second millennium B.C.); the kingdoms were followed by intermediate periods, which were times of weakened government or foreign domination.
The First Dynasty was founded by Menes in 3110 B.C. after he united rival kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt under his rule and established the capital at Memphis (the present-day village of Mit Rahina, 14 miles south of Cairo, in northern Egypt). During the Old Kingdom commerce prospered and the arts flourished, as evidenced by the Great Pyramids at Giza (including the Great Sphinx), which were begun during the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2500 B.C.). The Old Kingdom was followed by a 258-year (intermediate) period of weak rulers and anarchy, which was ended when Amenemhet I rose to power in 1991 B.C., reunifying Egypt and beginning the Middle Kingdom. During the Middle Kingdom, Egypt launched imperialistic campaigns, expanding its territory and conquering Palestine and Syria in the east. About 1720 B.C., Semitic nomads entered Egypt and wrested power from the pharaohs, establishing the fifteenth through the seventeenth dynasties—a peaceful and prosperous period. But the Egyptians expelled this foreign influence (c. 1570) to establish the New Kingdom: the 200 years that followed were the height of Egyptian civilization, with the cities of Thebes and Memphis regarded as the political, commercial, and cultural centers of the known world.
Ancient Egyptians invented a calendar, created a form of hieroglyphic writing, and developed papyrus (paper made from the papyrus plant). Situated along the Nile and south of the Mediterranean Sea, Egyptians also produced early seagoing vessels. But it is their buildings for which this ancient group is renowned: In addition to the Great Pyramids at Giza, the impressive relics that have been discovered include those at Abu Simbel, where King Ramses II (c. 1250-? B.C.) had two temples built out of rock during his reign (1304–1237 B.C.); numerous ruins and tombs at Abydos; a complex of temples and shrines at Karnak (part of the site of ancient Thebes); and temples and other buildings at Luxor (also part of ancient Thebes).
During the last 700 years of ancient Egypt (c. 1085–332 B.C.), the kingdom increasingly came under foreign domination, which weakened it to the point that Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) was able to claim it without struggle in 332 B.C.