Copyright © 2000 Zahi Hawass. All rights reserved.
The historical setting
The emergence of Egypt as home to one of the earliest civilizations was due to the bounty ofthe river Nile. Flowing north through its cliff-lined valley, the river was the country's natural highwayand chief source of water. Each year, in July, the waters rose to cover the land and deposit a layerof rich silt, ensuring the fertility of the coming year. When the inundation receded four monthslater crops such as emmer wheat, barley, beans and pulses, were sown, none of which needed furtherwatering. The harvest was gathered in the spring, and by the following summer, the land,parched and dry, was waiting for the next flood. Unusually low or high inundations could mean disaster,but normally the land produced more than enough to feed the population. Surpluses werestored for the future and for trade.
The Predynastic Period (5500-3100 BC)
Early settlements along the high ground at the edge of the valley and beside the Nile may have beenseasonal at first. Flint tools, domestic and wild animal bones and pottery speak of a simple farming andhunting economy. By 3500 BC settlements were large and permanent. Simple mud and reed structureshoused the living while the dead were buried in shallow pits with a few pots or in deep shafts lined withmud plaster or wood. The larger and better endowed graves denote a more stratified society with anemerging ruling class. Grave goods included flint knives, shell and stone ornaments and grindingpalettes, as well as pottery and stone vessels.
In the Eastern Desert copper and gold deposits were worked, and from these metals a variety ofartefacts were made both for the home market and for export, thus enriching certain communities.Imports included lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, Sumerian artefacts from Mesopotamia, and later, timberfrom Lebanon.
The Early Dynastic Period (3100-2686 BC)
As the wealthier tribes dominated the weaker ones, the whole valley gradually polarised into twokingdoms, the northern Delta (Lower Egypt) and the southern valley (Upper Egypt). The act of unificationcame in about 3000 BC when the south, under the legendary king Menes, overwhelmed thenorth and established the pattern of unified kingship which was to endure for the next three thousandyears. He created a new capital city later called Memphis, 24 kilometers south of modern Cairo,where the Nile emerges from its narrow valley and divides into different branches as it flows into thebroad, flat Delta plain.
The succession of kings who followed Menes were divided in antiquity into dynasties; these havebeen further grouped into periods of achievement and of decline. Of the Archaic Period little is knownapart from the archaeological record. Hieroglyphic texts, which first appear at that time, are mostly labelsor perfunctory descriptions. There are brief references to historical events, such as campaignsagainst the Nubians or the Libyans, but we have no details of the political history of this time.
The kings of Dynasties 1 and 2, regarded as powerful gods in their lifetimes, were still divine afterdeath and were buried at their ancestral funerary ground at Abydos in large multi-chambered tombs.In the central chamber their bodies were placed within wooden coffins, and each tomb was coveredwith a tumulus. Some of these tombs were surrounded by the graves of attendants who accompaniedtheir masters into the Afterlife. The kings' funerary palaces near the cultivation are impressively largemudbrick enclosures. At the Memphite burial ground of Saqqara, huge mastaba (bench) tombs werebuilt for the nobility along the escarpment, suggesting a well-organized controlling administration.
Gunter Dreyer, a German Egyptologist currently excavating the royal tombs of Dynasties 1 and 2 atUmm al-Qaab (Abydos), has discovered that writing was known to the Egyptians 150 years before theunification of the Nile Valley. In addition, the name of Djoser was found inside the tomb of his fatherKhasekhemwy, proving that Djoser was the founder of Dynasty 3. Dreyer also discovered that the Egyptiansmade human sacrifices during this period.
The Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC)
Dynasty 3 marks the beginning of one of the most dynamic periods. King Djoser (2667-2648 BC) seta new style of funerary monument, and, combining the funerary enclosure with the tomb, built a massivesix-stepped pyramid of stone, 60 meters high, dominating a complex of ceremonial courts andstructures. These were clearly intended for the use of the king in the Afterlife as none of them are functional,being merely ornate facades or narrow corridors added to solid rubble-filled cores.
His successors emulated this example but failed to finish their monuments, although the last king ofthis dynasty, Huni (2637-2613 BC), is credited with beginning the pyramid at Meidum which his successorcompleted as the first smooth-sided pyramid. Both the step and the true-sided pyramid seem tobe concrete images of the cosmological myth that all life came forth from the primeval mound. As thematrix of life, this mound was also seen as the means of rebirth, and it was therefore fitting that the king,the source of prosperity in this life, should be buried within a symbol of future life.
Pyramid building reached its apogee in Dynasty 4. During his long and active reign, Sneferu (2613-2589BC) built himself two pyramids at Dahshur. It was his son, Khufu (2589-2566 BC), benefiting no doubt fromthe experience of his predecessors, who erected the largest and most perfectly constructed pyramid, theGreat Pyramid at Giza. Until this century, this was the largest building in the old world, whose dimensions,precise orientation and meticulous masonry still astonish.
The straight rows of courtiers' tombs around the pyramideast for the king's relatives and west forthe nobilitysuggest a centralized and tightly controlled government, as well as an efficient andwealthy economy. The titles of the officials tell us of the organization which achieved these stupendousmonuments but nothing about the actual logistics of building them.
Next to the Great Pyramid Khufu's son, Khafre, built the second pyramid, only slightly smaller thanhis father's. His son, Menkaure, added the third, diminutive pyramid. All three pyramid complexes includeda mortuary temple, causeway, and valley temple, built from locally quarried limestone with casingsof finer Tura limestone or Aswan granite. In one of the nearby quarries at the foot of the desert escarpmenta knoll of rock was sculpted into the Sphinx, a figure with a lion's body and a king's head, whoguards the necropolis. A god in its own right, and later identified with Harmakhis, `Horus-on-the-Horizon,'it was worshipped in a small temple built in front of the forepaws.
Important discoveries have been made at Giza, among them the tombs of the pyramid builders locatedto the south of the Sphinx. A settlement has also been found under the villages near the pyramids,and a pair-statue of Rameses II made of red granite has been recently unearthed near the base of thesouth side of Menkaure's pyramid.
The pyramids of Dynasties 5 and 6 are poorly-built. At this time, columns of hieroglyphs first appearon the walls of chambers within the king's pyramid. These are religious texts designed to secure thenecessary powers for the king to pass into the Underworld as a powerful god.
In this period, sun-temples first appear, their chief feature being a squat, tower-like structure with apyramid-shape top. It seems that the nation's religious focus was shifting away from the cult of thedead and deified king to the sun cult of the god Re. Wonderful reliefs and life-like statues adorned theroyal monuments, including details of trading expeditions to Lebanon, Nubia, and Punt. Both the sun-templesand the pyramid complexes were endowed, theoretically in perpetuity, with large estates whoseproduce maintained the cults and supplied the revenue for the personnel employed. In effect, they becameimportant economic units, with extensive storerooms and workshops, redistributing much of theproduce of the country.
The king's family and court officials were usually buried near their monarch. The increasing size andcomplexity of these private tombs, with their wonderful scenes of everyday life, indicate that wealth andpower were gradually less concentrated solely in the family of the king. Reliefs become more detailedand biographical inscriptions record military and trading or mining expeditions in the north-east, inNubia and in the Eastern Desert. There is even an occasional hint of political conflicts or scandals withinthe government. Scenes of everyday life sculpted on the walls of tombs ensured a magical supply ofcommodities needed for the double or ka of the dead owner.
As the body was thought to be essential for the welfare of the spirit or ba, various precautions weretaken to ensure its survival. The dead were now mummified, a process of drying out the body and preservingit with unguents and oils before it was wrapped in linen bandages. In addition, statues of thedeceased were often included in wealthier tombs, to act as a substitute should anything happen to damagethe body. This practice gave rise to amazingly lifelike and beautiful portraits.
Twenty Old Kingdom blocks carved with delicate relief were recently found under thirty meters ofsand to the south of the causeway of Sahure. Perhaps the most evocative scene is that of a group of menbending in the direction of the pyramid. Courtiers and high officials, and men with their hands placedon their knees or raising their hands in a begging gesture, are also depicted. The latter are Bedouins,weakened by hunger. The inscription written above them reads, `pyramidion in three great halls.' Thisscene is a prototype for one found in the causeway of Unas at Saqqara which is often assumed to representa famine, even though a famine did not hit Egypt during the reign of Unas.
Two other tombs have also recently been found at Abu Sir. One, dating from Dynasty 26, belongedto Iuf-ka, who held the title `Director of the Palace,' while the other is that of Qar, the vizier of King PepiI. At Saqqara, the mummy and tomb of Tetiankhkem, a son of King Teti, have also been found.
The site of the capital of Egypt in the Archaic period, Ineb-hedj, the `White Wall,' has been locatedin the northern area of the Saqqara site. Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom, was situated at orvery close to the pyramid site, the king having built his palace near his mourtury temple. Since thewhole pyramid site was a national project, the capital would therefore be intimately associated with theking's building. This theory is supported by a reference in the Abu Sir Papyri that indicates that Djed-Kare-Isesilived in a palace near his pyramid. The discovery of the settlement at Giza also suggests thatthe administrative town was located near the palace and the pyramid.
Towards the end of the Old Kingdom, some of the nobles and provincial governors were buried inrock-cut tombs near their home towns, indicating a less strictly centralized government and the emergenceof provincial ruling families.
The First Intermediate Period (2181-2055 BC)
When the Memphite government collapsed at the end of Dynasty 6, it ushered in a century of famineand trouble. Perhaps it was the long reign of Pepi II (2278-2184 BC)over ninety years according to ancientsourcesthat weakened the reins of central government, or a series of low or destructively highNile floods, bringing famine. Large-scale buildings and works of art cease, and it is probable that thepyramids were entered and robbed at this time. It was not until the country was reunited under a newline of kings from the southern city of Thebes in Dynasty 11 that its former prosperity was regained underthe Middle Kingdom.
The Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC)
One of the first acts of the Middle Kingdom kings was to consolidate their hold on the country byestablishing a new royal residence and seat of government near Memphis, at Lisht. The precise locationof the new capital, Ititawi, is not known, but it probably lay very close to the pyramid of Amenemhat Iat Lisht. Here Amenemhat I, the first king of Dynasty 12, built his poorly preserved pyramid, usingblocks taken from the older pyramid complexes at Saqqara and Giza to enhance and sanctify his edifice.His son, Senwosret I (1965-1920 BC), followed suit and successive kings of this dynasty built theirmonuments at Dahshur, Lahun and Hawara, designed with elaborately hidden entrances and a maze offalse corridors and chambers to confuse tomb robbers. None of these pyramids has survived well. Builtwith time and labour-saving rubble or mudbrick cores, they collapsed when their white limestone facingwas robbed for re-use in later periods.
The warlike tribes in Nubia, which had caused havoc during the previous period, were subdued bythe powerful kings of Dynasty 12, and a line of massive mud-brick fortresses was built at the secondcataract to control the Nile route. Part of this activity was doubtless to secure the lucrative gold sourcesin Nubia, and the wealth thus obtained is visible in the prosperity of the period and in the material remains.The delicate sculptured reliefs and superb statues are equal to anything from the Old Kingdom.
Of political events only the outlines are known. It seems that the first ruler of Dynasty 12 was murderedwhile his son and co-ruler Senwosret I was on campaign, but the succession was not interrupted.The greatest Middle Kingdom ruler was Senwosret III (1874-1855 BC) who consolidated Egyptianauthority in Nubia and effected a change in the system of government at home whereby the power ofthe provincial families was curtailed. His son Amenemhat III (1855-1808 BC) sponsored a great landreclamation project in the Fayoum, where he built several monuments, including his pyramid, and waslater worshipped.
The Second Intermediate Period (1650-1550 BC)
Middle Kingdom prosperity was interrupted by a period of stagnation and fragmentation. The kingsof Dynasty 13 came and went with astonishing rapidity but the country seems to have been ruled effectivelyat first by a line of strong viziers. However, immigrants from the north-east known as the Hyksossettled in the Delta, bringing with them a new art of warfare using chariots and horses. They graduallyset up a separate kingdom in the eastern Delta region, fragmenting the country again andthreatening Egypt's security. At the same time Nubia broke away from its Egyptian overlords andformed a powerful independent kingdom in the south.
The New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC)
Once again, it was a family from Thebes who finally drove out the Asiatics from the Delta and reunitedEgypt. This marks the beginning of the New Kingdom, the period of the greatest expansion andprosperity of ancient Egypt.
The early years were spent in consolidating Egypt's frontiers. A succession of strong warrior kings,Ahmose (1550-1525 BC), Thutmose I (1504-1492 BC) and his grandson, Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC),campaigned in Syria-Palestine and subdued the fractious city-states there. A system of vassal-states wasorganized, paying handsome tribute to Egypt but essentially self-governing. At the border with Nubiathe old Middle Kingdom frontier at Semna was regained, and the boundary pushed even further south.Nubia was annexed and administered directly from Egypt; her gold resources were ruthlessly exploitedand Egypt grew prosperous on trade and tribute from north and south. Even the anomalous rule ofQueen Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC), who declared herself king against all traditions, saw extensive buildingand sea-borne trade with Punt.
The only major upheaval during this period was the radical religious change wrought by AmenhotepIV (1352-1336 BC), or Akhenaten as he called himself. This king chose to elevate the sun's disc, Aten, toa preeminent position as his personal god, and tried to eliminate the existing pantheon at least from theofficial religion. He did not succeed. Akhenaten's successors abandoned the new royal residence he hadbuilt at Amarna (Barry Kemp, excavating at Amarna, has been able to reconstruct the plan of the capitalof Akhenaten), and restored the traditional cults of the Egyptian pantheon, and with them the time-honoredbasis of the economy and culture of the land.
The new wealth is seen in the tremendous building activities of this period, especially in the expansionof the great national shrines, preeminent among which was the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak. Much ofthe booty of war and the tribute which followed was endowed to this temple, and the power and influenceof its priesthood grew. In fact, by the end of the period they challenged the authority of the king.
The kings chose to be buried, not in pyramids, but under a pyramid-shaped mountain in a remotevalley in Western Thebesthe Valley of the Kings. Their progressively grandiose mortuary templeslined the desert fringe overlooking the Nile valley. The one tomb that survived almost intact, that of Tutankhamun,displays the incredible wealth with which they were interred. Some of this wealth filtereddown to the nobility, as is clear from the range of beautifully decorated tombs which stud the hills behindThebes. These belong to the elite of an efficient civil service which lasted virtually unchanged forfive hundred years.
The tombs in the Valley of the Kings were excavated and decorated by a specialised workforceamongst whom were some of the finest sculptors and draughtsmen in Egypt. They lived with their familiesin the village known by its modern name of Deir al-Madina, located in a secluded desert valley atthe southern end of the Theban necropolis. The relative affluence of the inhabitants and the unusuallyhigh literacy of its menfolk, if not also its women, has resulted in the survival here of an extraordinaryamount of written material. The records from this village are one of the most important literary sourcesabout day-to-day life in ancient Egypt.
In Dynasties 19 and 20, kingship and the capital passed to families from the Delta, who moved thechief residence to the north, but continued to be buried in the south, at Thebes. Seti I (1294-1279 BC)followed in the tradition of Dynasty 18 rulers by undertaking an extensive building program, and militarycampaigns into Syria where the Hittites were threatening Egyptian interests.
His son, Rameses II (1279-1213 BC) so fulfilled the ideal of Egyptian kingship as a great warrior andstatesman and a prolific family man (he had approximately one hundred children) that his name wassynonymous with Kingship for generations. The most notable events of his long reign were the conflictsagainst the Hittites, eventually resolved by a peace treaty which was ratified by a diplomatic marriage tothe Hittite king's daughter.
Rameses II's heirs tried in vain to imitate his successes, but external events were against them. Movementsof landless peoples in the Eastern Mediterranean, the `Sea Peoples,' were disrupting trade andstability, and although their attacks against Egypt in the 13th and 12th centuries bc were unsuccessful,economically the country was in decline. By the end of the period there are references to civil unrest,incursions by desert raiders, fraud, and repeated tomb robbing. Outside Egypt, control over Syria-Palestinewas lost as the city-states were overrun and destroyed by newcomers. To the south, Nubiabroke away under the leadership of the former Egyptian viceroy.
The Third Intermediate Period (1069-747 BC)
The decline at the end of the New Kingdom foreshadowed the period of fragmentation, when theDelta was ruled by men of Libyan origin and the south became virtually independent under the HighPriests of Karnak. With the exception of Sheshonq I, who campaigned against the new kingdom of Israel,the Egyptian rulers confined their activities to home affairs. Most of this three hundred-year periodis marked by continual friction with the south and with rival dynasties in the Delta. Few new buildingsof this date have survived. As an indication of the legendary status of Rameses II, most of thebuildings at Tanis, the new capital of Dynasty 21, were constructed from monuments of that king dismantledat his now abandoned residence and rebuilt on the new site.
The Late Period (747-332 BC)
The fragmentation and subsequent weakening of the country encouraged intervention from an unexpecteddirection. In the eighth century, a new line of kings from Kush in Nubia, Dynasty 25, was acceptedfirst at Thebes as legitimate rulers, and then throughout the country. They inaugurated a renaissance,initiating many new building works and repairing existing structures, as well as copying olderworks of art and texts.
During the seventh century bc, however, Egypt became increasingly drawn into foreign conflicts. Assyriafollowed up repeated threats by invading and eventually sacking the country. The Kushite kings retreatedsouth and the Assyrians appointed a local ruler from Sais to be king, who became the founder ofDynasty 26 when the invaders withdrew. Contacts with Europe were increased when Greek trading postswere opened in the Delta and Greek mercenaries were employed in the army. Over a century of relativepeace brought prosperity as Egypt was able to resist foreign ambitions.
In 525 BC the Persian king Cambyses (525-522 BC) ended this period of independence, and Egypt becamepart of the massive Persian Empire. Local rebellions were followed by severe repression and not until404 BC was the country free again under the native rulers of Dynasties 28, 29 and 30. This brief interludeis marked by increased building activities, interrupted when the Persians succeeded in re-capturingthe country briefly for a ten-year period. They were finally ousted by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.