A Very Short Introduction to Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt


Ancient Egypt, civilization that thrived along the Nile River in northeastern Africa for more than 3,000 years, from about 3300 BCE to 30 BCE. It was the longest-lived civilization of the ancient world. Geographically, the term ancient Egypt indicates the territory where the ancient Egyptians lived in the valley and delta of the Nile. Culturally, it refers to the ways ancient Egyptians spoke, worshiped, understood the nature of the physical world, organized their government, made their livings, entertained themselves, and related to others who were not Egyptian.

The Nile River, which formed the focus of ancient Egyptian civilization, originates in the highlands of East Africa and flows northward throughout the length of what are now Sudan and Egypt. Northwest of modern-day Cairo, it branches out to form a broad delta, through which it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Because of seasonal rains farther south in Africa, the Nile overflowed its banks in Egypt every year. When the floodwaters receded, a rich black soil covered the floodplain. This natural phenomenon and its effects on the environment enabled the ancient Egyptians to develop a successful economy based on agriculture.

Other natural factors combined to give rise to a great civilization in the Nile region. In Egypt’s relatively cloudless sky the Sun almost always shone, consistently providing heat and light. The Nile served as a water highway for the people, a constant source of life-giving water, and the sustainer of all plants and animals. In addition, natural barriers provided good protection from other peoples. The desert to the west, the seas to the north and east, and the Nile’s rapids, or cataracts, to the south prevented frequent hostile attacks.

In this setting a sophisticated and creative society came into being. That society was the only one in the area to endure for thousands of years. Each of its rivals rose to power but ultimately faded from importance. It was in this land that two of the Seven Wonders of the World were found: the pyramids at Giza and the lighthouse at Alexandria. The ancient Egyptians produced a vast body of written records, including ethical and moralistic treatises, instructional texts, religious and magical scrolls, evocative love poetry, epic stories, and ribald tales. They possessed a sophisticated understanding of mathematics and the principles of architecture, enabling them to introduce to the world large stone buildings before 2500 BCE. Their enduring images—sculpted, painted, and drawn—captivate viewers even today.

The ancient Egyptians processed thin flat sheets from the papyrus, a plant that grew along the Nile, and on these paperlike sheets they wrote their texts. Their earliest script, now known as hieroglyphs, began as a type of picture writing in which the symbols took the form of recognizable images. They originated many basic concepts in arithmetic and geometry, as well as the study of medicine and dentistry. They devised a calendar on the basis of their observations of the Sun and the stars.

Although the ancient Egyptians worshiped many gods, Egypt is also often recognized as the origin of the first recorded monotheist (worshiper of one god), the king who called himself Akhenaton. Egypt also developed one of the first religions to have a concept of the afterlife. No culture before or since paid as much attention to preparations for what was to come after death. Both royalty and private individuals built, decorated, and furnished tombs, which the ancient Egyptians understood to represent their eternal existence.

Politically, Egypt was a major power in the ancient world. Its kings governed the land through an elaborate bureaucratic administration. At certain periods, ancient Egypt’s influence extended even farther south and west in Africa as well as east into Asia.

Great pyramids, hieroglyphs, elaborately decorated underground burial chambers, sprawling temple complexes, and statues combining human and animal forms are only a few of the many remnants that survive from ancient Egypt. These relics of an extinct world raised numerous questions during the centuries after the civilization died out and still fascinate people today. Many questions were answered in the early 19th century, when a young French scholar, Jean François Champollion, deciphered the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone and reconstructed the ancient Egyptian language. While more questions have been answered since that time, much remains to be investigated. Scholars still debate, for instance, whether writing first emerged in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. And while written documents attest to at least 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian civilization, archaeological evidence suggests a much longer span.


According to inscriptions and documents found by archaeologists, the Egyptians called their country Kemet, meaning “the Black Land,” a reference to the dark, fertile soil that remained after the Nile floodwaters had receded. They also used another term, Deshret, or “the Red Land,” a designation for the desert sands that burned under the blazing Sun. In addition, they used the term Lower Egypt to refer to the northern delta area and the term Upper Egypt to refer to the communities along the river all the way south to Aswān.

The abundance of the Nile and the Egyptians’ careful management of the necessary dikes and irrigation systems guaranteed a flourishing agricultural society. The variety of plants that grew and were cultivated could be used for many purposes, including food, clothing, and shelter. The river was also the source of fish, and a fishing industry was established early on. Mud from the river’s banks was the raw material for a well-established pottery industry as well as for the bricks used in construction. To navigate the Nile, the Egyptians learned to build all sorts of boats. The land provided a wide variety of minerals, including several types of stone, semiprecious gems, salts, and metals such as gold, copper, and—to a much lesser extent—silver. The Egyptians quarried, mined, and processed these resources. Trade with other countries provided products not found in Egypt.


A – Beginnings of Civilization

Ongoing excavation in Egypt continually reshapes the views of scholars about the origins of Egyptian civilization. In the late 20th century archaeologists discovered evidence of human habitation before 8000 BCE in an area in the southwestern corner of Egypt, near the border with Sudan. Nomadic peoples may have been attracted to that area because of the hospitable climate and environment. Now exceptionally dry, that area once had grassy plains and temporary lakes that resulted from seasonal rains. The people who settled there must have realized the benefits of a more sedentary life. Scientific analysis of the remains of their culture indicates that by 6000 BCE they were herding cattle and constructing large buildings.

The descendants of these people may well have begun Egyptian civilization in the Nile Valley. About 2,000 years later, when the climate changed and the southwestern area became more arid, it is possible that they chose to migrate eastward to the Nile. Some of the distinctive characteristics of their society, such the structures they built and the emphasis they placed on cattle, support this theory. By 4000 BCE there were settlements in Upper Egypt, at locations such as Hierakonpolis (ancient Nekhen), Naqada, and Abydos.

Such a theory, however, explains only part of the picture of the early Egyptian civilization. A culture known as Badarian is represented as early as 5000 BCE in Upper Egyptian settlements. Moreover, in Lower Egypt, Neolithic settlements in the Al Fayyūm area date from more than 1,000 years earlier. Several sites in that area show evidence of agriculture by around 5000 BCE. Merimde, at the Nile Delta’s western border, may have been almost as old, and a settlement at Buto appears to date from around 4500 BCE. The style and decoration of the pottery found at these sites differ from those of pottery found in Upper Egypt. The northern type eventually fell out of use. Other differences between the peoples in Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt include the nature of their architecture and the arrangements for burial of the dead, the latter perhaps signifying differing religious beliefs.

B – Unification and Early Dynastic Period

By 3500 BCE, the settlement of Hierakonpolis, located on the west bank of the Nile between Luxor and Aswān, had become a central site of Predynastic culture—that is, the culture that existed before the time of the first Egyptian dynasties, or families of rulers. Hierakonpolis soon became a large and important administrative and economic center. Its religious rituals took place in a structure that is now seen as a primitive form of later Egyptian temples. A large brick tomb, constructed underground, apparently was the burial site of an early local ruler. Some of its decorations and images, such as a scene of the ruler smiting his enemies, are the same as those used in the times of the Egyptian kings. Many elements of the culture at Hierakonpolis, including the division into social classes, were typical of other settlements along the Nile. The archaeological evidence makes it clear that the culture of Upper Egypt, not that developing in Lower Egypt, was exerting influence and perhaps some control over an expanding geographic area.

It is possible that a center such as Hierakonpolis or Abydos, also in Upper Egypt, began to exert control over other settlements and that the unification of ancient Egypt was in reality the gradual growth of one center’s influence. Several king lists, or lists of rulers, some of which were prepared after 1550 BCE and are quite complete, as well as histories dating to the Classical Age (500-323 BCE), indicate that a ruler named Menes was Egypt’s first monarch. He reigned around 3100 BCE. However, some of these documents refer to earlier rulers or even to a series of demigods (mythical beings who were partly divine and partly human). This information, as well as the archaeological evidence, implies that rival small kingdoms existed in the late Predynastic period, just before 3000 BCE. Eventually one of their rulers established control over Upper Egypt and then perhaps became powerful enough to exert dominance over both the north and the south.

No one knows which, if any, of the rulers whose names are preserved from this period can be identified with Menes. Perhaps it is Aha or Narmer, whose names are recorded on some of the oldest artifacts. An image of Narmer appears on his Palette, a large ceremonial slate slab that dates to around 3100 BCE and was found at Hierakonpolis. On it Narmer wears two crowns: on one side, the white crown of Upper Egypt; on the other side, the red crown of Lower Egypt. He is the first individual to be depicted with the royal headgear of both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Other insignia and images later associated with the Egyptian monarch also appear on the palette, and Narmer is shown triumphant over enemies, including, in a symbolic manner, the delta. The scene on the palette is sometimes interpreted as ritual imagery, but it may have some historical truth. Excavations in the late 20th century at the Upper Egyptian site of Abydos, where the early kings were buried, may provide some support for the historical interpretation. A small ivory label found in the tomb of Narmer has a carved scene that appears also to represent that king’s victory over the delta. Moreover, the same expedition uncovered a structure dating from around 3250 BCE. In that structure were found a scepter, wine jars from the nearby land of Canaan, and more labels, some of which were records of products from the delta. This material supports the idea that Upper Egypt came to dominate Lower Egypt even earlier than 3100 BCE and controlled trade with the east.

The Egyptian priest Manetho, who lived in the 3rd century BCE, recorded the royal history by organizing the country’s rulers into 30 dynasties, roughly corresponding to families. Some Egyptologists (people who study ancient Egypt) now suggest altering his list of dynasties by adding at the beginning a Dynasty 0, which may have lasted about 150 years, from about 3100 to about 2920 BCE. During this period, Egyptian unification appears to have taken place, the structure of the Egyptian state seems to have been formed, and writing first appeared. The 1st and 2nd dynasties, which cover a time span of about 300 years, from around 2920 to around 2650 BCE, brought the further development of a complex society, the rise of the state, and Egypt’s emergence as a power in the ancient world.

C – Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period

Fairly early, perhaps during Dynasty 0, the administrative center of Egypt shifted to Memphis, which is located just below the southern tip of the delta. It is not known when Memphis was founded. Memphis was well positioned to be the seat of government of the now unified land. The royal cemetery continued to be located at Abydos, in the south. The last ruler of the 2nd Dynasty, Khasekhemwy, was responsible for the construction of the last royal tomb of this period there. This ruler, who also built a monument at Hierakonpolis, may have constructed a funerary monument at Şaqqārah (Sakkara) as well, thus paving the way for the establishment of the royal cemetery at that northern location. Şaqqārah was to serve as the royal cemetery for much of the Old Kingdom, a period that some scholars believe began with the 3rd Dynasty (about 2649-2575 BCE) and others believe began with the 4th Dynasty (about 2575-2467 BCE). The Old Kingdom lasted until around 2134 BCE and was followed by the First Intermediate Period.

The size of the funerary monuments of Egypt’s royalty still impresses visitors today. These huge burial complexes provide a wealth of information about the society and culture of the people who produced them. Imhotep, the architect for Djoser, second king of the 3rd Dynasty, constructed what appears to be the world’s first monumental stone building for the eternal resting place of a king. Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Şaqqārah is perhaps one of the earliest in a series of burial complexes that culminated in the pyramids at Giza, which date to the 4th Dynasty. The largest of these pyramids, known as the Great Pyramid, was built for King Khufu, the second king of the 4th Dynasty. These construction projects required a huge workforce of several hundred thousand laborers over a period of many years. The successful completion of the pyramids depended on a stable and well-developed economy, a well-established administrative bureaucracy, and immense public support. Moreover, Egypt had to be at peace with its closest foreign neighbors to provide the necessary concentration for this work. Unskilled workers toiled on the projects during the months of the Nile flood, when they could not farm, but craftspeople, artisans, stonemasons, managers, and others worked year-round. Devotion on the part of all the people to the king and his burial project was an important element in the success of the project. The royal office was considered divine, and the ruling king was believed to be a god on Earth, a mediator between humankind and the deities. Working for this god and securing his place among the divinities for all eternity could be interpreted as an expression of the religious devotion of the people.

From the end of the 5th Dynasty in about 2323 BCE, the interiors of the pyramids contained texts carved on the walls. This collection of hymns, spells, instructions on how to act in front of the gods, and rituals, now called the Pyramid Texts, is the oldest body of religious literature yet discovered. As time went on, the size and the quality of pyramid construction diminished, in large part as a result of financial strain on the treasury. In addition, the nation had to deal with hostile neighbors, and a change in climate apparently caused serious droughts, references to which are found in texts and scenes.

By the end of the 6th Dynasty in about 2150 BCE, the chiefs of the provincial areas, or nomes, were becoming increasingly powerful. Eventually the chiefs, called nomarchs, established hereditary offices and became local rulers, thus paving the way for internal rivalries and hastening the breakdown of the central administration. The First Intermediate Period ensued. It lasted from about 2134 to about 2040 BCE and included the next several dynasties. During this period the nomarchs of Herakleopolis, in the northern part of Upper Egypt, rose to power. However, another rising power, based in the south at Thebes, challenged their authority and succeeded in reuniting the land.

D – Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period

In around 2040 BCE, Nebhepetre-Mentuhotep, the ruler based at Thebes, defeated the nomarch of Herakleopolis and once more united the land under central authority. This reign marked the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, which lasted until about 1640 BCE. Nebhepetre-Mentuhotep established the 11th Dynasty and governed from Thebes, as did his two successors. The vizier, or chief government minister, under the last ruler came to the throne as Amenemhet I in around 1991 BCE, establishing the 12th Dynasty. For political, economic, and strategic reasons, he moved the seat of his administration to a site near Memphis that he called Itjtawy, or “The Seizer of the Two Lands,” thus identifying it with his royal role. However, he continued the Theban emphasis on the deity Amon (Amun), a god of Theban origin who had risen to prominence in the religion and was now worshiped throughout Egypt. Amenemhet I built a fortress in the delta to guard against incursions from the east. He built similar structures in Nubia, a land to the south over which he was able to extend Egypt’s control. The independent nomarchs retained their status but recognized the central government under the king. “The Story of Sinuhe,” which was written during the Middle Kingdom, purportedly documents the travels of an Egyptian nobleman who apparently had to flee the country. It also implies that trouble existed within the palace to the extent that perhaps Amenemhet I was assassinated. Amenemhet’s successors managed to continue to control Nubia and maintained diplomatic relations with powers in Asia.

Amenemhet I began the practice of making his son a coregent, or joint ruler. As a result, his son, Senwosret I, who had become coregent in about 1971 BCE, made a smooth transition to the throne in about 1962 BCE. Literature and art flourished during this period, perhaps in part because of the relative peace and order that the kings of the 12th Dynasty maintained. Toward the end of the dynasty, Senwosret III finally completed the gradual process of bringing the once independent families of the nomarchs totally under royal control. The last ruler of the dynasty, Sobekneferu, was one of the few women to rule as king. During the 12th Dynasty the royal burial complexes were modeled on those of the Old Kingdom in concept, if not scale and precision. But they were no longer located at either Giza or Şaqqārah. Instead, they were situated farther south at sites such as Dahshur, Mazghuna, and Lisht.

The 13th Dynasty lasted about 150 years, beginning around 1783 BCE. The transition seems to have been smooth, but the large number of recorded rulers, about 70, most of whom had brief reigns, indicates that there were problems. It may be that the bureaucracy that had served the 12th Dynasty so well became the source of rival royal families that could not sustain central power. Eventually the fortresses at the borders could not be maintained, and Nubia overtook the fortresses in the south. Immigrants from the Middle East began to occupy areas of the Nile Delta after 1800 BCE. A rival dynasty, the 14th, established itself in the western delta.

The Second Intermediate Period began in around 1640 BCE with the establishment of yet another competing dynasty, the 15th. That dynasty was not of Egyptian origin. The Egyptians referred to the Semitic peoples from Asia who established the dynasty as Heka-khasut, meaning “Rulers of Foreign Lands.” These peoples are often known as Hyksos, the Greek term based on that Egyptian phrase. The 15th Dynasty rapidly became dominant, eclipsing the other two, but another rival and related dynasty, the 16th, emerged at the same time. The Hyksos controlled the north from their delta capital of Avaris. They soon made a strategic alliance with the kingdom of Kush in Nubia. The 17th Dynasty, centered in Thebes, was a rival Egyptian line of kings. Eventually the Egyptians rose up to expel the foreigners. The last two rulers of the 17th Dynasty, Seqenenre-Tao and Kamose, paved the way for Kamose’s brother Ahmose to triumph over the Hyksos and their Nubian allies, thus ushering in a new dynasty—the 18th—and the New Kingdom.

E – New Kingdom, Third Intermediate Period, and Late Period

The first king of the 18th Dynasty, Ahmose I, completed the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt, which his brother Kamose had begun. Once again, the south united a fractured land, giving rise to the New Kingdom (about 1550-1070 BCE). During Ahmose’s reign, which lasted from about 1550 to 1525 BCE, the central government was reestablished, the economy improved, and Egypt’s borders were extended to the south and east. His reign set the stage for the continuing expansionist activities of the kings who followed. During the 18th Dynasty, Egyptians began using the term pharaoh (literally “great house,” a reference to the palace) to refer to their king. At its zenith, Egypt under the 18th Dynasty controlled an area that extended south into what is now Sudan and east into the Middle East. Much of this imperial expansion is credited to Thutmose III, the dynasty’s fifth king, who extended Egyptian control farther than had any other ruler. Thutmose III began his reign as a coregent in 1479 BCE but ruled alone after the death of Hatshepsut, his stepmother, who ruled from 1473 to 1458 BCE. As a daughter of a pharaoh (Thutmose I) and the wife of one (Thutmose II), Hatshepsut took full control of the throne as the ruling pharaoh during her reign. The relationship between her and Thutmose III apparently was one of mutual coexistence. However, late in his reign as sole king, Thutmose III began removing Hatshepsut’s name and images from all painted or carved surfaces, thus expunging her memory for posterity.

Amenhotep III, the ninth king of the 18th Dynasty, had a long and fairly peaceful reign of almost 40 years (1391-1353 BCE). It was marked by unprecedented wealth, cultural creativity, internal strength, and prominence in the ancient world. The king built a magnificent pleasure palace at Thebes, constructed and decorated huge temples throughout the land, and encouraged a flowering of the arts. The influence and power of the priesthood of Amun also increased in Egypt at this time, but the stature of the ruler remained supreme. In fact, Amenhotep III emphasized his own divinity with a focus on divine birth, as seen in reliefs on the walls of Luxor Temple (portions of which he built) at Thebes and in statues bearing his divine name.

Amenhotep IV, the son and successor of Amenhotep III, reigned for less than 20 years (1353-1335 BCE). However, his reign represented a focal point in history. He introduced the concept of a single supreme deity, Aton (Aten), the disk of the sun, radically changing the belief systems that had been in place in Egypt for more than 1,000 years. The somewhat monotheistic religion that he developed was the first yet known. In addition, there are indications that the new religion focused even more on the divinity of the king than ever before. Along with the religious changes came modifications in other areas, such as art, language, and architecture. Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaton (“The one who is beneficial to Aton”). He abandoned Thebes and built a new capital at Akhetaton, between Thebes and Memphis. The new capital had innovative plans and structures. For example, temples had no roofs, to let the sunlight in. The art used to decorate its walls displayed a more natural style, and texts composed there used a unique hybrid grammar. Akhenaton’s revolution, sometimes known as the Amarna period (after the site of modern excavations of Akhetaton), was short-lived, however, and his successors quickly restored the traditional beliefs. Tutankhamun, who some scholars think may have been the king’s son by a minor wife, married the princess Ankhesenamun and succeeded to the throne. He is known to history not so much for reestablishing order after this chaotic period as for the discovery of his nearly intact tomb, filled with magnificent treasures.

The last pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, Horemheb, was a general under his predecessors. He reigned from 1319 to 1307 BCE and set the precedent for the military pharaohs who ruled during the 19th Dynasty, which lasted from 1307 to 1196 BCE. The ability to command troops became critical for Egypt’s survival, since rival powers in Asia and elsewhere created difficulties in the coming years. Ramses II, the third king of the 19th Dynasty, ruled for about 67 years, from 1290 to 1224 BCE. He battled the Hittites from Asia Minor. The conflict, which at best was a draw, resulted in the first recorded peace treaty. Ramses III, of the 20th Dynasty, was the last of the military pharaohs. He ruled from 1194 to 1163 BCE. He had to contend with incursions by both the Libyans from the west and invaders from the Aegean region, known as the Sea Peoples. The remaining kings of the 20th Dynasty were less able to maintain Egypt’s place in the ancient world. During their reigns, as well as those of the kings of the 21st Dynasty, Egypt’s position was eclipsed.

During this period of decline, internal problems arose in the form of a struggle for power between the pharaoh and the priesthood. By the beginning of the 21st Dynasty in 1070 BCE, Egypt was in another period of transition, the Third Intermediate Period, which lasted until 712 BCE. Rival centers were established. Smendes, the first king of the 21st Dynasty, ruled only in the north near Memphis, while a line of high priests at Thebes controlled the south. The 22nd Dynasty (945-712 BCE), centered at Bubastis in the western delta, clearly reflected an earlier Libyan presence in Egypt. Its first king, Sheshonk I, who ruled from 945 to 924 BCE, even bore the title of Great Chief of the Meshwesh Libyans. Sheshonk I and his successors were able to reunite the country internally, but rival factions arose again with the 23rd Dynasty (828-725 BCE). At the same time, the kingdom of Kush in Nubia had been gaining strength, wealth, and power. Soon it controlled much of Egypt, and the Kushites established the 25th Dynasty (770-657 BCE). In the north, the 24th Dynasty (724-712 BCE) ruled at Sais in the western delta, but it survived for only 12 years.

War with the Assyrians brought about the end of Nubian domination. In the 7th century BCE, Psamtik I, ruling at first from Sais, reunited the land in 664 BCE, ushering in the 26th Dynasty and the Late Period. His reign and those of his successors brought a revival of the traditions of the past and the recapturing of some of Egypt’s former reputation. Unfortunately, the respite lasted only a short time, for in 525 BCE the Persians occupied the country. The Persian kings were regarded as the 27th Dynasty. The Egyptians were able to regain control in 404 BCE, but their last native dynasties ruled under conditions of internal discord and continual external conflicts. The Persians regained control of Egypt in 343 BCE. Then, just 11 years later, in 332 BCE, Macedonian king Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and annexed it to his Hellenistic empire. When he died in 323 BCE, his friend and general Ptolemy became satrap, or governor, of Egypt. In 305 BCE he took the title of king of Egypt, thus founding the Ptolemaic dynasty of pharaohs. This line of Hellenistic rulers held power for almost 300 years. Cleopatra VII, the last of them, committed suicide after the Romans defeated her forces at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. The next year, Egypt was made part of the Roman Empire. For the history of Egypt since the Roman conquest, See also Egypt: History.


A – Population

The population of ancient Egypt varied greatly during its history. Some scholars estimate that only a few hundred thousand people lived in Egypt during the Predynastic period (about 5000-3000 BCE). Others believe, based on archaeological evidence and reevaluations of how many people the floodplains could support at the time, that the area had a much higher population. In any case, the population had probably risen to close to 2 million during the Old Kingdom (about 2575-2134 BCE). It increased during the Middle Kingdom (about 2040-1640 BCE), and by the New Kingdom (about 1550-1070 BCE) the population had grown to between 3 and 4 million. This figure almost doubled under Hellenistic rule (332-30 BCE), with perhaps as many as 7 million people inhabiting the country at the time it was annexed to the Roman Empire.

Egypt’s increasing population could only have been sustained if the land and the economy could support it. As agricultural techniques became increasingly more efficient, the Egyptians developed systems to deal with fluctuations in the height of the annual flood of the Nile. Early on, they also learned the value of maintaining order both at home and externally, for peaceful conditions helped promote a good economy. Moreover, by the Middle Kingdom, they had learned to reclaim previously unused and unusable land for agricultural purposes. Each period brought growth in the populations of existing cities and the founding of new cities. As Egypt extended its borders and took control of external areas, populations began to shift. In the New Kingdom, captives, slaves, and immigrants entered the country. During the periods when foreign rulers controlled Egypt, such as the Second Intermediate Period (about 1640-1550 BCE) and the Third Intermediate Period (1070-712 BCE), people from those rulers’ home areas added to the growing melting pot in Egypt.

Egyptian society was confined almost exclusively to the Nile Valley and Delta. Most settlements were located on or close to the banks of the Nile. Since ancient Egypt was an agricultural society, its densest population was on the floodplains. Only a small fraction of the population lived in cities and towns. Major cities contained most of the urban population, and the ranks of major cities changed over time. Centers such as Memphis, Thebes, and certain provincial capitals, however, maintained their importance for extremely long periods of time. A major city generally had a densely populated center, and the density of population decreased as distance from the center increased.

B – Social Structure

For all their numbers and quality, the architectural monuments, statues, jewelry, and elaborate burial places of ancient Egypt reveal only a small part of Egyptian society. Much of what the early excavators uncovered and much of what appears in museums and popular publications today relates only to the ruling elite, the highest of several levels of society in ancient Egypt. Different social classes existed even in the earliest cities. Scholars who study mummies and their burials have noticed class differences in terms of the type and quantity of grave goods, the quality of a tomb’s construction and decoration, the technique of preservation used on the mummy, and the physical condition of the body. Some cemeteries had areas that were restricted for certain classes of burial. Apparently several levels of mummification existed. The way a mummy was preserved and wrapped, its age, the types of disease the person may have had, and the condition of the teeth also indicate the existence of different social strata.

Urban archaeology, or the examination of town sites, also establishes the existence of different social classes. The sizes of houses differed among the various classes. Some towns even zoned different areas for residential and commercial use.

For much of its existence, ancient Egyptian society probably had at least three social levels. Each of these had further subdivisions. At the highest level were the royalty and high administrative officials. Within this level, but considered a bit lower, were the provincial nobility and officials. The second level, a sort of middle class, consisted of many lower-level members of the bureaucracy, certain priests, very high-ranking scribes, officers of the army, wealthy landowners, and exceptional artisans. The lowest class was the largest. In it were low-ranking bureaucrats, scribes, craftspeople, priests, and farmers. Within this level, but even lower, were servants, serfs, and laborers. Slaves, mostly captured enemies and their families, made up the lowest rung of the social ladder.

Class distinctions are also indicated in “The Satire on Trades,” a Middle Kingdom text that extols the roles and life of a scribe while eschewing most other professions. Since some offices were hereditary, it was difficult for individuals to be socially mobile, or to rise to a higher class. Nevertheless, biographical texts that the elite often had inscribed on the walls of their tomb chapels sometimes recount an individual’s rise in the administration during the course of a career.

C – Way of Life

In ancient Egypt the family was important. Its importance is demonstrated in part through the many references to the family in a variety of texts and documents, numerous depictions of it in statues and paintings, and the large number of familial relationships among the gods and goddesses. A representation of an elite family, with a father, a mother, and children, usually portrays the father as the largest figure, and therefore the most important. The mother, who is generally smaller, stands or sits beside him, and the two often embrace or hold hands. Children, if at all present, are much smaller and off to the side. Representations of royalty are more formal, depicting the pharaoh and his wife or, rarely, the pharaoh and his son. During the reign of Akhenaton, however, the pharaoh and his wife appear with their daughters.

As the head of the household, the father worked outside the home. His wife ran the domestic operations. In wealthy families, the wife’s authority extended over a staff of servants, while in poorer ones, she participated directly in chores such as preparing food and making clothes. In the lowest classes women sometimes worked outside the home, but depictions limit such work mainly to farm labor in the fields. The role of women as mothers was essential. Although unequal to men in other areas, in the eyes of the law, women were treated the same and could, for example, own property, conduct business, and file lawsuits.

Children were expected to care properly for and support their parents during old age. They were also responsible for giving their parents a proper burial and for maintaining a mortuary cult, both of which were considered necessary for ensuring the afterlife of their parents. Contact between the living and the dead took place through ancestor cults within the home and through visits to a funerary chapel. Apparently, it was believed that those in one domain could provide benefit or cause harm for those in the other, as illustrated in the “Letters to the Dead.” In such correspondence the living sought assistance from departed relatives for various problems and situations. (For more information about the Egyptians’ belief in the afterlife, see the Religion and the Afterlife section of this article.)

Pharaohs sometimes had more than one wife, a practice that was adopted apparently to guarantee an heir. However, one spouse was the general rule in ancient Egypt, at least in the earlier periods. Straying from a marriage was not condoned. By the time of the Old Kingdom, adultery was considered an impure act, and it became one of the few acceptable reasons for divorce. Couples who established households together generally remained together, and sometimes they had written contracts specifying particular financial arrangements. These contracts were similar in many ways to today’s prenuptial agreements.

The houses of the ancient Egyptians varied in style, shape, and size, depending on factors such as the wealth of the owner and the location of the house. Houses in cities tended to be smaller, taller, and more clustered together than were rural residences. The residences on the estates of the elite were large and might contain more than two dozen rooms. The dwellings of professionals or craftspeople in the same occupation were sometimes located in the same area in a city.

The Egyptians used many types of wooden furniture, including tables, chairs, stools, chests, and beds. They wore linen garments, woven from flax, and occasionally crafted some clothing from animal skins. They ate a variety of fruits (grapes, figs, and dates, for example), vegetables (tubers, leaves, and seeds), and grains (wheat and barley). Occasionally they also dined on fish, fowl, or game, and they drank water, beer, wine, and milk. For the most part they used pottery dishes and vessels, but wealthier people used ware made from stone, copper, bronze, gold, or—less commonly—silver. For sport, the ancient Egyptians apparently went fishing and hunted birds. They also enjoyed boating, listening to music, watching dance performances, and playing board games.

D – Education and Writing

Education and writing were interdependent in ancient Egypt. Literacy was the first step in attaining knowledge. However, reading and writing were limited to a small number of people, primarily the elite, the scribes, and those entering the upper levels of the bureaucracy. Children of royalty and the wealthy were educated at the palace. Children of other people learned in temple schools, through apprenticeships, or at home. Boys received a formal education, but girls had to learn to read and write at home.

Teachers were strict. The harshness of their methods can perhaps be inferred from the Egyptian verb seba, which means both “to teach” and “to beat.” Scribes learned first how to read, write, and compose letters. Those studying to become scribes had to recopy and memorize model letters as well as other types of texts, such as literary works. Some schoolboy copies with the instructor’s corrections of his pupil’s work still survive today. Instructional papyri (scrolls made of papyrus) in subjects such as mathematics and medicine have been discovered. All types of manuscripts tended to be stored in a “house of life,” a repository found in most temples. These repositories were somewhat similar to modern libraries.

Learned people in ancient Egypt studied mathematics and medicine. In mathematics they developed basic concepts in arithmetic and geometry. The ancient Egyptians understood the idea of fractions and knew how to add them. Egyptian scholars wrote some of the earliest known medical texts. These texts deal with topics such as internal medicine, surgery, pharmaceutical remedies, dentistry, and veterinary medicine.

Scribes were essential to all aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization. They kept all records and wrote all correspondence. They copied and edited all religious and literary texts. They even compiled economic reports.

The Egyptians used several scripts to record their language. Around 3300 to 3200 BCE, a formal script known as hieroglyphs came into being. The word hieroglyphs comes from the Greek term hieroglyphikos, meaning “sacred carving.” In this script, symbols called glyphs were used originally to denote objects and concepts. Eventually the symbols came to represent primarily sounds. Hieroglyphs took the form of recognizable images drawn from the Egyptian environment. Some of the earliest examples of writing in Egypt appear to be names and also the number and origin of certain commodities. Generally, in the time of the pharaohs, the Egyptians used hieroglyphs to carve or paint monumental and religious texts on the walls of tombs, palaces, and temples, as well as on the surfaces of statues and stelae (carved stone slabs, sometimes painted wooden slabs). Hieroglyphs were the longest-lived system of writing, being used until the end of the 4th century ad.

A second script, called hieratic, was based on hieroglyphs but was simplified and more abbreviated. The hieratic script was adapted to the more rapid writing necessary to prepare letters and legal and administrative documents. For the most part, these documents were written in ink on papyri, as were literary, instructional, funerary, and mythological texts. The hieratic script was used until a more cursive script, called demotic, or “popular,” supplanted it in the 7th century BCE. The demotic script was used at first to keep the more mundane records of daily life, but later it was used for everything, including monumental inscriptions. It survived hieroglyphs by a century. The last script the Egyptians developed was the Coptic alphabet, which dates to the early 2nd century ad. The term Coptic is derived from the Greek word for Egypt. Unlike its predecessors, which were partially alphabetical and recorded only the sounds of consonants, the Coptic script was a true alphabet and included vowels. It used the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet plus 6 additional characters derived from demotic for sounds that did not exist in Greek. See also Coptic Language; Egyptian Language.

The Egyptians created a calendar at a very early stage, based on their observations of the movements of the Sun and the stars. They used their calendar for many purposes, including the recording of historical events and royal decrees and the scheduling of festivals and other activities. Perhaps representing one of the first attempts at making a calendar are the remnants of stone circles from around 8000 BCE in the southwestern corner of modern Egypt. These stone circles may have been used to map the movement of the heavenly bodies. The Egyptians probably created a calendar because it was so important for their survival to know when the Nile’s flood would come. They divided each day into 24 hours, 12 for the daytime and 12 for the night. A period of ten days made up a week, and one month included three such weeks, or 30 days. A year comprised 12 months and was divided into three seasons of four months each. To the 360 days of the 12 months in a year, the Egyptians added 5 more days, which they referred to as the birthdays of several gods. Thus, an Egyptian year totaled 365 days, remarkably close to the 365¼ days it takes the Earth to go around the Sun. There was no concept of leap year (accounting for the extra ¼ day a year), so the calendar fell behind by one day every four years.

E – Religion and the Afterlife

Excavations of ancient settlements have uncovered traces of religious practices and beliefs in Egypt from as early as 6000 BCE. Some sites near the modern border between Egypt and Sudan include areas that were devoted to rituals and festivals, as well as sections for burials. Little is known about the early religious practices and beliefs. Graves of cattle have been found, indicating some degree of veneration of those animals. Human graves dating to Predynastic times include artifacts, weapons, vessels, and other materials. The inclusion of these objects in graves indicates a belief in some type of afterlife during which the items would be put to use.

By the time Egypt was unified, the early religious practices had developed into a formal religion involving the worship of many gods and goddesses. The environment played a significant role in shaping the nature of the deities the Egyptians worshiped. Their gods and goddesses took the form of humans, animals, or combinations of humans and animals. These forms represented the forces of nature and the elements of the Egyptians’ physical world. By picturing the natural powers as recognizable entities and creating mythological stories about them, the Egyptians tried to reach an understanding of the complicated interactions within their universe.

The deities of ancient Egypt can be organized into several groups, but the boundaries are not fixed, and some deities may belong to several groups. Some of the divinities associated with aspects of the Sun were Ra, Horus, Atum, and Khepri. Those identified with the Moon were Thoth and Khonsu. Geb was associated with the Earth. Nut was the goddess of the sky. Shu and Tefnut were identified with the air and moisture. Osiris and Isis were the rulers of the underworld. Many of these deities were also part of myths of creation, of which there are several versions. Each story has a primary deity, such as Amun, Ptah, Atum, or Khnum, as well as several lesser divinities. Amon and Ra became combined into a composite form, Amon-Ra. As king of the gods, Amon-Ra was revered on a national basis. A few other deities also attained this status. Most, however, had a local origin and were worshiped only in the provincial area where they originated. The concept of order and balance, Maat, had as its counterpart Seth, who personified chaos and disorder. A large group, including Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Selket, Anubis, and Thoth, fell into the class of funerary deities, who figured prominently in funerary rituals. In addition, on a more individual level, there were local, personal, and household gods, and even patron deities for certain professions. Deities of foreign origin were sometimes included among the Egyptian gods. See also Egyptian Mythology.

Statues and other images of the deities represented the abstract powers of the gods in concrete form. The ancient Egyptians believed that their gods occasionally resided in the statues. They maintained that the essence of a god could inhabit a statue and then a ritual could complete the process of animating the image. Such a ritual would include recitation of sacred text and all sorts of attention paid to the statue, such as cleansing, dressing, feeding, and anointing.

In the temple the king was in theory the high priest. In practice, his participation in temple rituals occurred primarily on specific festivals, while the priests performed the daily obligations at other times. Ordinary people had immediate access to their personal gods, but they could not enter the temple at will. However, many Egyptians served as lay priests in the temple when they were not working in the fields. During their service as lay priests, they could enter certain areas of the temple. On some holidays, such as the Feast of the Valley, a portable shrine housing the image of a deity was paraded around outside the confines of the temple at Thebes. The people could then express their piety.

Religion permeated life in ancient Egypt. Many of the daily activities of the people related in some way to their beliefs. The afterlife and preparations for it are a good example. To achieve eternal life after death, an individual had to do many things while he or she existed in this world. One of the most important was to live a just and moral life. In addition, some practical preparations were necessary, including making and furnishing a tomb, providing appropriate tomb decorations and texts, and establishing a mortuary cult to guarantee perpetual care and offerings. After death, the individual had to be carefully preserved as a mummy. Mummification was a process performed by an embalmer, who would carefully remove the internal organs, subject the body to different ointments and resins, dry it out with salts, and then wrap it with linen. Amulets, or charms, were often interspersed among the layers of linen, and other amulets might be placed in the coffin along with the mummy. Magical texts were sometimes written on the wrappings themselves, and they could also be written on papyri or inscribed on the walls of the coffin or of the tomb. These texts served as protection and as a guide for the deceased on the way to and in the afterlife.

F – Arts

The ancient Egyptians produced a large body of creative works in areas such as music, literature, painting, sculpture, drama, and architecture. Often the purpose of their artistic output was not recreation or cultural enrichment, but the communication of some sort of message or theme. See also Egyptian Art and Architecture.

Religion, which was extremely important in Egyptian thought, society, and life, had a great influence on the arts. For example, biographical texts that appear on the walls of funerary chapels make up an interesting body of literature. Their main purpose was to reaffirm the accomplishments and moral character of the deceased, so that he or she would pass successfully to the afterlife. On another level, these texts indirectly provide information about the activities of the pharaoh, since they often refer to the deceased’s role in relation to the ruler.

Paintings, carvings, and other representations of figures in two dimensions appear on the walls of temples, tombs, coffins, and sarcophagi, as well as on papyri, textiles, and cartonnage (form-fitting coffins made of a papier-mâché-like substance). By convention, the artists portrayed the most characteristic features of the individual in one harmonious image. The resulting representations could then function on many levels simultaneously. For example, the typical depiction of a tomb owner was meant to portray that individual outside the limits of both time and space—an image for eternity. This representation might also relate to the hieroglyphs that accompany it, and it may even be an integral part of the text.

Sculptures served a variety of purposes. Carved statues of deities were worshiped in temples. The actual worship took place after appropriate rituals were completed. The rituals were believed to animate the image and insure that the deity had taken up residence in the statue. Statues of royal persons and ordinary people were also produced. The ancient Egyptians believed that these statues, too, could serve occasionally as residences for the personality of the individual after death. Sometimes, such a figure represented the final hieroglyph of the individual’s name, which would be carved on the side or base of the statue. The ancient Egyptians also placed statues of themselves in temples as a demonstration of their piety. They also put figurines in human form, called shabtis, in tombs to be substitutes for the tomb owner when he or she was called to perform labor in the afterlife. Other statues placed in tombs were meant to be residences for an aspect of the deceased’s personality in case of damage to the mummy.

The pyramids are the best-known examples of Egyptian architecture. These huge tombs have four triangular sides that meet in a point at the top. To the ancient Egyptians they might have represented the primeval mound that was the origin of life in their creation myths or they might have represented the solidified rays of the Sun. The Egyptians built more than 100 pyramids as final resting places for their rulers.

Egyptian temples were rectangular in shape and intended to be oriented in an east-west direction, that is, in line with the rising and setting of the Sun. In temple architecture, a huge gateway called a pylon stood at the entrance to the temple area and led into an open court. The pylon often took the form of the hieroglyph for the word horizon, a character in which the disk of the sun appears over a design representing the physical horizon. When the Sun rose in the morning and passed over the entrance to the temple, the resulting image reproduced the hieroglyph, symbolizing that the gateway was indeed the horizon. To the Egyptians, the temple, a structure built by humans, could be a cosmic environment fit for the gods.

Carved and brightly painted scenes adorned the walls of temples and tombs. Some of the representations showed the interaction of the kings and gods. Others depicted symbolic scenes that related to the cosmos or the afterlife. Painted decoration was also used on household items such as pottery vessels and furniture, and it was often applied to the interior walls of houses.

The ancient Egyptians wrote various kinds of literature. These included epic stories about wandering heroes, tales of pharaohs and magicians, wisdom literature that advised proper behavior (selections from which are the ancestors of some biblical proverbs), and comic stories about their deities. They wrote political propaganda, satire, and what may have been the world’s first fairy tale. They also crafted love poetry that is beautifully evocative and meant to express the feelings of two individuals toward each other. Their dramas were primarily associated with religious literature and rituals. Performances apparently accompanied some burials. In addition, performers reenacted, in the temple, battles between the gods Horus and Seth that related to the royal succession.

No written music survives from ancient Egypt, but musical instruments were included in several burials, and musicians accompanying ritual dancers are often depicted on the walls of tombs and some temples. Some scenes of musicians and dancers represent entertainment at parties, while others portray religious activity. Musical instruments used in ancient Egypt include trumpets, flutes, harps, and various percussion instruments.

Many types of artifacts from ancient Egypt were not created for religious purposes. For example, in the category of minor arts, the Egyptians manufactured exquisite jewelry, cosmetic dishes, utensils, dishes, containers, furniture, and other objects. The beauty of these items seems to have been dictated by the ability of the artisan and the desire and perhaps wealth of the purchaser. Faience, an inexpensive nonclay ceramic material with a glaze made from quartz, was used in pottery, tiles, jewelry, and amulets.

Works of art were generally unsigned, but the names of particular artists are known because many texts record a title, such as line draftsman (one who draws the outlines of images to be painted or sculpted), sculptor, architect, or musician, before the name of a particular person. Two of the most important architects known are Imhotep, who designed Djoser’s Step Pyramid, and Senenmut, who conceived the mortuary temple for the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. The royal temples, palaces, and tombs were state-sponsored projects involving several hundred anonymous artisans. Carving the reliefs on the walls of most structures was apparently a group effort, but certain areas of the decoration may reveal the distinctive style of a particular artist. The royal workshops often set the standards for statues, reliefs, and paintings created for others among the elite.


In ancient Egypt, the king was the supreme ruler of the country and was also the highest-level spiritual leader, representing humankind’s link to the gods. Under him in the government were the vizier, or chief minister, and many bureaucratic officials. Below him in the religious leadership were the high priest, other priests, and the lower ranks of the temple bureaucracy.

The Egyptian kings realized early on that they had to organize an efficient system of government. It was clear that first and foremost they had to create an administration to oversee and control activity associated with the annual flood of the Nile. The system had to be under royal control in order to guarantee the fair and proper distribution of the water and fertile land. This royal direction set the standard for other enterprises and industries. With such a system of administration in place, the king could also plan, implement, and complete state-sponsored building projects, such as the national temples and royal burial complexes. He could arrange for and undertake expeditions, for military purposes and for mining, quarrying, and trade, to countries at or beyond Egypt’s borders. Without proper control of an ever-increasing bureaucracy or with poor management at any level of the system, problems could develop quickly. For example, papyri record work stoppages and laborer complaints resulting from inadequate food rations and clothing distribution.

The king was the commander in chief of Egypt’s army and navy, and he decided when and how the country’s borders were to be protected or expanded. Texts record both naval and land battles. Often, several divisions of troops composed of infantry, archers, and cavalry participated in battles. A hierarchy existed within the ranks. It consisted of different levels of officers and administrators for the different units of soldiers and sailors. At certain times the Egyptians hired mercenaries, or warriors who were recruited for pay, from outside the borders of Egypt.

Among the domains that the government managed were the economy, the administration, both religious (the temples) and nonreligious (secular), and the adjudication of many types of disputes and other legal issues. At the head of each division was a high official, under whom were middle-level and low-level officials. Each department ultimately answered to the king.

Ordinarily, the office of king passed from father to son. On occasion, this rule was broken, as when no male heir survived. For example, in 1319 BCE, at the end of the 18th Dynasty, a nonroyal general, Horemheb, became pharaoh, as the king came to be called during the 18th Dynasty. Another military figure, Ramses I, also not of royal blood, succeeded him to the throne and began the 19th Dynasty. Rarely did a woman rule, but as the 6th, 12th, and 19th dynasties ended, a female ruler took control as sole monarch. The female pharaoh Hatshepsut, of the 18th Dynasty, came to the throne in a different manner. Not long after her husband, Thutmose II, died in 1479 BCE, she proclaimed herself pharaoh and ruled as senior monarch with Thutmose III, the designated male heir (and son of a minor royal wife), as her junior partner.

The Egyptians believed that the office of king was divine. They considered the reigning king a god, by virtue of his coronation and related rituals of office. At his death, his burial and the associated ceremonies ensured that he would remain a god forever and would be identified with both Re, the sun god, and Osiris, the ruler of the realm of the dead. As the ruling monarch, the king was identified with the god Horus, a sky deity believed to be the son of Osiris, who avenged Osiris’s murder and then succeeded him to the throne. He was referred to as the Lord of the Two Lands and the King of Upper and Lower Egypt. (Lower Egypt referred to the Nile Delta area, while Upper Egypt referred to the Nile Valley to the south.) In inscribed, painted, and carved texts, these titles often come before the king’s coronation name, one of the five names he possessed. Another of his names was his personal name, which generally followed his coronation name. These two names appear enclosed within an oval “rope,” known today as a cartouche. The other three names conferred on a pharaoh related to his divinity. The modern term pharaoh comes from the ancient Egyptian phrase per aa, which literally means ‘great house.’ Although it originally was a designation of the royal palace, it came to indicate the king himself beginning with the 18th Dynasty.

Under the king as head of state was the office of vizier, or chief minister. The vizier ran all aspects of the government on behalf of the king. He controlled the courts, the treasury, and the administration. However, at any time the king could exert his own control over any aspect of government. It is uncertain whether more than one vizier held office at a time in the earlier periods, but later texts clearly indicate two official viziers, one for Upper Egypt and one for Lower Egypt. Government officials could often rise in rank, as indicated in their tomb biographies, but many offices were hereditary. Lesser administrators controlled provincial areas now referred to as nomes, and these offices traditionally were passed on within families. While government service clearly occupied a major portion of the time of high officials, these men also administered their own land. In addition, many local administrators served part-time in the priesthood.


Ancient Egypt’s economy was based on agriculture, and the rich bounty of its farmers depended on the Nile. In addition, the river’s waters and marshes were a source of fish and fowl, important parts of the ancient Egyptians’ diet. The fertile soil left by the Nile’s yearly receding floodwaters provided the means for growing a wide variety of grains, vegetables, and fruits. Two of the most important crops, emmer (a type of wheat) and barley, were used to make bread and beer, the staples of the diet. After the crops were harvested, the same fields served as grazing areas for herds of cattle, sheep, and other animals, which in turn served as sources of meat and dairy products.

Farming the fields, tending livestock, hunting wildlife, and similar agrarian activities were the main duties of the majority of Egypt’s lower classes. These people used simple tools, such as hoes, sickles, threshers, winnowing fans, forks, and baskets. Laborers tilled the soil by their own efforts or used plows drawn by cattle or oxen. In addition to this agrarian work, the Egyptians developed associated industries, such as beer and wine making, textile production, leather tanning, woodworking, pottery making, and baking. A portion of the crops and animal products that the farmers produced served as the raw materials for some of these industries. A portion of all the goods produced was used for bartering in the marketplace, as there was no monetary system. Taxes consumed a large share of the total production.

Much of the land was under the control of the throne or the temple, but private ownership also existed. Farmers who did not own land could lease private land, working the fields and keeping part of what they produced. Because so much depended on the Nile’s annual flood, the Egyptians sought to control as much of it as they could by constructing dikes, maintaining high walls, and digging irrigation channels. They also developed a simple mechanism to lift small amounts of water out of the channels and onto the fields. That device, called a shadoof, consists of a bucket set at one end of a counterweighted pole. It is still used today.

Despite all their efforts to control the annual flood, the ancient Egyptians could not prevent problems. An inundation that was too high could result in damaging floodwaters. One that was too low might not provide sufficient water for irrigation.

The ancient Egyptians had other natural resources besides the Nile. The country was rich in a wide variety of minerals, which the people learned to exploit early. They mined gold and copper and established a metalworking industry that produced jewelry, vessels, statues, weapons, and tools, among other objects. They learned to make bronze in around 1500 BCE, but evidence for iron smelting does not appear before the 6th century BCE. They quarried many types of stone, including limestone, calcite, granite, and diorite. The stoneworkers used bronze tools and hard pounding stones in the quarrying process. Stone quarrying provided the raw material for architectural projects, statues, sarcophagi, and vessels. Minerals such as galena, natron, and feldspar were also mined, as were carnelian, malachite, amethyst, and other semiprecious gemstones. Some of these minerals were used for jewelry and decorative purposes, and others were used for cosmetic and funerary preparations. The demand for various types of wood for furniture, coffins, statues, and architectural components exceeded what was available in Egypt. As a result, wood, along with oils and certain manufactured items, was among the materials for which the Egyptians traded their emmer, gold, natron, produce, and other natural resources. The Egyptians carried on trade with the Nubians and with many of the peoples of southwestern Asia, including those of Canaan, Syria, and Mesopotamia.


As one of the world’s earliest major and long-lived civilizations, ancient Egypt left a legacy of important innovations, discoveries, and contributions that have affected humankind over the millennia. The ancient Egyptian religion survived for thousands of years. Over that time, revisions were made to religious texts, the powers of certain gods waxed and waned, some deities were combined, and some even fell completely out of favor. Yet out of that ancient religion survived a basic belief in a good and moral life on earth as a major means of attaining an afterlife, a concept that is reflected in most modern religions. The brief period of religious reform associated with the pharaoh Akhenaton, known today as the Amarna period, introduced the world to a belief in a single god. Akhenaton’s doctrines may have been the impetus for the monotheistic religion developed by the Hebrews that surfaced in the Middle East shortly thereafter. It, in turn, gave rise to Christianity.

Literacy may have been limited to a small percentage of the population, but the large quantity of written material that survives indicates the importance of the written word to the ancient Egyptians. Their hieroglyphs may well represent humankind’s earliest attempt to write. The ancient Egyptians developed the use of writing on papyrus, the product of a native plant of the same name that they processed. Many of their documents were used for teaching purposes, and they produced manuals with model letters for apprentice scribes.

Some of the mathematical texts taught the finer points of arithmetic, geometry, and even word problems, and are not unlike modern primers. These and other texts indicate that the ancient Egyptians understood and could add fractions and could even find the area of a trapezoidal pyramid. Without the advanced mathematics they originated, the ancient Egyptians would not have been able to build the pyramids and other large structures.

Medical papyri taught physicians how to deal with both internal medicine and surgery, and there were texts devoted to pharmaceutical remedies, dental procedures, and veterinary medicine. These papyri represent some of the earliest known texts on these subjects.

Religious texts recorded and preserved the major tenets of Egyptian beliefs. Literary papyri cover a broad range of genres, from epics, love poetry, and wisdom literature (selections from which are the ancestors of some biblical proverbs) to political propaganda, satire, comic stories, and drama (perhaps the first recorded examples). What may have been the world’s first fairy tale came from ancient Egypt. Oral communication helped spread the literature, and some myths appeared in later Roman stories. Collections of assorted texts were deposited in early examples of libraries, known as houses of life.

The ancient Greeks credited the Egyptians with many early discoveries in the fields of philosophy, art, and science. It is clear also that the Greeks benefited from and were influenced by the achievements of the Egyptians in sculpture and architecture. For example, early Greek statues of youths, called kouroi, are clearly modeled on Egyptian statuary, and Greek fluted columns are undeniably similar to columns constructed in Egypt centuries earlier. The association of certain Greek gods with Egyptian deities underscores the connection between the two civilizations. For example, Imhotep, the ancient Egyptian architect and sage who was deified (elevated to the rank of a god) long after his death, was associated primarily with medicine in the Hellenistic period and was often identified with Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.

The influence of the ancient Egyptians is even seen today. The obelisk, an architectural feature of many temples, is still used, as can be seen in the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. Other features of Egyptian architecture, such as the temple pylon, figured relief, and columns, have been used in the last few centuries in the construction of structures such as museums, mausoleums, office buildings, and government buildings.

The ancient Egyptians were masters of the arts of stoneworking and metalworking and the production of faience and glass. Their products were used throughout the ancient world. Their understanding of astronomy was very advanced, and this knowledge was passed on to the generations that followed. Based on their observations of the Sun and the stars they developed a calendar. Eventually they produced a version of the zodiac.

Ancient Egypt and modern Egypt are separated by a long period of time, a different language, and distinct concepts and beliefs. Nevertheless, scholars have suggested that the roots of some Arabic folktales may stretch back to ancient Egypt. Some modern Egyptian phrases and proverbs may also have originated in the ancient language. Certain ancient religious concepts and imagery survive in the Coptic Church, a Christian church that still exists in Egypt today. These concepts and imagery include the Virgin suckling the infant Jesus, based on ancient Egyptian images of Isis and her son Horus; the crux ansata, a Coptic cross derived from the ankh, the ancient Egyptian word for life; and an association of the four evangelists with the four sons of Horus.


Interest in learning about ancient Egypt goes very far back in time, but serious research by scholars in a field of study known as Egyptology began only in more modern times. Scholars in the late 18th century realized that the monuments and the sites they came from had to be recorded properly in order to reconstruct the history and civilization of ancient Egypt. The decipherment of the ancient Egyptian language by Jean François Champollion in 1822 added to the sources of knowledge and created the field of Egyptian philology (study of written texts) and linguistics. Today, experts in a variety of specialized fields contribute to the study of Egyptology. They include archaeologists, art historians, philologists, medical and dental specialists, anthropologists, paleopathologists (scientists who study diseases in dead bodies from ancient times), paleobotanists (scientists who study the plant life of ancient times), computer specialists, geologists, and epigraphers (scholars who copy, study, and translate ancient inscriptions). Dating methods such as carbon dating, thermoluminescence, and dendrochronology (the study of tree rings) are used to determine the approximate age of objects. Some types of archaeology do not necessitate the excavation of entire areas to uncover sites. New noninvasive methods that use remote sensing devices can locate potential sites, pinpointing archaeological fixtures below the surface. Scientists today use sophisticated scans, computer imaging, X-ray analysis, bone studies, and DNA testing to learn about ancient diseases and nutrition. Conservators use the most up-to-date techniques to preserve monuments in the field and in museums. In the late 20th century, discoveries in the harbor of Alexandria opened the field to underwater archaeology. Photographic advances, such as the video recorder and digitizing camera, have also been used to record monuments and artifacts. Sophisticated computer programs have simplified the compiling of databases, have aided epigraphers, and have become invaluable in archaeological reconstructions and surveys. And the discovery in 2006 of a new intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings—the first such discovery since 1922—appeared to dispel the belief that there were no more important tomb discoveries to be made. All of the information gathered by archaeologists aids scholars in interpreting the messages left by the silent monuments of Egypt’s past, enabling them to communicate the wonders of this once grand civilization to the rest of humankind.

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