Egypt has a history far older than many of us realize. In fact, by the time the Greeks and Romans sailed across the Mediterranean to the Land of the Pharaohs, Egypt was already considered an ancient civilization. From humble beginnings as hunter–gatherers along the Nile Valley, Egypt evolved into the world’s first empire, building a golden legacy that ended, as it was with Cleopatra, with the bite of an asp.
With such a far-reaching history, it can be tough to know where to start. But let’s begin at the beginning and explore Egypt’s history by breaking it down by period.
Early Dynastic Period: 5100–4600 years ago
Starting out as two separate states — Lower Egypt in the north and Upper Egypt in the south — the two lands were united under King Menes, who founded Egypt’s First Dynasty. His capital city was Memphis, located near modern Cairo and close to the Nile’s delta. Egyptian religion and politics began to form during this period, with the pharaoh viewed as a divine being and the son of Horus.
Old Kingdom: 4686–4181 years ago
The age of the pyramids. While previous pharaohs had been buried in mud-brick mastabas (tombs), Djoser (the founder of the Third Dynasty) built Egypt’s first stone monument, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.
Following in his footsteps, Khufu (the founder of the Fourth Dynasty) built the Great Pyramid of Giza, the only remaining member of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Khufu’s successor, Khafra, is believed to have built the Great Sphinx along with a pyramid of his own. Although they stand as an awe-inspiring testament to ancient architecture, pyramid building fell out of favour as the burial chambers within were too easily robbed of their treasures.
Middle Kingdom: 4000–3700 years ago
OK, here is where things start to change. Up until now, pharaohs really had the power. But all that began to wane as rival factions warring for rule tore Egypt apart leading to the the kingdom’s reunification in the 11th dynasty. Here’s where the dynamic changes and we see Egypt began to reinvent itself as a military power, making conquests into Nubia in the south. Trade relations were opened with Syria, Palestine and other countries to the east.
New Kingdom 3550–3077 years ago
To everything there is a season. The same applies to Egypt’s kingdoms. The New Kingdom houses the stories of many household names from history. Let’s take a roll call:
Queen Hatshepsut reigned as one of the first female rulers in recorded history. Dressed in male garb (including a pharaoh’s false beard) she expanded Egypt’s trade and built herself a magnificent temple at Deir el-Bahari. This monument is a highlight of tours to Egypt today.
Tutankhamun, whose tomb opening in 1923 caused worldwide sensation, ruled Egypt as a boy-king until his death in 1323 BC, possibly by murder. The removal of his mummy sparked fears of a curse, with several prominent members of the excavation team dying under mysterious circumstances. Therefore, King Tut was re-entombed in the Valley of the Kings, where he rests to this day.
Pharaoh Ramesses II is considered to be Egypt’s most successful king, leaving a multitude of building projects in his wake. Like his father, Seti I, he added to the great temple of Karnak, near Luxor. Far to the south in Abu Simbel, he erected two enormous temples to himself and his queen, Nefertari, commemorating his victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh.
Ramesses II became known as “The Great Ancestor,” with a further nine pharaohs taking his name. But the glorious days of Egypt’s pharaoh past were over. The kingdoms became divided once again and Egypt’s enemies closed in.
Greco-Roman period: 2332–1358 years ago
Known as the “bread basket of the east,” the fertile lands of the Nile made a tempting prize, first for the Persians. But, it wasn’t long before Egypt came under the control of Alexander the Great when he defeated the armies of the Persian Empire in 332 BC. Egypt was handed to one of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy. The Ptolemies, originally of Macedonia, ruled Egypt and embraced the ancient native culture. They enjoyed being depicted in the traditional garb of the pharaohs and even practiced the old Egyptian religion.
“I will not be triumphed over”
The final ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty was the legendary Cleopatra VII. She bore a son to her first lover, Julius Caesar, whom she named Caesarion. After the division of the Roman Republic, her armies were led by Mark Anthony and defeated at the Battle of Actium. Legend says she committed suicide through the bite of a snake, an asp (a symbol of pharaonic power since the earliest days of Egypt.) A fitting end for the “Last of the Pharaohs.”
After her death, Egypt fell to the rule of Octavian Caesar, who later took the name Augustus when he was crowned the first Emperor of Rome.
For six centuries, Rome ruled over Egypt. Christianity became the official state religion under Emperor Constantine, continuing until the Arab invasion of Egypt in 7AD when Islam replaced Christianity. The Arabian influence molded the lands of the Nile Valley into the country we see today, sweeping away the last vestiges of an illustrious past that stretches back over 5000 years.
The traditions may be long gone, but with thousands of years of inspiration to build on, no other ancient civilization has informed the romantic imagination of travellers, artists, writers, generals and treasure hunters quite like ancient Egypt.
Follow in the footsteps of Napoleon and Howard Carter to discover your own Egyptian adventure! G Adventures runs a number of departures to Egypt encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. Check out our small group trips here.