We owe the division of Egypt’s ancient history into thirty royal Dynasties from Menes to Alexander the Great to an Egyptian historian called Manetho, who lived in the reign of Ptolemy II (285-247 BC). The Dynasties were subsequently combined and grouped into three main periods: the Old Kingdom or Pyramid Age, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. These have been further divided by modern historians into:
|Egyptian Social Pyramid|
- Early Dynastic Period (3100-332 BC)
- Old Kingdom
- First Intermediate Period
- Middle Kingdom
- Second Intermediate Period
- New Kingdom
- Third Intermediate Period (Period of Decline)
- Late Period
Menes came from ancient Thinis, near Abydos, and according to Manetho the first and second Dynasties were ruled by ‘eight kings of Thinis’ and ‘nine kings of Thinis’ respectively. This was a period in which there appears to have been active resistance against unity. Once consolidated, however, Egypt embarked on a period of economic prosperity, technical achievement, productivity and inventiveness. During the Old Kingdom (2686-2345 BC) a series of vigorous monarchs established and maintained a highly centralised government. This was when the pharaohs Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren) and Menkaure (Mycerinus) raised the great pyramids on the Giza plateau.
Unfortunately, forces of internal erosion finally reduced the country to lawlessness, and the monarchy fell. The provincial lords who had gained prestige under the great pharaohs agitated for independence. The country fragmented into small provincial kingdoms, and though several leaders governed independently during the First Intermediate Period, none was powerful enough to rule the Two Lands.
|Ancient Egyptian Map|
As before, there was a breakdown in the central government. Petty kings ruled simultaneously from Luxor in Upper Egypt and from some centres in Lower Egypt. Rapid decline set in and the country soon passed under the domination of the Hyksos, ‘rulers of foreign countries’, warlike tribes from western Asia.
The Hyksos occupation lasted for about a century/Again it was a family from Thebes who triggered the war of liberation and provided the galvanic response to pursue the enemy right into their own camp, which was situated in the north-eastern Delta. Having successfully defeated the enemy and driven them out of Egypt, a liberated, reunited country could embark on its third cultural peak.
Under the rulers of the New Kingdom (1567-1080 BC), Egypt developed into an important power. The successful wars against the Hyksos had already transformed the country into a military state with a standing army. Now it remained to create an empire and extend the frontiers southwards to Kush and north-eastwards to the countries ofPalestine and Syria. The monuments raised throughout the land during the New Kingdom, particularly those in Upper Egypt, reflect the wealth and prosperity of the nation. Unfortunately, the pharaohs fell under the domination of the high priests of Amon at Thebes, until eventually one of them seized the throne.
In the 21st Dynasty, the country was once more divided: Upper Egypt was ruled by the high priests at Thebes, and Lower Egypt by a family in Tanis. Under a divided and weakened rule, Egypt succumbed again to foreign invasion: tribes of Libyan origin, Kushites from beyond Nubia, the Assyrian conquest and then, following a short-lived revival known as the Saite Period, came the Persian invasions, and finally the Greek and Roman occupations.
In times of strong central government, the Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt were united. In times of weakened rule they broke apart. When united, the culture was built on strong foundations of inherited values and traditions. When divided, the Delta, Lower Egypt, was open to diverse foreign influences, while it was in Upper Egypt, and in neighbouring Nubia, that the traditional spirit of ancient Egypt survived.