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Egyptian Chronology

Pre-history - 250000 BC – 5000 BC

Pre-history is categorised as a time before the invention of writing. During this time the people of Ancient Egypt lived in small mobile hunter gatherer settlements. Agriculture and the domestication of animals had not yet been discovered.

Prehistoric or Neolithic (New Stone Age) settlements usually consisted of one or two family groups, which included extended family. The head of the settlement would usually be a local chief, whose influence extended no further than the territory of the settlement.

They had basic stone tools, such as flint knives, arrow heads and axes. Items of religious significance have also been found from the prehistoric period, these mostly consist of small personal items or charms, there is no universal religion.

Evidence for this long period of Egypt’s history is very limited as we have no written evidence to speak of. All we have is what is we find in the archaeological record, which usually consists of the aforementioned stone tools and items of religious significance. Some of the best evidence we have comes in the form of desiccated bodies, buried with simple grave goods. As the grave goods usually consist of pots containing food and small personal items, it is possible to say that these early peoples did believe in some form of afterlife.

The peoples of the time noticed that the hot, dry desert sand dried out the bodies of the dead and preserved them, hence mummification was born. The most famous of these early mummies, nicknamed Ginger, is now in the British museum.

Predynastic Period – 5000 BC – 3100 BC

The predynastic period in Ancient Egypt is defined as a time when Egypt was loosely divided into two kingdoms. The first kingdom, in the North, is characterised as Lower Egypt its capital being at the site of Buto in the Nile Delta. The second kingdom, in the South, is characterised as Upper Egypt, is capital being at Hierakonpolis. (hire-a-kon-polis)

The designation of the two kingdoms, come from the flow of the river Nile, which flows upwards and out to the Mediterranean. To the Ancient Egyptians, the direction of the flow of river signified upper and lower, rather than our true North and South. The designations of the upper and lower kingdoms survived throughout Egyptians history and, to a certain extent are still in place today. In the Predynastic period, these kingdoms were separate entities and governed separately.

Archaeologically, this period is defined by the first appearance of simple hieroglyphic script on grave stela of the elite. The pottery of the time consists of Black topped ware, pottery which was fired upside down, sitting in the embers of the kiln, thus becoming a black/burnt colour around the entrance to the vessel, the lower part of the vessels are red/brown in colour.

At this time evidence for the belief in an afterlife becomes much more concrete. Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis, displays the first evidence for tomb painting, which took on a hugely significant role in the millennia to come. At Heirakonpolis, also comes the first evidence for temple building, here we find the remains of a huge semi circled structure, which archaeologists have deemed to be the remains of a temple.

During this period settlements became more permanent and agriculture and the domestication of animals was discovered.

Early Dynastic Period – 3100 BC – 2650 BC

From the Early Dynastic Period, Ancient Egyptian History is classified by dynasties of Egyptian kings. This period is usually classified as the Dynasties 1-2, although with the advent of the finding of the tomb of king Scorpion at Abydos( a-by-dos) a new Dynasty 0 has been added to the chronology.

During this period the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were unified for the first time. Most archaeologists give credit to a certain king Narmer, the finding of the so called Narmer Palette at Heirokonpolis, depicts this king smiting foes from the north, while wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt. On the reverse, the king is depicted wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. The wearing of both crowns, has been taken to mean that this king had conquered the north and unified Egypt for the first time. Since its founding the Narmer Palette has been taken as conclusive evidence of the unification of the country by this king. This is a theory which has only now been challenged.[1] The Narmer Palette can now be viewed in the Cairo Museum.

Burial customs become hugely elaborate during this period. The kings of the first dynasty and of dynasty 0 are buried at Abydos, north of modern day Luxor. These tombs consist of huge pits, divided into sections, or rooms. It is possible that some form of superstructure once existed, but over the course of time was removed or destroyed. In the tomb of king Den, remains of an arm, wearing bracelets which are highly elaborate for the time. This arm also shows the remains of linen bandages, which may be evidence for early deliberate mummification. The arm is now lost, the bracelets are in the Cairo museum.

Kings of this time also had tombs at the site of Saqqara (sack-a-ra) in the north, these tombs are the first evidence of mastaba (in Arabic, meaning bench) tombs. These tombs have a brick superstructure and a shaft leading down to the burial chamber, these tombs have been deemed Cenotaphs or false tombs by archaeologists. The leading theory behind this practice is, that the king, now king of both the north and the south, must have a tomb in both areas, sacred burial ground to legitimise his rule even after his death.

It is thought that the kings of Dynasty two, favoured the north and were buried here. At the site of Saqqara huge underground complexes have been found. These have been attributed to kings, Nineter and Hetepsekhemwy, these may have also had some form of superstructure, but this has now been cleared away to make room for later monuments, such as the 5th dynasty pyramid of king Unas, which is now directly above the huge Hetepsekhemwy complex. At Heirokonpolis, 2nd dynasty king Khasekhemwy has built what archaeologists have deemed to be a cenotaph. The building, dubbed the fort, is the oldest mud-brick structure in existence and consists of an outer wall, with no visible interior, thus lending support to the cenotaph theory. The only king of the 2nd dynasty to have pit tomb at Abydos, was king Peribsen, whose standard is shown with the Seth animal atop, unlike previous kings, who are show with the falcon above their standard, which is an early example of Horus, the god of Egyptian kingship. The switch from Saqqara to Abydos and the switch from Horus to Seth, perhaps indicates a period of instability in this period. The god Seth is universally associated with the forces of chaos.

Other valuable evidence from this period consists of ivory labels detailing the names of the kings, an ivory label of king Den also depicts the king running around semi circled structures, which could be an early form of the kings Heb-Sed festival, celebrated after the king had reigned for 16 years and sometimes every subsequent year, to demonstrate that he is still fit to rule. On the label the king wears the false bulls tail and carries a sceptre, both strong symbols of power and later pharaonic Egypt.

Old Kingdom – 2650 BC – 2323 BC

The Old Kingdom was Egypt’s first golden age, and is defined by monumental stone architecture, most famously the first buildings of pyramid type. The Old Kingdom comprises dynasties 3-6, with the first pyramid built at the end of dynasty three by the pharaoh Djoser. This pyramid was built at Saqqara and originally started out as a mastaba tomb. The pharaohs architect Imhotep, constructed the pyramid, placing one mastaba tomb on top of another, creating what we now know today as the Step Pyramid. Aside from the pyramid itself, which is the world’s first monumental construction in stone, a huge complex was built around the pyramid, the pyramid itself the central feature. The complex contains false temples and a festival court, for use in the afterlife. Although false in the world, these features were thought to function in the next life.

The 4th dynasty kings Huni and Snefru began to experiment with true pyramid building. Huni the first of the two kings attempted a true pyramid, the remains of which can be seen at Meidum (My-doom) near the Feyoum Oases. The angle of this pyramid was too steep and it collapsed in antiquity, leaving only the tower like central core. Snefru was responsible for the construction of two pyramids, both at the site of Dashur. The first, called the Bent Pyramid, was built at a slight incline, about half way the architects realised there was a flaw in the design and changed the angle of the pyramid, thus giving it its Bent shape.

The second of Snefru’s pyramids, the Red Pyramid is the world’s first true pyramid. This pyramid is similar in size to the great pyramid at Giza and takes its name from the Red granite that it was once cased in. Unlike the famous Giza pyramids, the little visited site of Dashur can be visited without the endless streams of tourists, camel drivers and souvenir hawkers.

After the construction of the Red Pyramid by Snefru, the Great Pyramid of Giza was built by Snefru’s son Khufu. It took approximately 20 years to complete and was completed with the free labour of farmers during the Nile inundation. It was not completed by slave as popular myth would have us believe. Subsequent pharaohs, Khafre and Menkare, also constructed pyramids at Giza, although these are different in size and design to the largest of the three pyramids. The change in the location of the burial chamber from the centre of the pyramid to within the pyramid substructure, demonstrates a change in afterlife beliefs. It is only Khufu’s pyramid that contains shafts pointing to the constellations of Orion and Sirus, leading out from the burial chamber. This is indicative of the kings wish to join the gods and sail across the night sky with Ra.

The Old Kingdom also, saw the development of the pyramid texts. 6th dynasty pharaoh Unas had the walls of his burial chamber inscribed with ritual text and spells to assist him in gaining access to the afterlife. The belief in a solar afterlife for the king was still current at this time, the Unas pyramid, as Saqqara, is also the first to have to ceiling of the burial chamber painted with stars and constellations representing the night sky.

It is thought that the downfall of this period of Egyptian history was caused by a series of low Niles, which led to a famine. The causeway of the Unas pyramid shows figures of villagers starving to death. The issue of whether or not these people are Egyptians is still a matter for debate, the leading argument against this theory is that an Egyptian pharaoh would never portray his own people in a negative light as this would reflect badly on his ability to provide and protect his people as god on Earth.

First Intermediate Period – 2323 BC – 2125 BC

During the First Intermediate Period, (Dynasties 7-8) Egypt experience a period of instability and was divided into two kingdoms again. This period was marred by a series of kings who ruled for a short time, which weakened the idea that the king was a god on Earth. This concept was further weakened by a series of assassinations and low Niles.

Carpentry and stone carving flourished during this period. As these crafts were no longer run by the state this gave the craftsmen greater creative freedom. The democratisation of the afterlife made huge advances in this period, with state administration virtually powerless, petty officials and craftsman begin to construct their own tombs.

Middle Kingdom – 2125 BC – 1650 BC

Egypt is reunified by Mentuhotep I (Men – too – hotep) and new capital is established at the site of Thebes (modern day Luxor) in Upper Egypt. During dynasties 9-14 a there was a golden age in art and literature, the king is now portrayed as black in most sculpture, which is perhaps indicative of his wish to be portrayed the same colour as the life giving Nile mud.

In the middle kingdom the first blocks were laid at the temple of Karnak in Thebes and pharaoh Sesotris I built the White Chapel to honour the god Amun. This structure is the oldest surviving part of the temple which was continually added to over the millennia.

Pyramid building continued, but not in the same style as the Old Kingdom. Pyramids were built at Dashur, Hawara and at locations further south, the core of these new pyramids was of mud brick and not of stone and so these pyramids, much younger than those of the Old Kingdom crumbled and now appear as mounds of rubble. In addition to these pyramids, the new innovation of a separate morturary temple was employed. These temples were put in place for the celebration of the kings mortuary cult after his death.

Second Intermediate Period – 1650 -1550 BC

During this period Egypt experience a general weakening at its capital, Thebes. Invaders from the north, which history dubbed the Hyksos, conquered Egypt and established a new capital in the Nile delta called Avaris. Where these people came from is the subject of hot debate, but the general consensus seems to be that they were of Canaanite origin and spoke a Semitic language. Their weaponry was far superior to that of the ancient Egyptians and it is thought that they introduced fighting with the composite bow and brought with them horses and chariots.

To the south of Thebes, territory that once belonged to Egypt was now ruled by Nubia. The Egyptian king at Thebes was trapped between an Asiatic and a Nubian as the records tell us. The dynasties are split into the Hyksos dynasty, which is the 15th dynasty and the Theban dynasty which is the 16th Dynasty.

In 17th Dynasty wars of liberation were fought between Avaris and Thebes, most notabley between the Hyksos king Apophis and the Egyptian king Seqenenre Tao II. Evidence of the great battle that ensued is evident on the Egyptian pharaoh’s face, which contains many battle wounds. His mummy is now on display in the royal mummy room in the Cairo museum. Despite Seqenenre’s valiant effort the Hyksos prevailed, but were weakened enough that Seqenenre’s son Ahmose I was able to defeat them and restore Egypt to one kingdom.

New Kingdom – 1550 – 1070 BC

With the advent of the New Kingdom and 18th Dynasty, Egypt’s renaissance period begins. The start of the New Kingdom is marked by the re-unification of the upper and lower kingdoms, in addition to the expulsion of the Hyksos invaders.

In the New Kingdom, the first king is interred in the Valley of the Kings, Thutmose I along with the royal architect Ineni built his tomb “No one seeing, no one hearing” and this first tomb remains one of the few archaeologists have yet to discover.

Thutmose I continued the war on Egypt’s Asiatic enemies, by pursuing them all the way up the cost of Canaan, near modern day Israel and Lebanon. Egypt had always been an oppressor of the lands to the south, or the vile Kush in modern day Sudan. The expeditions north were completely new and not heard of in earlier times.

The New Kingdom also saw Egypt’s first female pharaoh since the early dynastic ruler Merit-neith. Queen Hatchepsut (Hat-shep-sut) became regent for Thutmose III, after her husband Thutmose II died at an early age. Thutmose III was the kings son by a minor wife and it wasn’t long before Queen Hatchepsut, suddenly became King Hatchepsut. (There is no word in ancient Egyptian for our concept of Queen, the female title bestowed on the chief wife, was “Great Royal Wife”)

Hatchepsut undertook many building projects during her reign and constructed an impressive mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri. She added a passage of Ram headed sphinxes between Karnak and Luxor temples. The Hyksos had destroyed many temples and Hatchepsut tells us that she set about restoring them. Her Speos Artemidos inscription tells us of her work on the Temple of the Lady of Cusae, “the temple had fallen in to disrepair and children danced upon its roof, I raised up what had been destroyed and created order where none existed”. The Egyptian concept of order or Ma’at was crucial to the Egyptian ideal of kingship, in which it was the pharaoh’s job to keep the divine order of the word in place.

Hatchepsut launched an expedition to the land of Punt (possibly modern day Ethiopia, near Axum, and re-established trade lines that had been closed since the end of the Old Kingdom. Reliefs of the expedition can be seen on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deirel Bahri.

Hatchepsut was also the victim of a palace scandal, she favoured her daughter tutor, Senenmut highly and promoted him to royal vizier. Lewd graffito in the quarries of the Valley of the Kings of Hatchepsut and Senemut depicts the suspicions of the general populace as to what was going on between the two.

After the death of Hatchepsut, Thutmose III was finally allowed to assume the throne. During Hatchepsut’s reign, he had been sent on many military campaigns (possibly so that he would be dispatched of without scandal) and was no focused on extending Egypt’s borders and sphere of influence. Thutmose III extended Egypt’s control all the way up into modern day Syria, crossing the Euphrates river and launching the battle of Meggido, one of the largest battles in the areas history.

The Amarna Phenomenon

In the middle of the 18th Dynasty a pharaoh came to power called Amenhotep IV, succeeding Amenhotep III. During his reign he changed his name to Akhenaten (Ak-en-aten) and devoted himself and the kingdom to the worship of a single god, the Aten. The worship of the one god, included moving Egypt’s capital to the site of Amarna, deep in the middle Egyptian desert and forcing the populace to worship Akhenaten’s single god, after millennia of polytheistic worship.

A new philosophy in art and in life was also adopted, living in truth. Before the advent of Amarna, Egyptian kings had always been portrayed as the epitome of health, virility and perfection. During Amarna, the king as well as everyone else is portrayed as potbellied, with large hips and an elongated skull. Archaeologists and art historians alike are completely baffled by these new depictions, the most simple explanation is that the artists of the time struggled to comprehend the new philosophy and way of portraying the king.

Akhenaten did not build a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, he chose to be interred in a rock cut tomb in the cliffs at Amarna. His tomb, which is now heavily destroyed shows scenes never before depicted in Egyptian art. These scenes, usually kept private include, the king and his wife Nefertiti grieving for the loss of the daughter Merit-aten and other scenes show the king playing with his children and showing affection to both them and his wife.

After the reign of Akhenaten, the following kings and the rest of the populace tried to erase this king and the things he stood for from history, by erasing his name from all monuments and leaving his new city in ruins.

Later New Kingdom

After the reign of Akhenaten, a child called Tutankhaten came to the throne. Aged nine, he had a regent called Ay, who was a general in the army. During his reign he changed his name to Tutankhamen, to reflect the changing of the Egyptian religion back to polytheism and the worship of the god Amun.

It is thought Tutankhamen had little to no control over his kingdom when this change took place and that, the changes we instigated by his regent. Tutankhamen is now the most famous name in Egyptian history, due to the finding of his intact burial in the Valley of the Kings, by Howard Carter in 1912. The artefacts, including a solid gold death mask and coffin are now on display in the Cairo museum.

During the 19th Dynasty the Egyptian kings focused on expanding the borders of Egypt. Seti I campaigned into northern Syria and Ramses II (the Great) went as far as to attack Hittite Territory at the battle of Kadesh. This battle, the most famous in Egyptian history is now portrayed on the walls of every major building project of the time. Ramses II, ruled for approximately 50 years and undertook numerous building projects, some of which include, the great temple of Abu Simbel, the completion of Karnaks Hypostyle hall, his mortuary temple in the Valley of Kings, now dubbed the Ramesseum, as well as a large tomb for both himself and his sons. The tomb built for his many children, (KV5) is now under excavation by Ken Weekes[2] and is the largest tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

After the reign of Ramses II, Egypt and the entire bronze age Mediterranean come under attack by several bands of marauders, known as the Sea Peoples. This group, which was not one group but many, destroyed every major settlement of the time. Only Egypt was able to fend off these attackers, the reliefs of this battle are displayed on the walled of Ramses III’s fortress like mortuary temple at Medinet Habu in the Valley of the Kings.

Other Important Dates

1070 BC – Death of Ramses XI and the end of the New Kingdom and Pharaonic (Egyptians ruling Egypt) history.

945 – 715 BC – Libyan Period. Libyans from the western deserts invade Egypt and a new Libyan dynasty is born.

663 – 610 BC – Assyrian or Saite Period. Assyrians from central Anatolia (Eastern Turkey) occupy Egypt and built rock cut tombs in the style of Egyptian pharaohs.

610 – 595 BC – Merotic Period. Nubian rulers from the area now called Sudan, ruled Egypt from their capital at Meroe and built pyramids in the style of the Egyptian Pharaohs.

525 – 332 BC – Persian Period. Egypt is ruled by the Persians, who desecrate their temples and kill the sacred animals. This period is renowned for the oppression of the Egyptian people and their way of life.

331 BC – Egypt is liberated from the Persians by Alexander the Great

310 – 30 BC – Ptolomaic Period. Egypt is ruled by Greek kings, who continue building in the Egyptian style and worship the Egyptian gods as well as their own. In addition to the worship of the Egyptian gods a new god, Serapis, is invented to bring Egyptians and Greek Expats together.

30 BC – 40 AD – Roman Period. Octavion defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the last of the Greek Pharaohs’ at Alexandria. Egypt becomes a Roman Province.

40 – 640 AD – Christian or Coptic Period. St. Mark arrives in Alexandria and converts the first Egyptians to Christianity. Pagan Egyptian temples are defaced and some converted into churches.

640 AD – Arab invasion and the birth of Modern Egypt.

  • -Kristina Wilson 2010

[1] In modern archaeological terms, it is not possible to attribute a significant event such as the unification of the two kingdoms, based solely upon the evidence of a ceremonial cosmetic palette. We must wait for further evidence to surface before credit or reason for the unification can be given.