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Ancient Egypt

A little history

The Egyptian World
The Land
The People

Life of the People
Family life
Food, Clothing, and Shelter

Gods and Goddesses
The Afterlife

Work of the People
Manufacturing and Mining
Trade and Transportation
Crafts and Professions

Arts and Sciences
painting and sculpture
music and literature


The early period
the old kingdom
the middle kingdom
the new kingdom
The periods of foreign control
The Ptolemies
Roman rule

Learning about ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt,

was the birthplace of one of the world's first civilizations. This advanced culture arose about 5,000 years ago in the Nile River Valley in northeastern Africa. It thrived for over 2,000 years and so became one of the longest lasting civilizations in history.

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The mighty Nile River was the lifeblood of ancient Egypt. Every year, it overflowed and deposited a strip of rich, black soil along each bank. The fertile soil enabled farmers to raise a huge supply of food. The ancient Egyptians called their country Kemet, meaning Black Land, after the dark soil. The Nile also provided water for irrigation and was Egypt's main transportation route. For all these reasons, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt "the gift of the Nile."

The ancient Egyptians made outstanding contributions to the development of civilization. They created the world's first national government, basic forms of arithmetic, and a 365-day calendar. They invented a form of picture writing called hieroglyphics. They also invented papyrus, a paperlike writing material made from the stems of papyrus plants. The Egyptians developed one of the first religions to emphasize life after death. They built great cities in which many skilled architects, doctors, engineers, painters, and sculptors worked.

The best-known achievements of the ancient Egyptians, however, are the pyramids they built as tombs for their rulers. The most famous pyramids stand at Giza. These gigantic stone structures—marvels of architectural and engineering skills—have been preserved by the dry climate for about 4,500 years. They serve as spectacular reminders of the glory of ancient Egypt.

The Egyptian world

The land. Ancient Egypt was a long, narrow country through which the Nile River flowed. Deserts bordered the country on the east, south, and west. The Mediterranean Sea lay to the north. The Nile River flowed north out of central Africa through the Egyptian desert to the Mediterranean. The Egyptians called the desert Deshret, meaning Red Land. The Nile's course through Egypt was about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers). The river split into several channels north of what is now Cairo, forming the Nile Delta. Rolling desert land lay west of the Nile Valley, and mountains rose to the east.

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The Nile River flooded its banks each year. The flooding started in July, when the rainy season began in central Africa. The rains raised the level of the river as the Nile flowed northward. The floodwaters usually went down in September, leaving a strip of fertile land that averaged about 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide on each side of the river. Farmers then plowed and seeded the rich soil. The Egyptians also depended on the Nile as their chief transportation route. Memphis and Thebes—the main capitals of ancient Egypt—and many other cities developed along the river because of its importance to farming and transportation.

The people. Most people of ancient Egypt lived in the Nile River Valley. Scholars believe the valley had from about 1 million to 4 million people at various times during ancient Egypt's history. The rest of the population lived in the delta and on oases west of the river.

The ancient Egyptians had dark skin and dark hair. They spoke a language that was related both to the Semitic languages of southwestern Asia and to certain languages of northern Africa. The Egyptian language was written in hieroglyphics, a system of picture symbols that stood for ideas and sounds. The Egyptians began to use this system about 3000 B.C. It consisted of over 700 picture symbols. The Egyptians used hieroglyphics to inscribe monuments and temples and to record official texts. For everyday use, they developed simpler hieroglyphic forms called hieratic and demotic.

Ancient Egypt had three main social classes—upper, middle, and lower. The upper class consisted of the royal family, rich landowners, government officials, high-ranking priests and army officers, and doctors. The middle class was made up chiefly of merchants, manufacturers, and craftworkers. The lower class, the largest class by far, consisted of unskilled laborers. Most of them worked on farms. Prisoners captured in foreign wars became slaves and formed a separate class.

Ancient Egypt's class system was not rigid. People in the lower or middle class could move to a higher position. They improved their status mainly through marriage or success in their jobs. Even slaves had rights. They could own personal items, get married, and inherit land. They could also be given their freedom.

Life of the people

Family life. The father headed the family in ancient Egypt. Upon his death, his oldest son became the head. Women had almost as many rights as men. They could own and inherit property, buy and sell goods, and make a will. A wife could obtain a divorce. Few other ancient civilizations gave women all these rights.

Kings commonly had several wives at the same time. In many cases, a king's chief wife was a member of the royal family, such as his sister or half sister.

Children played with dolls, tops, and stuffed leather balls. They had board games with moves determined by the throw of dice. They also had several kinds of pets, including cats, dogs, monkeys, baboons, and birds.

Education. Only a small percentage of boys and girls went to school in ancient Egypt, and most of them came from upper-class families. These students attended schools for scribes. Scribes made written records for government offices, temples, and other institutions. They also read and wrote letters for the large numbers of Egyptians who could not read and write.

The king's palace, government departments, and temples operated the scribal schools. All the schools prepared the students to become scribes or to follow other careers. The main subjects were reading, literature, geography, mathematics, and writing. The students learned writing by copying literature, letters, and business accounts. They used papyrus, the world's first paperlike material, and wrote with brushes made of reeds whose ends were softened and shaped. The Egyptians made ink by mixing water and soot, a black powder formed in the burning of wood or other substances.

Most Egyptian boys followed their fathers' occupations and were taught by their fathers. Some boys thus learned a trade, but the majority became farmers. Many parents placed their sons with master craftsmen, who taught carpentry, pottery making, or other skills. Boys who wanted to become doctors probably went to work with a doctor after finishing their basic schooling. Most girls were trained for the roles of wife and mother. Their mothers taught them cooking, sewing, and other skills.

Ancient Egypt had many libraries. A famous library in Alexandria had over 400,000 papyrus scrolls, which dealt with astronomy, geography, and many other subjects. Alexandria also had an outstanding museum.

Food, clothing, and shelter. Bread was the chief food in the diet of most ancient Egyptians, and beer was the favorite beverage. The bread was made from wheat, and the beer from barley. Many Egyptians also enjoyed a variety of vegetables and fruits, fish, milk, cheese, butter, and meat from ducks and geese. Wealthy Egyptians regularly ate beef, antelope and gazelle meat, and fancy cakes and other baked goods. They drank grape, date, and palm wine. The people ate with their fingers.

The Egyptians generally dressed in white linen garments. Women wore robes or tight dresses with shoulder straps. Men wore skirts or robes. The Egyptians often wore colored, shoulder-length headdresses. Rich Egyptians wore wigs, partly for protection against the sun. Wealthy Egyptians also wore leather sandals. The common people usually went barefoot. Young children rarely wore any clothes.

The ancient Egyptians liked to use cosmetics and wear jewelry. Women wore red lip powder, dyed their hair, and painted their fingernails. They outlined their eyes and colored their eyebrows with gray, black, or green paint. Men also outlined their eyes and often wore as much makeup as women. Both sexes used perfume and wore necklaces, rings, and bracelets. Combs, mirrors, and razors were common grooming aids.

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The Egyptians built their houses with bricks of dried mud. They used trunks of palm trees to support the flat roofs. Many city houses were narrow buildings with three or more floors. Most poor Egyptians lived in one-room huts. The typical middle-class Egyptian lived in a one- or two-story house with at least 3 rooms. Many rich Egyptians had houses with as many as 70 rooms. Some of these homes were country estates with orchards, pools, and large gardens. Egyptian houses had small windows placed high in the walls to help keep out the sun. The people spread wet mats on the floors to help cool the air inside their houses. On hot nights, they often slept on the roof, where it was cooler.

Ancient Egyptian furniture included wooden stools, chairs, beds, and chests. People used pottery to store, cook, and serve food. They cooked food in clay ovens or over fires and used charcoal and wood for fuel. Candles and lamps provided lighting. The lamps had flax or cotton wicks and burned oil in jars or hollowed-out stones.

Recreation. The ancient Egyptians enjoyed numerous leisure activities. They fished and swam in the Nile River. Sailing on the Nile was a popular family activity. Adventurous Egyptians hunted crocodiles, lions, hippopotamuses, and wild cattle with bows and arrows or spears. Many Egyptians liked to watch wrestling matches. At home, the Egyptians played senet, a board game similar to backgammon.


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Gods and goddesses. The ancient Egyptians believed that various deities (gods and goddesses) influenced every aspect of nature and every human activity. They therefore worshiped many deities. The main god was the sun god Re . The Egyptians relied on Re and the goddess Rennutet for good harvests. The most important goddess was Isis. She represented the devoted mother and wife. Her husband and brother, Osiris, ruled over vegetation and the dead. Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, was god of the sky. He was called the lord of heaven and was often pictured with the head of a falcon.

In each Egyptian city and town, the people worshiped their own special god in addition to the major deities. For example, the people of Thebes worshiped Amon, a sun god. Amon was later identified with Re and called Amon-Re . Amon-Re in time became the chief deity. Other local deities and their main centers of worship included Ptah, the creator god of Memphis; Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing in Hermopolis; and Khnum, the creator god of Elephantine. Many deities were pictured with human bodies and the heads of animals. Such a head suggested a real or imagined quality of the animal and made identification of the deity easy.

Most ancient Egyptians prayed at home because the temples did not offer regular services for people. Each temple was either regarded as the home of a certain deity or dedicated to a dead king. A temple built in honor of Amon-Re at Karnak was the country's largest temple. It had more than 130 columns that rose about 80 feet (24 meters). Brilliantly colored paintings decorated the columns and walls in the temple's Great Hall, which still ranks as the largest columned hall ever built.

The priests' main job was to serve the deity or king, who was represented by a statue in the temple. The king reigning at the time was considered the chief priest of Egypt. Each day, he or other local priests washed and dressed the statue and brought it food. Priests also offered prayers requested by individuals.

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The afterlife. The ancient Egyptians believed that they could enjoy life after death. This belief in an afterlife sometimes led to much preparation for death and burial. It resulted, for example, in the construction of the pyramids and other great tombs for kings and queens. Other Egyptians had smaller tombs.

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The Egyptians believed that the bodies of the dead had to be preserved for the next life, and so they mummified (embalmed and dried) corpses to prevent them from decaying. After a body was mummified, it was wrapped in layers of linen strips and placed in a coffin. The mummy was then put in a tomb. Some Egyptians mummified pets, including cats and monkeys. A number of Egyptian mummies have survived to the present day.

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The Egyptians filled their tombs with items for use in the afterlife. These items included clothing, wigs, food, cosmetics, and jewelry. The tombs of rich Egyptians also had statues representing servants who would care for them in the next world. Scenes of daily life were painted on walls inside the tombs. The Egyptians believed that certain prayers said by priests would make Osiris bring the scenes as well as the dead to life.

Many Egyptians bought texts containing prayers, hymns, spells, and other information to guide souls through the afterlife, protect them from evil, and provide for their needs. Egyptians had passages from such texts carved or written on walls inside their tombs or had a copy of a text placed in their tombs. Collections of these texts are known as the Book of the Dead.

Work of the people

Most of the workers in the fertile Nile Valley were farm laborers. Great harvests year after year helped make Egypt rich. Many other people made their living in manufacturing, mining, transportation, or trade.

The Egyptians did not have a money system. Instead, they traded goods or services directly for other goods or services. Under this barter system, workers were often paid in wheat and barley. They used any extra quantities they got to trade for needed goods.

Agriculture. Most farm laborers worked on the large estates of the royal family, the temples, or other wealthy landowners. They received small amounts of crops as pay, partly because landowners had to turn over a large percentage of all farm production in taxes. Some farmers were able to rent fields from rich landowners.

Ancient Egypt was a hot country in which almost no rain fell. But farmers grew crops most of the year by irrigating their land. They built canals that carried water from the Nile to their fields. Farmers used wooden plows pulled by oxen to prepare the fields for planting.

Wheat and barley were the main crops of ancient Egypt. Other crops included lettuce, beans, onions, figs, dates, grapes, melons, and cucumbers. Parts of the date and grape crops were crushed to make wine. Many farmers grew flax, which was used to make linen. The Egyptians raised dairy and beef cattle, goats, ducks, geese, and donkeys. Some people kept bees for honey.

Manufacturing and mining. Craftsmen who operated small shops made most of the manufactured goods in ancient Egypt. The production of linen clothing and linen textiles ranked among the chief industries. Other important products included pottery, bricks, tools, glass, weapons, furniture, jewelry, and perfume. The Egyptians also made many products from plants, including rope, baskets, mats, and sheets of writing material.

Ancient Egypt had rich supplies of minerals. Miners produced large quantities of limestone, sandstone, and granite for the construction of pyramids and monuments. They also mined copper, gold, and tin and such gems as turquoises and amethysts. Much of Egypt's gold came from the hills east of the Nile.

Trade and transportation. Ancient Egyptian traders sailed to lands bordering the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Red seas. They acquired silver, iron, horses, and cedar logs from Syria, Lebanon, and other areas of southwestern Asia. They got ivory, leopard skins, copper, cattle, and spices from Nubia, a country south of Egypt. For these goods, the Egyptians bartered gold, other minerals, wheat, barley, and papyrus sheets.

Transportation within ancient Egypt was chiefly by boats and barges on the Nile River. The earliest Egyptian boats were made of papyrus reeds. Moved by poles at first, they later were powered by rowers with oars. By about 3200 B.C., the Egyptians had invented sails and begun to rely on the wind for power. About 3000 B.C., they started to use wooden planks to build ships.

During ancient Egypt's early history, most people walked when they traveled by land. Wealthy Egyptians were carried on special chairs. During the 1600's B.C., the Egyptians began to ride in horse-drawn chariots.

Crafts and professions. The royal family and the temples of ancient Egypt employed many skilled architects, engineers, carpenters, artists, and sculptors. They also hired bakers, butchers, teachers, scribes, accountants, musicians, butlers, and shoemakers. The Egyptians' belief that their bodies had to be preserved for the afterlife made embalming a highly skilled profession. Many Egyptians served in the army and navy. Others worked on cargo ships or fishing boats.

Arts and sciences

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Architecture. Ancient Egypt's pyramids are the oldest and largest stone structures in the world. The ruins of 35 major pyramids still stand along the Nile. Three huge pyramids at Giza rank as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a list of notable things to see that was made up by travelers during ancient times. The first Egyptian pyramids were built about 4,500 years ago. The largest one, the Great Pyramid at Giza, stands about 450 feet (140 meters) high. Its base covers about 13 acres (5 hectares). This pyramid was built with more than 2 million limestone blocks, each weighing an average of 21/2 short tons (2.3 metric tons).

The ancient Egyptians also built temples of limestone. They designed parts of the temples to resemble plants. For example, some temples had columns carved to look like palm trees or papyrus reeds. The temples had three main sections—a small shrine, a large hall with many columns, and an open courtyard.

Painting and sculpture. Many of ancient Egypt's finest paintings and other works of art were produced for tombs and temples. Artists covered the walls of tombs with bright, imaginative scenes of daily life and pictorial guides to the afterlife. The tomb paintings were not simply decorations. They reflected the Egyptians' belief that the scenes could come to life in the next world. The tomb owners therefore had themselves pictured not only as young and attractive but also in highly pleasant settings that they wished to enjoy in the afterlife.

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Ancient Egyptian sculptors decorated temples with carvings showing festivals, military victories, and other important events. Sculptors also carved large stone sphinxes. These statues were supposed to represent Egyptian kings or gods and were used to guard temples and tombs. The Great Sphinx, for example, is believed to represent either King Khafre or the god Re-Harakhte. This magnificent statue has a human head and the body of a lion. It is 240 feet (73 meters) long and about 66 feet (20 meters) high. The Great Sphinx, which is near the Great Pyramid at Giza, was carved about 4,500 years ago. Sculptors also created small figures from wood, ivory, alabaster, bronze, gold, and turquoise. Favorite subjects for small sculptures included cats, which the Egyptians considered sacred and valued for protecting their grain supplies from mice.
Music and literature. The ancient Egyptians enjoyed music and singing. They used harps, lutes, and other string instruments to accompany their singing. Egyptian love songs were poetic and passionate.

Writers created many stories that featured imaginary characters, settings, or events and were clearly meant to entertain. Other writings included essays on good living called "Instructions."

Sciences. The ancient Egyptians made observations in the fields of astronomy and geography that helped them develop a calendar of 365 days a year. The calendar was based on the annual flooding of the Nile River. The flooding began soon after the star Sirius reappeared on the eastern horizon after months of being out of sight. This reappearance occurred about June 20 each year. The calendar enabled the Egyptians to date much of their history. The dated material from ancient Egypt has helped scholars date events in other parts of the ancient world.

The ancient Egyptians could measure areas, volumes, distances, lengths, and weights. They used geometry to determine farm boundaries. Mathematics was based on a system of counting by tens, but the system had no zeros.

Ancient Egyptian doctors were the first physicians to study the human body scientifically. They studied the structure of the brain and knew that the pulse was in some way connected with the heart. They could set broken bones, care for wounds, and treat many illnesses. Some doctors specialized in a particular field of medicine, such as eye defects or stomach disorders.


Kings ruled ancient Egypt throughout most of its history. Sometime between 1554 and 1304 B.C., the people began to call the king pharaoh. The word pharaoh comes from words that meant great house in Egyptian. The Egyptians believed that each of their kings was the god Horus in human form. This belief helped strengthen the authority of the kings.

The position of king was inherited. It passed to the eldest son of the king's chief wife. Many Egyptian kings had several other wives, called lesser wives, at the same time. Some chief wives gave birth to daughters but no sons, and several of those daughters claimed the right to the throne. At least four women became rulers.

Officials called viziers helped the king govern ancient Egypt. By the 1400's B.C., the king appointed two of them. One vizier administered the Nile Delta area, and the other one managed the region to the south. The viziers acted as mayors, tax collectors, and judges, and some even controlled temple treasuries. Other high officials included a treasurer and army commander. The government collected taxes from farmers in the form of crops. Skilled workers paid taxes in the goods or services they produced. The treasuries of kings and temples were thus actually warehouses consisting largely of crops and various manufactured goods. The government also levied a corvee (tax paid in the form of labor) to obtain troops and government workers.

For purposes of local government, ancient Egypt was divided into 42 provinces called nomes. The king appointed an official known as a nomarch to govern each province. There were courts in each nome and a high court in the capital. Viziers judged most cases. Kings decided cases involving crimes punishable by death.

In its early days, ancient Egypt had a small army of foot soldiers equipped with spears. During the 1500's B.C., Egypt built up a large army. The army included soldiers who were trained to shoot arrows from their bows accurately while riding in fast-moving, horse-drawn chariots. Egypt had a large navy of long ships. These ships were powered chiefly by oarsmen, though most vessels also had sails.


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Beginnings. The earliest known communities in ancient Egypt were villages established over 5,000 years ago. In time, the villages became part of two kingdoms. One of these kingdoms controlled the villages that lay on the Nile Delta, and the other controlled the villages south of the delta. The delta area was known as Lower Egypt. The southern region was called Upper Egypt.

Egyptian civilization began about 3100 B.C. According to tradition, King Menes of Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt at that time. He then united the country and formed the world's first national government. Menes founded Memphis as his capital near the site of present-day Cairo. He also established the first Egyptian dynasty (series of rulers in the same family). More than 30 other dynasties ruled ancient Egypt.

The early period of ancient Egyptian history covered Dynasties I and II , which ruled for about 400 years. During this period, the kings built a temple to Ptah, the chief god of Memphis, and erected several palaces near the temple. The Egyptians also developed irrigation systems, invented ox -drawn plows, and began to use hieroglyphic writing during the first two dynasties.

The Old Kingdom. Dynasty III began in 2686 B.C. By that time, Egypt had a strong central government. The next 500 years became known for the construction of Egypt's gigantic pyramids. The period is called the Old Kingdom or the Pyramid Age.

The first known Egyptian pyramid was built for King Zoser at Saqqarah about 2650 B.C. The tomb rises about 200 feet (60 meters) in six giant steps and is called the Step Pyramid. During Dynasty IV , workers built the Great Pyramid and other pyramids at Giza. The Great Pyramid was built for King Khufu. Huge pyramids were built nearby for his son, King Khafre, and for King Menkaure. Farm laborers worked on the pyramids when floodwaters of the Nile covered their fields.

By Dynasty V , the king's authority began to weaken as high priests and government officials fought for power. The Old Kingdom lasted until 2181 B.C., when Dynasty VI ended. Most of the next five dynasties had weak rulers. The capital was finally moved to Thebes.

The Middle Kingdom was the period in ancient Egyptian history during which Dynasty XII ruled. The dynasty was founded in 1991 B.C., when Amenemhet, a vizier in southern Egypt, seized the throne. He moved the capital to Itjawy, near Memphis. Amenemhet and his strong successors, including Senusret I, Senusret III, and Amenemhet III, helped restore Egypt's wealth and power. During Dynasty XII, Egypt conquered Nubia and promoted trade with Palestine and Syria in southwestern Asia. Architecture, literature, and other arts flourished under this dynasty. The Middle Kingdom ended in 1786 B.C.

Weak kings led the next several dynasties. Settlers from Asia gradually spread throughout the Nile Delta, and they seized control of Egypt about 1670 B.C. During the fighting, the immigrants used horse-drawn chariots, improved bows, and other tools of war unknown to the native Egyptians. The immigrants' leaders, called the Hyksos kings, ruled Egypt for about 100 years.

The New Kingdom was a 500-year period in which ancient Egypt became the world's strongest power. The period began in 1554 B.C., with Dynasty XVIII. During this dynasty, native Egyptians drove the Hyksos forces out of Egypt, and Thebes regained its importance. Amon, a god worshiped mainly in Thebes, was increasingly identified with the god Re and called Amon-Re .

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At the beginning of Dynasty XVIII, Egypt developed a permanent army that used horse-drawn chariots and other advanced military techniques introduced during the Hyksos period. The dynasty's early rulers led military forces into southwestern Asia. Thutmose I apparently reached the Euphrates River. Queen Hatshepsut, his daughter, also led armies in battle. Egypt developed a great empire and reached the height of its power during the 1400's B.C., under King Thutmose III. He led military campaigns into Asia almost yearly for 20 years and brought the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea into the Egyptian empire. Thutmose also reestablished Egyptian control over Kush and surrounding Nubia, which were valuable sources of slaves, copper, gold, ivory, and ebony. As a result of these victories, Egypt became the strongest and wealthiest nation in the Middle East.

The course of Egyptian history changed unexpectedly after Amenhotep IV came to the throne in 1367 B.C. He devoted himself to a sun god called the Aton. The Aton was represented as the disk of the sun. Amenhotep changed his own name to Akhenaton and declared that the Aton had replaced Amon and all other gods except Re . He believed that Re was part of the sunlight that came from the Aton. The king also moved the capital to a new city, Akhetaton, about 175 miles (280 kilometers) north of Thebes. Ruins of the city lie near what is now Tell el Amarna. Akhenaton's religious reforms, which historians call the Amarna Revolution, led to an outpouring of art and sculpture that glorified the Aton. But the changes angered many Egyptians.

Akhenaton's immediate successors ended the unrest. King Tutankhaton removed -aton from his name and became Tutankhamen. He restored the old state religion, allowing the worship of the old deities as well as the Aton. Horemheb, the last Dynasty XVIII king, completely rejected Akhenaton's religious beliefs. Dynasty XIX kings erected temples to many gods throughout Egypt. Two of the kings, Seti I and his son, Ramses II , also regained Asian territories lost after the reign of Thutmose III.

Ancient Egypt began to decline during Dynasty XX . Increasingly bitter struggles for royal power by priests and nobles broke the country into small states. Egypt lost its territories abroad, and its weakness attracted a series of invaders.

The periods of foreign control. Ancient Egypt's decline accelerated rapidly after about 1070 B.C., when Dynasty XX ended. During the next 700 years, more than 10 dynasties ruled Egypt. Most of them were formed by Nubian, Assyrian, and Persian rulers. In 332 B.C., the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great added Egypt to his empire. In 331, Alexander founded the city of Alexandria in the delta.

The Ptolemies. Alexander died in 323 B.C., and his generals divided his empire. Ptolemy, one of the generals, gained control of Egypt. About 305 B.C., he took the title of king and founded a dynasty known as the Ptolemies. The dynasty's early rulers spread Greek culture in Egypt. They also built temples to Egyptian gods, developed Egypt's natural resources, and increased foreign trade. Alexandria became Egypt's capital, and its magnificent library and museum helped make the city one of the greatest cultural centers of ancient times.

Roman rule. About 37 B.C., Queen Cleopatra VII of the Ptolemies married Mark Antony, a co-ruler of Rome. Antony wanted to rule the vast Roman lands by himself. He combined his and Cleopatra's military forces to fight forces led by Octavian, another co-ruler of Rome. But the navy of Antony and Cleopatra lost the vital Battle of Actium to Octavian's fleet in 31 B.C. The couple committed suicide the next year, and Octavian then made Egypt a province of Rome. Rome's control of Egypt gradually weakened after A.D. 395, when the Roman Empire split into eastern and western parts. By A.D. 642, Muslims from Arabia had conquered Egypt. For the story of Egypt after 642, see Egypt (History).

Learning about ancient Egypt

The study of ancient Egypt is called Egyptology, and experts in the field are Egyptologists. Much of their knowledge comes from studying the architecture and other arts of ancient Egypt. Ruins of magnificent temples stand at Abydos, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Esna, Luxor, and Karnak. Excavations of pharaohs' tombs, such as those in a burial ground called the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor, have yielded superb paintings. Tutankhamen's tomb was filled with stunning examples of the ancient Egyptians' skill in woodworking and metalworking.

Information about ancient Egypt also comes from written records made by the Egyptians themselves and by such ancient Greek writers as Herodotus and Strabo. The Egyptians used hieroglyphics until sometime after they came under Roman rule. The ability of anyone to read Egyptian hieroglyphics was then quickly lost.

For over 1,000 years, scholars tried but failed to decipher the writing system of ancient Egypt. Then, in 1799, a rock slab with ancient Greek and Egyptian writing was found outside Rosetta, a city near Alexandria. A French scholar named Jean Francois Champollion began to compare the Greek and Egyptian words on the so-called Rosetta stone. By 1822, he had deciphered the hieroglyphics. Dictionaries developed since then have helped scholars translate the writings on many monuments and in temples and tombs.

• Leonard H. Lesko, Ph.D., Professor of Egyptology and Chairman, Department of Egyptology, Brown University.

How to cite this article:
To cite this article in a footnote, World Book recommends the following format:

Leonard H. Lesko, "Egypt, Ancient," World Book Online Americas Edition, wbol/ wbPage/ na/ ar/ co/ 175060, October 5, 2001.