A little history
The Egyptian World
Life of the
Food, Clothing, and Shelter
Gods and Goddesses
Work of the
Manufacturing and Mining
Trade and Transportation
Crafts and Professions
painting and sculpture
music and literature
The early period
the old kingdom
the middle kingdom
the new kingdom
The periods of foreign control
about 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.
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 Egyptian world
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
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 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.
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.Life of the people
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.Work of the people
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.Government
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
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
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
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
, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
H. Lesko, "Egypt, Ancient," World Book Online Americas
175060, October 5, 2001.