HIS 311 Lecture on Ancient Egypt
by Jim Jones (Copyright 1997, All Rights Reserved)
This file contains notes for the September 3 lecture, based on
reading from Kevin Shillington's HISTORY OF AFRICA, 2nd edition,
Topic: "Ancient Nile Civilization I"
Overview of the week
Sep 3: geography, political chronology of Egypt
Sep 5: religion, society, Nubia, Kush, Meroe
GEOGRAPHY, CHRONOLOGY AND RELIGION
Significance of Ancient Egypt to African History: Ancient Egypt
was the site of the earliest known urban civilization in Africa.
As such, it introduces concepts that are relevant to the study of
all subsequent urban civilizations. Second, many later African
cultures trace their origins to ancient Egypt (see work by Cheikh
Anta Diop). Even if those stories cannot be traced, it is useful
to understand ancient Egypt in order to understand what
characteristics were valued by other African cultures.
Geography of the Nile Valley (see map 2.1, p17): The land is a
flat, sandy plain composed of sandstone. There is a large, dry
desert to west, and mountains to the south and southeast, formed
by two tectonic plates, so the region is volcanic. Large bodies
of salt water lie to the east and north.
The climate: Since around 2500BC, Egypt has been a total
desert. There are constant winds that blow from north to south,
which aided Nile River navigation (current flowed from south to
north), but was useless for Red Sea navigation.
The hydrology of the Nile River: The Nile River flows
through a narrow channel. It receives water from three main
tributaries, the White Nile, the Blue Nile, and the Atbara River.
The contribution of water from each of these tributaries
determines the unique character of the Nile River floods. The
White Nile flows fairly regularly, because the Sudd (a marshy
area in southern Sudan) acts as a filter. However, water from
the Atbara & Blue Nile reaches the lower Nile much more quickly,
and brings large amounts of silt from the Ethiopian Highlands.
Cataracts divided the river into navigable stretches and
determined the boundaries between ancient civilizations.
Nile Valley was home to one of the oldest urban civilizations.
An urban civilization includes different extended families that
live close together in durable shelters. They are sedentary,
they accumulate material goods, and as a consequence of that
accumulation, their society can support the specialization of
The Nile Valley offered several conditions that led to growth of
urban civilization. The river valley was extremely fertile and
the surrounding desert allowed Egypt to develop in relative
isolation (armies could not invade until Hyksos arrived with
horses and chariots 1600BC). The river also facilitated trade
upriver to Nubia, and Egypts engaged in overland trade to Red Sea
The sources of Egyptian history: archaeology, hieroglyphics made
readable by the Rosetta stone (discovered by Napoleon's troops in
1802; list of late pharoahs in Greek & Egyptian).
EGYPTIAN POLITICAL HISTORY
(see timeline in Shillington, pp20-21).
Egypt's first known centralized government developed sometime
around 3100BC, when Upper (desert) and Lower (delta) Egypt were
unifed. At first, there were many small communities along the
Nile River, but as the Sahara Desert dried out, population
pressures along the river may have led to warfare and
centralization. The "Palette of Namur" suggests that this was
the result of conquest and victory by Upper Egypt, under a leader
who is believed to have been called Menes.
The Old Kingdom 2770-2200BC was a time of centralized authority
under strong pharoahs who ruled over the peasants through local
nobles. They produced the great pyramids, beginning with Zoser
of the 3rd Dynasty. The seat of central power was located at
Memphis (near modern Cairo) at the head of the delta. The Old
Kingdom government appears to have been based on religion, since
there was no evidence of an army or warfare.
Following the Old Kingdom, there was a period of decentralization
known as the first intermediate period 2200-2000BC. No one knows
for sure, but some possible causes for the fall of centralized
power included climatic disaster. For example, crop failure made
it impossible for nobles to deliver their peasants' taxes to the
pharoah. Another possibility was over-taxation to build public
works, which incited the nobles to revolt against central
The restoration of centralized authority produced the Middle
Kingdom (2000-1700) with a new capital at Thebes. To restore
authority, the pharoahs obtained support from the artisans
against nobles to equip their armies and to restore order.
During the Middle Kingdom, religious buildings were constructed
as temples rather than as pyramids, signifying a more
"democratic" approach to religion. The pharoahs of the Middle
Kigdom also constructed public works, such as the irrigation
scheme of the Fayum Depression (west of the Nile near Cairo).
Following the Middle Kingdom, the second intermediate period
(1786-1560BC) was another episode of decentralized authority.
Apparently, the nobles revolted, and about 1750, people called
Hyksos invaded from the north, using horses and chariots to cross
the desert. Egyptian resistance to outside invasion began around
1600 and led to reunification under Ahmose.
The third period of centralized government is called the New
Kingdom (1560-1087). The national unity inspired by Ahmose and
his successors during the resistance to the Hyksos reduced the
power of the nobility. During the New Kingdom, Egypt retained
its army and expanded into Palestine and Nubia. However, the
Egyptians never managed to incorporate the conquered peoples into
Ramses III (19th dyn; 1182-1151BC) was the last strong Egyptian
ruler. Afterwards, barbarians began to invade in the 1100s and
successfully ended the pharoahs' rule by 1100BC. Following that,
a succession of invasions by Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Rome,
Arabs, French and English kept Egypt under foreign rule until