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Ancient Egypt

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Cheops pyramid in Giza
Cheops pyramid in Giza | Author: Nina at the Norwegian bokmål language Wikipedia

The name Egypt covered an area of ​​about 1 million. square kilometers, closed in the west by great oases, in the east by the Red Sea, in the south by the first cataract, and in the north by the Nile Delta overflow reaching the Mediterranean Sea. Only a small percentage of this area, only approx. 30 thousand. sq. km was used for cultivation, almost exclusively in the Nile valley, the width of which narrows in places to the river bed itself, and in places it becomes much larger. The Nile, therefore, determined the character of the country, dividing it into Lower Egypt, ie the Delta and Upper Egypt, ie the narrow valley running from the 1st cataract to the base of the Delta.

Pharaoh Ptolemy I
Author: Stella | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Traces of man’s stay in Egypt go back to the Old Stone Age, but identifiable cultures do not appear until the end of the Younger Stone Age, the Neolithic, and later in the transition from stone to copper culture. This time falls on the turn of the third and second millennia before Christ. Even then, the difference between the Delta and the Nile Valley, between Lower and Upper Egypt began to emerge, and this left its mark on the entirety of the country’s subsequent development. The people of Delta were rather farmers and breeders. In the third millennium, the beginnings of communal communities and a common economy were formed. In this area, elements of the agricultural Egyptian culture were born, the beginning of a calendar based on agricultural observations, and the cult of the forces of nature. The abundance of weapons, hunting scenes depicted in ceramics and plastic arts indicate that in the south, next to well-developed agriculture, hunting was of great importance. Probably this period coincides with the formation of larger territorial units in Egypt, called nomos. During its long history, Egypt’s unity was shattered several times, but the tendency to centralization, to integration caused by natural conditions, above all the Nile, which seemed to play the role of an axis, prevailed and resulted in the reintegration of the country. The irrigation system – an extensive network of basins, dykes and canals – played a special role in Egypt. The existence of the population depended on the efficient functioning of this system, as rainfall was extremely rare.

According to Egyptian tradition, the unification of Egypt was the work of Menes, the founder of the first dynasty, originating from Tinis in central Egypt. Egypt’s reunification was a long-term process. It took place through the conquest of Lower Egypt by the rulers of Upper Egypt. A less civilized society imposed its rule on the sedentary and more developed society of Delta. A visible expression of this change was the adoption by the ruler of two crowns, Lower and Upper Egypt, it was also reflected in the royal titles – the king of Lower and Upper Egypt. The history of the unified Egyptian state falls into three basic periods: Old, Middle and New States, separated by transitional periods, characterized by the breakdown of Egyptian statehood.

Old Kingdom (2850-2250 BCE)

Created by the rulers of the 1st dynasty, the state was initially patriarchal and did not resemble the later state organism. It was undoubtedly a period of great changes caused by the stabilization of state life. Particular importance should be attached to the changes that the ruler’s power underwent, the formation of despotism, and thus the form of government that survived antiquity. Initially, however, the king managed the state as if his paternity with the help of family members and was called the father. As state functions increased, offices began to be filled by people who did not belong to the royal family, who received land for their services. Thus, great estates and private property began to form. In theory, the land remained the property of the ruler, but the functions to which land ownership was attached were often inherited in the same family, especially the management of the territorial unit – nomos. The temples were the second great landowner. Their privileged position is evidenced by the fact that they are released from public works or assign them slaves. The number of the latter has not yet been too great. The basic labor force was the peasant, who, given the structure of society at that time, could hardly be called free. The peasant was subjected to the control of the state authority, diligently registering his possessions and required to work on the construction and maintenance of the canals, and was also obliged to pay tributes to the ruler. The work of the Egyptian peasant was hard. On a hot day, he had to draw an infinite number of buckets of water, according to today’s calculations, approx. 4 thousand. per hectare to prevent the soil from drying out. An additional burden for the peasant were the travels of the ruler, whom he had to support with the entire court.

The central figure in Egyptian statehood was the ruler, who had turned from a patriarchal ruler into a despot in the early days of the Old Kingdom. The reasons for the passive attitude of society towards the ruler’s omnipotence should be sought primarily in the special religious atmosphere that prevailed in Egyptian society. The ruler was not only a military chief, but also a link between the world of gods, the mysterious forces of nature, and the society whose existence depended on him, endowed with magical properties.

The reign of the 3rd and 4th dynasties (2650-2250) marks the peak period of the development of the Old Kingdom. The ruler’s power is constantly growing, finding expression in the construction of huge tombs – pyramids. The details of the changes that took place during the reign of the 4th dynasty are unknown. Pharaoh Khafren, however, then assumed the title of the son of the god Ra. The ruler ceased to be a god, he became only the son of a god whose cult has now developed. During the fifth and sixth dynasties, the pyramids become smaller, numerous temples of the god Ra are built, and the tombs of officials are expanded. This seems to indicate a weakening of the monarchical power, deprived of its full divinity. The changes were evidenced by the emergence of the principle of heredity of offices, especially territorial ones, which resulted in the separation of district principalities. The tax burden on the population has increased. Under these conditions, the VI dynasty was losing its importance and the state apparatus was decaying.

First transition period (2250-2050 BCE)

Ancient Egyptians had a very rich cultural heritage related to dancing and singing.

The power of kings has weakened. The factor accelerating the political and economic disintegration was the emergence, next to the old economic forms, which boiled down solely to the initiative of the state, of independent action by individual district chiefs, temples or more independent units. All these factors exacerbated social relations and led to class struggles. A social revolution took place in the capital, where both the poor and the rich naturally concentrated. The discord spread across the country, and under these conditions the district rulers became more important. They took the place of the former central authority and grew up into independent princes who ruled over the armed force. Slowly, out of the chaos, more normal relations began to form, which was reflected in the creation of two more serious state centers, in Lower Egypt with the capital in Herakleopolis, and in Upper in Thebes. Perhaps the fear of nomadic tribes threatening Egypt accelerated the formation of a state in Lower Egypt. However, the role of reunification and reorganization of the Egyptian state fell to Thebes, which from then on would become the main center of the country for over a thousand years.

Middle Kingdom (ca. 2050 – 1778 BCE)

The reunification of the country by the Theban rulers of the XI dynasty around 2050 took place amid fights with the district princes. The new rulers limited the power of princes through a new territorial division, as well as by filling the positions of chiefs of nomes with new officials. The kings of this dynasty, especially of the XII dynasty, bearing the names of Amenhotep and Sezostris devoted attention to foreign affairs. From Thebes more easily than from Memphis, they could follow the course of military expeditions, the purpose of which was, above all, Nubia. The XII dynasty also made an effort to rebuild the state in order not to allow the state apparatus to collapse again, and at the same time to weaken the too strong position of the heads of the nomes. The so far granted chiefs of nomes fell to the role of officials and could no longer threaten the whole and unity of the state. The process of progressing social differentiation and the emergence of craftsmanship, which was already visible in the transitional period, made further progress. Cities settled by new layers of people arose and they became the main centers of the country. A disciplined bureaucracy was created, headed by the vizier, acting as the first minister.

The 12th Dynasty was also very active in foreign policy. The copper deposits in Płw. Sinai, expeditions were made to the land of Punt (probably Arabia) for incense and spices. Egypt’s threatened borders on the Palestinian side were reinforced with fortifications. Nubia occupied a special position in Egypt’s foreign policy. The desire to secure the southern border against nomadic invasions, the possibility of profitable trade with the tribes living on the upper Nile, and the exploitation of the rich gold deposits in which Nubia abounded, pushed the rulers of the XII Dynasty to undertake a plan to conquer this country. The final conquest and organization of the country as a province was accomplished by Sezostris III.

Second transition period (1778-1680 BCE)

The middle country, having reached its peak of development during the 12th dynasty, quickly began to decline. The collapse of glory took place during the next dynasty. The usurpers appeared, the country fell into districts, but the structure of the country did not change, which would prove the durability of the work of the XII dynasty pharaohs. Perhaps Egypt’s weakness is related to the lack of more eminent rulers, such as the previous dynasty. In any case, Egypt was not prepared to resist the Hyksos invasion, whose appearance heralded a new phase in history for the entire East.

The maximum territorial extent of Egypt in the 15th century BCE
Author: Andrei Nacu | Under Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

The New Kingdom and the collapse of Egypt (1580-1080 BCE)

Little is known about the Hyksos conquest of Egypt. This name means the rulers of foreign countries, from which it can be concluded that their country was beyond the borders of Egypt. The Hyksos conquest of Egypt was not a one-time act. Flocks of newcomers, taking advantage of the weakening of state power in Egypt, settled in the Delta, finally taking the whole country under their rule. It probably happened at the end of the 18th century. The first rulers known as the Great Hyksos ruled as the Fifteenth Dynasty (until 1680). Later Mali Hyksos (16th Dynasty) reigned until 1580 were confined to Lower Egypt. In southern Egypt, a small state was formed in Thebes, initially subordinate to the Hyksos. Gradually, it grew in strength to finally start the fight for the liberation of the country from the rule of the invaders (XVII Dynasty). The reign of the Hyksos for over a century was a time of hard test for Egypt, but also a time of learning. The visitors brought improved weapons with them. Acquiring new weapons, helmets, shields, swords, metal arrowheads, and especially the development of horse breeding and the introduction of combat vehicles, prepared Thebes to fight the Hyksos. The fights were fought initially with varying luck, and they took the decisive turn during the reign of Kamose. His brother Ahmose drove the Hyksos out of Egypt. After ousting the Hyksos, he made an attempt to restore Egyptian rule in Nubia and incorporated it back into Egypt. He undertook an expedition to Syria and extended sovereignty over the city of Byblos in Phenicia. This expedition marked the direction of the future expansion of Egypt, as the consequence of the Hyksos invasion was Egypt’s recovery from political isolation. This policy of expansion should be understood as an act of self-defense, an attempt to prevent a repeat threat to Egypt from Asia.

Ancient Egypt in the picture.

With a reorganized army, largely composed of mercenaries and gold resources from Nubian mines, the 18th Dynasty took steps to conquer Palestine, Phenicia and Syria. Already Amenhotep I, around 1525, reached the Euphrates, but his conquests were not permanent. The peaceful rule of Queen Hatshepsut led to the loss of the gains. Only Tuthmosis III became the creator of the great Egyptian state (1491-1436). He undertook 17 military expeditions, none of which he lost. He widened the borders of the state the most. The newly conquered territory was partially managed by Egyptian governors, whose main function was to collect tributes. Egyptian crews deployed at several points watched over the country’s submission, and local rulers continued to rule. During the eighteenth dynasty there was a change in the nature of the ruler’s power. More and more was the secular, more earthly character of the ruler, whose will or personal whim set the tone for governments. Senior officials and military personnel are gaining more and more independence. The enormity of the state and the functions connected with its maintenance required the separation of powers. A new element was the growing economic and political role of priests, mainly the god Amon of Theban. His temple in Karnak became a power thanks to royal bequests and the spoils of war. Of particular importance was the high priest of the god Amun, who came second after the ruler. Political conflicts began to mature, and the struggle for power that flared between the pharaoh and the priests of Amun was to complete the next period of Egyptian history.

Egypt’s position at the end of the eighteenth dynasty was less strong. This situation was caused by the religious reform and the fight against the priests of Amun. Amenhotep IV tried to replace the cult of Amun with a new cult of Aten. This was due to the changed social situation in Egypt. For new people, often of foreign origin, who were reluctant to approach the old and incomprehensible cult, began to come to the fore. They were looking for a deity closer to each other. Amenhotep IV initiated the policy of a break with the past. An expression of this position was the change of the name to Akhenaten, the transfer of the capital from Thebes to Tell-el-Amarna (City of the Sun) in central Egypt, the headquarters of the cult of the god Aten. Akhenaten understood him to be the supreme deity of the state. This policy of Akhenaten had a negative impact on the economic situation of the country, the entire economic structure of which was upset. Busy with religious reform, he ignored the deteriorating situation in Syria. The resistance of the peasant masses attached to the old religion began to increase, and a strong opposition arose, consisting of priests and soldiers. Akhenaten was removed from power (murdered). His successor returned to the old cult.

Another dynasty (XIX) undertook the task of regaining influence in Syria, which was necessary for the security of the country. This consideration was so important that when choosing the next ruler, the will of Amon and the opinions of his priests were not taken into account at all, which meant a further break from tradition and was the next step to secularization of Egypt. The country’s political center was moved to the north, from where it was possible to effectively fight for Syria. This decision increased tension between the priests of the god Amun and the Theban center and the dynasty. The first attempt to regain Syria was made by Seti I, but he only managed to subjugate Palestine and Phenicia. Ramesses II (1291-1224) fought further. The Battle of Kadesh (1286) took place, but it did not bring a settlement. In 1270, peace was concluded, the first known in history, by which Egypt stopped Palestine and Phenicia, while Syria remained a zone of Hittite influence.
The factor that influenced the interruption of the fighting for Syria was the increasing pressure from the west by the Libyan tribes. During the reign of the successor of Ramesses II Merenptah, one can speak of a great invasion of the Libyans. Pharaoh defeated them with great difficulty, but the danger was not overcome. The Libyan pressure was renewed. The 20th Dynasty made an effort to subjugate the Libyans to Egypt, which was successful under Ramses III. Egypt began to be threatened by the so-called Sea Peoples – Philistines. With difficulty, Ramses III managed to keep them at the border of Egypt, but the fighting exhausted the state so much that the successors of Ramses III, all bearing the name of Ramses (hence the Ramesid dynasty), endeavored at all costs to pursue a peace policy. Egypt paid for this with the loss of Phenicia and Palestine. The factor that weakened Egypt was the increasingly common introduction of iron, for which Egypt was not prepared, and its production related to bronze metallurgy was shaken.

If, over several centuries, Egypt managed to find the means to pursue a great conquest and defense policy, it was at the expense of great sacrifices on the part of society, the composition of which changed profoundly during this time. The process of social differentiation was accelerated in Egypt as a result of the displacement of foreign tribes. The Egyptians began to avoid military service, which as a result of uninterrupted wars became very burdensome and led to the impoverishment of the population, especially the richer. For, as the Libyans became an organized military force, the rest of society had to cope with increased economic burdens by paying for mercenary troops. A period of social struggles unprecedented in previous epochs begins. The transfer of the center of power led to the impoverishment of the population of Thebes; economic difficulties delayed the supply of food. The involvement of the public’s forces in a struggle that did not bring the expected loot or an influx of tributes exhausted the Egyptian economy. There was a hunger, there was a price increase in grain, millet and barley, and with it the plundering of royal tombs. On the other hand, an increase in temple property was a particularly characteristic phenomenon. A temple state was established, separate from the ruling state.

This state of affairs diminished the position of the ruler, who, moreover, was unable to tame the corruption spreading among officials. The war expeditions of the rulers of the New Kingdom seriously increased the supply of slaves. They were sent to work in the Nubian mines, in the extraction of copper in Sinai or in quarries. The increase in the number of slaves is marked by the great temple estates.

Unhealthy social relations prevailing in Upper Egypt led to the outbreak of a revolution during the last Ramesses XI – Ramesses XI, in which Libyan mercenaries were involved. (B. Prus – Pharaoh. He speaks of Ramses XIII). The movement was suppressed, it showed the utter weakness of the central government. In this situation, Herihor took power in Upper Egypt, who stood out as a soldier, but strengthened his position by electing him high priest of the god Amun, while in Lower Egypt Smendes imposed his rule. When Ramses XI died (circa 1080), Egypt actually fell into two parts, although the rulers of these districts were counted in one of the twenty-first dynasty1.

Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE)

After the conquest of Egypt, which was previously in the hands of the Egyptian-hated ruler of Persia, Alexander was accepted as a liberator and recognized as a god by the oracle of Amun at the oasis of Siwa. The young Macedonian king reorganized the administration of Egypt and founded the new capital Alexandria. After his death, (323 BCE), his governor, Ptolemy, son of Lagos, arrived in Egypt as chief satrap, and after the end of Alexander’s line he was crowned in 306 BCE, beginning the Ptolemaic dynasty. The period of the reign of the first three rulers (until 221 BCE) was a time of political and territorial expansion for Egypt (the dependence of Phenicia, Cyrenaica, Cyprus, the Cyclades Islands, parts of Asia Minor and Syria), economic development (the introduction of melioration in, among others, Fayum, the use of the water) and trade, as well as the flourishing of culture and science (intensive construction of temples, among others in Idfu, on File, expansion of Alexandria). During the reign of successive Ptolemaic rulers, participation in numerous external wars (including with the Seleucids over Syria), internal intrigues and civil wars led to a marked deterioration of the economic and social situation and to the weakening of the political position of Egypt, and consequently to the threat of subordination the country by the growing power of Rome, which eventually came to the end of the reign of the last Ptolemaic ruler, Cleopatra VII.

Fayum portrait made on wood, assembled with embalmed corpse in a grave. Proof of the mixing of Egyptian and Roman cultures.

The reign of Ptolemy XII Auletes was very turbulent and was interrupted several times by various events. At one point, the ruler was forced to leave Alexandria and flee to Rome, while his wife and daughter were in power at that time. However, Ptolemy XII did not intend to give up power without a fight. He intrigued many times against his wife and daughter, e.g. by sending paid murderers to the embassy they sent to Rome. Eventually, he persuaded a multitude of greedy Roman bankers and Aulus Gabinius, governor of the Syria province, to back his claim to the Egyptian throne in exchange for Egyptian gold. The bankers provided part of the sum needed to equip the expedition, while Gabinus dispatched the Roman army in the strength of the legion and auxiliary units that had so far been stationed in the province of Syria. These soldiers were later called Gabinians from the name of their commander. After a successful military campaign in which the Gabinians entered Egypt from Roman Syria and defeated the Egyptian army on the side of Queen Berenice (daughter of Ptolemy XII), Ptolemy XII reappeared on the throne. Gabinius stayed in Egypt for a while, after which he was recalled to Rome, where he was accused of “extortion”. However, Gabini’s army did not return to Rome with him. It also did not go to Syria, where his quarters were located. Ptolemy XII generously paid for the betrayal of the Gabinians who remained in Egypt as the king’s personal guard. After the death of Ptolemy XII, the Gabinians also served his daughter Cleopatra VII Philopator, and when she was expelled from the country, also her younger brother Ptolemy XIII (30 BCE).

Roman period (30 BCE – 395 CE)

Following the death of Cleopatra VII, the last representative of the Lagid dynasty, Octavian Augustus joined Egypt to the Roman Empire. In fact, it happened without much hesitation, despite some narrow-ranging reactions in the south of the country. Egypt was ruled by the direct representative of the emperor, the Eqevic governor in the highest prefectus rank (the remaining provinces had governors elected from among senators). The first prefect of Egypt was Gaius Cornelius Gallus, who subjugated the Empire of Upper Egypt. Egypt’s second prefect, Aelius Gallus, made unsuccessful expeditions to Arabia Petraea and even Arabia Felix. The Red Sea coast was not conquered until the reign of Emperor Claudius. The third prefectus, Gaius Petronius, commissioned the cleaning of contaminated irrigation channels, which also gave impetus to agriculture in the region. Petronius further led a military campaign to Sudan against the Kingdom of Kush in Meroe, whose queen Imanarenat had previously attacked Roman Egypt. The Roman army eventually withdrew northward after it proved unsuccessful to derive continued profits from the conquered lands. The legions razed the city of Napata to the ground in 22 BCE and went to the headquarters of the Roman province.

In the initial period of Roman rule, there was a certain increase in prosperity, resulting from the improvement of administration under the supervision of Roman officials, as well as as a result of measures taken to increase the efficiency of the harvest (e.g. by cleaning the canals). The country kept the division into nomes, but the role of nomarchs (since Ptolemaic times) was significantly limited in favor of strategists appointed by the prefectus. The status of Egypt undoubtedly differed from other imperial provinces (including through the manner of administration), which prompts most researchers to thesis that it was a personal imperial domain, constituting its political and economic base. Egypt played an enormously important economic role due to the supply of grain to the capital of the empire – Rome. The disruption of the regularity of supplies could have had wide political repercussions, as it could have aroused the dissatisfaction of several hundred of the poorest inhabitants of Rome, who were recipients of free grain distribution, and this in turn would lead to serious riots that could be used by potential usurpers.

Provincia Aegyptus
Author: Nuno Tavares | GNU Free Documentation License

From the reign of Nero, we can speak from the time of prosperity in Egypt. Economically, the province was extremely efficient and rich. The only problem was with the religious conflicts between Greeks and Jews, especially in Alexandria, who after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE moved their capital of Jewish religion and culture to Alexandria.

Over time, serious problems of overburdening tax began to arise, and while some emperors (Hadrian) were particularly fond of Egypt, they were not This improved the situation of the local population – both Greeks, living in larger urban centers, and Egyptians. During the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius, oppressive taxation was introduced which led to an Egyptian revolt led by Isidorus in CE 139. Several years of fighting caused a regression in the Egyptian economy. To make matters worse, Avidius Cassius proclaimed himself emperor in the region in 175 CE, when he heard the false news of the death of Marcus Aurelius. His power was recognized by armies in Syria and Egypt. The Senate declared Avidius an enemy of the state, and Marcus Aurelius set out on an armed expedition against him. Before Marcus’s army reached the east, Avidius’ soldiers revolted after three months of his reign and murdered him, and sent his head to Marcus Aurelius. A similar situation occurred in 193 CE when Pescennius Niger became emperor upon the news of Pertinax.

In 269 CE, the queen of Palmyra, Zenobia, took over Egypt and recognized herself as the queen of Egypt with roots in Cleopatra VII and her family. Eventually, Egypt returned to the Empire in 274 CE, after Emperor Aurelian led a successful campaign against the ruler.

Egypt became famous as a center of various cults that began to spread widely throughout the empire, and especially in Rome itself, where they aroused imperial discontent with some rulers, even causing legal measures to eliminate Egyptian cults.

The Egyptian religion from the time of the pharaohs was still alive, although it was thoroughly saturated with the influences of the Greek pantheon, an example of which is Serapis – a syncretic combination of the features and attributes of Apis and Osiris with those of the Greek gods (Zeus, Dionysus and Asclepius).

The end of ancient Egyptian civilization (in its classical dimension and still tinged with Greek culture in the later period) was brought not by Rome, but by Christianity, which fundamentally transformed the culture of Egypt, although the influence of ancient Egyptian cults reached here as well, which, according to some, is exemplified by the likeness of the Virgin Mary with the Child to Isis and little Horus, the ideas of the Last Judgment and the creation of the world through God’s word, numerous moral commandments, or in the already mentioned iconographic layer the figure of Saint George fighting the dragon (Horus killing Seth in the form of a crocodile), a light halo over the head of Christian saints – the solar disk above the head of the Egyptian gods (Sekhmet, Hator, Horus, Ra).

The conventional and symbolic date of the end of the ancient Egyptian epoch is the year 395 (not all researchers agree with this date), i.e. the date of the division of the Roman state by Theodosius the Great into two parts. This date was also encouraged by scholars to date the latest hieroglyphic inscription known to us from an earlier year – 394, which to some extent also has a symbolic character. After 395, Egypt, largely Christian, entered the history of the eastern part of Byzantium, opening a new chapter in its history.

In summary, Egypt was transformed into a province during the Roman period, which was required to cover a third of the Empire’s grain needs, resulting in a sharp increase in taxes and a series of bloody suppressed uprisings. Despite the appearance of following traditions (building and decorating temples), Roman emperors treated Egypt as their property and source of raw materials. Egypt under Roman rule did not gain any autonomy. The highest local authority was exercised by the Roman prefect, and the order in the state was guarded by several legions. Alexandria remained one of the main centers of the Empire and the capital of science. Egypt was one of the first areas for the spread of Christianity, although the last pagan temple of Isis on Philae was not closed until the reign of Justinian in 526.

  • Tomasz Grabowski, Ptolemeusze i Rzym. Przyjaźń czy zależność, Kocewia Mała 2021
  • Historia Powszechna t. 3. Starożytny Egipt, Grecja i świat helleński, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski
  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski

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