Ancient Egypt: An Introduction

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This booklet deals with the study of Egyptian history, describing its historical framework, a capsule summary of Egyptian history.
1. Ancient Egypt: An Introduction
Shawn C. Knight
Spring 2009
(This document last revised December 2, 2008)
1 Egypt’s name and historical framework
The name Egypt derives from the Greek Aigyptos, which came from Het-ka-Ptah, “House of the
Spirit of Ptah”, the great temple of Ptah at Memphis. For much of pharaonic history, the Egyptians
called their own country Kemet, “Black Land”, as we shall see later in this article, or Ta-mery,
“Beloved Country”. Modern Egyptians, who speak Arabic, usually refer to the country even more
simply as Misr, “the country”, which is a usage from the Qur’an.
One of the most often-cited sources of historical data for ancient Egypt is Manetho. This man
was a native of Lower Egypt in the 3rd century BCE1 , during the reign of Ptolemy II.2 He was
a priest at Heliopolis, a center of Egyptian scholarship, and for the king he wrote a history of
Egypt. Unfortunately, we no longer have Manetho’s original history; all we have are excerpts from
his works quoted by later historians such as Africanus (300 CE) and Eusebius (340 CE). Africanus
and Eusebius do not even agree between themselves on all details, so six centuries of distance from
Manetho took their toll, aside from the errors we must assume his original work contained. In fact,
Eusebius in turn is known from two later copyists, and they disagree!
Nevertheless, it was Manetho who gave us the traditional breakdown of pharaonic Egypt into the
Thirty Dynasties, and he included with each dynasty the location in Egypt from which that ruling
family came. To a certain degree, then, all of modern Egyptology builds on Manetho: correcting
the errors and filling in the missing details of his history. Some modern scholars label the periods
of Egyptian history after native rulership ended as additional dynasties, appended to Manetho’s
original thirty.
2 The problem of precise dating
It is very difficult to provide exact modern dates of events in Egyptian history. Major events in
Egyptian history are not always attested in the records of its neighbors, and vice versa. So for much
of pharaonic history, we can’t really hold up Egypt next to another civilization and say “Oh look,
Pharaoh So-and-So took the throne the same year King Such-and-Such of Assyria married his third
wife.” We have far too few examples of this sort of thing.
To make matters worse, unlike (for example) the Romans and the Maya, the Egyptians don’t
seem to have cared much for keeping track of long-term dates, at least not in a convenient unified
format. Dates are invariably recorded in terms of the regnal year of the current pharaoh, so every
time a new pharaoh took the throne, the counter was reset to “1”.
Fortunately for Egyptologists, the Egyptians did keep meticulously detailed lists of the pharaohs—
presumably used by Manetho in compiling his history—including the length of their reigns and their
lives, and these numbers are often given to the precision of days, not merely years. Given the few
correlations we have between events in Egypt and events in other civilizations, we should then be
able to refer to the king-lists and count backwards from known dates: laborious, but reliable. Right?
1 Throughout these lecture notes, the terms “Before the Common Era” (BCE) and “Common Era” (CE) are used
instead of the traditional B.C. and A.D.
2 Emery, Walter Bryan. Archaic Egypt. Penguin Books, 1961, p. 23.
2. There are several reasons why this is not so simple. For one thing, the Egyptians practiced
historical revisionism from time to time. Less than one hundred years after the reign of King Tut,
an official list of the pharaohs was carved on the wall of a temple at Abydos, and the boy king’s
name is nowhere to be found.3 Less interestingly but more substantially, the king-lists which have
survived are, in general, not in very good shape. There are obvious places where the papyrus is torn,
the stone is crumbled, and so forth.
Another source of confusion is that kings of Egypt took as many as five different names, as we
shall consider in detail when we study Egyptian writing. The earliest kings of Egypt are known by
their “Horus” names, which used the name of the god Horus as a mark of divinity. Thus we have
kings called “the Horus Narmer”, “the Horus Semerkhet”, and so forth. Sometimes (as in the case
of the Scorpion King) a name is inscribed without any glyphs to indicate which of the king’s names
is being used. And worst of all, which one of the names was used by Manetho as “the” name varies
from dynasty to dynasty and sometimes from king to king.
3 A capsule summary of Egyptian history
The dates in this table, and as far as possible all ancient dates given in this course, are after John
Baines and Jaromı́r Málek in their Atlas of Ancient Egypt, which is a popular choice for this purpose
among Egyptologists in recent years. The dynastic breakdown of the periods is my own. Notable
points of dissent on this table include which periods the 3rd and 13th Dynasties should be placed
period dynasties dates
Predynastic Period Before 1st to 2920 BCE
Archaic Period 1st–2nd 2920–2649
Old Kingdom 3rd–6th 2649–2150
1st Intermediate Period 7th–11th 2150–2010
Middle Kingdom 11th–13th 2010–1640
2nd Intermediate Period 14th–17th 1640–1550
New Kingdom 18th–20th 1550–1070
3rd Intermediate Period 21st–25th 1070–712
Late Period 25th–“31st” 712–332
Ptolemaic Period “32nd” 332–30
Roman Period “33rd” 30 BCE–395 CE
4 What’s in a Name?
Egyptology is complicated by the fact that its primary sources are written in three languages no
longer in use by much of the world: ancient Egyptian itself,4 classical Greek, and Coptic. As we
shall see when we study the Egyptian language, it can be difficult to choose a readable yet accurate
Roman rendition of Egyptian names.5
It’s much easier to write Greek texts with the Roman alphabet than Egyptian ones, but the
problem with this is that Greek lacks some of the sounds found in Egyptian (such as the initial
sounds of the English words ship, church, and just), and has different rules for how sounds can be
arranged in words (only a very few letters can end a word, for example), so we find that the Greek
version of a name is often very different from the original Egyptian.
Geographical names provide even more problems, because each culture tends to give each place
a different name. The Egyptian iwnw (Iunu), the Greek Heliopolis, the Hebrew Aven, and the
3 We will consider the reason for this when we discuss the 18th Dynasty in detail.
4 And ancient Egyptian, in turn, is written in more than one script, as we shall see later on.
5 As for Russian Egyptologists and others who use Cyrillic, they have the advantage that their alphabet has some
of the Egyptian sounds which our alphabet is not too good with, but on the other hand, most of the modern literature
of the subject is in French, German, and English, so they have to deal with other transliteration problems.
3. Biblical On are all names for the same place, just outside the city the Arabic-speaking residents call
el-Qahira and we English-speakers call Cairo.
Yet another source of confusion is our own understanding of the ancient Egyptian language, which
has increased dramatically since the early attempts at deciphering hieroglyphs. The basic ordering
of components in some names has been changed; in others, we find sounds missing because complex
glyphs have been misread. For example, in some older Egyptological texts, we find “Usertesen”
instead of “Senwosret”, or “Sakara” instead of “Smenkhare”.
Over the years I have settled in my own mind what versions I like of various Egyptian names, the
ones that leap to my mind first, and into which I translate all the other variants as I read. These will
naturally be the names I use in lecture. Therefore, I’ve compiled this handy table which gives you
both the Classical and the Egyptian versions of names (in a normal Roman typeface for simplicity
at present) and I’ve noted my preference in boldface. It would be hard to explain why I prefer
some of the versions I prefer; most likely, it usually goes back to which version I saw first.
Names of Places
classical egyptian arabic6
Abydos Abedju (various sites)
Alexandria Raqote el-Iskandariya
Avaris Pi-Riameses Tell el-Dab‘a
Bubastis Per-Bastet Tell Basta
Buto Pe, Per-Wadjet Tell el-Fara‘in
Eileithyiaspolis Nekheb el-Kab
Heliopolis Iunu el-Qahira (Cairo)7
Herakleopolis Henen-Nesut Ihnasya el-Medina
Hermonthis Iuny Armant
Hermopolis Khemenu el-Ashmunein
Hierakonpolis Nekhen Kom el-Ahmar
Khemmis Khent-Min Akhmim
Memphis Men-nefer, etc. (various sites)
Mendes Djedet Tell el-Rub‘a
Moeris Sha-resy el-Faiyum
Ombos Nubt Naqada, Tukh
Saı̈s Zau Sa el-Hagar
Syene8 Swenet Aswan
Tanis Djanet San el-Hagar9
Thebes Waset (various sites)
(no name10 ) Akhetaten Tell el-‘Amarna
6 The Roman alphabet versions of the Arabic names are all from Baines, John, and Málek, Jaromı́r. Atlas of
Ancient Egypt. Facts on File, 1989.
7 “Sort of.” Cairo is a sprawling city and while Heliopolis is in the northern suburbs, other important sites such as
Giza are very near as well. It would be more accurate to say that Cairo spans the region from Heliopolis to Memphis.
8 The classical name for the island next to this city is Elephantine, and this is the best-known name in the area,
but I for the city itself I favor the Arabic name.
9 Yes, very much like the name two rows above it. This is not a typo.
10 Akhetaten has no Classical name because it had been forgotten by Classical times and only rediscovered in the
modern era. Also, while I prefer the Egyptian name for the city, the unusual artistic style found there is consistently
referred to as Amarnan art in Egyptological literature. Hence I have marked both names as “preferred.”
4. Names of Deities
classical egyptian
Ammon Amun
Anubis Anpu
Hathor Het-heru
Horus Heru
Isis Aset
Nephthys Nebt-het
Osiris Wasayar
Seth Sutekh; later Set
Thoth Djehuty
Names of Pharaohs
classical egyptian
Amenophis Amenhotep11
Ammenemes Amenemhat
Amosis Ahmose
Cheops Khufu
Chephren Khafre
Harmais Horemheb
Mycerinus Menkaure
Phiops Pepi
Sesostris Senwosret
Tuthmosis Djehutymose12
5 The geography of ancient Egypt
Egypt has often been called “the gift of the Nile”, and with good reason. The Nile, the longest
river in the world,13 winds its way north from the mountains in east central Africa on up to the
Mediterranean Sea. Every year (until more sophisticated dams and irrigation sluices were built in
the mid-19th century), rainfall in the tropical belt and the summer monsoons of Ethiopia14 caused
the Nile to flood. As it flowed, it picked up rich soil from central Africa and deposited it on the banks
of its valley in Egypt, and its delta at the Mediterranean. This produced a layer of excellent topsoil
which gave the ancient Egyptians their agriculture and thus their life. It is because of this fertile
mud that the Egyptians called their country Kemet, “Black Land” (to contrast it with Deshret,
“Red Land”, the desert which surrounded it), and why in Egyptian magic and symbolism, black is
not a color of death, but of life.
The map at the end of this article shows the overall layout of ancient Egypt. The dominant
feature is of course the Nile. The two main geographic divisions of ancient Egypt—Upper and
Lower Egypt15 —can also be seen, along with the region of Nubia to the south.
Lower Egypt contains a great many marshes and much more rich land. This is due to the
numerous branches of the Nile which run through the area—many more than are shown on the map,
for the sake of simplicity—and the presence of the lake el-Faiyum, which forms the “leaf” of the Nile
near Herakleopolis. Lower Egypt is also very flat, being mostly comprised of the Nile delta. Upper
11 Despite preferring Amun in the name of the god when it stands alone, I prefer Amen when it’s part of a name,
owing to how the inference of Egyptian vowels from Coptic inscriptions has been accomplished.
12 In this case I prefer Thutmose over both the Greek and the Egyptian, because Thut- sounds more like “Thoth”,
my preferred variant of that deity’s name, while preserving the Egyptian -mose, and the weird backwardness of Tuth-
doesn’t do anyone any good. The editors at KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt and various other scholars
use this version as well. An additional variant is out there too: “Thothmes.”
13 Except possibly the Amazon, depending on where you pinpoint their sources.
14 Baines and Málek, pp. 14–15.
15 Though the division was ancient, these terms are modern and derive from the fact that Upper Egypt is “upstream”
on the Nile and accordingly higher in elevation.
5. Egypt is “narrower”, having less cultivated land as the Nile is a single stream flowing through the
land, and is much more mountainous.
The ancient Egyptians divided their country into forty-two districts called nomes. A kiosk built
by Senwosret I at Karnak records the lengths along the Nile which determined the nomes of Upper
Egypt, twenty-two in number. Temples at Edfu and Dendara contained lists of the twenty Lower
Egyptian nomes. Most of the well-known cities we will refer to during this course, such as Thebes,
Heliopolis, Memphis, Hermopolis, Nekhen, and Tanis, were the capitals of their nomes.
6. Mediterranean Sea
Alexandria Buto
Lower Avaris
Egypt Giza Heliopolis
Saqqara Memphis
The Faiyum
Naqada Koptos
Hermonthis Thebes
Upper Nekhen Nekheb
Egypt Edfu
1st Cataract
Abu Simbel
2nd Cataract
3rd Cataract
0 100 mi
4th Cataract
5th Cataract
© 2003 Shawn C. Knight, after Cyril Aldred