About 450 years before the birth of Christ, a Greek named Herodotus made a journey to Egypt, an ancient kingdom along the Nile river in eastern North Africa. Herodotus visited the ancient temples and monuments of Egypt such as the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and he wrote down the stories he was told about the ancient kings of Egypt in his book, The Histories, which we shall read more about later when we study the Greeks.
Herodotus lived about 2,400 years ago, and yet the great monuments of Egypt's Old Kingdom which he visited were already over 2,000 years old when Herodotus saw them. By the time that the Gospels tell us Jesus' family took refuge in Egypt, the pyramids were nearly 3,000 years old!
In the neolithic, early farmers settled along the wide river Nile and planted their crops in the rich black soil that could be found on both sides of the river. Beyond this farmland, the red-orange dirt of the desert was too dry and barren for any farming. The part of Egypt where crops and animals can be raised has always been very narrow, in places only four miles wide.
Each year, in later summer and early fall, the Nile floods, spreading water out over its banks into the land beyond. Farmers planted their seeds in the fall, after the floods had receded, and harvested their crops at the end of the spring.
By 3,200 B.C. (during the height of Uruk's power in Mesopotamia) the settlements up and down the Nile valley had been grouped into small city states and these city states came under the control of kings who ruled many cities. These kingdoms made up two large regions: Upper Egypt was to the south, closer to the source of the Nile, and Lower Egypt, which was to the north, including the wide Nile Delta where the river fanned out into many smaller streams as it flowed into the sea.
Around 3,000 B.C. a great king named Narmer conquered both Upper and Lower Egypt, and became the first "King of Upper and Lower Egypt". We often call these great kings Pharaohs [fey-rows] after the Egyptian Per-ao ("Great House") which was used to describe the king's palace, and in Hebrew became Pharaoh.
Narmer was the first pharaoh of the First Dynasty. A dynasty is a family of rulers. The First Dynasty was the time when Egypt was ruled by Narmer and his sons, and their sons. The Egyptians divided their history into dynasties from the First Dynasty founded by Narmer around 3,000 B.C. to the Thirty-First Dynasty which ended in 332 B.C. when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt.
To the Ancient Egyptians, the pharaoh was more than a great ruler. They came to believe that the pharaoh was himself a god, and that after ruling the earth during his life, he became one with Osiris (the god of the underworld) after his death and ruled over the dead.
Historians divide the history of Egypt into four major periods: the Old Kingdom (2,700 to 2,100 B.C.), the Middle Kingdom (2,000 to 1,600 B.C.), the New Kingdom (1,600 to 1,000 B.C.) and the late periods (1,000 to 332 B.C.) During the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, Upper and Lower Egypt were united under a single pharaoh. But during the times between these three great periods, and in the later periods, Egypt was divided by civil wars or taken over by invading dynasties from outside.
After Narmer came another powerful king named Menes. Menes founded a new city at the border between Upper and Lower Egypt to be the capital of both kingdoms, and he named it Memphis.
The pharaohs who ruled from Memphis became more and more powerful. They collected taxes from their subjects and built temples to the gods and rich tombs for themselves. These tombs were called mastabas [mas-ta-bas]. They were large square buildings made of mud bricks. The burial chamber was dug into the ground and lined with stones or bricks, and in it the body was buried with many possessions which the Ancient Egyptians believed the dead man could use during the afterlife.
One of these powerful kings was named Djoser [zoh-zer]. He was the first pharaoh of the Third Dynasty and ruled Egypt for thirty years around 2,600 B.C. Until Djoser's time, the forty-two nomes (small provinces) that made up Upper and Lower Egypt had been ruled by noble families who passed power down from father to son. But Djoser made a law that in the future the rulers of nomes could only be appointed by the pharaoh.
A powerful king like Djoser wanted to be remembered in death just as he had been feared and obeyed in life, so he asked his architect Imhotep to build him a tomb like no other. What Imhotep built was the Step Pyramid of Saqqara [sak-kara]. It was a bit like six mastabas (each one smaller than the last) stacked on top of each other. Djoser's step pyramid (as tall as a five story building) still stands outside of Memphis. In the hundred and fifty years after Djoser, the pharaohs of the Forth Dynasty built even bigger pyramids which we will read about in a later story.
The pharaohs of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Dynasties built many temples and monuments, but they also spent too much money on their buildings and their finery. In 2,400 B.C. civil wars began to break out between the governors of the nomes. Rival kings fought each other, and the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were no longer united. Then around 2,100 B.C. a great famine broke out, because the Nile did not flood and the crops did not grow.
This was the end of the first great period of Ancient Egypt, the Old Kingdom. But this was not the end of Egypt's greatness. After a time, new kings rose up and re-united Egypt. We will read about them in a later story.
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