A brief history

Egyptian civilization endured for more than three thousand years. The more that we learn about Pre dynastic Egypt, the more it seems that this figure should be extended. In a work of this scale, therefore, only a very basic outline of Egyptian history can be provided.

Prior to the Neolithic, the Nile Valley was not suitable for significant habitation. Indeed, with the river swollen by heavy Holocene rainfall, the Nile Valley itself could hardly be considered to exist at all until some time during the fifth millennium BC. It was the Sahara, lush and green, that supported human habitation.

As the quantity of rainfall subsided, the Sahara began a process of drying out that would take a couple of thousand years to complete, while the Nile subsided to a level that allowed for the regular flooding that has made it famous. The Nile Valley, therefore, became an attractive place for Saharan migrants to settle. These settlements grew during the fifth millennium BC, making possible the creation of towns during the fourth millennium. It is perhaps strange to note that the Nile settlers were slow to adopt agriculture and animal husbandry, but the plenitude of fish and fowl made such adoption unnecessary for a time

When these early Egyptians did adopt the agricultural lifestyle, however, they soon learned what an asset the Nile was to settled life. As the fourth millennium BC proceeded, distinct cultural complexes developed in the heart of the Nile Valley and in the Delta to the north. The former is often known by the collective name of Naqada, encompassing three distinct phases, while the latter is known as the Ma’adi culture. They did enjoy some common characteristics, but where they differed, it is the norms of the southern culture that eventually came to dominate the future state.

The process of consolidation and assimilation is still being studied, and there are few solid conclusions, but during the last two centuries of the fourth millennium BC, a powerful state in the south of the country came to extend its control all the way downriver to the Mediterranean. This was a bureaucratic state that focused its legitimacy on a god-king who was identified with the falcon god, Horus.                                                                                                                       

This was a period of setting precedents, and to a people as conservative as the ancient Egyptians, precedents are neither lightly adopted nor easily discarded. The Archaic period is roughly five hundred years in length, including both the "proto-dynastic" Dynasty 0 and the "early dynastic" Dynasties

1 and 2. The nature of the kingship, its relationship with the priesthood and the bureaucracy (the latter two groups are very closely intertwined), the mortuary cult and its importance as a share of the economy, are among the precedents laid down during this period

This period was not without its instability. The Second Dynasty, in particular, seems to have a great deal of unrest. Some have seen in the patchy evidence signs of a civil war, with two factions rallying around the early forms of two gods whose conflict is later a staple of Egyptian mythology: Horus and Set. What is known is that the tradition of a "Horus name" is interrupted by a king known as Peribsen, who took instead a "Set name," and that the period ends with a possible compromise by the last king of the Second Dynasty, Khasekhem, who changed his name to Khasekhemwy as a dual "Horus and Set name."

It is with the Third Dynasty and the stability and prosperity that it ushered in that the Old Kingdom, proper, begins. The scale of the mortuary cult takes on a new dimension with the reign of Djoser, who commissions a grandiose monument that becomes the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Sakkara. It is an enterprise that requires a massive outlay of manpower and resources, all of which have one end: the eternal maintenance of the king. It should also be noted that the economic ramifications of a pyramid complex do not end with the edifice's completion, nor yet with the king's interment therein. A team of priests, renewed over generations, must serve in his mortuary temple, and a host of artisans are needed to support their work. Each pyramid complex was therefore endowed with farmland to cover such costs, because ancient Egypt did not issue true coinage until the Greek period, and all wealth was exchanged in kind.


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