In the thousands of years after the end of the last Ice Age, North Africa had a much wetter climate than it does today. It was a well-watered grassland, supporting a varied wildlife. Hunter-gatherers roamed the region, exploiting the flora and fauna to be found there.
Over time the climate of North Africa began to get dryer. Over thousands of years the wet grasslands gave way to the Sahara Desert that we know today – a vast, dry waste, hostile to human societies of any kind. However, through the region which we now call Egypt, flowed the river Nile.
Near the Nile, life could survive. In fact, it could thrive. By around 5000 BCE the Nile Valley was a swampland of reed beds, pools, and plenty of wildlife, all watered by the great river rolling by.
The drying of the surrounding terrain was pushing more and more people onto the narrow strip of land along the river banks. Archaeological evidence suggests a big expansion of population in the Nile Valley from around this time; and crucially, they had adopted farming. This had spread down from the Middle East, and was the only way that the growing number of people could live on such a limited area of land. They were already cultivating barley and emmer, which would be the staple crops of ancient Egypt, along with beans, peas and host of other plants.
Despite the plentiful water, the geography of the Nile Valley offered major challenges to these early farmers. The Nile floods each year. This allowed plant life to thrive – for a time. If the water is allowed to flow on to the sea, the water levels drop, leaving the land to the mercy of the searing sun. Crops shrivel and die.
To feed the growing population, therefore, the flood waters of the Nile had to be channelled into pools and tanks, where they could be stored. As the waters receded, enough could then be available to keep the crops growing throughout the growing season. Bountiful harvests would have allowed a growing population to be fed.
Nile Valley – Flooding of the Nile
Image by James Webster
To construct and maintain the dykes, dams, ponds, irrigation canals and drainage ditches needed to hold the flood water back, and then guide it along chosen paths to where it was needed, required a huge amount of labor. It also called for many communities to work together in a coordinated effort, on a (for that time) huge scale and over a wide area. This in turn required what we today would call “management”. In those days, it would be seen as the sacred authority of powerful leaders.
Taming the flood waters of the Nile conferred another great benefit on the land. Its waters brought a rich load of mud from the lands further south, through which the long river flowed. During the annual flood, much of this was deposited as a wonderfully fertile soil on the valley floor. This allowed a very dense population to grow.
By around 3500 BCE, the effort of irrigating and farming the land, carried out over generations upon generations, had reshaped the social and physical geography of the Nile Valley. The river was now flanked by numerous farming villages, surrounded by a dense network of irrigated fields. These villages were ruled by powerful chiefdoms, each covering a section of the long Nile valley. Within these chiefdoms, a social elite had emerged, apparent to modern archaeologists in the refined grave goods recovered from the period. These were royal officials, serving sacred rulers, set in authority over the rest of the population to ensure that the work was carried out properly, and that the flood waters of the Nile were shared out fairly. Large, well-planned towns with fortified walls and brick-built buildings had also appeared. These developments represent a fundamental upgrading of material culture in the country.
In the course of their work, these officials were developing a range of capabilities which would later allow the civilization of ancient Egypt to flourish. These included organizing and controlling large numbers of people; deploying advanced techniques in construction, engineering and mathematics; and, possibly even by this early date, an early form of writing.
Within these chiefdoms, then, the characteristic features of Ancient Egypt, one of the great civilizations of world history, were beginning to take shape.
Down to around 3000 BCE Egypt remained fragmented amongst various chiefdoms. An interpretation of the thin available evidence suggests that the first powerful chiefdoms (or confederacies of chiefdoms) were centered on the largest towns in southern Egypt, such as Abydos and Hierakonpolis. The prominence of military motifs in the art of the period suggests frequent warfare, and it is easy to speculate that from this situation emerged a victor, who went on to dominate the entire country.
In any event, a unified kingdom had appeared by 2900 BCE at the latest. The unification is traditionally credited to king Menes, but scholars now think he was a mythical figure, and not to be identified with the first king whose rule was clearly country-wide, Narmer.
Already in Narmer’s reign some of the key elements of Egyptian royal imagery are evident: he is represented as a living god, his monuments are adorned with hieroglyphic writing, and they are in a style that is recognizably “Egyptian” in motif and design.
Close-up view of Narmer on the Narmer Palette
Narmer was the founder of the 1st dynasty of Ancient Egypt (there would eventually be 30 or so dynasties), and therefore the period known to modern archaeologists as the Early Dynastic period. The capital was established at Memphis, which, along with Thebes, would become one of the two royal cities of Egypt.
During the Early Dynastic period, Egyptian civilization achieved its mature form. At their capital city of Memphis, the kings of the Old Kingdom erected more and more magnificent tombs for themselves. By the 3rd dynasty (c. 2650-2575 BCE), these had evolved into huge pyramid structures. Modern scholars designate this development the start of the “Old Kingdom” period, one of the greatest ages of ancient Egyptian history.
The Pyramid Age
In the early years of the Old Kingdom, the kings of Egypt began interfering in the affairs of the peoples of the south, in Nubia. Under the 4th dynasty (c. 2575-2465 BCE), an Egyptian colony was established deep in Nubian territory, beside the second cataract. This was withdrawn fairly quickly, but Egyptian officials remained active in the area, fostering friendly relations with the tribes who controlled the trade routes.
Djoser’s step pyramid at Sakkara (c.2610 BCE) was the first in the sequence of Pyramids to be built entirely of stone, and it was not long before the giant pyramids of Giza were being built for the kings of the 4th dynasty (c. 2575-2465 BCE). These enormous edifices were surrounded by a host of other tombs, of courtiers and officials. This complex served as the spiritual heart of Ancient Egypt for centuries to come.
The construction of the Great Pyramids were astonishing achievements.
The Sphinx of Giza, partially excavated, with two pyramids in background
They involved a very high level of engineering and mathematics, and amazing feats of organization and logistics. However it as not only in Pyramid-building that Old Kingdom Egypt excelled. Refined and lifelike sculpture in wood and stone, as well as a whole range of beautiful objects – jewelry, finely carved furniture, ivory cosmetic boxes – have been recovered from tombs of this period. It was in this period that the conventions of ancient Egyptian art were developed, and never afterwards, while this civilization endured, did artists and craftsmen stray too far from them.
The last large pyramid of the Old Kingdom was erected for Pepy II, after a 96 year reign (c. 2246-2152 BCE). Perhaps partly as a result of his extraordinarily long reign, by his death the king’s authority seems no longer to have been so effective, nor his prestige so great. Provincial governors now had themselves buried locally, not in the royal cemetery at Memphis. They commissioned monumental works in their own name, and took credit for themselves for their policies, rather than giving it to the king.
This marked the beginning of what is known in ancient Egyptian history as the First Intermediate period, when central authority was weak and power became fragmented amongst provincial families, usually descended from Old Kingdom governors. Inevitably, this period of royal impotence ended in civil war.
This started in the south, where the family which ruled the minor city of Thebes began expanding its territories at the expense of its neighbors. Soon Thebes dominated the south, and then, under its ruler Montjuhotep I (c. 2080-2074 BCE), succeeded in subduing the entire country. These events inaugurated the period known as the “Middle Kingdom” in Ancient Egypt.
The king once again became the unifying presence in the country. A new royal burial complex was built, to the south of Memphis, to rival that of the Old Kingdom cemetery at Giza. Major reclamation projects were undertaken in the Fayum and Delta regions, bringing much productive land under cultivation. International trade – which was a royal monopoly – was expanded, particularly with the Levant and its major port, Byblos, and on the caravan routes to Palestine, where a string of forts in the Sinai desert were built to bring these more under Egyptian control.
In the south, the kings of the 12th dynasty (c. 1937-1759 BCE) systematically brought northern Nubia under Egyptian rule, with forts being built down to the second cataract; and later, under king Senusret II (c. 1842-1836 BCE), these were extended further south as far as Semna. To further expand trade with the southern lands, a Red Sea port was established as a base for trade with the land of Punt (a country probably situated on the south-western coast of the Red Sea).
Head of a statue of Senusret II from Karnak
When Montjuhotep reunified the country at the start of the Middle Kingdom, he seems to have left many of the local ruling families in place, and the provinces remained in the hands of what were essentially hereditary princes throughout the Middle Kingdom period.
During the 13th dynasty (c.1759-1641 BCE), these gradually asserted themselves against the central authorities, and the power of the kings became diminished again. The weakness of the kings had an immediate effect in the loss of Nubia, which came under the rule of the powerful kingdom of Kush. The Nile Delta region seems to have fallen under the control of a dynasty called the Hyksos. Though the Hyksos were probably of Canaanite origins, they were fully assimilated into Egyptian culture, and they styled themselves as Egyptian kings. They ruled from the city of Avaris.
Much of the Nile valley fell under the sway of rulers again based at Thebes, known to history as the 17th dynasty (c. 1641-1759 BCE). An ambitious king of Thebes, Kamose, set about reuniting the “Black Land” in about 1540 BCE.
Sarcophagus of Kamoze
Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0
He seems to have taken northern Nubia from the kingdom of Kush with relative ease, but Avaris proved more difficult, and it was left to his son, Ahmose (c. 1539-1514 BCE), to complete the reunification.
It took five campaigns to take Avaris, and then Ahmose firmly established Egyptian control over the roads across Sinai, as far as Palestine. He defeated two rebellions against his authority, and was able to pass on a strong and united Egypt to his successors. The period of the New Kingdom, one of the high points in the long history of Ancient Egypt, had begun.
The period of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt was one in which Egypt reached the height of its international power, and was a leading player in the war and diplomacy of the Middle East. This was matched by prosperity and firm government at home. However, decline set in after about 1200 BCE, bringing an end to the great days of Ancient Egypt.
A Strong Monarchy
The kings of the New Kingdom concentrated power firmly in their own hands. The court was again the source of all authority, the localities firmly subordinated to central control.
The resources of the entire country were mobilized in a thoroughgoing way, this time not so much to create magnificent tombs for the kings – though the wonderful temples in the Valley of the Kings testify to the ongoing importance of this concern – but to developing the territorial and economic resources of the country. In so doing, they turned Egypt into a true imperial power.
To the south, Egypt waged an unrelenting war against the kingdom of Kush. By Thutmose I’s day (c. 1493-1481) the Egyptian frontier lay at the third cataract on the Nile – a mere 30 kilometers north of the Kush capital, Kerma. During the reign of Thutmose III (c. 1479-1425) they drove their frontier much further south, establishing a fortified town at Napata, deep within Kushite territory.
The lands thus conquered were assimilated into the Egyptian administration and heavily guarded with forts and garrisons. Native chiefs were co-opted into the provincial system as local officials, and they soon adopted the trappings of Egyptian civilization. Temples to the Egyptian gods were scattered throughout the land, a testament to cultural imperialism.
Statue of Thutmosis III
at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
From the time of Thutmose III, chiefs outside direct Egyptian control also recognized Egyptian suzerainty, giving their aid to the Egyptian gold-mining operations. It was these, along with the trade goods coming up from the south, that gave the Egyptian kings the wealth to conduct the large-scale international trade (which was still a royal monopoly) and diplomacy with which they furthered Egypt’s interests to the north.
In fact, international trade and diplomacy were so intertwined that it is doubtful whether the Egyptians recognized any distinction between the two.
The kings of the New Kingdom adopted a much more aggressive stance in their relations with the rulers of Palestine and Syria. Thutmose I led an army as far as the Euphrates, and Thutmose III undertook no less than 17 campaigns in Palestine and Syria. The strategic pattern seems clear.
The great seaport of Byblos was again the lynchpin of Egypt’s influence in the region and the logistics base for the Egyptian presence in the Levant, which was used to control the trade routes between the Mediterranean and the rich lands of Mesopotamia. Further south Egypt’s interests lay in securing the land-based caravan routes through Palestine.
In order to pursue these goals, the Egyptian government adopted an “indirect rule” policy: Egyptian forces only intervened in Syria or Palestine on rare occasions, and Egypt did not seek to rule territories in Palestine or Syria directly. Instead, the Egyptian government used loyal chiefs of tribes and rulers of city-states to protect its interests in the region.
The Amarna letters, found in a royal archive containing over 350 diplomatic letters between the Egyptian king and foreign rulers, offer a fascinating glimpse into the international scene at this time. The king of Egypt related to the powerful kings of Babylon and the Hittites as equals (“brothers”), but to the many petty chiefs and kinglets of Palestine he was their overlord.
The kings of Egypt during the period covered by the Amarna letters were experiencing – or perhaps provoking – internal struggles. Amenhotep IV (1344-1328 BCE) sponsored the cult of the Sun god, Aten. Indeed, he replaced the god Amon with Aten as the chief deity in the Egyptian pantheon. He had himself renamed Akhenaten, and after a time promoted the worship of Aten as the one true god.
Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten,
second from the left is Meritaten who was the daughter of Akhenaten
This was a revolutionary departure from the ancient religion of the country, and was quickly reversed after his death. The end result may well have been to increase the power of the priests of Amun, with their chief center at Thebes. Certainly, subsequent pharaohs of the New Kingdom emphasized their loyalty to Amun.
Akhenaten was succeeded by his young son, who, though he reigned only briefly, would become one of the most famous of all the pharaohs. He would go down in history as Tutankhamun. His magnificent burial chamber would be found millennia later, in 1922, by the archaeologist Howard Carter.
A new and more dangerous phase began for Egyptian foreign policy with the aggressive expansion of the Hittites. This posed an increasing threat to the trade routes to Mesopotamia, and hence to Egyptian commercial/diplomatic interests in Syria, and even Palestine.
It was the kings of the 19th dynasty that had to deal with this danger, above all one of the most famous kings in all Egyptian history, Ramesses II (c. 1279-1213).
Ramesses led his army to battle against the Hittites at the strategically sited city of Kaddesh (c. 1275 BCE), and won a famous victory there – or so he claimed in his account of the action inscribed on his temple in the Valley of the Kings. The battle came near to disaster for Ramesses, and probably ended as a draw. In the end the rise of another power, Assyria, convinced both Ramesses and Hattusili II of Hatti to come to terms, and in c. 1259 BCE they agreed to divide Syria between them.
By the end of the 19th dynasty (c. 1295-1186) a new threat was appearing from the west. Libyan tribes began migrating – which, given their military capabilities, effectively meant invading – into the Delta region from the western coastal desert.
The Egyptians built a series of forts to control this nuisance, and under Merenptah (c. 1213-1203 BCE) and Ramesses III (c. 1184-1153 BCE) inflicted several defeats on them. In the time of Ramesses III, also, a new set of invaders, this time from the north, had to be dealt with.
Ramses III offering incense, wall painting
These were the “Sea Peoples”, an apparently diverse group of peoples whose origins lay in Europe but with elements who may well have been refugees from Asia Minor, where the Hittite state had recently been destroyed.
These threats seem to have been dealt with reasonably effectively, and, unlike many states in the Middle East, Egypt survived as a wealthy and united country. However, internal developments were at work to undermine the centralizing power of the kings.
Throughout the New Kingdom, temples had been accorded high status and a privileged position within the state. The lands and wealth they controlled made them indispensable allies of the king. This wealth and power had gradually been increasing, above all for the priests of Thebes.
It was now that the high priest of Amun at Thebes elevated himself to kingly status, challenging the status of the kings of the 20th dynasty (c. 1186-1069 BCE).
A civil war broke out which ended with the confirmation of the Theban priest-king’s position as an autonomous ruler within the wider land of Egypt, and the permanent reduction of the pharaoh’s prestige and authority.
The weakening power of the king of Egypt at home soon had its effects abroad. To the south, Nubia was lost to a rebellious general. This cut off Egypt’s supply of gold, on which its commercial/diplomatic influence had been largely based. Local rulers in Palestine and Syria drifted away from their centuries-long Egyptian loyalties.
A glimpse of this decline in Egyptian power is seen in “The Tale of Wenamum”, in which a royal official encounters all sorts of difficulties and humiliations in a journey to and from Byblos. Whatever the exact significance of this tale – was it fiction? – the impression it gives of Egyptian international impotence is unmistakable.
Weakness at Home
The weakness of the kingdom of Egypt did not mean that there was an immediate fragmentation, however. A rapprochement was worked out between the high priests of Thebes and the kings of the 21st dynasty (c. 1069-945 BCE), whereby the high priests seem to have usually recognized the secular authority of the pharaohs. In return, the pharaohs sent their daughters as brides for the Theban high priest; and in due course the families became so intertwined that the Theban high priest Har-Psusennes ascended the throne as pharaoh (c. 959-945 BCE).
For a time the kings were able to hold things together by co-opting leading provincial families as allies of the royal family through marriage ties and grants of hereditary privileges. The inevitable result of these policies, however, was further fragmentation of power, exacerbated by divisions within the royal family itself as different princes contended with each other. Rival principalities emerged within Egypt’s borders.
It was into this situation that the king of Kush invaded Egypt, culminating in a campaign that brought the entire country under Kushite subjection in 728 BCE. The new king, Piye, presented himself in purely traditional terms, and clearly saw himself as a true Egyptian pharaoh. Furthermore, he did not depose the existing kings and princes, but imposed himself upon them as their overlord.
The dominance of Piye and his dynasty (the 25th) was short-lived, however. A foreign policy which sought to regain Egyptian influence in Palestine brought Egypt into conflict with the huge and aggressive Assyrian empire. A series of Assyrian invasions, in which the invaders were by no means always victorious but which could in the end have only one outcome, resulted in complete defeat for the Nubian kings, their flight back to their Nubian capital, Napata, the sack of the historic city of Thebes, and the occupation of northern Egypt by an Assyrian army.
Detail of a drawing of the Victory stele:
Piy (left, partially erased) is tributed by four Nile Delta rulers.
For the first time in their long history, the ancient Egyptians found themselves conquered by a foreign empire. The Assyrians on the whole preferred to exert their control over Egypt through local rulers, who in effect swapped the overlordship of the king of Kush for the (more distant) overlordship of the king of Assyria.
This suited many of them very well. Above all, it suited the princes of Saise, in the Delta. Necko of Sais built up his power under Assyrian sponsorship, and was given the governorship of Memphis by them. His son Psamteck I (664-610 BCE) inherited Necko’s positions and then took full advantage of troubles elsewhere in the Assyrian empire to expand his power throughout the entire country. By 639 BCE Psamteck ruled an independent, united Egypt.
Psamteck founded the 26th dynasty (639-525 BCE). The kings of this dynasty associated themselves with the glory days of Ancient Egypt by erecting monuments in the style of the Old Kingdom.
This policy masked great changes that had taken place in the country. Sizable communities of foreigners now lived within its borders. Libyans, Greeks, Phoenicians and Jews had brought their distinctive cultures as well as their particular technological skills with them – it was with Greek assistance that Neko II (610-595 BCE) set about building a canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea, and it was Phoenician seamen that he sent on a famous expedition to explore the west coast of Africa. Naukratis, a Greek colony, was now the chief port of Egypt. Foreign mercenaries lived in scattered settlements throughout the country. Temples now owned much of the cultivated land, correspondingly weakening the economic base for royal power.
The kings of the 26th dynasty resumed the traditional Egyptian policy of seeking to secure a predominant influence in Palestine. Their chief opponent was now the resurgent power of Babylon, which, under its dynamic leader Nebuchadnezzar, had taken over from Assyria as the leading empire in the Middle East.
The Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at the battle of Carchemish (605 BCE), and so got the upper hand in Syria. Two Babylonian invasions of Egypt (601 and 569 BCE) were beaten back. Psamtek II (595-589 BCE) secured the allegiance of the Philistine cities, and Apries (589-570 BCE) supported Judaea in her abortive revolt against Babylon (589 BCE) before occupying the Levantine cities of Tyre and Sidon (574-750 BCE). His successor, Amasis (570-526 BCE) occupied Cyprus in 560 BCE. In the south, Psamtek II had invaded Nubia, and penetrated as far as Napata, but had not occupied the country.
Sphinx of Psamtik II
Recreated under Creative Commons 3.0
The occupation of Cyprus proved to be the high watermark of Egyptian success under the 26th dynasty. In 545 BCE a new power in the Middle East, the Persian empire, took that island from the Egyptians. The Persians went on to conquer the Babylonian empire, and in 526 BCE invaded Egypt.
At the battle of Pelusium the Egyptian army was defeated, and Egypt incorporated into the huge Persian empire. The pharaoh, Psamtek II, was deposed and later executed.
This event marked the effective end of the history of ancient Egypt as the home of an autonomous civilization. Henceforth her history was as a member of a wider world, her fate largely determined by foreign players.
The country was occupied by the Persians. Some temples were ransacked and their treasures confiscated, but the Persian king, Cambyses, swiftly moved to put a stop to this. He spent most of the rest of his reign in the Egypt, and treated the people – and especially the priesthood, who exercised great influence over the people – with great respect. The priesthood reciprocated by recognizing him as a legitimate ruler of Egypt (in Egyptian history the Persian kings are counted as the 27th dynasty of pharaohs). Cambyses employed Egyptian officials in senior positions to help govern the country.
The next Persian king, Darius the Great (reigned 521-485 BCE), continued Cambyses’ policy of showing respect towards his Egyptian subjects and governing them through Egyptian officials. Like Cambyses, he had himself depicted in traditional mode and regalia as an Egyptian pharaoh, and continued to build temples in the native style. Darius spent as much time as he could in Egypt. He completed a canal between the River Nile and the Red Sea, which had been started under the previous dynasty, and opened it in person with great fanfare in 486 BCE.
Already by this time, however, opposition was brewing. The Egyptians had a glorious history and did not take kindly to being subject to an alien ruler. A revolt broke out at the end of Darius’ reign, and Xerxes, his son and successor as Persian king, put it down with great harshness. This started a cycle in Egypt of revolt and brutal repression, but in 404 BCE the Egyptians, under a member of the former pharaonic house of Sais, succeeded in driving the Persians out of their country.
This was by no means the end of their troubles, however. The constant threat of re-invasion by the Persians hung over the rulers and people of Egypt for the next sixty years. Two invasions actually materialized, in 374 and 351 BCE, which penetrated as far as the Nile Delta. This situation meant that the Egyptian government had to keep its defenses in a constant state of readiness, with the field army and military garrisons at full strength.
This represented a huge drain on the government’s treasury; taxes were high and poverty was widespread. The pharaoh Takos (reigned 360-358 BCE) even took to raiding the treasuries of the temples, the biggest store of wealth in the land; this swiftly earned him the enmity of the priests and he was deposed in favor of the more pliant Nektanebo (reigned 358-342 BCE).
Nektanebo’s caution prevented him from raising sufficient funds to keep up the defenses properly. He was defeated by a Persian army under Artaxerxes III in 343 BCE, and Egypt (and the territory to its west, Cyrene) was once again absorbed into the Persian empire. The country was reduced to the status of a satrapy, and governed by Persian officials – a period later remembered by the Egyptians with great bitterness.
In 332 BCE Egypt was occupied by Alexander the Great and his army.
Alexander was able to present himself to the Egyptian people as a liberator. He worshipped the Egyptian gods at Heliopolis and Memphis, and visited the oracle at Siwa, which pronounced him to be the son of the god Ammon. As they had done with Cambyses before him, the priesthood recognized Alexander as a legitimate king.
Alexander soon moved on to greater conquests, however, and he spent the rest of his reign far from Egypt. After his early death in 323, and with his son and heir a newborn child, Alexander’s generals allocated the satrapies of the empire amongst themselves. Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s most prominent commanders, was allotted Egypt; he immediately travelled to his new province and established it as his base.
The generals – of “Successors”, as they are called by historians (as they succeeded Alexander in ruling his various conquests) – soon fell to fighting amongst themselves. Their initial aim was to gain power over the whole empire, but as it became clearer that this was not realistic, each aimed to grab as much of it for themselves as he could.
Most of them perished in the fierce competition that ensued, but by 301 BCE three of the Successors were left standing – Cassander in Macedonia, Seleucus in the East, and Ptolemy in Egypt. Ptolemy’s success probably stemmed from his single-minded policy of securing his position in Egypt rather than aiming for control of the whole of Alexander’s conquests. To consolidate his power in Egypt, however, he also sought to gain control of neighboring lands, Cyrene (the territory on the north African coast to the west of Egypt), Judaea and the island of Cyprus. He eventually succeeded in these aims.
Since shortly after the murder of Alexander’s young son in 310 BCE, the surviving Successors had begun to claim the title of king, and Ptolemy had taken the title of king of Egypt in 305 BCE.
Ptolemy’s family would rule Egypt for almost 300 years, until the Roman annexation of 30 BCE. All the male rulers of the dynasty took the name Ptolemy. Ptolemaic queens were usually called Cleopatra, Arsinoe or Berenice. Most of these were sisters, mothers, aunts or nieces of their husbands (the Ptolemies followed the ancient Egyptian tradition of incestuous royal marriage, although they were not alone in this – several kings of other Hellenistic states also contracted marriages with siblings).
Like the other Hellenistic dynasties, the Ptolemies built new Greek-style cities throughout the country. Naucratis, on the north-west coast of Egypt, had already existed as a Greek colony for several centuries before Alexander’s conquest. It continued to flourish under the Ptolemies, and recent archaeological work there (much of it under the sea) has led to an understanding of the way Greek and Egyptian influences melded together to make a rich cultural fusion.
Ptolemais, in upper Egypt, was a new foundation (as its name suggests). Located 400 miles up the Nile, it formed an island of Greek civilization within a pervasively Egyptian environment.
Alexandria was also a new foundation. It was located on the Mediterranean coast, and was the capital of the Ptolemies. It became the greatest city in the Hellenistic world, a major center of Greek culture and trade. Its importance as a port was underlined by the building of the famous lighthouse, the pharos of Alexandria, considered as one of the seven wonders of the world at that time. The city’s significance was also secured by the presence of Alexander the Great’s mausoleum, which became a center of international pilgrimage.
At Alexandria Ptolemy I founded the largest library in the ancient world. This not only functioned as a huge collection of books, it was also a research institute, with scholars from all over the Hellenistic world studying there. It even had a zoo and botanical garden attached to it for the study of plants and animals.
The Greek-speaking inhabitants of Alexandria and elsewhere in the country constituted the ruling class of Ptolemaic Egypt. They filled all the most important government positions, as well as providing the troops for the army. Veterans of this army were allotted grants of land to live on, and settled around the country, though with concentrations in the Delta region. These incomers lived lives largely separate from the native population; they were educated as Greeks, and lived under Greek law. Throughout Ptolemaic times, and indeed into the Roman period, they remained a privileged minority. Over time, however, they could not help but be influenced by the cultural environment around them; they took to worshipping local gods, and many intermarried with local families.
The Ptolemies did not neglect their relations with the native population. They claimed to be the successors of the long line of pharaohs, and had themselves portrayed on public monuments in Egyptian royal style and dress. They participated in the worship of the Egyptian deities, and patronized the Egyptian temple priesthoods. They built new temples, and refurbished old ones, according to the canons of Egyptian design and workmanship: the quality of Ptolemaic period temple architecture is comparable to the best of New Kingdom work. The temple-complex of Philae is an example of the beauty achieved by Egyptian architects at this time.
The Ptolemaic period saw a great deal of religious syncretism, with Egyptian and Greek gods and goddesses being identified with one another. As time went by many Greek-speakers adopted Egyptian beliefs and practices, and vice versa. Through this process Egyptian cults began to spread throughout the Hellenistic world. The Ptolemies themselves preferred the hybrid Greek-Egyptian cult of Serapis over the traditional Greek gods, as a result of which it became almost an official cult amongst the Greek-speaking elites of the new cities. Older native cults were imbued with a new vitality; that of Isis especially had become a major feature of the religious life of the eastern Mediterranean by the time the Romans took over, and would continue to flourish for several centuries afterwards.
The identification of the Ptolemaic dynasty with the religion and culture of its Egyptian subjects enabled them to find widespread acceptance amongst the native population, even though native-born Egyptians were largely excluded from political power. The Egyptian temple priests retained great influence over the people. There were several native revolts, but on the whole the Egyptians accepted the new facts of political life. The Ptolemies were viewed as the legitimate rulers of the country, successors to the pharaohs. The population certainly preferred this state of affairs to subjection to a distant Persian king.
The Jewish community
One ethnic group which had become established in Egypt long before Ptolemaic times was the Jews. These were situated in groups scattered around the country, including a strong presence in southern Egypt. As Alexandria grew into a large city, it acquired an important population of Jews. Many Jews became very wealthy, and the Jews of Alexandria adopted much Greek culture. They had a huge influence on Jewish groups scattered throughout the Hellenistic world by translating the Hebrew scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint).
The administration of Ptolemaic Egypt was highly centralized. The countryside was directly administered by royal officials, whose demands for tax were frequent and heavy. The bureaucracy was in fact a finely tuned mechanism for squeezing as much wealth as possible from the fertile Nile river valley and its millions of peasant farmers. In this it was little different from the government of the pharaohs, in principle at least; the Ptolemies seemed to have applied it with more efficiency, however. They paid much attention to the economy of the country, ensuring that the irrigation system was kept in good order; and in 269 BCE they reopened the Nile-Red Sea canal, which had first come into operation under the Persians but had fallen into disrepair.
The heavy tax demands of the government led to bouts of peasant unrest, including, in the late 3rd century, a revolt which detached a portion of the country from central government control for almost twenty years.
The Ptolemaic army was initially composed of Macedonians and Greeks. As time went by, native troops were recruited in large numbers. These were trained to fight in the Macedonian way, organized around the phalanx. However, the Ptolemies never felt able to rely exclusively on such troops, and mercenaries from around the Hellenistic world formed a major component of their armies. Meanwhile the royal guards were always selected from the pool of Macedonian and Greek settlers within Egypt.
Relations with the wider world
For much of their history the Ptolemies ruled several external possessions, especially Cyrene, the island of Cyprus, and, between 301 and 219 BCE, Judea. These territories were governed by military commanders appointed by the king. The early Ptolemies also controlled some areas in Greece and Asia Minor, but these were soon given up as being of little strategic value.
The focus of the Ptolemies international relations was on the other Hellenistic states around the eastern Mediterranean, with whom they had strong cultural, commercial and political links (the Ptolemaic royal family had multiple marriage alliances with the royal families of other Hellenistic kingdoms); but relations with the peoples of Africa to the south were not ignored. Treaties were agreed with the kings of Nubia, and a fleet of warships was stationed in the Red Sea.
A new Power
From the late 2nd century BCE the Ptolemaic royal family produced a series of inadequate rulers – tyrants, children and weaklings under the control of wives and favorites. Dissensions within the ruling family led to royal depositions, murders, civil wars and native rebellions; the unruly Alexandrian mob also played its part, being instrumental in the end of two reigns.
Fear of the Seleucids and Macedonians led Egypt into an alliance with the rising power of Rome as early as 198 BCE. Weakness and instability at the Ptolemaic court gave Rome ever greater influence within the kingdom. She used her power to annex Cyrenaica (96) and Cyprus (58), by which time Egypt itself was virtually a Roman protectorate.
The most famous member of the Ptolemaic dynasty was also the last, Queen Cleopatra. She ruled Egypt as the queen, first of her 10 year old brother, Ptolemy XIII, and then of her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV. Her and her country’s fate were tied up in the final phases of Rome’s long civil wars, and she played an active – indeed intimate – role in the careers of the Roman generals Julius Caesar and Mark Antony (she was mistress to both). Unfortunately for her, Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BCE and Mark Antony was defeated by his rival, Octavian (later the first emperor of Rome, Augustus) at the naval battle of Actium in 31 BCE. After this defeat Mark Antony and Cleopatra fled back to Egypt, with Octavian following the next year. Mark Antony committed suicide after defeat in battle, and Cleopatra did so a little later. Octavian then annexed Egypt to the Roman empire.
For nearly a thousand years Egypt would remain just one amongst many provinces of a succession of multinational states – the Roman empire, the Byzantine empire and the Islamic Caliphate – and by the time it came under its own ruler again, ancient Egyptian civilization was barely a memory.
History Atlas: go to the start of a sequence of maps of Ancient Egypt
Overview of Egyptian civilization: Ancient Egypt