A Glimpse of Ancient Egypt by Jayant Neogy

It is almost impossible to compress the history and architecture of ancient Egypt into a brief travel blog. Perhaps, that is why it is an audacious and an exciting challenge. So, here is a highly compressed whirlwind tour of Egypt from the Nubian desert in the South to the Northernmost part of this ancient land on the Mediterranean shore.

Ancient Egyptian civilization stretches over 3.500 years even if we ignore the period of pre-dynastic settlements in the Nile valley before Upper and Lower Egypt were consolidated into a single mighty kingdom.

The historical records of ancient Egypt as a unified state, begin around 3150 BC when Menes, the king of Upper Egypt unified the country after conquering Lower Egypt and killing the king. The resulting ancient Egyptian culture, customs, art expression, architecture, and social structure was closely tied to religion and remained remarkably stable for three and half millennia.

The ancient Egyptian architecture that modern-day visitors wonder at, are breathtaking in their scale, imagination and sheer volume. Much of this, including the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx belong to the period known as the Old Kingdom, especially during the rule of the third, fourth and the fifth Dynasties. The fourth Dynasty produced Egyptian Kings (or Pharaohs) such as the founder Sneferu, his son Khufu and his grandson Khafra. These Pharaohs achieved immortality because the Great Pyramids they built, stand to this day at Giza near Cairo.

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The Great Pyramid at Dawn

For a long time, it was believed that such massive amount construction must have been achieved by driving thousands of slave laborers. However, recent excavations near the pyramids have uncovered evidence that large, well-organized cities were built to house thousands of farmers out of work due to the periodic flooding of the Nile. So, the workmen seem to be free men who lived in some comfort and received food and payment for their labors.

In later years however, the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom that followed the Old Kingdom, took to building temples and not Pyramids. Pyramids were traditionally abandoned after the Pharaoh died, and in time, were looted by grave robbers. Temples on the other hand continued to attract worshippers and remained in use for longer periods, glorifying the builder-Pharaohs who often claimed close ties with Egyptian Gods and their temples filled with statues, paintings, bas-reliefs and Hieroglyphics proclaimed the Pharaoh’s Godhood.

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The Temple of Abu Simbel with colossal statues of Pharaoh Ramesses II

During the reign of the Nineteen Dynasty (around 1300 BC) The Egyptian nation-state probably reached its peak in power, wealth and influence in the Nile valley. The most powerful Pharaoh of the dynasty was Ramesses II who ruled for 67 years starting at a tender age of 18. Since his mother was not of royal blood, Ramesses claimed his right to rule by proclaiming that he was the son of the God Amun whom the Egyptians revered. Ramesses built the massive temple to Amun near the Nubian border of his kingdom at Abu Simbel to celebrate his victory in the battle of Kadesh and to proclaim his kinship to the Egyptian Gods.

Following the heyday of the New Kingdom, Egypt gradually went into decline. Continuing wars, untimely floods in the Nile Valley and weak Pharaohs were all instrumental in bringing down a once-proud nation till the Persian and then the Greeks drove out the native Egyptian kings and ruled Egypt until around 30 BC when Rome annexed Egypt and turned the country into a province of the Roman Empire.

The decline began long ago but became terminal by the time of the Twenty sixth Dynasty when Egypt was conquered by the Persians. Egypt became a Persian Satrapy and Cambyses declared himself a Pharaoh of Egypt. Except for a brief period of freedom, Egypt remained under Persian rule under rulers such as Darius and Xerxes until 322 BC when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt virtually without a fight.

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Sunset off Alexandria’s old harbor

Alexander founded a new capital for Egypt on the shores of the Mediterranean, facing Europe. After Alexander’s death, Ptolemy, one of his close companions, founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty that ruled Egypt for 300 years until the Roman Empire absorbed Egypt and made it into a Roman province. The Greek and Roman influence brought many European customs and values to the Mediterranean coast of Egypt that make Alexandria more European than Asian. Modern day visitors will be quick to observe this difference even today.

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