The History of Egypt: From the Ancient Pharaohs to the Arab Spring

Gain an understanding of the major figures, events, and periods of Egyptian History.

Archaic Period and Old Kingdom (Pre-2181 BCE)

The first king of Egypt was King Menes, who united Egypt in 3100 BCE, the start of the ‘Archaic Period.’ He founded his capital at White Walls, later known as ‘Memphis,’ by the Nile River delta. The archaic period would see the start of ‘kingship,’ where Egyptians worshiped their Pharoah as a divine being. The earliest hieroglyphics were developed during this time, as well. 

The ‘Old Kingdom’ began with the 3rd dynasty of pharaohs. This is when King Djoser asked his advisor, Imhotep, to build him a funeral monument. The result was the world’s first major stone building, the ‘Step-Pyramid at Saqqara.’ Subsequent rulers would try to outdo one another, with the culmination being in the 26th century BCE with the completion of the Great Pyramid at Giza outside of Cairo. The 3rd and 4th dynasties were times of peace and plenty, but the 5th and 6th dynasties bankrupted the Crown, and Egypt descended into chaos after the death of the 6th dynasty’s, King Pepy II.

First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom (2181 BCE - 1786 BCE)

The ‘First Intermediate Period’ lasted 130 years and saw rampant civil war, foreign invasions, and deadly famines and diseases. Eventually, two families had control of most of Egypt, and the Theban Prince Mentuhotep defeated his rival to reunite Egypt and found the Middle Kingdom.

The Middle Kingdom established a new capital at It-towy, and saw stability and smooth transitions of power thanks to the new practice of appointing each successor as co-regent in advance of their ascendancy to power. The Middle Kingdom successfully conquered Nubia, repelled a Bedouin invasion, and established trade relations with Syria and Palestine. They also returned to building pyramids and had the first female ruler, Queen Sobekneferu, take power in 1789 BCE.

Second Intermediate Period, New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period (1786 - 664 BCE)

Rapid succession led to chaos and a second chaotic period starting in 1786 BCE. Multiple dynasties existed in both Thebes and Xois, and in 1650 BCE, foreigners called the ‘Hyksos’ invaded and established their own dynasty in the North. Eventually, the Thebans repelled the invaders in 1570 BCE and started the New Kingdom.

The New Kingdom was arguably Egypt’s most powerful, thanks to conquests that forged the world’s first great empire from Nubia to the Euphrates River in Asia. Proof of the New Kingdom’s wealth was preserved in the ‘Valley of the Kings,’ a burial site near Thebes with deep tombs cut into the rock. Tutankhamun’s tomb was found here largely undisturbed by British Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922. It was also during the New Kingdom that the biblical exodus of Moses and the Israelites took place in the 13th century BCE.

The Third Intermediate period stretched from 1085 – 664 BCE and saw Egypt lose its territorial holdings, get conquered by Nubia, and see a line of black pharaohs until the Assyrians invaded in 671 and established their own rule.

The Late, Ptolemaic and Roman Period (664 BCE - 639 AD)

The ‘Late Period’ consisted of the Assyrian-founded Saite dynasty, which lasted 2 centuries until it was conquered and assumed by Persia. The tyrannical Persian ruler, Xerxes, provoked a successful Egyptian rebellion in 404 BCE, only for Egypt to be reconquered by Persia in 343 BCE, and then Alexander the Great in 332 BCE.

Alexander the Great established a line of Macedonian kings that would rule for centuries until 31 BCE. The first was his general, Ptolemy, whose line oversaw Egypt’s tremendous economic growth during the Hellenistic period at the capital of Alexandria, featuring the ancient world’s greatest library and university. The last Ptolemaic ruler was Cleopatra, who famously committed suicide after the death of her lover, Mark Antony, and the kingdom’s annexation by Rome.

Egypt became the breadbasket for the Roman Empire, and Alexandria’s role in trade and culture rivaled Rome itself in importance.

Early Islamic Period (639 CE - 969 CE)

The first Muslim caliphate to conquer Egypt was the Rashidun in 641 CE. They repelled Byzantine advances multiple times and divided Egypt into 2 provinces: Upper and Lower Egypt. They kept a military force composed entirely of Muslims, in which Christians were spared in exchange for money. 

The Umayyad Caliphate was the 2nd to rule Egypt, and was able to rule in relative peace until appointing Abd al-Malik ibn Rifa’a al-Fahmi as governor in 706 CE. He made Arabic the official language and began taxing all non-Muslims, leading to multiple revolts and paving the way for the Abbassid Caliphate to take power. The Abbassids famously revered and studied the pyramids, helping to preserve them during their reign. The Muslim population began to surpass the Christian population during their rule, and precious gem mines discovered at Aswan helped enrich them.

High Islamic Period (969 - 1252)

In 969 CE, the Fatimid Caliphate invaded and established Cairo as their capital, bringing Shia Islam with them. The Fatimids were tolerant of different sects of Islam in their territory, but persecuted Christians throughout their control. They also did not revere ancient Egyptian monuments, ordering the nose of the Sphinx torn off and nearly dismantling the Pyramids. The later part of their rule was focused on repelling the Crusades.

General Salah al-Din Ayyub, known by the west as ‘Saladin,’ came to power in 1171 CE, starting the Ayyubid Sultanate and restoring Sunni Islam to Egypt. He conquered Syria, defeating a massive army of crusaders and capturing Jerusalem in 1187 CE before establishing his place as one the greatest military and political minds of the time.

Late Islamic Period (1252-1798)

In 1252, the Bahri dynasty was founded when Mamluk leader Qutuz led a coup against the Ayyubid Sultanate. He then went on to repel a Mongol invasion in 1260 and helped establish Cairo as a major city. The ‘Black Death’ severely weakened the nation, and in turn, the ‘Great Looting of the Tombs of the Pharaohs and the Valley of the Kings’ began. The Burji dynasty took power next but their strength declined until they were conquered by the Ottomans after the ‘Battle of Marj Dabiq’ in 1516 proved their superior artillery power.

Under Sultan Suleiman I, the Ottomans instituted their religious caste ‘Millet System’ and saw their rule dominated by plagues, famines, and unrest. A constantly revolving string of governors was appointed in Egypt, rarely lasting long or making a large impact. Egypt’s power declined along with the Ottomans until the arrival of Napoleon in 1798.

Napoleon’s invasion and the Muhhammed Ali Dynasty (1798 - 1952)

Napoleon successfully invaded Egypt in 1798, seizing Alexandria and winning the ‘Battle of the Pyramids’ to gain Cairo in what they hoped would be a quick campaign. However, the British under Horatio Nelson sunk the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1789, making it more difficult for them to return home. Napoleon’s prolonged spell in Egypt facilitated one huge discovery, though: the Rosetta Stone, which would finally allow the translation of hieroglyphics, and effectively found the discipline of Egyptology.

Muhammed Ali was a leader of the Ottoman forces that helped expel the French. In 1804, he seized control and founded his own dynasty that would last nearly 2 centuries. He conquered Northern Sudan and Syria, as well as parts of Arabia and Anatolia, but was forced to give up his possessions by European powers in 1841. He also oversaw the introduction of cotton agriculture in the 1820s, which turned Egypt’s economy into a cash crop monoculture almost overnight.

British Protectorate (1882-1952)

Financial concerns led Britain to take control of Egypt after winning the Battle of Tel el-Kebir. They reinstalled the former sultan as a figurehead and controlled the country for the next 70 years until British rule was made open and official in 1914. A full-scale rebellion took place in 1919, and Britain granted Egypt theoretical independence in 1922, drawing up a new constitution with a parliamentary system. However, Egyptians were conscripted and fought in both World Wars for the British army, and Egypt became a battlefield during the Second World War when Italy and Germany launched multi-year invasions. 

During this period, Egypt became a throughway for international trade but received limited economic benefit. The Suez Canal, providing a naval channel between the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea, was completed after decades of preparation and construction in 1869. Though technically owned by Egypt, the private company that would operate the canal was composed exclusively of French and British investors until it was nationalized in 1956. 

Egyptian independence movements had existed since the start of British control, but it was only with the 1952 Revolution that Egypt truly gained autonomy.

Independent Egypt (1953-Present)

After gaining independence, Egypt struggled with a string of dictators from 1956-2011, including Gamal Nasser from 1956-1970, Anwar Sadat from 1970-1981, and Hosni Mubarak from 1981-2011, before establishing democracy.

During Nasser’s reign, he made the decision to seize and nationalize the Suez Canal, prompting the ‘Suez Crisis’ of 1956. Nasser saw a major economic opportunity and began taxing the millions of tons of cargo that traveled through the canal each year. In response to nationalization, Israel, Britain, and France all dispatched troops to retake control of the canal. Egypt was able to secure the support of both the Soviet Union and the United States, the former threatening nuclear war, and the latter economic sanctions on their behalf. The invaders were forced to relent and Egypt has had control of the canal ever since.

Egypt’s leaders involved it in several wars against Israel, including the ‘Six Days War’ of 1967, where it lost the Sinai Peninsula, and the ‘October War’ of 1973, which gained it back.

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