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The pharaohs of Egypt ruled over one of the oldest and most spectacular civilizations in the world, spanning an astonishing period of more than 3,000 years. During this time a succession of 31 dynasties ruled the land, beginning with Menes himself in 3100 B.C. and ending with the last Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo II in 343 B.C.

It is customary to break this surprisingly lengthy period of ancient Egyptian history into three so-called "Kingdoms" - the Old, Middle, and the New - each of which enjoyed more or less sustained political and social stability. However, each of these periods was followed by an era of crippling instability and war, as the central government lost its grip over the country and the union fell into disrepair. These difficult times are referred to collectively as the three "Intermediate" periods.

Egyptian Kingdoms

The Old Kingdom period


The first few hundred years after Menes' unification of Egypt were vital in the development of the country's social, political and economic life. During this time, the first two ruling dynasties strengthened the unification of the country and laid the foundations of the system of central government that would last throughout the pharaonic era. Once a sufficient degree of stability was finally achieved, the country's political and cultural life blossomed under the 3rd and 4th dynasties, and it was then that the Old Kingdom began in earnest. 
 
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It was to prove an astonishingly productive period that saw, amongst other achievements, the construction of the awe-inspiring pyramids as well as major developments in religion and the art of writing hieroglyphs. The king, who from around 2500 B.C. onwards was believed to be the son of the sun god Ra, was the all-powerful ruler over the land and considered to be a direct link between his subjects and the gods. He bore the title of "King of Upper and Lower Egypt" and "Lord of the Two Lands," and wore two crowns that symbolized the union of the two realms.

Heading the military, legal and religious institutions of the state, the pharaoh was charged with the critical task of maintaining order and warding off chaos in the world, thereby ensuring the continued support of the gods. Such was the awe in which the ruler was held, it was reported that during the 5th Dynasty a courtier by the name of Washptah was so overcome after kissing the feet of his pharaoh Neferirkare that he died, normally subjects were restricted to merely kissing the ground on which their king walked.

The term "pharaoh," in fact, only came to be used to refer to the king much later on during the New Kingdom. The word derived from Per Ao, meaning "The Great House"-the name given to the administration complex surrounding the royal court at Memphis. Egyptian society was highly stratified. At the top of the complex social ladder were those who derived their authority from the pharaoh, starting with the vizier (chief minister), whose job it was to maintain law and order, and to oversee major architectural projects. 
 
Beneath him were numerous high-ranking government officials and high priests, followed by the lesser officials, priests, bureaucrats and landowners. At the bottom were the mass of laborers and peasants. A vast bureaucracy was needed to ensure the smooth running of the state, and this in turn depended on a highly sophisticated system of taxation from which there were few exemptions. Taxes were collected in kind, and the produce stored in granaries. 
 
Building projects would often require large numbers of mouths to feed, and it was vital to keep the granaries well stocked if work was to be completed. By all accounts, women did not fare too badly in ancient Egypt, at least in so far as the law was concerned. They were entitled to inherit, buy, and sell property and enjoyed the same rights as men. However, that is not to say that there were not very real social distinctions that excluded women from various kinds of activities and opportunities.
 
 

 The Middle Kingdom period

 
Ancient Egypt Kingdoms. After a succession of wonderfully productive centuries, Egypt tattered at some point during the sixth dynasty and entered a bleak phase of its history known as the First Intermediate Period, lasting approximately 150 years. Although the exact reasons for the decline remain unknown, the country suffered a number of upheavals: power struggles amongst powerful governors, poor harvests, famine and poverty. Moreover, increasing decentralization led to the collapse of the monarchy and to civil war. 
 

 
Although there was a succession of dynasties during this time, they exercised only limited and local control. It was the powerful eleventh dynasty, the Mentuhoteps, based in Thebes, who managed to seize control of the country around 1280 B.C. and bring order back to the land. United once again, Egypt experienced a lengthy period of peace and economic prosperity. The country was initially ruled from Thebes, but the capital was later moved to Itj-Towy, located in the region of Fayoum, about 60 miles southwest of modern Cairo. 
 
The area was originally a large marshy depression into which the Nile waters overflowed during the annual inundation. Under the 12th-dynasty pharaoh Amenemhet I (r. 1991-1962 B.C.) the Egyptians turned the depression into a permanent lake, bringing about an agricultural transformation of the region. In addition to maintaining its trading partnership with Lebanon in order to ensure steady supplies of valuable wood, extensive trading links were also developed with the people of Nubia to the far south, from whom the Egyptians obtained granite and gold.
 

 The Invasion the Hyksos

 
Ancient Egypt Kingdoms. After centuries of stability, Egypt once more suffered a reversal of fortune and entered into its Second Intermediate Period. This time, a breakdown in central government had severely weakened the country, leaving it vulnerable to attacks from outside forces. The key challenge came from a group of warlike chariot-driving Semitic nomads who stormed into Egypt from the east via Palestine. Known as the Hyksos ("rulers of foreign lands"), they began to settle in the eastern Delta region to carve out their own kingdom in the land. 
 
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In time, the Hyksos adopted Egyptian customs and their leaders even assumed the role of pharaohs, but they were always considered to be foreigners by the Egyptians. They were remembered by ancient Egyptians as invaders who had ruthlessly burned cities and "razed to the ground the temples of the gods and treated all the natives with hostility." Once again, it was a powerful new Theban dynasty of warrior pharaohs who, after uniting the forces of Upper Egypt, rose up against the invaders and eventually expelled them from the country.

The New kingdom period

 
The traumatic interlude of the Hyksos fundamentally altered the course of Egyptian history. It had demonstrated the need for a comprehensive military policy to prevent future foreign invasions. Whereas previously there had been no pharaonic policy of expansion beyond the confines of the Nile Valley and Delta, the new warrior kings marched their armies into neighboring territories to secure their borders from future attack, establishing permanent military bases and forcing local powers to recognize their authority and to pay tribute.
 
Ancient Egyptian Kings
 
It marked the beginning of sustained period of military expansion that brought an end to political isolation and turned Egypt into a true empire. At its peak, the new Egyptian empire, with its capital at Thebes, extended into territories including Nubia and Syria. Unwittingly, the Hyksos had played a part in Egypt's ascendancy. Despite having achieved little during their rule, they can be credited for introducing the Egyptians to some indispensable innovations-the horse and chariot, the powerful composite bow, and bronze weapons.

At the height of its glory, Thebes was a spectacular city, producing some of the best architecture seen in Egypt since the construction of the pyramids in the Old Kingdom. The vast and wonderful Karnak temple complex, dedicated to the principal Theban god Amun-Ra, was an enormously influential religious center. For more than a thousand years, successive pharaohs made their own contribution to what is now one of the most spectacular of Egypt's monuments. Covering an area of five acres, the temple includes shrines, courtyards, and a succession of huge gateways standing as high as 100 feet.

The New Kingdom also coincided with the rule of Akhenaten, a highly individualistic pharaoh, who caused something of a stir during his lifetime. Originally known as Amenhotep IV, the pharaoh rebelled against the religious traditions of the day. He insisted on the exclusive worship of Aten, a sun god, to the exclusion of all other gods. The priesthood, dedicated to the national god Amun Ra, was incensed. Relations deteriorated to the point where the pharaoh abandoned the city and founded his own capital Aketaten, meaning "the Horizon of Aten."

Amenhotep IV, who now went by the name of Akhenaten, seems not only to have staged a religious revolution, but also an artistic one. The Egyptian artistic convention of presenting pharaohs as perfectly proportioned god-like images was turned on its head. Instead, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti were portrayed in a grossly distorted way, with distended stomachs and ill proportioned limbs. It seems that the pharaoh positively revered in being portrayed with mortal imperfections.

It was only after Akhenaten IV's young son-in-law succeeded him that things finally returned to normal and the rift between the ruling family and the priesthood was healed. The boy-pharaoh, originally known as Tut-ankh-aten meaning "the living image of Aten," was taken under the wing of the influential priesthood, and was given the name Tut-ankh-amun in honour of Amun-Ra. The worship of Amun-Ra as the national god was once again restored, and the capital reverted to Thebes.

Born around 1370 B.C., Tutankhamun died while still in his late teens, most likely after suffering a blow to the head in a hunting accident or in battle. Yet, despite his short reign, his enduring fame was secured by the discovery of his wonderful tomb, which lay in a pristine condition for more than 3,000 years. Its discovery in 1922, at the Valley of the Kings in Thebes (at present-day Luxor), caused an international sensation, yielding a wealth of treasures that left the archeologists who first laid eyes on it speechless.

The tomb was not by any means large, nor had work on its construction been completed. But unlike so many others that had been plundered and emptied down the years, Tutankhamun's had mercifully been spared the same fate and its contents left intact (Although a couple of break-ins did in fact take place shortly after his death, the tomb had been resealed immediately.) Inside the tomb were thousands of precious artifacts intended to help the pharaoh's spirit in the afterlife. 
 
These ranged from pieces of furniture and toys used by the king in his own lifetime along with vases, amulets, golden statues and jewelry Tutankhamun's body was placed in three coffins, one inside the other, and then laid to rest in a stone sarcophagus. The innermost, coffin, the one that actually contained the king's mummified body was made of solid gold and weighed 296 pounds.

While Tutankhamun's fame lies not in the circumstances of his short life but in his death, Ramses II, another New Kingdom pharaoh, lived a long and extremely fruitful life that left at indelible print on Egyptian history. Belonging to the 19th dynasty, Ramses II's 67-year reign constituted one of the longest in the country's history, during which time he successfully pursued imperial wars against the Hittite Empire in Asia Minor that had been attacking Syria. Not to be outdone by his predecessors, Ramses II left his own contribution to Egyptian architecture by ordering the construction of a massive temple in the far south of the country, at Abu Simbel. 
 
The magnificent Temple of Ramses II was carved into a cliff of solid rock and features four colossal seated statues of himself as a young man, each of which stood 65 feet high. Wonderfully detailed relief paintings were added to the walls of the central hallway, including battle scenes depicting the pharaoh and the Egyptian army in battle scenes against the Nubians and Syrians. A smaller temple was also constructed for Ramses II's favorite wife, Nefertari, and its facade features tall, standing statues of the royal couple. 



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