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Notebook: Egypt - Historical Background

J Grant

This series concentrates on significant world powers which are highlighted in Scripture and which impacted on Biblical events.

"Mizraim" is the name by which the land of Egypt in known in Scripture. The meaning is "Double Strip" or "Two Lands", referring to the fertile land which is to be found on the banks of the Nile. These two strips of land were essential for the life of the nation. On their fertility the Egyptians depended for food, and such was their regard for the river they looked on the annual flood as being provided by a god. It was to this rich soil the Egyptians referred when they called their land "Kemi" (Black Land).

The History of Egypt

Most of the written history of ancient Egypt comes from the writings of Manetho, an Egyptian priest in the temple of Heliopolis, who lived about 300 BC. His History of Egypt has become accepted as the best available history of Egyptian civilisation for the period which it covers. No complete edition of this work survives but it is known because sections of it are quoted in the works of others, including those of Josephus.

Manetho arbitrarily divided the successive sovereigns into 31 dynasties. A dynasty was usually one family. Although doubt has been cast on the "old accepted chronology" which he gives, current scholars have, for convenience sake, preserved these dynasties, which are grouped together into eight or nine periods called "Kingdoms". Between the end of one kingdom and the beginning of the next there were times of upheaval which are known as "Intermediate Periods". It is very difficult to date the various kingdoms and dynasties with accuracy. The time scales which the Egyptians used were based on the reigns of the pharaohs.

Early Dynastic Period

Before the state came into being, Egypt was divided into forty-two regions which were ruled by local princes. Twenty-two of these were grouped together to form the kingdom of Upper Egypt, which consisted mainly of the area of the Nile Delta, and twenty of them were grouped together to form the kingdom of Lower Egypt. This view of the country, consisting of two separate regions, was held even after the two kingdoms were united by Menes (a somewhat mythical figure whose existence is problematic), a prince from the south, who added the northern kingdom to his realm. He is reputed to have made his capital in Memphis approximately ten miles south of the present city of Cairo. This was on the old border of the southern and northern kingdoms. This period is known as the Archaic or Early Dynastic Period, during which the first and second dynasties ruled, and the rule of the Pharaohs commenced. The title "Pharaoh" comes from the ancient Egyptian "per a‘o" meaning "Great House" signifying that this was he who ruled from the palace.

The Old Kingdom

Following this, the era known as the Old Kingdom commenced and spanned a period of about five hundred years from 2700 BC. The third to the sixth dynasties ruled at this time. The pharaohs received the double crown of Upper and of Lower Egypt and at that time were given an "official name" in addition to the name which was given them at birth. They usually added a number of other names to commemorate great victories or show their devotion to other deities.

With the fourth dynasty, pyramid building reached its peak. While there was in the heart of man an understanding that death was not the end of existence, it is sad to contemplate these elaborate and costly preparations for the "afterlife" which achieved nothing. They stand today empty and forlorn.

Pharaoh Khufu constructed the largest pyramid at Giza, and for his son Khafre he built the second largest. The Sphinx, which has the face of Khafre and the body of a lion crouches to guard the pyramid precincts. Even today controversy rages as to how a project of the magnitude of this great pyramid could be undertaken and completed with such skill. Herodotus states that 100,000 men were employed in its construction for a period of twenty years. It is worthy of note that some of these buildings may have been constructed before Abram went down to Egypt (Gen 12.10).

Ruling such a huge empire required skill and organisation. A civil service had to be put in place. Canals and dams were built, and warehouses were constructed to house the harvests. The land was surveyed and a system of taxation was introduced. Distribution of the harvest required an efficient infrastructure, and all this was in addition to the grand building projects undertaken.

The finances of the realm were under the control of chancellors who carried responsibility for the two Treasuries, one for Upper and the other for Lower Egypt. The Controller of the Grain Warehouses was a position of power as was the Controller of the Royal Household. Scribes were necessary to keep communication flowing over such a vast territory, and they became a powerful group in the kingdom. The science of mathematics was well understood, and this industrious people mastered the complex calculations necessary for such projects as pyramid building.

The First Intermediate Period

Gradually, however, the authority of the monarchy decreased. With the death of Pepi II, who is reputed to have ruled for ninety-four years, power fell into the hands of local princes. For a period of 100-200 years, known as the First Intermediate Period, civil war and violence gripped the nation. This was one of the darkest periods in Egyptian history. The social fabric suffered and agriculture declined. Famine was not unknown. Grave robbers emptied and destroyed much of the content of the pyramids built during the Old Kingdom. The roads, such as they were, threatened danger and robbery to travellers. The gold mines in the south, which had fed the appetite of the Old Kingdom for wealth, were not worked with the discipline which had marked them in the past. The system of tax collection collapsed, and the exchequer suffered as a result. For a prolonged period the Nile flood failed. The pharaohs who sought to impose rule on this disorderly society were weak and ineffective. They are said to comprise the seventh to the commencement of the eleventh dynasties and their rule was restricted mainly to small areas of the country.

The Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom began when Metuhotep II (the second of four pharaohs who bore this name) of the eleventh dynasty took control and united the country. The eleventh and the twelfth dynasties are placed at this time. The great temple, built by Metuhotep III as a burial chamber on the banks of the Nile, was the first in the Valley of the Kings. No matter how cleverly the builders and architects of the pyramids sought to protect the burial chambers, the tomb robbers succeeded in pillaging them. The move to the Valley of the Kings and the ingenious and complicated devices used to defeat the avarice of the tomb robbers proved to be as ineffective as those employed at the construction of the pyramids.

In the Nile delta much work was carried out at this time to reclaim large areas of marshland. Thousands of acres became productive after canals and a drainage system were in place and a large lake, Lake Moeris, was created. Literature flourished. What has come to light shows that the writings of the Egyptians reached a peak of style and content which has correctly been regarded as "classic". In later years scribes looked back on this period with nostalgia and used its writings as copybook examples of good practice.

It appears that the monarchs did not have the absolute authority of the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom. They could no longer count on a population that was as subservient to the "God-King" in the way which society had been ordered in the past. There appears to have been the first stirrings of individualism. Indeed, one of the great pharaohs of the period, Ammenemes I, the founder of the twelfth dynasty, was assassinated in his palace. There were attempts to enforce totalitarian government but without any great degree of success. The nobles had to be kept in a contented mood, but it must not be thought that Egypt was in any way democratic. The pharaohs still held enormous power even although it had been somewhat diluted. The Middle Kingdom lasted for about four hundred years from approximately 2040 BC. The borders were enlarged northwards almost into Canaan and extended considerably to the south.

To be continued.


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