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Ancient Civilizations

Ancient Egypt:
An overview

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)

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People began to settle along the Nile River between about 8000 and 5000 BC, moving off the Saharan grasslands into the protection of the river banks, making use of the annual flooding of the river to irrigate their crops and provide fertilization.

After thousands of years of taking root, the Egyptian civilization eventually burst into flower under the first of the pharaohs in about 3000 BC and lasted a record-breaking 2700 years.

Egypt was ancient even to the ancients. Indeed, the classical Greeks and Romans viewed Ancient Egypt with the wonder with which we in the 21st century view the ruins of Greece and Rome.

Egypt's civilization is generally divided into four eras:

NOTE: Construction of the pyramids and dating the sphinx presents problems for the historian. Is it possible for a civilization so newly arrived on the scene to build amazing works like these? How were they constructed?
  • The Archaic Period (3100 to 2800 BC) during which the early pharaohs consolidated their power over the Nubians in the south.
  • The Old Kingdom (2700 to 2200 BC) was the period of the great pyramid building. (See note)
  • The Middle Kingdom (2000 to 1800 BC) was marked by expanding political strength and an expanding economy.
  • The New Kingdom (1600 to 1100 BC) saw the country expanding as a political power to conquer an empire in Asia. Thereafter the civilization collapsed into obscurity.

Egypt was luckier than other civilizations because it was protected by deserts on both sides and therefore suffered far less from the invasions and warfare which afflicted the other civilizations which were not so protected.

Furthermore, it had no independent city-states (as in Mesopotamia) and so Egyptian civilization was marked by long periods of peace. As a result, the Egyptians developed a sense of timelessness and security, while lacking a sense of progress.


It was the Egyptian's rapidly acquired engineering skills which became a hallmark of their civilization. First came the building of giant irrigation schemes. Most spectacular, however, was the progress in building.

Within a century of the first pharaoh, the people seem to have graduated from sun-baked bricks to sophisticated stone construction. Within a further two centuries the artisans had mastered the art sufficiently to build the first pyramid at Gizeh.

Indeed, most of the monuments for which Egypt is especially known were built within the first 500 years. (See note above)


As with Mesopotamia, religion was the basis of Egyptian civilization. Indeed, religious beliefs were the foundation of Egyptian art, medicine, astronomy, literature and government. All the Egyptian ethical codes were based on religion.

As with all religions of the day, it was polytheistic, although Pharaoh Akhenaton introduced a form of monotheism but this attempt did not long survive him.


Although the pharaoh's word was law and there was therefore no necessity to codify state legislation, there was nevertheless a codified system of ethics which governed the everyday life of society generally. It took the form of moral suasion rather than hard-and-fast law, rather like a Biblical code of ethics.


Because of Egypt's isolated nature, there was always the danger that the essential African culture of the early Pre-Dynastic Period might have remained sterile, as it did in the Sudan to the south.

That this did not happen was due to trading contacts with Mesopotamia which brought knowledge as well as commodities.

There appear clear traces of the influence of Mesopotamia in Egypt's art and architecture, which gave rise to the use of swords, mud and stone buildings and the development of hieroglyphic writing.

Most of Egypt's art, however, was tied to religion: the pyramids and relics for the dead, as well as statues to depict the gods.

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