A Brief History of Egypt

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Egypt

By 5,000 BC the people of Egypt had begun farming. They also wove linen and made pottery. Later they learned to use bronze. About 3,200 BC the Egyptians invented writing. The first Egyptian in history was King Menes aka Narmer who lived shortly before 3,100 BC. At that time Egypt was divided into northern (lower) Egypt and southern (upper Egypt). In about 3118 Menes managed to unite the two. He made Memphis his capital.

Ancient Egypt was a highly organized society. The country was divided into 42 areas called nomes. Each one was governed by nomarch. Farmers paid part of their crops in taxes.

The first period of Egyptian history, which ended in 2181 BC is called the Old Kingdom. During it the pharaohs built pyramids. The first pyramid, the step pyramid was built by Zoser about 2665 BC. Others were built by the following pharaohs Sneferu and Khufu.

However central authority in Egypt eventually weakened. After about 1281 BC Egypt split into parts and there were civil wars between the rival areas. This period of civil disorder is called the First Intermediate Period and it lasted until 2055 BC. Finally, Mentuhotep II succeeded in reuniting Egypt and he founded the Middle Kingdom.

The Middle Kingdom lasted until 1650 BC. It was a great period of art and literature in Egypt. Furthermore, the pharaohs carried out successful military campaigns, and more pyramids were built. However, the Middle Kingdom was followed by the Second Intermediate Period.

About 1650 BC Palestinian people called the Hyksos seized power in northern Egypt. They ruled from the city of Avaris. However native Egyptians continued to rule southern Egypt and in 1550 BC they drove out the Hyksos and reunited Egypt. So began the New Kingdom. It lasted from 1550 to 1070 BC.

During this era, Egypt was rich and powerful once again. Egypt controlled Nubia, the land to the south, and invaded Palestine and Syria. Meanwhile, great new temples were built at Thebes, and pharaohs were buried in the Valley of the Kings. Then about 1364 BC, Akhenaten became pharaoh. He worshiped only the sun god Aten. However, his son Tutankhamun worshiped the old gods.

The New Kingdom collapsed in 1070 and gave way to another period of disunity. From this point, Egypt declined and never recovered its former glory.

During the Third Intermediate Period, Egypt split into two halves, north, and south. However, in 747 BC kings from Nubia (the country south of Egypt) conquered Egypt and restored unity. Yet in 525 BC the Persians conquered Egypt. Then in 332, Alexander the Great conquered it.

After Alexander’s death, his empire split into parts. A Greek general called Ptolemy eventually took Egypt and for about 300 years his Greek descendants ruled Egypt. However, in 30 BC Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire and ceased to be an independent kingdom.

Meanwhile, a woman called Sobekneferu ruled Egypt around 1800 BC. Later a woman named Hatshepsut ruled Egypt c. 1479-1458 BC. Another woman, Twosret ruled Egypt c. 1191-1189 BC.

However, the real end of Ancient Egypt came with Christianity. It reached Alexandria by 70 AD and spread south by 180 AD. Christianity meant the end of the old religion and the end of Ancient Egyptian culture.

Modern Egypt

In the 4th century, the Roman Empire split into two. Egypt was part of the eastern half, known to us as the Byzantine Empire. However, in the 7th century, the Arabs conquered it. The Arabs invaded Egypt in 639 and by 642 all of Egypt was in their hands. It became part of an Islamic Empire and was ruled by Baghdad. However, in 868 an administrator called Ahmed Ibn Tulun declared Egypt independent but independence did not last long. His son and successor was assassinated and rule from Baghdad was reimposed.

Then in 969, Egypt was conquered by the Fatimids of Tunisia. The Fatimids ruled Egypt until 1171 and they built Cairo, which became the capital.

However in 1171 a Syrian named Salah-ad-Din, known in the West as Saladin, became ruler of Egypt. He founded a dynasty called the Ayyubids who ruled Egypt for nearly 80 years. Then in 1250, a man named Beybars seized power in Egypt. He and his successors were called the Mamluks and they ruled Egypt until 1517.

During that period Egypt was rich and powerful. However, in 1517 Egypt was conquered by the Ottoman Turks.

Under the Ottomans, Egypt was allowed some autonomy. As long as Egypt paid taxes the Ottomans were content to let the Egyptians administer themselves. Nevertheless, the 17th and 18th centuries were ones of economic decline for Egypt and in 1719 the country suffered a devastating outbreak of plague.

Then in 1798, a French army led by Napoleon landed in Egypt. (Napoleon hoped that if he occupied Egypt British links with India would be disrupted). Napoleon defeated the Egyptians on land at the Battle of the Pyramids but he was utterly defeated at sea by the British navy. So Napoleon abandoned his army and left Egypt. Afterward, British and Ottoman forces defeated the French army and forced them to surrender. However, the French expedition led to a renewed interest in Ancient Egypt in Europe.

After the French left there was a power struggle in Egypt. It was eventually won by Albanian mercenaries led by Mohammed Ali, who became the Viceroy of Egypt. (Nominally he was under the control of the Ottoman Sultan but in practice, he was more or less independent). Ali tried to modernize Egypt and he built factories and shipyards. However, he died in 1849.

In 1859 work began on the Suez Canal. It was built by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-94).

Khedive Ismail (1863-79) carried on the policy of trying to modernize Egypt, establishing a postal service and building railways. In 1869 the Suez Canal was completed. However, he had to borrow from European lenders at high rates of interest to fund modernization. Eventually to avoid bankruptcy Ismail was forced to sell his shares in the Suez Canal to the British in 1875. He was followed by his son Tewfik in 1879.

In 1882 there was an uprising in Egypt. Worried about their investments in the Suez Canal the British sent troops to occupy Egypt. They kept Khedive as a puppet ruler. Naturally, the Egyptians resented becoming a British colony, and in 1919 anti-British riots swept Egypt. In 1922 Britain recognized Egypt as an independent state. Yet the British still controlled the Egyptian communication system, its legal system, and its foreign policy! The British made a successor of Khedive called Fuad king of Egypt but he had only limited power. In 1935 he was followed by his son Farouk.

Then in 1942 German troops invaded Egypt but they were repulsed by the British at the Battle of El-Alamein. However, following anti-British riots, the last British troops were withdrawn from Egypt in 1947.

In 1948 Egypt was defeated in a war with Israel. Farouk was blamed for the disaster and in 1952 a group of army officers called the Free Officers staged a coup and forced Farouk to abdicate. Their leader, General Naguib became the leader of Egypt but in 1954 he was replaced by Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1956 Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain, France, and Israel allied and in October 1956 Israel invaded Sinai. The British and French sent troops to Port Said but American pressure forced them to withdraw.

Nasser introduced a socialist regime and moved Egypt closer to the Soviet Union. Under him, education and health care improved but it was a repressive regime and the economy stagnated. Egypt was defeated by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 and Nasser died in 1970.

He was replaced by Anwar Sadat who reversed the discredited socialist policies and encouraged foreign investment. As a result, the Egyptian economy boomed (although Egypt fought another unsuccessful war with Israel in 1973). In 1978 Sadat made peace with Israel by the Camp David Agreement. However, he was assassinated by extremists in 1981 and was replaced by Hosni Mubarak.

Today Egypt faces the problems of a rapidly rising population and a lack of farming land. However, the tourist industry is booming and Egypt has great potential for exporting natural gas.

In 2011 after demonstrations in Egypt Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign and a new chapter in the history of Egypt began. Egypt gained a new constitution in 2014. In 2023 the population of Egypt was 112 million.

Last revised 2023