Ancient Egyptian Dynasties
Approximately 3200 to 3000 years BC was the Protodynastic (or “Late Predynastic”) Period, also called “Dynasty 0.” Historians believe this to be the time when upper and lower Egypt were unified into a single country; it is also the time when the Egyptian language began to be written down in the form of hieroglyphics. The first dynasty ran from about 3000 BC to 2900 BC, beginning with the rule of Narmer or his successor Menes (some scholars believe these two may have been the same person, or that Menes was mythical like Romulus and Remus in ancient Rome). Menes is credited with founding Memphis, the area that now encompasses Giza.
There followed no fewer than 31 dynasties, organized into periods: Early Dynastic Period (1-2); the Old Kingdom (3-6), when the pyramids and Great Sphinx were built; the First Intermediate Period (7-10), a “dark” and disorganized period of famine during which many temples and monuments were destroyed; the Middle Kingdom (11-13), a time of wealth and prosperity; the Second Intermediate Period (14-17), a difficult time when the Hyksos (foreign invaders) invaded Egypt; the New Kingdom (18-20), the time of famous pharaohs like Ahmose I, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten (husband of Nefertiti and thought to be the first monotheist), Tutankhamun, and Rameses I through Rameses XI; the Third Intermediate Period (21-25), when the country was ruled by Nubians and then Assyrians; and the Late Period (26-31), wherein Egypt was ruled by Persians until Alexander the Great liberated the country from Persian rule around 330 BC.
The years from 305 BC to about 30 BC were the Ptolemaic dynasty, encompassing the rules of Ptolemy I (305-282) through Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra I through Cleopatra the VII, and ending with Arsinoë IV, youngest daughter of Ptolemy XII. It was during this time (48 BC) that Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria and allied himself with Cleopatra VII. After the Roman victory, Arsinoë was granted sanctuary at the temple of Artemis in Ephesus (in what is now Turkey), but a few years later Cleopatra had Marc Antony arrange for her to be executed there. Thus ended Egypt’s dynastic era.
Egypt’s Modern History
In the days since its ancient glory, Egypt has been part of ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Byzantium, Persia, Arabia and the Ottoman Empire. In the mid-14th century, the Black Death came to Egypt, killing approximately 40% of the population. Christianity was established in Egypt by the 4th century and the Egyptian Coptic Church firmly established in the middle of the 5th century.
The French invasion of Egypt in the late 18th century, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, had a profound impact on the Egyptians. Three years later, the French had been ousted and the Ottomans, Mamluks and Albanians were vying for control of the country. Muhammad Ali, a Turkish pasha born of Albanian parents, emerged victorious and became known as the founder of modern Egypt. The dynasty he established ruled Egypt (eventually as a British colony) until the Egyptian revolution of 1952. This military coup led to the overthrow of King Farouk I and the ouster of the British, and eventually established Egypt as a republic. Gamal Abdel Nasser became president in 1954 and declared Egypt’s independence from Britain in 1956. During his rule the Suez Canal was nationalized, the Aswan Dam completed and the 1967 war with Israel took place. After Nasser’s death in 1970, his close confidant Anwar Sadat became president, serving from 1970 until his assassination in 1981. Sadat is known for switching Egypt’s Cold War alliance from the USSR to the United States, for launching the October War against Israel in the Sinai and Golan Heights in 1973 (resulting in a cease-fire agreement), and brokering a 1979 peace agreement with Israel in which Egypt regained the Sinai. He was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak, who served as president from October of 1981 until February of 2011. After a period of unrest, Mubarak stepped down; on June 30, 2012 Mohamed Morsi became the fifth president of Egypt.
Meanwhile, the sands of the desert covered over much of Egypt’s former glory, hiding and preserving it. For the past century or so, archeological interest in ancient Egypt has run high, especially following Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. Many temples and monuments have been unearthed since then, including the temple of Luxor and Karnak.
Exploring Egypt by River
A cruise along the Nile River will show travelers most of Egypt, because most of Egypt’s cities, towns, temples and monuments are located very close to the life-giving Nile. The vast majority of Egypt’s estimated 76 million people live near the Nile’s banks and delta, where the only arable land is found and where trade can be conducted up and down the river. The country’s major cities, like Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and Alexandria are all located on the river as well. This means that about 99% of the country’s population is using less than 6% of the total land area, all along the Nile.
Temperatures range between 80° and 90° F in the summer and between 55° and 70° F in the winter. Rainfall is rare except in winter. Each year the Nile flooding (now a predictable, controlled process thanks to the Aswan Dam) renews the soil near the river; this is known as “the gift of the Nile.”