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The Nile as lifeline: from 6000 BC

From about 6000 BC various communities of hunter-gatherers make the Nile the centre of their territory, around which they roam. But the drying of the Sahara increasingly confines them to the river area. The unusual habit of this great river - flooding every year and depositing a layer of rich moist soil on the surrounding region - is ideally suited to the development of settled agriculture. The river takes upon itself two otherwise laborious tasks, irrigation and the enriching of the soil.

By about 3100 BC these communities have become sufficiently prosperous and stable to be united in a single political entity - the first Egyptian dynasty.

The first dynasty: from c.3100 BC

The unifying of Upper and Lower Egypt into a single kingdom is the event pointed to by the ancient Egyptians themselves as the beginning of their civilization.

Lower Egypt is roughly the broad delta of the river, where it separates into many branches before flowing into the Mediterranean. Upper Egypt is the long main channel of the river itself, possibly as far upstream as boats can reach - to the first waterfall or cataract, at Aswan.

Egyptian tradition credits the uniting of Upper and Lower Egypt to a king called Menes. But that is merely a word meaning 'founder'. It is possible that the real historical figure is a ruler by the name of Narmer, who features in warlike mood in superb low-relief carving on a plaque of green siltstone (now in the Egyptian museum in Cairo).

Whatever the name, the first historical dynasty is brought into being by the king or pharaoh who in about 3100 BC establishes control over the whole navigable length of the Nile. His is the first of thirty Egyptian dynasties, spanning nearly three millennia - an example of social continuity rivalled in human history only by China.

In the early centuries, and again in the closing stages of ancient Egypt, the capital is at Memphis, near modern-day Cairo. But at the peak of Egyptian power, during the period from about 2000 to 1200 BC, the city of Thebes - several hundred kilometres up the Nile - is a place of greater importance.

The pyramids remain today to show the early greatness of Memphis, in the period known as the Old Kingdom. Similarly the temples of Karnak and Luxor are witness to the extravagant wealth of Thebes during the eras described as the Middle Kingdom and the New Empire.

The Old Kingdom: c.2580-c.2130 BC

The period known as the Old Kingdom runs from the 4th to the 6th of Manetho's dynasties and begins several centuries after the unification of Egypt. During the intervening period little is known of the pharaohs except their names, deriving from stone inscriptions (from as early as the 1st dynasty the Egyptian civilization enjoys the advantages of writing, soon to be followed by a sophisticated calendar). Of some pharaohs even the names are missing.

The change to more solid evidence comes in the time of Zoser, the greatest pharaoh of the 3rd dynasty (the Old Kingdom is sometimes taken as beginning with his reign, before the 4th dynasty). A new stability is reflected in the splendour of Zoser's monument - Egypt's first stone pyramid, built at Saqqara in about 2620 BC.

Zoser's funerary example is taken to even more elaborate lengths at Giza by his successors a century later, in the 4th dynasty (c.2575-c.2465 BC).

The three great pyramids at Giza are built between about 2550 and 2470 BC for Khufu, his son Khafre (probably also responsible for the sphinx) and his grandson Menkure. This is also the period when the Egyptian practice of mummification begins, aiming to preserve the body for life in the next world. The earliest known example of any part of a mummified body is the internal organs of Khufu's mother, Hetepheres. Her body itself is lost, but her innards survive within the canopic jars which play an essential part in the ritual of mummification.

Some details are known of Egypt's first great period from evidence other than monuments. Records survive of events during six years of the reign of Khufu's father, Sneferu. They include several elements characteristic of Egypt's imperial development.

There is a raid far south into Nubia, with the capture of numerous slaves and cattle. Forty ships ships arrive from Lebanon with the cargoes of cedar required for Egyptian building projects. Mining operations are undertaken in the Sinai region, already long known for its valuable copper deposits.

The pharaohs of the 5th and 6th dynasties continue to rule from Memphis and their lives are known in increasing detail from inscriptions. One example is an enthusiastic letter of thanks sent by the last king of the 6th dynasty, Pepi II, to a governor of Aswan who has brought him a Pygmy dancer from Nubia. The governor, Harkhuf, is so proud of the document that he has its text engraved on the facade of his tomb.

But the pharaohs of the 6th dynasty have lost the vigour of their predecessors. Their rule is followed by a century of anarchy, covering the 7th to 10th dynasties and known as the First Intermediate Period (c.2130-c.2000 BC).

The Middle Kingdom: c.2000-c.1630 BC

When stability returns, it is under the rule of a family deriving their power from middle Egypt. Mentuhotep II (also known by his throne name, Nebhepetre) wins control of the whole country in about 2000 BC. His base is Thebes, which now begins its central role in the story of ancient Egypt - though relatively little survives of Mentuhotep's own monuments in the region.

The Middle Kingdom, spanning the 11th and 12th dynasties, is notable for the first serious effort to colonize Nubia. This region now becomes of great importance to Egypt's trade in luxuries. Nubia's mines are the chief source of Egyptian gold. Rare commodities such as ivory and ebony, the skins of leopards and the plumes of ostriches, now travel down the upper Nile to be traded for Egyptian goods.

The market place is at the second cataract (today submerged under Lake Nasser). Here the Nubians exchange their commodities - and their slaves, always an important element in the trade of this region - for the manufactured goods and the weapons of the more developed economy.

The Middle Kingdom lasts for four centuries before giving way to another era defined only as falling between kingdoms - the Second Intermediate Period. It is far less chaotic than the previous intermediate period, but is almost equally vague. The reason is that very little is known of the foreigners, called by Manetho the Hyksos, who establish themselves with a capital city somewhere in the delta.

The Hyksos derive from Asia, probably from Palestine or Phoenicia, and they worship a Syrian god. But they adapt fully to Egyptian ways, identifying their god as Seth and ruling as pharaohs (the 15th and 16th of Manetho's dynasties).

The Hyksos are in Egypt for almost a century (c.1630-c.1540 BC). For much of this time they control the whole country (their monuments are found as far south as Nubia). But eventually a powerful family in Thebes (the 17th dynasty) grows strong enough to drive the intruders north. One of its members, Ahmose, completes the task of expelling them from Egypt - and is accorded by Manetho the honour of heading the most glorious dynasty of all, the 18th, at the start of the New Kingdom.

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