Ancient Egypt was one of the world's first known and longest living civilizations. Some of its most iconic landmarks, the Pyramids of Giza, are 4,500 years old. Egyptian culture has thrived as part of the Persian Empire, Hellenistic Empire, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, and present-day Egypt. While Egypt has since changed its dominant religion twice (first to Christianity and then to Islam) and its language once (to Arabic), Ancient Egyptian heritage still plays a major role in the self image of the country, as does the Nile, about which the oldest poems and songs still known to man were written.
|“||...when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand in suspense any longer, inquired anxiously "Can you see anything?", it was all I could do to get out the words "Yes, wonderful things".||”|
—Howard Carter, on the opening of Tutankhamon's tomb
The banks of the Nile River have been inhabited since time immemorial. Written records started to appear around 3000 BC, with the Early Dynastic Period, and one of the world's first known monarchies. Ancient Egyptian history is usually divided between the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC), the Middle Kingdom (2134–1690 BC) and the New Kingdom (1549–1069 BC), each of them surviving five hundred years, still preceding any known civilizations in mainland Europe. To give an idea of the timespans involved: the pyramids were older to Julius Caesar than he is to us, and he was still dealing with an independent Egyptian state claiming — despite its Greek descendant rulers — to be the same state that built the pyramids.
Egypt spent some time gradually developing as a civilization, but was one of the main civilizations in the world by the time the pyramids were built during the Old Kingdom. While Egypt went through periods of ups and downs, it was not until later in its history that Egypt began to build an empire and come in conflict with the Hittites.
According to the Old Testament, the Jewish people lived in the Canaan region for some time and significantly grew in population while they were there. Eventually, according to the Book of Exodus, the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, but this enslavement ended during The Exodus of Moses from Egypt to the Holy Land (Israel), an event dated to around 1300 BC. There is no archaeological evidence for this date or for the Exodus at all, though in modern popular culture it is closely associated with pharaoh Merneptah, the successor of Ramses II, of the 19th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, in whose stela at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo the name "Israel" is first historically mentioned in writing, as an enemy which had been destroyed.
From the 18th to the 20th Dynasties (1549 to 1069 BC, i. e. the New Kingdom), the Egyptian civilization was at its peak. It reached far along the Nile and extended north to the land of the Hittites. However, over the next few hundred years Egypt declined (coincidentally, around the same time that Israel became one of the dominant groups in this area), and from about 500 BC onwards, the Egyptians were under the control of various other empires. Around 30 BC, Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, and did not become a formally independent state until 1922.
Posterity, heritage and rediscovery
Egyptians often invoke the Pharaonic heritage. Through the centuries, a romanticized image of Ancient Egypt survived; especially in Judeo-Christian tradition. Roman (and later Byzantine) Egypt would become one of the centers of early Christianity, particularly Gnostic and other heterodox sects. Egypt still contains a Christian minority which uses the Coptic language (the modern descendant of Hieroglyphic Egyptian) liturgically to some extent. Most Egyptians these days are Arabic-speaking Muslims, and the metropolis of Cairo will proudly show the visitors its more than a thousand years as a cultural and literary center of the Arabic-speaking world.
The Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of Egypt in 1799 started Egyptology, the academic study of ancient Egypt. The science's birth year is associated with the Rosetta Stone's translation by Jean-François Champollion, completed in 1822. Its juxtaposion of a royal decree written in hieroglyph, Demotic script and ancient Greek allowed the hieroglyphs to be deciphered, and spurred new interest in Ancient Egypt. The original is a highlight of the British Museum in London; most Egyptology museums around the world, including Cairo, display a copy.
Doing a bit of homework on hieroglyphs is highly rewarding for history-minded travelers going to Egypt. There are ample resources online; the Wikipedia article is very informative. Actually, for the benefit of academics and purists, Egyptian hieroglyphs were added to the Unicode Standard in October 2009 with the release of version 5.2, which introduced the Egyptian Hieroglyphs block (U+13000–U+1342F) with 1,071 defined characters.
Before Champollion, the main known source about Ancient Egypt was a now-lost book named Aegyptiaca (History of Egypt), written in Greek by Egyptian priest Manetho (Μανέθων; his Egyptian name is lost), associated with the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (323–283 BC) by Roman historian Plutarch (c. 46–120 AD) while Byzantine chronicler George Syncellus (died after 810) links Manetho directly with Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BC). The multi-volume work was much admired and quoted by later Ancient Greek writers. Therefore, most commonly known names of Egyptian gods, cities and pharaohs, and even basic terms like "pyramid", "sarcophagus", "pylon" and "hypostyle hall" are Greek, often very unrelated to their Ancient Egyptian form. The hieroglyphic system of writing did not write most vowels (similar to Hebrew and Arabic) and, over more than two millennia, the language evolved considerably; by Ptolemaic times, scribes would go very hermetic and creative, with an enormous expansion of the script's graphemic inventory. The pharaohs had five different official names (a bit similar to Chinese and Japanese emperors, but more complicated) and it is unclear how the "real Egyptian name" of any given pharaoh actually sounded - an exception might be the ubiquitous superstar Ramses II, very much written as "Ramsu", the sun (Ra) + the three skins tied together (ms) + the folded cloth (s) + the reed (sw) signs.
To give an example of what those transliterations look like, the word the Egyptians used for their own land is km.t and Egyptologists filled in es to make it pronounceable, hence the term "kemet", which likely means "black land", referring to the fertile black soils as opposed to dšṛt "deshret", the "red land" of the surrounding desert. The original form of the name Osiris is wsir; Isis is ast, Anubis is inpw, Amon is imn. The pharaoh Cheops was actually Khufu, Chephren was Ka-Ef-Ra and Mykerinos was Men-Kau-Ra.
In a touristic context, expect to use mainly the Greek, conventional nomenclature. A basic homework on hieroglyphs will get you to identify royal cartouches and variations of the offering formula on papyri and tomb walls; you'll be glad to have learned them.
- 1 Abusir. The site of a compact pyramid field, with pyramids and funerary temples dating mainly from the 5th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom.
- 2 Alexandria. This is Alexander's "window on Greece", the state capital from 331 BC to 641 CE, where a Greek-built extremely tall lighthouse was one of the seven wonders of the world. However, the lighthouse was destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th century; its remaining stones were used to build the Citadel of Qaitbay on the site. Much of the Hellenistic royal and civic quarters sank beneath the harbour, and these ruins are still being extensively investigated by underwater archaeologists.
- 3 Fayum (Shedet, Crocodilopolis). The ancient centre of the cult of the crocodile god Sobek. Nearby Meidum is the site of one of the oldest pyramids, of the step type, most likely built by the pharaoh Djoser of the 4th Dynasty, the first recorded pyramid builder.
- 4 Giza. Famous for its pyramids and actually surprisingly close to the urban sprawl of modern Cairo. The highest of the pyramids is one of the seven wonders of the world. It's also home to the Grand Egyptian Museum, the long-awaited primary successor of the venerable Egyptian Museum in Midan Tahrir, with much bigger exhibition, storage and workplace areas. It is, as of August 2020, reported as available for private tours in advance of its official opening.
- 5 The Great Sphinx. The famous part-animal, part-human godlike figure.
- 6 Heliopolis (Iunu, "the Pillars"). One of the oldest cities of ancient Egypt, occupied since the Predynastic Period, home to the solar cult of god Atum. Its major surviving remnant is the obelisk erected in the reign of Senusret I of the 12th Dynasty, at the entrance to the Temple of Atum (Cleopatra's Needle in London and the obelisk in New York's Central Park came from the same temple). Dating back to approximately 1900 BC, it still sits at its original location, in the midst of a modern neighborhood.
- 7 Lisht (about 35 km south of Saqqara). A 12th Dynasty necropolis of Middle Kingdom royal and elite burials, including two pyramids built by Amenemhat I and Senusret I, probably close to their capital city Itj-Tawy, whose ruins have never been conclusively identified.
- 8 Memphis (Inebu-hedj, "the white walls"; later, Men-Nefer, "Enduring and Beautiful"). A city with a history of almost four millennia, the fulcrum between the Upper and the Lower Kingdoms, dedicated to the god Ptah, for most recorded history the national capital. A few remains of the great temple, Hut-ka-Ptah ("Enclosure of the ka of Ptah", rendered in Greek as Aἴγυπτoς (Ai-gy-ptos) by the historian Manetho, and believed to be the etymological origin of the modern English name Egypt) can be seen in the Mit Rahina open-air museum.
- 9 Saqqara. A very famous royal necropolis close to Memphis, home to pharaoh Djoser's Step Pyramid.
- 10 Taposiris Magna (56 km west of Alexandria). Remains of a city established by Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus between 280 and 270 BCE, with two monuments that were partly restored in the 1930s. One is a tower that has been used in the reconstruction of the lighthouse of Alexandria and the other is the remains of a temple of Osiris that is also believed to be the last resting place of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
- 11 Tell Basta (Per-Bast, "house of the Cat Goddess"; Greek: Bubastis). The center of worship for the feline goddess Bastet, and therefore the principal depository of mummies of cats in Egypt.
- 12 Abydos (Abdju). A sacred city since the 1st Dynasty, home to their burials, the cult of Osiris, and a temple built by Sethi I of the 19th Dynasty, notable for the precious Abydos King List, with the names of seventy-six kings on three rows of thirty-eight cartouches (borders enclosing the name of a king) in each row. The upper two rows contain names of the kings, while the third row merely repeats Sethi I's own cartouches. It's the sole source to date of the names of many of the kings of the 7th and 8th Dynasties, and thus immensely valued.
- 13 Dendera (Ta-ynt-netert, "She of the Divine Pillar"; Greek: Tentyra). Its main feature is a temple to Hathor the goddess of love, built in Ptolemaic times.
- 14 Amarna (Akhetaten, "Horizon of the Sun-Disc God"). Site of the short-lived capital of the "heretic pharaoh" Akhenaten, built about 1346 BC, and abandoned shortly after his death (1332 BC), best known for its rock-cut tombs. The so-called "Armana letters" found here are a fascinating glimpse into the diplomacy of the Late Bronze Age before its collapse.
- 15 El-Ashmunein (Khemenu, "City of The Eight Gods"; Greek: Hermopolis Magna). The main cult centre of Thoth, the Pharaonic god of magic, healing, and wisdom and the patron of scribes. It was home to a massive temple, today a modest archaeological site with a small open-air museum.
- 16 Abu Simbel (Temple of Ramses-Meriamon). Two temples, the Great Temple, dedicated to Ramses II, and the Small Temple, dedicated to his chief wife Queen Nefertari. Construction started in approximately 1264 BC and lasted for about 20 years, until 1244 BC. The original location was put in danger when Lake Nasser was created by the Aswan Dam. Therefore, in 1968 Abu Simbel was actually cut apart in pieces, and reassembled at a new location on higher ground, under a domed structure of fake cliffs. It is now one of Egypt’s great tourist attractions.
- 17 Aswan (Swenett, Greek: Syene). Historically the highest navigable point of the Nile, the First Cataract. As it was dammed in the 1970s, many relics about to be submerged by Lake Nasser were moved here, most notably the Philae and Kalabsha island temples. It's also the proper stopover for visiting Abu Simbel.
- 18 Edfu (Wetjeset-hor, "The abode of Horus"; Greek: Apollinopolis Magna). Has the best preserved Ancient Egyptian temple, dedicated to the falcon god Horus. The temple was completed by 57 BC, under the reign of Ptolemy XII Auletes, the father of Cleopatra.
- 19 Kom Ombo (Nubt, "City of Gold"; Greek: Ombos). has the Temple of Sobek and Haroeris, mostly from Ptolemaic times, and the royal quarries of Silsila, north of the town.
- 20 Luxor (Waset, "City of The Scepter"; Greek: Thebes). The main city of Upper Egypt, and the main capital for long periods during the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom eras. Home to Amon the god of victory and his Temple of Karnak, the most massive religious compound of its times, nowadays its main attraction.
- 21 Valley of the Kings. Perhaps the most legendary of all the sites related to Ancient Egypt: Thebes' royal necropolis, where the great New Kingdom pharaohs were buried.
The Pharaonic civilization left its footprint outside the borders of modern-day Egypt. Particularly during the New Kingdom, Egypt engaged in far-flung diplomacy and imperial conquest throughout the Eastern Mediterranean world of the Late Bronze Age. Egyptian objects were taken outside Egypt through trade throughout the existence of the Pharaonic civilization and antiquities were exported as early as Roman times but plunder and looting, and later actions by European powers and the U.S., took considerable antiquities outside Egypt with or without the approval of Egyptian authorities of the time.
Egyptologists have criticized the fact that the British Museum holds almost as many objects from Egypt as the Egyptian Museum and there are periodic calls to return them. Others point out that having irreplaceable artifacts housed in different sites throughout the world reduces the risk of the entire archeological record of Egypt falling victim to plunder, war or destruction as has befallen many relics of Ancient civilizations.
- 22 Uronarti. An island within the Nile, nowadays in northern Sudan, upon which is a huge fortress built by pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty. It was created as part of a wave of expansion and colonialism into Upper Nubian lands during the Middle Kingdom era. Many of the other fortresses and outposts in the area were engulfed by the artificial Lake Nasser, a result of the Aswan Dam project in the 1960s, but Uronarti's impressive fortress remains and new archaeological projects on it have commenced.
- 23 Kadesh (Orontes Valley, Syria). The site of the largest recorded chariot battle in history. Ramses II led a 20,000-strong army against Muwatilli II of the Hittites. Ramses declared the military campaign to be a resounding success, though historians now know that the battle ended in a draw. 16 years after the battle, the Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty was created, the oldest known peace treaty of human history. .
- 24 Jaffa (Yapu, Hebrew: Yafo, Arabic: Yaffa). One of the world's oldest ports, from which Tel Aviv grew out in the 20th century. Many stories of Greek, Jewish and Christian mythology are set here: It was here that the prophet Jonah started the journey that left him in the belly of a fish, Andromeda was saved from a sea monster by Perseus, and Peter the Apostle received a vision marking the split between Judaism and Christianity. The city was under Egyptian rule from about 1457 BC until around 800 BC. Its old harbour features the Ramses Gate, a restored arch with cartouches of Ramses II, which can be freely viewed.
- 25 Megiddo (the biblical "Armageddon") (Tel Megiddo National Park is on Route 66 between Megiddo Junction and Yokne'am Junction, about 2 km northwest of Megiddo junction. Kibbutz Megiddo lies nearby. Several buses stop at the Megiddo Junction, most notably the 825 between Tel Aviv and Afula. From here, you can walk to Tel Megiddo either along the western side of the road or through the Kibbutz. (There is a path east of the road, too - with a beautiful view towards the tel - if you are really into it.) More comfortably, you can try to flag down a taxi or hitchhike for these 2 km, or wait for a bus from Afula (approximately hourly) which will take you right up to the tel.), ☏ . Apr-Sept 8am-5pm, Oct-Mar 8am-4pm. A large hilltop city with an extensive underground water system, strategically located near a main crossroads, rising to about 60 m from the plane of the Jezreel valley next to it. The site of several major battles and a most important and most impressive historical and archaeological site. Archaeological artifacts indicate that there was a settlement at this site as early as 4000 BC. At the 1457 BC Battle of Megiddo, the city was subjugated by Thutmes III (1479–1425 BC), and became an Egyptian possession. ₪28/24/14 adult/student/child.
- 1 Musée du Louvre, Place du Carrousel (Paris/1st arrondissement). Home to an enormous Egyptian collection, including the Zodiac of Dendera, the Seated Scribe statue, and many sarcophagi.
- 2 Neues Museum (Berlin/Mitte, on "Museum Island"), ✉ email@example.com. The "New Museum" reopened in 2009 after having been largely destroyed in the war was the first place to publicly exhibit the famous bust of Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten, the "heretic Pharaoh" who introduced a new monolatric cult of "Aten", the sun-disk. The circumstances under which the bust came into German possession in 1913 are frequently alleged to be the result of German subterfuge and there are calls to have it returned or at least loaned to Egypt. While the bust is without a doubt the "star" of the exhibition, there are many other Egyptian antiquities exhibited here.
- 3 British Museum, Great Russell St, WC1B 3DG (London/Bloomsbury), ☏ , fax: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Sa-W 10AM-5:30PM, Th F 10AM-8:30PM; Central Great Court remains open Sa-W until 6PM, Th F until 11PM. A vast repository of the world's cultures, controversially including hundreds of items that were looted from their places of origin. An entire section is devoted to Egyptian artifacts, with the Rosetta Stone in a prime position. Temporary exhibitions are invariably excellent and meticulously researched, but can be expensive. It has a fine store, mainly selling replicas of items in the collection. Free.
- 4 Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, Malet Pl, WC1E 6BT (London/Bloomsbury. The museum can be hard to find. Malet Pl is a narrow lane opposite the end of Maker St. Find the large Waterstone's Bookstore on the corner of Malet St-Malet Pl continue over Torrington Pl. Venturing down the lane, the museum's banner should be prominent on the left hand side. Go through the doors and ask the porter for the museum), ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. Tu-Sa 1-5PM. Formerly the teaching collection of Sir Flinders Petrie, one of Britain's greatest archaeologists (but also controversial for his racist views, including the "Dynastic race" claim), now preserved by University College London. Exhibits include beaded dresses, sculpture and wall reliefs, items of everyday use, papyri, cartonnage and pottery. Free.
- 5 Turin Egyptian Museum (Museo Egizio), Via Accademia delle Scienze, 6 (Turin, Italy), ☏ . Tu-Su 9:00-18:30, M 9:00 - 14:00. Houses the most important collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts outside Cairo. Founded in 1824 by King Carlo Felice after acquiring archaeologist Drovetti's collection, the museum contains 30,000 exhibits. It documents the history and civilization of Egypt from the palaeolithic to the Coptic era through unique exhibits and collections of objects d'art, articles of daily use and funeral furnishings (including the Altar of Isis, the canvas painted by Gebelein, the intact tombs of Kha and Merit, and the exceptional cliff temple to Ellesjia). It is also intelligently laid out and the exhibits are lovingly preserved. €15 full price ticket, €5 - 90 minutes before the closing time.
- 6 Templo de Debod (Madrid/Moncloa). Ancient Egyptian temple that would be submerged by the Aswan High Dam, but was dismantled and moved to Madrid's Parque del Oeste (Western Park).
- Nubia, Egypt's southern neighbor in ancient times