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Ancient Egyptian Antiquities

Statuette of Isis suckling Harpocrates
© BA Antiquities Museum/E. Omar Emad El-Din Omar

Presentation of the department

The Ancient Egyptian historical period started with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in c.3100 BCE. This period lasted for about 3000 years during which flourished the various aspects of art and science. In this respect, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum is displaying artifacts focusing on the intellectual side of this civilization, as well as on the artistic side the Egyptians excelled in.


Ancient Egyptian Kings' list Ancient Egyptian Kings' list (PDF)


Historical Preview

Ancient Egyptian Civilization remains a witness to the genius and advancement of the ancient Egyptian in various fields. Examples include grand historical constructions the facades of which recorded his achievements, philosophy and daily life, both pictorially and in writing. The drive behind this was a firm belief in the cult of resurrection and immortality after death.

Pharaonic history is divided into two phases: the pre-dynastic phase and the dynasty phase, which constitutes thirty dynasties.

The pre-dynastic age

This age is in turn divisible into two parts. The first extends from the 21st millenium BCE to the 17th millenium BCE It includes the Paleolithic, the Epipaleolithic and the Neolithic ages. These three ages are rather similar in their characteristics. Caves exhibit primitive engravings which confirm the beginnings of human settlement since these caves were chosen as an abode. The walls of the caves also show engravings which depict scenes of fishing and hunting of animals such as gazelles, ant-eaters, and other animals that lived in the same environment, such as elephants, ostriches, and giraffes. Most probably man was by then introduced to his first breakthrough into civilization: the discovery of fire which tamed his nature and moved him from primitivism into urbanity.

The second part of this age begins with the 17th millenium BCE and lasts until around the year 3100 BCE It is the period directly preceding the pre-dynastic age. The ancient Egyptian had at the time his second leap in civilization, and that was his knowledge of agriculture and animal breeding, where he attempted to tame the environment to serve his benefit; he toiled the lands of the Nile-valley, domesticated animals and sought to subdue nature to his interests. He manufactured pottery and stored goods such as grains in various places. New settlements appeared in Al-Umra in Lower Egypt, in the Gerzean phase, in El-Badary in Upper Egypt and in Fayoum. The Egyptian at that time also discovered the use of mud-bricks for the first time in history.

The period which extends from 4000 BCE to 3500 BCE is known as the Nagada I and covered almost all of Upper Egypt.

The final age of the pre-dynastic era is Nagada II, also known as the Gerzean phase, extends between 3500 and 3100 BCE During this period villages were populated to become towns. The population density increased and the Egyptian expanded in the production of pottery and the use of stones.

The Unification (ca. 3100 BCE)

King Narmer unified Upper and Lower Egypt. He recorded his name inside a “serekh” or a rectangular frame which was similar to the royal palace façade, with Horus perched on the top. He also recorded this triumph on his famous plate known as the Narmer Palette. From hence the dynasties followed in succession. According to Manethon, the famous Egyptian priest and historian, these dynasties are divisible into thirty dynasties, beginning in 3100 BCE until 332 BCE, i.e. the beginning of the Hellenistic Age in Egypt at the hands of Alexander the Great.

The Old Kingdom

The rulers of of the Old Kingdom were buried in various places, such as Abydos and Saqqara. At that time also appeared the construction of the pyramids which reached its most complete form in the pyramid of the Step Pyramid of Saqqara during the third dynasty. This pyramid and its funereal complex were designed by the ingenious architect Imhotep, who was also Djoser’s Vizier at the time. The supreme god at the time was the god Re.

Construction boomed during the age of the pyramid-builders – i.e. the fourth dynasty – when unique pyramids were built. These are the pyramids of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus. The Giza plateau was the site chosen for construction. The Pyramids were built with limestone blocks from the Giza Plateau, which were in turn covered with a high quality limestone casing brought from the quarries of Tura.

The construction of pyramids lasted until the eighth dynasty, but they were of less significance than those built in Giza at Saqqara, Abusir and Abu Ghorab.

The Old Kingdom came to an end with the seventh and eighth dynasties due to the weakness of the rulers in Memphis. After the eighth Dynasty, the power was held by a succession of rulers originating from Herakleopolis Magna, which was located in northern Middle Egypt, near the entrance to Fayoum. These kings appear as both the ninth and tenth Dynasties in Manetho’s History, which is the period known as  the First Intermediate Period (2160-2055 BCE).

The Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom begins towards the end of eleventh dynasty and lasts until the thirteenth dynasty (2055-1650  BCE). With the advent of the Middle Kingdom the age of division comes to an end at the hands of Mentuhotep II (Neb-Hetep-Ra). He united the country and had his tomb constructed in el-Deir el-Bahari. He reinstated a centralized system of rule after fighting the rulers of Heracleopolis until he achieved this unification.

The twelfth dynasty followed; founded by Amenemhat I who was probably a vizier under the reign of Mentuhotep IV, the last king of the eleventh dynasty. Amenemhat I built himself a new capital south of Memphis, called Itjtawy (now known as Lisht).The kings of this dynasty moved their pyramid-shaped tombs to Lisht (south of Cairo), as well as at Lahoun and Hawara (in Fayoum). Their pyramids, however, were smaller than those of their predecessors, especially in terms of the size and type of stones used.Much has come to our knowledge about rulers of that time who controlled the districts spreading in Beni Hasan, Bersha, Meir and Qau in Middle Egypt, and Aswan in Upper Egypt.

The twelfth dynasty ends with Amenemhat IV. Queen Sobeknefru (sometimes written "Nefrusobek")succeeded him to the throne. The prominent feature of the kings of this dynasty was the brevity of their terms of rule, which did not allow them the time to construct valuable monuments. No indications were even found of any important military expeditions they undertook.

IIn the second intermediate period, after the the twelfth dynasty ended, a group of tribes known as the "Hyksos" (derived from the ancient Egyptian term "Hekau-khasut", which means "Rulers of foreign lands") invaded Egyptian borders and in 1650 BCE founded themselves a capital at Avaris, in the east of the Delta.

At that time Thebes became the capital of Upper Egypt, and the rulers of the south surrendered to the Hyksos’ occupation of the north of the country. However, soon afterwards war broke out under the leadership of King Seqenenre. Fighting continued under the leadership of Kamose whose armies managed to break through as far as Avaris, the stronghold of the Hyksos. Then Ahmosis I, son of Seqenenre came to expel the Hyksos from Egypt.

The New Kingdom

The New Kingdom begins with the eighteenth dynasty and lasts until the twentieth dynasty (1550-1069 BCE).

In the wake of the grand victory achieved by Ahmosis I, Egypt saw a new age of unification. Ahmosis I also founded a royal centre of worship in Abydos. He also expanded the Karnak complex and renovated the temple of Mentuhotep I in el-Deir el-Bahari.

Ahmosis I was followed by such rulers as Tuthmosis I and Horemheb who undertook various expansionist wars in order to eliminate any threat or external danger that may threaten the security of the country.

Tuthmosis I built the first royal tomb in the Valley of Kings, to be followed by Tuthmosis II who married Hatshepsut, the queen who assumed power after the former’s death, although Tuthmosis III had ascended the throne officially. She took advantage of Tuthmosis III’s young age and built one of Egypt’s architecturally most glamorous temples.

Thutmosis III was followed by Amhotep III, then Amhotep IV, also known as Akhenaton, who effected an unprecedented religious revolution in Pharaonic times. He was the founder of a monotheistic creed and moved the capital of the country to Akhetaten, the current "Tel El-Amarna".

After Akhnaton’s death, his son Tutankhamun ascended the throne and restored order. He re-established and renovated the temples of the god Amun seeking to appease the god. He renovated all the statues and the inscriptions that had been demolished by Akhenaton’s workers. Tutankhamun died and was buried in his tomb in the Valley of Kings, to be followed by King Horemheb, who was considered a first-rate military leader, leading armies into neighboring states to quell disturbances and confirm Egypt’s sovereignty.

Horemheb was followed by Ramses I, founder of the nineteenth dynasty, who, in turn was successeeded by his son Seti I.

During the reign of Seti I and his son Ramses II many expeditions were launched against foreign countries, most important of which are the expeditions against the Hittites, most significantly the battle of Qadesh. Ramses II did not achieve any glorious victories in this battle, but the two parties reached the first peace-treaty in history.

Ramses II left many monuments behind, and he built himself a residence called Per-Ramesse (Pi-Ramesses), i.e. the House of Ramses in the Eastern Delta near Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos. Ramses II was followed by numerous rulers who adopted his self-same expansionist military and political course.

The New Kingdom came to an end with the death of Ramses XI who died before the completion of his tomb. North and south were divided, and Egypt began a Third Intermediate Period.

The Third Intermediary Age from the twenty-first dynasty to the twenty-fifth (1069-664 BCE)

The first ruler of this period was Smendis, ruling from Tanis situated at the north east of the Nile Delta. In the south Pi-Ankh was in power. At that time titles were granted to kings according to their service to Amun in order to add a religious touch to their kings and their capitals.

The north and the south were joined through intermarriage in an attempt to unify the country and affirming their connection to the Temple of Amun. It is said that the kings of the twenty second dynasty were Libyans and attempted to fix the royal affairs in Thebes. They led Egyptian armies on expeditions. Although Egypt consisted at that time of small states, cities such as Tanis, Thebes, Heracleopolis and Sais remained centers of great significance.

Division continued to weaken internal affairs and also the external politics during the twenty-third dynasty to the twenty-fifth. In the late eighth century BCE, a new line of kings from Nubian Kush invaded Egypt. They were first accepted as legitimate by Thebes, and then their power spread throughout the country as Dynasty Twenty-Five. Then at the end of the seventh century BCE, the Assyrians, after one unsuccessful attempt, invaded and captured the city of Memphis. King Taharqo, fled back to Nubia. But, as soon as the Assyrians left, after handing power to vassal rulers from the Delta, Taharqo came back and took control again.

The Late Period

The Assyrians invaded Egypt again and ousted Taharqo. Later on, the Nubians, under Taharqo’s son Tanutamani, attempted to regain power. They were temporarily successful, but the Assyrian war machine came back and banished him to Nubia, taking the Delta and marching as far as Thebes, which they sacked. Psamtek, chieftain of Sais in the Delta, had refused to support the Nubians, and was therefore appointed one of the vassals rulers left behind when the Assyrians once again withdrew. He was able to parlay this position into kingship of the entire land, and Egypt was reunited for the first time in four hundred years.

The Twenty-Sixth Dynasty was a time of rejuvenation and renewal of ancient tradition. Contacts with Europe increased when Greek trading posts were opened in the Delta and Greek mercenaries were employed in the army. Over a century of relative peace brought prosperity, and for the first time in centuries, Egypt was able to maintain its unity and independence. However, this was not destined to last.

The Persian king Cambyses invaded Egypt in 525 BCE, and Egypt became part of the massive Persian
Empire. Local rebellions were followed by severe repression. It was not until 404 BCE that the country
was free again under the native rulers of Dynasties Twenty-Eight, Twenty-Nine, and Thirty. This brief
interlude, marked by increased building activities, was brought to an end when the Persians succeeded in re-capturing the country in 343 BCE.

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