Being able to place events and people into historical context starts with an understanding of Ancient Egypt’s chronology divided into dynasties and kingdoms.
Ancient Egyptian chronology is broken down by dynasties and kingdoms. Understanding the different period breakdowns helps to put key events in Egyptian history into perspective.
Lasting from 3150-2686 BC, the Pre-Dynastic Period saw the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first king or pharaoh, Narmer (sometimes called Menes). This period is also referred to as the Early Dynastic Period, representing the first three dynasties.
The Old Kingdom
The Egyptian Old Kingdom lasted from 2686 to 2181 BC, ending with the VI Dynasty. Dynasties reflect pharaohs that came from the same family. When a pharaoh died without male heirs, a new dynasty arose through a different aristocratic family.
During the Old Kingdom, several significant events took place:
The Pharaoh Zoser constructed the first Egyptian pyramid at Saqqara.
The Cheops of Khufu Pyramid was built (often called the “Great Pyramid”)
The sphinx was created by the Pharaoh Khephren
Elaborate mummification for the pharaohs began
Hieroglyphic writing moved from pictograms to ideograms
Agriculture was vastly expanded
First Intermediate Period
This “intermediate” period spans the dissolution of the Old Kingdom and the rise of the Middle Kingdom. Lasting slightly over 140 years, it was a time of political instability, social anarchy, and leaderless government. Out of the provincial conflicts a new dynasty emerged under Mentuhotep II who restored order to the land.
The Middle Kingdom
Existing from 2040 BC to 1780 BC, the Middle Kingdom integrated everyday Egyptians into what some historians refer to as a “democratizing” process. During the Middle Kingdom, mummification was available to all Egyptians wherein this was restricted in the Old Kingdom. Rather than building pyramids, everyday Egyptians constructed canals, turned desert land into farmland through irrigation projects, and worked on state building projects of benefit to the entire community, such as the great Karnak temple complex.
The Second Intermediate Period
As with the end of the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom fell into chaos as Egypt was invaded from the outside for the first time in its history by the Hyksos. The Hyksos would rule the kingdom from Lower Egypt for over 200 years while Egyptians in the Upper Kingdom learned new warfare tactics that would enable them to drive out the invaders.
The New Kingdom
This final “Kingdom” breakdown is often called Egypt’s “Imperial Era” or “Golden Age.” Beginning with the expulsion of the Hyksos under the Pharaoh Ahmose I in 1570 BC, Egypt created an empire in the Ancient Near East that brought it power and prosperity.
Notable Egyptian pharaohs during this period include:
Queen Hatshepsut, the first female ruler
Amenhotep IV who became the monotheist Akenaten
Tutankhamen, the “boy” king
Ramses II or “the Great”
Each of these leaders contributed to the imperial designs of Egypt, excepting perhaps Akenaten who is best known as the pharaoh who banned the old religion in favor of worshipping the sun disc or Aten.
The Third Intermediate Period
This period begins ca 1069 BC and represents the decline of Egyptian power. Egypt was invaded by the Sea Peoples, the Persians, and the Greeks under Alexander the Great. Alexander’s death and the division of his empire resulted in the last Egyptian dynasty under the Ptolemies.
The last pharaoh was Cleopatra VII, whose alliance with Marc Antony led to her death and the loss of Egyptian sovereignty. From the time of Alexander onward, this timeframe is often called the Greco-Roman Period.
Understanding Egyptian chronology can help place key names and events within historical context and perspective. Further, the reader is better able to grasp the evolutionary growth and maturity of one of the longest and grandest ancient civilizations.