In Upper Egypt (the south), stratified societies developed at several sites, which evolved into powerful chiefdoms. Through a long process, these chiefdoms in turn became a single kingdom. The culture of this Upper Egyptian kingdom spread slowly northward to Lower Egypt (the north). Eventually, one king ruled the entire Nile Valley from the first cataract at Aswan all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. The first Pharaoh had emerged.
The ancient Egyptians conceived of their gradual period of state formation as the conquest of one kingdom by another, even though no single Lower Egyptian kingdom ever existed. The concept of duality was an important one, so the idea of an Upper and Lower Egypt was appealing. The ancient Egyptians devised many ways to express this concept, which they called sema-tawy, or the “union of the Two Lands”.
As a result, the Pharaoh often appears under the protection of the cobra, representing the patron goddess of Lower Egypt, Wadjet, and the vulture, Nekhbet, who was the patron goddess of Upper Egypt. Each of the Two Lands had its own crown, a white crown for the south and a red crown for the north, which the king might wear separately or as the combined double crown of ancient Egypt. The lotus and the papyrus were the floral symbols for Upper and Lower Egypt. All of these reminded the people of the very distant past and of a country that was now united under the rule of one true king of Egypt.
The Third Dynasty marked the beginning of the Old Kingdom, a new era of Egyptian history when for the first time Egyptian kings were powerful and wealthy enough to undertake royal construction programmes that were enormous even by today’s standards. The administrative capital of the country was at Memphis, now in the area of Mit Rahina in the vicinity of modern Cairo.
The kings sent expeditions to Sinai, the Western Desert, and deep into Nubia to engage in trade with neighbouring cultures, to mine gold, and to quarry stone. The growing economy gave Egypt the necessary resources for huge construction projects, most famously the Great Pyramid constructed by the Pharaoh Khufu at Giza. Many other pyramids were also built, as were temples for the gods. Since the earliest times, the ancient Egyptian had identified themselves with the god Horus, and during the Old Kingdom they began to call themselves “sons of Re”, or sons of the sun god.
Through the course of the Old Kingdom, or during the Third to the Sixth Dynasties, royal power slowly waned, and high officials from families unrelated to the king’s gained more control over matters in Egypt. This political change, and possibly a change in climate, brought Egypt into the so-called dark age of the First Intermediate Period when the Two Lands disintegrated and the power of the state lay in the hands of strongmen who ruled chiefdoms scattered along the length of the Nile. These local rulers sometimes allied themselves with and sometimes challenged rulers in the north who still styled themselves the kings of all Egypt.
After 100 years or so of disunity, a very capable and ambitious king rose to power in the Upper Egyptian city of Thebes (modern Luxor). Through force of arms he consolidated the Two Lands and brought the people of Egypt together under his sole rule. His name was Mentuhotep II, and his reign marked the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, the second great age in ancient Egyptian history. This was a period of cultural flowering, and literature and art reached their peaks at this time.
The rulers of the Middle Kingdom built a line of fortresses along the River Nile at the second cataract in Nubia and in the north in Sinai in order to regulate trade with foreigners in these regions and guard Egypt’s borders from its enemies. In the area of modern Fayoum, one of the early Middle Kingdom rulers, Amenemhat I, founded a new capital city called Itj-tawy, or “Seizer of the Two Lands”.
However, Thebes remained important as a religious centre, and one of its gods, Amun (“the Hidden One”) became prominent. Mentuhotep II was buried on the west bank at Thebes, but later kings were buried elsewhere. In the north, other kings built pyramids that never reached the enormous size of those constructed during the Fourth Dynasty. They were also built somewhat more economically, with enormous amounts of mud brick and rubble.
During the Middle Kingdom, foreigners from the Levant began to settle in the north-eastern part of the Nile Delta. These people grew in number and influence as they came to hold important positions in the royal court. The more the power of the king diminished, the more control they gained over administrative matters, until they at last established their own kingdom with its capital at Avaris, a city along the Pelusiac branch of the Nile. Another influx of Levantines, known as the Hyksos, then took over the north of Egypt and founded their own ruling dynasty, the 15th. They ruled the north of Egypt for the next century or so, while a weakened Egyptian dynasty, the 16th, ruled the south.
The 16th and the 17th Egyptian dynasties ruled from Thebes, and once again this southern city gave rise to a ruler who would reunite the Two Lands. The Theban king Seqenenre Tao and many Egyptian soldiers sacrificed their lives in the fight against the Hyksos. Seqenenre Tao was succeeded by Kamose, who continued the struggle. Ahmose, Seqenenre’s son and Kamose’s successor, later took command of the army and pushed forwards farther to the north. Both sides used new military equipment that had been introduced from Asia, including horse-drawn chariots and compound bows that gave archers a greater range than the older type of bow.
Ahmose then voyaged downstream with his army to Lower Egypt, sacked Avaris, and drove the Hyksos out of Egypt. Egypt was then reunified under a new dynasty at the opening of a new golden age, known today as the New Kingdom.
Ahmose’s 18th Dynasty was one of the strongest to rule Egypt in ancient times. His descendants were so powerful that they expanded the empire until its southern limit was in the area of modern Khartoum in Sudan and the holdings of its vassal states in the north reached the southern borders of modern Turkey. However, the Egyptians remembered what had happened before at the end of the Middle Kingdom, and they determined that Egypt would never again fall prey to outsiders.
Booty from war and merchandise from peaceful trade with neighbouring empires added to Egypt’s wealth and splendour. Ahmose and his successors credited the god Amun with their victories, and the god’s temple and priesthood grew wealthy and influential. For their burial place, most rulers of the New Kingdom selected a valley in the hills to the west of Amun’s sacred city of Thebes overlooked by a peak that resembles a pyramid. Today called the Valley of the Kings, this place offered security to the dead kings: here they and the treasures necessary for their afterlife could be hidden away and guarded.
Egypt’s wealth was so great that foreign kings claimed that “gold was like dust” in the country. Such wealth made it possible for Amenhotep III, the boy-king Tutankhamun’s grandfather, to undertake major building projects all over Egypt. These were so numerous and of such magnitude that some scholars consider him to be the greatest builder of the New Kingdom. Egypt was then the most powerful and the wealthiest empire of the ancient world, and the ancient Egyptian civilisation was at its zenith.