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To put the numerous ruins and archaeological records we were confronted with in to order, it was essential to envisage the historical time line. In the Bronze and early Ion Ages religion was central to society, culture and technology. The elaborate Egyptian preparations for life after death are responsible for much we see preserved today. But I suffered information overload trying to remember nearly 200 pharaohs and important priests and neighbouring kingdoms. Knowing which god is responsible for what becomes relevant for me only when it influenced intellectual development or world events, such as a Persian victory aided by their enemy’s reverence for cats. Thus a lot of the temple and tomb cartoons, cartouches and hieroglyphics are little more than pretty pictures to me except when they depict some change in knowledge or illustrate a capability like those depicting wars, medical procedures or mathematics.
Gods with Pharaoh at Kom Ombo (temple of the crocodile god Sobek, creator of the world)
The Egyptian records are extensive and span thousands of years. They can be accurately dated at several points when they record astronomical events such as eclipses and comets and the eruption of the Volcano on Thera (Santorini), the dates and times of which we know with varying degrees of accuracy. In Egypt the rise of the old kingdom corresponds with the early Bronze Age and the weapons this made possible. The Bronze Age lasted for around 2000 years ending with the advent of iron weapon technology. Iron weapons and superior naval technology led to military success by invaders called 'sea peoples' in the Egyptian records, and their sacking of many Bronze Age cities and settlements, particularly in Greece. The early Iron Age corresponds with the Greek Age of Heroes and the historical fall of Troy. This was a period of significant dynastic changes and social disruption with the loss of high culture and a decline in classical literacy (known as the Greek Dark Ages). The social disruption resulted in the evolution of new religions challenging established beliefs, including Egyptian monotheism and Judaism.
It is tempting to try to use the Old Testament Bible account particularly in Exodus to correlate it with events in Egypt, and thus date or confirm the events recorded there, but alas scholars have so far been unable to find an incontrovertible reference to any of those events. Wikipedia reports: 'More than a century of archaeological research has discovered nothing which could support the narrative elements of the book of Exodus—the four centuries sojourn in Egypt, the escape of well over a million Israelites from the Delta, or the three months journey through the wilderness to Sinai. The Egyptian records themselves have no mention of anything recorded in Exodus, the wilderness of the southern Sinai peninsula shows no traces of a mass-migration such as Exodus describes, and virtually all the place-names mentioned, including Goshen (the area within Egypt where the Israelites supposedly lived), the store-cities of Pithom and Rameses, the site of the crossing of the Red Sea (or, more commonly among modern Biblical scholars, the Sea of Reeds), and even Mt Sinai itself, have resisted identification.' Indeed the Iliad, written over 400 years after the fall of Troy, appears to provide a more reliable historical record of the period in that it refers to real places and events.
The Egyptian Museum has a considerable collection of objects from the brief monotheistic period under the Pharaoh Akhenaten (Eighteenth dynasty who ruled for 17 years and died in 1336 BC or 1334 BC) which some believe to be the origin of Judaism. Biblical scholars have traditionally claimed the pharaoh who allegedly pursued Moses out of Egypt was Ramesses11 (1279 -1213 BC). This is probably because he is the best known of all the New kingdom pharaohs. But despite a vast and growing contemporary documentation there is no record of any of the biblical events during his reign. Seven other pharaohs have also been argued for by various biblical scholars, all relying on non-literal interpretations of one or more of the events: wars, plagues, crop failures and so on.
A group of non-biblical scholars assert that that Moses may have fled Egypt after Akhenaten's death (ca. 1334 BCE) when many of the pharaoh's monotheistic reforms were being violently reversed. The principal ideas behind this theory are: the monotheistic religion of Akhenaten being a possible predecessor to Moses' monotheism, and the 'Amarna letters', written by nobles to Akhenaten, which describe raiding bands of 'Habiru' attacking the Egyptian territories in Mesopotamia.
Wikipedia asserts that: 'It is widely accepted that there are strong similarities between Akhenaten's Great Hymn to the Atenand the Biblical Psalm 104, though this form is found widespread in ancient Near Eastern hymnology both before and after the period and whether this implies a direct influence or a common literary convention remains in dispute.'
The following table, also from Wikipedia, sets out a verified chronology prior to the conquest of the Egypt by Persia, then by the Greeks under Alexander the Great and subsequently by Rome and on into the common era.
(4500 BCE -
|Early Chalcolithic||4500 BCE - 4000 BCE||Ubaid period|
|Late Chalcolithic||4000 BCE - 3300 BCE||Ghassulian, Uruk period, Gerzeh, Predynastic Egypt|
| Bronze Age
(3300 BCE -
|Early Bronze Age (3300 BCE -
|Early Bronze Age I||3300 BCE - 3000 BCE||Protodynastic to Early Dynastic Period of Egypt|
|Early Bronze Age II||3000 BCE - 2700 BCE||Early Dynastic Period of Sumer|
|Early Bronze Age III||2700 BCE - 2200 BCE||Old Kingdom of Egypt, Akkadian Empire, Great Khufu Pyramid (Cheops in Greek) 2580-2560 BCE|
|Early Bronze Age IV||2200 BCE - 2000 BCE||First Intermediate Period of Egypt|
|Middle Bronze Age
(2000 BCE -
|Middle Bronze Age I||2000 BCE - 1750 BCE||Middle Kingdom of Egypt|
|Middle Bronze Age II||1750 BCE - 1650 BCE||Second Intermediate Period of Egypt|
|Middle Bronze Age III||1650 BCE - 1550 BCE||Hittite Old Kingdom, Minoan eruption|
|Late Bronze Age (1550 BCE -
|Late Bronze Age I||1550 BCE - 1400 BCE||Hittite Middle Kingdom|
|Late Bronze Age II A||1400 BCE - 1300 BCE||Hittite New Kingdom, Mitanni, Ugarit, Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) and monotheism 1353-1336 BCE|
|Late Bronze Age II B||1300 BCE - 1200 BCE||Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great) 1279-1213 BCE|
|(Greek Dark Age, Sea Peoples)|
| Iron Age
(1200 BCE -
|Iron Age I
(1200 BCE -
|Iron Age I A||1200 BCE - 1150 BCE||Troy VII, Hekla 3 eruption|
|Iron Age I B||1150 BCE - 1000 BCE||Neo-Hittite states|
|Iron Age II
(1000 BCE - 539 BCE)
|Iron Age II A||1000 BCE - 900 BCE||Neo-Assyrian Empire|
|Iron Age II B||900 BCE - 700 BCE||Kingdom of Israel, Urartu, Phrygia|
|Iron Age II C||700 BCE - 539 BCE||Neo-Babylonian Empire|
In 525 BCE Egypt was decisively defeated by the Persians under Cambyses II at the Battle of Pelusium, transferring the throne of the Pharaohs to Persia. Persia had already conquered most of the Middle East and Asia Minor under Cyrus the Great, Cambyses father. The Persians were at the peak of their military prowess and in addition (according to Herodotus) used a cat emblem (the Egyptian god Bastet) on their shields so that the superstitious Egyptians were unwilling to strike them. 50,000 were reported slaughtered with relatively minor Persian losses. After the battle Herodotus reports: Cambyses carried a cage of cats in front of him on his horse, and hurled them into the faces the defeated Egyptians ‘with insulting taunts and laughter’.
The son of Cambyses, Darius the Great of Persia became Pharaoh of Egypt. Subsequent rulers were subservient to Persia, to a greater or lesser extent, for 200 years until the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. Alexander famously founded Alexandria and began the Hellenistic (Greek) period in Egypt that was consolidated under Ptolemy (one of Alexander’s generals) and his successors, ending with Cleopatra in 30 BCE
Thus began a period of dramatic change and turmoil as civilisations collapsed and were remade.
Under the Emperor Constantine I the Roman Empire was ruled from Constantinople (previously Byzantium). In the fourth century of the common era the Roman Empire divided, and Christianity became the official religion. The Middle East found itself part of the Byzantine Empire (eastern Empire) based on Constantinople.
In 476 the Western Roman Empire, fell to the Ostrogoths, further consolidating Byzantine Christianity in the Middle East (Egypt and the Holy Lands) and the resurgence of Greek as the dominant language. In Egypt the Christians set about the removal of pagan traditions starting with the eradication of Egyptian priests and priestesses who officiated at the temples. Soon no-one could read the hieroglyphics of Pharaonic Egypt, and its temples were converted to churches or abandoned to the desert. In some places they set about the systematic chiselling out of the faces of the gods depicted in the temples, as can be seen today.
Defaced images at Edfou Temple – Pharaoh defeating a Hippopotamus (below) –the representation of evil
Meanwhile in the year 610 of the common era, a 40 year old merchant called Muhammad, discontented with life in Mecca, retreated to a cave in the nearby mountains to meditate. In this cave he received a revelation from God that: ‘God is One; and that complete surrender to Him is the only way acceptable to Him’. He returned to Mecca and founded Islam. The new faith struck a chord for that time and place and quickly gained a following. But he threatened the existing order and encountered hostility from the leaders in Mecca. In 622, he and most of his followers fled to Medina (Yathrib) where he succeeded in uniting conflicting Arab tribes. Ten years later his forces successfully defeated his opponents in Mecca. A few months after his return to Mecca he died but by the time of his death, most of the Arabian Peninsula had converted to Islam; and he had united the tribes of Arabia into a single Muslim jihad. Two years later, in 634, the Arabs took Syria including Jerusalem.
Immediately prior to this, in 619, the Sassanid Persian army had taken Alexandria, the capital of East Roman Christian (Byzantine) Egypt. Within two years all of Christian Egypt had fallen to the Sassanids who tolerated Christianity but followed the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) and worshiped Ahura Mazda as their supreme divine authority.
In December 639 Caliph Umar, successor to Muhammad, sent an army of 4,000 Arabs led by Amr Ibn Al-Aasto enforce Islamic rule to the west. They swept into Egypt from Palestine advancing rapidly into the Nile Delta. The Imperial garrisons retreated into the walled towns, where they successfully repelled the invaders. But the Arabs sent for reinforcements, and in April 641 they captured Alexandria. The Byzantines assembled a fleet and took Alexandria in 645, but the Muslims retook the city in 646, completing the Muslim conquest of the Middle East. These battles are illustrated, somewhat confusingly, with appropriate objects and exhibits in the Museum at Alexandria.
In the 11thcentury Muslim expansion was pushing into Asia Minor (Turkey) and the Byzantine Emperor appealed to the Pope for help. The first Crusade was organised and the Holy Lands came under attack from Christian Crusaders. In 1099 after massacring Muslims and Jews, they successfully established the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem but despite similar extreme violence against other Muslim cities, things did not go well for the Crusaders. The third Crusade failed at the hands of Salah ad-Din (Saladin) who had replaced the failing Egyptian rulership as vizier; becoming Sultan of Egypt in 1171.
The Kingdom of Jerusalem was then surrounded by Syria and Egypt and fell in 1187. Egypt was subsequently seen as the key to the Christian recapture of the Holy Lands and the Fourth; Fifth; Seventh; Eighth; and Alexandrian Crusades all had Egypt as the intended target. Despite some initial successes all eventually failed. In 1291, Acre, the last major Crusader fortress in the Holy Land fell to the forces of the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt.
Richard I of England (the Lion-heart) was the central military commander of the third Crusade and his good opinion of Saladin raised the latter’s reputation to a mythic figure across Europe, as well as in the Middle East. There is a famous bronze sculpture to Saladin outside the citadel in Damascus, near the entrance to the largest Souq in the old city and he is often represented favourably in literature and film. An equally famous statue of Richard I stands outside the Palace of Westminster in London but references to him in films and popular myth, particularly the Robin Hood legends, are almost certainly untrue.
Saladin outside the citadel in Damascus
Napoleon was the next to successfully and quickly invade the region. But his navy was defeated by the British Navy (Nelson) at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and his army subsequently at Waterloo, signalling a period of European and Ottoman imperialism in the region; with Africa soon divided into colonies by various European powers.
The Modern Period
In the 20th century, North Africa provided the sites for a series of battlefields in world power struggles; the competition for markets and resources, particularly oil; and ongoing religious conflict over Jerusalem.
After the French, at the beginning of the 19th Century, Egypt had fallen to the Ottomans under Muhammad Ali Pasha and his dynasty prevailed for around eighty years. But with the building of the Suez canal (1859-69) French and British 'controllers' sat in the Cabinet and effectively governed the country.
In 1882 the British formally occupied Egypt as a protectorate and retained a strong influence until 1952. For most of this time Egypt was nominally self-governing, at first under the Ottomans until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War1. This was followed by political turmoil resulting in a Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Britain in 1922. An election then took place and in 1923 Egypt became a constitutional monarchy under King Fuad (a descendent of the Ali Pasha dynasty). After King Faud died the crown passed to the notorious young playboy - King Farouk.
The new kingdom was plagued by civil unrest. Many of the disgruntled, including the Communists and Muslim Brotherhood, pointed to endemic corruption and characterised the Government as a puppet of the British, who retained a strong military presence in the Canal Zone.
In 1947 the British withdrew from neighbouring Palestine, much of which was promptly seized by Zionist paramilitary units, contrary to a UN agreement. Egypt led by Farouk was among the Arab allies that attempted to recover the lost Arab territory. This Arab alliance was soundly defeated by the new State of Israel, between 1948-1949 and even more territory was lost.
The resulting disenchantment with the monarchy led to a bloodless coup in 1953 when the Free Officers Movement, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power. King Farouk was forced to abdicate in favour of his nine-month-old son. But the monarchy was soon dispensed with altogether and the Republic of Egypt proclaimed.
Nasser began his period as supreme leader by styling the coup a 'Revolution' and himself 'President'. He consolidated power with a wide range of popular land reforms and in 1956 he seized the Suez Canal, to domestic acclaim that still echoes today.
The same year he developed an alliance with the Soviet Union (USSR) that resulted in significant infrastructure improvements, in particular the Aswan High Dam, funded and built by the USSR.
Under Nasser's education and health reforms the middle classes began to grow and there were grounds to believe that one day the country may return to democracy. But this was a command economy led by generals and things did not go well.
Possibly to distract public opinion from the failing economy or to regain the glory of his Suez victory, Nasser began to make bellicose threats against Israel. In the middle of 1967 he closed Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, distressing them mightily to the glee of his supporters.
Twelve days later, on the 6th June, Israel pre-emptively attacked, destroying the majority of the Egyptian Air Force. During the 'Six Days War' that followed, Nasser's Army and those of his Arab allies were ignominiously routed, losing even more Arab territory in Palestine, in addition to the Sinai peninsular and briefly the Suez Canal. Arab to Israeli losses were 20 to 1.
To suppress protest at home martial law was implemented and dissent ruthlessly suppressed.
After his death by natural causes (heart failure - heavy smoker) in 1970 at the age of 52, Nasser was replaced by his Vice President, Anwar Sadat.
Sadat expelled advisors from Soviet Union and switched alliance to the United States. In 1973, together with Syria, he attacked Israel and regained control of the Sinai territory lost six years earlier. This resulted in 'super-power' intervention and the 'Camp David Peace Accords' with Israel. For this he and and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin won a Nobel Peace Prize.
But this did not please Arab extremists and in 1981 Sadat was assassinated to be replaced in turn by his Vice President Hosni Mubarak. That another general stepped-up was not a surprise to anyone. Egypt was still under martial law*.
Today it is obvious to any visitor who cares to take notice that Egypt was once much more prosperous. The fine houses and apartments built during the Kingdom now lie in the final stages of decrepitude. Once impressive public buildings are run down and shabby. Misgovernment, military adventures and runaway population growth during the past fifty years have done their work. Ever since Nasser's Revolution Egypt has depended on foreign aid to stay afloat, first from the USSR and now from the USA.
Back then it was certainly an unequal society. Of its then 20 million inhabitants in 1950 as many as 80% were judged poor and uneducated while 20% lived relatively cosmopolitan lives and enjoyed most of the wealth. Their playboy king led the way.
World Bank and UN statistics show that on the whole Egypt is now both more equal and better educated than fifty years ago. But in the intervening years the population has grown to over 80 million and the number of poor and uneducated has exploded, wreaking havoc on all its urban environments and even on Egypt's ability to feed itself. Today as many as 20 million are malnourished to the point of giving birth to stunted children.
*2015 Addendum: Martial law was briefly removed from 2011 to 2013 during the 'Arab Spring' and a brief flirtation with democracy, under President Morsi, but after his overthrow it's now reimposed with even greater restrictions.