History of Africa During the Time of the Great Egyptian Civilization
This module will introduce you to Egyptian civilization from 3100 BCE to 332 BCE, which historians often refer to as the Pharaonic period in Egyptian history. The name Pharaonic refers to the long line of pharaohs, who were kings of Egypt and also considered gods. This is a very famous period in African history that is often included in textbooks and historical sources. However, the history of the rest of Africa at the same time as Pharaonic Egypt is not as well known. This module will present you with a brief glimpse at other areas of Africa so that you can see what else was happening in these places at the same time.
First, you should read the text below that introduces you to the history of Pharaonic Egypt and other regions of Africa during the same time period. Then you should work on the timeline that follows to fill in significant events in the early history of Africa.
Look at the map below and find the Nile River. This is where it all began! People who settled along the Nile River eventually were organized into small kingdoms. These small kingdoms were eventually united into a large kingdom that stretched along a large part of the length of the Nile into what is today Sudan. This kingdom also included various surrounding regions at different points during the Pharaonic period of Egyptian history. Egypt is known as the first great African kingdom and one of the earliest civilizations in the world.
The Pharaonic Period is further divided into seven main periods that we will cover. This should not give you the impression that Egyptian history starts and stops before and after these periods. Nor should it give you the impression that these divisions were abrupt and obvious to the people living at the time. Rather, the development of time periods is a tool that historians use to organize the history of Pharaonic Egypt. Egypt has a dynamic and continuous history that continues up until the present day.
The Archaic Period
This period lasted from about 3200-2900 BCE. This was about 5,000 years ago! Prior to this time, there were two small kingdoms along the Nile River. The kingdoms were united under the first pharaoh of the first of 30 dynasties that ruled Egypt during the Pharaonic period. A dynasty refers to a series of rulers from the same line of descent. This first pharaoh of the first dynasty was named Menes. During the Archaic period, two different dynasties ruled Egypt. These dynasties ruled from the cities of Thinis and Memphis at different times during this period. The cities are noted on the map above. How far do you think it is between these cities? They are nearly four hundred miles apart. And the kingdoms of Pharaonic Egypt are yet to grow bigger as we follow its history into the next periods.
The Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom lasted from 2900 to 2280 BCE. This period is noted for political unity throughout the kingdom and a stable new state that began to form a distinctly Egyptian identity. There were four dynasties that ruled during this time -the 3rd dynasty, 4th dynasty, 5th dynasty, and the 6th dynasty.
Several important accomplishments are noteworthy during this period. First, the construction of the famous Egyptian pyramids began. The first of these is the step pyramid, which is seen in the photo below. It was built by a famous architect, physician, priest, magician, writer, and maker of proverbs named I-em-htp. In addition, pyramids were built for the pharaohs Snefru, Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), and Mankaure (Mycerinus) in the 4th dynasty. The pyramid for Khufu is the largest building ever constructed and chief of the Seven Wonders of the World.
A second noteworthy aspect of the Old Kingdom is the contact that Egypt had with areas around it and how it included some of them into its territory. During the 4th dynasty, Egypt had successful military campaigns to the south (Nubians) and to the west (Libyans), as well as, timber trade with Syria. During the 5th dynasty, there were expeditions against the Libyans, Bedouins of the Sinai, and southern Palestine. Egyptian trading ships sailed from the coast of Palestine to as far as Punt, which is believed to be in present day Somalia. The 6th dynasty worked toward expanding and consolidating Egyptian power in Nubia, to the south (see map below.) However, toward the end of the 6th dynasty, the Old Kingdom lost its power, which led to a period of anarchy referred to as the First Intermediate Period. The term anarchy refers to an absence of any political authority.
The First Intermediate Period
This period lasted from 2280 to 2060 BCE. It was marked by chaos, civil war, and anarchy. Many rulers came to power only to be quickly conquered by another. Historians can piece together some of the history of this period through the writings of a man who lived during this time named Ipu-wer. He described a social revolution and lack of centralized authority. A later copy of his writing is still preserved today on papyrus in the Leiden Museum. However, even with great sources like this to tell about the past, historians do not know much about this period of Egyptian history.
The Middle Kingdom
This period lasted from 2060 to 1785 BCE. This was the second great period of national development. The state of Egypt was reunited under single rule. The region of Nubia to the south and trade in the south were once again controlled by Egypt, giving Egypt more control than ever before. However, the authority of the kingdom eventually declined, leading into the Second Intermediate Period.
The Second Intermediate Period
This period lasted from 1785 to 1580 BCE. It was marked by the invasion of the Hyksos, a group from Asia, who by 1700 BCE were a well-organized, well-equipped, warrior-like people. The Hyksos conquered parts of Egypt, bringing with them new strategies for warfare that the Egyptians learned. These included the use of chariots, horses, and body-armor. In turn, the Egyptians used these new technologies against the Hyksos to drive them out of Egypt.
The New Kingdom
This period lasted from 1580 to 1085 BCE. During this time, Egypt extended itself into a large empire and became an important world power. The 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties ruled the New Kingdom, as part of the long line of the 30 dynasties of Pharaonic Egypt.
Thutmose III, one of the pharaohs of the 18th dynasty, conquered the Palestine-Syria-Lebanon region. Control over this territory was maintained, with some struggle, through the 19th dynasty. Also part of the 18th dynasty is the pharaoh Tutankhamen, popularly known as “King Tut.” Tutankhamen’s tomb was found largely intact by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.
Towards the end of the 20th dynasty, Egypt was plagued with internal problems and struggled to defend itself against foreign armies. In the end, a new dynasty took power led by the high priest Heri-Hor.
The Period of Decline
This period lasted from 1085 to 322 BCE. It began with a dynasty from Libya taking power for about 200 years. Following this, Egypt was divided into petty kingdoms and went through a long period of struggle against forces from the outside, such as Sudan and Assyria. Finally, towards the end of this period, Egypt came under Persian control. The date 322 BCE marks the time when Alexander the Great invaded Egypt and defeated the Persians, which is considered the end of a long line of 30 dynasties divided into seven periods in Pharaonic Egypt.
Other Areas of Africa
Gwisho is the name of a camp found by archaeologists in what is today the country of Zambia. Gwisho is located near the Kafue River, about 3000 miles south of Egypt (see map below.) This camp is a place where a group of people lived around 2300 BCE, around the same time as the Old Kingdom in Egypt. The remains that were found there can tell us a little bit about the lives of those people. Archaeologists have found stone artifacts and organic materials at Gwisho. Organic material refers to anything that is, or was once, living. These people were a part of what archaeologists call the “Wilton Stone Age Culture.” Wilton people had developed bows and arrows, domesticated the dog, developed a number of tools, worked animal skins, used pigments, and made baskets. They found their food through hunting and gathering. Groups such as the group living at Gwisho were probably small (20 to 50 people) and most likely all a part of the same kinship group.
It is important to keep in mind that these artifacts are only clues, and they are subject to interpretation. Yet archaeologists work hard to reconstruct the best picture they can about life in the past and are always looking for more clues to help them.
Crop and Animal Domestication
At the same time that Egypt was in its Pharaonic period, agriculture and animal domestication spread throughout the African continent. Here, we will briefly discuss some of the new techniques and inventions that were appearing in various regions of Africa at this time.
Millet and sorghum were two important crops that were domesticated first in Egypt, and then in Ethiopia and along much of the southern edge of the Sahara between 3500 and 2500 BCE. Ethiopians also domesticated sesame, cowpea, and ensete (a relative of the banana.) They developed a method of farming that integrated agriculture with cattle raising. Cattle were used for meat and milk, as well as, to provide fertilizer for farming. In turn, crop remains in the fields could be used to feed the cattle. This integration was a great technological breakthrough. These crops and techniques spread further to the west and south over time.
In West Africa, a different kind of food production, called vegeculture, was developed. In this region, characterized by a savanna/forest climate, yams, gourds, calabashes, oil and raphia palms were domesticated. The exact date of domestication is not known, but vegeculture was well established by the 4th millennium BCE, just as Pharaonic Egypt was getting started.
The African continent produced a diverse history of crop and animal domestication, with various points of origin and unique adaptations as techniques and crops spread from one region to another. For further information on crop and animal domestication in Africa, see Modules six and nine.
What is today the Sahara desert was once fertile land from around 4500 to 2500 BCE. Following this period, the region experienced drought. By 2000 BCE, much of what is today the Sahara had become desert. Many people moved out of the region during this time, but a few Berber-speaking groups stayed. These desert dwellers had to spread out with their people and livestock in order for the desert to sustain them. However, they found themselves often gathering in large groups around common waterholes. Because of this way of life, historians have said that a new social system developed. These people were organized into large groups that were each descended from a single ancestor. This kind of social organization allowed groups to be affiliated at large, but also divide up into small groups as needed to survive in the desert. It seems that this system was so efficient that it independently developed in other regions of Africa as well. This social organization, however, began to give rise to social inequalities amongst group members. Certain group members were given positions of privilege and authority according to their genealogy. A genealogy is a record of descendants from a family, group, or person. In addition, agriculture began to expand on the oases using underground irrigation. Oases are fertile areas in a desert that have water available. This work demanded a large amount of human labor, and eventually a system of servile workers was established. Much later in the history of these Saharan people, a more formal caste system developed. A caste system divides people in a society into different groups according to things such as wealth, family heritage, or profession.
On the right side of the timeline, fill in dates in the history of Egypt that correspond with the beginning of the seven major periods of Pharaonic Egypt. Next to each period, write something that you have learned from the text about that period. Then on the left side of the timeline, write in an event for another region of Africa that has been mentioned in the text and corresponds with the blank lines on the timeline.
Go on to Activity Three or select from the other activities in this module:
- Activity One: How Do We Know Africa has a History?
- Activity Two: The Great Egyptian Civilization
- Activity Three: The Great West African Kingdoms
- Activity Four: The Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe
- Activity Five: Bringing it all Together