Module Twenty One, Activity Two

Ancient Egyptian Society and History

This activity will focus on the history of Ancient Egypt. As many people know, Egypt has a rich, long history that goes as far back as 3100 B.C.E. This activity will give you a brief overview of this long history along with a look into the societal structure and everyday life of Ancient Egyptians.

 

Society in Ancient Egypt
In Ancient Egypt, every person had their place in a societal hierarchy. The people of Ancient Egypt formed a productive and industrious society. Below the description of each societal position is given.

Hierarchy Pyramid

Pharaoh
A pharaoh is a title that was used to refer to a ruler (who was typically male) in the Egyptian Kingdom. These rulers were believed to be the reincarnation of Horus, an ancient god of the sky. They were considered to be part man and part god. They were the link between the mortal world and the heavens world of the afterlife. The Pharaoh had supreme power and authority during the time of their reign. Their duties would consist of preservation of order against chaos, they would order the construction of temples, and they would hear petitions, issue decrees, and would lead the country into battles. The Pharaohs also functioned as the chief priest; highest religious authority–of the land.

 

Government Officials (Nobles, Priests)
The officials would be responsible for the day-to-day administration. There was a hierarchy of government officials: viziers (prime ministers), local and national officials, temple priests, bureaucrats, and military men. They carried many responsibilities and functions such as: collecting taxes, settling disputes over property, recording the accounts and provisions, policing the country, and managing ceremonies at the temples and gods. Priests passed down their positions from sons to fathers often; it was a status of great power and wealth.

 

Soldiers
Soldiers were a part of the Egyptian army. The army consisted of infantrymen (foot soldiers who carried spears, shields and battle axes) and charioteers (archers who would shoot arrows from the chariot). The commander in chief would often be a son of the reigning Pharaoh. Divisions of the army were named after gods and could consist of up to 5,000 men each. In times of peace, the soldiers would work on government projects like transporting stone for king’s tombs or digging irrigation canals.

Egypt Soldiers

Scribes
Scribes were the ancient professionals who learned reading and writing and who were well educated in mathematics. They held an important function and were highly valued in society. This profession consisted solely of males. It was said to be a very difficult job and scribes would study for many years to learn to read and write. They had to be efficient in writing hieroglyphs quickly. They would use papyrus paper made from a papyrus reed. Scribes were responsible for keeping the official accounts of economic and political transactions. It is thanks to the work of these scribes that we know as much as we do about ancient Egypt. Scribes could also become accountants, doctors, government officials, and priests. Horemhab, a scribe, actually became a pharaoh!

An Egyptian Scribe

Egyptian hieroglyphs

Egyptian Scribe Hieroglyphs

Images courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license

Merchants
Merchants were very similar to traders. They traveled internationally to other parts of Africa and the Mediterranean world, trading Egyptian products like papyrus (for writing paper), gold, jewelry and linen cloth, for items like cedar and ebony (wood), ivory (tusks from elephants), animal skins, fly whisks made from giraffe tails, and non-Egyptian animals (baboons and lions) for use in temples and palaces.

Egyptian Merchants

Egyptian merchants

Artisans
Every town and village had their own artisans. Artisans were the skilled craft workers that made the essential everyday items as well as luxury goods. They made goods such as: jewelry, coffins, tables, chests, textiles, pottery, and metal goods. They would work in large workshops and were employed by the pharaoh, government or the temples. Many of their objects are what we see in museums today.

Egyptian Artisan

An Egyptian artisan

 

Farmers
The majority of Egyptians worked on the land. Farmers would plow, plant and harvest, and maintain irrigation canals. In addition to producing enough to feed their own families, farmers were required to use food and other agricultural products as a form of taxes to the state. They were required to pay this food levy even in years of poor harvest when farmers did not have sufficient food to feed their own families. Many cereal crops were grown and helped to make two of their main foods: bread and beer. Farmers, who made up the majority of Egyptian citizens, were also required to work on the pharaoh’s tomb construction project every year.

Egyptian Farmers

Egyptian farmers

Slaves and Servants
Slaves in Egypt were often prisoners of war and owned by the pharaoh. They were the lowest class in Egyptian society. As trade increased, foreign slaves became more common. Often slaves were owned by communities instead of individuals. Their work helped to improve and increase the production of goods which further improved trade. There were a variety of slaves: highly valued house servants and tutors, skilled artisans, or field laborers. Slaves were not really used in Ancient Egypt in great numbers, the pyramids were actually built from free labor -not slave labor. Slaves could be given as gifts from the Pharaoh. Ordinary Egyptians who faced economic difficulty could actually sell themselves into slavery, and then buy out of it when their circumstances improved.

Egyptian Servant

An Egyptian servant

 

Activity: Where would you fit in Ancient Egyptian Society?

If you were living in Ancient Egypt, what part of society do you think you would find yourself in? Write in your journal about what a week in your daily life might be like. Whose job do you feel was most beneficial and why? Do you think those at the top of the hierarchy had the most important role in society?

 

History of Ancient Egypt
Now that you have a feel for what it was like in Ancient Egyptian society, it is time to learn more about Egyptian history. Egypt has a distinct identity and culture that dates back thousands of years. Egypt, widely recognized as one of the earliest or one of the world’s great civilizations has a central place in world history. Ancient Egyptian society was influential in classical Greek and other European societies. Classical Greek scholarship credits Egypt as influential to their scholarship and culture. Though there is much Arab-Islamic influence in Egypt, culturally and historically, Ancient Egypt has been influential in and was influenced by other African cultures, societies and civilizations and served as an intersection between the Mediterranean world, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Modern Egyptians do take great pride in their history. Can you figure out why their history would be so important to them today? How does their history help their society run today or benefit society today?

Their history is important to them as a people to preserve their culture and their heritage. It is also benefits them economically due to the tourism and interest Egypt draws.

Ancient Egyptians faced many misfortunes. The country had been invaded numerous times and under foreign control often. In 1954 when President Nasser came into power he was the first native Egyptian to rule the country after 3,000 years of foreign rule. So, let’s step back in time and look at the history and misfortunes of Egypt. In the next activity, see Activity 3: The Emergence of Egyptian Modern History, we will look at the modern history of Egypt.

There are five main historical periods that divide up Egypt’s history: Prehistory, Egypt’s Dynastic Period, the Greco-Roman Period, the Archaic Islamic Period, and the Colonial Period.

Prehistory of Egypt:
This period was the time before the pharaohs and dates back millions of years until around 3000 B.C.E. when under the leaderships of the pharaohs Egypt became a centralized empire and civilization.  Recently, the bones of the second-largest sauropod dinosaur (possibly the second-largest dinosaur in the world) have been found near Giza. There is little known about this period due to the fact that it came before writing (which is what we call prehistory, history is the time in which there was writing and documentation). At that time, Egypt was not a large desert like much of it is now. The land was grassy and green with plenty of rain. It is often compared to the Everglades of Florida. People would hunt with axes and bone spears. They would learn to grow crops to add to their hunted meat diet. But climate change at the end of the last Ice Age resulted in the gradual desertification of north Africa. Egypt turned into a sandy desert as the grasslands died and turned into sand.

Egypt’s Dynastic Period:
This period is structured into many smaller periods. The table below covers each time period within the Dynastic Period itself.

Time Period 
(There are many versions as to what years belong in certain time periods)

Main Events

Predynastic Period
Around 5500-3100 B.C.E.

  • Evolution of hunters and gathers into an organized society
  • Animals become tamed for use, no longer just for food
  • Egypt is ruled by many kings. They fight with others to rule over more kingdoms.

Early Dynastic (or Archaic) Period
Around 2950-2575 B.C.E.

Step Pyramid at Saqqara

 

Zero-Second Dynasty

  • The first pyramid is built (Step Pyramid at Saqqara)
  • Intensive contact with Palestine
  • Earliest known hieroglyphic writing
  • The first united kingdom in Egypt  (one kingdom, one pharaoh)

Old Kingdom
Around 2575-2150 B.C.E.

step pyramid

Spans 5 centuries of rule (3-6th Dynasties)

Third Dynasty:

  • Emphasis on national unity
  • Beginning of the golden age of cultural freshness and vigor

Fourth Dynasty:

  • The Great Pyramids are built at Dahshur and Giza
  • Pyramids and elite tombs include the first extensive inscriptions
  • Egyptian civilization was at its peak of development
  • Engineering, astronomy, physiology – all fields that expanded during this time

Fifth Dynasty:

  • Maintaining prosperity
  • Extensive foreign trade and military incursions into Asia
  • Swell of bureaucracy and power by non-royal administrators, individuals

Sixth Dynasty:

  • Decreasing status of monarchy, conspiracies
  • Central authority power is beginning to diminish

First Intermediate Period
Around 2125-1975 B.C.E.

Seventh Dynasty – Tenth Dynasty:

  • Egypt splits into two smaller states, ruled from Memphis in the north and Thebes in the south
  • Old Kingdom successes fall apart
  • Pharaoh loses control of lands to local governments (corruption in many of the local governments.)
  • Widespread hunger, death due to Nile floods

Middle Kingdom
Around 1975-1640 B.C.E.

Eleventh – Twelfth Dynasty:

  • Mentuhotep reunites Egypt from local rulers back to rule by one pharaoh (danger for pharaohs, local authorities would often murder to gain their local power back)
  • Foreign trade begins again
  • Irrigation projects completed
  • Population grows
  • Classical period of art and literature (Golden Age of Literature)
  • Renaissance of culture

Second Intermediate Period
1630-1520 B.C.E.

Thirteenth – Seventeenth Dynasty:

  • Immigrants settle in Egypt and set up their own towns/communities and govern by their own rules
  • Many foreign kings ruled Egypt
  • Amosis (military general) began wars with foreigners and put Egypt back under the control of Egyptians (this occurs late in the period)

New Kingdom
1539-1075 B.C.E.
King Tut

Eighteenth – Twentieth Dynasty:

  • Rule of female pharaoh Hatshepsut, which eventually became a joint ruling between mother and son
  • King Tutankhamen rules for a short time
  • For 67 years Ramesses II rules
  • Military generals became kings and fight to keep Egyptians ruling the country.
  • Egypt gained its’ wealth and power back
  • Foreigners were heavily taxed and often treated poorly – foreign relations were weak causing wars in Egypt
  • After the death of Ramesses II, weak kings replace him causing chaos and disorder within Egypt again

Third Intermediate Period
1075-715 B.C.E.

Twenty-first – Twenty–fourth Dynasty:

  • Several hundred years of political strife
  • Foreign rulers (from Libya) take over and their rule was often challenged and taken over

Late Period (Late Kingdom)
715-332 B.C.E.

Twenty-fifth – Thirty-first Dynasty:

  • Kushites (civilization in what is today Sudan) invade and rule Egypt
  • Assyrians (from what is known now as Iraq) take over after the Kushites
  • Egypt becomes independent from the years of 404-343 B.C.E. early in the 26th Dynasty
  • Resurgence of cultural and religious practices
  • Egyptians fall under foreign rule once again and suffer
  • Egypt gets passed to Greek rule
  • Alexander the Great (Greek ruler) seen as the “liberator” of Egypt

Egypt’s Greco-Roman Period (332 B.C.E. – 641 C.E.)
Greek rule under the leadership of Alexander the Great begins in Egypt during this period. A new capital, Alexandria, was built in Egypt. Alexander died before seeing Alexandria finished. The Greek empire split into parts at this point in time and each section of the former empire was governed separately. Ptolemy ruled over Egypt. The Greeks held onto their customs and language while adopting some Egyptian traditions and customs. During this time Cleopatra VII reigns (51-30 B.C.E.). It was at the time of her reign that Romans became involved in Egypt. A dispute over the thrown caused Cleopatra to align herself with the Romans (Mark Antony and Julius Caesar), but in the end, the thrown was turned over and the Romans took control of Egypt. Most of the Egyptians converted to Christianity by the fourth century. Egypt became an important center for Christianity. The Coptic language was created for writing the Egyptian language through the Greek alphabet and the Coptic Church was formed. Romans ruled from Rome and had a heavy military presence in Egypt. Egypt was forced to export their grains to Rome. Egyptians dislike the Romans for many of those reasons. Persians invaded Egypt in 616 C.E., and around 641 the country came under the controlled by the Arab followers of a new monotheistic religion–Islam.

Egypt’s Archaic Islamic Period (641-1790)
Egypt at this time was ruled by the Arabs. Amr ibn al-“As became the ruler of Egypt. During this time there was prosperity, peace and tolerance. Non-Muslim subjects had to pay an extra tax, while Christian Coptic Egyptians were allowed to live freely. Over centuries of this period the official language became Arabic and Egyptians began to convert to Islam. There was also a migration of Arabians into Egypt. There were many eras of rule during this Islamic Period in Egyptian History. They are each explained in more detail below.

Era

Main Events

Umayyad Dynasty (661-750)

  • Egypt was ruled from Syria
  • Arabic became official language
  • Muslim identity was promoted
  • Arabian tribes settle into Egypt

Abbasid Period (750-945)

  • Rule wavered between authority in Baghdad and local rulers of Egypt
  • Many slaves (Turkish and Circassian) were converted to Islam and trained in warfare as a military force that would be loyal to the ruler
  • These soldiers were often very powerful and would at times rule Egypt (Ahmad ibn Tulun ruled from 868-884)

Fatimid Dynasty

  • This Shi’ite Muslim sect wanted control of the Muslim world and challenged the Abbasid (Sunni Muslims)
  • They (Shi’ites) expanded their empire and conquered Egypt in 969 and Egypt again was the center of an empire
  • European crusaders caused the empire to crumble

Ayyubid Era

  • The Sunni leader (Saladin) and forces defended Egypt from the crusaders and took control of Egypt.
  • Brief reign

Mamluk Era

  • Mamluks were slave armies of the Ayyubid ruler
  • They took power in 1250
  • There are two distinct periods of this era

Bahri

  • Egypt became the center of the Middle East during this time
  • The Bahri grew rich off of the trade routes that they controlled
  • Time of prosperity, cultural and art development

Burgi

  • Egypt hit by natural disasters and outbreaks of the bubonic plague
  • Period of decline

*During the rule of the Mamluks, over-exploitation of the land devastated Egypt. Demands were increased on peasants to be taxed on their crops (rulers wanted them to produce even more crops) in order for the Mamluks to gain more slaves through the profit of taxation, which would allow them to increase their military power. This caused exploitation of the land and turned many peasants into nomads. Fighting between the Mamluks caused chaos.

Ottoman Turk Era

Conclusion:
This lesson gave an overview of Ancient Egyptian history. The next lesson, Activity Three: The Emergence of Egyptian Modern History, will give the information and activities on the modern history of Egypt. Below, you will find an activity that surrounds the death of the famous King Tut (Tutankhamun).

Activity:

The Mystery of King Tutankhamun
You have a chance to solve the mystery of Tutankhamun. King Tutankhamun was a pharaoh who ruled for a short period of time at a young age of ten. Though there is little known about his rule, he is very famous due to his temples that have been uncovered.  Some believe he did not die of natural causes but instead was assassinated. Below are two links of information about alleged beliefs about King Tut’s death. Look closely at the evidence and then write a case against who/what you believe killed King Tutankhamun. Feel free to look at other resources to help you make your final decision.

Resources:
http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/other-shows/videos/other-shows-unwrapped-videos/

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4328903.stm

Go on to Activity Three or select one of the other activities in this module