Egypt Unmasked: 8 Time Periods in the Rise & Fall of a Civilization

Egypt Unmasked: 8 Time Periods in the Rise & Fall of a Civilization

Patrick Lynch - November 18, 2016

Ancient Egypt is one of the great civilizations in history and was one of the most dominant in the Mediterranean world. There were migrations to the Nile zone thousands of years before the first Egyptian Pharaoh. By 5500 BC, small settlements started to flourish along the famous river in what is known as Prehistoric or Predynastic Egypt.

The Neolithic culture in Southern Egypt’s Nabta Playa region is said to have had the world’s oldest calendar, and the raising of crops was introduced sometime after 5000 B.C. These Neolithic communities made significant advances that led to the development of Egyptian technology, arts, and crafts, religion, and politics.

By 3400 BC, two kingdoms known as the Red Land (in the north) and White Land (in the south) were formed in Egypt. This division inevitably led to war, and in 3200 BC, a White Land king by the name of Scorpion was the first to try and conquer the Red Land. He apparently didn’t succeed, but it was only a matter of time before the country became unified under one Pharaoh (this term wasn’t widely used until 1200 BC).

In this article, I will look at the different periods in ancient Egyptian history. It will begin with the Early Dynastic Period and end with the Late Period which culminated in the nation being conquered by Alexander the Great. As a result, the Greco-Roman Period is not included as I may write an entirely new piece about that fascinating era in history. For the sake of continuity, I have tried to take most of the dates from You’ll doubtless find different dates on other websites.

Egypt Unmasked: 8 Time Periods in the Rise & Fall of a Civilization
Wikipedia (Conflict between Horus and Set)

Early Dynastic (Archaic) Period (C. 3100 – 2686 BC)

There are no precise dates available, but historians generally agree that King Menes (also known as Narmer) became the first Pharaoh of Egypt sometime between 3150 and 3100 BC. He was a southern king that managed to subdue the north and moved the nation’s capital to the White Walls (it was later called Memphis). There is some doubt over the identity of Narmer as it has been suggested that he was a king called Scorpion II. As a result, certain sites will name Scorpion II as the first ruler with Menes as his successor.

The Early Dynastic Period laid the foundations for Egyptian society which included the idea of a single ruler. This individual was a divine being and closely associated with Horus, the all-powerful deity. Archaeologists have also found that the earliest hieroglyphic writing comes from this period. At this time, Egyptians were farmers that lived in small villages with wheat and barley the main staples. The great Nile River flooded annually and gave the people the necessary irrigation and fertilization to grow their crops.

Egypt didn’t become unified during this era as regional tensions carried on for several hundred years. The First Dynasty ended in 2900 BC and the Second Dynasty’s first ruler was Hotepsekhemwy. Ancient sources suggest the Archaic Period ended with the rule of a Pharaoh named Khasekhemwy who probably reigned for 18 years until his death in 2686 BC. He is believed to have finally reunited the nation of Egypt after emerging victorious in a civil war between the followers of the gods Horus and Set. Khasekhemwy is also the first Egyptian ruler to have statues of himself built.

Egypt Unmasked: 8 Time Periods in the Rise & Fall of a Civilization
Top 100 Wonders (The Pyramids at Giza)

Old Kingdom (C. 2686 – 2181 BC)

This is also known as ‘the age of the pyramid builders’ with many of these incredible structures built during the Old Kingdom Period. Djoser was the son of Khasekhemwy and was the first ruler of the Third Dynasty. He commissioned the first pyramid ever to be built in Egypt. He asked a powerful priest and architect called Imhotep to design a stone monument. The result was the Step-Pyramid at Saqqara which was near the capital Memphis.

The Great Pyramid of Giza was built for Khufu during the Fourth Dynasty. It was created over a 10-20 year period and is believed to have been completed by 2560 BC. At approximately 146.5 meters high, it was to remain the world’s largest manmade structure for over 3,800 years until the completion of the Lincoln Cathedral in 1311. While ancient Greek writers suggest Khufu was a tyrant, Egyptian sources suggest he was a pious ruler.

Khufu’s predecessor and father, Sneferu, had the Meidum, Bent and Red Pyramids built during his reign and historians believe he was buried in the latter. The second largest pyramid at Giza was built during the reign of Khafre and the third largest during the rule of Menkaure.

It appears as Egypt enjoyed a lengthy spell of prosperity and peace and this golden age lasted throughout the Third and Fourth Dynasties, a period of between 150 and 200 years. During this time, the various Pharaohs reigned relatively unchallenged, and there was a lack of foreign threats. During the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, however, the kingdom’s wealth began to dwindle (due to pyramid building as much as anything) and the nobles and priests that grew up around the sun god Ra started to exert more influence on the kingdom.

Things began to fall apart after the death of Neferkare Pepi II who ruled for anywhere between 64 and 94 years depending on the source (the latter would make him the longest reigning monarch in human history). When he died in c. 2184BC, chaos reigned and signaled the end of the Old Kingdom.

First Intermediate Period (c. 2181-2055 BC)

This was a messy age in Egyptian history as various Pharaohs tried and failed to consolidate power. There was up to five different dynasties and as many as 39 rulers in this 126 year period. The Seventh and Eighth Dynasties are usually combined and consisted of many monarchs who attempted to rule a broken kingdom from Memphis.

The entire administration had devolved into a feudal system, so even these ‘kings’ held relatively little power. Menkare was probably the first leader of the Seventh Dynasty while Neferirkare was the last ruler of the Eighth Dynasty. No one was able to hang on to the throne for more than a couple of years and both dynasties ruled for less than a combined total of 45 years. It may have been as little as 25 years. Famine, disease and a series of attacks from marauding Bedouins did not help Egypt’s cause.

The Ninth Dynasty (based in Heracleopolis) fared no better and consisted of up to 18 kings according to the Turin King List. It ruled from 2160 – 2130 BC and most of the names of the leaders are missing. The Tenth Dynasty also used Heracleopolis as its capital and faced a threat from another ruling family in Thebes.

Things get a little confusing at this stage. Intef the Elder probably started the 11th Dynasty and is believed to have been succeeded by Mentuhotep I in c. 2135 BC. However, some Egyptologists believe this particular monarch never even existed as his name is not found on any contemporary monument.

After another handful of rulers, it appears as if Mentuhotep II, a Theban prince, managed to take control of Egypt, defeating the ruling families at Heracleopolis and ending this age of instability. For some historians, this marked the beginning of the 11th Dynasty; others divide it into two parts with Mentuhotep II as the first leader of the second part.

Egypt Unmasked: 8 Time Periods in the Rise & Fall of a Civilization
Egypt Land of (The Solar Temple of Mentuhotep II)

Middle Kingdom (C. 2055 – 1786 BC)

Mentuhotep II is said to have finally reunited Egypt in the 39th year of his reign. He was the strongest ruler that the nation had in centuries and also embarked on a program of self-deification. There are temples dedicated to him where he is depicted wearing the headgear of Min and Amun. He was still considered to be divine or half divine by Egyptians some 200 years after his death.

Mentuhotep IV was assassinated in c. 1991 BC and this marked the beginning of the 12th Dynasty with Sehetepibre Amenemhat as the new leader. He reigned for almost 30 years before succumbing to the same fate as his predecessor. The nation’s capital was moved to It-towy although Thebes remained an important religious center. The Middle Kingdom was another era of prosperity in Egypt with a series of long-reigning Pharaohs.

It was at this time that Egypt started an aggressive foreign policy. It colonized Nubia and benefitted from the ebony, ivory, gold and other resources it found in its new conquest. Egypt also managed to fight off the Bedouins and built trading and diplomatic relations with Palestine, Syria and a host of other countries. There was even a second period of pyramid building, and literature also flourished. Archaeologists have recovered hundreds of papyrus copies of The Story of Sinuhe.

The Middle Kingdom peaked under the reign of Amenemhat III who ruled from the middle of the 19th century BC until the beginning of the 18th century BC. Things began to decline at this point with Queen Sobekneferu said to be the last ruler of the 12th Dynasty. In her defense, it appears as if Egypt’s resources were once again dwindling, so she had to handle a lot of problems. She died without heirs in approximately 1786 BC which led to another period of instability.

Second Intermediate Period (C. 1786 – 1567 BC)

The 13th Dynasty was the start of another succession of short-lived Pharaohs, and this era is also known for the war with the Hyksos who threatened to destroy Egypt. For over 1,500 years, Egypt had managed to avoid major battles with foreign enemies, but this changed when the Hyksos took advantage of the chaos to take control of the country.

Egypt quickly lost the lands it had gained as the 13th Dynasty contained a host of weak rulers in its 150-year history. The lack of a strong leader led to further power struggles within the country which was divided into many spheres of influence. By approximately 1805 BC, a Canaanite group broke away and formed the 14th Dynasty which ruled from Xois as the rival 13th Dynasty had its headquarters in Thebes.

Both groups were unable to keep the Hyksos at bay, and the foreign invaders formed the 15th Dynasty by 1650 BC. There is some confusion over the 16th Dynasty which featured rulers from Hyksos or Thebes. To make things even more complicated, the 17th Dynasty ruled at the same time as the Hyksos leaders. It consisted of Theban rulers who had their HQ in Upper Egypt. Finally, the Thebans managed to drive the Hyksos out of Egypt by the 1560s BC and the uncertainty of the Second Intermediate Period came to an end.

Egypt Unmasked: 8 Time Periods in the Rise & Fall of a Civilization (Ramses II at Abu Simbel)

New Kingdom (C. 1567 – 1085 BC)

By now, it seems apparent that ancient Egypt was following something of a pattern. A golden age of peace and prosperity followed by turmoil and back to growth once again. During the New Kingdom era, Egypt was able to establish what is arguably the world’s first great empire. Ahmose I was the first Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, and he ruled over a united land once more.

It was a dynasty marked by robust and able leaders. Ahmose I regained Egyptian power in the previously conquered territories of Canaan and Nubia. He also unified the country, drove the Hyksos out of Egypt and reopened mines, quarries and trade routes. His son Amenhotep I continued rebuilding the temples in Upper Egypt while Thutmose I helped expand Egyptian territories. The empire was at the peak of its power by around 1400 BC.

Amenhotep IV is a controversial figure as he began a religious revolution by disbanding all priesthoods that dedicated themselves to the god Amon-Re and forced them to worship the sun god Aton. He renamed himself Akhenaton and created a new capital with the same name, but once he died, the empire’s capital returned to Thebes and Egyptians reverted to the old custom of worshipping several gods. The 18th Dynasty also contained one of the most famous Pharaohs of all time; the boy king Tutankhamen. His fame comes from the fact that his tomb was discovered mainly intact by a team of archaeologists led by Howard Carter in 1922.

The 19th Dynasty began in c. 1292 BC and contained one of the most legendary rulers; Ramses II (the Great). He continued to expand the empire and managed to drive back the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC. Ramses II is believed to have reigned for 66 years and was one of the strongest leaders Egypt ever had.

The 20th Dynasty featured Ramses III who defeated the Sea Peoples in the 1170s BC. Had he been defeated, it would have been the end of the Egyptian Empire. He was probably assassinated for his troubles in 1156-1155BC, and the empire began to decline after his death. A series of nondescript rulers followed, and Egypt lost its provinces in Syria and Palestine forever.

It was also the subject of multiple invasions with the Libyans the biggest threat during this time. As was the case at the end of its other great eras, Egypt’s wealth declined and by the end of the 12th century BC, instability had reared its ugly head. Towards the end of the reign of Ramses XI, Egypt became divided with the High Priest of Amun Herihor ruling the south from Thebes. The death of Ramses XI in c. 1077BC marked the end of the 20th Dynasty and the beginning of the next phase of Egyptian history.

Third Intermediate Period (C. 1085 – 664BC)

This is sometimes called the Late Dynastic Period, and the 21st Dynasty began with the reign of Smendes I. While he ruled Egypt from Tanis in the north, the High Priests of Amun had control of the south and ruled from Thebes. This division was to set the scene for more instability in Egypt although, in this instance, the priests and Pharaoh were from the same family, so there was no friction at this point. This dynasty was marked by a more centralized government with local officials having more power than before.

The 22nd Dynasty featured Libyan rulers and reigned from the 940s BC to the 720s BC. It seems as if local leaders enjoyed virtual autonomy during this time and information relating to the subsequent dynasties is scant at best. We do know that the 23rd Dynasty also included Libyan rulers who probably ruled out of Thebes and Herakleopolis. It overlapped with the 22nd Dynasty and existed until the 730s BC. The 24th Dynasty was short (around 12 years) and consisted of two rulers.

The 25th Dynasty included leaders from the Nubian Kingdom of Kush. Again, there is a little bit of confusion surrounding the beginning of this dynasty. Some sources suggest that Kashta was the first Pharaoh as he invaded Upper Egypt in approximately 760 BC. This would overlap with other dynasties. It looks as if Piye succeeded Kashta as ruler and he managed to unify Egypt and Kush. This meant the empire was at its largest extent in hundreds of years.

Under the rule of the Kushites, Egypt fought against the rising Assyrian Empire. King Esarhaddon of Assyria became fed up with Egypt’s meddling in his empire’s affairs and launched a successful invasion in 671 BC. However, the Egyptian leader Taharqa managed to retake control of northern Egypt just two years later. Unfortunately for him, Esarhaddon’s successor Assurbanipal was able to remove Taharqa from Egypt permanently within a couple of years.

Esarhaddon appointed rulers during his brief stint in Egypt. One of those was called Necho I, and he is often deemed to be the first leader of the 26th Dynasty. He reigned for eight years but was killed in 664 BC by an invading Kushite force. His death spelled the end of the Third Intermediate Period.

Egypt Unmasked: 8 Time Periods in the Rise & Fall of a Civilization

Late Period (C. 664 – 332 BC)

This is the last period I will be covering in this piece. As it transpired, the 26th Dynasty was the last ‘native’ dynasty to rule Egypt because it was overthrown by the Persians. Psamtik I was by far the most prominent Pharaoh during this dynasty as he ruled for approximately 40% of its history. He was forced to hide in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh during the Nubian invasion and only returned to Egypt when the invading king Tanutamun was defeated by the Assyrian king Assurbanipal and driven back.

The 26th Dynasty ruled for less than 140 years as its last king Psamtik III was defeated by the invading Persian King Cambyses II at the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BC. As many as 50,000 Egyptians died that day and the Persian ruler now because the leader of Egypt in what is known as the 27th Dynasty, the First Persian Period or Achaemenid Egypt.

The best known Persian leaders are Darius the Great and his son Xerxes. Egypt under Darius was similar to how it had been in the past as he rebuilt the nation’s temples and even supported its religious cults. Xerxes, on the other hand, was supposedly tyrannical, and his reign was marked by a number of uprisings which carried on for the rest of the 27th Dynasty. A rebellion led by Amyrtaeus in 404 BC was successful and resulted in the overthrow of Darius II with the rebel leader installed as king.

His six-year reign is referred to as the 28th Dynasty but it ended with his execution at the hands of Nefaarud I who defeated him in battle. The 29th Dynasty reigned for just 18 years and also ended with the murder of the Pharaoh. The 30th Dynasty was the last to feature a native ruler. In 343 BC, the Persians once again took control of Egypt with Artaxerxes III as leader. The 31st Dynasty was to rule for just 11 years as Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and became ruler of Egypt and the Persian Empire.

This is where I will leave the history of ancient Egypt for now. There could be future pieces on Alexander and the Ptolemaic Dynasty that followed him.