Palette of King Narmer, c. 3100 BCE
The history of ancient Egypt goes back to at least 6000 BCE, but some time around 3000 BCE, King Narmer, possibly also known as Menes, unified Lower Egypt, the part by the Nile Delta, and Upper Egypt, the part closer to ancient Nubia, today’s Ethiopia, see map below. The ancient Egyptians called their land Kemet, the black land, a reference to the annual inundations by the Nile which left the rich, fertile soil that made ancient Egypt the breadbasket of the Mediterranean world. This was in contrast to deshret, the red land, a reference to the desert. The ancient Egyptians perceived their world completely through the lens of the Nile, its annual floods, and its role in their lives as a highway of sorts.
Ancient Egyptian history is broken into a few sections by modern Egyptologists. The period from c. 3100-c. 2650 BCE is called the Early Dynastic Period. The Old Kingdom period goes from c. 2549-c. 2150 BCE, and is characterized by pyramid building. The First Intermediate period, a time of decentralization of the Egyptian state, runs from c. 2149-c. 1992 BCE, and is followed by the Middle Kingdom period, where the state is re-centralized, from c. 1991-1700 BCE. The Second Intermediate Period follows, where Egypt is ruled by the Hyksos in the Delta area and pharaohs in Lower Egypt, from c. 1699-c. 1551 BCE. After Ahmose reunites the country and defeats the Hyksos, the New Kingdom period, a time of empire building and great growth for Egypt begins, and runs from c. 1550-c. 1070 BCE. There is a Third Intermediate Period (c. 1150-c. 750 BCE), followed by the Late Period, where Egypt is ruled by Nubian and other foreign rulers (c. 750-323 BCE). The final, pre-Roman period of Egyptian history is the Ptolemaic period, (c. 323 -30 BCE), named for the Ptolemies, the Greek rulers of Egypt descended from Alexander the Great’s general, Ptolemy the Great, which ended with the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE.
Narmer may have celebrated this accomplishment with the palette, pictured above, which was found in the remains of the temple complex at Hierakonpolis, the capital of ancient Upper Egypt, and would have been used for kohl, or eyeblack used by all Egyptians to guard against the glare of the sun and eye diseases. There are a few explanations given for the images in the registers, or bands on the palette, and one of them is that Narmer is celebrating this unification. He may also be offering a prayer to the gods, hoping it comes to pass in a battle. At any rate, the imagery shows that the style we associate with art in ancient Egypt, as well as hieroglyphics, the “temple script” of ancient Egypt, were well developed by this period. The top register on both sides of the Palette of Narmer has 2 heads of the cow goddess Hathor on either side, a goddess who was associated with motherhood and protection of the king. In the center is an image of the palace, the Egyptian word for which is where the term “pharaoh” comes from, with a catfish above a chisel. The word for catfish was “nar,” and the word for chisel was “mer,” which means these are the heiroglyphic symbols for Narmer’s name. We see these again in the second register on the front next to the figure of the king as he participates in a procession. The line of figures in front of him is meant to be read as being all next to each other, but part of the Egyptian canon was to show as much of the body as possible, which is why the head is shown in profile with a frontal eye, the torso is frontal, and the legs are in profile with the left forward (although they both look like left legs). They all seem to be moving toward a line of bodies with their heads between their legs, referring to the enemies Narmer killed in battle. Below, in the next register, are 2 male figures holding onto 2 long necked lion-like animals with their heads entwined, which symbolizes the joining of Upper and Lower Egypt. The last register shows a bull, probably the Apis Bull, trampling a man, probably another reference to Narmer’s victory, and by extension the victory of Upper Egypt over Lower Egypt. On the back, in the second register, Narmer, the largest figure here, an example of hieratic scale, is shown about to smite his enemy, who he holds by the hair, with a mace. Behind him, a servant holds Narmer’s sandals and his himself barefoot, indicating that he is on sacred ground. This may mean that Narmer is a god or that the act of unifying the two Egypts is a sacred act. Above the head of the enemy is an image of Horus, the hawk god of Upper Egypt, holding onto a rope leading to a human-headed raft of papyrus, the symbol of Lower Egypt. The lower register shows 2 dead enemies.
There are a few other major elements of Egyptian life and culture that also remain central to Egyptian life for almost 3000 years. These are mummification, a belief in the afterlife, and a polytheistic religion based on anthropomorphic gods (except for one brief period). The process of mummification took about 70 days, and began with the removal of certain organs from the body, which was then soaked in natron salts. The body was wrapped after it dried out in yards of linen and amulets, and, if it was a royal mummy, had a mummy mask placed on top of the face. It would be transported to the mortuary temple of the deceased, where other ceremonies would be performed, and then the mummy would be placed in multiple sarcophagi in a tomb that was decorated and stocked for the occasion.
Within the tomb would be offerings to help the deceased in the Afterlife. The Egyptians believed that people had 3 aspects to their souls, the ba, the ka, and the akh. The akh merged with the gods upon death if the person was worthy, but the ba and ka moved between the tomb and the afterlife. The ba often appeared as a human-headed bird, and was the aspect of the deceased’s personality. The ka was the life force, and took the form of outstretched arms or a statue of the deceased. Both of these aspects of the soul had to be able to move in and out through a ka door, or a false door in the wall of the tomb.
Ka Door, c. 2400 BCE
The walls of the tombs were decorated with paintings and reliefs of the Afterlife, and images of the prayers to help the deceased move through the perils and successfully enter that Afterlife. In the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BCE), deceased elites were also buried with papyrus scrolls of the Book of Coming forth the Day, also called the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which detailed the trails and prayers needed for entry into the Afterlife.
Presentation of Ani to Osiris, Papyrus of Ani (Book of the Dead), c. 1250 BCE (Photo by By Soutekh67 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35895613)
The Old Kingdom is the period of pyramid-building. These pyramids, and there are about 80 in Egypt, were preceded by smaller, rectangular mastaba tombs. The first successful pyramid is the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser, built c. 2681-2662 BCE, during Dynasty III, at Saqqara, on the western side of the Nile by the first named architect in Western history, Imhotep, who was later deified. This pyramid is constructed of a series of mastaba tombs stacked on top of each other, with the smallest on top. It would have been faced with white limestone, and possibly had a golden miniature pyramid at the top. The entire structure symbolized the king’s ascent to the heavens to join his divine father, Re, after his death, and the pyramid was just one part of the larger mortuary complex surrounding it. The complex included an outdoor space for festivals honoring the king’s divine soul and a mortuary temple. All of the columns are shaped to appear as if they are bundles of reeds, referencing the importance of the Nile.
Stepped Pyramid and Mortuary complex of Djoser, Saqqara, c. 2685-2662 BCE. (Photo by By Mariam Mohamed Kamal (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Columns of the Heb-Sed Court, Mortuary Complex of Djoser, Saqqara, (photo by By Maveric149 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
The first true pyramids are those at Giza, a site near the Delta on the Western side of the Nile, which, at the time of the pyramids’ construction, would have run closer to the site, which included a man-made lake. The necropolis was used by a variety of elites, but the pyramids and their related mortuary temples and Great Sphinx were built by a series of Dynasty IV kings (c. 2601-2515 BCE), Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. These were all oriented to the cardinal directions, and, the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre are 2 of the largest in the world. All of these were faced with limestone, and probably topped with gold benben symbol of creation and life. Connected to the pyramids is the Great Sphinx, which, although it is next to Khafre’s mortuary temple, is probably an image of his father, Khufu, and may have been built to honor him. The Sphinx was carved out of the limestone bedrock of the Giza plateau, and represents the notion of Horemakhet, or Horus in the Horizon, the image of the pharaoh as the rising sun.
Pyramids of Giza and plan of the necropolis
The Great Sphinx at Giza, c. 2500 BCE
If we look at the ka statues of some of the Old Kingdom rulers, such as Djoser, Khafre, and Menkaure, it is clear that the conventions in place at the time of Narmer were still being used to create images of Egyptian elites for their mortuary and ritual use. Khafre is even shown with the wings of Horus encircling his head, and Menkaure is shown with his chief wife Khamerernebty in the guise of Hathor, indicating that she is the God’s Wife and Mother, the wife of the current pharaoh and mother of the next one. Other elite statues, such as that of Rahotep and Nofret, a prince and princess, still have the original paint on them, giving an idea of what all Egyptian statues were meant to look like. Rahotep and Nofret also show the idea skin coloring for elite men and women, reflecting their roles. Some scribes, such as Kay, even had ka statues of themselves made, proudly identifying themselves as part of the educated elite class, but not elite enough to be as idealized as those of the royal family.
The Seated Scribe (Kay), c. 2600-2350 BCE
The pyramid building of the Old Kingdom seems to have bankrupted the country, and left to the First Intermediate Period, which was followed by the Middle Kingdom. In this period, there is more naturalism in the way the pharaohs are represented, as can be seen in these images of Sesostris I and Sesostris III.
The Middle Kingdom also gave way to a fragmented Egypt, and foreign rule by the Hyksos people. Ahmose I reunited Egypt under his rule, touching off the New Kingdom period, possibly one of the most dynamic periods of Egyptian history. This was the period of empire building, and the period when Egyptians began to build more stone temples on a grand scale. These temples were conceived as a microcosm of the universe, and entry was strictly controlled, with only the high priests and priestesses and the pharaoh having access to the chamber in which the god was believed to dwell. The typical temple plan of this period shows a number of hypostyle halls just beyond the pylon gates, meant to represent mountains, with small rooms with lower ceilings the further in you would go. Throughout these structures were images of the gods, the pharaohs, obelisks (believed to connect the earth and the heavens), and other offerings.
Typical Egyptian Temple plan (photo by By he:משתמש:השמח בחלקו – יצר מעלה התמונה., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12642220)
Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, (photo by By Ahmedherz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35269832)
Pylon Gate and Statues and obelisk of Ramsses II at Luxor (photo by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=127130)
One of the most interesting of the New Kingdom rulers was one of only a handful of named female pharaohs in Egyptian history, and probably one of the most successful rulers of the New Kingdom, Hatshepsut. She ruled for more than 20 years, and progressively showed herself in a more masculine fashion as her rule progressed. Her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahiri, or the Valley of the Kings, was a revolutionary structure, with a variety of terraces, and imagery that legitimized her rule as pharaoh, naming her the successor to her father, Thutmose I, rather than her brother and husband Thutmose II.
Hatshepsut as Sphinx, c. 1479-1458 BCE (photo by By Юкатан (Own work (own work)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Senenmut, Mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, c. 1490-1460 (photo by By H. Grobe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19024820)
Possibly the most interesting period of ancient Egyptian history is the Amarna period, c. 1353-1336 BCE, named for the site of Tell el-Amarna, the modern archeological site of Akhetaten, “Horizon of the Aten,” the new capital city founded by Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten, the Son of the Aten. Akhenaten outlawed the old polytheistic religions, and created his own, centered on the worship of the Aten (and the pharaoh as the son of the Aten), which was the sun disk. This was a move toward monotheism that may have been made to control the power of the priests of the old religion. The art of this period is more naturalistic, although Akhenaten is often shown with both male and female features, a probable reference to the fact that the Aten combines both male and female characteristics. Akhenaten and his chief wife Nefertiti, who may have been his co-regent Neferneferuaten and possibly also the sole pharaoh Semkhare, were often shown interacting with their daughters in a loving manner, something not seen in Egyptian art previously.
Egyptian, House Altar Showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and 3 of Their Daughters, c. 1340, (photo By UnknownAndreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Akenaten’s most famous child was the pharaoh Tutankhaten, better known as Tutankhamun, who came to the throne c. 1332 BCE and died c. 1323 BCE, probably of complications from a broken leg and malaria. Although he was a lesser pharaoh, he is one of the best known because his is the only relatively intact royal tomb discovered thus far. In 1922 Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon opened the tomb to discover that, although there had been some looting in antiquity, the tomb contained most of the offerings placed inside when Tutankhamun died. Tutankhamun also reinstated the worship of the old deities, possibly because of the priests themselves, but many of the objects in his tomb, such as his throne, reflect the style of the Amarna period.
One of the last great pharaohs of the New Kingdom was Ramsses II, who ruled from c. 1279-1213 BCE. He was known for his great military campaigns and for his buildings, replete with numerous statues of him. One of the most famous is at Abu Simbel, and was cut into a solid rock face at the second cataract of the Nile, marking the border between Egypt and its province of Nubia. The 2 temples that make up the site had to be moved to higher ground when the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s. Ramsses II had the front of the Great Temple at the site covered in colossal statues of himself, with his chief wife Nefertari between his legs and a smaller statue of the god Amun above the door. Ramsses shows up in many places inside the temple, including in the shrine room with images of the gods and smiting his enemies in a very Narmer-like way on a wall relief.Temple of Ramsses II at Abu Simbel, 13th century BCE
During the Late Period, Egypt was ruled by a number of foreign leaders, including those from Nubia and Persia. Some of the Nubian rulers chose to portray themselves in a very Egyptian style, but with more Africa facial characteristics.
The Sphinx of Taharqa, Napatan Period, 690-664 BCE
In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. Upon his death in 323 BCE, his general Ptolemy the Great took control of the province, founding the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which controlled Egypt until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE. The Ptolemies combined Greek and Egyptian forms in their art, and created a hybrid style from their capital city of Alexandria, which became one of the centers of learning in the ancient world.Ptolemaic Temple at Esna, c. 181 BCE (originally built c. 1500 BCE, 18th Dynasty)