Although there is evidence of a culture in Egypt as early as 4000 B.C., historians date the beginning of Egyptian civilization at approximately 3200 B.C. At that time, Menes founded the first dynasty—the first recorded family of pharaohs*. Greek civilization began about 1,000 years later than that of Egypt, which by then was into its eighteenth dynasty. The height of Egypt’s power and culture was achieved under a succession of pharaohs, including Amasis I, Amenhotep I, Ikhnaton, and Tutankhamen. The early Greeks traded with the Egyptians, and after Alexander the Greatarrived in Egypt in the 300s B.C., Greek culture became predominant there for the next few centuries.

* pharaoh ruler of ancient Egypt


The country of Egypt is basically the valley of the Nile, the longest river in the world. The Nile flows from the rain forests and lakes of eastern Africa north to the Mediterranean Sea. Beyond the river valley there is only desert, with an occasional oasis*. For millions of years, the Nile’s annual flood waters have carried quantities of rich silt* down the river, fertilizing the soil on the river banks and forming a great delta*. Thus, the river provided the conditions that encouraged the rise of agriculture and a flourishing civilization.

Near Cairo, the modern Egyptian capital at the edge of the desert, are the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx, built by the pharaohs of the fourth dynasty (about 2600 B.C.). Farther south, west of the Nile, are the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, where great rulers and nobles were buried in magnificently decorated tombs. Egyptians worshiped numerous gods and believed in an afterlife and a human soul. Ancient Egyptian art and architecture were devoted mainly to religion, the pharaohs, and the nobility, and were marked by refinement, richness, and sophistication.

* oasis fertile or green area in a desert

* silt fine particles of earth and sand carried by moving water

* delta fan-shaped, lowland plain formed of soil deposited by a river


Relations between the Greeks and the Egyptians began in the 600s B.C. (or earlier) in the course of trade across the Mediterranean Sea. The pharaoh Amasis II, of the twenty-sixth dynasty, encouraged Greek traders to come to Naucratis, a port on the Nile delta, where they bartered corn for silver. In the 520s B.C., the Persians invaded Egypt. Pharaoh Psammetichus III, though aided by Greek mercenaries*, failed to turn back the Persians. The Persians occupied Egypt on and off until Alexander the Great drove them out in 331 B.C. Alexander founded the seaport of Alexandria, which until recent times retained its Greek character. The cities of Memphis and Naucratis were also Greek settlements.

* mercenary soldier, usually a foreigner who fights for payment rather than out of loyalty to a nation

Egypt Under the Ptolemies. After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., his Macedonian generals fought among themselves for power over the empire. Ptolemy took and held the throne of Egypt. The Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt for three centuries, turned Alexandria into a center of Hellenistic* culture, with its great Library and Museum. Our knowledge of Ptolemaic Egypt is richer than that of the other Hellenistic kingdoms because of the preservation of many ancient papyrus* manuscripts in the dry desert climate.

Ptolemy annexed* the island of Cyprus and the province of Cyrene to his kingdom. His son Ptolemy II extended his rule over most of the Aegean islands, the coast of Asia Minor, and Palestine (now Israel). The Ptolemaic armies, which provided security for the rulers, were rewarded for their loyalty with land grants in the Nile valley and the oasis of Fayyum.

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* papyrus writing material made by pressing together thin strips of the inner stem of the papyrus plant

* annex to add a territory to an existing state

Although Greek was the language of administration and the Greeks enjoyed privileges in society and advantages in the tax structure, the Ptolemies took a tolerant approach toward the Egyptian people and their customs. Egyptian temples and cults* were respected, and both Hellenic* and Egyptian legal systems continued, separately, to be used. The pharaohs were crowned in the Egyptian style, and, as the decades passed, the Hellenic ruler was served by Egyptian troops. Yet, outside Alexandria and the other Greek cities, Hellenistic culture had only slight influence on the Egyptian peasantry, whose daily life was little changed.

* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

* Hellenic of or relating to Greece


Despite the growing domination of Rome, the Ptolemaic line continued until the rule of Cleopatra VII, who attempted to strengthen Egyptian fortunes through her close relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. After Caesar’s death, Cleopatra married Antony, then a co-ruler of Rome, and the couple combined their military forces to fight Octavian (later called Augustus), another co-ruler of Rome. The combined navy of Cleopatra and Antony was soundly defeated at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., and the following year Cleopatra and Antony both committed suicide. In 30 B.C., under the Roman emperor Augustus, Egypt became a province* of Rome—actually a province of the emperor himself, who appointed an official to govern and sent in a Roman army of occupation. Augustus retained the existing administrative structure but imposed heavier taxes, and in particular a poll tax—to be paid in cash—on all of the population except Roman citizens and citizens of the original Greek cities. Alexandria, the center of government, continued as a center of Greek learning and culture, though Latin was the tongue of the Roman army and officialdom.

The importance of Egypt declined during the first centuries of Roman rule. The wealthy economy of the Ptolemies deteriorated, as income was spent abroad, capital was sent to Rome, and farms were neglected. In the fourth century A.D., when the authority of the Roman emperors weakened, conditions in Egypt improved. Life for the peasantry became easier. There was some revival of Greek culture. The use of Latin declined except in military documents, and the Roman festivals were little observed. (See also Antonius, Marcus; Augustus, Caesar Octavianus.)

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

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