Ancient History & Civilisation


THE IDEA OF WRITING A COMPLETE HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT, though perhaps lodged in the back of my mind as a project to undertake in my dotage, would never have come to the fore without the encouragement of my agent, Peter Robinson. To him—and to his colleagues in New York, Emma Parry and Christy Fletcher—I owe an immense debt of gratitude. My thanks are also due to my esteemed academic colleagues Paul Cartledge, Aidan Dodson, Kate Spence, and Dorothy Thompson for giving so generously of their time to read portions of the manuscript, question some of my assumptions, and correct inaccuracies in my understanding of their specialist subjects. Robert Morkot, Kenneth Kitchen, John Coleman Darnell, Colleen Manassa, and Liam McNamara provided invaluable references and stimulating original perspectives on a host of subjects. I am grateful to John Guy for a personal introduction that started the whole ball rolling; to my editors, John Flicker and Bill Swainson, for their belief in the project and attention to detail; and to Kate Spence (again) and Johnny Langridge for assistance with the maps. Finally, for his forebearance and understanding during my long periods of antisocial seclusion while researching and writing this book, I should like to thank Michael Bailey. I hope the finished volume goes some way to atone for his many nights alone in front of the television.


The Narmer Palette was commissioned by King Narmer (First Dynasty) to celebrate the unification of Egypt and the creation of the pharaonic state. It is ancient Egypt’s founding document.

The landscape of Upper Egypt is characterized by narrow strips of cultivated land either side of the Nile River, hemmed in between towering cliffs.

The broad green fields of the Nile delta create an environment very different from the narrow valley, hence the ancient Egyptians’ characterization of their country as “the Two Lands.”

Royal power at the dawn of Egyptian history: the Battlefield Palette depicts the aftermath of a great battle, with a parade of captives (top section) and the king as a fierce lion, trampling the bodies of his fallen enemies (bottom section).

Ivory comb of King Djet (First Dynasty). The decoration expresses the relationship between the celestial god Horus, shown as a falcon, and his earthly incarnation, the king.

Ivory statuette of an unidentified First Dynasty king. The monarch is shown wearing the tight-fitting cloak associated with the royal jubilee festival.

Limestone statue of King Khasekhem (Second Dynasty) wearing the jubilee cloak. The statue was found at Nekhen, ancient center of Egyptian kingship.

Limestone statue of King Djoser (Third Dynasty), builder of Egypt’s earliest pyramid. The statue was originally housed in a special shrine next to the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, and was intended to serve as an eternal resting place for the king’s spirit.

Cedarwood barque of King Khufu (Fourth Dynasty). The boat was buried next to the king’s Great Pyramid at Giza, to serve him on his afterlife journey.

Painting of red-breasted and bean geese from the tomb of Prince Nefermaat (Fourth Dynasty) at Meidum. It is one of the masterpieces of Egyptian art from the pyramid age.

Royal supremacy: on this statue base of Djoser (Third Dynasty), the king tramples underfoot the symbols of his foreign enemies (bows) and his Egyptian subjects (lapwings).

Diorite statue of King Khafra (Fourth Dynasty), from his valley temple at Giza. The god Horus, in falcon form, perches behind the king’s head in a gesture of divine protection. The statue is unsurpassed as a statement of royal authority.

The Great Sphinx of Giza (Fourth Dynasty), with the pyramid of Khufu in the background. The sphinx, with a lion’s body and a king’s head, was a potent symbol of the monarch’s power.

Inner chambers of the pyramid of King Unas (Fifth Dynasty) at Saqqara. The walls are covered with Pyramid Texts, the world’s oldest collection of religious writings, while the ceiling is decorated with stars to resemble the vault of heaven.

Painted relief from the tomb of the vizier Kagemni (Sixth Dynasty) at Saqqara, showing a mock fight with punt poles. Such scenes illustrate the rarefied and decadent world of the ruling elite in the late pyramid age.

Relief of craftsmen from the tomb of Ankhmahor (Sixth Dynasty) at Saqqara. In the upper section, metalworkers use blowpipes to heat a furnace holding a crucible of molten metal. Below, jewelry makers string bead collars.

Wooden coffin (Twelfth Dynasty) from el-Bersha. The decoration comprises a frieze of objects, extracts from the Coffin Texts and a route map, all designed to assist the deceased in his afterlife journey.

Limestone statue of King Mentuhotep III (Eleventh Dynasty) from Thebes. Swathed in mummy wrappings, the king is shown in the guise of the god Osiris, risen from the dead.

Wooden models of infantrymen, from the tomb of Mesehti (Eleventh Dynasty) at Asyut. Part of Mesehti’s grave goods, the models capture the militarism of Egyptian society at a time of civil war.

Gold amulet from a Twelfth Dynasty child’s tomb at Haraga. According to ancient Egyptian belief, the image of a fish worn in the hair gave protection against drowning.

The pectoral of Princess Mereret (Twelfth Dynasty) is a fine example of Middle Kingdom jewelry. It combines gold, turquoise, carnelian, and lapis lazuli in a highly symbolic, symmetrical design. The piece also carries a political message, showing the king (as a falcon-headed sphinx) protected by the vulture goddess, trampling his enemies.

Relief decoration from the “white chapel” of King Senusret I (Twelfth Dynasty) at Karnak. Supported by his ka (spirit), the king presents offerings to the god Amun-Ra, shown in ithyphallic form. The white chapel was built to celebrate Senusret I’s jubilee.

Aerial view of Thebes. Cult center of the god Amun and stage set for the rituals of monarchy, Thebes became the country’s religious capital and a focus of royal patronage from the Middle Kingdom onward.

Obelisk of King Thutmose I (Eighteenth Dynasty) at Karnak. The obelisk, a solar symbol, stands in front of the hypostyle hall in the great temple of Amun-Ra, king of the gods.

Relief block from the “red chapel” of Hatshepsut (Eighteenth Dynasty) at Karnak. To conform with Egyptian theology, the female pharaoh is shown as a king, receiving blessings from the god Amun (enthroned) and his consort, Amunet.

Relief from the festival hall of King Thutmose III (Eighteenth Dynasty) at Karnak. The decoration records the exotic flora and fauna encountered by the king on his expeditions to the Near East.

View over Karnak Temple, the greatest religious building of the ancient world. In the background are the hypostyle hall of Seti I and Ramesses II (center) and the sacred lake (right).

The Colossi of Memnon at western Thebes depict King Amenhotep III (Eighteenth Dynasty). They originally stood in front of one of the gateways of his mortuary temple.

Painted wooden cosmetic box in the form of a swimming girl carrying a pink water lily. It encapsulates the luxury and sophistication of court life during the reign of King Amenhotep III (Eighteenth Dynasty).

Relief block from the “red chapel” of Hatshepsut (Eighteenth Dynasty) at Karnak. As part of the annual Opet Festival, priests carry the barque shrine of the god Amun in procession from Karnak to Luxor.

Statue of Amenhotep, son of Hapu, a favored courtier of the late Eighteenth Dynasty. He is shown in the age-old guise of a scribe, with a papyrus unrolled over his knees, signifying his literacy and hence his political authority. His corpulence symbolizes his wealth and status.

Sandstone bust of King Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten (Eighteenth Dynasty) from the Aten temple at Thebes. Dating to the early part of his reign, it lacks the extreme exaggeration of later representations.

Painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti (Eighteenth Dynasty). A sculptor’s model, the piece was found abandoned in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose at the royal capital of Akhetaten. It has become an icon of ancient beauty.

Inlaid lid of a wooden and ivory casket from the tomb of King Tutankhamun (Eighteenth Dynasty). The boy king is shown relaxing in a garden with his young wife Ankhesenamun.

Pectoral from the tomb of Tutankhamun. The scarab beetles, carved from lapis lazuli, are symbolic of rebirth; together with the other elements of the composition, they spell out the king’s throne name. The bold, heavy style is typical of Eighteenth Dynasty jewelry.

Gold throne of Tutankhamun. Made for the pharaoh early in his reign, before the abandonment of the Aten cult, it shows the boy king and his young wife in an intimate pose under the rays of the sun disc. Details are inlaid in silver, carnelian, and lapis lazuli.

Gold funerary mask of King Tutankhamun (Eighteenth Dynasty). The treasure of Tutankhamun has captured the world’s imagination ever since its discovery in 1922; the gold mask, in particular, has come to represent the opulence and mystery of ancient Egypt.

Wall painting from the tomb of King Horemheb (Eighteenth Dynasty) in the Valley of the Kings. In the center, Horemheb faces the goddess Hathor, protectress of western Thebes. Behind him stands the god Horus, son of Isis.

Army life: a wall painting from the tomb of the royal scribe Userhat (Eighteenth Dynasty) at western Thebes. In this scene, military conscripts are addressed by an officer (top), wait to be enlisted (middle), and have their hair cut (bottom).

Battle relief of King Seti I (Nineteenth Dynasty) from the northern wall of the hypostyle hall, Karnak Temple. The scenes record military campaigns against the Libyans and the Hittites. The image of the king in his chariot dominates both sections.

Detail of a wall painting from the magnificent tomb of Queen Nefertari (Nineteenth Dynasty) in the Valley of the Queens. The goddess Isis, wearing cow’s horns, leads Nefertari (favorite wife of Ramesses II) gently by the hand.

Monumental sculpture and relief of King Ramesses II (Nineteenth Dynasty) at Luxor Temple. The king had his names carved deeply into the stone to prevent subsequent usurpation of his monuments.

King Ramesses III (Twentieth Dynasty) and his son, Prince Amenherkhepeshef, from the latter’s tomb in the Valley of the Queens. The boy wears his hair in the customary “sidelock of youth,” while his father is dressed in full royal regalia.

Relief from the mortuary temple of Ramesses III in western Thebes showing the aftermath of the battle against the Sea Peoples. Captured Philistines, with their distinctive feather headdresses, are led away as prisoners of war.

The pharaoh humbles the enemies of Egypt: a relief fragment from the reign of Ramesses II shows the king grasping a Nubian, an Asiatic, and a Libyan by the hair. In fact, Egypt’s neighbors remained a constant threat throughout the latter centuries of pharaonic rule.

Papyrus map of the Wadi Hammamat showing the location of gold mines and stone quarries. Dating to the reign of King Ramesses IV (Twentieth Dynasty), it is thought to be the world’s oldest surviving topographical map.

Gold funerary mask of King Pasebakhaenniut I (Twenty-first Dynasty) from Tanis. Some of the king’s golden treasure may have been looted from earlier royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Gilded wooden statue of the god Osiris (Twenty-second Dynasty). The cult of Osiris, with its promise of resurrection, enjoyed countrywide popularity during the later centuries of pharaonic civilization.

Quartzite statue of the chief lector-priest Padiamenope (late Twenty-fifth/early Twenty-sixth Dynasty) from Karnak. One of the most important priests in the cult of Amun, he was wealthy enough to commission the largest private tomb at Thebes.

Basalt statue of King Nakhthorheb (Thirtieth Dynasty) protected by the god Horus. The diminutive figure of the king, nestling between the legs of the falcon, emphasizes the reduced status and confidence of the monarchy in the twilight years of Egyptian independence. Compare the statue of King Khafra from two millennia earlier.

Temple of Isis on the island of Philae, near Aswan. One of the most important centers of indigenous Egyptian religion during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, Philae was also the location of the last-ever inscription carved in hieroglyphics.

Head of a statue of Penemerit, governor of Tanis during the reign of King Ptolemy XIII. The portrait shows the increasing influence of Greek art in the late Ptolemaic Period, particularly noticeable in the rendering of the hair.

Relief fragment of a Ptolemaic queen, believed to be Cleopatra VII. The vulture headdress was part of the traditional costume of Egyptian royal women. The traces of a grid suggest that the piece was either produced as a sculptor’s model or left unfinished.

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