The Egyptian civilization
One of the most important civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean developed along the fertile valley of the Nile River in Egypt.
The Nile traverses Egypt, which Herodotus dubbed Ďthe gift of the riverí, from south to north, creating a narrow fertile valley amidst the desert and, shortly before the river reaches the Mediterranean, a large fertile delta.
Manetho, an Egyptian historian and priest was the first to write a history of Egypt. Composed around 280 BC, his Aegyptiaca relates historical events and cultural development in relation to Egyptís thirty royal families (dynasties). Modern historians retained this conventional chronology and grouped the dynasties in broad chronological periods, the kingdoms (Old, Middle, and New Kingdom) and the Late period, to which they added the Greco-Roman period. These periods alternate with three Intermediate periods of anarchy, civil war, and general political unrest.
In the Predynastic period (5400-3000 BC), before the establishment of the first dynasties, various autonomous kingdoms developed in southern and northern Egypt. These kingdoms worshiped different deities and used different symbols but shared the same basic hieroglyphs and belief in the afterlife. Their most characteristic creations, namely stone vases, palettes (originally cosmetics implements), mace-heads and ritual knives, contain the basic elements of the later pharaonic civilization.
Egypt was united around 3000 BC, under the Pharaoh Narmer or Aha, who may be identified with the mythical King Menes, cited by Manetho. This marked the beginning of the Early Dynastic period (c.3000-2575 BC, 1st-3rd Dynasties), which saw the establishment of a theocratic monarchy, in which the pharaoh, as absolute ruler, was identified with the god Horus and considered his incarnation on earth. At the same time, the elite class was established and the hieroglyphic script developed. The statues and figurines of the pharaoh, common people, and sacred animals are frontal, monumental, and naturalistic, whereas the reliefs display a close relation between words (hieroglyphs) and images.
With Memphis as their capital, the powerful and prosperous pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (c. 2575-2134 BC, 4th-8th †Dynasties) established, beginning in the 5th Dynasty, sun worship and were subsequently called Ďsons of the Suní. The Old Kingdom was a peak period for architecture and sculpture. Sun temples were built with gigantic obelisks, pyramids as royal tombs, and mastabas (rectangular constructions with one or more underground rock-hewn chambers) as graves for the royal family and nobility. Mastabas were decorated with reliefs and statues that represent grand, calm, youthful figures with perfect proportions. The hieroglyphic script was further developed during the Old Kingdom and the famous Pyramid Texts reflected manís knowledge then and his belief in the afterlife.
Based at Thebes, able pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom (c 2134-1640 BC, 11th-13th Dynasties) restored unity after a period of anarchy during the First Intermediate period (c. 2134-2040 BC,7th-beginning of 11th Dynasties) and extended their rule southwards, while exercising a strong influence in the Near East. The Middle Kingdom is the classical period in literature. In art, began the creation of portrait statues, initially of the pharaohs (such as those of Senusret III and of his son Amenemhat III) and later of private individuals, with an emphasis on individuality and the inner person. At the same time, during the late 11th Dynasty and particularly the 12th Dynasty, a more popular, though full of artistic vitality, art developed with the creation of wooden funerary models of ships and servants involved in the production of goods necessary for the deceasedís Ka (soul, vital energy).
During the Second Intermediate period (c. 1640-1532 BC, 14th-17th Dynasties) Asian peoples, the Hyksos, invaded Egypt, founded their kingdom in the Nile Delta with Avaris as their capital, and taxed the local pharaohs. For political reasons, the Hyksos adopted several elements of Pharaonic civilization and imitated the traditional forms of Egyptian art.
After the expulsion of the Hyksos by the Theban 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BC, 18th-20th Dynasties), the unification of Egypt, and its expansion towards the west (Lybia), south (Nubia), and east (Syria-Palestine), Egypt became an Eastern Mediterranean empire. The amassed wealth, the contact with conquered nations, and commerce with Crete, Mycenaean Greece, Asia Minor, Somalia, and possibly far away Yemen, all contributed to the creation of a new, ostentatious, and more intricate style reflected in the monuments at Thebes. Grandiose complexes were built on the Nileís east and west banks: rock-hewn tombs with separate funerary temples in the Valley of the Kings (west bank), opulent new palaces, such as that of Amenhotep III at Malkata (west bank), and magnificent temples at Luxor and Karnak (east bank).
After a short period of monotheism (Akhenatenís religious reform) and of the characteristic Amarna style, artists returned to the traditional New Kingdom style, which culminated in the reign of Rameses II.
The administrative incompetence of the last successors of Rameses II led to the Third Intermediate period (c. 1070-712 BC, 21st-24th Dynasties), during which the country contracted in size. During the 21st Dynasty, political authority was shared by Herihor, high priest of Amun, with Thebes as his capital, and the Pharaoh Smendes of Lower Egypt, with Tanis as his capital. Later (22nd-24th Dynasties), the Libyans of the Nile Delta, descendants of Libyan immigrants, took over. This period is characterized by opulence in burial customs, the perfection of mummification, and developments in metallurgy.
Political failure and instability continued during the Late period (c. 712-332 BC). Except for short periods of local pharaohs (26th Dynasty [Saite period], 28th-30th Dynasties), Egypt was ruled by foreign peoples from Africa (25th or Kushite Dynasty) and the Near East (Assyrians, 671-664 BC, and Achaemenid Persians, 27th and 31st Dynasties). The tendency to revive the art of past times prevailed despite the strong influence from Achaemenid Persia. The Saite pharaohs were in close contact with Greeks, particularly those along the coast of Asia Minor. Psamtik I used Greek mercenaries to chase the Assyrian conquerors from his country, and Amasis II strengthened Greek ties and ceded the city of Naukratis and the exclusive privilege of maritime commerce to the Greek.
After Alexanderís conquest (Alexander was received as a liberator from the Persian yoke in 332 BC) and under his successors, the Ptolemies (332-330 BC), began a new Egyptian era, characterized by the interaction of Greek and Egyptian civilizations in religion and art.†
Egypt became a Roman province (30 BC Ė AD 395) after the defeat and death of the last Ptolemaic queen, the famous Cleopatra VII. In the arts, the minor arts prevailed, with intricate jewellery made of precious metals and stones. A bright exception is the famous Fayum-type portraits and the well-known Coptic textiles.