Memphis and Thebes: The Rise and Fall of Mighty Empires

Where do I begin to tell the story of a land which dates back to 6000 BC? I suppose I should start with the great river an-nīl or  النيل in Arabic, or The Nile in English. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, the Nile is really two rivers – the White Nile that rises in the African Great Lakes, and the Blue Nile that rises in Lake Tana in Ethopia. They join together at Khartoum in Sudan to form the mighty and storied river that flows north through the vast Sahara desert.

Great civilizations are founded along mighty rivers and so the Nile encouraged early hunter-gatherers to settle down and cultivate the fertile land on either sides of her banks. The earliest known pharaoh who unified Egypt and controlled the whole navigable length of the Nile was King Menes – The Founder – and dates back to around 3150 BC. He was the first of the 30 Egyptian dynasties that ruled for three millennia, making Egypt one of the best examples of social continuity in history.

The capital of ancient Egypt during the The Old Kingdom was Memphis, near modern day Cairo. Its earliest name was possibly Inebou-Hedjou. Under several dynastic revisions it changed to Menfe and was finally, corrupted in Greek to Memphis.

The earliest historian of Egypt, Manetho, called it Hut-ka-Ptah (meaning “Enclosure of the god, Ptah”) which he approximated in Greek as Ai-gy-ptos and thus the origin of the name of the ancient land, Egypt.

The three great pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx were built during the Old Kingdom between c.2575-c.2465 BC. The kings of the fifth and sixth dynasties continued to rule from Memphis, but after that, between the seventh and tenth dynasties, came a century of anarchy.

When stability returned around 2000 BC, Mentuhotep II of the eleventh dynasty reunified Egypt and moved his principal city to Thebes, several hundred kilometers upstream from Memphis. He attempted to colonize Nubia, its most important trading post lying further upstream – now a part of northern Sudan – to possess its precious gold from Nubia’s mines and other rare luxuries such as ivory, ebony, leopard skin, ostrich plumes and slaves. The eleventh and twelfth dynasties of Egypt form the Middle Kingdom and the great temples of Thebes – modern day Luxor, display the extravagant wealth of Ancient Egypt at the peak of its power.

After the twelfth dynasty, Egypt plunged into chaos for a century when it was overrun with foreigners. Little is known of them except that they came from Asia – possibly Palestine or Phoenicia – worshipped the god Seth, and are identified by Manetho the historian as the fifteenth and sixteenth dynasties of Egypt. But a powerful family from Thebes finally gathered enough strength to drive out the intruders and set up the seventeenth indigenous dynasty in Egypt.

The eighteenth dynasty is called the most glorious dynasty of all and their rule marks the beginning of the New Kingdom. The New Kingdom is ruled by three dynasties over half a millennia and provide the bulk of the art and artefacts that ancient Egypt is famous for. The most powerful king was Thutmose I who conquered Nubia and lands further upstream in the south, and Syria and and lands around the Euphrates in the north.

Thutmose and his descendants, including Tutankhamen, ruled over Egypt for over a century and a half. The nineteenth dynasty started when Ramses I ascended the throne. His grandson Ramses II is the most famous pharaoh of them all, known for the gigantic seated statues he commissioned to be built at Luxor. He is also considered the most ideal pharaoh for his long and peaceful reign, the size of his family and his flair for publicizing through numerous inscriptions and monuments his many achievements!

The twentieth dynasty of pharaohs were not descendants of Ramses but took his name anyway, in an unbroken line from Ramses III to XI, but they were unable to control the vast empire that extended from Nubia in the south to Libya in the west and Palestine and Syria in the north. The land was overrun first by the Libyans then by the Nubians or Cushites, as they were called by then. In a reversal of roles, the Cushites, the 25th dynasty, took control of all the land along the Nile.

But soon the peace of the Nile civilization was threatened by the rise of another power in the region, the formidable Assyrians. In 663 BC, after numerous assaults on the civilization, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon breached and plundered the glory of Thebes. The Assyrians ruled Egypt through vassals princes, one of whom managed to gain control of the whole of Egypt – the 26th dynasty – and effectively became independent of Assyria.

At the same time events were moving rapidly elsewhere in the Middle East. The Assyrian capital of Nineveh (modern day Mosul in Iraq) was captured and destroyed by the Babylonians in 612 BC. Jerusalem fell, too. The Egyptians, sensing the downfall of the Assyrians, staked their claim on the empire but were roundly defeated by the Assyrian army.

But Babylon itself was soon captured by the armies of the Persian emperor, Cyrus. Next, the Persian army captured the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. And by 525 BC, Memphis – once again the principal city of Egypt –  was captured by Persia. In the 5th and 4th centuries, the Egyptians made many attempts to wrest control of their land with the help of the Greeks, formidable opponents of the Persians. However a new Persian invasion in 343 BC brought Egypt tightly under the control of Persia. It lasted a mere nine years.

In 332 BC, a young Greek prince named Alexander the Great defeated the Persian army and “liberated” Egypt from foreign power. Alexander demonstrated his method of keeping control of distant lands he had won in conquest by building the great city of the Ancient World, Alexandria. He also made a pilgrimage to the famous oracle of Amen-Ra, the Egyptian sun god where he was duly recognized as the son of the god and the new pharaoh of Egypt.

After the early death of Alexander in 323 BC, his vast empire was divided up between his generals. Egypt fell to Ptolemy who made Alexandria his capital. He ruled Egypt adopting the customs of earlier pharaohs from 306 BC to 285 BC when he gave his throne to one of this sons. Despite local hostility towards its foreign ruler, Egypt would soon be fall prey to the next imperial power, Rome.

The last pharaoh in the line of Ptolemies who ruled Egypt was, Queen Cleopatra who famously flirted with two representatives of the expanding Roman Empire. She was 20 when she met Julius Caesar and bore him a son. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, she aligned with Mark Antony against Caesar’s legal heir, Octatvianus and bore him twins and a second son. When Octavian forces defeated Antony and Cleopatra’s army in 30 BC, Marc Antony committed suicide and Cleopatra followed suit by applying an asp to her breast.

Thereafter Rome ruled Egypt for the next six centuries. Egypt became one of Rome’s most important provinces, providing a rich harvest of crops, craftsmen skilled in glass making and other intricate and rare luxury goods coveted by Romans.

The Roman administrators of Egypt had little influence on Egyptian life. The sophisticated inhabitants were and spoke Greek but the vast majority, the indigenous Egyptians, spoke a version of ancient Egyptian. Alexandria and the Greeks also played a role in the early history of Christianity. One of the earliest homes of Christian monks was in the deserts of Egypt, a sect that exists to this day – the Coptic Church.

In the 7th Century AD, another powerful force would change the course of Egypt’s history – the dramatic rise of the ferocious Arabian tribesmen, newly converted to Islam, who formed the bulk of the Arab armies. Two years after the death of Muhammed, Islam’s founder and prophet, the entire Arabian peninsular had been converted to the new faith and the armies had galloped north towards Mesopotamia. By 640, the Arab armies attacked and conquered northern Egypt and were handed over Alexandria without a fight!

To be continued in Part Two




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