Life Before the Pharoahs

·        Egyptian life now is centered on the Nile, with the vast Sahara Desert (world’s largest) to the West (map, p. 69)

·        But before about 3000 B.C., the Sahara Desert was not a desert

o       rain regularly fell there

o       herds of elephants, giraffes, and gazelles roamed freely through the tall grass

·        Evidence from 70,000 years ago of humans in Nubia and Upper Egypt

o       Hand axes

·        Nomads lives in grass huts, fished in streams, and raised herds of sheep and cattle at edges of lakes

·        Between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago, nomads settle into the Nile River Valley as the Sahara becomes a desert

o       From The Age, Australia (29 December 2000) –

§         British archaeologists have found 30 sites with art chiselled into rocks up to 6000 years ago in the desert east of the river Nile in Egypt. The drawings show cattle, boats, ostriches, giraffes, hippos and the men and women who lived in the area in 4000 B.C., long before the first pharaohs, or the first pyramids, opening a new window on the pre-history of ancient Egpyt. The challenge has been to identify the origins of settlement on the Nile. Egyptologists now think that the forefathers of the pyramid builders could be the same people who left their signatures on stones in the desert 6000 years ago…The team found evidence of Bedouin, Roman and Greek markings, and of travellers who went that way in the era of the pharaohs. But the most dramatic were pictures that told a story of an unknown pastoral people, driving their cattle from one watering place to another, between the Nile valley and the Red Sea. Some of the boats chiselled into the rocks are fairly simple. Some seem to have religious significance. They show figures with large plumes in their hair, like the later gods of Egypt. Some of the boats are being dragged - an image that recurs in the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Some of the figures depicted are clearly chiefs, wearing what might be ostrich feathers.”

·        Dynastic Egypt doesn’t drop out of the sky

o       From Egypt Before the Pharaohs, by Gamal Nkrumah --          

§         “Predynastic culture was fast acquiring those specificities that we today instantly recognise as characteristic of dynastic Egypt: an obsession with tombs and the afterlife, a preponderance of animal deities, a centralised government and the appurtenances of statehood, the first etchings of hieroglyphics, royal symbols and religious iconography."

§         "By 4,000 B.C. Neolithic communities ceased being organised into hunting bands, discarded the nomadic way of life and became settled agriculturists, artisans and traders. By this time, as their graves so graphically suggest, they were clearly divided into rulers and ruled, rich and poor. While hunting was no longer the only way of life, the early inhabitants of the Nile Valley held tenaciously to their animal totems -- the falcon, the vulture, the ibis, the frog, the snake, the crocodile, the lioness, the hound and the hippopotamus. These were to emerge as gods in dynastic times. With urbanisation and settled agriculture came social organisation and a rigidly hierarchical society. The seeds of the hierarchical Pharaonic civilisation, with god-king or Pharaoh at the apex and commoners making up the base, were sown.”

History of the Pharaohs

(based in part from An introduction to the history and culture of Pharaonic Egypt, which is an excellent resource)

·        Egypt divided into Upper Egypt (south) and Lower Egypt (north, near Mediterranean)

·        Herodotus: Egypt is the “gift of the Nile”

·        Egypt is protected on two sides by desert

·        Really only two entry points: south from Nubia and in Northeast from Sinai Peninsula

o       Like with India and China and other empires, enemies exploited these weaknesses

1st and 2nd Dynasties (3100--2686 B.C.)

3rd Dynasty (2686-2613 BCE)


4th Dynasty (2613-2494 BCE)      

·        Khufu (Cheops) (2585-2566 B.C.), Khafre (Chefren) and Menkaure (Mycerinos) are best known for the pyramids they built at Giza

o       Herodotus on Khufu

o       Herodotus on Khafre

o       Herodotus on Menkaure

5th Dynasty (2494-2345 BCE)

6th Dynasty (2346 B.C.-2180 B.C.)

First Intermediate Period (2180-c. 2100 B.C.)

11th Dynasty

Middle Kingdom (2080-1640 B.C.)

12th Dynasty (ca. 1991-1786 B.C.)

·        Amenemhet III (Nimaatre) (1817-1772 BC) completed the building of the great waterwheels of the Fayum, thus diverting the flood waters of the Nile into Lake Moeris.

o       The irrigation system and an overflow canal, was used to drain the marshes. An estimated 153,600 acres of fertile land was reclaimed from the water.

o       Copper was mined in the Sinai and local mines, often under dreadful conditions for the miners.

o       According to two missives Amenemhet prevented a migration of starving Nubians into Upper Egypt by providing food aid, sending bread and beer to the drought stricken region.

Egypt in Decline

·        With the decline of the 12th Dynasty, Egypt lost much of its power and cohesion.

·        The military leaders and soldiers stationed in Nubia became more and more independent. Some of them may even have permanently settled in Nubia.

·        The fortresses built along the Eastern border were either abandoned, or control over who passed the borders was not as strict as it used to be.

·        Canaanite nomads entered the country freely (Jews)

o       Most of these Canaanites settled and became traders, farmers or craftsmen, but at least one of them, Khendjer, became a king.

o       Jacob come in; Jacob plus his 12 sons are Patriarchs

o       Patriarachs settle in Egypt under Jacob and his sons (proof)

·        By the end of the 13th Dynasty, the Eastern Delta was populated mostly by Asiatics.

Hyksos (1674-1567 B.C.)

·        Weakened by internal problems, Lower Egypt was taken over seemingly with little fighting by the invading or perhaps just immigrant Hyksos, who set up two contemporaneous dynasties - the 15th dynasty (1674-1567) of the great Hyksos kings dominated the Hyksos vassal chiefs of the 16th dynasty (1684-1567).

·        The Hyksos were a Semitic (Canaanite or Amorite or Hittite??) people and may have come from southern Canaan or Syria. Evidence seems to point to their having had a nomadic life style.

·        Their rule over Lower Egypt lasted from the conquest of Memphis by Salitis (Sheshi) in 1674, till their expulsion in 1567 B.C. and was mainly a time of peace and prosperity.

·        Greek writers, beginning with Manetho, called them "Hyksos," which was mistranslated as "shepherd kings." Egyptians seem to have called these kings as “rulers of foreign lands” or “sand-dwellers”.

·        Joseph becomes a "very senior member of the royal court" at a time of "tolerance and cooperation between the Egyptians and the proto-Israelites"

·        "The pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom employed Asiatic officials" who "must have been more numerous during the Hyksos period" (Roland de Vaux, The Early History of Israel. Trans. David Smith. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978, 298).

·        Egyptian religion was respected; Egyptian was the language of government; and many Egyptians served in the administration.

·        Their most important contributions to Egyptian culture were perhaps the introduction of Canaanite deities such as the Storm God whom they identified with Seth, and Asian artifacts, which were instrumental in abrogating the despotism and isolationism of the Old and Middle kingdoms.

·        Foreign culture became established at a few eastern Delta sites, and the Egyptians acquired new military techniques, such as the use of the horse-drawn chariot and the composite bow during this period. Their conquests were strengthened by a type of rectangular fortification of beaten earth used as a fortress; archaeologists have uncovered examples of these mounds in Canaan at Jericho, Sihem, and Lahish.

End of the Hyksos and Rise of Ahmose I

·        But the Hyksos dream of being integrated into Egyptian society died within a century.

·        An aggressive Egyptian family from Thebes waged a fierce set of wars against the Hyksos kings. Ahmose I, the great general, drove the Hyksos out of Egypt by 1550 B.C. after a decisive victory at Tanis. The Theban kings of the 18th Dynasty kept on raiding the Hyksos cities of the Middle East for many years to come.

Manetho about the Hyksos
Kamose inscription
Ahmose tomb inscription : The expulsion of the Hyksos

 18th Dynasty


à Exodus (Sidebars: Did the Exodus Never Happen?; Dating the Exodus)


Israel functioned as an agriculturally-based/sedentary socioethnic entity in the late 13th century B.C., one that is significant enough to be included in the military campaign against political powers in Canaan. ... While the Merneptah stela does not give any indication of the actual social structure of the people of Israel, it does indicate that Israel was a significant socioethnic entity that needed to be reckoned with (Hasel, M.G. 1994 "Israel in the Merneptah Stela". Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 296: 54; 56, n. 12).




19th Dynasty


20th Dynasty


The rule of the foreigners: Libyans, Ethiopians, Assyrians and Persians

21st Dynasty (1085-945 B.C.)

After 1085 BC, Egypt split between a northern 21st dynasty claiming national recognition reigning from Tanis and a line of Theban generals and high priests of Amen who actually controlled the south from Thebes. Relations between the two authorities were peaceful. The Tanites were driven from power by Libyan warriors who established their own Twenty-Second Dynasty.

22nd Dynasty (945-730 B.C.)

25th Dynasty (716-656 B.C.)


26th Dynasty (664-525 B.C.)

27th Dynasty: The Persians (525-404 B.C.)

·        Darius I re-excavated the canal connecting the Nile, and thus the Mediterranean, with the Red Sea, promoting trade.

·        The Persians ruled Egypt as a satrapy from 525 to 404 BC, and again from 341 to 333 BC (31st Dynasty).

·        Much of their reign over Egypt was uneventful, but there were occasionally revolts, such as the rebellion of 486 following a rise in the level of taxation, which was put down by Xerxes.

29th and 30th Dynasty (399-341 B.C.)

The weakness of the Persian empire prevented it from taking advantage of the unstable political situation in Egypt.

31st Dynasty: The second Persian conquest, 343-332 BCE


The Graeco-Roman Period: The Hellenists

Macedonian Kings


The Ptolemaic Dynasty




Humor in ancient Egypt

Many people will picture ancient Egypt visually as slaves building the Great Pyramids.  It is was comes to one's an the common man's mind's eye, though today we believe that the Pyramids were probably not built primarily with slave labor. Still, the concept does not lend itself easily to smiling, happy faces. In fact there seems to have been little outlet for humor within the confines of official funerary and religious art and literature. Yet we know that ancient Egyptians had a since of humor, even as they toiled to build the ancient monumental buildings. In fact, they even had a god of humor in the form of Bes, who was a fat, bearded dwarf; ugly to the point of being comical.

It is difficult for us to analyze humor even in different modern cultures, much less those of ancient civilizations.  Humor and satire are most often associated with the subversion and undermining of normal social decorum, but if the normal social decorum is not fully understood, then the humor or satire will be lost to us.

Most humor comes to us from "unofficial" sources, such as rough sketches and Ostraca, though occasionally we even find official humor, though it most often regards matters outside the Egyptian royal audience.  Notable is the scene at the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri that portrays the overweight figure of the queen of Punt, followed by a small donkey.  The caption reads, "the donkey that had to carry the queen", and apparently the ordinary Egyptians thought this was funny as well, for they repeated the drawing in rough sketch clearly copied from the original. 

In a number of texts, scribes corned just about every other trade (with the exception of their own).  Some of this was clearly meant to be humorous, though considering the ego that scribes clearly enjoyed, some of the text were probably out and out scorn.  Even in private tombs, there was sometimes mockery of some of the laborers.

Probably the most obvious and one of the largest bodies of humor are sketches and paintings depicting animals such as mice and cats engaged in typical human activities.  They are shown beating captives, driving chariots, and in one papyrus, a lion and antelope are shown playing a board game while a cat is shown herding geese. It has been suggested that these might have been illustrations for animal fables, but if this were true, no text has survived as proof.

We are likely to never know the full extent of ancient Egyptian humor.  Today we know have considerable knowledge of the royal and religious aspects of ancient Egypt.  But while our understanding of common Egyptians is increasing, there is yet much to be learned.  I was probably the common Egyptians who formulated most humor, and who probably needed it the most in order to deal with their lives. Today, Egypt remain a society with a great sense of humor.