History and Timeline
What we tend to think of as "Ancient Egypt" is the era of the Pharaohs, starting with the unification of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms around 3150 BC and lasting until Egypt became a province of Rome in 31 BC. In a broader sense, civilization within the Nile river area runs at least 1,500 years before the Pharoahs. Here's a rough timeline:
- Predynastic Period - 5500 BC to 3150 BC - Badari and Naqada peoples
- Early Dynastic Period - around 3200 BC, Menes (or Narmer) unites Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, and by 3150 BC the capital is established in Memphis, Egypt.
- Old Kingdom - 2686 BC to 2181 BC - Marked by political strength and unity, and great advances in architecture
- First Intermediate Period - 2200 BC to 2055 BC - Central government collapsed, but the smaller local territories got richer
- Middle Kingdom - 2080 BC to 1640 BC - a time of two rival dynasties and feudal barons - the oldest rock tombs in the Valley of Kings are begun
- Second Intermediate Period - 1650 BC to 1555 BC - the Hyksos ("foreign rulers") conquer much of Egypt, and the capital is forced to retreat to Thebes.
- New Kingdom - 1549 BC to 1069 BC - the government rebounds and the nation expands to its largest size ever, and builds monuments to match. This is the era of the most famous pharaohs, King Tut and Ramesses II.
- Third Intermediate Period - 1069 BC to 653 BC - The high priests have more power than the pharaoh, and Egypt's international prestige declined due to military defeats
- Late Period - 672 BC to 332 BC - Egypt is a satellite of more powerful nations such as Assyria and Persia
- Ptolemaic Dynasty - 332 BC to 30 BC - Alexander the Great arrives and Egypt falls under the sway of Greece. The Library of Alexandria and Lighthouse of Alexandria are built during this era.
- Roman Period - 30 BC to at least the 4th Century AD - this era begins with the fall of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony, which brings Egypt under the control of Rome.
- Arab Muslim Period - the large-scale conversion to Islam began around 640 AD, which is pretty much pushing past the boundaries of "Ancient" Egypt. For more information, see the Egypt page.
Don't let that timeline intimidate you. The culture and government of Ancient Egypt were remarkably stable and long-lived, so for most gaming purposes you don't have to sweat getting the details placed in the correct sub-era of Egyptian history. Egyptologists and Historians often debate the exact dating of when each period started and ended.
Ancient Egyptian culture didn't have long term unmoving roadmarks (as in "BC" vs "AD" or the like) on their calendars. They recorded the year in terms such as "in the 2nd year of the 33rd pharaoh". Such phrasing works fine if it's happening in your lifetime and you have a complete and accurate list of the dynasties of Egypt. Instead we have multiple incomplete, sometimes contradictory, lists of pharaohs. Reconciling these lists with each other or with non-Egyptian historical events is sometimes tricky. While this is a problem for historians, the lack of clarity is actual of benefit in gaming and storytelling as it lets you fudge the numbers in whatever ways your plot (or whim) requires.
Upper Egypt is in the South, and Lower Egypt is in the North. This reversal from common modern map orientations is because of the prominence of the Nile river. The Nile flowed North to the Mediterranean Sea from the higher ground of the southern mountains. Lower Egypt is therefore logically the part closer to sea level.
Egypt in the ancient times was far less arid and desertified than it is now. The periodic flooding of the Nile was the heartbeat rhythm of the age and culture. The majority of the citizens were farmers and lived in the flood zone. The flooding of the Nile happened started between June and September each year, and receded in September or October. The flood deposited fertile black soil on top of the fields, but it could also drown the unwary and wash entire buildings away. The flood marked the start of the new year, and defined the level of taxes that commoners had to pay that year. Predicting the start and the eventual height of the flood was one of the sacred tasks of the priesthood. To keep track of it they built special structures called nilometers.
The pharaoh ruled the whole land, and was responsible for justice and order.
Scribes, civil servants, and government appointees were the upper classes of Ancient Egypt. These noblemen bureaucrats outranked the professional class (made up of doctors, engineers, and priests), who in turn outranked the peasant farmers.
The law treated all the social strata and both genders as equals, and even a lowly farmer could petition the court if his or her social better had wronged them. The land was typically owned by nobles, religious institutions, or the state, and the farmers essentially employees, but again they legally could have owned land if they came in to money some how.
Slavery did exist, but modern scholars debate at what scale and to what extent it existed, and it may have waxed and waned in various periods. It is likely that the pyramids were built by free laborers, not slaves. All the lower classes had to pay a corvee-style tax of several days civil labor each year, so every farmer is likely to have a little bit of experience doing construction tasks on those numerous monuments.
The black eyeliner and heavy make-up worn by Egyptians of all social status was not merely to look emo. It served the important function of reducing glare when looking out over the desert, as well as protecting the face from sunburn.
The lower classes drank mostly a soupy beer with lots of sediment in it. White wine was the drink of the upper classes, or for special rituals and parties.
Political appointments were often given as favors to friends and family of the Pharaoh, and frequently accompanied by gifts of gold. Some seriously strange professions that you might expect to be low-status were actually (for cultural reasons) positions of prominence. For example, the job of cooling the royal personage with a large fan made of ostrich plumes. While you might imagine this to be a slave's job, it was actually a political appointment usually given to a relative of the Pharaoh. Likewise, Shepherd to the Royal Anus sounds like a punishment, but this royal enema coach was actually one of the highest positions a physician or priest could aspire to.
The roll of human fly paper, by contrast, was indeed a low-status job assigned to slave who was covered in honey or asses milk and made to stand in the far corner of the room to attract, distract, and swat any insects that might otherwise bother the pharaoh.
Egypt's main exports were:
- Glass (including faience and Egyptian blue)
- Grain (Barley and emmer wheat, used to make beer and bread)
- Linen Cloth
- Stone artwork, and precious stones such as emerald and amethyst
Laborers of all varieties were usually paid in grain. Ancient Egypt actually had no coins until foreign merchants introduced the concept in the Late Period.
The Ancient Egyptian people were known as well for their advanced medicine and doctors, their skill at shipbuilding (but not particularly for sailing as the Nile was easy waters), math, engineering and quarrying. As was mentioned in the section on social strata, being a scribe was an upper-class job that paid well. These are the sorts of professions for which wealthy ancient peoples might seek out an Egyptian specialist.
You've probably heard about the pyramids, and specifically the Great Pyramids at Giza. You've also no doubt seen the huge sculptures and sculpted pillars of stone. Your mental image of these things is colored by the centuries of disuse and neglect they've been through. Instead of dull neutral stone surfaces, these objects were alive with color. The Great Pyramids were coated in white limestone and capped with electrum. They were blinding up close, and could be seen from miles away even at night. The walls of other buildings were often brightly painted as well, with whites and reds being common base coats over which details and hieroglyphs were applied.
Houses tended to be square, with flat roofs. Open air court-yards and just generally unroofed or partially roofed rooms were very common, because it almost never rained. People slept on the roof of their homes, both because it was cooler there and as an extra precaution against drowning should the flood season come earlier than expected. Interior rooms often had small cellars built into the floor, a short pit just deep enough to hold jugs of beer or wine.
The Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife where you could "take it with you", in accordance with Egyptian Mythology. Elaborate mummification processes were used to preserve the bodies. Most of the internal organs were removed, and then natrine and salts were applied in a lengthy process to dry out the body. A fair amount of ritual was involved, as well. For example, the person who made the first incision into the corpse was ritually cursed and chased out of the room by someone wearing an Anubis mask. Despite all this formality, there was still enough concern about impropriety (i.e. necrophilia) that the bodies of noblewomen were generally kept around to "ripen" for a few days before they were handed over to the embalmers.
Additional rituals were performed during and prior to burial to prepare the dead for the next world. Prized possessions, domestic goods, and effigy laborers called shabti were buried with the dead to provide for them in the next life. (Shabti are the single most common egyptian burial artifact.) Relatives of the dead would visit the burial sites frequently to say prayers or even bring food to the departed.
Note as well that pets were often mummified after they died. Cats, baboons, and other animals sacred to various deities might be sacrificed, dessicated and stored in a tomb, temple, or stone sarcophagus.
Gold was deemed the "flesh of the gods" and thus highly fit for the afterlife. Gold statues, jewelry and gold-gilt wooden objects were frequently buried with dead, even those of relatively low social status. King Tut's Tomb Treasures were remarkably well preserved, giving us a catalog of what the upper classes might be buried with to insure their immortality is spent in the lap of luxury.
Horse-drawn Chariots were introduced by the Hyskos invaders in the late Middle Kingdom, and quickly adopted by the Egyptians. The battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC saw the use of literally thousands of chariots. The King of Kadesh attempted to disrupt the chariot forces by unleashing mares in heat onto the battlefield to distract the horses.
Baboons were used as police animals in Ancient Egypt, much the way we use police dogs. Which is kinda weird, because they did have dogs, and baboons weren't even native and had to be imported from elsewhere on the continent. But there are records of police in the market places of Ancient Egypt unleashing baboons to chase and bite thieves.
Horses were used to draw chariots in battle, as mentioned above.
- Alexander's Mummy
- Archaeoastronomical Sites
- Diolkos - there may have been a similar one in ancient Egypt
- Egyptian Mythology
- Fisherman's Joust
- Grave Robbing
- Historical And Cultural Perspectives On Zoophilia
- Interpretatio Graeca
- Mummy and Mummia
- Phantom Time Hypothesis
- Sed festival
- Tutankhamum - see King Tut, King Tut's Tomb Treasures, and King Tut's Curse
- News: Huge Head Of Pharaoh Unearthed In Egypt
- News: Vanished Persian Army Said Found In Desert
- Hark! Where's the Bible Ark?
Game and Story Use
- Ancient Egypt can serve as a nice backdrop for a mythology or time travel adventure.
- The trade goods section (above) can help you figure out what sort of exports and specialists might come from Egypt during the era to add a little verisimilitude to your historical campaign.
- Ancient Egypt, with it's thousands of years of history and prehistory, and belief in the immortality of the soul, is a great location for the back story of a time abyss, mummy, or other immortal character.