(Map 6:E–F5). The name is derived from the Greek Aiguptos, itself a rendering of the Egyptian ḥwt‐Ptaḥ, “Temple of Ptah.” The Egyptian name for the country was Keme, “the Black Land”; in Hebrew it appears as Mi⊡rayim.
Apart from the delta region, formed by silt deposited for millennia by the Nile, the rest of Egypt consists of a narrow river valley, bounded on its eastern and western sides by vast arid and inhospitable deserts. The delta is similarly bounded on the east by the Sinai desert and on the west by the Libyan desert. In the south, the turbulent waters of the First Cataract at Aswan form a natural boundary, as does the Mediterranean Sea in the north. In ancient times these natural geographical borders effectively isolated Egypt from the rest of the Near East, thereby favoring the uninterrupted development of the civilization distinctive to the Egyptians, generally undisturbed by foreign invasions. Blessed with a stable climate and extremely fertile lands, regularly watered by the river Nile, the Egyptians developed a rich agricultural economy, producing wheat, barley, vegetables of many kinds, various fruits, and grapes (see Num. 11.5). Very early on, Egypt became the granary of the ancient Near East, especially in times of famine (see Gen. 41.57). Although rich in fine types of stone suitable for building and carving—among them, limestone, alabaster, sandstone, and granite—Egypt was poor in metal ores workable at the time. The one exception was gold from the eastern desert, Nubia, and the northern Sudan. Egypt also was and still is poor in trees suitable for woodworking. External trade in this commodity dates back to early times.
The exact origin of the Egyptians is uncertain. They themselves claimed that their ancestors migrated northward from a region bordering on the Red Sea. Their language, essentially Hamitic, nevertheless reveals certain affinities with the Semitic family of languages. The latest form of Egyptian is Coptic, developed during the early period of Christianity in Egypt. It is still used in the liturgy of the Coptic church, though since the Arab conquest in the seventh century CE the ordinary language of the people has been Arabic.
Egypt's geography, largely a river valley some six hundred miles in length, led to the development of many local dialects of the native language. During the early pharaonic era, in order to overcome the difficulties caused by this diversity of speech, a special form of writing was developed. Based on many hieroglyphic figures, it was a kind of Mandarin written language, strictly consonantal but capable of coping with the vocalic differences of the various dialects. The work of interpreting and more particularly writing the hieroglyphs was performed by a large body of trained scribes, who might be described as forming an early civil service that maintained the successful administration of Egypt.
Both from original sources and from a history written in Greek ca. 300 BCE by an Egyptian priest, Manetho, it appears that the unification of the two ancient kingdoms of the north and the south was effected by Menes, the founder of the first historical dynasty and the builder of the city of Memphis. In his history, Manetho lists the rulers of Egypt under thirty dynasties, but many of the kings he names have left no tangible records of their reigns. A simpler scheme of the long history is provided by these divisions: the Archaic Period, ca. 3100–2700 BCE; the Old Kingdom, ca. 2700–2500 BCE; the Middle Kingdom, ca. 2134–1786 BCE; the New Kingdom, ca. 1575–1087 BCE; the Late Period, until the beginning of the Greek or Ptolemaic Period, ca. 1087–332 BCE.
The Old Kingdom was a period of remarkable building and artistic excellence. In particular, the rulers of Dynasty IV erected the immense pyramids at Giza, reckoned by classical antiquity as one of the seven wonders of the world. The drain on the kingdom's economy in building the pyramids, intended as the secure burial places of the rulers, eventually so weakened the succeeding dynasties that at the end of Dynasty VI a period of anarchy and decline occurred.
Able monarchs, originating from Thebes, during Dynasty XI established effective control over the whole of Egypt and founded the Middle Kingdom. The most powerful rulers were those of Dynasty XII, who conquered and held Nubia. During the Middle Kingdom there was a revival of artistic excellence, especially in portraiture.
As had been the case with the Old Kingdom, toward the end of the Middle Kingdom a period of weakness in the central government allowed the entry into the delta region of a group of foreigners, known as the Hyksos or “Chieftains of Foreign Lands,” probably of pastoral origin. They were powerful enough to hold northern Egypt for a considerable time; some ancient and modern scholars regard this period as the setting of the Joseph narratives in Genesis. During the same period, people from Nubia (the northern Sudan) overran most of the region south of Aswan.
Despite these reverses, the rulers of Thebes eventually succeeded in defeating the forces in Nubia and expelling the Hyksos from the delta. With the founding of the powerful Dynasty XVIII, a period of military advance into Palestine and Syria began. Under warlike kings such as Tuthmose I and his later successor Tuthmose III, greatest of all the pharaohs, Egyptian armies advanced as far as the headwaters of the Euphrates. Conquest brought vast quantities of booty into Egypt to swell the treasury of the state god, Amun‐Re. This period also witnessed the entry of many foreign artisans into the country, and with them new ideas. Toward the end of the dynasty, internal religious strife and external administrative weakness followed the accession of Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhnaton (also spelled Akhenaton and Ikhnaton). He attempted to change the long‐established religion, bitterly opposing the priesthood and eventually removing his capital city from Thebes to Tell el‐Amarna. Opinions about Akhnaton have varied from seeing him as the first monotheist to a pleasure‐loving materialist. It is not easy to form a just assessment, for after his death his capital city was abandoned, the ancient religion restored, and every possible record of him destroyed. Some correspondence with Asiatic rulers in such cities as Byblos, Jerusalem, and Shechem has survived and is known as the Amarna letters; it is an important source for our understanding of Syria‐Palestine in this period. Among his successors was the youthful Tutankhamun, who reigned briefly, and whose tomb, filled with splendid treasures, was found in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter in 1922.
A significant restoration of Egypt's former glory was achieved during Dynasty XIX under the Kings Seti I and his son Ramesses II, both of whom advanced once more into Palestine and Syria; the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt is dated to this period by many scholars. Ramesses warred inconclusively with the Hittites in northern Syria, but his greatest achievements during a long reign were his building projects, especially at Thebes, and his massive rock‐cut temples at Abu Simbel in Nubia. His successor, Merneptah, had to deal with foreign invasion in the north. On a triumphal stele from his reign occurs the first mention of the name of Israel, as a defeated people (see Israel, History of). In Dynasty XX, a far more serious invasion of northern Egypt by land and sea occurred. This was crushed by Ramesses III, not generally recognized as militarily the greatest of the kings bearing that name. Among the various people who attempted the invasion by sea were the group known in the Bible as the Philistines.
A succession of kings bearing the name Ramesses followed, but each proved weaker than his predecessor, and Egypt declined in power. The geographical barriers that in times past ensured so many centuries of isolation no longer sufficed to prevent foreign invasion. Thus, Dynasty XXII was founded by a Libyan general, Sheshonq I. Called Shishak in the Bible, he invaded Palestine during the reign of Rehoboam, ca. 920 BCE, removing some of the vessels of the Temple (1 Kings 11.40; 14.25–26). A record of some of the places he claimed to have captured appears on one of the walls of the temple at Karnak. Dynasty XXV originated from Nubia. In the time of Taharqa (the Tirhakah of 2 Kings 19.9), the fourth ruler of the Dynasty, Egypt faced invasions by the Assyrians. During the last of the Assyrian invasions in the time of Taharqa's successor, in 663 BCE, the great city of Thebes, No‐Amon, was captured and sacked (Nah. 3.8).
For a period after the withdrawal of the Assyrians, Egypt revived under a number of able rulers only to fall eventually to the Persians under Cambyses. In 332 BCE Alexander the Great was welcomed by the Egyptians as their deliverer from the rule of the hated Persians. Following Alexander's death and the division of his empire among his generals, Ptolemy gained Egypt in 322 BCE, becoming the first ruler of the Ptolemaic or Greek Dynasty. The last of the Dynasty was Cleopatra, who like her lover Antony committed suicide after their defeat at the Battle of Actium (31 CE). Egypt then became part of the Roman empire.
Under the Pharaohs, the government of Egypt was essentially theocratic, the king as a child of the gods being semidivine, and as such high priest of the land. His general title, pharaoh, meaning “the Great House,” can be compared with “the Palace” or “the Sublime Porte.” It is not until the time of the Pharaoh Sheshonq that the throne name of the ruler of Egypt is recorded in the Bible. Two other names of rulers recorded are So (2 Kings 17.4) and Neco (2 Kings 23.29; Jer. 46.2). The order of precedence in Egyptian society can be illustrated by the figure of a pyramid: the pharaoh at the apex, and, in descending layers, the royal family and the local princes, the priests, the scribes, the artisans, and at the base the workers of the land.
To modern minds, the religion of ancient Egypt appears to be a strange, chaotic mixture of pantheism and animal worship, frequently full of contradictory beliefs. Long isolation from the rest of the ancient Near East had tended to breed in the Egyptians a strongly conservative outlook with a deep reverence for the past, so that what might seem to be contradictory was accepted as complementary. Over the centuries, purely local deities merged into larger groupings so that the god of one locality might be regarded as the husband of the goddess of another locality. In some instances, the deity of a third locality, merged into a larger grouping, might be regarded as the child of a divine marriage, thus creating a triad. In many instances, the only clues to the former existence of local gods are their names alone. It should be noted that the many gods of Egypt were essentially deities of the Nile Valley, and that of their vast number only one, the goddess Isis, was successfully translated abroad.
The many temples, supported by great estates, were established to serve the various gods, who in their turn served humankind by preserving the physical fabric of the world. The temples were in fact state institutions and not places of individual devotion and prayer. The temples played a very practical role by training able boys, regardless of their social standing, to become scribes in the service of the state. There was a widespread belief in a resurrection and a future realm of rewards and punishments, presided over by the god Osiris, who had been slain by his evil brother Set, but who was afterward restored to life. From various writings it appears that at all times there existed a sense of personal religious morality as distinct from the state religion.
J. Martin Plumley