Modern historians of pharaonic Egypt have usually followed a sequential periodization based on the idea of the centrality of the monarchy to Egypt's history. Thus, Egyptologists have generally written of thirty (or thirty-one) dynasties—i. e., “families” of rulers—and have clustered them into a broad schema the Early Dynastic (or Archaic) period (dynasties 1–2), the Old Kingdom (dynasties 3–6), First Intermediate Period (dynasty 7–mid-dynasty 11), Middle Kingdom (mid-dynasty 11–dynasty 13), Second Intermediate Period (dynasties 14–17), New Kingdom (dynasties 18–20), Third Intermediate Period (dynasties 21–25), and, the catch-all label for the last centuries of pharaonic history just prior to the conquest by Alexander the Great, the Late period (dynasties 26–30 [or 31]). Recently, recognizing that the unification of Egypt around the end of the fourth millennium BCE proceeded over some period of time rather than being the work of a single conquering ruler, some scholars have employed the device of a Dynasty “0” to incorporate this reality into the traditional dynastic sequence.

To a surprising extent, this broad outline owes its main features to the Egyptians' own sense of their country's past. If time in general began with the ordering of the universe by a primordial creator-god, ushering in the “time of the gods,” then “historical” time began with the emergence of the unitary monarchy over Upper and Lower Egypt that came to represent the embodiment of the moral, social, and political order (maat) of this world, the reflection on earth of the cosmic order embedded in the created universe. Although the names for the various kingdoms and intermediate periods are modern, the basic notion that there was some sort of periodization is clearly ancient. In his funerary cult temple across the Nile from Thebes, the image of Ramesses II views a series of statues of former kings. Following his own image are the named statues of eleven predecessors—Queen Hatshepsut and the Amarna pharaohs have become “nonpersons”—going back to Ahmose I, founder of the eighteenth dynasty and the New Kingdom. Only two royal figures precede these monarchs: Menes, the traditional founder of the united kingship of Upper and Lower Egypt, and Nebhepetre Montuhotep I, regarded as the restorer of unity that ended the First Intermediate Period. This is the ancient prototype for the notion of three great eras in Egyptian history, as seen from the vantage point of the nineteenth dynasty. It stands in contrast to the list of kings in the temple begun by Ramesses I's father, Sety I, at Abydos; there father and son review the cartouches (royal name rings) of a large, but edited and therefore incomplete, list of kings going back to Menes, but without any indication of periodization, no matter how broad. The modern use of intermediate periods is likewise a reflection of the ancient view that, because they lacked a strong central monarchy, the periods separating the Old and Middle Kingdoms and the Middle and New Kingdoms were eras of disruption, civil unrest, and foreign invasion—in short, a kind of anarchy. (It is not unusual to find modern Egyptologists still echoing this vision as though it were literally, historically true rather than an ancient ideological vision.) The most unusual example of the ancient Egyptian sense of periodization comes in the great Harris Papyrus from the time of Ramesses III, the second king of the twentieth dynasty, which describes the various stages that separated the end of the nineteenth dynasty and his father's usurpation of power: “The land of Egypt had been cast adrift, each man his own standard. They were without a chief for many years, from the former period [hʒw = a block of time, normally the regnal period of a king] to the next, the land consisting of great ones and mayors of towns.” He characterizes this period as one of lawlessness. Then he reports: “Another period (hʒw) ensued, consisting of ‘empty’ years (i.e., of no consequence); a Syrian named I-ir-sw (‘a self-made man’) was there as prince and made the land tributary to himself.” Then the gods designated Sethnakhte, Ramesses' father, to set things right, and a new, unified, orderly period began, and is continued by Ramesses III himself.

We owe the modern schema of dynasties to a third-century BCE Egyptian priest named Manetho who, under royal Ptolemaic commission, wrote in Greek a “history” of his country organized along a sequential dynastic framework. This work, the Aegyptiaca, followed an annalistic tradition giving key events in each royal reign, thereby characterizing the particular monarch. It is likely that Manetho drew upon some document like the well-known Turin Canon of the nineteenth dynasty (see below). It is clear that whatever source(s) Manetho had before him, he did not always understand the notations or arrangements of columns, and, in the absence of a more critical turn of mind, this sometimes led him to erroneous attributions of regnal time spans. Even more problematic is the fact that Manetho was a victim of his sense—perhaps likewise derived from the annalistic documents—that the dynasties followed one after the other, thus he produced a “long” chronology which, to give but one example, did not reflect the fact that the eleventh dynasty was essentially coeval with the ninth and tenth, rather than their successor. His dynastic schema is essentially his interpretation of the columns of royal names in the prototype(s) he used, and it incorporates the Egyptian idea that each king succeeded his predecessor, just as Horus succeeded his father Osiris in the most enduring myth underpinning the ideology of the Egyptian monarchy. Manetho defines his dynasties in terms of place of origin within Egypt, as well as by kinship. In the Egyptian view, then, we see two seemingly incompatible ideas operating side by side, each king is a manifestation of Osiris or Horus—i.e., part of an eternal cycle—and, at the same time, each monarch is a discrete historical entity eager to be seen by posterity as an achiever of unique deeds, surpassing his predecessors in extending Egypt's frontiers, in displays of piety toward the gods, or in monumental building projects. Ptolemy's interest in this history was no doubt the same as that of his pharaonic predecessors: the legitimization of his succession to the throne of the pharaohs and his place in the maintenance of the cosmic and social order.

The idea of an unbroken succession of kings was very old in Egypt. The fragments of a later Old Kingdom annalistic inscription, the so-called Palermo Stone, contain year-lists for the kings from Menes to the mid-fifth dynasty. Each year of a particular king is distinguished by reference to one or more events particular to that year, as well as a notation of the height of the Nile inundation for that year. Although the regnal years are not sequentially numbered in the inscription, reigns were in fact summarized in years, months, and days. The year in which a given ruler died is divided realistically between the portion of the last year of the deceased king and the fragment of a year his successor reigned, in short, such a year of transition amounts to no more than one year in the civil calendar. This nicety is a reflection of one important concept of time in the formulation and use of the papyrus documents that lay behind the inscription; it was necessary to keep an accurate sequence of years for such purposes as wills, contracts, rentals, and work agreements, which relied on the ability to make accurate determinations of the passage of years, months, and days in order that they would be effective legally and economically. Maintenance of the integrity of the historical timeline was essential. Early in the nineteenth dynasty, a certain legal case whose roots went back some time into the pre-Amarna eighteenth dynasty required that the sequence of years from the original eighteenth dynasty agreements down to the time of the dispute had to be unbroken, thus, although no direct mention of Akhenaten and his immediate Amarna successors would be tolerated, a terminological subterfuge—“Year X of that Criminal of Akhetaten,” for instance—allowed for a precise reckoning of the intervening years. In the case of Queen Hatshepsut, no such device was needed, since her twenty-one-year reign, no longer recognized as legitimate in later times, fell entirely within the fifty-four-year reign of her coregent, Thutmose III, and so there were no lost years to be dealt with. The Palermo Stone, interestingly enough, includes a group of unnamed rulers of the era before Menes, regarding them somewhat vaguely as “spirits,” presumably including those real kings now regarded as comprising Dynasty “0,” but generally reflecting a notion of a golden age.

It should be noted that the Egyptians never devised a continuous dating system such as ours; they were therefore dependent on a complete list of regnal years, rather like the archon lists of Athens or the consular fasti of Rome, to make possible such basic temporal or historical operations as locating an event or lifetime in the past, calculating the duration of some activity or process, or determining the interval between events. Such a list is the Turin Canon (Turin 1874), a badly tattered remnant of a list of the names and regnal year totals of many kings, from Menes down to the Ramessid era, likely based on a more complete prototype. Nonroyal individuals located their birthdays and lifetimes by reference to the era of a certain king (“I was born in year X of King N,” or, “I was born in the time [literally, ‘temporal vicinity’] of King N”); only occasionally do we read a reference to someone being praised or rewarded by “the king of my time.” In his biographical inscription, the Old Kingdom official Ptahshepses periodizes the stages of his lifetime and career from his birth in the reign of King Menkaure of the fourth dynasty through the reigns of subsequent rulers down to the time of King Newoserre Any of the fifth dynasty, the reigning monarch when his tomb was being decorated. Sometimes the reference to past circumstances of a more mundane sort requires a clear sense of the passage of time; thus, in the Tomb Robbery Papyri, one of the robbers notes “Now when Year 13 of Pharaoh had begun, four years ago.” A considerable array of daily documents was dated according to the regnal year, season, month, and day. The Egyptian civil calendar consisted of three seasons: Akhet (Inundation), Peret (Growing), and Shemu (Dearth of Water[?]); each season consisted of four thirty-day months. The 365-day calendar was completed by the addition of five epagomenal days (“the days beyond the year”). A typical date formula might read: “Year X under the majesty of King N, 3rd month of Peret, day 23.” Some documents of short-term value or meant to be entered under a year heading in a journal, ledger, or daybook lack a regnal year designation or the name of the king in question.

Although the Egyptians appear never to have envisioned or written the sort of interpretative history that had its beginnings in the Western tradition with Herodotus and Thucydides and is well known in Asia at least as early as Han China (e.g., the work of Ssu-ma Ch'ien, c.145–c.90 BCE), they nonetheless had a profound interest in the past. First and foremost, the Egyptians regarded the past as the repository of all knowledge and wisdom. The basic forms and models were thought to go back to the primordial era (“the First Time”), or at least to some very early time. Thus, a number of medical texts, treasured for their alleged efficacy, were said to have been set down in the very early dynasties. This knowledge was obtainable by investigation in the ancient books and was thought to be useful. The Ramessid author of Papyrus Chester Beatty IV laments the transitoriness of such things as tombs, but reminds his reader that knowledge and tradition are made permanent in books, that it is books that preserve the names and works of the famous sages of the past. The author mentions a group of ancient learned men, mostly known to us today, whose learning allowed them to foretell the future accurately, which attests to the worth of their words and to their great value as teachers of the young. A certain Djehuty claims that his investigations of “yesterday” enabled him to foretell what would happen in the future. The prediction of the future as an attribute of knowledgeable men became a literary motif. One Middle Kingdom tale set in the time of King Khufu (fourth dynasty) has a sage predict for that ruler the future transition from his descendants (i. e., dynasty) to the rulers of the fifth dynasty; in another such story, a knowledgeable priest goes into a trance and predicts for King Sneferu (fourth dynasty) that down the road, after a period of lawlessness and social disruption, a king will come (clearly Amenemhet I of the twelfth dynasty) to restore maat. The authors of both narratives have the benefit of historical hindsight, but subordinate what might have been written as history to the far more potent technique of placing predictions of the future into remote historical periods. The first prediction tale also reflects some notion of dynasty, a concept that appears to have informed, at least in part, some features of the Turin Canon, in which the entries for certain rulers—Djoser of the third dynasty being the clearest example—are marked in red.

While “objective” interpretation of the past is absent from our Egyptian sources, they were nonetheless interested in explanation of certain kinds of events. Military victories were attributable to the divinity of the king and to his divine father (Amun-Re, etc.). The breakdown of civic order described above by Ramesses III was due to the gods' having turned away from Egypt, and the restoration to the return of divine favor.

The investigation of the past, either out of the desire to learn or for practical reasons, was a fairly common activity. Khaemwaset, one of the sons of Ramesses II, was said to have wandered through the tombs to learn what their owners might report about the past. King Neferhotpe I of the thirteenth dynasty consulted the records in the temple of Osiris at Abydos in order to learn the proper procedures for fashioning a new statue of the god. Hatshepsut compared her own achievements with those of her predecessors and concluded that such deeds as hers had “not been seen in the records of the ancestors”; her steward Senmut claims to have delved into the records of the priests and to have learned everything that happened since “the first time.” The Middle Kingdom writer Khakheperreseneb claims to have arrived at his views of life from what he had seen (presumably in the records) from the first generation of men down to his own times. (His claim to our attention depends also on his somewhat unusual desire to say something new.) The Nubian pharaoh Shabaqa (eighth century BCE) claims to have found an old, worm-eaten text in the priestly library and, as an act of piety, had it copied—with the lacunae—onto a piece of stone (the famous Memphite Theology). This may be a kind of conceit to give the work the veneer of antiquity, since great effort was taken to make the text appear to date to the Old Kingdom. It does not matter whether these claims are factual or not; the point is that the past was real and there were important things to be learned there. Knowledge is once again validated by reference to its antiquity.

Modern approaches to the writing of ancient Egyptian history have run the gamut of the interests and intellectual currents of the past century and a half. Perhaps the most persistent point of departure was the desire to link Egyptian history with the Bible, largely to support the historicity of the latter. Broad one-volume histories have tended to emphasize the great epochs of Egyptian history primarily from a political or cultural point of view; only recently have the gaps between these periods been given more attention. Attempts to write economic history have been few and largely limited by the quantity, quality, and distribution of the sources. Much of the historical writing on ancient Egypt has been dominated by the sense of the primary importance of religion, while some works still proceed from the premise that royal reigns should form the backbone of any attempt at interpretation. An early emphasis on the archeological survivals has given way to greater reliance on the full range of surviving documents, although the process of developing a historically based source criticism lagged for some time. It is true, however, that the early tendency to take the sources more or less at face value has given way to more sophisticated appreciation of the difficulties attendant on the written record. Comprehensive, wide-ranging interpretations based on a broad spectrum of disciplinary approaches have been lacking, partly because most Egyptologists tend to think of themselves primarily as philologists, or archaeologists, art historians, students of religion, and so on. Even though some Egyptologists claim to be historians, few have been formally trained as such. Most lack the integrative point of view, or use it but haphazardly. More successful have been some recent attempts to deal historically with more broadly thematic issues; such works form a prolegomenon to a future comprehensive history of ancient Egypt.

See also BIOGRAPHY; CALENDARS; CHRONOLOGY AND PERIODIZATION; HISTORICAL SOURCES; INTERPRETATION OF EVIDENCE; KING LISTS; MANETHO; and TIME.

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Gerald E. Kadish