[This entry provides a broad survey of the history of Egypt as known primarily from archaeological discoveries. It is chronologically divided into five articles:

  • Prehistoric Egypt
  • Predynastic Egypt
  • Dynastic Egypt
  • Postdynastic Egypt
  • Islamic Egypt

In addition to the related articles on specific subregions and sites referred to in this entry, see also History of the Field, article on Archaeology in Egypt.]

Prehistoric Egypt

Although Egypt has been inhabited for at least 500,000 years, unfortunately, we know almost nothing about the way of life in Egypt for at least the first half of this period, largely because intensive erosion has destroyed most of the deposits in which settlements might have been preserved. Our information is a little more complete for the next 200,000 years (the Middle and Upper Paleolithic), but it is not until almost 20,000 BP, in the Late Paleolithic, that we really begin to be able to reconstruct the functioning of prehistoric Egyptian societies, the character of their food economies, and the distribution of their settlements across the landscape.

Lower Paleolithic.

The earliest evidence of human presence consists of crude handaxes, classified as Middle Acheulean, found in older stream gravels at a few localities along the Nile and in the Sahara. None of these sites is dated or has associated fauna. Several more localities in Egypt have yielded the more evolved handaxes of the Late and Final Acheulean, probably dating between 250,000 and 400,000 BP, but again none seems to occur in a primary context, and only one locality (Bir Sahara East in the Western Desert) has any associated fauna. There is good sedimentary evidence, however, for Lower Paleolithic occupation of the Sahara during intervals of greatly increased rainfall, when large permanent lakes and at least ephemeral streams existed.

Middle Paleolithic.

The data on the Middle Paleolithic in Egypt are considerably more numerous than those for the earlier period. Most Middle Paleolithic tools are made from large stone flakes, often produced by a prepared-core technique known as Levallois. Almost all of the assemblages include high frequencies of unretouched Levallois flakes (most of which are rejected tool blanks), sidescrapers, denticulates, and retouched pieces. Some assemblages also include high proportions of burins and endscrapers, and others have a few bifacial foliates and stemmed tools. Most of the assemblages are generally similar to the Mousterian of Southwest Asia and western Europe.

The best information on the Middle Paleolithic in Egypt comes from the two neighboring depressions of Bir Tarfawi and Bir Sahara East, some 350 km (about 220 mi.) west of Abu Simbel. Both basins have a sequence of five Middle Paleolithic wet intervals with permanent lakes, dating between about 175,000 and 70,000 BP. The numerous Middle Paleolithic sites associated with the lakes occur in a variety of settings, which seem to have been used for different purposes. Several sites were in fossil soils that developed in swamps adjacent to the lakes; others were in beaches formed with considerable wave action. Both of these settings were used as secondary workshops and for processing marshland plants. The paucity of bones suggests that meat was not an important food during the season when these sites were occupied.

Most of our information on the late Middle Paleolithic comes from a series of quarries on the west bank near Qena in Upper Egypt. Thermoluminescence dates for the Late Middle Paleolithic aggradation indicate that it occurred between 62,000 and 45,000 BP; the quarries probably date somewhere in that interval. Irregular trenches and pits testify to the ability of the people to quarry for stone, although their efforts were neither as systematic or efficient as those seen at the Upper Paleolithic quarries in the same area.

Near the end of the Middle Paleolithic, the river began a cycle of downcutting, incising a deep channel to a level near that of the river today. There are no sites in Egypt that can be correlated with this period, although some are known north of the Second Cataract in Sudan.

Upper Paleolithic.

Around 33,000 BP, the Upper Paleolithic appeared in Upper Egypt. It is characterized by a new technology based on the production of long, narrow blades, rather than the short, wide flakes of the Middle Paleolithic. Our only information comes from quarries north of Nag Hammadi, which consist of a systematic series of deep pits, galleries, and chambers excavated to extract flint cobbles. The oldest human skeleton from Egypt is associated with one of these quarries. It is a Homo sapiens sapiens, slightly more primitive than, but of the same type as, the skeletons found at several Late Paleolithic sites in this area.

The late Upper Paleolithic is known from three settlements dating to about 25,000–22,000 BP. The tools are made on large blades and include denticulates, retouched pieces, burins, and endscrapers; backed blades are rare. The associated fauna are mostly wild cattle, hartebeest, gazelle, and a few fish. At this time, the Nile was probably very similar to that of the late Middle Paleolithic, and once again the valley began to fill with silt.

Late Paleolithic.

Around 21,000 BP, stone technology shifted from large to small blades or bladelets. This change marks the beginning of the Late Paleolithic, which lasted for more than ten millennia in the Nile Valley. A complex series of Late Paleolithic industries has been defined for both Lower Nubia and Upper Egypt, each with a distinctive tool kit. Similar modifications in artifacts occurred at about the same time throughout the Valley, with intervals of cultural turmoil and rapid change. A few of these changes are so numerous and abrupt that they must represent new populations. The beginning the Late Paleolithic saw more use of Nilotic resources: fish, shellfish, migratory water fowl, and marshland plants. Large animals were still hunted, but they were now a relatively minor part of a rich and highly diverse subsistence.

From Wadi Kubbaniya, north of Aswan, came the best data on subsistence. The onset of the Nile flood in summer was an important time for food collection. At this time catfish moved to the edge of the floodplain to spawn and were easily taken in great numbers. The Kubbaniya sites contain thousands of their bones. Some of the fish may have been dried or smoked for later consumption, as suggested by several suitable pits with burned areas on their floors. The inhabitants also began to collect seeds of marshland plants, such as chamomile and club rush. In winter, they harvested the tubers of nut grass and club rush, both of which contain complex carbohydrates and volatile toxins and excess fibers. They can be made edible by grinding and roasting, and the Kubbaniya sites contain heavily worn grinding stones and charred fragments of several varieties of the wetland plants. As with the catfish, surplus tubers may have been processed for later use. In the late winter and spring, when the river was at its lowest level, the inhabitants moved to the mouth of the wadi and other localities where bedrock outcrops and shoals facilitated the gathering of the Nile oyster and other shellfish.

Late Paleolithic human remains are all of the same physical type: the robust but fully modern Mechta el-Arbi type found throughout North Africa between 20,000 and 10,000 BP. They resemble the contemporaneous Cro-Magnons of southwestern Europe. Many of the Late Paleolithic skeletons show signs of violence. A skeleton of a male found at Kubbaniya, for example, had several healed wounds and two bladelets in the abdominal cavity that were presumably the cause of death. More dramatic is the Late Paleolithic graveyard at Jebel Sahaba, where 40 percent of the fifty-nine men, women, and children had artifacts embedded in their bones or showed other signs of trauma. This graveyard has a radiocarbon date of 13,740 BP, and may contain the earliest evidence of warfare. It certainly suggests that the Late Paleolithic was a period of intense competition in the Nile Valley.

Around 13,000 BP, temperatures increased in East Africa, and there was more rainfall in the headwaters of the Nile. The river became a massive stream more like that of today. After a series of large floods about 12,500 BP, the river began to cut a deep channel into the silts. From the onset of this downcutting until shortly before 8000 bp, the only site known in the valley is a small camp, occupied about 11,500 BP; it differs little from the sites occupied a thousand years earlier.

Several eighth-millennium sites have been excavated in the Faiyum, where they are associated with sediments that accumulated when Nile floodwaters entered the Faiyum depression and formed a large lake. Other sites include a group at el-Kab in Upper Egypt, and a small cave in Egyptian Nubia. All of these localities have yielded numerous fish bones, together with a few presumably wild cattle, hartebeest, and gazelle; fishing, hunting, and probably plantgathering continued as major economic activities. There are no traces of pottery or domesticated species.

Neolithic on the Nile.

As recently as 7000 bp, the Egyptian Nile was still occupied by small groups of people whose subsistence patterns were similar to those of the Late Paleolithic—fishing, collecting, and hunting. About 6000 bp (5200 BCE), there was a dramatic change in cultural developments. In Lower Egypt, in the Faiyum depression and farther north on the edge of the Delta, a complex Neolithic economy appeared suddenly and without local antecedents. It was based on domesticated species from southwestern Asia, used in combination with the already known wild foods.

The earliest attested of these Neolithic sites are in the Faiyum and date to 5230–4450 BCE. The sites are much larger than before and were probably occupied for several months after the summer floods, when fish could be easily harvested in the cut-off pools and swales and also when cereals were planted for harvest in winter. There are no traces of permanent houses, only a few post holes suggesting temporary huts made of poles covered with brush, reeds or mats. Deep accumulations of cultural debris, however, exist. The sites contain numerous bones of fish, domestic cattle, sheep or goat, pig, and a variety of wild fauna, including hartebeest, gazelle, hare, hippopotamus, crocodile, turtle, and waterfowl. Plants include emmer wheat and barley.

Pottery is abundant and very different from that in contemporaneous sites in the southern Western Desert. There are many large storage jars, which are fiber tempered, rough, and undecorated, and a few small, open bowls, which are sand tempered, frequently smudged, and either smoothed or burnished. None of the pottery is painted.

The Faiyum Early Neolithic villages may each have contained two hundred people. Because all of the known sites were inundated by the summer floods (except the granary pits, which were above the inundation level on an adjacent hill), they cannot have been occupied year round. We do not know where the Faiyum Neolithic people went during the rest of the year. There are several sites in the Sand Sea, near the Libyan border, with similar fiber-tempered pottery, a comparable range of lithic artifacts, including concavebased arrowheads, and of about the same age. Some of the Faiyum groups may have included the Sand Sea in their seasonal movements, or the similarities may indicate only that the two groups were closely related.

Although the sudden appearance of the Faiyum Neolithic just as the drying desert was becoming uninhabitable suggests a Saharan origin, there is little evidence to support such a hypothesis. Indeed, the origin of the Neolithic anywhere in the valley is obscure and controversial, and there is no firm evidence that Saharan groups played a significant role in these developments in Lower Egypt. The importance of Levantine domesticates, the distinctive fiber-tempered pottery, and the presence of several lithic elements not known in the desert (such as maceheads) may indicate that derivation or influence from southwest Asia. However, the apparent absence of similar complexes in the Sinai, southern Israel, and southern Jordan argues against migration.

Merimde Beni Salame, at the western edge of the Delta, was first occupied only slightly later than the Faiyum Neolithic and was partially contemporaneous with it. Merimde is one of the largest prehistoric sites in Egypt, and at its maximum, there may have been more than a thousand people living there. The houses in the lowest levels were oval huts with walls of upright poles covered with mats or brush, similar to those suggested for the Faiyum. They had firepits equipped with burned clay firedogs to support a cooking pot, and some had pots sunk into their floors. Near each house was a large storage pit. Burials were placed in simple oval pits within the village and without grave offerings.

In the upper levels of Merimde, dating to around 4,300 BCE, the houses were more substantial, partly dug into the ground with the above-surface walls made of mud bricks. The entries to the houses, all on the same side, had thresholds of hippopotamus tibiae. The interiors were sometimes partitioned into activity areas by posts set into the floor. The houses were separated by reed fences and arranged in irregular rows on either side of a street or alley. Large storage jars, baskets, and pits were placed near the houses. The size of the community, the alignment of the houses, and the abundance of the storage features suggest that around 4,300 BCE, Merimde witnessed a new level of village organization, which provides the basis for the early Predynastic period of Lower Egypt, which is documented at such sites as el-Omari and Maadi, near Cairo. [See Merimde.]

In Upper Egypt, the earliest-known Neolithic phase is the Badarian, recorded at forty habitation sites and a similar number of cemeteries, south of Asyut. These are clustered into three large communities, each consisting of several dispersed villages and homesteads. The Badarian represents a sharp break from the fishing, hunting, and gathering groups of less than a millennium earlier, and, like the early Neolithic period in Lower Egypt, appears suddenly and without local precedent. The possible role of the Desert Neolithic in this is difficult to evaluate. Cultural complexity is evident earlier in the desert, and there are similarities in the pottery and some of the stone tools, particularly with the Saharan Late Neolithic, which suggest that the desert people did contribute. Unfortunately, our lack of data from the Nile between 6,000 and 5,000 BCE prevents further evaluation.

The Badarian phase is not well dated. Several thermoluminescence dates on pottery range from 5,580 to 4,510 BCE, but all have large standard deviations, and the higher dates seem to be too old when compared to the dates for the fishing and hunting sites at el-Kab and the small cave in Egyptian Nubia. The best indication of the age of the Badarian phase is that it is older than the Amratian, a Predynastic complex that has several calibrated radiocarbon dates of around 4,200 BCE, and is thus of about the same age as the upper level at Merimde. The earliest Badarian phase was probably contemporaneous with the oldest Faiyum Neolithic.

Badarian villages have simple brush- or mat-covered huts, with large storage pits and pens for sheep or goats. Their economy was based on the cultivation of wheat, barley, and chickpeas. They also gathered nut-grass tubers, fished in the Nile, and did some hunting. Their economy and houses were thus not very different from those in the Faiyum, and they also had comparable concave-based projectile points. However, their other crafts were more developed. They had well-made pottery, almost all of it polished, red or black in color, or red with a black rim. Some had comb-impressed designs on the exterior, often partially obliterated by polishing. A few pots were decorated with incised geometric designs. There were carefully shaped stone palettes and quantities of red and green pigments. Animal and human clay figurines, and carved ivory tools also indicate the Badarian emphasis upon ornamentation.

It is in burials, however, that the Badarians differ most from their contempories in Lower Egypt. Most burials were not in the villages, but in separate graveyards. Most of them also have offerings, including pottery, beads and other ornaments. Some graves were much richer than others, indicating that there were differences in wealth and status. These Badarian traits were further emphasized in the Predynastic cultures of Upper Egypt, and reached their apogee in pharaonic civilization.

[See also Delta; Faiyum; Lower Egypt; Nag Hammadi; Nile River; and Upper Egypt.]


  • Caton-Thompson, Gertrude, and E. W. Gardner. The Desert Fayum. London, 1934. The best available study of the early Neolithic in the Fayum. Subsequent studies show that the Fayum A to Fayum B sequence is reversed.
  • Caton-Thompson, Gertrude. Kharga Oasis in Prehistory. London, 1952. Classic study of Lower and Middle Paleolithic remains in the Egyptian Sahara. Recent research, however, suggests that the proposed cultural and climatic sequences should be used with caution.
  • Close, Angela E. “Living on the Edge: Neolithic Herders in the Eastern Sahara.” Antiquity 64 (1990): 79–96. Describes the use of the hyperarid Safsaf sandsheet by Holocene herding groups.
  • Hoffman, Michael A. Egypt before the Pharaohs. Rev. ed. Austin, 1991. Excellent popular summary of Egyptian prehistory, with several interesting stories about early personalities.
  • Klees, Frank, and Rudolph Kuper, eds. New Light on the Northeast African Past. Cologne, 1992. Contains several excellent summaries of the prehistory of Egypt, ranging from the Lower Paleolithic to the Neolithic.
  • Paulissen, Etienne, and Pierre M. Vermeersch. “Earth, Man, and Climate in the Egyptian Nile Valley during the Pleistocene.” In Prehistory of Arid North Africa: Essays in Honor of Fred Wendorf, edited by Angela E. Close, pp. 29–67. Dallas, 1987. Excellent survey of Pleistocene prehistory in the Nile Valley, particularly good for Upper Egypt.
  • Vermeersch, Pierre M., et al. “33,000 Year Old Chert Mining Site and Related Homo in the Egyptian Nile Valley.” Nature 309 (1984): 342–344. Describes the excavation of an early Upper Paleolithic flint mine and associated human remains.
  • Wendorf, Fred, ed. The Prehistory of Nubia. 2 vols. Dallas, 1968. Volume 2 contains technical reports on several prehistoric sites in Egyptian Nubia. This was the first “modern” study of Nubian prehistory and has now been largely replaced by Wendorf et al. (1989).
  • Wendorf, Fred, and Romuald Schild. Prehistory of the Nile Valley. New York, 1976. Describes and dates several Late Paleolithic industries, particularly useful for the Fayum.
  • Wendorf, Fred, and Romuald Schild. Prehistory of the Eastern Sahara. New York, 1980. Technical study of the prehistory of the Western Desert of Egypt; for more recent information see Wendorf et al. (1984).
  • Wendorf, Fred, et al. Cattle Keepers of the Eastern Sahara: The Neolithic of Bir Kiseiba. Dallas, 1984. Contains the most recent information on Holocene archaeological remains in the Western Desert of Egypt. Following A. Gautier in the same volume, the authors propose that the cattle found in early Holocene sites are domestic; however, for a contrary view see A. B. Smith, “The Origins of Food Production in Northeast Africa,” in Palaeoecology of Africa and the Surrounding Islands, edited by J. A. Coetzee and E. M. Van Zinderen Bakker, pp. 327–324 (Rotterdam, 1982).
  • Wendorf, Fred, et al. The Prehistory of Wadi Kubbaniya. Vols. 2–3. Dallas, 1989. Technical report describing the Late Paleolithic occupation near Aswan, with important new data on the food economy. The conclusions in volume 3 will be useful to the general reader.

Fred Wendorf and Angela E. Close

Predynastic Egypt

The later Neolithic in Egypt, known as the predynastic period, represents the transition to a single unified state in about 3100 BCE. Two separate ceramic and lithic traditions are evidenced during this era—one in northern, or Lower, Egypt and the other in Southern, or Upper, Egypt (which extended into Lower Nubia). Both the ceramics and lithics can be equated with finds from the Sudan and belong to a characteristically African technology. The type-site for the Upper Egyptian culture was excavated by William Matthew Flinders Petrie at Naqada; through his development of sequence dating, or seriation, he was able to order his material chronologically through stylistic development. [See Naqada.]

Petrie divided his finds into various phases. The first is known as the Amratian period, named for the site of el-Amra, near Abydos. This period, which dates to between 4200 and 3700 BCE, is characterized by red-fired Nile-silt ceramics and vessels that often have a black top and that occasionally are decorated with yellowish or white pigment. The second period, the Gerzean, shows a change in ceramic technology that is represented by the use of higher-fired, white-to-buff marl clays, sometimes ornamented with patterns in red ocher. This period dates from 3700 BCE to the beginning of the first dynasty, although it is sometimes subdivided into a later phase known as Late Gerzean. Petrie termed this last period the Semainean and equated it with a dynastic race that migrated into the Nile Valley and brought about a unified state (Petrie, 1921). Helene Kantor (1952) however, clearly disproved the theory of such a massive population influx and demonstrated that, aside from a few imports, the material culture of the Upper Egyptian predynastic sequence and that of dynastic Egypt belonged to the same tradition.

The sequence dates Petrie assigned to these periods began with the number 30, to leave room for earlier cultures, should they be discovered. This turned out to be the case with the Badarian culture of the prehistoric period. The evolutionary framework for this period, set by Petrie a century ago, now has largely proven correct. Further refinements were added by Werner Kaiser (1957), however. Kaiser subdivided the Amratian into Naqada I A, B, and C; the Gerzean into Naqada II A, B, C, D1, and D2; and the Late Gerzean into Naqada III A1, A2, and B.

The Lower Egyptian sequence is less well documented, but it appears to be related to ceramic and tool types found in Syria- Palestine. There is a greater amount of material from settlements rather than graves, which may exaggerate the difference between the north and south. The principal sites here are in the area of the Faiyum and at Maadi near Cairo. [See Faiyum.] Lower Egyptian ceramics appear far more utilitarian than Upper Egyptian examples. They are usually of simple, baggy shapes with thick walls and abundant chaff temper.

The only large settlement site to be extensively explored from this period in Upper Egypt is that of Hierakonpolis. Excavations there by Michael Hoffman revealed a temple and settlements dating to the Naqada I and II periods (Hoffman, 1982). In addition, a series of kilns found along the desert margins of the site may have been employed to produce ceramics for mortuary use. Often, the ceramics found in Upper Egyptian graves show no sign of use and may have been especially made for burial. [See Grave Goods.] Such pottery is characterized by fine wares with simple, elegant shapes and decoration in red or white pigment. Some examples have applied decoration in the form of animal figures or symbols. Other types imitate the appearance of stone vessels, which were made of a number of hard and soft stones such as basalt, granite, breccia, and alabaster (calcite or travertine).


EGYPT: Predynastic. Figure 1. Painting from the “Decorated Tomb” at Hierakonpolis. The painting depicts some Mesopotamian motifs, including the “divine hero” holding off two lions at the lower left. Dated to the Naqada II period, c. 3500 BCE. (Courtesy P. Lacovara)

view larger image

Elizabeth Finkenstaedt (1980) has shown that several schools, or local styles, of painted pottery are to be found in predynastic ceramics that may point to the development of regional centers or small states. Eventually, the tradition of painted pottery died out, perhaps replaced by the growing production of stone vases to equip the tombs of the elites. [See Tombs.] For this era, the cemeteries excavated demonstrate an increasing social stratification, with more and more elaborate tombs provided for the wealthy. One particular tomb at Hierakonpolis had a painted mural decoration (see figure 1) that contained motifs related to the art of Mesopotamia. [See Wall Paintings.] Foreign influence, as evidenced by both imported materials and adaptations of stylistic motifs (animal phyle, “divine hero,” composite monster), suggest that the exchange of ideas with the Near East at this juncture played a pivotal role in the development of art, writing, and the formation of the pharaonic state.

[See also the biography of Petrie.]


  • Arkell, Anthony J., and Peter Ucko. “Review of Predynastic Development in the Nile Valley.” Current Anthropology 6 (1965): 145–166.
  • Baumgartel, Elise J. The Cultures of Prehistoric Egypt. 2 vols. Oxford, 1947–1960.
  • Finkenstaedt, Elizabeth. “Regional Painting Style in Prehistoric Egypt.” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 107 (1980): 116–120.
  • Hoffman, Michael. The Predynastic of Hierakonpolis. Cairo, 1982.
  • Holmes, Diane L. The Predynastic Lithic Industries of Upper Egypt. 2 vols. British Archaeological Reports, International Series, no. 469. Cambridge, 1989.
  • Kaiser, Werner. “Zur Inneren Chronologie der Naqadakultur.” Archaeologia Geographica 6 (1957): 69–77.
  • Kantor, Helene J. “Further Evidence for Early Mesopotamian Relations with Egypt.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 11 (1952): 239–250.
  • Petrie, W. M. Flinders. Corpus of Prehistoric Pottery and Palettes. British School of Archaeology, Publications, no. 32. London, 1921.

Peter Lacovara

Dynastic Egypt

In his History of Egypt (Gk., Aegyptiaka), the early third-century BCE Egyptian priest Manetho organized the kings of Egypt from Menes to Alexander of Macedon (c. 3100–332 BCE) into thirty consecutive “dynasties,” or families. A thirty-first dynasty was later added to Manetho's treatise, which is preserved only in corrupted and fragmentary form in the epitomes of later authors. Some of his dynasties probably have no historical basis, while others were overlapping rather than successive.

The relative chronology of the dynastic period is based on a number of sources in addition to Manetho. These include king lists, genealogical data, historical and biographical texts, dated monuments and papyri, and archaeological remains. Conversion of Egypt's relative chronology into an absolute chronology has been achieved through the use of astronomical data; historical synchronisms between Egyptian kings and several Hittite, Babylonian, and Assyrian rulers; classical sources; and radiocarbon dating.

The archaeology of dynastic Egypt can be divided into two major categories of material remains: one relating to the elite, the other to ordinary people. Most books and articles focus on the kings and members of the royal family, the bureaucrats and provincial officials, the military, and the temple priesthood. These groups together constituted only a small percentage of the country's inhabitants, but their wealth and material achievements vastly exceeded those of the illiterate peasants, whose existence probably changed little over several thousand years of dynastic rule. Hence, the “archaeology of ancient Egypt” largely reflects the material culture of the country's political, religious, and military institutions.


EGYPT: Dynastic. Figure 1. Palette of King Narmer. To the left, King Narmer is seen holding a captive by the hair, and he wears the crown of Upper Egypt. On the reverse side, to the right, King Narmer appears as the largest human figure in the upper scene, wearing the crown of Lower Egypt. Dated c. 3100 BCE. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

view larger image

Early Dynastic Period (First and Second Dynasties: c. 3100–2700 BCE).

Egyptologists sometimes group the rulers of Upper Egypt just prior to the beginning of the early dynastic period (such as Ka and Scorpion) as dynasty 0. Later tradition records that a king Meni (Gk., Menes), from This in Upper Egypt, united the two halves of the country and founded a new capital at Memphis, situated just south of Cairo. Menes is probably to be equated with Narmer, a king whose large commemorative palette found at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt shows him wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt on one side and the Red Crown of Lower Egypt on the other. The reign of Narmer (c. 3100 BCE) inaugurated the first dynasty and the beginning of the early dynastic period (see figure 1).

The early dynastic period was a formative era in the evolution of Egypt's political and religious institutions. An important element in the development of these institutions was writing, which first appeared (possibly as the result of cultural influence from Mesopotamia) at the end of the pre-dynastic era. Other significant achievements of the early dynastic period included the development of major elements of the Egyptian artistic canon and the first use of stone in construction (though most buildings of the period were made entirely of mud brick).

In foreign affairs, the kings of the first dynasty campaigned against Nubian and Libyan tribes. Trade with Palestine, which had been extremely active in late predynastic times and dynasty o, declined during the course of the first dynasty. Domestically, the country was politically stable during the first dynasty, but conflict between Upper and Lower Egypt appears to have broken out in the early second dynasty.

The history and material culture of this period are known principally from Abydos and Saqqara. Both sites have yielded rectangular mastaba tombs containing the names of early dynastic kings. The kings of the first dynasty and of the end of the second were probably buried at Abydos, whereas the rulers of the early second dynasty may have been interred in subterranean galleries at Saqqara. The rich contents of the Abydos and Saqqara tombs included inscribed sealings, labels, and stelae; copper and stone tools and weapons; stone vessels; ivory and stone statuary; wood and ivory furniture; and jewelry.

Old Kingdom (Third–Sixth Dynasties: c. 2700–2190 BCE).

The Old Kingdom is frequently labeled the Pyramid Age. The country was administered by a strong, highly centralized government headed by a monarch whose absolute authority and divinity were reinforced during the fifth dynasty by his formal claim to be the son of the sun god Re. On a day-to-day basis, the government was run by a large bureaucracy managed by high officials who often were members of the royal family.

The Old Kingdom was a period of economic prosperity and political unity. Commercial and military expeditions traveled south to Nubia, which in pharaonic times provided Egypt with such items as ivory, ebony, gold, and animal skins. The turquoise mines of western Sinai were opened up for exploitation at least as early as the third dynasty. The coastal cities of the northern Levant, especially Byblos, were visited by Egyptian diplomatic and commercial missions, and several military campaigns were conducted in Palestine as well as against the Libyans. Large state building projects were undertaken, especially for pyramid complexes and, in the fifth dynasty, temples for the solar cult. Most of the laborers on these projects were peasants, whose work in the fields came to a halt during the Nile's annual inundation.

Memphis was the capital and royal residence throughout the period. Stretching many kilometers north and south of Memphis were the great royal and private cemeteries. The first pyramid was erected at Saqqara during the early third dynasty. Designed by Imhotep for King Netjerikhet (later called Djoser), this step pyramid is the oldest major building constructed entirely of stone. The first true pyramid was built at Dahshur at the beginning of the fourth dynasty. To that dynasty also belong the pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure (Gk., Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus) at Giza. Later Old Kingdom pyramids were smaller and not as well constructed. Around each Old Kingdom pyramid complex were large mastaba tombs for the king's relatives and other officials who wished to share in their ruler's eternal life. The mastabas of the fifth and sixth dynasties were larger than their predecessors, and the interior rooms of their superstructures were decorated with scenes of daily life.

The absolute power of the monarchy began to deteriorate during the fifth dynasty. The decline is attributable to the growing importance of the solar cult at Heliopolis (which increased the power of that cult's priesthood) and the increasing wealth of the nobility, who now often were provincial governors (nomarchs) rather than royal relatives and who could pass their offices on to their sons. Exemption from taxation for temples and the great royal mortuary cults also took its toll on the treasury. In about 2200 BCE, shortly after the extended reign of the sixth dynasty king Pepi II, the country's central government collapsed.

First Intermediate Period (Seventh–mid-Eleventh Dynasties: c. 2190–2033 BCE).

For about half a century after the demise of the Old Kingdom, the kings of the seventh and eighth dynasties attempted to maintain order from the capital at Memphis. Eventually, the country broke up into several independent political units, famine and anarchy were rampant in the land, and Asiatic nomads wandered into the Delta. The literature of the period speaks of economic and social hardship. The closing of the royal ateliers in the old capital led to the development of crude provincial art styles.

Contemporary with the eighth dynasty, a line of Herakleopolitan princes (Manetho's ninth and tenth dynasties) united the middle reaches of the Nile valley under their rule. Civil war later broke out between Herakleopolis and the newly emerging town of Thebes in Upper Egypt. Eventually, the eleventh-dynasty Theban ruler Nebhepetre Mentuhotep (2033–1982 BCE) defeated the Herakleopolitans, bringing about a new era of national unity and prosperity.

Middle Kingdom and Early Second Intermediate Period (Mid-Eleventh–Thirteenth Dynasties: 2033–1648 BCE).

The late eleventh dynasty saw mining expeditions once again going to Sinai and trade missions setting out for the Levant. Nebhepetre Mentuhotep's principal building achievement was his funerary complex at Deir el-Baḥari in western Thebes; the early eighteenth-dynasty pharaoh Hatshepsut used Mentuhotep's complex as a model for her own magnificent funerary complex immediately to the north. Following a brief period of disorder at the end of the eleventh dynasty, the throne of Egypt was secured by Amenemhet I, whose reign begins the twelfth dynasty (1963–1786 BCE).

Amenemhet I moved the royal residence from Thebes to Itjtawy, located in the vicinity of Lisht in the Faiyum region. In the Faiyum itself, the kings of the twelfth dynasty undertook major irrigation projects to reclaim a large amount of land for farming. Throughout the twelfth dynasty, the kings were buried in pyramids. Following the reign of Amenemhet I, the pyramids were built of mud brick supported by interior stone crosswalls; later on, they were constructed of mud brick with a limestone casing. Around the pyramid complexes stood the mastabas of their officials.


EGYPT: Dynastic. Figure 2. Head of Senwosret III. Red granite; nineteenth century BCE. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

view larger image

The provincial authorities continued to wield substantial authority until Senwosret III (1862–1843 BCE) put an end to their power (see figure 2). The institution of coregency, whereby the king took his son as coruler to ensure a smooth transition of power, became a regular feature of the monarchy in the twelfth dynasty, and a middle class began to develop. Scarabs inscribed with royal names and the names and titles of officials first appear in the Middle Kingdom.

The foreign policy of the twelfth dynasty included several campaigns into Nubia, where a line of fortresses was erected in the second cataract region to protect Egypt's southern frontier. Egyptian armies also campaigned northeast of the Nile valley, possibly even reaching the northern Levant during the reign of Amenemhet II (1901–1866 BCE). Expeditions went out to the mines of Sinai on a regular basis, and trade and political contacts with Syria were on a larger scale than ever before. At Byblos, along the southern Syrian coast, the local rulers employed Egyptian hieroglyphs for writing their names and used Egyptian titles. Egyptian hieratic inscriptions on clay figurines and pottery bowls contain curses (the so-called Execration Texts) directed against rulers and places in Syria-Palestine, Libya, and Nubia; these documents reflect Egypt's extensive knowledge of foreign lands and, perhaps, the extent of her power and influence.

The Middle Kingdom was a golden age for Egyptian literature and art. This was the time of Middle Egyptian, the classical phase of the Egyptian language. Famous works of the era, such as the Story of Sinuhe and the Instruction of Amenemhet I, were copied as schoolboy exercises for hundreds of years thereafter. The art is notable for its royal portrait sculpture: the serious, often somber look on the faces of the kings is unique in the history of pharaonic art. The jewelry is exquisite, yet simple, and includes some extraordinary inlaid pieces.

The kings of the thirteenth dynasty (1786–1648 BCE) continued to reside at Itjtawy, and the art, pottery, and seals of the period reflect a continuation of Middle Kingdom traditions. Nonetheless, a rapid turnover in occupants of the throne, the end of pyramid construction, and, toward the end of the eighteenth century BCE, the decline or abandonment of a number of sites in the Faiyum region herald a weakening of the central government. At the same time, an influx of Asiatics into the eastern Delta led to a deterioration in royal control over that part of Lower Egypt. Eventually, In 1648 BCE, the ruler of Avaris (modern Tell ed-Dab῾a), the center of Asiatic activity in the Delta, captured the old Egyptian capital at Memphis and took over northern Egypt.

Late Second Intermediate Period (Fifteenth–Seventeenth Dynasties: 1648–1540 BCE).

A nineteenth-dynasty king list preserved in Turin reports that six “rulers of foreign countries” (i.e., Manetho's fifteenth, Hyksos Dynasty) controlled Egypt for 108 years. During the late seventeenth and the first half of the sixteenth centuries BCE, Asiatics came to dominate the Delta, Memphis, and part of the Nile Valley, while a line of Theban princes (the seventeenth dynasty) controlled southern Egypt. The Asiatics adopted many aspects of Egyptian culture, including the use of the hieroglyphic script for writing their documents and transcribing their personal names. Recent excavations at Tell ed-Dab῾a have revealed extensive contact with the Levant, Cyprus, and the Aegean world. In the mid-sixteenth century BCE, the Theban ruler Kamose recaptured Memphis and drove the Hyksos back to Avaris. His brother and successor, Ahmose, the first king of the New Kingdom, captured Avaris and drove the Hyksos out of Egypt.


EGYPT: Dynastic. Figure 3. Statue of Thutmose III. Fifteenth century BCE. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

view larger image

New Kingdom (Eighteenth–Twentieth Dynasties: 1550–1069 BCE).

Several kings of the early eighteenth dynasty—most notably Ahmose (1550–1525 BCE), Amenhotep I (1525–1504 BCE), and Thutmose I (1504–1492 BCE) and III (1479–1425 BCE; see figure 3) —campaigned widely in the Levant and Nubia, establishing an empire that, at its height, extended from Napata in the northern Sudan to the Euphrates River in western Syria. The inhabitants of this empire provided Egypt with a wide variety of tribute and trade goods. Commercial relations, which throughout pharaonic times were conducted under royal authority, were active with the Aegean world, Anatolia, Syria-Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Nubia. For the next several hundred years, Egypt was the wealthiest country in the ancient world, a phenomenon reflected in the enormous temples and magnificent royal and private tombs at Thebes.

During most of the eighteenth dynasty (1550–1295 BCE) the royal residence was at Thebes, whereas in the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties (1295–1069 BCE) the kings lived at Per-Rameses in the eastern Delta. The pharaohs were buried in large rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings in the Theban necropolis, while the nobility were buried in tombs cut in the nearby hills. Memphis continued to function as a major administrative center during the New Kingdom.

In the mid-fourteenth century BCE, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV abandoned the worship of the god Amun, changed his name to Akhenaten, and with his family and a small coterie of followers moved north from Thebes to Amarna, where he could worship the sun in its manifestation as the sun disk (the Aten). A hoard of several hundred cuneiform tablets found at Amarna and written mostly in Babylonian, the lingua franca of the Near East in the Late Bronze Age, contains letters addressed to the Egyptian royal court from the major rulers of western Asia and the vassal princes of Syria-Palestine, as well as archival copies of a smaller number of letters sent from Egypt in the opposite direction.

Following Akhenaten's death, his second successor, Tutankhamun, departed from Amarna. Not long after, a new dynasty arose in Egypt, under the leadership of a military officer named Rameses (who was the first of eleven kings to use that nomen). For more than two centuries, the Rameside kings ruled Egypt as Manetho's nineteenth and twentieth dynasties.

The greatest challenge to Egypt in the early nineteenth dynasty came from the Hittites in Anatolia. Rameses II (1279–1213 BCE) fought the Hittites to a standstill at Qadesh on the Orontes River in western Syria, but much of the Egyptian Empire in Syria was subsequently lost. Egypt continued to prosper during the nineteenth dynasty, despite internal political problems in the early twelfth century BCE. The art and jewelry of the period are gaudy and inferior to that of the eighteenth dynasty; the scenes in the tombs of the nobles focus more on the afterworld than daily life; and the temple architecture and royal sculpture are more notable for their monumental scale than their artistic quality (the temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel being a fine example).

In the eighth year of Rameses III's reign (1184–1153 BCE), in the early twentieth dynasty, much of the eastern Mediterranean world was overwhelmed by tribal groups from the northern Mediterranean known collectively as the Sea Peoples. After devastating Asia Minor and the Levantine coast, they were defeated by the Egyptians and forced back into Palestine. Egypt managed to sustain its empire in parts of Palestine for another generation or two, but what was left of the empire collapsed in about the third quarter of the twelfth century BCE. From then on, Egypt began a long period of political, economic, and social decline. The Nubian portion of the empire was lost in the early eleventh century BCE, and shortly thereafter the country once again split apart.

Third Intermediate Period (Twenty-first-Twenty-fifth Dynasties: 1069–664 BCE).

The Third Intermediate period opened with the kings of the twenty-first dynasty residing at Tanis in the northeastern Delta and a line of high priests of Amun dominating Upper Egypt from Thebes. For the next four hundred years, the country lurched from one political and military crisis to another. During the twenty-first dynasty (1069–945 BCE) there were competing rulers at Tanis and Thebes. The twenty-second dynasty (945–715 BCE) saw a line of rulers of Libyan origin dominating Egypt from Bubastis in the eastern Delta. The first of these kings, Sheshonq I (945–924 BCE), campaigned in Palestine and pillaged the temple in Jerusalem. Later in the dynasty the country again fragmented, leading to competing kingdoms at Saïs in the western Delta, Thebes, and Herakleopolis (the period of the twenty-third dynasty). In the mid-eighth century BCE, a Sudanese king, Kashta, gained control of Thebes. Soon thereafter, another Napatan king, Piye (otherwise known as Piankhi), swept north into Egypt and established Kushite domination of the country as far downstream as Memphis; his successor, Shabako, finished the conquest of northern Egypt. The twenty-fifth (Napatan) dynasty (747–656 BCE) rebuilt and enlarged Egypt's temples, especially those favoring the god Amun, and reasserted the country's old traditions. In 664 BCE, however, the Assyrians marched into the Nile valley and captured Thebes.

Because most of the capitals of the Third Intermediate period are in the Delta, relatively little is known about the archaeology of this period. Many of the sites are buried beneath the alluvium or modern occupation, or have had their stone monuments completely robbed out. At Tanis, an enormous temple complex associated with the god Amun has been excavated. Within the temple enclosure was a royal necropolis for several kings of the twenty-first and twenty-second dynasties.

Late Period (Twenty-sixth–Thirty-first Dynasties: 664–332 BCE).

Threats against their empire from the east soon forced the Assyrians to leave Egypt. They entrusted control of the country to a number of local princes, one of whom, Psammetichus, soon became king, founding the twenty-sixth dynasty (664–525 BCE) at Saïs. During the Saïte dynasty, the country regained its independence; rebuilt its military forces (which now included large numbers of foreign mercenaries, many of whom settled in Egypt); and expanded its commercial activities throughout the eastern Mediterranean. An attempt by Pharaoh Necho II (610–595 BCE) to reestablish Egyptian hegemony in the Levant led to a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Babylonians at Carchemish In 605 BCE. The strongly nationalistic views of the period are reflected in the archaizing features of the art, which hearken back to the Old Kingdom.

In 525 BCE, a Persian army under Cambyses defeated the last Saïte king, Psammetichus III, at Pelusium, bringing Egypt into the Achaemenid Empire. During the twenty-seventh (Persian) dynasty (525–404 BCE), the bureaucratic language was Aramaic rather than Egyptian. Egypt regained its independence during the twenty-eighth–thirtieth dynasties (404–343 BCE). The thirtieth dynasty is notable for the extensive temple-building activity undertaken by Nectanebo I and II. In 343 BCE, the Persians recaptured Egypt, but they held it for only a short time. In 332 BCE, Alexander of Macedon led his army into Egypt and made the country part of his burgeoning empire.

[See also Abydos; Dab῾a, Tell ed-; Delta; Heliopolis; Hyksos; Lower Egypt; Memphis; Pyramids; Saqqara; and Upper Egypt.]


  • Baines, John, and Jaromir Màlek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. New York, 1980. Well-illustrated, semipopular introduction to ancient Egypt.
  • Gardiner, Alan H. Egypt of the Pharaohs. Oxford, 1961. History of ancient Egypt, based almost entirely on textual sources, by the leading British Egyptologist of the twentieth century.
  • Gardiner, Alan H., T. Eric Peet, and Jaroslav Černý. The Inscriptions of Sinai. 2 vols. Egyptian Exploration Society, Memoir 45. 2d ed. London, 1952–1955. Basic publication of Egyptian inscriptions from the mining areas of western Sinai.
  • Grimal, Nicolas-Christophe. A History of Ancient Egypt. Translated by Ian Shaw. Cambridge, Mass., 1992. Good history of ancient Egypt, much more balanced in its use of source material than Gardiner's book; contains a lengthy bibliography.
  • Hayes, William C. The Scepter of Egypt: A Background for the Study of the Egyptian Antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1953–1959. Examination of Egypt to the end of the New Kingdom, illustrated by objects in the museum's collection. Chapters on the Middle and New Kingdom are especially valuable because of the richness of the museum's collections for these periods.
  • Helck, H. Wolfgang. Die Beziehungen Ägyptens zu Vorderasien im 3. und 2. Jahrtausend v. Chr. 2d ed. Wiesbaden, 1971. The only comprehensive study of Egyptian relations with the Near East during the Bronze Age. The text is out of date for some periods and must be used with caution.
  • Helck, Wolfgang, and Eberhard Otto. Lexikon der Ägyptologie. 7 vols. Wiesbaden, 1972–1991. Massive reference work containing articles in English, French, and German on virtually every topic relating to ancient Egypt; includes extensive notes and bibliography.
  • Kemp, Barry J. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. London, 1989. Original and interesting socioeconomic interpretation of the development of the Egyptian state, administration, and economy.
  • Kitchen, K. A. The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt, 1100–650 B.C. 2d ed. Warminster, 1986. Dry but authoritative history of Egypt during a long period of decline.
  • Kitchen, K. A. “Egypt, History of (Chronology).” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, pp. 322–331. New York, 1992. Up-to-date overview of the current status and major problems of Egyptian dynastic chronology.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam, comp. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. Berkeley, 1973–1980. Excellent translations of many important Egyptian texts.
  • Lucas, Alfred. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. 4th ed., rev. and enl. by J. R. Harris. London, 1962. Classic work in the field, now outdated in such areas as metals and faience but still extremely useful.
  • Quirke, Stephen, and A. Jeffrey Spencer, eds. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London, 1992. Excellent introduction to the history and material culture of ancient Egypt, illustrated by objects in the British Museum.
  • Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton, 1992. Stimulating, somewhat idiosyncratic history of Egyptian relations with Palestine.
  • Strouhal, Eugen. Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Norman, Okla., 1992. Beautifully illustrated survey of the daily life of the ancient Egyptians, providing a perspective on ancient Egypt different from other books cited here.
  • Trigger, Bruce G., et al. Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Cambridge, 1983. The social, economic, and political history of dynastic Egypt. Each chapter contains its own bibliography. The first three chapters were originally published in volume 1 of The Cambridge History of Africa (New York, 1975).
  • Waddell, W. G., ed. and trans. Manetho. Cambridge, Mass., 1940. Greek text and English translation of the epitomes of Manetho's Aegyptiaka.

James M. Weinstein

Postdynastic Egypt

Research into the history and culture of Egypt from the arrival of Alexander the Great in November of 332 BCE to the conquest by the Islamic forces of Amr ibn al-῾Aṣ In 640 CE are currently in a state of flux because of an intensive interdisciplinary approach to this very complex era. Much of what has been written in the past is no longer valid, and some of what is to be stated herein is only provisional. The brunt of these assertions are immediately evident on examination of the brief stay of Alexander the Great in Egypt.

It is now generally acknowledged that Egyptian Alexandria was already inhabited at Alexander's arrival and that, far from founding a new city, the conqueror merely replanned the existing one. Growing evidence also suggests that there was a flourishing, contemporary cult of Osiris-Apis in the city, which Alexander (of Macedonian-Greek birth) embraced under the name of Serapis. The contours of the city, compared to that of a chlamys (Macedonian riding cape) emphasized its Greek, not Egyptian, sociopolitical orientation, which was reinforced by its name, Alexandria ad Aegyptum (“Alexandria by the side of [but not within] Egypt”).

Ever the pragmatist, Alexander did little to interfere with the existing administrative bureaucracy of the land. In fact, many former officials who had served with distinction under the Persians, who had occupied Egypt before Alexander, were permitted to remain in their same offices. When Ptolemy I Soter declared himself pharaoh In 305/304 BCE, he did little to change this system. The administration of Ptolemaic Egypt is currently regarded as self-generated, addressing issues on an ad hoc basis as the need arose; it was not a consciously developed administration.

The ethnicity of Ptolemaic Egypt has been much discussed, in particular the relationship between the native Egyptians and the Macedonians and other Greeks who were encouraged to immigrate to Egypt early on to serve in the armies of the Ptolemies or in other capacities in exchange for prime arable lands. The consensus is that the culture of Ptolemaic Egypt can be characterized as one of two societies, the immigrant Greek and the native Egyptian; both were separate and mutually unequal in their spheres of activity. This opinion masks the existence of numerous other nationalities and languages in the cultural record of the Ptolemaic Period, from Aramaic to Carian and Phoenician. Despite the continuity of these diverse peoples and their native tongues, there is a certain uniformity in the material culture, at least on the pharaonic side, to suggest that the native Egyptians were themselves highly resistant to foreign influences. Indeed, the attraction of Egypt was so great that all immigrants were soon acculturated to Egyptian norms.


EGYPT: Postdynastic. Statue of an official. The figure is wearing a traditional Egyptian tripartite costume. Black granite; height 1.165 m. Provenance unknown (perhaps Dendera). Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Rogers Fund, 1965)

view larger image

With the passing of time, the indigenous Egyptians became more assertive. There are at least ten documented revolts by the Egyptians during the Ptolemaic Period, the most famous of which saw the Thebaid (that region of Upper Egypt, extending roughly from Coptos in the north to Edfu in the south, that was under the administrative authority of Thebes) effectively gain a modicum of independence and local autonomy from the crown during the reigns of Ptolemy IV Philopator and Ptolemy V Epiphanes when two Egyptians, Horwenenefer and Anhkwenenefer (perhaps father and son) established themselves as counter-kings in succession. The revolt of the Delta city of Lycopolis was particularly long-lived and bloodily quelled only In 186 BCE. Whereas some may ascribe the causes of these armed insurrections to economic or social inequities, the xenophobia of the Egyptians toward their Greek overlords cannot be overlooked as a prime contributing factor. The frequency with which asylum decrees are promulgated, granting Egyptian felons immunity from persecution, are indicative of just how far the Ptolemies would go in order to pacify a generally hostile population. It is within this broader cultural context that one can understand why, perhaps, Cleopatra VII was the only member of her dynasty to speak Egyptian.

The precipitous return to Egypt from Syria by Ptolemy III Euergetes I, which effectively enabled the Seleucids to regroup and eventually to invade Egypt, was probably due to his need to address such a rebellion at home. The overseas empire of Ptolemaic Egypt, which was won by Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his sister-consort, Arsinoe II, was now threatened by the Seleucids. The successful invasion of Egypt by the Seleucid monarch Antiochus III Epiphanes was reversed by Roman intervention in the form of the ultimatum that Popilius Laenas personally issued to Antiochus. Certain important details to this episode, recorded by Polybius and Livy, have now been recovered from an Egyptian archive unearthed at Saqqara, from which one learns the name (Nounenios) of the envoy dispatched by Ptolemy IV Philopator to thank the Roman Senate for Laenas's intervention. From that moment on, Egypt was to be drawn into the affairs of Rome. Those interactions accelerated during the course of the first century BCE, but here again a revisionist approach to many of the events is currently gaining favor.

So, for example, the alleged will of Ptolemy X Alexander I (r. 110–109; agaIn 107–88 BCE) in which he is said to bequeath his kingdom to Rome is based on a misinterpretation of the evidence. A careful reading of the relevant passages in Cicero in conjunction with Egyptian sources reveal that Ptolemy X borrowed money from Rome, which was deposited at the city of Tyre. Upon his demise, the Romans attempted to recover the principal. The agreement, as it can now be reconstructed, merely grants the Romans the right to repayment; it does not name them heirs to his kingdom.

It was for similar financial considerations that Ptolemy XII Auletes (r. 80–58; again In 55–51 BCE) fled to Rome in 58 following his ouster by the Alexandrians. He was reinstated in 55, having returned with Roman legions commanded by Gabinius. The financial affairs of Ptolemy XII were managed by Gaius Rabirius Posthumus in an attempt to recover the debt of 10,000 talents of silver, which Auletes had borrowed earlier.

Before his death, Ptolemy XII Auletes elevated his daughter Cleopatra VII, aged seventeen, to the throne as coregent together with his son Ptolemy XIII, aged six. The queen, far from being illegitimate (as implied by Strabo) asserted her right to the throne and issued at least three documents in which she is named as Egypt's sole monarch. Julius Caesar, pursuing Pompey to Alexandria in the wake of Rome's civil wars, arrived in Alexandria to find a city divided by internecine strife. In short order, Caesar sided with Cleopatra, and the two embarked on a conscious campaign of political domination. Cleopatra aspired to restore Egypt to her former glory and thus decorated Egyptian temples, such as Dendera, where she is depicted as the legitimate successor of the pharaohs of old. The untimely assassination of Caesar In 44 BCE left the queen without an ally, but she soon associated herself with Marc Antony, the politically weaker of the two. Together Cleopatra and Antony challenged the might of Rome. In the waters off Actium, a promontory of southwestern Greece, the combined naval forces of Cleopatra and Antony confronted those of Octavian, thereafter called Augustus, Julius Caesar's heir and future first emperor of Rome. Contrary to popular opinion, Cleopatra herself planned the strategy for the battle and was in command of part of the fleet, which consisted of some of the largest men-of-war ever constructed in the ancient world. The battle lost, Cleopatra and Antony withdrew to Egypt and there elected suicide rather than capture and disgrace. The death of Cleopatra VII ended the Ptolemaic period, one of Egypt's most brilliant cultural epochs.

In general, native pharaonic art forms were continued during the Ptolemaic period. There is virtually no evidence whatsoever of foreign intrusions into the form or functions of such a major temple at Edfu, which was built and constructed entirely during the Ptolemaic period. There the Ptolemies are depicted in several scenes as the dutiful officiants, solemnly offering a variety of items to the various deities of the temple. Their appearance masks the fact that the most important theological aspect of this temple revolves around the falcon-deity Horus in his role as the universal monarch. As a result, the image of this aspect of Horus at Edfu enabled the native priesthood to conduct their rituals in the name of this falcon-pharaoh rather than in the name of one of the Ptolemies, with whom the priesthood was often at odds.

Likewise, the funerary stelae (commemorative tablets) and statues of officials eschew Hellenistic forms and remain loyal to pharaonic sculptural tenets. On occasion one sees what appears to be Hellenistic-looking hair on the heads of some of these officials, who may also be holding foreign attributes. In the final analysis, however, those coiffures and emblems are rendered in accordance with the mimetic principles of ancient Egyptian art and cannot be cited as examples of foreign influence on native traditions.

On the other hand, the Macedonian-Greek overlords of the land did attempt to incorporate into their art aspects of Egypt's long cultural heritage. This process could be accomplished in several ways. On a basic level, the Hellenistic artists could simply sculpt, for example, an image of the goddess Isis in classical style. Several such examples are known. On the other hand, Egyptian concepts were often clothed in Greek garb. So, for instance, the Macedonian appropriation of the native Alexandrian deity Osiris-Apis, who represented the deified and resurrected Apis bull, was given Hellenistic form as Serapis, represented in art as a full bearded, long haired male deity, resembling Zeus or Hades but bearing as his attribute a modius (corn measure) on his head. The completely Hellenistic idiom in which these images are sculpted belies the fact that these images can only be fully understood with reference to the cult of the Egyptian god Osiris. In other cases, the Macedonians felt compelled to inscribe an epitome, usually in Greek, on a pharaonic-styled object, which served as a gloss explaining the nature of the statue to an audience not familiar with Egyptian art. There is no corresponding example of a Hellenistic work of art inscribed in Egyptian for the benefit of the Egyptians.

These artistic differences are graphically understood by a comparison of the architecture and decoration of the three extant Hellenistic tombs at Mustafa Kamal in Alexandria with the temple of Horus at Edfu. In the former, Egyptian elements, such as the sphinx, are used decoratively to suggest an Egyptian ambience, whereas there are no analogous quotations from the Hellenistic record at Edfu.

Furthermore, borrowing of visual motifs and other art forms is not the only manifestation of Macedonian appropriations of pharaonic culture. Recent studies suggest that the idea behind the creation of the great library at Alexandria as a repository for books was a Macedonian response to the “Houses-of-Life,” the scriptoria (writing centers) that were attached to the temples of ancient Egypt (Bianchi, 1989–1990, p. 3). Manetho, for example, writing during the reign of Ptolemy II (285–246), had access to such scriptoria when he wrote a history of pharaonic Egypt in Greek for the benefit of the Macedonians. No Greek penned a similar history in Egyptian. This appropriation of things Egyptian by the Greeks of Egypt is nowhere more graphically illustrated than in the so-called Romance of Alexander the Great, in which the Macedonian conqueror is depicted as the son of the Egyptian god Amun and the legitimate successor of Nectanebo II, the last native pharaoh of the thirtieth dynasty (360–342).

The defeat of Cleopatra and Antony at Actium, the last naval battle of antiquity, and their suicide the following year in 30, left Octavian master of the known Mediterranean world. Fearing that another Egyptian may again rise up to challenge his authority, Augustus, the former Octavian, decreed Egypt the private domain of the Roman imperial household and forbade Romans from visiting the land without first having obtained his authorized visa. As part of this conscious policy, Augustus named Gallus to be the first prefect (governor) of the land. Shortly thereafter, Gallus became inebriated with Egyptian culture and soon erected monuments in his own name near the great pyramids at Giza and at other sites throughout the land. Augustus recalled him, and Gallus, disgraced, committed suicide. When a revolt in southern Arabia forced Augustus to dispatch his Egyptian legions under the direction of his second prefect to the troubled area across the Red Sea, the southern frontier of Egypt revolted, led this time by another woman, the Candace (queen), of the Nubians. Her forces succeeded where Cleopatra's had failed by successfully defeating the Roman legions sent against her in combat. In time, the third prefect, Petronius, reached an accommodation with this Nubian Candace, whereby Roman taxes were remitted and a common border between the Kingdom of Meroë, the Candace's realm, and Roman Egypt was established. [See Meroë.] This frontier would be respected until the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian, when the marauding tribes of the Blemmyes brought instability to the region.

The cultures that developed during the course of the early Roman Empire in Egypt are difficult to define with any precision because ideology is not often made manifest in art. To be sure, classical art forms continued, as revealed by the marble images of Roman emperors Augustus, Hadrian, and others found in Egypt and now on view in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. The cults of the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome as well as cult of Serapis in his Macedonian form were popular, but worship of these deities was not permitted within Egyptian temples proper.

In time the Romans attempted to discourage the pagan Egyptian practices in Egypt. The most graphic expression of this curtailment of religious rights is seen within the temple of Luxor. The central doorway, giving access to the inner sanctum or barque station, was intentionally blocked up and converted into a niche in which the image of the reigning emperor was duly erected. The entire room was then covered with plaster and adorned with frescoes depicting the emperor and his entourage. This remodeling of the Luxor temple effectively prevented the Egyptian priests from carrying the sacred barques of the gods in procession during the annual festivals, thereby depriving the Egyptians of the most popular means of worshiping their deities.

During the course of the first and second centuries CE Egypt prospered, and the city of Alexandria flourished, propelled doubtless by the pharaonic canal that the Roman emperor Trajan reopened to link the Nile and the Red Sea, along which many trading centers were established. As a result, the luxury goods of the Orient—spices and silk—began to appear in quantity in Mediterranean markets. It was doubtless such mercantile interests that caused the Palmyrenes, in the person of Queen Zenobia, to occupy Egypt in the late third century CE. The armed struggles between the forces of Zenobia and those of the Roman emperor Aurelian in the decade between 270 and 280 CE effectively reduced the city of Alexandria to rubble. It has been suggested that these disturbances were the major factors contributing to the damage to the Great Library and the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria herself (see P. M. Frazer, Ptolemaic Alexandria I, Text, Oxford, 1972, p. 16).

At the same time, Christianity, traditionally arriving in Egypt with St. Mark in the first century CE, began to make inroads. By the third century Christians formed thriving communities in Egypt as elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. Soon, for reasons that are too complex to outline here, Christians were subjected to persecutions by the pagans. The pogroms against the Christians in Egypt initiated under Emperor Decius (r. 249–251) were so destructive that the Copts, the present Egyptian Orthodox Christians, mark the beginning of their liturgical calendar with the age of the martyrs who fell during that time. The persecutions escalated in time and culminated during the reign of Diocletian (284–305), who vented his anger not only against the Christians in Egypt but also against the pagans in Alexandria, whose massacre he ordered In 295 CE. To commemorate this triumph, Diocletian erected a single column in Alexandria, which is known locally but erroneously as Pompey's Pillar.

The Edict of Milan, issued in 312 and reaffirmed in 323, granted all the freedom to practice the religion of one's choice. Christians were not favored by the Edict, they were simply no longer persecuted for their beliefs. In 324 Constantine the Great transferred the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium, changing the name of that city to Constantinople; the Byzantine period was thereby inaugurated, and Christianity was openly encouraged. Christian theologians soon began heated theological debates among themselves regarding such matters of doctrine as the nature of Christ. Alexandrian clergymen, doubtless because of the long intellectual tradition enjoyed by the city because of its Great Library and numerous institutions of higher learning, played major roles in these lively dialogues. In 325 the views of Arius, an Alexandrian prelate, on the less-than-divine nature of Christ were condemned by the Council of Nicaea. Between the years 379 and 395, the Roman emperor Theodosius formally declared Christianity the religion of the empire and systematically closed down all pagan institutions, a process that led to the physical destruction by zealous Christians of the great temple of Serapis in Alexandria.

Nevertheless, some pagans continued to practice their older religion. As late as 415, Hypatia, a fascinating woman who is traditionally regarded as the last pagan intellectual in Alexandria, was savagely stoned to death by Christian monks goaded on by the patriarch, Theophilos. Despite these attacks, pagan Egyptians remained loyal to their traditional beliefs. The very last pagan Egyptian inscription ever carved in Egypt is a demotic graffito on the island of Philae dated to 452, one year after the fateful meeting of the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

During the proceedings of this, the fourth ecumenical council, the assembled clerics debated the nature of Christ. The council condemned as heretical the position of the Egyptian Christians and their coreligionists wherein the nature of Christ was monophysite, meaning that Christ's divine and human nature were commingled simultaneously. Insulted by the decision, the Egyptian Christians returned home and steadfastly refused to abide by the decision of the Council, thereby causing an early schism within the Church. Their tenacious embrace of the monophysite (“one nature”) doctrine led to an awkward situation among the Christian community in Egypt because the recognized clerical authority in Alexandria, the Christian patriarch, appointed by the council, was at theological odds with the majority of his fellow Christians throughout the land. The rift was never healed. To this day the Copts of Egypt, descended from those pagan Egyptians who converted to Christianity, remain monophysites. Their liturgical language, Coptic, is itself an alphabetic script based on hieroglyphs and employs letters based on the Greek alphabet to which have been added seven signs modified from demotic, the most cursive form of the ancient Egyptian language. [See Coptic.]

The struggles between the monophysitic Copts and their nominal rulers, the administrators and prelates dispatched to Egypt from Constantinople, created friction within the Christian community. The Sasanians, or Persians, led by Chosroes II, invaded Egypt in 619, having defeated the armies of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. Three years later in 622, the Prophet Muhammad embarked on the Hijrah, his “flight” from Mecca to Medina, thereby firmly establishing Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. In 626 Heraclius expelled the Sasanians and regained Egypt for Byzantium. For the next fourteen years, Heraclius was engaged in a series of military confrontations with the leaders of Islam, whose defeat of the Persians in 637 at al-Qadisiya signaled the end of the Sasanian Empire. The Byzantines and Muslims now engaged in a struggle to control the lands of the Middle East. In 640, Amr ibn al-῾Aṣ, the general of the Islamic caliph ῾Umar, overran the Egyptian outpost at Pelusium and defeated the Byzantine garrison at Babylon, today Old Cairo. The Copts perhaps acquiesced to this takeover, preferring to pay taxes to the caliph in exchange for their religious freedom, rather than to be subjects of their adversarial coreligionists. Amr ibn al-῾Aṣ he proceeded to Alexandria, and captured it in 642. The city was freed by the Byzantine fleet in 645, only to be retaken by Amr ibn al-῾Aṣ the following year. Egypt had fallen, and the path to Spain across North Africa lay open to the Muslims.

During their formative period, Christians and their pagan counterparts were not clearly distinguished. In some instances, the blurring of distinctions among disparate sects existed in antiquity, as the gnostic archive from Nag Hammadi and the religious books recently uncovered at Ismant in the oasis of Dakhleh reveal, in which there appears to be an unmistakable mixture of Christian and decidedly pagan elements. [See Nag Hammadi.]

As difficult as it is to separate Christians from pagans, it is often more problematic to distinguish monophysitic Copts from Byzantine Christians on the basis of the monuments without recourse to textual information. That data enables identification of the clerics within the monastery of Abu Jeremiah at Saqqara as monophysitic Copts. Nevertheless, more progressive academics are beginning to regard Christian art produced in Egypt as a branch of Byzantine art. There is a growing tendency as well to dismiss as Christian many of the monuments, often sculpted in the soft, local limestones, the motifs of which are taken over directly from the repertoire of classical, not pharaonic, Egyptian mythology (Johnson, ed., 1992). Although these monuments are often called “Coptic,” they are better regarded as examples of pagan art, created for those living in Egypt during the Roman Empire, whose roots and traditions can be traced back to the Macedonian-Greek immigrants.

[See also Alexandria; Alexandrian Empire; Byzantine Empire; Ptolemies; Roman Empire; Saqqara; and Seleucids.]


  • Alexandria and Alexandrianisms: Proceedings of a Symposium Held at the J. Paul Getty Museum in May, 1993. Malibu, forthcoming.
  • Bianchi, Robert Steven. Cleopatra's Egypt: Age of the Ptolemies. Brooklyn, 1988.
  • Bianchi, Robert Steven. “The New Alexandriana: A Personal View of the History of the Great Library of Alexandria and the Current Plans for its Revival.” Newsletter of the American Research Center in Egypt, no. 148 (Winter 1989–1990): 1–5.
  • Bowman, Alan K. Egypt after the Pharaohs: 332 BC–AD 32. Berkeley, 1986.
  • Dack, E. van 't, et al. The Judean-Syrian-Egyptian Conflict of 103–101 B.C.: A Multilingual Dossier Concerning a “War of Sceptres.” Collectanea Hellenistica, 1. Brussels, 1989.
  • Johnson, Janet H., ed. Life in a Multi-Cultural Society: Egypt from Cambyses to Constantine and Beyond. University of Chicago, Oriental Institute, Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, no. 51 Chicago, 1992.
  • Pearson, Birger A. “Earliest Christianity in Egypt: Some Observations.” In The Roots of Egyptian Christianity, edited by Birger A. Pearson and James E. Goehring, pp. 132–160. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity, 1. Philadelphia, 1986.
  • Ray, J. D. The Archive of Hor. Egypt Exploration Society, Texts from Excavations, Memoir 2. London, 1976.
  • Samuel, Alan E. The Shifting Sands of History: Interpretations of Ptolemaic Egypt. Publications of the Associations of Ancient Historians, 2. Lanham, Md., 1989.

Robert Steven Bianchi

Islamic Egypt

Following the death of the prophet Muhammad in Medina In ah 10/632 CE his community of believers quickly consolidated their control of Muslims, particularly among those tribes people who believed that their submission to the prophet was personal, hence temporary. The way became clear for carrying the message of Islam to the northern and northeastern areas of the Arabian Peninsula, which were in thrall either to the Sasanian padishah or the Byzantine emperor. Within five years Jerusalem, Damascus, and Ctesiphon were in fealty to the caliph in Medina and very soon thereafter Muslim armies had entered Anatolia and crossed the Oxus River.

Amr ibn al-῾As convinced the caliph, ῾Umar, that with Greater Syria and Iraq under Muslim control, the logical step would be an invasion of Egypt. Commanding an army of about four thousand horsemen, Amr entered Egypt at al-Arish In ah 18/639 CE, took the port city of Pelusium, and arrived at the Byzantine fortress of Babylon early in 640. With reinforcements sent from the Hijaz, Amr proceeded to invest the fortress since it proved impossible to take by storm. Amr positioned his army slightly north of the fortress in a very large encampment surrounded by a ditch where the troops were assigned living areas on the basis of tribal affiliation. In April 641 Babylon fell. Amr continued his campaign toward Alexandria without fear of rear attack. Parts of the original army invaded the Faiyum and eventually conquered Middle and Upper Egypt up to the First Cataract at Aswan. By the end of the year Alexandria was in Muslim hands.

By ῾Umar's orders Amr returned to Fustat and made it his headquarters and capital (῾asimah) from which to plan the further conquest of the contingent portions of the southern littoral of the Mediterranean and the assimilation of Egypt into the ever-expanding dar al-Islam (Muslim territory). Although this action triggered a certain eclipse of Alexandrian prominence, it laid the foundation for the modern city of Cairo.

It is difficult to understand fully the reasons that facilitated the seemingly easy conquest of so rich and vitally important a part of the Byzantine Empire. Egypt had been rent by the Sasanian invasion of 619 and the subsequent decade of occupation, a ravaged pawn in the larger unresolved power struggle of the Sasanian and Byzantine polities. The religious doctrinal strife that accompanied the advent of Christianity was fully echoed in Egypt where the Melkites (those loyal to the Orthodox church) proved unequal to the task of converting the very strongly monastic-oriented Coptic-speaking masses (the Monothelites). Whereas the Melkites might be seen as dominating the cities and fortresses along the Nile, the Copts won the allegiance of the peasantry. Their apparent neutrality during the Arab conquest facilitated Amr's progress and thus guaranteed sympathetic treatment at his hands. Culturally, the countryside had been but lightly hellenized, insuring the longer life of Coptic as compared with Greek in the slow arabization of Egypt.

Immediately following the conquest, three parallel and intermingling processes can be identified. First, Arabic replaced Greek as the linguistic medium of government, and the Umayyad caliph ῾Abd al-Malik ordered Hellenic and Sasanian effigies to be removed from the coinage. All the inscriptions were in Arabic. Bilingual documents were gradually replaced by entirely Arabic texts written by a new scribal class, most of whom were recruited from among the large number of early converts to Islam or the swell of immigrants arriving from the Arabic-speaking provinces of the Arabian Peninsula. So great was the prominence of Arabic as the mode of contact with the authorities that even the religious teaching texts of the Coptic church became bilingual toward the end of the tenth century.

Second, as the scanty sources imply, there was very little pressure on the Egyptian population to convert. However, advancement and full admission to governing status entailed conversion to Islam. Early in the eight century local Coptic dignitaries were replaced by Arabic-speaking Muslims as tax collectors and adjudicators, and the scene for accelerated conversion was set. Exact figures are rare, but the greater part of the population seems to have been Muslim at the time of the Fatimid conquest In ah 358/969 CE.

Third, a process of acculturation began with soldiers from the conquering army who settled down in Egypt and immigrants in ever-increasing numbers from Greater Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and even Iran. The long history of the Nile Valley dictated an adaptation to the mores and regulations (particularly agricultural) so delicate that to impose others too harshly would disturb the rich ebb and flow of daily life. Very soon the settlers found themselves celebrating national feasts of pharaonic origin, utilizing the millennial norms of planting and harvesting to schedules that followed Ptolemaic and Coptic formulas and finding themselves accommodating rather than dictating.

Politically, Egypt mirrored the shifts of power within the dar al-Islam without substantial injury. The seizure of the caliphate by the ῾Abbasids In ah 132/750 CE signaled little to the population except at Fustat when a new government precinct called al-Askar appeared slightly to the north. When Ahmad ibn Tulun became governor in 254/868, the calm was somewhat broken as he assumed autonomous authority. He reduced the revenues paid to Baghdad and used this extra income to raise his own army with which he arrogated the role of protector of Syria. These new moneys also permitted an ambitious building program centered on Ibn Tulun's new ruling quarter of al-Qata'i (“the fiefs,” which were parceled to his most loyal officers) to the north-east of Fustat-Askar. Ibn Tulun's crowning works were his palace at the foot of the Muqattam Hills; his Friday mosque, one of the pearls of Islamic architecture, on Jabal Yashkur; and an aqueduct to carry water to al-Qata'i. [See Mosque.]

Nevertheless, the Tulunids remained loyal to the ῾Abbasid caliphate. Egypt was prosperous and generally at peace. However, a new and powerful threat attended from the west where the heterodox Isma'ili Fatimid dynasty had established its own caliphate. Baghdad reacted quickly, sending in 292/905 an army under Muhammad ibn Tughj, who ruled under the title of al-Ikhshid. The ῾Abbasids repelled the early Fatimid attacks and concentrated their efforts on maintaining the prosperity of the country. A large number of Iraqi Arabs and Turks came to Egypt as soldiers and bureaucrats. Eventually, Baghdad was too strapped to send yet another army when the Fatimid forces under Gawhar appeared In 358/969. Egypt was taken and loyalty was sworn to a Shi῾i caliphate for the next two centuries.

The Fatimid dynasty (ah 358–567/969–1171 CE) represents a watershed in Egyptian Islamic history. Because the Fatimids could not destroy the Sunni ῾Abbasid caliphate and were unable to maintain their ascendancy in the Maghrib, they concentrated on Egypt. They gave to the country an independence that capped the autonomy achieved by the Tulunids. Egypt enjoyed an unparalleled prosperity based on improved agriculture; on control of the trade with China and southwestern Asia; and on discovery of large gold deposits in the Wadi Allaqi in Nubia. The Fatimids regularized trade between Egypt and inner Africa, which offered slaves and ivory, and welcomed European and Byzantine merchants with whom they expanded their commercial and industrial endeavours, particularly in textiles.

The Fatimids had a high sense of their mission to win the allegiance of the entire dar al-Islam and particularly to propagandize of their family descent from the Prophet's daughter. It would seem that they were imbued with an almost Byzantine sense of ritual and ceremonial. All of these aspirations were bodied forth in their splendid new walled capital of Cairo (Ar., al-Qahira, “the Victorious”), laid out as a formally divided rectangle with eight gates to the northeast of the amalgamated Fustat-Askar-Qata'i. Within were two palaces divided by a plaza and al-Azhar Mosque, originally an institution for training Fatimid propagandists. Later the mosque of al-Hakim was built immediately adjacent to the two principal northern gates and dedicated in 400/1010.

Fatimid piety echoed the ancient Egyptian veneration of the dead and the importance of the tomb structure. Domed mausolea appeared in the Southern Cemetery honoring ancestors and immediate family. The purported head of the Prophet's grandson Husayn was interred in a splendid mausoleum-cum-mosque within the royal quarter. All of these shrines were visited and venerated by Sunni and Shi῾i alike.

This glamour and prosperity were threatened. The Seljuk Turks who took over the ῾Abbasid hegemony declared an aim of destroying the heretical Fatimid dynasty. Despite the conquest of Anatolia and the incursion of the Crusaders against the Seljuks, the Fatimids did not take advantage of their reprieve, except to rebuild the walls of Cairo in stone and to enclose the mosque of al-Hakim. They could not govern either their armies or their bureaucracy. Succession was attended by family friction, deceit, and the mishandling of policy by successive viziers, some of whom were Christians and Jews, who were proof of Fatimid tolerance. Low Nile floodings caused famine. The new Seljuk principates of Syria were pressing upon the Crusader states; both hungered for the riches of Fatimid Egypt and by 564/1169 both were marching on it. The vizier Shawar set fire to the older parts of the city, particularly Fustat, and then invited the Syrian army to enter Cairo to protect it from the forays of the Crusader army. The commander, Shirkuh, had himself proclaimed vizier, and after his death his nephew, Salah ad-Din (Saladin) assumed command and deposed the Fatimid caliph in 567/1171.

The peaceful transition of religious allegiance to the ῾Abbasid Sunni caliphate was proof of just how little the Fatimid ideology had penetrated the Egyptian community. Salah ad-Din introduced strict Sunnism on Egypt inspired by the thrust of what can be termed the “Seljuk dispensation.” With the introduction of the madrasah (theological school), he insured an orthodox legal system and a cadre of specifically trained bureaucrats. He imposed the iqta system whereby the productive land of Egypt was tied to the maintenance of the army with a consequent diminution of private property. When his nominal ruler, Nur ad-Din of Damascus, died, Salah ad-Din assumed the title of sultan and took charge of the counter-Crusade that eventually restored Jerusalem to the dar al-Islam and secured Greater Syria to the rule of his dynasty, the Ayyubids. The final portion of the dispensation, the khanqah (a convent for the training of Sufis to eliminate the possibility of any Shi῾i strain taking root), was firmly established in Egypt through the patronage of the sultan and his family.

In all other respects the Ayyubids built on the heritage of the Fatimids. They destroyed none of the mausolea, which through visitation and invocation had become part of Cairene life; indeed they went further by turning the idea toward Sunni ends with the erection of the large domed structure in the Southern Cemetery, which housed the remains of Imam Shafi῾i (d. 204/820), the founder of the madhhab (legal school) now professed by the majority of Egyptians.

Where taste was concerned, the earlier Fatimid tendencies toward revived classical and Maghribi models were replaced by those emanating from Greater Syria. This was particularly noticeable in the great Citadel (initiated by Salah ad-Din) built on the middle peaks of the Muqattam hills with walls spreading to take in al- Qahira to the north and much of Fustat to the south. By the end of the twelfth century CE Egypt was orthodox in belief, prosperous, well protected, and connected to the markets of the Mediterranean, the Far East, and southeast Asia. In the following century, this strong entity eliminated the Crusader states and protected itself from the Mongols.

[See also ῾Abbasid Caliphate; Ayyubid-Mamluk Dynasties; Cairo; Fatimid Dynasty; and Fustat.]


For the only synoptic surveys of Islamic Egypt, see Stanley Lane-Poole, A History of Egypt in the Middle Ages (London, 1901,) and Gaston Wiet, L'Égypte arabe (Paris, 1937.) A deeper, more idiosyncratic study of the evolution of Egypt's history in the Islamic period is available in Jean-Claude Garcin, Espaces, pouvoirs et idéologies de l'Égypte médiévale (London, 1987.)

The classic study of the Conquest remains Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt, edited by P. M. Fraser (Oxford, 1978.) A far more mettlesome argument is conveyed in Vassilios Christides' article on the period 602–750, “Miṣr,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 7, pp. 152–160 (Leiden, 1960– ).

For the development of the capital through the Fatimid period, see the article on Fustat. For more particular aspects of the Fatimid period, see Leila Al-Imad, The Fatimid Vizierate, 969–1172 (Berlin, 1990), and Paula Sanders, The Court Ceremonial of the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt (Syracuse, 1994). Important economic data is provided in Claude Cahen, Makhzumiyyat (Leiden, 1977). Wheeler M. Thackston's fully annotated translation, Nasir-i Khusraw's “Book of Travels” (Albany, N.Y., 1986), adds depth to the received view of Cairo's apogee of prosperity in the first half of the eleventh century CE. The architecture of the period is surveyed in K. A. C. Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture, vol. 2 (Oxford, 1940,) and The Muslim Architecture of Egypt, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1952–1959.)

Short though it was, the Ayyubid period was of vast importance in that it set the scene for the Mamluks. See the crucial bibliography in Heinz Halm, “Miṣr,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 7, pp. 164–165 (Leiden, 1960– ), covering the period 1171–1250 CE. For the urban growth of Cairo, see Neil D. Mackenzie, Ayyubid Cairo: A Topographical Study (Cairo, 1992).

George T. Scanlon