Ancient Egypt: An Introduction
Shawn C. KnightSpring 2009
(This document last revised December 2, 2008)
1 Egypt’s name and historical framework
derives from the Greek
, which came from
, “House of theSpirit of Ptah”, the great temple of Ptah at Memphis. For much of pharaonic history, the Egyptianscalled their own country
, “Black Land”, as we shall see later in this article, or
,“Beloved Country”. Modern Egyptians, who speak Arabic, usually refer to the country even moresimply as
, “the country”, which is a usage from the Qur’an.One of the most often-cited sources of historical data for ancient Egypt is Manetho. This manwas a native of Lower Egypt in the 3rd century BCE
, during the reign of Ptolemy II.
He wasa priest at Heliopolis, a center of Egyptian scholarship, and for the king he wrote a history of Egypt. Unfortunately, we no longer have Manetho’s original history; all we have are excerpts fromhis works quoted by later historians such as Africanus (300 CE) and Eusebius (340 CE). Africanusand Eusebius do not even agree between themselves on all details, so six centuries of distance fromManetho took their toll, aside from the errors we must assume his original work contained. In fact,Eusebius in turn is known from two later copyists, and
disagree!Nevertheless, it was Manetho who gave us the traditional breakdown of pharaonic Egypt into theThirty Dynasties, and he included with each dynasty the location in Egypt from which that rulingfamily came. To a certain degree, then, all of modern Egyptology builds on Manetho: correctingthe errors and ﬁlling in the missing details of his history. Some modern scholars label the periodsof Egyptian history after native rulership ended as additional dynasties, appended to Manetho’soriginal thirty.
2 The problem of precise dating
It is very diﬃcult to provide exact modern dates of events in Egyptian history. Major events inEgyptian history are not always attested in the records of its neighbors, and vice versa. So for muchof pharaonic history, we can’t really hold up Egypt next to another civilization and say “Oh look,Pharaoh So-and-So took the throne the same year King Such-and-Such of Assyria married his thirdwife.” We have far too few examples of this sort of thing.To make matters worse, unlike (for example) the Romans and the Maya, the Egyptians don’tseem to have cared much for keeping track of long-term dates, at least not in a convenient uniﬁedformat. Dates are invariably recorded in terms of the regnal year of the current pharaoh, so everytime a new pharaoh took the throne, the counter was reset to “1”.Fortunately for Egyptologists, the Egyptians
keep meticulously detailed lists of the pharaohs—presumably used by Manetho in compiling his history—including the length of their reigns and theirlives, and these numbers are often given to the precision of days, not merely years. Given the fewcorrelations we have between events in Egypt and events in other civilizations, we should then beable to refer to the king-lists and count backwards from known dates: laborious, but reliable. Right?
Throughout these lecture notes, the terms “Before the Common Era” (BCE) and “Common Era” (CE) are usedinstead of the traditional
Emery, Walter Bryan.
. Penguin Books, 1961, p. 23.