When people know you’re “well traveled” they make assumptions. Rather than ask you, “Have you been to a particular destination” they’ll ask, “How did you like a place?” For years now that’s been happening with Egypt. Probably because I love history, people assumed I’d been there, but I haven’t. What to see in Egypt always ended up on next year’s itinerary.
Due to the pandemic, travel was pushed forward. However, Egypt was in the planning stages when the pandemic began. Now the trip planning is coming back to life. Much of the trip planning, however, was done and my interest in history and culture never stops! As I learn, I share, so thought it would be fun to write about some of the fascinating things I learned about Egypt and lead you on this armchair tour of this extraordinary culture and destination. You might just want to add Egypt to your own bucket list of places to visit.
Egypt: Exploring the Land of the Pharaohs
For almost 3,000 years (3,100 – 332 B.C.) Ancient Egypt was a central hub of human civilization. We’re still fascinated by the achievements of our Egyptian ancestors, and we still strive to understand their customs and beliefs. Can we even begin to imagine what the world of the ancient Egyptians must have been like.
Read on to learn more about the Ancient Egyptians as well as modern day Egypt.
I know, I know—let’s get to the fun stuff and talk about mummies and pyramids!
Yet there is so much more to the study of Egypt—a field known as Egyptology. This includes the study of Egyptian language, history, religion, art, and architecture all the way from the 5th millennium B.C. through the 4th century A.D.
Here is a basic “Egyptology 101” with useful information you’ll need to understand what made the ancient Egyptians “tick.” Let’s start by taking a closer look at the religion of the ancient Egyptians, aspects of their life, and gain a better idea about the main pharaohs and temples.
You must go back a long way to see how it all began.
In northeastern Africa, late Stone Age people eventually shifted from hunting to agriculture. The Egyptians called their country kemet, or black land, named for the dark, rich soil along the Nile.
Their agricultural background established the conditions for the next generations of Egyptians to create the technology and tools they needed. This lead to developing the arts, architecture, religion, and politics that structured the Egyptian empire. I like to think of it as the first STEM-based society [explanation: STEM is the 21st century term we use that refers to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math].
Pro Tip: Be sure to get the best deals on hotels. If I’m paying cash for a hotel stay, I always use Pruvo to monitor for price drops!
To appreciate Egyptian civilization, you must first understand how people thought and what they valued. This will help you see Egypt as she is today, as well.
They believed the soul was immortal, and life was just one phase of an eternal journey. The Egyptians believed if an individual lived a good life and obeyed the gods, they could advance to an eternal paradise.
There is a reverence for death and burial rites within Egyptian civilization. Yet if you consider the incredible temples, monuments, tombs and artwork that the Egyptians left behind, you’ll also notice a celebration of life.
In the Pre-dynastic Period (6000-3150 BCE) the idea of worshipping many gods took shape. According to the creation myth, Atum was the god who started existence. Another god, Heka, personified the eternal force, or magic (called heka) that resulted in a central Egyptian value of balance and harmony (referred to as ma’at).
According to Joshua Mark of the Ancient History Encyclopedia:
“All of the gods and all of their responsibilities went back to ma’at and heka. The sun rose and set as it did and the moon traveled its course across the sky and the seasons came and went in accordance with balance and order, which was possible because of these two agencies. Ma’at was also personified as a deity, the goddess of the ostrich feather, to whom every king promised his full abilities and devotion. The king was associated with the god Horus in life, and Osiris in death.”
The Egyptians worshipped many gods and goddesses, and Osiris (also called god of the underworld), was a central deity. Many shrines and temples were constructed to honor him. Osiris was important because the Egyptians believed they needed to navigate the underworld. But before they undertook this post-death journey, they found it necessary to preserve the body. For even better navigation luck, bodies were often buried with spells, and figures called shabti.
In the hierarchy of religious beliefs, gods were the highest deities, followed by the king, the dead, and finally the common people. The divine power of the king became even greater through the rituals the people performed.
The king could choose his own queen (sometimes king and queen were close relations). A king could also have more than one wife.
Egyptian religion adapted with time. It incorporated Greek and Roman gods when Egypt came under those rulers. Gnosticism, which incorporated some Christian beliefs, was observed in the first century A.D. Centuries later, the Egyptians adapted Islam ideals. Modern Egypt today is mainly a Muslim country.
- Do you use travel rewards credit cards to earn miles that take you to amazing places? I do and so can you!. Don’t miss out on the best current travel credit card offers!
Life in Ancient Egypt
Centers like Memphis and Thebes grew in population. Most people were poor, with a small number of elite. In the 3rd millennium BCE (3,000 B.C.) historians estimate there were 1.5 million Egyptians. Twice that number inhabited the region by the late 2nd millennium.
Theoretically the royalty owned the land, though it was managed by high officials. Common people worked the land, enjoying the produce of the fertile Nile delta. These farming folks were obliged to work on the land. They were not exactly slaves, but again, they weren’t free to move wherever they pleased. Slavery wasn’t common, in fact. It applied mainly to foreigners or captives, or people so poor they had to sell themselves into service.
The Egyptians were advanced in many areas, such as agriculture, writing, and practice of medicine. One of their developed skills was large stone masonry, using a large work force to create the pyramids. More than two million stone blocks, each weighing about two and half tons, were used to build each of the great pyramids.
The architecture and art of Egypt is impressive. Most temples and tombs honored the dead. Structures were decorated in stone relief, with stone and wood statues. The decorations most likely documented real events and rituals of the time (the first newspapers!).
A Sense of Egyptian History: 30 Dynasties
Historians can trace 30 (some say 31) distinct Egyptian dynasties. Each was ruled by a pharaoh. That word originated from the phrase per-aa, meaning “Great House”. It’s hard to imagine, but the pyramids were actually in place for over 2,000 years by the time Cleopatra came along.
Here is a very brief outline of the various dynasties and their important contributions.
The Early Dynastic
This early period (3100-2575 B.C.) set the foundation for all Egyptian civilization. It encompassed the first three dynasties. Papyrus was invented, and the hieroglyph writing system evolved. The earliest pyramids were built near Memphis (the Step Pyramid of Djoser). This might have been built to honor the high priest Imohtep, who later was known as the god of healing.
The Old Kingdom
Dynasties 4-6 occurred in what we know as the “Old Kingdom” (2650-2150 B.C.). The majority of large construction projects took place in this “golden age.” King Sneferu was responsible for building three pyramids during his reign. His offspring built the Pyramids of Giza, which were completed around 2,500 BC. These are considered one of the wonders of the ancient world.
This raises a good question: Who built the pyramids?
Apparently, the Egyptian farmers were also pretty good stone masons. After harvest time, the government gave them plenty of bread and up to five liters of beer daily so they could work in teams on pyramid construction.
Dynasties 7-10 occurred from 2150-2030 B.C. This marks the collapse of the Old Kingdom. No one knows exactly why the government collapsed at this time. Researchers think that climate change and drought might have been reasons.
The Middle Kingdom
Dynasties 11-13 are called the “Middle Kingdom,” which occurred from 2030-1640 B.C. Egypt was again united into a single country under one government. During this period, pharaohs were buried inside hidden tombs rather than pyramids. Immigrants from Palestine and other areas came to the region. Their arrival brought imported goods like animal breeds, crops, bronze work, pottery, and weaving. New words also entered the language.
The New Kingdom
Dynasties 18-20 occurred from 1550-1070 B.C. A powerful and wealthy military class replaced the tradition of hereditary leadership. Egypt expanded her borders. Pyramid building declined, but there were more rock-cut tombs. Akehenaten became the king, and ordered adaptation of one deity. His son Tutankhamun only lived to be 17. But we know a good deal about him since his tomb was never plundered or disturbed—for over 3,000– years until it was discovered in 1922.
The famous Valley of the Kings was constructed during this era. The horse, chariot, and bronze weapons were introduced at this time.
Dynasties 21-24 occurred from 1070-713 B.C., a time called the “third intermediate period.” Egyptian civilization had begun to decline.
Dynasties 25-30 occurred 712-332 B.C. This is the Late Period.
In 332 BC Alexander the Great incorporated Egypt into the Macedonian Empire. The Egyptians never had self-rule again.
Egypt’s Top Pharaohs
Who were the most important pharaohs of ancient Egypt? That’s up for debate, but here’s a quick list, provided by Ancient Egypt Online.
Tutankhamun (aka King Tut) restored the capital to Thebes after the death of Akhenaten and restored the worship of the old gods. Later pharaohs erased his name from some king lists. However, scholars found his tomb’s goods intact in the 1920s.
Cleopatra VII was the last pharaoh of Egypt who tried to hold off the Romans under Augustus. She ruled beside three pharaohs including her young son and was the lover of Marc Antony.
Ramses II ruled during the New Kingdom for either 66 years. He built structures all over Egypt. Many of his statues and temples are still standing today. He is probably the most prolific of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, siring over 100 children with more than a dozen wives.
Ramses III was the last king of the New Kingdom and is considered the last great pharaoh. He was murdered by one of his wives.
Hatshepsut ruled during the New Kingdom for around 20 years. She organized military campaigns and sent out trade expeditions to bring exotic goods to Egypt.
Akhenaten ruled during the New Kingdom for less than 20 years. Scholars call him the hieratic pharaoh because he forbade the worship of the old gods. He built Amarna as the center for the worship of his god, Aten.
Khufu also known as Cheops, ruled during the Old Kingdom and built the Great Pyramid.
Djoser ruled during the Old Kingdom and built the first true stone pyramid, the Step Pyramid.
Thutmose III was the 6th pharaoh of the 18th dynasty. He ruled Egypt for 45 years and created the largest empire ever in Egypt. Thutmose was buried in the Valley of the Kings.
Amenhotep III was the son of Thutmose IV and was the 9th pharaoh of the 18th dynasty. He ruled during the peak of ancient Egypt’s power.
Egypt’s Most Famous Temples
In addition to the pyramids, ancient Egyptian structures and ruins include numerous temples. You can look up this intriguing website list.
So many temples, pyramids, and fascinating artifacts, so little time……
To bring you up to the present, Egypt under the Ottoman rule lasted from 1517-1867. This was followed by a succession of shorter occupations, including French and other Arab rule. Egypt became a British protectorate in 1915.
The Egyptians protested British rule. It took several more decades before they were able to establish the Republic of Egypt, an independent country. Egypt gained independence in 1922. Three major presidents governed Egypt in modern times (Gamal Abdel Nasser from 1954-1970; Anwar Sadat from 1971-1981; and Hosni Mubarak from 1981-2011).
Today Egypt has a parliamentary system with elected members. The chief of state is also determined by majority vote. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is Egypt’s president. He was elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2018.
The territory of Egypt has shifted over the centuries.
Egypt shares borders with Israel, the Gaza Strip, Sudan, and Libya. With its location in northern Africa and proximity to Asia, it’s considered the center of the Arab world today. Egypt manages the Sinai Peninsula, and is the only country that joins Africa with other areas of the Eastern Hemisphere. It has a population of about 67 million. Over the years many immigrants from other Arab nations have greatly influenced Egypt. About 94% of Egyptians are Muslim, and the principles of Islam guide daily life and customs.
Deciding what to see in Egypt is no small task. Looking back, the civilization of ancient Egypt still dazzles us today. Early Egypt contributed to our modern life in so many ways: the development of language (including making paper), farming (and land measurement), metallurgy, construction and architecture, and insight about religion and government (to name just a few). Modern day Egypt has evolved into a flourishing country that plays a critical role in the world, and especially the Middle East.
From our armchairs, or maybe one day when we see Egypt in person, it’s awe inspiring to connect back to this amazing culture, and better understand how it became the country it is today.
- These Hacks Save Money on Every Hotel Stay
- When I book award tickets for my international travels, I always rely on Juicy Miles! They get me the best deals to maximize my miles and points.
- 9 Awesome Travel Accessories To Pack for Your Next Trip
- My Favorite Travel Resources and Products
The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.