In the third century B. C., an Egyptian priest named Manetho categorized the long line of Egyptian kings into thirty dynasties or families. Modern historians have grouped these dynasties into seven larger units that correspond to the main divisions of Egypt’s history. The three greatest periods of Egyptian history are identified as the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. These were preceded by the Early Dynastic Period and followed by the Late Dynastic era. Between the major kingdom ages were two transitional periods of lesser significance, the First and Second Intermediate Periods.
The Early Dynastic Period (3200-2780 B. C.) comprises the first two dynasties. King Menes ruled Upper and Lower Egypt, and conquered the delta and established a new capital at Memphis. It was in this era that hieroglyphic writing first appeared.
The Old Kingdom ( 2780 – 2280 B. C.) comprises roughly the third though the sixth dynasties. It was during this glorious age that the pyramids were created. Pharaoh Djoser was founder of the third dynasty, and built the first pyramid at Sakkara. Its distinctive appearance has earned it the name “step pyramid”. The stone structure was 200 feet high and stood in a vast enclosure nearly 600 yards long and over 300 yards wide. Associated with the pyramid were a number of special buildings, including a mortuary temple. The fourth dynasty (2680-2560) is one of the significant eras in Egyptian history. It was during this period that the Great Pyramids of Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus were built at Giza, which is eight miles southwest of modern Cairo. To the east of his pyramid, Chephren had the Great Sphinx carved out of solid limestone.
The First Intermediate Period (2280 – 2052 B. C.) consisted of the seventh through tenth dynasties. This was a time of decline. The reigns of these pharaohs were brief and not known for any major undertakings. There were a few brief fights for control of power during this time until Mentuhotep II of Thebes reunited all Egypt under his control.
The Middle Kingdom (2134 – 1778 B. C.) consisted of the eleventh and twelfth dynasties. Egypt experienced a period of peace, effective government, and considerable prosperity during this time. Amenemhet I, founder of the twelfth dynasty, established a new administrative center just south of Memphis. Egypt extended its control as far as the second Nile cataract, or rapid, and established trading posts in the region of the third. New and larger copper mines were worked at Sarabit el-Khadem in Sinai. A series of forts were established along Egypt’s Sinai frontier to defend the land from enemies to the north. It was during this period that famine led Abraham to visit Egypt in search of food.
The Second Intermediate Period (1778 – 1567) consisted of the thirteenth through seventeenth dynasties. They began with a rapid succession of kings and a corresponding weakening of the power of the throne. Ranking dignitaries exercised the power represented by the pharaoh. Semitic people from Asia began to gain in strength and numbers in the delta area and eventually overthrew the reigning pharaoh, thereby establishing the fifteenth dynasty. These people were called Hyksos, meaning foreign rulers, and we know very little about them. They ruled Egypt from their delta capital first at Memphis and later at Zoan until about 1570 B. C. The Hyksos’ strength stemmed in part from their skillful use of a new weapon, the war chariot. It is unlikely that Joseph rose to power under their rule, but years later the Israelites who journeyed to Egypt with Jacob in 1876 B. C. were apparently treated favorably by the Hyksos because they shared a common Semitic origin.
The New Kingdom (1580 – 1085 B. C.) was entered into when Ahmose I, founder of the eighteenth dynasty, drove the Hyksos from the land. This became the age of Egypt’s supreme power, expansion, and wealth. It was during this period that the great temples were built at Luxor, Karnak, Abu-Simbel, and Abydos. The Israelites experienced their bondage and oppression in Egypt at this time, although exact dates are not known.
The Late Dynastic Period (1085 – 332 B. C.) cover the twenty-first through the thirtieth dynasties and ended with the conquest of Alexander the Great. During this period, three pharaohs had significant contact with Israel. The first was Sheshonk, (Shishak) who invaded Judah and took treasures from Jerusalem in the time of Rehoboam. The second was Necho II, who marched north to help Assyria against rising Babylonia. Josiah of Judah attacked him at Megiddo and was killed. The third was Hophra (Apries), who was apparantly the pharaoh who came to Zedekiah’s assistance when he was under attack by Nebuchadnezzar.
After the death of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, one of his generals, assumed rule in Egypt. A long line of Hellenistic rulers emerged, and their conflicts with the Seleucid rulers in Syria are described in Daniel 11. Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers. After she and her lover, Mark Antony, were defeated at the battle of Actium by Octavian (Augustus), Julius Caesar’s appointed heir and Antony’s political rival, Egypt was annexed as a Roman province. This Roman domination lasted for almost seven centuries thereafter.
THE SITES OF EGYPT
Memphis was founded by Menes, who united Upper and Lower Egypt in the very first dynasty. This city, which has now almost completely disappeared, was the administrative and religious center of Lower Egypt. It served as the capital of Egypt during the first two dynasties and the Old Kingdom dynasty. The Hyksos also ruled from Memphis for a time. It was located on the west bank of the Nile about fifteen miles south of Cairo. It was distinguished by a fine harbor and many temples, palaces and royal tombs. Only Thebes was comparable to Memphis in religious, political, and economic importance.
Memphis was the center of worship of Ptah and his living emblem, the Apis bull. Ptah was regarded as the oldest of the gods and the creator of mankind. Tombs of these sacred bulls are found at nearby Sakkara. The golden calf worshiped by the Israelites in the wilderness may have arisen from an association with the bull cult of Memphis.
The city was quite vulnerable to invaders because it was located at the head of the delta. It was periodically attacked by Assyrian and Babylonian rulers and was eventually captured by Cambyses, son of Cyrus. In Roman times, the Emperor Theodosius ordered the destruction of its temples and statues, and it was utterly destroyed as the prophets had predicted. Stones from the buildings of the city were later used to build the city of Cairo. Two great statues of Ramses II have been uncovered at Memphis, along with an alabaster and a red granite sphinx, but little else remains of the once great city.
They were built during the fourth dynasty, about five centuries before Abraham, and are located about eight miles southwest of modern-day Cario. The largest pyramid, Cheops, covers thirteen acres, is 450 feet high (originally 481 feet), and is composed of 2,300,000 blocks of limestone. It is estimated that it took 100,000 slaves twenty years to build this great pyramid.
To the southwest, Chephren built a slightly smaller pyramid which was 447 feet high. This structure retains some of the smooth surface stone near its summit. To the east, under his direction, the Great Sphinx was carved out of natural rock. The sphinx has the body of a lion and the head of a man. The depiction of a royal beard and royal headdress suggests that the head is of a king. It is 240 feet long and 66 feet high and lies in repose as the “guardian” of the pyramids.
The third pyramid built by Mycerinus is dwarfed by the others, being only 204 feet high. There are also six much smaller pyramids that are called ‘pyramids of the queeens’ and also situated at this same area.
Close to each pyramid are the mastabas – flat roofed, free-standing tombs of the royal officials and priests. Also associated with each pyramid is a funerary temple where the priests conducted regular services on behalf of the dead kings.
Thebes, biblical No or No-Amon, is located approximately four hundred miles up the Nile from Cairo. It rose to prominence as the administrative center of Upper Egypt during the eleventh dynasty and became the capital of the New Kingdom at the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty. Not only was Thebes an important political center, it was the central place of worship of Amon, who was later linked with the sun god Re. It was situated on the east bank of the Nile. Just across the river is the Valley of the Kings, which is noted for its many mortuary temples and royal tombs. It was here that the treasure-laden tomb of the now-famous “King Tut” was discovered. On the west bank of the river are the two great temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor. These cover about one hundred acres. Karnak is said to be the largest temple complex in the world. It was built, enlarged, and modified by Egyptian rulers over a period of nearly two thousand years. The largest temple at Karnak is the Great Temple of Amon. There is an avenue of sphinxes constructed by Ramses II in 1292 B. C. that links Karnak with the temple complex at Luxor, which is two miles to the south.
The land of Egypt provides a rich historical and cultural background for biblical studies as they relate to the Israelites’ sojourn in that ancient empire and the exodus that was to follow. Many other Egyptian cities of lesser importance are mentioned in Scripture. Joseph married the daughter of a priest of On. The Israelites built the storage cities of Pithom and Raamses. After the destruction of Jerusalem, many Jews fled to Tahpanhes. Alexandria was the birthplace of the converted Jewish preacher, Apollos. The land of Egypt definitely played a huge part in God’s plan for the human race because so much happened there.
Below is an approximate map of the cities in Egypt which were talked about in this text: