Powerful chiefdoms are emerging along the middle Nile valley.
One of the main roles of these chiefdoms is to control the flood waters of the Nile, so as to irrigate the lands along the river banks effectively. Only thus can the fields be made fertile and the growing population of the Nile valley fed.
This requires the proper co-ordination of the work of thousands of people, in building canals and dykes and digging irrigation channels. The chiefs therefore exercise a high degree of control over the lives of their subjects. They are aided by a hierarchy of officials and overseers, groups of people who are developing the skills - in record keeping, mathematics, engineering and management - which will over the coming centuries bring to fruition the magnificent achievements of one of the great civilizations of world history, Ancient Egypt.
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Within the long, narrow valley of the river Nile, powerful chiefdoms fought and conquered each other in the centuries leading up to 3000 BC, until one emerged to cover the entire land. Thus was founded the "Old Kingdom" of Ancient Egypt.
The kingdom is governed by a ruling class of officials and priests. This group directs the lives of the people in the name of the pharaohs, god-kings who rule from their capital, Memphis.
Even by this early date the Egyptians have developed one of the great civilizations of the ancient world. The Pyramids of Giza, some of the most famous structures in all human history, have already been built, and sculptors are producing statues which will set the standard for Ancient Egyptian art for centuries to come.
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The civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia are now flourishing in the Middle East. click to view
The lands of Syria and Canaan are home to small cities and important trade routes. click to view
The civilization of Ancient Egypt now flourishes in the Nile valley. click to view
Over the past thousand years Egypt has experienced periods of strength and unity, and also of weakness and division. At this date, however, the land has just been re-united under powerful pharaohs of what modern scholars call the "New Kingdom" of Ancient Egypt. They have swiftly imposed Egyptian control over the peoples surrounding the Nile valley to south, east and west. The coming centuries will see New Kingdom Egypt expand to rule a large empire, from Palestine in the north to Nubia in the south.
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The powerful Bronze Age empires of Egypt, the Mitanni, the Hittites and Babylonia dominate the Middle East. click to view
Syria and Canaan are lands of small city-states and migrant nomads. click to view
While the civilization of Ancient Egypt reaches new heights, farming based on new tropical plants is being pioneered south of the Sahara. click to view
The influence of Egypt is beginning to be felt. click to view
The period after 1500 BC is one of the most successful chapters in Ancient Egypt’s history, seeing her as one of the greatest powers of the day, with an empire stretching into Palestine and Syria in the north and Nubia in the south. They also witness the construction of the great temple complexes at Luxor and in the Valley of the Kings. It is during this period that the boy-king Tutankhamun briefly reigns, as well as Ancient Egypt's most famous pharaoh, Ramesses II.
Since about 1200 BC, however, this most enduring civilization of the ancient world has been slipping into decline. She has lost her empire in Palestine and Nubia, has suffered invasions across all her borders, and has experienced political weakness at home. In the coming centuries Egypt will fall under the rule of alien empires.
Read the full Ancient Egyptian History
Invasions have devastated the old centres of civilization, but important new developments, such as the use of iron, the appearance of the alphabet and the rise of Israel, with its monotheistic religion, have taken place. click to view
The Phoenicians and Israelites are peoples who will change history. click to view
Farming and cattle herding is spreading in western and central Africa. click to view
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The camel has been domesticated, and trade routes now cross the great deserts of Arabia. click to view
The great days of Ancient Egypt are now long past. Over the past few centuries Egypt has been invaded and occupied by several different peoples, most recently by the Persians, in 525 BC. Egypt is now merely one amongst many provinces of the huge Persian empire.
From this time on, for well over two thousand years, Egypt will be under foreign rulers. When the country again comes under a native dynasty, the ancient civilization of Egypt will be barely a memory.
Read the full history of Ancient Egyptian History
A succession of great empires - the Assyrian, the Babylonian, and now the Persian - have dominated the Middle East for the past few centuries. click to view
The Phoenicians and Israelites have come under the power of a succession of great empires
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Arabia, a region of flourishing civilization and desert nomads. click to view
Bantu farmers from West Africa are beginning to spread out across the continent. click to view
Nubian civilization is beginning to free itself from Egyptian dominance. click to view
After two centuries (off and on) as a province of the Persian empire, Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great. After his death in 323 BC, Egypt passed into the hands of his general, Ptolemy, and his descendants.
Under them, Egypt has become the wealthiest and most highly organized of the "Hellenistic" kingdoms. Although the Ptolemaic monarchs have adopted the traditional titles of the ancient pharaohs, and they worship Egyptian gods, the ruling class is largely of Greek origin, and has a Greek-speaking, Hellenistic culture.
On the coast, Alexandria is the largest and wealthiest city in the Greek-speaking world, and, with its magnificent library, is one of the leading centres of Hellenistic civilization. The Ptolemies will continue to rule Egypt for nearly two centuries more.
The conquests of Alexander the Great have reshaped the map of the Middle East, and Greek-speaking kingdoms, founded by Alexander's generals, now cover the region. click to view
Syria and Judaea are ruled by descendants of one of Alexander the Great's generals. click to view
Trade caravans bring precious spices across the desert from southern Arabia. click to view
Trade routes across the Sahara desert are being pioneered, while, to the south, Bantu farmers continue their swift expansion across the continent. click to view
Nubian civilization is becoming more African and less Egyptian in spirit. click to view
Like all the other Hellenistic kingdoms, Egypt has now been incorporated as a province into the Roman empire.
Ancient Egypt’s last independent ruler was also her most celebrated – Queen Cleopatra. She ended her life committing suicide after her defeat at the battle of Actium (31 BC).
The victorious Roman ruler Octavian (since 27 BC called Caesar Augustus) has kept the Hellenistic administration of the Ptolemies in place, highly effective as it is in extracting as much wealth as possible from the land and its people. The country now provides the distant imperial capital, Rome, with a large proportion of its grain.
The Middle East is now divided between the Roman and Parthian empires. click to view
Syria is now a Roman province, and Judaea is under king Herod the Great. click to view
Arabian civilization reaches a height of prosperity. click to view
North Africa is now part of the Roman empire, while in central Africa the Bantu expansion continues. click to view
The kingdom of Nubia is flourishing. click to view
Egypt contains one of the largest and wealthiest cities of the empire, Alexandria. It is a major commercial centre, and one of the great cultural centres of the Greek-speaking parts of the empire.
The rest of the country is treated as a personal estate of the emperor, with the economy organized to extract as much produce as possible for export to Rome - Egypt continues to be the main source of grain for the imperial capital.
One small part of the region, Judaea, has given birth to the new religion of Christianity, but has also seen the dispersal of the Jewish people from their homeland. click to view
The Jews have been exiled from their homeland after two great revolts against Rome. click to view
The civilization of southern Arabia is in decline. click to view
All of North Africa is now part of the Roman empire, while to the south the Bantu migration continues. click to view
Nubian civilization is suffering from a shortage of resources. click to view
The Roman province of Egypt has provided modern scholars with more information than any other, thanks to the dry desert sand which has preserved copious numbers of papyrus documents. What these show is a rural population gradually coming under the economic control of a small group of extremely wealthy families. To what extent this is true for other provinces is not clear, though it probably does represent a general trend through the eastern parts of the empire (as it had in the west in the previous two centuries.)
Egypt is a vibrant centre of Christianity, with many monks living in tough conditions in the desert. Perhaps because of the economic hardships of the people, Egypt has become a centre for Christian groups that are at odds with the official Church centred on the imperial capital of Constantinople.
The Middle East is divided between the Eastern Roman empire and the Persian empire. click to view
Syria and Palestine, provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire. click to view
The civilization of southern Arabia has declined, along with the great desert trade routes. click to view
A powerful new kingdom is arising in Ethiopia, while in West Africa trade routes across the Sahara are developing. click to view
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The Arabs' conquest of Egypt from the Byzantines in 639 was made easier by the Egyptian population's attachment to the monophysite branch of Christianity, regarded as a heresy by the Byzantine authorities in Constantinople, and therefore persecuted. The Arabs granted their conquered populations freedom of worship, and the Egyptians therefore welcomed them as liberators rather than conquerors.
Egyptian society has thus far been little affected by the Arab conquests. For most of the population, it has been a case of swapping one alien ruler (in Constantinople) for another. The Arab presence was initially restricted to their new garrison town of Fustat, from which Egypt is now governed.
The Middle East has been conquered by Arab armies under the banners of a new religion, Islam. click to view
Syria is the centre of the Islamic Caliphate. click to view
Arabia has become the springboard for dramatic conquests under the banner of a new religion, Islam. click to view
Wealthy kingdoms are emerging in West Africa. click to view
In the 870s the governor of Egypt, Ahmad Ibn Tulun, gained control of both Egypt and Syria and governed as an autonomous ruler, though he was careful not to openly break with the caliph. An army from Baghdad restored them to the caliph’s control in 905, but thirty years later Egypt again became autonomous under a rebellious governor, Muhammad ibn Tughj (935). In 969 the Fatimids, a fervent Shi’ite sect, conquered Egypt. The Fatimids make no pretence of loyalty to the caliph in Baghdad, and their aim is, in fact, to displace them as the rulers of the entire Islamic world.
As an independent state, Egypt’s tax revenues are now all spent within its own borders, rather than some or all of them being dispatched to some distant imperial capital such as Rome, Constantinople or Baghdad. This has allowed Egypt's rulers to invest in Egypt's agriculture, improve and maintain the irrigation system, increase the prosperity of the country and boost the government's tax revenues.
The process of Islamization (and Arabization) has been slowly gaining pace in Egypt. This has not been official policy: quite the reverse (non-Muslims paid higher taxes, so conversion was not encouraged by the government). However, the need by many people to deal with the new ruling elite has spread the knowledge of Arabic, and perhaps too the advantages which come from belonging to the ruler’s religious community, has encouraged many to convert. Nevertheless, the majority of Egyptians are still Christians at this date.
Although the Fatimids failed to achieve their goal of replacing the caliph in Baghdad, they did succeed in building up a large empire centered on Egypt. Under them, the Egyptian economy prospered. Trade expanded, as, with Fatimid control of the Red Sea, Egypt became once again the great entrepot of long-distance maritime trade between east and west. The Fatimid capital, Cairo, became the chief cultural centre of the Islamic world, with Muslim literature, philosophy and science thriving.
Under Fatimid rule, thousands of Arabs settled in Egypt. At one point these posed such a serious threat to the regime that the Fatimids encouraged two of the largest Arab tribes to emigrate westwards into the Maghreb. Here they destabilize the emirate of Tunis.
By the mid-12th century, Fatimid rule had weakened, and a Turkish general from Syrian, Saladin, was able to gain control of the country (c. 1170) and going on to annex parts of Arabia and Syria. With the capture of Jerusalem from the Crusaders (1187), most of Palestine also came under his rule. Saladin’s descendants, the Ayyibids, have indulged in frequent power-struggles, however, and this has allowed the Crusaders to hold on to their remaining possessions in the Levant.
Crusaders from Europe have invaded Syria and Palestine, but have been pushed back to the coast by Saladin. click to view
The civilization of southern Arabia has declined, along with the great desert trade routes. click to view
The expansion of trade in West Africa is leading to the rise of new kingdoms. click to view
Islam has by now become the majority religion in the Middle East. click to view
Saladin’s descendants surrounded themselves with a force of Turkish slaves, called Mamluqs. This force gained more and more power, until, taking advantage of yet another power-struggle within the royal family, they appointed one of their own members to the sultanate (1250). Ever since then Egypt and much of Syria has been ruled by Mamluq sultans, who have successfully defended and expanded their state and pulled the government of their different lands under one centralized administration. Perhaps their single most important achievement has been to defeat the Mongol army (1260) and so put an end to its hitherto unstoppable expansion.
Under the Mamluqs, Egypt has continued to be the chief centre of Arabic civilization. However, recurrent plagues have reduced her population, and Timur’s conquest of Syria (1400) was a major blow to Mamluq power. Raiding by Bedouin tribes has also become a problem.
The Middle East has been ruled by a succession of conquerors from central Asia. click to view
New kingdoms are emerging in different parts of Africa. click to view
Syria is now under the Mamluqs, a group of slave-soldiers based in Egypt. click to view
Yemen has been a centre of trade and Islamic culture. click to view
Egypt has, once again, become a province within a large empire, that of the Ottomans (1517). Again the Egyptian people have to pay taxes which are spent in a distant imperial capital. Their economic position has also been somewhat undermined by the rise of European sea power in the Indian Ocean, which has diverted some trade between India and Europe away from the Red Sea and Egypt.
On conquering Egypt, the Ottomans left the Mamluq elite in a position of leadership within the country. Mamluqs troops were given an important role within the Ottoman army, and Mamluq officials were used by the Ottomans to help them govern Egypt. As time goes by the Mamluqs play an increasingly important part in the provincial administration, and by this date are on their way to re-establishing themselves as the dominant element within Egyptian society and government.
The Ottoman empire now dominates most of the Middle east. click to view
Syria is now a part of the Ottoman empire. click to view
The Ottoman empire is the dominant power within the Arabian peninsula. click to view
Large numbers of Africans are being taken to the Americas as slaves. click to view
By this time, the Mamluks virtually rule Egypt again. Their leaders, or beys, continue to acknowledge the authority of the Ottoman sultan and his representatives, and to send tribute but, within the borders of Egypt, they reign supreme. The main factor preventing them from gaining even more power is their own internal instability, as the frequent power-struggles within their ranks prevent them from achieving a stable, united front against the Ottoman government in Constantinople.
The Atlantic Slave Trade is at its height, and having a destructive impact on wide areas of the African interior. click to view
The Middle East experiences political weakness in both the Ottoman empire and Iran. click to view
The first Saudi kingdom has appeared in Arabia. click to view
Standards of Ottoman administration have declined in Syria. click to view
This part of the Ottoman dominions experienced direct European military might when Napoleon invaded it in 1798, utterly defeating local Mamluq forces at the Battle of the Pyramids. British sea power prevented him from receiving any reinforcements from France, thus bringing his campaign to a halt. Napoleon himself secretly left his army in Egypt in 1799, and a British army finally reconquered the country for the Ottomans in 1801.
A Turkish general, Muhammed Ali, was sent to Egypt to restore order, and he was soon acting as a semi-independent ruler. He set about modernizing the country, but seeing that nothing could be done while the Mamluqs retained their power, he massacred them. He built hundreds of schools, modernized the administration, and introduced printing into the country (as a government monopoly). He raised a western-style army, recruited from the peasantry, and then set about conquering a huge empire in the Sudan.
In 1821 he helped the sultan put down a rebellion in Greece. This confirmed his de facto independence from Constantinople, and in 1833 he demanded, and, due to British and French pressure, gained Syria from the sultan as payment for his part in the war of Greek independence. A little while later he started marching on Constantinople itself, with a view to replacing the Ottoman regime with one of his own.
The Zulu conquests are causing turmoil over a large part of south and central Africa. click to view
Some Middle Eastern governments are taking steps to modernize their countries. click to view
The first Saudi kingdom has been crushed, but a second one has appeared. click to view
Syria has come under Egyptian control. click to view
Muhammed Ali was forced to withdraw from his move on Constantinople, and give up his claims to Syria, by military pressure from France and Britain (1841). Instead, he and his successors were recognized as the hereditary rulers of Egypt.
Building on the modernization programme of his grandfather, Ismael (reigned 1863-79) has expanded Egypt’s frontiers further into the Sudan.
One of the great engineering works of the 19th century was completed in 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal. This was dug by French engineers and Egyptian labour over a ten-year period. It was a magnificent achievement. From now on the canal would be the prime route between Europe and the East, greatly shortening the time taken by ships to make the voyage.
Although it was built with French initiative and engineering, the British government has ensured that it is the largest stock-holder. This has given it a huge economic stake in the political stability of Egypt.
European explorers have visited the interior of Africa. click to view
The Ottoman empire has tightened its grip on much of the Middle East. click to view
The second Saudi kingdom has fallen. click to view
Syria has again become a part of the Ottoman empire. click to view
Ismael continued his expansionist policies in Africa until he met failure in his attempt to conquer Abyssinia (1875). Unfortunately, these military operations were expensive, as were his modernization programmes. The Egyptian government faced bankruptcy. This in turn threatened the stability of the country, and the security of the Suez Canal. Ismael's European creditors (mainly British) stepped in, and a British official was appointed to take control of Egypt's finances.
A little later, a nationalist revolt against British interference threatened the Suez Canal’s security. The British sent forces to put down the revolt, and swiftly found themselves in control of the entire country (1882). From then on the British have administered Egypt, even though the country remains nominally subordinate to the Turkish sultan.
The British and French are increasingly active in the Middle East. click to view
The European powers have divided almost the whole of Africa up between them. click to view
Syria is advancing economically under Ottoman rule. click to view
A third, much larger, Saudi kingdom has appeared. click to view
In World War 2, Egypt acted as a major base for British operations against the Axis forces in North Africa. After the war, an upsurge in nationalism encouraged the British government to withdraw from Egypt in 1947, with the exception of the Suez Canal zone. The country was returned to the rule of its king, Farouk. He, however, was deposed in 1952 by a military coup, and the country became a republic under the leadership of colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. The British finally left Egypt altogether in 1956, in the wake of the humiliating Suez Crisis. In this, British and French troops were sent in to guard the Canal Zone against Egypt’s threats to take it over; however, they were then forced to withdraw the troops in the face of international condemnation.
Since 1958, Egypt has been united with Syria in a state called the United Arab Republic.
The Cold War has had a major impact on the Middle East. click to view
The European nations are starting to withdraw from the empires in Africa. click to view
The historic region of Syria is now divided between Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. click to view
Oil is bringing vast new wealth to the Arabian kingdoms. click to view
The United Arab Republic, that union between Egypt and Syria, was broken in 1961 (after three years), with the Syrians cancelling it unilaterally.
Egypt, along with other Arab countries, was defeated by Israel in the 6 Days War with Israel (1967). The country continued to be ruled by the authoritarian President Nasser until his death in 1970, when Anwar Sadat became President. He is a moderate voice in Middle Eastern affairs and, after a second defeat by Israel in 1973, the Egyptian government promoted talks between the Arabs and Israelis. Sadat was assassinated in 1981; however, he was succeeded by Mohamed Mubarak, who continued Sadat's moderating policies. Egypt has continued to be run as an authoritarian state, though recently there have been some signs of a move towards more openness and democracy.
Arab-Israeli hostility has dominated Middle Eastern politics. click to view
All European powers have withdrawn from their empires in Africa. click to view
Hostilities between Israel and the Arabs have dominated this region. click to view
The region experienced a huge shock when Iraq invaded Kuwait. click to view
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