When you read articles on Egyptology, you’ll constantly see terms such as “18th Dynasty”, “Old Kingdom”, or “Ptolemaic Period”. In this article I’ll explain what this all means.
Let’s start off with dynasties. What exactly is a dynasty and why do Egyptologists use them rather than simple dates?
In the modern world we measure dates as the years, months, and days that have elapsed from a fixed date in the past (which varies between the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish calendars, for example). In common with other ancient civilisations, however, the Egyptians didn’t do this, but measured dates from the time that the current king ascended the throne. An Egyptian monument might record the date of an event as “Day 12 of the second month of harvest in year 8 of Ramesses III”. With each new king, the count of years started again from one. The result of this is that, even though we know which king a particular event occurred under, converting this to a calendar date can be difficult. It’s not always known how long a particular king was on the throne for, sometimes a son would rule jointly with his father in his father’s old age, and at other times there were rival kings ruling different parts of the country at the same time.
The solution to this thorny problem was first arrived at by an Egyptian priest called Manetho, who wrote a book called the “Aegyptiaca” (“The History of Egypt”) in Greek in the early third century BC. Manetho’s original book has not survived, but fortunately for us it was quoted from by several later historians in the ancient world, so we know what he wrote. What Manetho did was to divide the whole of Egyptian history, from the time that the country was first unified under a single king around 3100 BC, up to the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion in 332 BC, into 30 dynasties. A dynasty is a group of kings who share something in common, whether it be a family relationship, or the capital city from which they ruled. When that common factor changed, Manetho started a new dynasty. This is still the system that’s used (with various revisions) by Egyptologists today.
Kingdoms and Periods
On a wider level than dynasties, Egyptologists divide Egyptian history into “Kingdoms”, which were generally times when Egypt was stable and unified under a single king, which are interspersed with “Periods”, which are times when the country was more fragmented, and rival kings might be ruling different parts of the country at the same time. The divisions are as follows:
This is the name given to the time before the first dynasty (which started around 3100 BC). It covers a vast range of time, and is subdivided in various ways which don’t concern us for the purposes of this article.
Early dynastic (or archaic) period
The time from the unification of Egypt under its first king (called “Menes” by Manetho, and usually identified with the historical king called “Narmer”) around 3100 BC up to the end of the second dynasty, around 2686 BC.
Dynasties 4-6, from around 2686 BC until 2181 BC. This was the time in which the Giza pyramids were built, and many would say that Egyptian art reached its pinnacle in the Old Kingdom. It’s worth noting that the distinction between the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom is an entirely arbitrary one which certainly wouldn’t have been recognised by the Egyptians themselves!
First Intermediate Period
Dynasties 7-10, and the early part of the 11th dynasty, approximately 2181 BC to 2055 BC. The last king of the 6th dynasty, Pepi II, lived to extreme old age (probably well into his 90s) and outlived most of his prospective heirs. The resulting disputes about the legitimate succession following his death led to the collapse of central authority, with different regional governors (who were distant members of the royal family) asserting their right to rule. This resulted in a period of turmoil lasting about 125 years, which was later looked on as a “dark age” in Egyptian history. Historical records from this time are extremely fragmentary.
The later part of the 11th dynasty, and the 12th dynasty. The Middle Kingdom lasted from about 2050 BC to 1710 BC, following the reunification of Egypt by King Montuhotep II. This was a time in which the arts flourished, and many of the most important works of Egyptian literature were written during the Middle Kingdom.
Second Intermediate Period
Dynasties 13-17, 1710 BC to roughly 1550 BC. Another period of instability resulted from the abrupt end of the 12th dynasty with no clear heir to the throne. During this time the country was split in two, with the Hyksos kings (a Semitic people who settled the Nile Delta region from Asia Minor) ruling the north of the country, and a succession of weak kings ruling the south.
Dynasties 18-20, about 1550 BC to 1069 BC. Egypt was united once again under King Ahmose I who, ruling from Thebes, defeated the Hyksos and founded the New Kingdom, during which Egypt was at the height of its power. This was the time of the royal burials in the Valley of the Kings, and many of the most famous Egyptian kings such as Hatshepsut, Thutmosis III , Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, Tutenkhamun and Ramesses II ruled during the New Kingdom. Egypt was the regional superpower during the New Kingdom and ruled an extensive empire in Asia.
Third Intermediate Period
Dynasties 21-25, around 1069 BC to 664 BC. This was a complex period of turbulence and instability, during which Egypt was repeatedly invaded and ruled by foreign kings. This period corresponds to a more widespread collapse of Late Bronze Age civilisations in the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean. The final dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period saw Egypt ruled by a succession of Nubian kings during the 25th dynasty.
Dynasties 26-30, about 664 BC to 332 BC. This marked the final flowering of rule by native Egyptian kings. Egypt was invaded by Assyria who overthrew the Nubian kings of the 25th dynasty and established a puppet king in Egypt, but Psamtek I took advantage of civil war in Assyria to expel the invaders and unify the country once again. Egypt was subsequently invaded by the Persians, who handed rule over the Alexander the Great without a fight in 332 BC. The final king of the 30th dynasty, Nectanebo II, would be the last Egyptian ruler of Egypt for some 2300 years.
332 BC to 30 BC. On the death of Alexander, he handed control of Egypt to his general Ptolemy, who founded a dynasty of Greek-speaking kings and queens who ruled Egypt for over 300 years. The Ptolemaic Period ended with the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII by Octavian (the future Roman Emperor Augustus) at the Battle of Actium in 30 BC, after which Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.
Egypt was ruled by Rome from 30 BC until the Arab conquest in 639 AD. This is generally regarded as the end of Ancient Egyptian history, although not, of course, the end of the history of Egypt itself!