Before there was an Egypt there was the sun, the wind and water, the moon, the earth and sky. Egyptians who practiced the ancient Egyptian polytheistic religion believed there where many gods who were active in most every aspect world–gods who created humans, gods who managed the air, gods who manipulated the way people act in business, gods who fought each other for power or love. At the center of the religion was the pharaoh, the Egyptian king who was believed to be both mortal and divine. In Egypt’s three thousand years of rule by pharaohs the gods shifted often, often changing names,
relationship, function and form. The one constant–other than for a brief period of monotheism under “the Heretic King,” Akhenaten, who we’ll meet below–was the fact that the gods were many.
Yes, they were many. The overview on the website Absolute Egyptology, for example, lists 115 gods but indicates that there may have been up to 2,000. Sites like AncientEgypt.co.uk take mercy on the budding Egyptologist by AncientEgypt Online. We may as well start with a list of the most important Egyptian gods and goddesses:
— Ra, the Sun god: “Lord of heaven and Earth, creator of the universe, pilot of the solar boat.” Said to have been the creator of the other Gods and of heaven and earth. Took many forms, including three different ones depending on the time of day. His “solar boat” took souls of the dead through the underworld. Also known as Atum.
— Geb (earth) and Nut (sky): Born when Ra got bored and decided to make life more interesting by bringing Earth and sky to life. Shu, the God of Air, separated his son, Geb, from his daughter, Nut, by holding her up to the sky.
— Osiris, god of the underworld and resurrection: Son of Geb and Nut, brother of Seth (lord of darkness) and husband of Isis. Seth became jealous of Geb and took his life by throwing him into the Nile in a locked casket. Thoth and Isis brought him back to life. He was the final judge of the soul: “Only he could grant final entry into the Field of Reeds.”
— Thoth, god of wisdom: The god of science, medicine, the inventor of writing and astronomy and messenger of the gods.
— Isis, goddess of love and motherhood: She resurrected her husband, Osiris, with the help of Thoth. A healer, sorceress and “Mother” of Cleopatra.
— Hathor, the Earth Mother: Daughter of Ra, she was at times motherly and at other as destroyer of humankind. Depicted, literally, as a loving cow.
— Horus, father of pharaoh: falcon-headed son of Osiris and Isis, he is the god of order and was on the “good” side of the battle between good and evil against Seth for the throne of Egypt. Great news–Horus won! That’s great news for us, for the Egyptians and the idea of human civilization as a whole.
Historians (and the authors of Wikipedia’s overview of Egyptian history) break the history of Egypt into several main periods:
— Pehistoric Egypt (a long long long ago)
— Ancient Egypt (from the 31st to the 4th Century BC) which includes the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms
— Greco-Roman Egypt (from 342 BC to 645 AD) which includes the Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine periods
— Islamic Egypt (639 to 1805) which includes the Arab, Mamluk and Ottoman periods, and
— Modern Egypt (1805 to the present) which includes the Muhammad Ali dynasty and the
How old is Egyptian civilization? Rock carvings indicate that organized cultures existed in Egypt as far back as eleven thousand years ago. The earliest Egyptians were grain-grinders, hunter-gatherers, fishers and, eventually, farmers who lived along the banks of the Nile.
Egypt’s dynastic history begins in about 3150 BC when King Menes consolidated a number of states around the Nile into a nation and initiated a series of dynasties that ruled the land for the next three thousand years. Menes and his descendant rulers came to be known as “pharaohs.” (“Pharaoh” means “great house,” referring to the royal palace.) As with the Egyptian gods, over three thousand years of dynastic rule there were many, many pharaohs. We’ll let KingTutOne.com’s list of the most important Egyptian pharaohs guide us through the ancient Egyptian age:
— Menes (ruled some time around 3100 BC): The first pharaoh of the first Egyptian Dynasty. According to legend he inherited the throne from a faclon-headed god, Horus. (Probably not true.) Said to have united Upper and Lower Egypt and built the city of Memphis on the Nile flood plain with a big dam to protect it from the river. (Probably true.) A popular story about Menes claims his two dogs attacked him while hunting and he climbed on the back of a crocodile to save himself, founding the City of Crocodilopolis to commemorate the occasion.
(Probably not true….)
(ruled 2613 to 2589 BC): He is known for establishing trading routes throughout the Mediterranean and building several pyramids. He was father of Khufu.
(ruled 1479-1458/57 BC): a female “king” who became ruler by claiming political power over her brothers, one of whom was also her husband (a common practice among pharaohs to keep the bloodline pure), and also over her stepson, Thutmose III. She professed legitimacy as pharaoh by saying the gods spoke to her while she was still in her
mother’s womb. Egyptian artists of the time depict her as wearing a false beard and male
clothes. After her death Thutmose III ruled on his own and conquered over 350 cities, becoming known as the “Napoleon of Egypt.”
— Amenhotep III:
(ruled 1386-ish to 1349-ish BC): Presided over a time of relative peace and prosperity. Built many temples and other monuments during a big construction boom. Rumored to have had 317 wives. (Insert your own joke here.) Father of Akhenaten with “his favorite wife,” Queen Tiy.
(ruled 1350 to 1334 BC) He and wife, Queen Nefertiti, transitioned Egypt from polytheism to a monotheism centering on the sun-god, Aten, earning him the nickname “the Heretic King.” Father of King Tut.
— King Tut (Tutankhaten => Tutankhamun) (ruled 1334 to 1325 B.C.) Son of Akhenaten and initially named to honor “Aten,” who Akhenaten promoted as the only god, Tut took the throne when he was just nine or ten years old. At about thirteen he started to reverse his father’s religious policies, ending the ban on polytheistic worship and changing his name to Tutankhamun to indicate that people could again worship the god Amun. When
he died at the age of 19 (scientists now think they know why) he was buried in a
small tomb in the Valley of the Kings. In 1922 archaeologist Howard Carter discovered his tomb which bad been buried by other construction on the site, untouched for three thousand years. Carter’s discovery of a pristine tomb of the boy-king was international news. Millions have seen the exhibits of King Tut artifacts that that have traveled the world since 1979. Even more have likely seen this.
More about Tut:
KingTut.org‘s summary on the life of King Tut, as well as information about the King Tut exhibit | As account of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb | Photos of what Carter found in Tut’s tomb
— Ramses II
(ruled 1279 to 1212 BC): One of the most powerful pharaohs. He ruled Egypt for 67 years
during which he conquered many lands, built many monuments and temples and is said to have had over 100 children with many wives.
— Cleopatra VII
(ruled 51 to 30 BC): Read about her below.
The original era of the Pharaohs ended when Greek/Macedonian leader Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, taking it from the Persians who had ruled in conjunction with the last pharaohs for a couple centuries. When Alexander died in 323 BC his successor, general Ptolemy, declared himself King of Egypt. His successors adopted Egyptian traditions, wore Egyptian clothes, participated in Egyptian religious life and passed the monarchy from generation to generation as did the pharaohs. During this time the Ptolemaic kings exploited Egypt’s national resources like grain and papyrus and made Greek culture the culture of the Egyptian elite, all the while defeated native Egyptians in an ongoing series of uprisings. The last ruler in Ptolemaic line was Cleopatra VII.
Unlike the previous Ptolemaic kings who used Egyptian culture and religion as a way to exert power over the Egyptian people but really only spoke Greek, Cleopatra VII actually spoke Egyptian and declared herself to be the reincarnation of the goddess Isis. She began her rule by aligning with her father and then her brothers (who were also her husbands, as was Egyptian royal tradition) but eventually solidified Egypt into her own domain and set out to gain international power. She proceeded to have a relationship, and a son, with Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC Cleopatra opposed Caesar’s legal heir, Octavian, becoming an ally (and more) of Octavian’s rival, Mark Antony. (Cleopatra had three children with Antony.) In 30 BC Mark Antony’s forces lost a major battle to Octavian. Devastated by the loss, and wrongly
believing Cleopatra had committed suicide because of it, Antony took his own life. Not
long thereafter Cleopatra took hers. Octavian put an end to Cleopatra and Caesar’s son and claimed Egypt for Rome.
Roman rule of Egypt lasted until 395 AD when the Byzantines took over. (Who were the
Byzantines?) Under Roman and then Byzantine rule Christianity spread throughout
Egypt; the Egyptian Coptic Church was established in 451 AD. In 639 AD the Muslim
Arabs defeated the Byzantines and brought Sunni Islam to Egypt. Egyptians blended Islam with indigenous beliefs, leading many to adopt Sufism, a spiritual variant of Islam that is still popular in Egypt today. The most dynamic Egyptian Sunni leader of the era was Saladin (1138-1194), an Iraqi-born Kurd who became the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and led successful Muslim opposition to the European Catholic Crusaders.
Mamluks ruled Egypt next, from 1250 to 1517, until their defeat at the hands of the Ottomans. The Mamluks were a Turkic-descended caste of slave-soldiers, bought and sold by Arab rulers to serve as their military backbone. Because Mamluks had no allegiance to local powers they were viewed as incorruptible. Mamluks operated with a status slightly above that of the populace; in Egypt, some Egyptians actually arranged to have themselves sold into military slavery to be able to attain the status of Mamluks. (Read more about the Mumluks and their tradition of “Furusiyya”–“the ulum (science), funun (arts) and adab (literature) of cavalry skills.”)
Egypt endured a very rough patch from the 14th century to the 18th–a terrible run in with the plague, the Ottoman conquest and several famines severely weakened the nation. The French general Napoleon Bonaparte took advantage of Egypt’s troubles and invaded in 1798. After the Ottomans, Mamluks and British were able to expel the French in 1801 they fought each other for power for four years. Muhammad Ali, an Albanian commander in the Ottoman Army, emerged in 1805 as the nation’s leader and established a dynasty of kings that, with the increasing support of the British, ruled Egypt all the way until 1952.
During Ali’s rule Egypt partnered with the French to build the Suez Canal which connected the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. Work ended in 1869 but the job was so expensive it threw Egypt into debt to the Europeans and forced it to sell its share of the canal to the British. An the Egyptian nationalist movement rose against this Western domination but the French and the British fought back, maintaining control for several decades. The British finally granted Egypt its independence in 1922, though they kept troops stationed there and continued to influence the government. In 1952 Egypt’s military led a revolt against the British-dominanted King and in 1953 declared the Egyptian Republic. In 1956 Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal Adbel Nasser became president and nationalized the Suez Canal, forcing the British to completely withdraw.
Gamal Adbel Nasser Hussein was a colonel in the Egyptian Army and, with his “Association of Free Officers,” a co-leader of the Egyptian Revolution. Nasser had become politically active against the British at a young age and continued his anti-colonial and anti-monarchist (anti King Farouk) organizing even after he entered the Army and served in Egyptian operations in Sudan and Israel. In 1952 Nasser and the Association of Free Officers seized control of all government buildings in Cairo, installing General Muhammad Naguib as leader. General Naguib became THE FIRST PRESIDENT OF EGYPT. Nasser disagreed more and more with Naguib’s policies in 1953/54, especially with Naguib’s
moves to gain support from political parties that had power in pre-revolutionary Egypt, such as the national liberal Wafd party and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. In 1954 soldiers loyal to Nasser detained Naguib, removed him from his post and became SECOND PRESIDENT OF EGYPT.
President Nasser’s policies were pro-nationalist and pro-socialist, supporting pan-Arabism and developing an uneasy Cold War alliance with the Soviet Union. In 1957 Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and successfully thwarted an Israeli, British, French attempt to retrieve it, earning him great respect among the Arab nations. In 1958 Egypt joined Syria in the United Arab Republic, a fusion of the two countries, and while that effort failed by 1961, Arabs heralded Nasser as a pan-Arabic hero. Domestically, Nasser tried to fuse secular-leaning Islamism and Socialism. His government disallowed political parties and
nationalized more and more previously Western-dominated industries. Nasser supported
the Sunni clerical leadership as a balance to the fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood and introduced the National Charter in 1964 which mandated reforms like universal health care and the expansion of women’s rights. Despite internal political controversy, and in spite of Nasser’s very public military setbacks, like the Egyptian Army’s embarrassment in the Yemeni Civil War (“Egypt’s Vietnam”) and Arab armies’ dramatic defeat in the 1967 “Six Day War” with Israel, when Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970 five million Egyptians joined his funeral procession.
Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat (THE THIRD PRESIDENT OF EGYPT) was a Nubian Egyptian who became an Egyptian military officer and eventually joined Nasser in his Association of Free Officers. In 1973 Sadat joined Syria in attacking Israel in and attempt to regain Egyptian and Syrian land Israel had occupied in 1967. The war ended in a stalemate but Sadat became a hero in the Arab world…temporarily. Sadat asserted himself by pushing Nasser supporters out of the government, bringing back a multi-party system and giving Islamists more power. Sadat’s policy of “Infitah,” economic openness, dispensed with Nasser’s socialist-leaning, Soviet-supported policies and aimed to integrate Egypt into the global capitalist free market. The U.S. and many wealthier Egyptians approved; judging from the Bread Riots of 1977 much of the rest of the
nation didn’t. Sadat also enraged most Egyptians, and other Arab states, by making
peace with Israel in exchange from Israel’s withdrawal from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. (Sadat
and his Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978.) In 1979, the Arab League, at the time still based in Cairo, suspended Egypt’s membership and moved its base of operations to Tunisia. (In 1989 the Arab League took Egypt back and returned to Cairo in 1990.)
Sadat became increasingly unpopular in Egypt and in 1981 a fundamentalist Muslim soldier assassinated him. Vice-president Hosni Mubarak succeeded him as President.
Mubarak was an Egyptian Air Force officer and a hero of the 1973 war against Israel–deservedly or not–who rose through the military-political ranks to become THE FOURTH PRESIDENT OF EGYPT. Mubarak ruled Egypt with an increasingly hard hand, keeping the nation under Emergency Law (which allowed for extensive police power, the suspension of constitutional rights and legal censorship) for his entire 29 year rule. Egyptians reelected him in four presidential elections during this time, though only in 2005, in Egypt’s first multi-party presidential election (and in an election marred by accusations of fraud and the imprisonment of leading opponent Ayman Nour of the Tomorrow Party) did he face any opposition. Mubarak continued Sadat’s policy of looking to the U.S. for financing; after Mubarak and Egypt participated alongside the U.S. in the 1991 Gulf War the U.S., the Gulf countries and Europe forgave $20 million of Egypt’s debt. With U.S. encouragement Mubarak even honored its peace treaty with Israel, though this infuriated many Egyptians. By the dawn of the third decade of his rule Mubarak had survived six assassination attempts and had ordered his security forces to arrest tens of thousands of political opponents. In 2007, following a rise of fundamentalism, the Egyptian parliament prohibited political parties from religiously-based organizing and expanded Mubarak’s powers. By 2011 frustration among the Egyptian people had reached a critical point.
THE 2011 REVOLUTION:
Though anti-Mubarak sentiment in Egypt was not a new phenomenon on January 25, 2011–even the most “spontaneous” uprising is the result of years of deliberate struggle–on that day Tunisia’s recent non-violent ousting of its long-time autocratic leader inspired an unprecedented cultural, political, economic and religious cross-section of Egyptians to occupy Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The demonstrators cited increasing economic and political inequality in Egypt and Mubarak’s unwillingness to respond to the people’s needs; they determined to remain in the square until Mubarak resigned. At first the government responded by shutting down on the modern media the protesters used to organize the protests (Twitter, Facebook, text messages and eventually the whole internet) and sending in riot police to arrest demonstrators. These attacks by the government caused deaths and many injuries but didn’t end the protests. The well-respected military took over the Egyptian government’s response to the protests from the despised police, giving the protesters hope the generals may be grabbing power behind the scenes as well.
When demonstrators kept coming to Tahrir square and to sympathetic protests in cities all over Egypt; the military allowed the protests to grow. Within days many of Mubarak’s former international friends urged him to resign and he became more and more isolated. Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011. The military assumed power and Egyptians rejoiced.
In the span of such a short time extraordinary changes took place in Egypt, hurdling the country toward democracy at an almost inconceivable pace. Egyptians are not strangers to change, but today in Egypt changes are happening literally minute by minute rather than over decades, centuries or even millennia as they did in the country’s past.