Depth Study 2a: Physical Features of Egypt
The physical features of the ancient society and how they influenced the civilisation that developed there:
- describe the geographical setting and natural features of the ancient society
- explain how the geographical setting and natural features influenced the development of the society
The chronology of ancient Egypt is both a modern and ancient construct which has been developed from a variety of sources. These sources include archaeological evidence, scientific data and surviving literary evidence such as annals and king lists. In the simplest sense the chronology of ancient Egypt can be divided into four key historical periods, each of varying lengths;
- The Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods (c. 5000 – 2686 BCE)
- The Pharaonic or Dynastic Period (c. 2686 – 332 BCE)
- The Ptolemaic Period (332 -30 BCE)
- The Roman Period (30 BCE – 395 AD).
These historical periods can be further divided into ‘kingdoms’ and ‘dynasties.’ The term dynasty was developed by Manetho, an Egyptian Priest who lived during the early Ptolemaic Period and who wrote Aegyptiaca, a three-volume book on Egyptian history. It is from the extant fragments of Manetho’s work, that scholars have reconstructed the reigns of the Pharaohs of Egypt and have gained an understanding of the Egyptian king list tradition. Manetho divides Egyptian history into 30 dynasties (successions of rulers from the same family or same powerful group). The divisions made by Manetho align closely with the groupings of kings in other king lists which have been discovered, such as the Palmero Stone, the Turin Royal Canon and the Karnak King List. However, the use of the term ‘kingdoms’ to divide and group these dynasties is a modern construct. Modern scholars use the term 'Kingdom' to describe periods of Egyptian history when the central government was strong, the country was unified under the control of one king and there was an orderly succession of kings. Periods of Egyptian history when the central government broke down, competing rulers or centres of power emerged and the country was in a state of civil unrest or was occupied by foreign powers are referred to by scholars as being 'Intermediate Periods'.
Line Drawing of the Karnak King List
The ancient Egyptian chronology is complex and there are many issues with the way it has been constructed. Many scholars even disagree about the basic division of historical periods. Furthermore, there are issues with the ancient sources from which our current chronology has been constructed, for example, Manetho’s and other similar king lists are fragmentary in nature and a number of inconsistencies and discrepancies exist between these ancient sources.
- The University College of London (UCL) provides a detailed chronology of ancient Egypt including links to detailed descriptions and further resources relating to each specific period.
- TimeMaps has produced a detailed summary and timeline of ancient Egypt – ‘Ancient Egypt: History of a Civilization’.
- A good chronology linked to absolute dates has been developed by the Met Museum: Department of Egyptian Art, “List of Rulers of Ancient Egypt and Nubia”, in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Wilkinson, T.A.H. (2000), Royal Annals of Ancient Egypt: The Palmero Stone and its Associated Fragments, London
- The Australian Museum has developed a number of useful web resources relating to ancient Egypt. Here you will find a timeline which documents key dates, periods, dynasties and events of Egyptian history from the Predynastic Period through to the Roman Period
Egypt’s natural landscape, flora and fauna were important sources for the ancient Egyptian economy and inspired and shaped the religious beliefs, art and architecture of its people. Therefore, understanding Egypt’s unique environment and landscape is key to understanding its culture and its people.
Egypt is located in the north-eastern corner of Africa and is today bounded by Libya to the west, Israel to the north-east and Sudan to the south. The Mediterranean Sea provides a natural boundary to the North of the country whilst the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea form part of Egypt’s boundary to the east. The country has six main physical regions: the Nile Valley, the Nile Delta, the Western Desert, the Eastern Desert and the Sinai Peninsula.
Egypt has a very arid climate with the majority of the landscape being dominated by large deserts to the east and west of the Nile River with vegetation occurring only in the Nile Valley, the Nile Delta and pockets of desert Oases.
Egypt’s most important geographical feature is the Nile River. Its annual inundation and the fertile mud and silt it brought to the Nile Valley and Delta had the greatest impact on the ancient Egyptian people and the development of their culture. The Nile is the longest river on earth and is fed from two main tributaries, the Blue Nile and White Nile. These two rivers meet at Khartoum in Sudan and form one huge river which winds its way from the south of the country to north where it ends in the Nile Delta and flows into the Mediterranean Sea. The Nile divides Egypt into two main regions; Upper Egypt (Aswan – Cairo) and Lower Egypt (Nile Delta). These regions were further divided by the ancient Egyptian’s into Nomes (territorial divisions), 22 Nomes in Upper Egypt and 20 in Lower Egypt.
Satellite image Egypt
- The online Encyclopaedia Britannica provides a comprehensive overview of the geographical setting of Egypt and the importance this played in the development of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.
- Mirsky, A. (1997), ‘Influence of Geological Factors on Ancient Egyptian Civilization’, Journal of Geoscience Education 45:5, 415-424.
- Hassan, F.A. (1997), ‘The Dynamics of a Riverine Civilization: A Geoarchaeological Perspective on the Nile Valley, Egypt’, World Archaeology 29:1,51-74.
- The Canadian Museum of History provides a succinct overview of the key geographical features, including a discussion on the Nile River and Valley and the Western and Eastern Deserts.
- TimeMaps has developed an interactive map which tracks the development of the Egyptian civilisation within the Nile Valley.
- BBC History – The Story of the Nile details the physical, political and spiritual significance of the Nile River to the ancient Egyptian people.