When the Greeks were still bashing each other in the head with rocks and Rome wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye, Pharaonic Egypt had already established a civilization along the banks of the River Nile to stand the test of time … well, at least a few millennia. Until absorbed by mighty Rome, around 170 successive pharaohs had ruled the fertile lands. As might be expected at the dawn of history, in the beginning a bunch of “barbarians” found the living relative easier along the river (at that time, the region was dominated by savanna rather than arid desert) than elsewhere; within a few generations they had founded some farming villages and a power base at the city of Hierakonpolis and later Abydos. Coincidentally, these Naqada also founded the first Egyptian dynasty.
Besides establishing trade routes with Nubia to the south and city-states in the Levant and Near East, these early Egyptians began manufacturing combs, small statuary, pottery, cosmetics, jewelry, furniture and all those other knickknacks needed for a consumer society. Thus they moved beyond mere subsistence to being “civilized.” Somewhere around 3150 BC they also developed a fanatic fascination with death, creating mortuary cults and building elaborate mastaba tombs. The first pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (roughly 2686-2181 BC) decided that, what with all this wealth being generated, it made sense to create a system of taxes (perhaps civilization’s most enduring legacy) which they used to build irrigation projects, a justice system, and a standing army. And, coincidentally, massive tombs and monuments (the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx among others) to celebrate their own godhood.
Indeed, Egypt would be, not for the first time, a polytheistic theocracy of the iconic sort. Although human, the pharaohs were believed descended from the gods – Osiris, Anubis, Horus, Isis and that whole animal-headed lot. Although supposedly equal, at various times specific gods were elevated in worship: the ubiquitous sun-god Ra during the Middle Kingdom, Amun during the New Kingdom, and such. Periodically, during revisionism among the priesthood – a power unto themselves as so often in history – Egyptian deities were merged, although retaining mystical aspects of their former selves (e.g. Amun-Ra, a synthesis of hidden power with the sun). Only the Egyptians seemed to keep them all straight. To this was added an elaborate system of burial customs, for the Egyptians were among the first to codify the afterlife and planned on enjoying it, provided they were wealthy enough. To insure the health and happiness of the ka (life-force) and ba (spirit or soul), burial rituals and protocols came to include mummification, magic spells, sarcophagi and grave goods. This Egyptian mysticism has since declined to the stuff of legend, and Hollywood horror films.
All this peace and prosperity had its price: apathy, corruption, infrastructure decay, in-breeding and in-fighting in the royal family. Regional nomarchs (governors) soon challenged the central government for local authority; taxes began being collected by the nomarchs, and in short order the pharaohs could no longer afford to support a large centralized administration, accelerating the political decay. Add a period of severe drought for fifty years beginning in 2200 BC, and the Old Kingdom collapsed, with rival pharaohs in Herakleopolis and Thebes duking it out to control the Nile. In time – well, a couple centuries – the Intef clan, the nomarchs in Thebes, managed to outlast all other claimants to control the Upper and Lower Kingdoms and reunite Egypt into one. The Middle Kingdom (2134-1690 BC) had begun, with a resurgence in art, trade, wealth, military adventures and those curious monuments scattered about the landscape for later generations of tourists to gawk at.
But, of course, Pharaonic Egypt just couldn’t seem to stay stable for more than a few centuries at a time. By the age of the Fourteenth Dynasty (which ended c. 1650 BC), things were falling apart yet again. The government collapsed in spectacular fashion, as it had before and would after. The Middle Kingdom was followed by the Second Intermediate Period, the New Kingdom Period, the Third Intermediate Period, and the Late Kingdom Period. During this (lasting from 2100 BC to perhaps 600 BC) the Egyptian government would rise and fall several times, and periods of strife and internal conflict would be followed by periods of relative peace and prosperity, if not more sense. External foes would invade when Egypt was weak, and the pharaohs would extend their empire when Egypt was strong. With all this rebirth and decay, it was inevitable that outsiders would eventually decide to get into the act. In 525 BC Egypt was captured by Persia, who would control the country until it was taken by Alexander the Great in 332 BC as he systematically dismantled the Persian Empire. After Alexander's death a Macedonian general established the Ptolemaic Dynasty, Egypt’s last.
Founded by Ptolemy Soter, one of Alexander’s favorites appointed satrap of Egypt after his death, the new dynasty was quickly accepted by the phlegmatic locals and Egypt flourished for 275 years. In general, the first Ptolemies (all these pharaohs took the name “Ptolemy,” while the queens – most sisters to their husbands – were named Cleopatra or Berenice just to add to the confusion) were surprisingly able rulers. At least, that’s what the texts of the time proclaim, and of all ancient Egyptian dynasties the Ptolemaic is the best documented in writing. These upstart Macedonian pharaohs adopted Egyptian ways, built new monuments to the old gods, expanded into new regions through land grants to Macedonian veterans (not coincidently establishing a well-trained militia), fixed the levees, lowered taxes, and so won the hearts and minds of the populace.
The first through the third Ptolemies made Egypt an economic powerhouse, exporting everything from trinkets to treasures. But it was grain that made Egypt filthy rich, as the Nile became the breadbasket of the Mediterranean Basin. Emmer wheat, barley and fava beans where bought and transshipped by every upstart empire and ancient city state, along with cotton, flax and henna for clothing. Too, Egypt was the crossroads for trade routes from the south and east into the Mediterranean, bringing ever more wealth. It is not surprising that others soon cast covetous eyes on the kingdom, slowly sinking into decadence again.
In 170 BC, the Hellenic Seleucid Antiochus IV invaded and deposed the ten-year-old Ptolemy VI, installing his younger brother Euergetes as Ptolemy VIII and joint ruler. That didn’t last long. The sordid dynastic quarrels left Egypt so weakened as to become a de facto protectorate of Rome, its primary client for the agricultural bounty. Furthermore, ongoing inner familial relations led to diminished physical and mental acumen in later generations. Historians believe the genetic line suffered from morbid obesity, exophthalmos, a multi-organ fibrotic condition, and fibrosclerosis. By the time Cleopatra VII was wed to her younger brother Ptolemy XIII in 51 BC, the writing was on the wall (or hieroglyphs on the plinth, as the case may be).
After watching as the Macedons and Seleucids nibbled at the edges of their decaying kingdom, the Egyptian rulers had allied themselves to the expanding but distant Roman Empire, a pact that would last nearly 150 years. However, the avaricious Romans kept demanding ever more tribute and influence over internal affairs, such as settling that sibling spat between the last Cleopatra and last Ptolemy. That sordid affair began with the wedding and a power struggle between the queen and the pharaoh for dominance in the kingdom, into which stepped the Roman counsel Julius Caesar, who stayed in the palace in Alexandria and soon took up with the 22-year-old Cleopatra.
With Julius’s troops at her back, Cleopatra VII – after a few skirmishes in Alexandria (during one of which the Great Library there may have burned) – defeated Ptolemy XIII at the Battle of the Nile, in which he “shockingly” drowned shortly thereafter. Cleopatra soon married the even younger Ptolemy XIV, bore Julius a son, moved to Rome, and allied with Marc Anthony upon Caesar’s murder and the resulting power vacuum. Octavian Caesar, exasperated with this sorcerous “Foreign Queen,” declared war on her and Anthony. The new emperor entered Alexandria in August 30 BC in triumph, and Cleopatra followed her latest lover by committing suicide.
With the death of Cleopatra, Egypt formally became a Roman province. The Romans, taking a clue from the success of the early Ptolemies, pretty much left Egypt alone in its religion, culture and trade. It was business as usual, with Rome now reaping the financial benefits. Pharonic Egypt was no more, and the land itself would be subject to many rulers – Byzantine, Sassanid, Arab, Fatimid, Ayyubid, the list goes on – over the next two millennia, in stark contrast to its first four when the kingdom stood astride the ancient world.