The oasis at Siwah

The Sahara wasn't always desert. People lived there before the Egyptians. This desert still fed both the Egyptians and Romans until the climate changed. There is still a lot of water at oases like Siwah.


Evidently hominids have lived in Egypt for at least two million years.[1] That time-frame is well beyond this focus, but helps to demonstrate that the area has ancient beginnings - even before the pharaohs. The evidence was found at the Siwah Oasis, which although now in desert, has been surrounded by lush grass. The present structure and thickness variations of sediments of the Mediterranean coastal area (west of the Nile) and northern Cyrenaica, indicate that this part of the African Plate was an unstable zone.

The climate of the Sahara has not always been so dry and unfriendly and satellite images have revealed dried lakes and river-beds. The earliest humans in the area were Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, who lived in south-western Libya between c400,000-70,000 years ago. This region then included a large lake. The people survived by hunting in a wet and green Sahara. A prolonged dry spell lasted c70,000- 12,000 years ago and humans left the transformed arid region. However, when the rains returned so did the people. There is confirmed evidence of hunter-gatherer people living in North Africa and the Sahara for at least 40,000 years. At the large cave of Haua Fteah on the Libyan coast thousands of stone artifacts were excavated in the early 1950s. The resulting carbon-dating indicated an occupation over the period 30000-12000 BC. The shaped stones indicated the use of both spears and bows and arrows; and similar findings in south-eastern Spain show that the 'technology' was widely shared. Evidently from Nubia to the Maghreb the prey included aurochs, haartebeest, gazelle, hippopotamus, and wild ass. Fishermen also developed various styles of hooks and spears to harvest from the Nile River.

In c9000 BC, climate change forced farmers in Upper Egypt and Libya to migrate to the Nile River valley.[2] Along the Nile there was probably some conflict with hunters and fishermen, however, trade began and developed wealth. Life along the Nile became settled until c6000 BC and burials were made close to settlements. There was incresing influenece by people from the Lower Nile area. This influenece is evidenced by new styles of pottery, stone, and mud-brick buildings (some with painted art). Copper was also introduced and copper tools replaced the earlier stone tools. Early farmers settled on the west of the Nile at Merimde and Fayum Egypt c4000 BC. Those two locations give the reason for their selection as water. Merimde is at the south of the Nile delta near Giza, while Fayum was settled beside an ancient lake. These farmers kept sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs; and the grew emmer and flax crops.

The Siwah is a depression, just like the better-known Qattara Depression. The Siwah is 82 kms long and 9-28 kms wide and is the most distant Egyptian oasis from the Nile Valley. The southern oasis has been invaded by sand dunes from the Great Sand Sea, which extends over 500 kms north to south and 60 to 80 kms east to west. Parts of the Siwah Depression lie as much as 60m below sea level. A number of fresh water springs run into salt water lakes. To the west is Birket al-Maraqi, which takes up about nine square kms, and the largest of the Siwah lakes, Birket Siwah, which covers about 32 square kms. The lakes are mostly fed by springs and provide plenty of water for the Oasis, with some 1,000 springs currently in use. Even the spring water now has too much salt for watering most crops, but it does support dates, olives and a few vegetables. Shuttle Imaging Radar instrument 1981 data revealed three, dry, wide riverbeds in the eastern Sahara. Curiously, early Libyans maintained a temple there, to which Alexander the Great traveled to consult the Oracle of Amun and then to be confirmed as God and King of Egypt.

Regional resources


In the next millenium trade slowly increased along the Nile began to create a common culture amongst the various tribes and people who settled there. Copper was found, mined, and appeared in Egypt, probably from both the Sinai and Nubia; and gold was mined and imported from Nubia. Egyptian society was further stabilised by the improved development of farming and larger settlements grew to be cities of c5,000 people. Such numbers of people must have created the need for central coordination and government. Egyptian cities were built of mudbrick, as opposed to the rural reed huts. By 4000 BC copper weapons were also made. Silver, gold, lapis, and faience were used ornamentally. Egyptian tombs were built, modeled on their houses. By 4000 BC Mesopotamian influences had worked their way into Egypt and Egyptians created a governing power to deal with their neighbours.

Farming for the Egyptians was centered on the Nile River, which had three seasons. Akhet was a flood, which lasted from June to September and left a layer of silt on the banks, perfect for growing crops. Peret was the growing season between October and February, and farmers waited until November when the flood had drained before plowing and planting. With crops planted farmers would irrigate the crops with dikes or canals from the Nile. From March to May in the Shemu harvesting season reapers cut the ripe crops with wooden sickles, followed by women and children who collect the fallen crops. The natural Nile cycle kept providing the grain to feed Egyptians and build a civilization. Additional flax plants were grown to make linen for clothing, and Papyrus on the riverbanks was used to make paper.

Archeological evidence documents that c10000 BC on the Nile grain-grinding farmers using the earliest type of sickle blades were replaced by hunters, fishermen, and gathering peoples who used stone tools.[3] Houses have also been found in the southwestern corner of Egypt, near the Sudan border, dating to pre-8000 BC. Geological evidence and computer climate modeling studies suggest that natural climate changes around 8000 BC began to dry the pastoral savannah, eventually creating the Sahara desert (c.2500 BC). Regional tribes must have naturally naturally moved to the Nile River where they developed the settled agricultural economy and centralized Egyptian society. Unsurprisingly, evidence indicates pastoralism and cereal farming activities in the eastern Sahara in c6000 BC.

By c6000 BC, organized agriculture and large building construction for temples had appeared in both the Nile Valley and the southwestern corner of Egypt. In 5500-3100 BC small settlements flourished along the Nile and mortar had been developed and was used by 4000 BC. By 3300 BC, just before the first Egyptian dynasty, Egypt had been divided (along the line of the area of modern Cairo) into two kingdoms, known as Upper Egypt (Ta Shemau) and Lower Egypt (Ta Mehu).[4] Both kingdoms controlled extremely fertile land and produced surplus food and multiple crops in the Nile Delta. Hunting and fishing produced additional food as the Nile River supported a wide variety of native animals and fish. Since the culture was essentially the same along the Nile it became inevitable that governments would want to control both of these kingdoms to improve security and trade. The length of the Nile ensured that a united Egypt had both strategic depth to defend against external enemies, but also access to resources from the Mediterranean south to Nubia. This advantage of a fertile depth enabled Egypt's extraordinarily long survival and its ability to fight off enemies.

The Old Kingdom

Upper & Lower Egypt, and Nubia


Cartouches (in centre)

Egyptian kings had their names written in the oval form, which in 1798 Napoleonic soldiers then described as a cartouche (cartridge). The cartouches are shown topped by the Egyptian crown in this image.

Khafre's Pyramid c2500 BC & Sphinx

The Old Kingdom is marked by a change in architecture from the Early Dynastic Period. It is the name for the period in the 3rd millennium BC when Egypt first attained a stable civilization. It was a high point of civilization in the lower Nile Valley. Order was imposed and culture flourished. Genealogy streching into the old kingdom is obscure and I have not found a path. The royal capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom was Memphis, where Pharaoh Djoser (2630–2611 BC) built the step pyramid and established his court. The Old Kingdom is known, for the pyramids, built as pharaonic burial tombs. The Old Kingdom is also referred to as "the Age of the Pyramids."

The recorded history of ancient Egypt begins with Pharaoh (king) Menes who unified Egypt, in c3150 BC. Egyptian culture, including religion, customs, art, architecture, and social structure, was remarkably stable and changed little over a period of c3000 years. Egypt reached its greatest extent in 2000-1000 BC, during what is known as the New Kingdom. It reached from the Nile Delta in the north, and south into Nubia. At different times, Egyptians conquered areas of the southern Levant, the Eastern Desert, and the Red Sea coastline, the Sinai Peninsula, and several oases in the Libyan desert. Pharonic Egypt lasted over 3,500 years to 31 BC when Augustus conquered and absorbed Ptolemaic Egypt into the Roman Empire. Romans were not the first foreigners to dominate Egypt; however the Romans effectively marked the end of Egyptian independence.

Egypt was based on the finely balanced control of natural and human resources, regulated by controlled irrigation of the fertile Nile Valley. Egyptians also learned to mine in the Nile valley and surrounding desert regions. With surplus food, growing wealth and powerful neighbours the early Egyptians developed both an independent writing system and literature. With strong kings they organized the large collective projects like the pyramids. With surplus wealth trade was established with their neighbours in Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean, and Mesopotamia. To protect their wealth Egyptian pharaoh kings developed powerful armies and led military ventures to dominate their neighbours at different times. Motivating and organising these activities were an elite that achieved social consensus by an elaborate religious belief under the figure of a semi-divine ruler.

Egypt was divided into administrative areas called nomes in Greek and sepat in Egyptian, and governors, now known as nomarchs, held regional authority. Nomes can be traced back to the autonomous city-states that Menes unified in c3150 BC. Taxes were paid "in kind" and most people would give their crafts, some animal,or work on some project for free, while landowners paid in grain and other produce. One person from every household was required to pay a corvée or labor tax by doing public work for a few weeks every year, such as digging canals or mining. However, a richer noble could hire a poorer man to fulfill his labor tax. The Vizier controlled the taxation system through bureaucracy, which reported daily on the amounts of stock available, and projected. The records were kept using hieroglyphics, one of the world's earliest known writing systems, partly syllabic, partly ideographic.

The Egyptian religion was conducted by priests, embodied in Egyptian mythology, and lasted from predynastic times until Christianity and Islam in the Græco-Roman and Arab eras. Several African animals were portrayed and worshiped in ancient Egyptian art, writing and religion. Temples were sacred places where only priests and priestesses were allowed. On special occasions common people were allowed into the temple courtyard. The religious nature of ancient Egyptian civilization influenced its contribution to the arts of the ancient world. Many of the great works of ancient Egypt depict gods, goddesses, and pharaohs, who were also considered divine. Ancient Egyptian art in general is characterized by the idea of order.

Engineering Achievements

Several Egyptian pyramids were built and some abandoned before they were finished In c2575 BC, Pharaoh Khufu (called Cheops in Greek) had the Great Pyramid built at Giza. His son Khafre and his grandson Menkaure also built pyramids at Giza. The achievements of pharonic Egypt are well known, and the civilization achieved a very high standard of productivity and sophistication. The art and science of engineering was present in Egypt, such as accurately determining the position of points and the distances between them (known as surveying). These skills were used to outline pyramid bases. The Egyptian pyramids took the geometric shape formed from a polygonal base and a point, called the apex, by triangular faces. Hydraulic cement was first invented by the Egyptians. The Al Fayyum Irrigation (water works) was one of the main agricultural breadbaskets of the ancient world. There is evidence of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs of the twelfth dynasty using the natural lake of the Fayyum as a reservoir to store surpluses of water for use during the dry seasons. From the time of the First dynasty or before, the Egyptians mined turquoise in the Sinai Peninsula. Glass making was highly developed in ancient Egypt, as is evident from the glass beads, jars, figures and ornaments discovered in the tombs. Recent archeology has uncovered the remains of an ancient Egyptian glass factory.

The Middle Kingdom

Egyptian history is not as tidy as my headings imply. There were long intermediate periods of uncertainty, wars, rebellions, a splintered kingdom, and coup d'etats. The complete history is too complex for this simple overview. However, the Middle Kingdom was the next period of stability.

The middle kingdom spans from the 11th dynasty to the end of the 14th, roughly c2040-1785 BC. The 11th dynasty ruled from Thebes, however, from the 12th dynasty power was centred around el-Lisht. An inscription carved during the reign of Intef II shows that he was the first of his dynasty to claim to rule over the whole of Egypt, a claim which brought the Thebeans into conflict with the rulers of the breakaway nome of Herakleopolis Magna, the Tenth dynasty. Intef undertook several campaigns northwards, and captured the important nome of Abydos. Warfare continued intermittently between the Thebean and Herakleopolitan dynasts until the 14th regnal year of Nebhetepra Mentuhotep II, when the Herakleopolitans were defeated, and the Theban dynasty began to consolidate their rule. Mentuhotep II is known to have commanded military campaigns south into Nubia, which had gained its independence during the First Intermediate Period. There is also evidence for military actions against Palestine. The king reorganized the country and placed a vizier at the head of civil administration for the country. Mentuhotep IV was the final pharaoh of this dynasty, and despite being absent from various lists of pharaohs, his reign is attested from a few inscriptions in Wadi Hammamat that record expeditions to the Red Sea coast and to quarry stone for the royal monuments.

The leader of this expedition was his vizier Amenemhat, who is widely assumed by many Egyptologists to have either usurped the throne or assumed power after Mentuhotep IV died childless. Significantly, Amenemhat was born to a woman called Nefret of Nubia, indicating the breadth of contact between the two countries. Pharaoh Amenemhat I built a new capital for Egypt, known as Itjtawy, presumably the present-day el-Lisht, although the early historian Manetho claimed that the capital remained at Thebes. Amenemhat pacified unrest in Egypt by force and curtailed the rights of the nomarchs. He sent a campaign of expansion into Nubia. His son Sesotris I succeeded him after a period of co-regency and campaigned against Libyan invaders. (The co-regency system lasted throughout the Twelfth dynasty and provided great stability.)

Amenemhat II (1929-1895 BC) made nomarchs hereditary and established trade connections with Nubia. Senusret II (1897-1878 BC) improved trade connections with Nubia, Palestine and the Levant. Senusret III (1878-1839 BC) was a warrior-king, who led his troops deep into Nubia, and built a series of massive forts throughout the country to establish Egypt's formal boundary. Sesotris III also built a fine religious temple at Abydos; surviving reliefs show the high quality of the decorations. He was deified at the end of the Middle Kingdom and worshipped by the pharaohs of the New Kingdom. Amenemhat III (1860-1815 BC) was the last great pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom. Egypt's population began to exceed food production levels and Amenemhat III ordered the exploitation of the Fayyum (a good farming area and oasis south-west of Giza) and increased mining operations in the Sinaï desert. Amenemhat III declared that nomarchs were no longer hereditary positions, and he invited Asiatic settlers to Egypt to labor on Egypt's monuments. But late in his reign the annual floods began to fail and his successor Amenemhat IV ruled Egypt for just nine full years (1816-1807 BC) before dying prematurely. Sobekneferu (1807-1803 BC) a sister of Amenemhat IV also briefly reigned as a pharaoh in her own right, but as she had no heirs the 12th dynasty and the Middle Kingdom ended.

The New Kingdom

The New Kingdom followed a period of confused and competing rulers. The New Kingdom was inaugurated after the rule of Kamose and is defined as the period 1570-1070 BC bridging the 18th-20th Dynasties. This era followed the expulsion of the Hyksos and was Egypt’s most prosperous time and marked the height of Egyptian power. During this period the Egyptian kings fought with the Hittites for control of wealthy Syria.

Three generations of pharaohs from Thebes rebelled against the 'outsider' Hyksos who ruled Lower (northern) Egypt. and two brothers, Kamose, and Ahmose I, are credited with final Egyptian success. At age 10, Ahmose succeeded his brother who had been killed in battle with the Hyksos; although their mother probably acted as a regent until Ahmose was older. Ahmose (and his mother) completely expelled the Hyksos from the Nile delta region and restored Theban rule over the whole of Egypt. He then reorganized the administration of the country, reopened old quarries, mines, and trade routes, and began massive construction projects.

Ahmose I was a builder-pharaoh who ruled for c25 years, died in c1525 BC, and initiated the Eighteenth dynasty. The Eighteenth dynasty marks the beginning of the New Kingdom. Ahmose is credited not only with expelling the Hyksos, but also recovering Nubia and Canaan, building the last Egyptian pyramid, at Abydos, and founding a New Kingdom which expanded the Egyptian empire into the Nile Delta. (Since the Canaanite cities were destroyed at this time, the Egyptian conquest was probably aimed at destroying the Hyksos.) Some academics further identify him as the pharaoh of the Biblical Moses' era.[5] Various pharaohs extended the control of Egypt further than ever before, not only retaking control of Nubia, but extending power northwards into the Upper Euphrates, the lands of the Hittites, and the Mitanni.

Nefertiti was step-mother and cousin to Tutankhamun





This was a time of great Egyptian wealth and power when some of the most important and best-known Pharaohs ruled. Hatshepsut was an unusual ruler, as she was a powerful female pharaoh, a rare occurrence in Egyptian history. Hatshepsut was an ambitious and competent leader. She extended Egyptian trade south into Somalia and north into the Mediterranean. She ruled for twenty years through a combination of widespread propaganda and deft political skill. Her stepson Thutmose III, is probably responsible for hacking Hatshepsut's name from her monuments, but he extended Egypt's boundaries to its greatest extent. Thutmose fought against Asiatic peoples and was the most successful of Egyptian pharaohs.

By the time of Amenhotep III (1417–1379 BC), Egypt had become so wealthy that he did nothing to further extend its powers and instead rested upon his throne gilded with Nubian gold. Amenhotep was succeeded by his son Amenophis IV, who changed his name to Akhenaten moved the capital to a new city he built called Akhetaten. (The site of Akhetaten is often referred to as Amama from a nearby modern village.) Here with his new wife Nefertiti, he concentrated on building his new religion and ignored the world outside of Egypt. This allowed various underground factions to build that were not happy with his new world. The new religion was something that had never happened before in Egypt. Previously, new gods came along and were absorbed into the culture, but no god was allowed to push out any old ones. Akhenaten, however, formed a monotheistic religion around Aten, the sun disc. Worship of all other gods was banned, and this move is what caused the majority of the internal unrest.[6] The relationship between Akhenaten's introduction of monotheism, and the biblical character of the monotheistic Moses, who is located in Egypt at a similar (although not necessarily simultaneous) period, is both unclear and controversial.

A new culture of art was introduced during this time that was more naturalistic and a complete turnabout from the stylised frieze that had ruled Egyptian art for the last 1700 years. Concerning art and Akhenaten, an area of interest to many Egyptologists is the peculiarity of Akhenaten's physical features. Many pharaohs are portrayed in a stylized manner however, Akhenaten is shown in paintings and carvings with unusually feminine features, specifically wide hips and elongated, delicate facial features. Some theories assume that the depiction is accurate and not stylized, suggesting that Akhenaten suffered from birth defects which were common among the royal families.

Towards the end of his 17-year reign, Akhenaten took a co-regent, Smenkhkare, who is sometimes considered to be his brother. Their co-reign lasted only 2 years. When Akhenaten died, worship of the old gods was revived, their worship had never ended, but had gone underground. Smenkhkare died after a few months of sole reign, and in his place was crowned a young boy. He was not ready for the pressure of ruling this great country, and the advisors that surrounded him made the decisions for him. His given name was Tutankhaton, but with the resurgence of Amun, he was re-named Tutankhamun. One of the most influential advisors was General Horemheb. Tutankhamun died while he was still a teenager and was succeeded by Ay, who probably married Tutankhamun's widow to strengthen his claim to the throne. It is possible that Horemheb made Ay a monarch to act as a transitional king until he was ready to take over. In any case, when Ay died, Horemheb became ruler, and a new period of positive rule began. He set about securing internal stability and re-establishing the prestige that the country had before the reign of Akhenaten.

Ramesses II & The Bible

Egypt Under Attack

Egyptian & Hittite Empires c1274 BC

In a time of Asian migrations west and in a never-ending struggle to control resources Egypt was attacked by Hittes, who had settled in Anatolian Turkey. The wealthy Egyptians were then attacked by an unnamed tribe migrating through Greece and across the Hittites.


The Sea People attacked Egypt c1175 BC

The Nineteenth dynasty was founded by general Ramesses I, appointed heir by Horemheb. He only reigned for about a year and was followed by his son Seti I (or Sethos I). Sethos I carried on the good work of Horemheb in restoring power, control, and respect to Egypt. He also was responsible for creating the fantastic temple at Abydos. Rameses II reigned for 67 years from the age of 18 and carried on his father's work and created many more splendid temples, such as that of Abu Simbel. The time frame for the reign of Rameses II is often believed to have coincided with the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, as Rameses II built his capital Pi-Ramses, on the site of Hyksos Avaris, shifting the capital of Egypt to the Delta (the Biblical land of Goshen). Others dispute this claim, setting exodus as an earlier or later event, or disputing whether Exodus was a historical event at all. There are no records in Egyptian history of any of the events described in the Bible, nor any archaeological evidence. Indeed, even though there are records so detailed as to describe the escape of a pair of minor convicts from Egyptian territory, there is no such record for hundreds of thousands of Israelite slaves. Linguistic studies have drawn certain potential origins for elements of biblical history, although they do conflict substantially with the biblical accounts - for example, records about the Sea Peoples may indicate that the Israelite tribe of Dana and possibly Asher attacked Egypt during the later 19th and early 20th dynasty, although they also indicate that these tribes were allied with the Philistines rather than against them.[7]

The time frame for the reign of Ramesses II is often believed to have coincided with the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, as Ramesses II built his capital Pi-Ramses, on the site of Hyksos Avaris, shifting the capital of Egypt to the Delta (the land of Goshen). There are no records in Egyptian history of any of the events described in the Bible, nor any specific archaeological evidence. In this New Kingdom, coffins changed shape from the Middle Kingdom rectangle to the familiar mummy-shape with a head and rounded shoulders. At first these were decorated with carved or painted feathers, but later were painted with a representation of the deceased. They were also put together like Russian Matryoshka dolls in that a large outer coffin would contain a smaller one, which contained one that was almost moulded to the body. Each one was more elaborately decorated than the one larger than it. It is from this era that most mummies have survived. The soft tissues like the brain and internal organs were removed. The cavities were washed and then packed with natron, and the body buried in a pile of natron. The intestines, lungs, liver and stomach were preserved separately and stored in Canopic jars protected by the Four sons of Horus. Such was the perceived power of these jars that even when the Twenty-First dynasty started to return the organs to the body after preservation instead of using the jars, the jars continued to be included in the tombs.


1          See BBC News Report "Egypt footprint 'could be oldest'",, dated 21 August 2007; and Grahame Clark, World Prehistory, In New Perspective, pp. 228-234,

2          Adapted from Clark, op. cit. pp. 85-90, 220-224, 227-242; and;;;; Middle Kingdom of Egypt at,; New Kingdom at,;;;; see also Rebecca Morelle, BBC News Report, Ancient fig clue to first farming at,, dated 2 June 2006.

3          See BBC News Report, Top scientists think cavemen may have been much more advanced than we thought. They discovered that cavemen were making and using tools thousands of years before people thought they were. At a dig in South Africa, scientists dug up tools made of bone and sharpened pieces of rock that could have been there more than 70,000 years ago. Scientists have known for a long time that the bodies of ancient man were similar to modern man, but have struggled to prove how clever people were. See also BBC News Report, Stone Age wells found in Cyprus at,, dated 25 June 2009, which reports the discovery of a a group of water wells in western Cyprus. The wells have been radiocarbon dated as 9,000 to 10,500 years old, found near the coastal town of Paphos and date from the first permanent settlements in Cyprus. Coincidently, Paphos was also the site of an early Egyptian colony. No identity has yet been made of the well owners, although a woman's skeleton was found in the well.

4          See Wikipedia for context,

5          See Ralph Ellis, Tempest & Exodus, The Biblical Exodus Inscribed on an Ancient Egyptian Stele at,

6          See BBC News Report by John Hayes-Fisher, "Grim secrets of Pharaoh's city",, dated 25 January 2008. Evidence has been discovered that "The incidence of youthful death amongst the Amarna population was shockingly high by any standard." Not many lived beyond 35. Two-thirds were dead by 20.

7          Maps from; and History of the Hittites at,

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