Ancient Egypt


For centuries, the epic, 3,000-year history of ancient Egypt lay mostly forgotten. It wasn't until the late 18th century that the conquering armies of Napoleon plundered its treasures and jump-started an "Egyptomania" that endures today.

The era's monumental sphinx and pyramids, mystifying hieroglyphs, and obsession with the afterlife—most famously via its decked-out tombs and durable mummies—have captivated generations of history buffs and tourists (watch 101).

The Nile River

Ancient historians described Egyptian civilization as the "gift of the Nile" (read explainer). The vast, complex culture ebbed and flowed on the 4,000-mile-long, north-flowing river, whose predictable annual flooding—caused by snowmelt and rains in the Ethiopian highlands—nourished its banks.

Lifeless deserts stretching beyond the river provided natural barriers and lent geographic coherence to early unification efforts (see map).

Three Millennia of Kingdoms

Historians divide Egypt's timeline into three kingdoms: the Old, Middle, and New. A long, broken line of kings further divides its timeline into 31 dynasties (see dynasties). 

The Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BCE) saw the creation of some of Egypt's most iconic structures: the massive Giza pyramids and the Great Sphinx (watch monuments tour).

The Middle Kingdom (2134-1690 BCE) expanded its boundaries and firmed up its military amid a cultural Renaissance that saw some of Egypt's greatest works of literature produced. 

The New Kingdom (1549-1069 BCE) stretched Egypt's borders and wealth to its largest extent, making it a target of successive invasions by the Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, and Romans.

Power and Politics

Egyptian power began and ended with the all-powerful pharaoh, a Greek term meaning "great house," which only became common usage in modern times.

Pharaohs, whose rule was based on the divine right of kings, managed a sprawling bureaucracy of officials and scribes, masters of the burgeoning art of hieroglyphic writing. Regional leaders known as nomarchs governed smaller areas called nomes.


Over 2,000 deities made up the evolving Egyptian pantheon, from Osiris—the mythical source of the Nile—to Amun-Ra, the empire's chief god. The temple was both the religious and political focal point of the city.

At death, Egyptians believed a person's spiritual parts were separated from the body but required the physical remains or a replica as a place to live. This belief gave rise to mummification (how it works) and extravagant tomb-making.


The ancient Egyptians can claim one of the earliest forms of written language, one of the oldest bodies of literature, as well as the prototype of paper: papyrus, made from river reeds.

They also mastered basic operations in math, developed the first solar calendar, and established the first 24-hour day

Antiquities Today

Amid continuing worldwide interest in Egyptology, Egypt today looks to repatriate historical artifacts in private collections or public museums—removed from Egypt over centuries—to their land of origin. An estimated $3B worth of illicit antiquities are traded each year. 

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Smithsonian Institution

Whose face is on the Sphinx?

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Egypt's ancient marvel, the 66-foot tall, 4,500-year-old Great Sphinx, is believed to stand as a guard to the great Giza pyramids—or tombs—of pharaohs Khafre and Khufu. Archaeologists have long debated which of the two leaders' face is on the great monument, the father (Khufu) or the son (Khafre). Explore the arguments for one or the other with this short video.

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The 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt revealed new secrets about the civilization to a fascinated world, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Harry Burton captured the discovery in 2,800 black-and-white glass negatives. Nearly a century later, a selection of the images were colorized by experts to show the excavation's original color. Peruse the historical images here.

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The major historical sites of ancient Egypt are spread out over 1,000 miles of the Nile River, from the Mediterranean Sea to modern-day Sudan, and constructed over three millennia. With this interactive map, you can quickly grasp when and where every major monument was built, from the Great Pyramid in the Nile river delta to the Greek temple of Isis near contemporary Aswan.

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Egyptologists are able to reconstruct the intimate details of everyday life in the ancient civilization by studying the abundant archaeological material left preserved in tombs, monuments, and partially intact neighborhood layouts. Watch a comprehensive tour of the daily habits and lifestyles of ancient Egyptians with expert Dr. Joann Fletcher, who showcases real monuments and museums from the period.

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During the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, elaborate burial rites included the incantation of magic spells to help those who had died navigate the underworld. Texts of these spell-binding funerary guidelines, widely known as the Books of the Dead, have survived intact and depict the commonly-held beliefs in a complex after-life where souls seek to attain immortality. Learn more with this quick video.

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Is it possible to recreate the voice of someone who lived millennia ago? Ear, nose, and throat expert David Howard discusses how his research team extracts vocal folds from preserved human tissue, which allows them to model the deceased person's larynx. From there, they can create a synthetic voice based on the organ's geometry, which sounds remarkably similar to the original speaker.

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