A very early recorded civilization developed around the River Nile, where the soil was extremely fertile. Possibly as long ago as 4000-5000 BCE, people from different regions started to settle there, forming the society known to us now as the ancient Egyptians. Around 3,500-3,000 BCE, Semitic people began to settle in Egypt too, bringing some cultural advances such as the use of pottery and bronze.
The Nile Valley
The Nile swells and floods every year during August, for up to two months, drenching the surrounding areas with fresh water. This was a very useful feature for the farmers in Ancient Egypt, who could plan their crop-growing and harvesting far more successfully than others living in the Middle East where there was little rainfall, and scorching sunshine for much of the year.
As the population living close to the Nile increased, the Egyptians created a system of irrigation by cutting a trench – or canal – to let the flood waters reach fields that were too further away. This was highly complex, taking into account the amounts of water needed by each farm, and was apparently very effective. You can read about this in some detail on the page about Agriculture and Horticulture in Ancient Egypt.
The first Pharaoh
The first king – or Pharaoh – of ancient Egypt was called Menes. He was, it seems, both intelligent and forward-thinking; it was he who ensured efficient irrigation of the farms, and who also started to build cities which would be more permanent than the cruder villages which had been springing up. Menes was the head of the First Dynasty, and some of his descendants ruled after him. He also appointed government officials, who created a registry of land-owners, ensuring that any boundary disputes could easily be settled.
However, power apparently went to Menes’ head, causing the people to worship him as a god. He appointed priests who could ensure that suitable rituals were carried out, and to invent legends about kings coming down from heaven to rule the ordinary people. Other deities were invented: Isis and Osiris were two important ones, a brother and sister who later married, as was Ra, the sun god who supposedly gave life and light. You can read in a lot more detail about this topic on this page about Ancient Egyptian gods and religion.
Life after death and the Pyramids
The ancient Egyptians believed that Pharaohs returned to the heavens after they died, but that their bodies must not rot: so they embalmed them in heavy spices, wrapped them in heavy cloths, and entombed them with their jewels and other possessions in the enormous buildings we know as pyramids. There are many theories as to how these amazing structures were constructed in the days before mechanical diggers and cranes, but nobody knows for certain. Some of them are still standing today. You can read on another site a list of interesting facts and information about the pyramids.
One reason that we know so much about the Egyptians is that they also developed a form of writing, which we call hieroglyphs. It was like a series of pictorial images to represent words and sounds, and was highly complex at first, gradually simplified over the years. At first these hieroglyphs were painstakingly carved on rocks but later they invented papyrus, a kind of forerunner of paper, made out of reeds, and wrote on scrolls. If you would like to know more about this topic, including some examples, you can see this Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph page.
Ancient Egyptians also studied mathematics, and made some observations and calculations which enabled them to create a calendar, and also a full number system. They created a system of measuring based on the human body. A cubit, for instance, was the distance from the elbow to the finger-tips.
Battles and conquests in Ancient Egypt
As the Egyptians grew more powerful, so they wanted to conquer other nations, and to subdue each other. A series of wars began in the period around 2000 BCE, leading to some destruction and devastation, as well as some conquests – gradually the scope of Egypt increased, so that by around 1500, it covered the entire region from what we now know as Sudan, including Palestine and Syria. However, by around 300 BCE Egyptian power had waned sufficiently that the Greek Alexander the Great was able to conquer the region and put most of it under Greek rule.
If you want to know about pre-history – that time before we have clear records – you can visit the page pre-historic times. To read about the other earliest known civilization, see the page on Sumerians.
Other useful links:
Birmingham Art Gallery – interactive exploration for younger children, Ancient Egypt and other ancient civiizations. http://www.schoolsliaison.org.uk/kids/preload.htmBBC history: Ancient Egypt – different topics to explore, essays, general life. Mostly reading, for older children or teens.
Primary homework: Ancient Egypt – comprehensive resources created by a primary school teacher, but relevant to children of any age. Many categories covered. http://primaryhomeworkhelp.co.uk/Egypt.html
Explore Ancient Egypt – excellent interactive site for children to discover for themselves.