Before you can engage in any kind of in-depth exploration of ancient Egyptian history and culture, it's vital that you have an understanding of how Egyptologists divide and categorize Egypt's history. In my posts you'll probably see me throwing around terms like "New Kingdom" or "Second Intermediate Period." Don't worry if you don't recognize these names yet... you will!
A post about the intricacies of dating and organizing ancient Egyptian history could get really complicated, really fast, so I'm going to try to stick to the basics. There are two different ways Egyptian history is broken up: by overall period (i.e. "Old Kingdom," "New Kingdom," etc.), and by dynasty. The term "dynasty" refers to a group/succession of rulers, all of whom are usually from the same family. Typically, egyptologists list each greater period of history alongside the numbered dynasties it encompasses. Here's a basic outline of the major periods of ancient Egyptian history, along with their associated dynasties:
Predynastic (500 - 3100 B.C.E.)***
Early Dynastic (3100 - 2686 B.C.E.), Dynasties 0 - 2
Old Kingdom (2686 - 2181 B.C.E.), Dynasties 3 - 6
First Intermediate Period (2182 - 2055 B.C.E.), Dynasties 7 - 10
Middle Kingdom (2055 - 1786 B.C.E.), Dynasties 11 - 13
Second Intermediate Period (1786 - 1567 B.C.E.), Dynasties 14 - 17
New Kingdom (1567 - 1085 B.C.E.), Dynasties 18 - 20
Third Intermediate Period (1085 - 664 B.C.E.) Dynasties 21 - 25
Late Period (664-332 B.C.E.), Dynasties 26-31
Ptolemaic Dynasty (305 - 30 B.C.E.)
Roman Period (30 B.C.E. - approx. 641 C.E. Muslim Conquest).
*** Keep in mind that dating the exact beginnings and ends of each of these periods can be incredibly difficult for egyptologists, and the dates you see here might vary slightly from the dates listed in other sources.
ABOUT THOSE INTERMEDIATE PERIODS
There are three major intermediate periods in ancient Egyptian history. The first occurred between the end of the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, the second between the end of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the New Kingdom, and the Third between the end of the New Kingdom and the beginning of the Late Period. Typically, each Intermediate Period is characterized by a lack of singular, centralized power in Egypt. Sometimes, as is especially evident in the First Intermediate Period, there would be multiple "kings" or governors of Egypt, each with his own capital and center of power in a different city (i.e. Thebes vs. Memphis). The Second and Third Intermediate Periods saw foreign powers occupying Egypt: in the Second Intermediate Period the invaders were the Hyksos people, and in the Third, Egypt was assimilated into the Assyrian Empire. The Late Period, though not officially designated an Intermediate Period, shares some similarities with these three eras in that during this time Egypt was invaded and ruled over by the Persians, and many of the pharaohs of the later dynasties were foreigners from either Nubia (Kush) or Libya.
ALEX & THE PTOLEMIES
The process of Hellenization in Egypt began in 332 B.C.E., with the arrival of Macedonian (Greek) king Alexander the Great. Following a brief power struggle after Alexander's death in 323, one of his generals, Ptolemy, proclaimed himself the pharaoh of Egypt. For the next three centuries, Ptolemy's descendants would rule Egypt until 30 B.C.E., when the death of Cleopatra ushered in an era of Roman rule. The Ptolemies are an incredibly interesting (and scandalous!) family, and you'll definitely be hearing more about them in upcoming posts.
THE THREE BIGGIES
The most well-known periods of ancient Egyptian history are the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. You're probably familiar with quite a few events/figures from these eras already: the pyramids of Giza were built during the Old Kingdom, and King Tut, Nefertiti, and Ramesses II all ruled during the Egypt's New Kingdom. Each of these periods was characterized by the strong, centralized reigns of single pharaohs, unlike the political situations during the three Intermediate Periods, and each had its own specific attributes. The Old and New Kingdoms are noted for their architecture, extensive building campaigns, and Middle Kingdom is most remembered for its rich legacy of art and literature. Because of the nature of this blog, I'm going to go into a lot more detail on each of these periods in later posts, so I'll leave off here for now.