Ancient Egypt

Reference guide for primary

Published: 17th January 2011

An introduction to Ancient Egyptian civilisation

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Please note: this guide was written before the new National Curriculum in 2014, but much of the content and advice is still relevant. For more Ancient Egypt resources see our schemes of work on Ancient Egyptian civilisation and Beliefs in Ancient Egypt.

Ancient Egyptian civilisation spans 3000 years of recorded history, from around 3000 BC to 30 BC. During that time, and despite changes and variations, Egypt retained a distinctive and continuous civilisation. This was based on a stratified political hierarchy, worship of the pharaoh as a god-king, and belief in a range of shared gods and an afterlife.

There were several periods where foreign dynasties ruled Egypt, but the foreign rulers absorbed Egyptian culture and beliefs rather than changing them. Throughout the long history of Egypt, periods of strength and prosperity alternated with times when civil war, invasions or external wars weakened or split the kingdom.

Archaeology is the key to our knowledge of Ancient Egyptian civilisation. Over the past two centuries, archaeologists have uncovered vast amounts of Egypt's past. We also have accounts of Ancient Greek travellers to Egypt of what they saw there. The uncovering of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's soldiers in 1798 was a key event, for it contained information written in three different scripts: hieroglyphs, demotic and Greek. By comparing them, the young Frenchman Champollion was able to decipher the ancient hieroglyphic script. For the first time modern people could read the inscriptions written on the walls of Egyptian tombs and elsewhere.

Central importance of the Nile

The Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt ‘the gift of the Nile', and so it was. Without the River Nile, Egypt would have been a rainless desert, unable to sustain a settled population. Every year, heavy rains in Ethiopia swelled the river and brought it down in flood (the inundation). The inundation carried with it fertile soil which covered the land on both sides of the river. The Egyptians dug irrigation canals, and used shadufs and Archimedes' Screws to raise water from the Nile. In this way they controlled the flood and could raise crops and animals. In years of weak inundation there was famine (see the biblical story of Joseph and the Pharaoh's dream in Genesis 39-41). The river's richness also included:

  • transport: the Nile was the highway of the kingdom
  • food: fish and water-fowl
  • papyrus reeds, used to make paper, baskets, boats, sandals.

No wonder the Egyptians worshipped the Nile as a god, whom they called Hapi (see the Hymn to the Nile at the bottom of this page).

Science and technology

The ancient Egyptians possessed great scientific knowledge. This included the following.

  • Astronomy For example, the Egyptians aligned the Great Pyramid so that the Dog Star and the Pole Star shine into it at specific times. They also worked out a 365-day year which accurately predicted the annual flooding of the Nile.
  • Arithmetic, geometry and engineering This is seen in the accurate building of the pyramids and other royal tombs.
  • Surgery Although Egyptian medicine had large elements of magic, we also have evidence of enormous surgical skill, such as ‘skull openers' who could carry out delicate brain operations.

Ancient Egypt: a brief history

Archaeology suggests that the early inhabitants of Egypt lived in many small, independent communities, each with its own chieftain and god/s. Gradually these groups amalgamated into larger units, until there were two kingdoms: Upper Egypt in the South and Lower Egypt in the North, including the fertile Delta. These were finally united under one ruler, the pharaoh. The rest of Egypt's long history falls into distinctive phases:

Early Period (c. 3100-2686 BC)
This period began when the two kingdoms were united under Menes in 3100. This marked the beginning of dynastic rule over a single, large kingdom. However, Egypt was always governed as two separate units by two grand viziers, and was united only in the person of the pharaoh. To symbolise the unity of the two kingdoms, the pharaoh wore the symbols of both Lower and Upper Egypt.

Hieroglyphic writing first appeared during this period. (1st and 2nd dynasties.)

Old Kingdom (c. 2685-2180 BC)
A great period in terms of stone-building and sculpture. The pyramids were built as tombs for the earlier pharaohs, the first one being King Zoser's step pyramid at Saqqara. The Great Pyramid, the largest, used over 2,300,000 blocks of limestone and took 20 years to build. Later in the period pharaohs were buried in rock tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Towards the end of the period Egypt declined politically. 3rd to 6th dynasties.

First Intermediate Period (c. 2180-2040)
Central government collapsed. For the next 140 years the pharaohs were weak and real power was in the hands of provincial governors, who fought each other for power. The weakness and strife brought famines. 7th to 10th dynasties.

Middle Kingdom (c. 2040-1670 BC)
The pharaoh Mentuhotep II reunited the kingdom. He drove out foreign settlers from the Delta and introduced an era of cultural and economic growth. 11th to 13th dynasties.

Second Intermediate Period (c. 1670-1570 BC)
A series of weak kings and unsettled conditions allowed the Hyksos peoples to invade from the Middle East in 1670 BC. Previously the Egyptians had called them ‘miserable sand-dwellers', but now they suffered the humiliation of being ruled by Hyksos kings for a century. 14th to 17th dynasties.

New Kingdom (c.1570-1080 BC)
The pharaoh Kamose defeated the Hyksos after a long war of liberation. The New Kingdom saw Egypt's power and wealth grow to its greatest height. Tuthmosis III conquered many nearby kingdoms, so beginning an empire that soon included modern Israel, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and also Libya. At the peak of Egypt's greatness, more wealth was stored in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings than anywhere else on earth. During this period the horse and chariot were introduced as methods of transport for the aristocracy and the élite army corps. (Howard Carter was to find a chariot in Tutankhamun's tomb.) Towards the end of the period Egypt suffered a series of external attacks, by both Libyans and the ‘sea peoples'. 18th- to 20th dynasties.

Late Dynastic Period (c. 1080-332 BC)
A period of foreign rule in Egypt - Libyan, Kushite, Assyrian and Persian (Iranian) dynasties. 21st to 31st dynasties.

Ptolemaic Period (333-30 BC)
In 333 Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. He established the final dynasty, of Macedonian/Greek pharaohs, the Ptolemies. Many Greeks came to settle in Egypt. In 30 BC the last Ptolemy, Queen Cleopatra, was defeated by Octavius (soon to become the Emperor Augustus), and Egypt lost her independence, swallowed by the Roman Empire.

Egypt's political independence may have ended in 30 BC, but her culture and religion survived for another 400 years, until Christianity became the dominant religion. Later still, in 640 AD, Christianity was supplanted by Islam. Today Egypt remains a Muslim country.

Teaching Ancient Egypt

Demonstrate the length of Ancient Egypt's history by creating with the class a timeline marking out the different periods, including the intermediate periods, when weakness and/or civil war disrupted the kingdom. The timeline should be a living, growing visual record, with pharaohs and events being added as you study them. Good for practising arithmetic, especially negative numbers.

Daily life
We know many fascinating details from hieroglyphs and paintings (such as that women wore cones of wax on their heads at parties, which would melt in the heat and run down the women's faces, cooling and perfuming them). Using pictures, you can investigate hunting, fishing, farming; food (basic diet was bread and beer); homes; celebrations. It's also worth researching the different roles (such as pharaoh, priest, scribe) and status positions in the royal palaces.

The Egyptians' belief in the afterlife explains their invention of embalming: they believed that when they died their spirit needed a body to live in, so the body had to be preserved after death. Children are enthralled by the processes involved in mummification, the soul's dangerous journey to the underworld and the final judgement where the dead person's heart is weighed against a feather

The Egyptian gods, most of them animals, are a good source of stories, mask-making (art/technology link) and insight into the beliefs and ways of thinking of the Ancient Egyptians. The gods associated with the River Nile are witness to its importance.

One way to counter children's tendency to see people in the past as primitive and/or not very intelligent is to face them with the technological problems solved by ancient people. For example, can the children work out how to build a pyramid, or raise water from the Nile and irrigate the fields, given the tools available to the Ancient Egyptians?

Investigating Egyptian technology such as Archimedes' Screw or the making of papyrus paper should not only engender respect for the cleverness of the Egyptians, but also provide an authentic link with design & technology.

The finding and deciphering of the Rosetta Stone makes a good story and illustrates how complex historical investigation can be, with the perseverance needed to crack the code. Opportunity, too, for writing in hieroglyphs.

Religious Education
The stories of Joseph and Moses provide links with Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Here are some interesting pharaohs to study.

Hatshepsut A female pharaoh, who sent a famous expedition down the Red Sea coast to the land of Punt (probably Ethiopia). Punt was the best source of incense, which the Egyptians regarded as essential for the proper worship of their many gods.

Akhenaten Known as the heretic pharaoh, because he promoted the exclusive worship of the sun god, Aten. He tried to suppress the worship of all the other Egyptian gods - he abandoned the state capital of Thebes and built a new capital dedicated to Aten at Tel el Amarna. However, his attempt to change the nation's beliefs failed. After his death, his son Tutankhamun moved the capital back to Thebes and reinstated the old gods.

Tutankhamun As a pharaoh, he was insignificant and died young, but we study him mainly because we have the riches of his unrobbed tomb, and a good story about its discovery.

Sethos I and his successor Ramesses II. Famous for their campaigns against the Hittites and for their vast temples, at Abydus, Karnak and Abu Simbel.

Cleopatra Another celebrated female pharaoh, who had both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony as lovers. She committed suicide by making an asp bite her when she lost her kingdom to Rome. Useful to introduce the Roman link.

And finally ...

Imhotep Not a pharaoh, but a great man who lived during the 3rd dynasty. He was an important government official at the court of King Zoser, and also a wise man, a doctor and an architect. It was he who designed the first pyramid, the step pyramid at Saqqara. He was venerated by later generations for his wisdom, to the extent that during the Ptolemaic Period he was made the god of medicine and patron of scribes.

Resourcing Ancient Egypt

For children, there is a plethora of topic books about the Ancient Egyptians. For teachers, the British Museum books are recommended, particularly Egyptian Mummies and Egyptian Life (Thames & Hudson).

Useful websites include: 

  • Ancient Egypt  (comprehensive, and includes a good timeline)
  • British Museum (excellent)
  • Guardians Net (includes a children's section with things to do and make)
  • BBC (scholarly information for teachers; primary documents; good pictures)
  • Wiki


Key concepts and vocabulary

Archimedes' Screw

Hymn to the Nile, chanted around 1300 BC

Hail, all hail, O Nile, to you!
To this land you show yourself
Coming tranquilly to give
Life, so Egypt may live:
Ammon, your source is hidden
Hidden your mysterious course,
But it fills our hearts with joy!
You overflow the gardens
With their flowers beloved of Ra;
You, for all the beasts that are,
Glorious river,
Are the life-giver;
To our fair fields ceaselessly,
You supply your waters,
And do come
Through the middle plain descending,
Like the sun through middle sky,
Loving good, and without ending,
Bringing corn for granary;
Giving light to every home,
O you mighty Ptah.