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Ancient Egypt and the Nile River Valley

Ancient Egypt was an early example of a massive civilization spanning thousands of years. Sal explains this history in an overview.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] In this video, we are going to give ourselves an overview of ancient Egypt, which corresponds geographically pretty closely to the modern day state of Egypt in northeast Africa. Now the central feature in both ancient Egypt and in modern Egypt is the Nile River that you see in blue right over here. And the Nile River is one of the great rivers of the world. It rivals the Amazon River as the longest river and it sources the tributaries of the Nile Rover start even south of this picture and the water flows northward and eventually its delta reaches the Mediterranean Sea. The delta, which is where a river opens into the sea, is called a delta because, as you can see, these rivers, you can even see it from the satellite pictures right over here, they start branching up a bunch and you have this upside down triangular region, which looks a little bit like an upside down Greek letter delta, so that's why river delta is called that. And this one just happens to be upside down. If it was flowing the other way, it would be a right-side-up delta. So the Nile River, it flows from, you could say, eastern mid-Africa up into the Mediterranean Sea and because it has this northward flow, the southern parts of the river are upriver and they are actually called the Upper Nile. So, Upper. The Upper Nile is actually south of the Lower Nile, of the Lower Nile. And once again, that's because the Upper Nile is up river, it's also flowing from higher elevations to lower elevations. So as you go south, you get to higher and higher elevations. Now, the reason why the river is so important, we studied this multiple times, rivers are a source of fresh water, when they flood they make the surrounding soil fertile, they're suitable for agriculture, and the Nile Valley is one of the first places that we see agriculture emerging during the neolithic period. In fact, human settlement we believe was along this Nile River Valley as far as 6,000 BCE or 8,000 years ago, and it might have been there even further back in time. And because you have that agriculture, it allowed for higher population densities, which allowed for more specialization of labor and more complex societies. It's not a coincidence that some of the first, that one of the first great civilizations emerged here. Now, the story of the Nile River, or of Egypt, and actually they are tied very closely, even though Egypt is considered a lot of this region, most of the human population, this is true even today, is right along the river, around that fertile soil, where the agriculture actually occurs. In fact, this was so important to the ancient Egyptians that their whole calendar, their seasons, were based on what the Nile River was doing. They had a season called the inundation, or the flooding of the river, which makes the soil fertile. They had a season of growth, which is now talking about the growth of the crops and they had a season of harvest. And so you had people in this valley for thousands of years, but when we talk about ancient Egypt, we formally talk about it as a civilization around 3,100, 3,150 BCE. And this is where we get to our timeline right over here. So we're talking about right around there on our timeline and the reason why this is considered the beginning of the ancient Egyptian civilization is this is when we believe that upper and lower Egypt were first united under the king and there's different names used, Narmer sometimes or Menes. I'm going to mispronounce things every now and then and I'm probably doing it here as well. And so he was the king that unified upper and lower Egypt into an empire and the empire, as we will see, which lasted thousands of years, every one of these spaces is a hundred years. We're gonna go over huge time span, but the ancient Egyptian civilization is roughly divided into three kingdoms. You have the old kingdom, which went from about, right from about the 27th century BCE up to about the 17th century BCE. You have the middle kingdom and you have the new kingdom. And once again, this is spanning right over here over a thousand years of history. And in between those, you have these intermediate periods where the kingdom or the empire was a little bit more fragmented. You have in some of these intermediate periods, you have some foreign rule. But just to get a sense of some of what happened over this thousands of years, and I'm kind of laughing in my head because it's hard to cover over two, 3,000 years, in the course of just a few minutes, but this will give you a sense of what ancient Egyptian civilization was all about. Now the kings are referred to as pharaohs but as we'll see that term pharaoh is not really used until we get to the new kingdom. But I will refer to the kings as pharaohs throughout this video, just to say, hey these are the Egyptian kings. And the old kingdom is probably most known today in our popular culture for what we most associate with ancient Egypt and that is the pyramids. And here, right over here are the pyramids, there's the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is near modern-day Cairo today. This is the Sphinx and they were built in that old period under the Pharaohs Sneferu and Khufu, right over here in the 26th century BCE. And we are still trying to get a better understanding of how this was done. We actually now don't believe that it was done by slave labor, but instead it was done during, you could say, the off season by the peasants as a form of taxation. Okay, you're done planting or harvesting your crops? Well now that you have some time, and this shows actually the importance of agriculture for freeing people up, so to speak, why don't you help the pharaohs built these massive tombs, which I've seen various estimates that it might have taken some place between 10 and 100,000 people several decades to build each. But these are even today, these were built over 4,500 years ago, are some of the most iconic symbols that humanity has ever created. And the reason why we know so much about ancient Egypt is that we have been able to decipher their writing. It's a symbolic, they have these pictographs, these hieroglyphics, I'm sure you've heard of the word before, and for a while we had no idea what they said. We would see these encryptions in these tombs and we had a sense that, okay these tombs, especially things like the pyramids would be for these great kings, we could tell that it was a stratified society, that nobility had better tombs than others, but we didn't really have a good sense of what was going on until we discovered this, which is the Rosetta Stone, which was discovered in 1799. The reason why this is so valuable is it has the same text written in three different languages. It has it written in the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians, and it has it written in a later script used in Egypt, called demotic Egyptian, and most importantly, it has it also written in Greek. And so historians were able to say, okay, we can now start to decipher what these symbols mean because we have a translation of them and that's why it's one of the first civilizations where we're able to put the picture together. And hieroglyphics are one of the first forms of writing. But let's now go on in our journey through thousands of years of ancient Egyptian civilization. Between the old kingdom and the middle kingdom, you have the first intermediate period and then you have the middle kingdom and then you have the Hyksos, which are Semitic people, Semitic referring to their language being of the same family as Semitic languages like Arabic, or Hebrew, or Aramaic. But then you have the new kingdom, and the new kingdom is considered to be the peak of ancient Egypt. It's really the height of their technology, it's the height of their military capability. And there are several pharaohs that are worthy of note in the new kingdom. The first is, he was born Amenhotep or he was originally known as Amenhotep the Fourth and then he eventually names himself Akhenaton and Akhenaton means effective for Aton, Aton being a significant Egyptian god. And the reason why he changed his name is he decides that, okay we have, the Egyptians have this huge pantheon of gods. Here is just the some of them right over here, this is the god Osiris, often associated with the afterlife or transition, regeneration, resurrection. You have the god Amun here and his first name Amenhotep, it means Amun is satisfied. What is considered kind of the equivalent of Zeus, you have the god here Horus , once again a very significant god at different times in Egypt, but what was interesting about Amenhotep the Fourth or Akhenaton, whichever name you want to use, is he decided, no, no, no, I don't like this pantheon, this polytheistic religion that we have, I wanna worship one god, and the god that he decides to worship is really the, you could consider it the sun god, or the sun disc, and its representation looks something like this and it was referred to as Aten and so he changes his name to Akhenaton and he actually starts to try to get rid of evidence of these other gods or to make them a lot less important. And so the reason why that's notable is this is viewed as perhaps one of the first attempts at monotheism, at least within this ancient Egyptian civilization. He's also noted for giving a lot of power to his wife, to the queen, Nefertiti, who some people say was second in command, or even co-ruled alongside him. Now he was also famous because after his death, eventually, his son, King Tut, Tutankhamen, comes to power. And the reason why King Tut, as he's often known, although it's Tutankhamen, is known is because we were able to find his tombs in relatively good order and so he's become a popular part of the imagination. And he's known as a child pharaoh. He comes to power when he's very young, he dies at 18 and so it's kind of an interesting story. Now, most prominent amongst all of the pharaohs across Egyptian history, and this is also in the new kingdom, comes a little bit after Tutankhamen, is Ramses the Second. And Ramses the Second, who emerges here in the 13th century, and he rules for most of the 13th century BCE, he represents really the peak of Egypt, ancient Egypt, as a military power. He's famous for the Battle at Kaddish, which is the earliest battle where we actually know what the tactics and the formations were and it was with the also significant Hittite Empire in 1274 BCE, this is an image drawn much, much later, of the Battle of Kaddish. The battle, we now believe, might have been a bit of a stalemate, Ramses the Second wasn't able to capture Kaddish, but has told us a lot about military tactics and strategy and formation of that time. Historians today think it might have been the largest chariot battle maybe ever. So this was a significant thing that happened. Now, eventually the new kingdom does collapse, as we get to the end of the second millennium, and then over the next several hundreds of years, we're talking about a very long period of time, it gets fragmented, you have several rulers, you have the Kushites rule from the Upper Nile, the Kushites were in this area right over here. They rule for a brief period. The Assyrians, that's a Mesopotamian civilization, they rule for a small period of time, and then eventually and we talk about this in some detail in other videos, you have the Persians take over, you have Cambyses, Cyrus the Great's son, he's able to rule over, he's able to conquer Egypt and Egypt becomes part of the Achaemenid Empire for a while until the conquering of Alexander the Great. And after Alexander the Great dies, one of his generals and his dynasty takes over, Ptolemaic Egypt and now it's being ruled by foreigners, well it's been ruled by foreigners for a while now, but now it's by the Greeks and the famous Cleopatra, who's considered a pharaoh of Egypt, she's actually Greek by blood, she's actually the one that seduced you could say Julius Caesar and Marc Antony and after Cleopatra's death, more and more, actually eventually it becomes part of Rome. So as you can see we covered this enormous large time period in history, one of the most significant civilizations in all of history, one of the most famous poems about civilizations and rulers, about Ramses the Second, the poem Ozymandias was named after him. You have some of the great cities of the ancient world, Thebes, which was the capital during parts of the new kingdom and the middle kingdom, you have Memphis, which was one of the, some people say founded by Menes and the capital of the old kingdom. These were all happening in ancient Egypt.