Ancient Egypt is one of the most studied and best known of the early civilizations. With its great pyramids and temples that have survived to the present day, and with the fascinating mummies found in tombs filled with riches and lined with hieroglyphs, or picture drawings, ancient Egypt provides a fascinating historical record. Tracing its roots to about 4000 B.C.E. , the civilizations that we know as ancient Egypt existed for nearly four thousand years before they broke up and came under the control of the Roman Empire. During its peak, from about 2700 B.C.E. to about 750 B.C.E. , ancient Egypt developed a complex and powerful civilization and also created fascinating customs surrounding dress and body ornamentation.
The power of the pharaohs
The first Egyptian cultures formed along the banks of the Nile River in northern Africa sometime before 4000 B.C.E. Ever since that time, the Nile has been at the center of Egyptian culture. One of earth's great rivers, the Nile's waters allowed for the development of agriculture in a dry land, and communities formed along its banks. The Nile flows north from Lake Victoria in present-day Uganda through Sudan and into Egypt and empties into the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient times Egypt had been divided into Upper Egypt to the south and Lower Egypt to the north. In about 3100 B.C.E. the
From the time of Menes on, Egypt was ruled by pharaohs whose reign was known as a dynasty. The pharaohs were thought to be directly related to the gods. In fact, Egyptians believed that the pharaohs were gods. The pharaohs had ultimate power in Egypt and were the head of the religion and the government; any decision that they made was accepted without question. The society that they ruled over fully accepted the power of the pharaoh, and Egypt was long protected from foreign attack by the vast deserts that lay to the west and the Red Sea that lay to the east. For these reasons Egyptian society was very stable. Pharaoh succeeded pharaoh for nearly three thousand years, and many elements of Egyptian culture stayed the same throughout this time, including many of their clothing traditions.
The history of ancient Egypt is broken into several periods or eras. There are stretches of time in Egyptian society that we know more about than others. During the well-known periods, Egyptians left enduring records of their society in the form of buildings and hieroglyphs that describe the period. These times were the most stable, with peaceful succession of rulers. From the lesser-known periods, few records remain. Out of the well-known periods there are three that are extensively studied: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. The Old Kingdom period, which lasted from about 2700 B.C.E. to about 2000 B.C.E. , saw the construction of the first great monuments of Egyptian architecture: the great stone pyramids at Giza on the west bank of the Nile near the current Egyptian capital of Cairo. During the Old Kingdom Egyptians developed an accurate solar calendar much like the one we use today, and they made great achievements in art and culture. The Middle Kingdom period lasted from about 2000 B.C.E. to about 1500 B.C.E. It is known for achievements made in literature and for the increasing contacts that Egyptians made with surrounding cultures in the greater Middle East. Egyptians borrowed customs from other cultures and incorporated them into their lives.
The New Kingdom period lasted from about 1500 B.C.E. to about 750 B.C.E. During this time Egypt truly became an empire. It conquered its neighbors to the south and expanded its control into other parts of Africa. Egypt became very rich during the New Kingdom, and it displayed its wealth in lavish temples and more highly decorated clothes. Egyptian society began to break down after about 1000 B.C.E. , and it was conquered by Macedonian leader Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.E. ) in 332 B.C.E. From that point on the stable and distinctive culture of ancient Egypt slowly disappeared.
Distinctive Egyptian culture
Though ancient Egyptian culture existed for nearly thirty centuries, many elements of the culture stayed quite similar over this vast span of time. Religion remained very important to the Egyptians. Religious rituals accompanied every part of Egyptian daily life. One key belief held by Egyptians was that of eternal life. They believed that life would go on after death, so they preserved dead bodies very well. Those people who could afford it had their bodies made into mummies, or bodies that were preserved and wrapped in cloth. Nobles, or high officials, and pharaohs were always well preserved and their bodies were kept in tombs that were filled with goods that they might need in the afterlife. The great pyramids and temples were the greatest of these tombs but were frequently ransacked by robbers over the ages, destroying many preserved treasures. The only pharaoh's tomb to be found intact belonged to King Tutankhamun, the young king who ruled in the fourteenth century B.C.E. His solid gold coffin and the many riches found nearby, which were discovered in 1922, show how rich the lives of these pharaohs must have been. The great pyramids of ancient Egypt, which survive to this day as a marvel of human engineering, show how seriously Egyptians took preparations for the afterlife.
The other great source of stability in ancient Egypt was the Nile River. While religion and the pharaohs controlled one aspect of life in Egypt, the Nile—the longest river in the world—controlled other aspects. Its seasonal floods richened the soil that provided the basis for Egypt's agricultural economy. Egyptians grew a variety of grains, such as wheat and flax. They also grew vegetables. All of the major settlements in Egypt were built along the Nile, for much of the rest of the area was desert. Egyptians lived in small towns, and they built homes from mud bricks which helped keep the walls cool in the hot temperatures.
In the contemporary world fashions change all the time. But in ancient Egypt certain kinds of clothing were worn by generation after generation of people with very little change. For Egyptians, this stability was not a problem but rather a symbol of the secure nature of their society.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Donoughue, Carol. The Mystery of the Hieroglyphs: The Story of the Rosetta Stone and the Race to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Kinnaer, Jacques. The Ancient Egypt Site. http://www.ancient-egypt.org (accessed on July 24, 2003).
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Shuter, Jane. The Ancient Egyptians. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2000.