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EGYPT, country in N.E. Africa, centering along the banks of the River Nile from the Mediterranean coast southward beyond the first cataract at Aswan. The ancient Egyptians named their land "Kemi," the "Black Land," while the neighboring Asiatic peoples used the Semitic word "Miṣr" which is still the country's name in both Hebrew (Heb. מִצְרַיִם; Miẓrayim) and Arabic. Geographically Egypt consists of two areas, Lower Egypt, the northern part of the land, which contains the Delta, and Upper Egypt, the south, which comprises the narrow strip of cultivable land on both sides of the river as far south as Aswan.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian history can be divided into seven periods that correspond to the major dynastic ages of Pharaonic history:

  1. Predynastic – (prehistory)
  2. Early Dynastic Period (Archaic) – Dyn. 1–3, 2920–2575
  3. Old Kingdom – Dyn. 4–8 (Pyramid Age), 2575–2134
  4. First Intermediate Period – Dyn. 9–10, 2134–2040
  5. Middle Kingdom – Dyn. 11–12 ("Classical" Period), 2040–1640
  6. Second Intermediate Period – Dyn. 13–17 (including the Hyksos Period), 1640–1532
  7. New Kingdom – Dyn. 18–20 (Empire Period), 1550–1070


The Predynastic history of Egypt refers to the period before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is the unification of the two kingdoms that heralds the national consciousness of Egypt; therefore, her history as a nation cannot start before the Early Dynastic Period. Egyptian tradition traced its historical beginnings to the time when King Menes of Upper Egypt (as recorded by Manetho, and transmitted with slight variations by Herodotus, Josephus, and Diodorus Siculus) conquered Lower Egypt and unified the two lands. By this action, he became the ruler of both Upper and Lower Egypt, thereby establishing the First Dynasty. Menes' unification came to symbolize the nation and its conception of itself. The earliest representation of the unification of Egypt is the Narmer Palette (+/–3150 B.C.E., now in the Cairo Museum). The legendary Pharaoh Narmer has been identified with Menes, and the Narmer Palette apparently represents the Pharaoh of Upper Egypt conquering Lower Egypt and subduing the enemy. The obverse of the palette shows the ruler wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, while the reverse has him wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. Throughout dynastic history the unification represented the potency of the land, a potency recalled in a variety of ways, from the titles of the kings, through the representations in the artistic canon.

The most important legacy of the Early Dynastic Period is the foundation of what we view as the civilization of ancient Egypt. The national economy, political ideology, and religious philosophy all developed in this period, and the administrative seat of Egyptian government moved north to Memphis. Much of the contact between Egypt and the Levant during the Early Dynastic Period was in the area of trade. Grain, timber for construction, precious and semi-precious materials, including lapis lazuli copper and turquoise, were imported to Egypt from Southwest Asia.


The Old Kingdom is also known as the Pyramid Age. During this period Egypt's power revolved around her resources, human and natural, and the Pharaoh's ability to utilize them. One of the results of the successful harnessing of resources was monumental architecture; the first complexes built from fully dressed stones are from this period. These large structures seem to represent the physical manifestation of the Pharaoh's godhead and authority. The strong centralized government of the god-king that had developed earlier underwent decentralization during the 5th dynasty and resulted in a new class of officials: The vizier no longer had to be a prince, and the nomarchs began to reside in the nome that they administered rather than in the royal residence or capital.

Foreign relations during the Old Kingdom were generally peaceful, and foreign expeditions were related either to defense or, more frequently, to trade. A 6th dynasty official named Weni inscribed his autobiography on a wall in his tomb-chapel. He reports that at the behest of the Pharaoh he led five expeditions into the Southern Levant to defend against the "Sand-dwellers" (Lichtheim 18ff.). At least two stone vessels bearing Old Kingdom royal names have been discovered at Tel Mardikhi, *Ebla, in central Syria. There is no certainty as to how the vessels got to Ebla (one, bearing Pepy I's name, is thought to have come through Byblos, and the other with Kephren's name may have come directly from Egypt), but their existence attests to far reaching diplomatic connections between Egypt and the Levant.


In Egyptian chronology, the term "Intermediate" refers to the periods when there was no strong centralized government unifying the Two Lands. During the first Intermediate Period there was dynastic rule both in the North (at Herakleopolis), and in the South (at Thebes). The attempts to reunify the land fostered sporadic internal conflicts and civil wars.


The detailed origins of the Middle Kingdom are unknown, but in a political sense the Middle Kingdom may be said to begin when the ruler of Upper Egypt becomes the sole Pharaoh and the two lands are again united. During the 11th Dynasty the seat of rule remained at Thebes in the South, but the first Pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty moved the capital North to a new capital called Itjtawy, "Grasper of the Two Lands"; the capital remained there for more than 300 years. The 12th Dynasty is the "Classical Period" in the art and the literature of Ancient Egypt.

The literature and the art of this period were used to promote the royal and elite values and interests. Many of the literary texts of this period have a propagandistic flavor and were circulated to the literati though the temples and schools. The monumental royal inscriptions on temples and other buildings were also used to address the public, to inspire loyalty, and to tell the people of the grandeur of their rulers.

For the most part Egypt's foreign relations remain peaceful during this period as witnessed by the famous tomb painting in the tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hasan. Part of this painting depicts 37 Asiatics (men, women, and children) bringing eye-paint to Khnumhotep. But there is evidence of international strife during the Middle Kingdom in the Execration Texts. The Execration Texts were a class of formulas that functioned as destructive magic; they were designed to counteract negative influences, and they are attested from the Old Kingdom through the New Kingdom. The performance of execration rituals centered on objects inscribed to identify the target of the magical act; they were then destroyed or symbolically neutralized. These texts include figures made of unbaked clay and crudely formed into the shape of a bound prisoner. There are three lots of execration texts that deal with Western Asia containing standard formulae with the names of Asiatic chieftains and their related toponyms (place names), after which follows a comprehensive statement of curse along the lines of "all Asiatics of Gns, and their mighty runners … who may rebel … etc."


The Second Intermediate Period began toward the end of the 13th Dynasty when the centralized government began once again to falter, leading to the rise of local rulers in the eastern Nile Delta. The period reached its culmination when the *Hyksos invaded from Western Asia and usurped the throne. Originally these Near Easterners were referred to as "Shepherd kings" or "captive shepherds" by the scholarly community. These titles are based on an incorrect folk-etymology attested to as early as Josephus. The term Hyksos is the Greek rendering of the Egyptian appellation for these foreigners. But the Egyptian that underlies the Greek is best translated as "rulers of the foreign countries." In Egypt it became the official designation of the first three kings of the 15th Dynasty. The capital of the Hyksos was at Avaris, modern Tel ed-Dabʿa in the Delta, on the eastern most of the Delta branches. The population there seems to have been composed of Asiatics, especially those who spoke Amorite, a West Semitic dialect.

Much of the Hyksos's power resulted from good trade relations with Cyprus, Nubia, and the Levant, and it was during this period that the horse, and wool-bearing sheep were introduced into Egypt. The archaeological record indicates that the Hyksos were not the first Near Easterners to live in the Nile Delta, but it was under the Hyksos that Egypt became more involved with the eastern Mediterranean (Bietak).

The reign of the Hyksos ended when the Theban ruler Ahmose finally expelled them and reunited the Two Lands. After this expulsion the capital shifted south again to Thebes.


The New Kingdom is the period of Egyptian expansion and imperialism. In the earlier periods Egypt's contact with, and control over, foreign areas was limited to her desire for trade and resources; during the New Kingdom Egypt's foreign policy became more aggressive. The Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni became a threat to Egypt, and the New Kingdom rulers responded to Mitanni's rising power in the area. The 18th Dynasty ruler Thutmose I led a campaign into northern Syria. Later, Thutmose III led 14 campaigns into Western Asia (one of which included a seven-month siege at Megiddo), and eventually subdued the Levantine coast, increasing Egyptian hegemony into the interior of Syro-Palestine. Under Thutmose III the rulers of the conquered Asiatic city-states became vassals to Egypt who had to send tribute and swear an oath of loyalty to the Pharaoh. True peace was not realized until the reign of Thutmose IV, who married one of the Mitannian princesses (Murnane 2001).

The Egyptian Empire reached its height during the reign of another 18th Dynasty Pharaoh, Amenhotep III. By this time the empire was firmly established, so that Egypt was able to keep her troops in just a few areas and to send garrisons only to regions that threatened revolt. But this relative ease of imperialism was short lived, and the Empire began to falter under the reign of Amenhotep IV whose internal policies caused him to be labeled the "heretic king." Amenhotep IV devoted much of his energy to religious reform. Traditionally, the established cults of Egypt's gods were under the care of the Pharaoh. Amenhotep IV neglected the traditional gods of Egypt and showed strict devotion to a new conception of the sun god the "Aten" (solar orb); he eventually withdrew his patronage from the capital at Thebes (which was the "city of Amun"), he changed his name to reflect his religious preferences to Akhenaten (*Akhenaton; "effective on behalf of the orb"), and established a new capital city named Akhetaten ("horizon of the orb"). Akhenaten weakened the power of the royal family to such an extent that that even when the traditional cult was re-established in the land, the last kings of the 18th Dynasty (including Tutankhamun) had no real power. The entire balance of power in the Near East changed during this period when the Mitannians lost control of most of their vassals to the Hittites and Egypt lost control of her vassal Kadesh to these same Hittites. The resulting hostilities between Egypt and Hatti only increased when a Hittite prince died on his way to Egypt with the intent to marry Tutankhamun's widow. Egypt's borders continued to recede south for the next three generations.

The Ramesside kings of the 19th and 20th Dynasties attempted to regain Egypt's past glory. These attempts met with varying levels of success. Ramesses II successfully defended Egypt against the invasions of the Sea Peoples, but his "victory" against the Hittites at Kadesh is not the unqualified "victory" portrayed on his temple walls. In addition, the balance of power achieved by Egypt in the south, and the Hittites in the north changed as Assyria emerged as a major force in Western Asia. Ramesses III was the strongest ruler of the 20th Dynasty, and he too defended Egypt against the Sea Peoples, and defeated two Libyan invasions. But the end of his reign is marked by a series of strikes by craftsmen who were working on the royal tombs at Thebes. These strikes were the beginning of the economic difficulties that helped bring about the end of the 20th Dynasty and Egypt's Empire period.

The New Kingdom saw Egypt rise to become an international superpower ruling territories from Nubia to Asia. But by the end of this period Egypt was a nation overwhelmed by internal troubles, which had lost control of all of her foreign territories; never again would Egypt regain her splendor.

For the biblical depiction of events in this period, see *History; *Exodus; *Pentateuch.


ANCIENT EGYPT: A.H. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (1961); J.A. Wilson, The Burden of Egypt (1951 = The Culture of Ancient Egypt, 1958); J. Wilson (tr.), in: Pritchard, Texts, passim. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 1 (1973); J. Baines and J. Malek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt (1980); D.B. Redford, "Egypt and Western Asia in the Old Kingdom," in: JARCE, 23 (1986), 125–143; N. Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt (1992); K. Kitchen, "Egypt, History of (Chronology)," in: ABD, vol. 2 (1992), 321–31; D.B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times (1992); D. Franke, "The Middle Kingdom in Egypt," in: J.M. Sasson (ed.), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 2 (1995), 735–38; W.J. Murnane, in: ibid., 691ff; J. Assman, The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs, trans. Andrew Jenkins (1996); M. Bietak, "Hyksos," in: D.B. Redford (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 2 (2001), 136–43; W.J. Murnane, "New Kingdom: An Overview," in: ibid., 519–25. HELLENISTIC PERIOD: Frey, Corpus 2, 356–445; Tcherikover, Corpus; idem, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1961), index S.V. Egypt: E.R. Bevan, The Legacy of Israel (1953), 29–67; idem, House of Ptolemy (1969); M. Radin, The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans (1915), index S.V. Egypt; Baron, Social2, index S.V. Egypt, Alexandria; J. Lindsay, Daily Life in Roman Egypt (1968). FROM END OF SECOND TEMPLE TO MUSLIM CONQUEST: Baron, Social2, 2 (1952), index; Graetz, Gesch 3 (1905–65), index, S.V. Alexandrien, 4 (1908), index, S.V. Alexandrien. JEWS IN EGYPT FROM ARAB AND OTTOMAN CONQUEST: Mann, Egypt; Mann, Texts; idem, in: HUCA, 3 (1926), 257–308; Rosanes, Togarmah; Zimmels, in: Bericht des juedisch-theologischen Seminars, Breslau (1932), 1–60; Neustadt, in: Zion, 2 (1937), 216–55; S. Assaf, ibid., 121–4; idem, Be-Oholei Ya'akov (1943), 81–98; Noury Farhi, La Communauté juive d'Alexandrie (1946); Ashtor, Toledot; idem, in: HUCA, 27 (1956), 305–26; idem, in: Zion, 30 (1965), 61–78, 128–157; idem, in: JJS, 18 (1967), 9–42; 19 (1968), 1–22; S.D. Goitein, in: JQR, 53 (1962/63), 93–119; idem, Studies in Islamic History and Institutions (1966), 255–95, 329–60; idem, A Mediterranean Society, 1–6 (1967–1993), passim; Lewis, in: Eretz Israel, 7 (1964), 70–75 (Eng. pt.); idem, in: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 30 (1967), 177–81; Abrahamson, Merkazim, passim; J.M. Landau, Ha-Yehudim be-Miẓrayim (1967, Eng., Jews in Nineteenth Century Egypt, 1969); S. Shamir (ed.), The Jews of Egypt: a Mediterranean Society in Modern Times, (1987); N. Robinson, in: J. Fried (ed.), Jews in the Modern World, 1 (1962), 50–90; J.M. Landau, "Abū Naḍḍāra an Egyptian Jewish Nationalist," in: JJS,3 (1952), 30–44; 5 (1954), 179–180; idem, "Ritual Murder Accusations in Nineteenth-Century Egypt," in: A. Dundes (ed.), The Blood Libel Legend, 197–232; idem (ed.), Ha-Yehudim be-Miẓrayim ha-ʿOthmanit 1517–1914 (1988); CONTEMPORARY PERIOD: D. Peretz, Egyptian Jewry Today (1956). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Hassoun, Juifs du Nil (1981); idem, Juifs d'Egypte; images et textes (1984); G. Kraemer, Minderheit, Millet Nation? Die Jueden in Aegypten, 1914–1952 (1982) T. Mayer, Egypt and the Palestine Question, 1936–1945 (1983); M.M. Laskier, The Jews of Egypt, 1920–1970 (1992); V.D. Sanua, A Guide to Egyptian Jewry in the Mid-Twentieth Century (2005).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.