History Alive! The Ancient World
Enrichment Essay

Unit 2: Ancient Egypt and the Near East
Chapter 9: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt
The Decline of Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians built one of the world’s longest-lasting civilizations. About 1,600 years passed from the start of the Old Kingdom to the end of the New Kingdom. Another 1,100 years passed before the end of what we call ancient Egypt. But ancient Egypt never again regained the glory it had known at its height.

So what happened after the end of the New Kingdom? Let’s find out.

The Third Intermediate Period

As you have learned, ancient Egypt had three great periods of stability. They are known as the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom.

Between these times of prosperity, there were periods of instability called the First and Second Intermediate Periods. (Intermediate means “in the middle of.”) During these times, Egyptian rule was often divided between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt is the land near the Nile in the south. Lower Egypt refers to the Nile Delta, in the north.

After the reign of Ramses II (1290 to 1224 b.c.e.), Egypt went into a slow decline. Eventually the New Kingdom gave way to another period of disunity, the Third Intermediate Period. This period lasted from about 1100 to 730 b.c.e.

Once again, internal divisions weakened Egypt. The pharaoh ruled from his base in Lower Egypt. Near Thebes, in Upper Egypt, high priests became more and more powerful. They began to challenge the pharaoh, first in secret plots, and then in open rebellion. Over time, most of the land that Egypt had conquered in the south was lost. Egypt broke into smaller states.

Egypt’s internal troubles set the stage for a series of foreign invaders to conquer and rule the country. Except for brief periods, the days of native Egyptian pharaohs were over.

The Kushites

In the mid 700s b.c.e., Kushite rulers invaded Egypt. (Kush was south of Egypt. It is also called Nubia.) In about 730 b.c.e., a Kushite king declared himself pharaoh.

For almost a century, Kushite pharaohs ruled Egypt. This period is known as the 25th dynasty.

The Kushites were very interested in Egyptian culture. Under their rule, many magnificent temples and monuments were built.

The Assyrians

In 671 b.c.e., the Assyrians invaded Egypt from the east. You may remember the Assyrians from your study of ancient Mesopotamia. They were known for their iron weapons and their skill in siege warfare and fighting on horseback.

Over the next 15 years, these ruthless warriors drove out the Kushites. They sacked the cities of Memphis and Thebes, and made Egypt part of their empire.

The Assyrians ruled Egypt through native Egyptian princes. But they didn’t hold Egypt for long. In about 660 b.c.e., a prince named Psamtik declared his independence from the Assyrians. Then he set about unifying Egypt and driving out the Assyrians.

By 612, the Assyrians had withdrawn from Egypt. For the first time since before the Kushites, Egypt was ruled by Egyptians.

The 26
th Dynasty

The new line of rulers founded by Psamtik is called the 26th dynasty. It is also called the Saite dynasty, after its capital city, Sais.

Under the Saite pharaohs, Egypt enjoyed a period of peace that lasted until 525 b.c.e. Commerce flourished, and Egyptians revived and imitated the arts of the past. But foreigners continued to play a big role in the country. Pharaohs did not have their own army. Instead, they depended on Greek soldiers that were paid to fight. Also, much of the trade in Egypt was carried out by Greeks.

In 525, the 26th dynasty came to an end as new invaders, the Persians, took over Egypt.

The Persians

The Persians (from present-day Iran) created a vast empire in western and central Asia. They ruled Egypt from 525 to 404 b.c.e., and again from 343 to 332 b.c.e. In between these two periods came a brief time of Egyptian rule.

Only the first Persian ruler, Darius the Great, showed much interest in Egypt. After Darius, Persian rulers rarely visited Egypt. The Persians looked down on the Egyptians. Mostly, they used the land and the people, especially Egyptian engineers, to provide labor and products to feed the growth of their empire.

In 404 b.c.e., the Egyptians managed to drive back the Persians. For the last time, an Egyptian dynasty ruled Egypt.

In 343 b.c.e., the Persians took over Egypt once again. But just 11 years later, Egypt fell to a new conqueror.

Alexander the Great

The new conqueror was Alexander the Great. A young king from Macedonia, in northern Greece, Alexander created a great empire of his own. In 332 b.c.e., he won an important victory over the Persians and conquered Egypt.

Although Alexander was a foreign ruler, the Egyptians welcomed him as a liberator. He won many people’s loyalty by honoring Egyptian gods along with those of the Greeks and Persians. One Egyptian priest even called him “the son of God.”

Alexander had been interested in Egypt since he was a boy. During his reign, he worked to rebuild its great culture. He also founded the city of Alexandria, on the Mediterranean Sea. It soon became a great commercial city and an important center of learning. Still, Alexander was a foreigner, and his reign marked the beginning of a long period of rule by Greek-speaking kings.

The Ptolemaic Period

When Alexander died in 323, his generals divided his empire into three parts. A general named Ptolemy declared himself king of Egypt. He and his descendants ruled Egypt for almost 300 years, until 30 b.c.e.

In some ways, Egypt thrived during the Ptolemaic period. Many important temples were built, and trade flourished. But the Ptolemies ruled Egypt as Greek conquerors. Most of their kings did not even bother to learn the Egyptian language.

The last Ptolemaic ruler was different. She was Cleopatra, the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes. (Her full title was Cleopatra VII.) Cleopatra was interested in Egypt. She learned about its culture and history. She even learned to speak the language.

By Cleopatra’s reign, the Romans (from Italy) were becoming the greatest power in the Mediterranean world. Cleopatra became caught up in the struggle for power between two Roman leaders. One was her lover, Marc Antony. The other was Octavian, the founder of the Roman Empire.

In 32 b.c.e., Octavian declared war on Antony and Cleopatra. After losing a key battle the next year, Antony and Cleopatra both committed suicide. In 30 b.c.e., Octavian made Egypt a province of the Roman Empire. The Ptolemaic period had come to an end.

The Romans were the last rulers of ancient Egypt. For more than 600 years, Egypt was part of the Roman Empire and its successor in the east, the Byzantine Empire. You will learn much more about the Roman Empire in Unit 6.

Enrichment Activity

Use the information in the essay to complete the matrix.

  How Did This Period or Change in Rule Begin? What Effect Did This Period
or Ruler Have on Egypt?
Third Intermediate Period    
26th Dynasty    
Alexander the Great    
Ptolemaic Period    

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