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The history of Egypt goes back several thousand years to around 3500 BCE when civilization originated on the banks of the Nile River. Different groups settled in the North (Lower Egypt) near the mouth of the Nile or Delta and in the South towards the source of the Nile (Upper Egypt). Egypt's ruling system survived since the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by the first king or pharaoh, Narmer, around 3000 B.C., until the conquest of Egypt by Alexander and the installation of one of his successors as Ptolemy I.

Life in ancient Egypt centered along the Nile River, whose regular annual floods kept the land fertile and ensured a reliable food supply. The country was surrounded on east and west by mountains and desert, which formed a natural protection against invaders, and in fact Egypt was rarely invaded successfully.

The chronology of Egypt is divided into several periods dependant on ruling familes, which existed as dynasties from Dynasty I (around 3000 BCE) through Dynasty XXXI (around 300 BCE). The dates for these periods are usually given as follows (all BCE = Before the Common Era)

3000-2150 = Early Dynastic, Old Kingdom (dyn. I-VI)
2150-2050 = 1st Intermediate period (dyn. VII-X)
2050-1750 = Middle Kingdom (dyn. XI-XIII)
1750-1550 = 2nd Intermediate period (dyn. XIV-XVII)
1550-1075 = New Kingdom (dyn. XVIII-XX)
1075-332 = Late Period (dyn. XXI-XXXI)
332-30 = Ptolemaic Period

Nile map from Theban Mapping Project:

See the British Museum web site for Ancient Egypt:




One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

"The Giza Plateau Mapping Project, under the direction of Mark Lehner, Visiting Assistant Professor of Egyptian archaeology at the Oriental Institute, is dedicated to research on the geology and topography of the Giza plateau, the construction and function of the Sphinx, the Great Pyrimids, the associated tombs and temples, and the Old Kingdom town in the vicinity. Lehner is a pioneer in the use of state-of-the-art computer graphics and remote sensing technology to model the ancient configuration of the Giza Plateau. In addition he has collaborated with an architectural firm to produce a detailed computer model of the Sphnix which is of exceptional value both as a research tool and to guide current conservation efforts." [quoted from the Giza Plateau Mapping Project web page]

Digital images of the pyramids from the Giza Plateau Mapping Project:

The NOVA series on PBS television stations has a web site devoted to their excellent shows on pyramids.

For the excavation showing the workers' village at Giza, see the report by Dr. Zahi Hawass:


The Pyramid of the 4th Dynasty King Zoser (or Djoser) is preserved at Saqqara in Lower Egypt. It is called a step pyramid from the stepped sides that were created from the construction method of building one mastaba form on top of another. The diagram shows where the burial chamber is located, and how the mastabas were enlarged until the final form.

Diagram from University of Pennsylvania web site:
For the Step Pyramid see this site:




Tutankhamon's Tomb (KV62) was found here by Howard Carter in 1922.

Recent excavations in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes in Upper Egypt yielded a previously unexplored tomb, "KV 5." The website devoted to this and other tombs and their architecture contains hundreds of images and and detailed information about dozens of tombs. Directed by Dr. Kent Weeks, who reports that "Tomb KV 5, in the Valley of the Kings, has been described as the largest tomb ever found in Egypt, and the greatest archaeological discovery of the century. [quoted from the Theban Mapping Project web page]

Photo from the Theban Mapping Project:  



Most of the objects in this SIIAS@CSI Study Collection come from tombs of administrators, who modeled their tomb furnishings after those of the highest classes. The highest classes were closely connected to the royal family, and the poorest peasant class rarely left any lasting monuments. In any event, most tombs were robbed soon after closing.

Shawabtis or Ushabtis
(Funerary Figure)

Far left: Painted terracotta ushabti
(A 70.70.29)

Near Left: Blue faience ushabti
(A 70.70.26)

Right: Three green faience ushabtis
(A 3285.1; A 3285.4; A 3285.6)

Artifacts left to us by the ancient Egyptians are chiefly objects found in the tombs of wealthy persons, officials and administrators in the royal government.

These small figurines in the form of a mummy are called shawabti or ushabti depending on the date, and were placed in the tomb as servants for the tomb owner in his or her afterlife.

These figures carried out the necessary deeds in the afterlife. When the deceased is called upon by Osiris to till the fields, to fill the channels with water, and to carry sand from east to west in the Other World, these figures replace him in these activities.

Many such figurines were placed in one tomb, just as in real life the tomb owner had many servants. Tutankhamon for example, had 365 ushabtis, one for each day of the year. They were made in various materials, either faience like the blue figure, or painted terracotta like the left hand figure, or even wood. Often hieroglyphs showed the owner's name and in later times also the sixth chapter of the Book of the Dead.

Shawabtis at right from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:  



Wooden figure of man in rowing position
(A 58.5)

Images from tombs provide the best evidence for activities that occurred in life. Several tombs have yielded wooden figures in scenes that happened during the life of the deceased.

This figure came from a group of rowers that were part of the boat that ferried the dead person across the Nile River for burial on the western banks of the river.

Image of Model Boat in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: www.metmuseumorg/.  


Canopic Jar Cover in form of Human Head of the Genius Imsety
(A 58.3.2)

The typical Egyptian wig is clearly visible on this head, which formed the cover of a vessel, one of four needed to contain the mummified internal body organs: lungs, stomach, liver and intestines. The four heads on the jar stoppers represented the four sons of Horus or genii of the dead: Imsety as bearded human head; Duamutef as dog or jackal head; Qebehsenuef as falcon head; and Hapy as ape head.  


Hand from Mummified figure
(L 78.21)

Although the entire body would have been wrapped in linen after it had been dehydrated, a hand like this would only have been wrapped separately for a wealthy person's tomb.  




Major cities were first built in the north near the Mediterranean delta, or Lower Egypt, near where the pyramids still stand at Giza. Ancient Heliopolis (sacred city) in Lower Egypt near modern Cairo was the seat of Egyptian religion with its priestly class and temples.

Additional cities and temples were built further south towards the source of the Nile in Upper Egypt, in the area of the great temples of Luxor and Thebes, and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

A great deal of information about life in ancient Egypt comes not only from archaeological excavations, but from accounts by the fifth-century BCE Greek historian, Herodotus. Translations are available on the Internet from the Perseus Project.

Luxor web site:  


Miniature bronze figurines of Egyptian gods

Left image: seated Osiris (A 1848)

Right image: seated Isis with child Horus (Ax 54.111.11)

The SIIAS@CSI Study Collection contains several images of Egyptian gods, in the form of small bronze statuettes. The figure of Isis is in quite bad condition, but the Osiris clearly shows the careful details lavished on even quite tiny objects. There is another small statuette of Isis and Horus in terracotta, and there are three standing figures of Osiris, all in the same form.

The original god of the universe Ra produced offspring, which led eventually to Osiris, his wife Isis, and their son Horus. Before the unification of Egypt with Dynasty I, the cult of the dead was associated with Anubis, but eventually the state god Horus became more connected activities for the dead, promoted by theologians at Heliopolis, who presented a family oriented system with chief god, consort and son. A rival creation theory existed at Hermopolis, and even a third theory originated later at Memphis.

For more about Egyptian gods,one of many sites with information:  



Click Here for Further Reading
About Ancient Egypt in the CSI Library



John Baines
Atlas of Ancient Egypt
DT 56.9 .B34

When the Pyramids were built: Egyptian Art of the Old Kingdom
N 5350 .A75 1999

Rita Freed
Pharaohs of the Sun
N 5350 .P526 1999

Richard H. Wilkinson
Symbol & Magic in Egyptian Art
N 5350 .W491 1994

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