Egypt: Towards an Understanding of Egyptian History

Towards an Understanding of Egyptian History

by Jimmy Dunn

For the layman scholar, and particularly for those with a casual interest in Egyptian history, the subject can be more than a little daunting. And no wonder, for history and the very professionals who deal with the history of Egypt sometimes seem to have conspired to make it so.


The problems actually begin with a number of ancient scholars, or rather modern scholar's attempts to deviate from these ancient scholar's histories of Egypt as little as possible. Manethos was the first historian to split Egyptian pharaonic history into 30 dynasties and to associate the first dynasty with the unification of the two lands under a king called Menes. The problem is not that Manethos' work has not been an invaluable tool to understanding the overall structure of Egyptian History. Rather much of the confusion that a layman might have comes from the modern Egyptologists insistence on keeping as much of his framework as possible.

For example, classically, a dynasty is a family of rulers, and a non professional historian might very well understand such. And while many Egyptian dynasties are just that, a family of related rulers, some have been proven not to be. Further, some related families of related rulers are most likely broken up into separate dynasties for various reasons. One example of this probably occurs in the very earliest dynasties.

The most recent writings on Egyptian history have developed a dynasty prior to the traditional first Dynasty, most often referred to as Dynasty 0. While there is certainly conflict among scholars, the current consensus seems to be that Narmer was probably the last ruler of Dynasty 0, and that Aha was likely the first ruler of the First Dynasty. Yet many scholars also believe that it is very possible that Aha was Narmer's son. So basically, this family of rulers is split due to the the stubborn convention of acknowledging the first dynasty as that unifying upper and lower Egypt, regardless of the definition of a dynasty.

In fact, convention dictates that the relatively unknown be completely ignored in the dynastic order. A number of recent findings indicate that rulers in what historians refer to as the predynastic period had considerable power and influence. There was, in fact, well structured and administered trade well before the conventional dynasties. Yet even though some of these regional rulers may have been as powerful as dynastic rulers of the intermediate periods of Egypt, we conveniently begin our dynastic history of Egypt with the rulers that we can identify. Probably what is most important to understand about this is that there was a processes that evolved into what we currently refer to as the earliest of Egyptian dynasties.

Other problems with convention, particularly in regards to dynasties, exist, but are being handled better by modern scholars. For example, considerable confusion might exist when layman examine older dynasty lists during the intermediate periods. Only a few decades ago, historians were doing everything possible to place each dynasty in a linear table. But even then they knew that many of these dynasties occurred side by side, as regional rulers took control of Egypt and ruled simultaneously. More recent history books will often lay these dynasties out in a less linear fashion, but there remains a tendency to number the dynasties in a confusing manner.


The other problem for most amateur scholars of Egypt, and indeed for Egyptologists themselves, are names. And certainly if Egyptologists have problems with names (both of places and people), certainly layman must also.

There are basically two distinct problems with Egyptian history and names. The first problem is a plague to professionals. Except for the earliest of Pharaohs of Egypt, each had five different names. In classical order, these names, or titles consist of the Horus, He of the Two Laides, (Horus of) Gold, He of the Sedge and Bee and the Son of Ra name. One name was given to the future King at birth, and the remainder when he came to power. Often various kings, or pharaohs, might in fact have the same Horus name, for example, or two different kings might have the same name, but in a different part of the title.

The second problem with names may often be even more confusing to layman, but it is simply a consequence of history. Over the vast span of history, Egyptians themselves might change the name of a particular area or place. Then we have the Greeks, the Romans, Arabians and Europeans who come along and alter the names further. Thus, we have famous rulers such as Khafre, who might also be referred to as Chephren and even Khephren. And while many text books may refer to a specific site in Egypt by its Pharaonic or Greek name, it is very likely that on a map it will have a different Arabic name.

This problem can be further compounded by the fact that some Egyptian monumental sites have been used for various purposes. For example, the term Deir refers to a Monastery, but Deir el Bahari is will known as the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. However, in the Christian era, this temple was in fact used as a monastery, and hence the name.


Reading older histories of Egypt can today be somewhat misleading. There have been breakthroughs in our knowledge of ancient Egypt, which have only recently been published to a widespread audience. For example, historically, and mostly due I believe to Palettes such as that of Narmer, it appeared to most readers that the unification of Egypt was attributed to a monumental war between the Upper and Lower Egypt. But recent findings indicate that civilization in Upper (southern) Egypt developed sooner then Lower Egypt, and possibly spread north. There are now theories, that while military conflict certainly played a part in the unification, it might not have been a single war or battle that bought the two lands together. Reading older histories (even a few decades) of Egypt and newer versions can certainly cause layman considerable consternation.

Breakthroughs in Egyptology are likely to even accelerate. New imaging tools and methods of exploration, along with the general use of computers and sophisticated databases will likely increase our knowledge of ancient Egypt dramatically in the coming years. And while the Internet is a viable tool for the dissemination of the knowledge, unfortunately it is so often also a media of crackpots and simply the uninformed. So it is very important that readers beware, and use a good amount of intelligent judgment on what information can be trusted, and what cannot be.

Problems for Professionals

With all this said, the professional Egyptologists have made it much easier for layman to understand the history of Egypt. Modern Egyptologists face problems with interpretations that far exceed the understanding of the casual student of the subject. As one example, many of the early and predynastic tombs at Abydos had early on been turned into shrines for Gods, such as Osiris. Yet in recent years, Egyptologists have rather incredibly been able to see through this guise, and finally lay to rest some of the questions regarding the burials of Egypt's earliest rulers. These problems are many, and beyond the scope of this article. But the point is, that without the persistent scholarship of professional Egyptologists, obviously not much would be known of this greatest of early civilizations.

Last Updated: June 13th, 2011