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Egypt
History & Culture
Egypt: Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic Periods
Egypt: Old Kingdom & First Intermediate Period
Egypt: Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period
Egypt: New Kingdom & 3rd Intermediate Period
Egypt: Late Period
Egypt: Ptolemaic and Roman Rule to the Arab Conquest
Egypt: Caliphate and Ottomon Rule
 
Egyptian Law on the Protection of Antiquities (1983)
 
 
 




Ptolemaic Egypt began when a follower of Alexander the Great Ptolemy I Soter declared himself Pharaoh of Egypt in 305 BC and ended with the death of Queen Cleopatra VII and the Roman conquest in 30 BC. The Ptolemaic Kingdom was a powerful Hellenistic state, extending from southern Syria in the east, to Cyrene to the west, and south to the frontier with Nubia. Alexandria became the capital city and a center of Greek culture and trade.

To gain recognition by the native Egyptian populace, they referred to themselves as successors to the Pharaohs. The later Ptolemies took on Egyptian traditions, had themselves portrayed on public monuments in Egyptian style and dress, and participated in Egyptian religious life. Hellenistic culture continued to thrive in Egypt well after the Muslim conquest.

Eventually the Ptolemies faced rebellions of native Egyptians often caused by an unwanted regime and were involved in foreign and civil wars that led to the decline of the kingdom and its annexation by Rome.
       
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The groundwork for Ptolemaic rule began in 332 BC, the year Alexander III of Macedon conquered Egypt with little resistance as part of his campaign to defeat the Persians. He was welcomed by the Egyptians as a deliverer. He visited Memphis, and went on pilgrimage to the oracle of Amun at the Oasis of Siwa. The oracle declared him to be the son of Amun-Re. He conciliated the Egyptians by the respect which he showed for their religion. While Macedonians commanded military garrisons, including at Memphis and Pelusium, Alexander left the civil administration in local control; initially there were two, later one governor. Alexander founded a new Greek city, Alexandria, to be a major commercial port, Egypt's commercial and administrative capital as well as its intellectual center.

With Egypt as part of his realm, its wealth and agriculture could be harnessed for Alexander's conquest of the rest of the Persian Empire. Early in 331 BC he was ready to depart, and led his forces away to Phoenicia, leaving Cleomenes as the ruling nomarch to administer Egypt in his absence.



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Following Alexander's death in Babylon in 323 BC, a succession crisis erupted among his generals. Initially, Perdiccas ruled the empire as regent for Alexander's half-brother Arrhidaeus, and then as regent for both Philip III and Alexander's infant son Alexander IV of Macedon, who had not yet been born at the time of his father's death.

Perdiccas appointed Ptolemy, one of Alexander's closest companions, to be satrap of Egypt. Ptolemy ruled Egypt from 323 BC, nominally in the name of the joint kings Philip III and Alexander IV. However, as Alexander the Great's empire disintegrated, Ptolemy soon established himself as ruler in his own right.

Ptolemy successfully defended Egypt against an invasion by Perdiccas in 321 BC, and consolidated his position in Egypt and the surrounding areas during the Wars of the Diadochi (322 BC-301 BC). In 305 BC, Ptolemy took the title of King. As Ptolemy I Soter ("Saviour"), he founded the Ptolemaic dynasty that was to rule Egypt for nearly 300 years. All male rulers of the dynasty took the name "Ptolemy", while princesses and queens preferred the names Cleopatra and Berenice. Ptolemy II instituted a new practice of brother-sister marriage when he married his full sister, Arsinoe II. They became, in effect, co-rulers, and both took the epithet Philadelphus ("Brother-Loving" and "Sister-Loving"). The notion that this was based on Egyptian precedent has been popular in the literature but has no historical basis. This custom made Ptolemaic politics confusingly incestuous, and the later Ptolemies were increasingly feeble.

Cleopatra V did co-rule, but it was with another female, Berenice IV. Cleopatra VII officially co-ruled with Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator, Ptolemy XIV, and Ptolemy XV ("Caesarion"), but effectively, she ruled Egypt alone.

The early Ptolemies did not disturb the religion or the customs of the Egyptians, and indeed built magnificent new temples for the Egyptian gods and soon adopted the outward display of the Pharaohs of old.









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During the reign of Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III, thousands of Greek veterans were rewarded with grants of farm lands, and Greeks were planted in colonies and garrisons or settled themselves in the villages throughout the country.

Upper Egypt, farthest from the center of government, was less immediately affected, though Ptolemy I established the Greek colony of Ptolemais Hermiou to be its capital, but within a century Greek influence had spread through the country and intermarriage had produced a large Greco-Egyptian educated class.

Nevertheless, the Greeks always remained a privileged minority in Ptolemaic Egypt. They lived under Greek law, received a Greek education, were tried in Greek courts, and were citizens of Greek cities, just as they had been in Greece.

The Egyptians were rarely admitted to the higher levels of Greek culture, in which most Egyptians were not interested in any case.

Effect of Ptolemaic Rule. Ptolemy I, perhaps with advice from Demetrius of Phalerum, founded the Museum and Library of Alexandria. The Museum was a research center supported by the king. It was located in the royal sector of the city. The scholars were housed in the same sector and funded by the Ptolemaic rulers. They had access to the Library. The chief librarian served also as the crown prince's tutor. For the first hundred and fifty years of its existence, this library and research centre drew the top Greek scholars. This was a key academic, literary and scientific center.



 

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The Greeks now formed the new upper classes in Egypt, replacing the old native aristocracy. In general, the Ptolemies undertook changes that went far beyond any other measures that earlier foreign rulers had imposed. They used the religion and traditions to increase their own power and wealth.

Although they established a prosperous kingdom, enhanced with fine buildings, the native population enjoyed few benefits, and there were frequent uprisings. These expressions of nationalism reached a peak in the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (221–205 BC) when others gained control over one district and ruled as a line of native "pharaohs." This was only curtailed nineteen years later when Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205-181 BC) succeeded in subduing them, but the underlying grievances continued and there were riots again later in the dynasty.

Family conflicts affected the later years of the dynasty when Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II fought his brother Ptolemy VI Philometor and briefly seized the throne. The struggle was continued by his sister and niece (who both became his wives) until they finally issued an Amnesty Decree in 118 BC.

Roman Aegyptus. In 30 BC, following the death of Cleopatra VII, the Roman Empire declared Egypt a province (Aegyptus) that was to be governed by a prefect selected by the Emperor to prevent interference by the Roman Senate.

The main Roman interest in Egypt was the reliable delivery of grain to the city of Rome. To ensure continued delivery, Roman administrators made no change to the Ptolemaic system of government other than replace the Greeks in the highest offices. But Greeks continued to staff most of the government while under Roman rule, and Greek remained the language of government at all but the highest levels.

Since Romans did not settle in Egypt in large numbers, culture, education and civic life largely remained Greek throughout the Roman period. And the Romans, like the Ptolemies, respected and protected Egyptian religion and customs, while gradually introducing the cult of the Roman state and the Emperor into the panoply of dieties that the Egyptians recognized.

Christian Egypt. While no records suggest when Christians first migrated to Egypt, present-day Christians believe that Saint Mark founded the Patriarchate of Alexandria and Church of Alexandria, one of the original four main sees of Christianity, about 41 AD. With persecution of Christians raging across most of the Roman world, the Christian population in
Egypt steadily grew, making Alexandria one of the principal centers of the Christian world by 200 AD.

With the Edict of Milan in 313, the Roman emperor Constantine I ended the persecution of Christians. But once the Egyptian Church had achieved official freedom, long-simmering internal conflict (known as schism) erupted, which at times descended into civil war.

The first great split in the Christian world occurred at Alexandria in 326 AD after the First Council of Nicaea rejected the views of a Alexandrian priest named Arius, favoring orthodox Christians represented by another priest named Athanasius. This so-called "Arian Controversy" caused riots and rebellions the rest of the fourth century and the repeated expulsion of (now Archbishop) Athanasius from Alexandria (at least five and perhaps as many as seven times).

Amid such strife, and other competing factions (such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism)
competing for attention, most Egyptian Christians took up Monasticism, exported the practice to other parts of the Christian world and actively developed Coptic, a form of ancient Egyptian language written with the Greek alphabet and various symbols to represent Egyptian words and sounds which cannot be reproduced in Greek.

Coptic was invented by early Christians to spread the gospel to native Egyptians and has remained the liturgical language of Egyptian Christianity to this day. The Cathedral of St. Mark in Alexandria, the historical seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church, dates back to 321 AD.





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Byzantine Egypt. After lifting the persecution of Christians in Egypt in 313, the Roman emperor Constantine founded a new capital at Constantinople. This move caused the Empire to split during the fourth century into Eastern and Western empires, with Egypt falling under the dominion of the Eastern Empire at Constantinople — a seat of power that reigned during the fifth and sixth centuries, known today as the Byzantine Empire.

The fall of the Roman Empire in the West during the fifth century isolated Egypt from Rome's culture, accelerated the spread of Christianity in Egypt, and led to the demise of Egypt's pharaonic culture, the disappearance of Egyptian priests and abandonment of ancient temples, which did not seem to matter, since virtually no one could read the hieroglyphics that were found within the temples. Any religious structure from Pharaonic times that remained standing was converted to churches or left to melt back into the landscape.

As its links with the old Graeco-Roman world faded, the Eastern Empire became increasingly "oriental" in style and attitude ... and increasingly alien to the average person living in Egypt. The Greek system of local government disappeared. New offices with unfamiliar Byzantine names sprang up, controlled in almost hereditary fashion by wealthy land-owning families. And following the murder of the philosopher-mathematician Hypatia in Alexandria (a move that signaled the end of the last vestige of Hellenistic culture), a new schism erupted inside Byzantine church, causing a series of events that led the Eastern Empire under the emperor Justinian I (482–565) to recapture Rome — leaving the Byzantine breadbasket Egypt exposed to attack from the Sassanians in Persia.





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The Second Persian Conquest of Egypt during the seventh century AD forms the final chapter in the much larger seven-century-long drama known as the Roman Persian Wars (92 BC – 627 AD), which pitted the Romans against the Parthians and later the Sassanians for control in the East and ended with the Arab Conquest of Arabia, the Middle East and North Africa during the seventh and eighth centuries.

The invasion of Egypt, beginning in 619 or 618, was one of the last Sassanian triumphs in the Roman-Persian Wars against Byzantium. Waged by the Sassanian commander Khosrow II Parviz ("The Ever Victorious") in retaliation for the assassination of Persian Emperor Maurice (582-602), the Sassanians seized Jerusalem (614) and Alexandria (619), then suffered a massive counteroffensive launched by Emperor Heraclius in 622.

The war ended, and Egypt returned to Byzantine control, with the death of Khosrow in February 628. And while the Egyptians had no love of the emperor in Constantinople, they put up little resistance ... content to remain in a perpetual state of political and religious alienation until the next invader appeared, the Arabs flying the flag of Islam, who would change the cultural and religious landscape of Egypt like none since the time of the pharaohs.