Ancient Civilizations: The Egyptian Empire

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13072

What was the longest-lasting civilization in history? Which civilization started with farms by a river and grew to be one of the most important in the world? From small beginnings grow great empires!



learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Do you know what the oldest historical document in the world is?

Narmer Palette

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art and is, therefore, in the public domain.

This ancient stone is called the Narmer Palette, and it's about 5,000 years old!

It tells the story in hieroglyphics (picture-writing) of the victory of Upper Egypt over Lower Egypt. This victory allowed a man named Narmer to unite the southern and northern kingdoms of Egypt into one kingdom over which, of course, he was to be the ruler!

You might think "Upper Egypt" was the northern part and "Lower Egypt" the southern part, but it was actually the other way around! The southern part was called Upper because it had a lot of uplands and hills. The northern part had more valleys, so it was called Lower.

But how did the two different kingdoms arise, and why did Narmer want to unite them?

Let's start at the beginning...

The Egyptian Empire was one of the earliest and most powerful ancient civilizations.

But, like all great human accomplishments, it started off small, grew slowly, and had many setbacks along the way.

The Beginning

If you've studied any ancient civilizations before, you probably know that they usually started in river valleys. The Egyptian civilization started the same way, in the valley of the Nile River. That was really the only fertile land in Egypt, so cities filled with thousands of people began to form there!

The Two Kingdoms

Now we come to the story of how the two different kingdoms arose.

Remember that Lower Egypt was the northern area. This was the most fertile land because the Nile River flowed into it, branched into several smaller rivers, and then flowed into the Mediterranean Sea. This was called the Delta.

This image of Egypt from space shows how fertile the Nile Delta is.

Nile Delta

A city called Memphis grew in the Delta region, but most of the people of the Delta were farmers, living peaceful lives in small villages. In the south of Egypt, a city called Thebes arose. The people of the south (Upper Egypt) lived harder lives and became strong warriors.

The two kingdoms fought each other for many years until they were finally united by King Narmer. The king of Lower Egypt wore a red crown, and Narmer, king of Upper Egypt, wore a white crown.

  • Which color do you think Narmer used as King of the Two Kingdoms?

Double crown of Egypt

Image by Jeff Dahl, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

When Narmer united the two kingdoms, he combined the colors of the two crowns and wore a red-and-white crown.

The history of ancient Egypt from this time on can be divided into three periods:

  • The Old Kingdom
  • The Middle Kingdom
  • The New Kingdom

The Old Kingdom

Under King Narmer, the Egyptian civilization grew and became strong. Having cities near the Nile was the key to its growth. Egyptians used the Nile to travel, send messages, and trade with each other.

Narmer became the first pharaoh, or ruler, of Egypt. "Pharaoh" comes from two Egyptian words that mean "Great House," showing that he was a powerful ruler who ruled from a royal palace. Narmer also started the first dynasty, meaning that only members of his family would rule the kingdom -- that is, of course, until someone else took it over! In all, ancient Egypt was ruled by more than 30 different dynasties.

The pharaoh was a very powerful ruler. He owned most of the land and told the people which crops to plant. He collected taxes and used the money to defend and expand the kingdom. He was also considered the "High Priest" of the temple. Egyptians believed the pharaohs were the children of the most important Egyptian god, Amun-Ra.

During this time period, the Egyptians began to build their magnificent pyramids and to develop hieroglyphic writing. We'll look at these and other ways of life more closely in the next Related Lesson of our Ancient Egypt series, found in the right-hand sidebar.

The pharaoh used governors, called nomarchs, to govern the different regions. These people made sure that pharaoh's orders were obeyed. The Old Kingdom came to an end when some of the nomarchs began to disobey Pharaoh Pepi II and take more power for themselves. Pepi II became pharaoh at 6 years old, and he was very old at the end of his 99-year reign! He was not able to control the nomarchs, who became like kings of their own territories. Egypt split up again.

Alabaster statue of Ankhnes-mertre II and her son Pepi II

Image by Keith Schengili-Roberts of statute at Brooklyn Museum, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 2.5 license.

Middle Kingdom

By 2000 BC, the pharaohs were back in control again, though historians are not quite sure how it happened. One particular pharaoh, Senusret, was able to balance the power between the nomarchs and the pharaoh.

limestone statue of Senusret I

Image by W. M. Flinders Petrie [cropped], via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Egypt began to get stronger, trade with other countries, and grow richer. They mined copper and tin in the Sinai Peninsula and traded them with people in Mesopotamia. They opened up trade routes through Canaan, the area that lies between Mesopotamia and Egypt.

map of Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia

Image by Crates [metal production icons and text removed], via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The Middle Kingdom ended around 1800 BC, when foreign invaders, called the Hyskos, took over Egypt. It was such a bad time for the Egyptians that they didn't even keep any historical records of what happened during that period!

New Kingdom

Eventually, the Egyptians were able to regain power and overthrow their invaders. The new pharaohs realized they had to make Egypt strong so that they would not be invaded again. They began to use horses and chariots in battle.

During one battle in this period, at a city called Kadesh, they used 5,000 chariots! Although they did not conquer this city, the Egyptians made history again by creating the first peace treaty.

The pharaohs of this period were strong rulers, great warriors, and clever builders. One of the strongest and most successful pharaohs of this period was not a man, but a woman: Hatshepsut. (Check out the Elephango lesson under Additional Resources in the right-hand sidebar to learn all about her.) Hatshepsut's son, Thutmose III, conquered other lands and built an Egyptian Empire. He was a warrior who brought home a victory every one of the 17 times he went to war!

Some weaker pharaohs came after Thutmose III, and the Egyptian Empire almost fell apart again. Then another great pharaoh came along named Rameses II. He is considered one of the greatest pharaohs. (Learn more under Additional Resources.) Rameses moved the capital of Egypt to the north, where it would be easier for his army to launch attacks on other cities and peoples. Like Thutmose, he was a great conqueror and builder.

Egypt expanded its empire to its biggest size around 1450 BC, extending down into Sudan to the south and up to Syria in the north.

map of Egyptian Empire 1450 BC

Image by Andrei nacu at Enhlish Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The New Kingdom lasted until about 1050 BC. The Egyptian civilization went on, but the empire was weakened by famines, droughts, civil war, and invasions until it eventually came to an end.

Move on to the Got It? section, where you'll watch a video about ancient Egypt and create your own timeline!

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