From the prehistoric era, the River Nile, which flows the length of the country from south to north, has united Egypt. A central government was established around 3200 BC. The Narmer Palette, a triangular piece of black basalt, records this event. It depicts the first king of Egypt, Narmer, also known as Menes. Menes established the city Enb-Hej, or the White Wall, also known as Memphis, near the tip of the Delta. This began the Pharaonic era, which is divided into about 30 dynasties that mark the distinct periods of ancient civilization.
The Archaic period covers the first two dynasties that established Egyptian civilization. The Old Kingdom includes the Third Dynasty through the Sixth Dynasty. This peaceful era allowed great economic, cultural, and artistic development. King Djoser's Step Pyramid, the first major work in stone, was the Old Kingdom's outstanding achievement.
A period of political disorder and massive economic setback followed as local governors grew stronger and threatened the power of the king, resulting in bloodshed and anarchy. Known as the First Transitional Period, it includes the Seventh through the Eleventh Dynasty.
About 2065 BC, Montuhotep the Second, Prince of Thebes, used military power to establish a reliable government. Egypt had an economic renaissance and witnessed the return of arts and architecture. The political capital was transferred to Lisht at Faiyum.
After the fall of the Twelfth Dynasty, about 1752 BC, the government again became fragile and fell to the Hyksos. These tribes came from Asia and invaded northern Egypt, making advances toward the south. The Hyksos introduced the horse, the horse-drawn chariot, new types of weapons, and the strong compound Asiatic bow. King Ahmose the First finally overthrew the Hyksos and forced them out of Egypt, beginning the New Kingdom.
The New Kingdom lasted through the Twentieth Dynasty. The political capital was transferred to the south at Thebes, now known as Luxor. Pharaohs sought internal reform and founded an organized army. Egyptian troops invaded neighboring countries and the empire extended to the Euphrates River. However, Egypt was raided by Libyans, Mediterranean Sea nations, and the Nubians. These successive wars affected all spheres of life in Egypt from the Twenty-First through the Thirtieth Dynasty. The Twenty-Sixth Dynasty is known as a renaissance era due to a brief period of peace.
Egypt's conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BC brought an end to the Pharaonic reign and began the Greco-Roman Empire. After the death of Alexander in 320 BC, Ptolemy the First in 350 BC established the Ptolemaic dynasty. For the next 250 years, the Greeks ruled Egypt from its capital, Alexandria, which became the cultural and economic center of the ancient world.
The glory of the Ptolemaic Dynasty began to fade as Upper Egypt openly rebelled in 206 BC. The cost of suppressing these revolts, internal strife, and a weak foreign policy brought Egypt increasingly under the influence of Rome. In 32 BC, Cleopatra and her ally, Mark Antony, committed suicide and Octavius (Augustus Caesar) gained victory in the battle of Actium.
Egypt then lost its independence and became a Roman province, ruled from abroad. Native Egyptians refused to honor rulers who no longer performed the ceremonial roles of divine kingship. The Roman Empire witnessed many civil wars and began to fragment. Emperor Diocletian seized power in Egypt and made great efforts to reorganize the bureaucracy. With the ascension of the Roman emperor Constantine, the Byzantine era began. Egypt was controlled by the Byzantine Empire until the Arab conquest in AD 642.
After the Islamic conquest headed by Amr Ibn al-As, a new capital, Al-Fustat, was established near the Roman fortress once known as Babylon. Al-Fustat became a meeting point for Muslims from West Asia and North Africa. The Abbasid era followed in 749 BC when the Caliphate headquarters were located at Baghdad. The Abbasids established the city of Al-Askar, located northeast of Al-Fustat.
In AD 868, Ahmad Ibn Tulun was appointed ruler of Egypt. He built a new capital, El-Quatae, northeast of El-Askar. Though Egypt had been regarded as an Islamic state under the Caliphate prior to this era, it became independent under the Tulunid rule through the Ikhshidid rule. In AD 969, the Fatimids, headed by Jawhar El Sekely, took over and founded a new capital in AD 974, called "Al-Qahira," or Cairo, which was a square-shaped city.