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Over its long history, Egypt has experienced times of great turmoil and long periods of prosperity. Leaders who successfully united the country, repelled attackers, or conquered neighboring lands stand out as rulers who strengthened Egypt's power. Other leaders are notable for their contributions to Egyptian civilization, from constructing monumental architecture to supporting the arts and culture by establishing schools and libraries.

In predynastic times, the many settlements in Egypt gradually became small tribal kingdoms, which then evolved into two states, one in the north and one in the south. King Narmer, also known as Menes, united the two and brought about a central, consolidated government around 3200 BC. This laid the foundations of the Pharaonic reign in Egypt that was divided into about thirty dynasties.

Old Kingdom rulers completed many astonishing building projects. King Djoser's Step Pyramid represented the first major architectural work in stone. The pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Mankaure built the Great Pyramids at Giza. King Sneferu sent military expeditions as far as Libya and Nubia.

After the Old Kingdom, leadership declined and Egypt no longer had a central authority. The north-south battle over Egyptian territory resumed until around 2065 BC, when Montuhotep the Second restored order and security to the country. Military campaigns were launched again to Libya, Nubia, and the Sinai deserts. Another important Middle Kingdom ruler was Amenemhat, who extended the kingdom to Syria and Palestine. The Middle Kingdom ended with the invasion of the Hyksos.

Ahmose the First expelled the Hyksos from Egypt, establishing the New Kingdom. During this period, Egyptian culture flourished and Egypt became a world power. After a period of peace under Queen Hatshepsut, tuthmosis the Third expanded the kingdom beyond Nubia and across the Euphrates River. By the reign of Amenophis the Third, Egypt was secure and wealthy enough for him to build the magnificent Temple of Luxor. His son, Amenophis the Fourth, changed his name to Akhenaten and tried to establish the worship of one god, Aten. After his death, the Egyptians reverted to their prior religious practices. Ramesses the First and his successors were warrior kings who reconquered many territories lost under previous rulers, including Palestine, Nubia, the Near East, and Asia Minor. Ramesses the First also constructed enormous monuments and buildings.

In 332 BC Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, putting an end to the Pharaonic reign in Egypt and starting the Greco-Roman era. For the next two-and-a-half centuries, the Ptolemaic dynasty of the Greeks would successfully rule Egypt. Ptolemy the First established Egypt as a great trade and naval power. The last of the Ptolemies, Queen Cleopatra the Seventh, aligned herself with first Caesar and then Anthony, but after her defeat by Octavian Caesar, Egypt became a Roman province.

After the fall of Rome, the Byzantine era began with Emperor Constantine. The Byzantines ruled Egypt from Constantinople until the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 642, headed by Amr Ibn Al-As. Egypt became part of an expanding empire under the Umayyads until the Abbasids took control of the Caliphate in 749 BC and relocated the headquarters to Baghdad. In AD 868, Ahmed Ibn Tulun was appointed as ruler of Egypt. He was able to gain Egyptian independence from the Abbasids for 37 years.

The Fatimids separated from the Sunni Caliphate and established their capital in Al Qahira in Egypt in AD 969. They ruled from their imperial city until 1171 when Salah al-Din Al-Ayyubi assumed control. He built the Citadel, repelled the attacks of the Crusaders, and ushered in a golden age for Egypt. He established many institutions, including the madrassa, or school, and the hospital. After the Ayyubid era ended with the rule of Shajar Al-Durr, the only woman to rule during the Islamic era, the Mamluks rose to power. Both Sultan Qala'un and his successor, Mohammed Al-Nasir, were great builders of mosques, fortresses, and other buildings in Cairo. Sultan Qaitbay was another great patron of architecture during the Mamluk era.

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