Nature favoured Egypt. The early civilizations of Mesopotamia stood on an open plain, and they spent much of their vitality in defending themselves from one another. Palestine, farther west, was largely unprotected, a prey to invaders. In Egypt it was different. Desert barriers bordered the Valley of the Nile and discouraged invasion; the people lived in relative security. The scattered tribes that shared the river merged into villages instead of fighting among themselves; the villages learned to co-operate in controlling the river's annual flood so that all might reap abundant harvest.
Co-operation meant organization. And it was the gift for organization, perhaps more than any other single factor, that enabled Egypt to erect a dominant, enduring state.
The first important move in this direction occurred around 3100 B.C. At that time the Egyptian people, hitherto divided into two lands, Upper and Lower Egypt, found themselves under a single monarch—the first of 30 dynasties of pharaohs. They thereby became the world's first united nation and took a decisive step towards establishing a stable civilization. With the first two dynasties, which covered some 400 years, Egypt emerged from prehistoric obscurity into the full light of history. From that point on are numbered its greatest centuries. They are divided into three main eras—the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, separated by two intermediate periods when the country's fortunes were temporarily at low ebb.
Each of the three Kingdoms was characterized by accomplishments of its own. The Old Kingdom, from about 2700 B.C. to 2200 B.C., was the period during which the great pyramids were built. With the Middle Kingdom, about 2000 B.C. to 1800 B.C., Egypt enjoyed an expanding political strength and broader economic horizons. The New Kingdom, beginning about 1600 B.C., saw the nation's zenith as a political power and its acquisition of an empire mostly in Asia. When the New Kingdom came to a close around 1100 B.C., Egypt's days as a great nation were over, although pharaohs, interspersed with foreign conquerors, continued to occupy the throne until the fourth century B.C.
The unique quality of Egyptian civilization began to emerge even under the earliest pharaohs. Political and social structure quickly crystallized into the form it was to maintain, with few interruptions, from then on. All power, in theory and to a great extent in fact, lay in the hands of the ruler. Cast in the double role of king and god, he sat enthroned at the pinnacle of society. Supporting him were the high officers to whom he delegated authority. Below them, the ranks of a vast bureaucracy rested upon the broad shoulders of workers and peasants.
The awakening of Egypt was accompanied by the introduction of writing, an all-important pre-requisite to successful centralized rule. Records could now be kept, instructions issued, history written down. The creators of poems, stories, essays and narratives could now entrust their works to papyrus rather than memory, and Egypt's literature was born. Methods of calculating kept pace with writing. It became possible to compute taxes with precision, to survey land, measure weights and distances, and reckon time.
Medical science may be said to have begun in Egypt. Though their knowledge was at times tainted with magic, the Egyptian doctors and surgeons of antiquity achieved international renown, and with some cause. Hippocrates of Cos, who fathered modern medicine in the fifth century B.C., and the famous Roman anatomist Galen, about 700 years later, both admitted a debt to Egypt.
With all power emanating from a single fountainhead, manpower could be amassed to tame the Nile. Under the first pharaohs, irrigation projects were launched on a grand scale; a spreading network of canals carried water to the fields, and dike systems held the river at bay and reclaimed thousands of arable acres.
As the Nile's green fringe of agriculture grew ever greater, so did the material wealth of its civilization. By 2600 B.C., Egyptian trading vessels bearing cargoes of lentils, textiles, papyrus and other native products were venturing regularly into the Red Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. Overland traders penetrated deep into Ntibia's hinterland to the south. Cities flourished beside the Nile, enriched by the treasures of Africa and the ancient East—copper, bronze, gold and silver, ivory and rare woods, lapis lazuli and turquoise, myrrh and spices, exotic animal skins and ostrich plumage.