When Abraham visited Egypt four thousand years ago, the pyramids were already old. When they were included on the original list of the Seven Wonders of the World, the pyramids were the oldest wonder on the list; yet they are the only wonder from that list to survive until the present. Built as tombs and monuments to some of Egypt’s earliest kings, they have inspired awe (and bizarre theories about their history) for most of recorded history.
Like other ancient civilizations (including Sumer, Canaan, and Greece), Egypt began as a collection of city-states, sharing a common culture and language, but existing under several independent governments. Unlike other civilizations, Egypt arose in the middle of a desert. It never rains in northeastern Africa. Seasonal rain falls in east central Africa, washing down the Nile River toward the Mediterranean Sea. It brings not only water but also fertile soil to Egypt before entering the Sea. Seasons of planting and tending crops and harvesting were governed by the flooding of the Nile in Egypt, making the ancient land, in the words of Greek historian Herodotus, “the gift of the Nile.”
Eventually, the city-states of Egypt coalesced into two countries: Lower Egypt, at sea level near the Mediterranean Sea, and Upper Egypt, further south, higher in elevation but still dependent on the Nile River. Their union as one country created the central figure called Pharaoh, who was seen as a god and as a connection between divine and human forces on earth. Some of the earlier Pharaoh were buried in pyramids with all their wealth and riches. Putting that many valuable items in one prominent space was too tempting to grave robbers and thieves; eventually, Pharaohs were buried in places more easily hidden. Even then, grave robbers generally found their way into the tombs and carried away the wealth, reinvigorating the economy of Egypt and its neighbors. The economy of Egypt must have taken a terrible blow when one tomb, that of a relatively minor Pharaoh named Tutankhamen, was hidden successfully, only to be found again in 1922 AD. His treasures have remarkable value, not only for their content of jewels and precious metals, but for the historic information they have revealed about ancient Egypt. In most cases, though, the wealth of the Pharaohs was pillaged and recycled. Even large stone monuments had their original labels chiseled off and rewritten so later rulers could take credit for the boasts of their predecessors.
Egypt was protected by deserts and other natural barriers. However, it did trade with its neighbors in Africa, western Asia, and the Mediterranean Sea. It sometimes exercised political power over portions of Africa and western Asia. At other times, it was conquered by neighbors and ruled for a time by outsiders. The Hyksos came from Arabia and ruled Egypt for a time; it may have been a Hyksos Pharoah who made Joseph the son of Jacob second-of-command in Egypt following Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. Later, rulers from the south invaded and became Pharaoh’s. Egypt was eventually overrun by other world powers: first Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, then the Persian Empire, and then Alexander the Great. When Alexander died, his general Ptolemy began a dynasty of Hellenistic rulers centered in Egypt. The last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII, was closely associated with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony before she died and Egypt was added to the Roman Empire.
Egyptian culture and religion developed and changed over the generations. One Pharaoh even attempted to cancel the traditional religion of Egypt, replacing all the gods with a single divine being called the Aten. Most often, though, Egypt was polytheistic. Among its many gods was Osiris, whose death and burial and resurrection was associated with the change of seasons and with the hope of human resurrection into a new world. Some historians have suggested that Christian beliefs about Jesus were shaped by stories about Osiris and similar stories from other cultures and religions. C. S. Lewis demonstrated the counter-belief that the promise of death and resurrection is even older than the myths of Egypt and other ancient civilizations. The cycle of death and resurrection is observed in seasonal changes, in the planting of seeds, tending of crops, and harvesting of mature produce. That cycle itself can be seen as a promise, built into creation, of the sacrifice and resurrection of a Savior who overcomes all enemies (including death and the grave) and grants the gift of eternal life to all who trust in him.