The ancient Egyptian Empire as we know it today emerged at the time of the New Kingdom (c. 1570 to c. 1069 BCE). This was the height of ancient Egypt’s wealth, power and military influence.
At its apogee, the Egyptian Empire straddled modern-day Jordan to the east extending westwards to Libya. From the north, it spanning Syria and Mesopotamia down the Nile to Sudan in its southernmost border.
So what combination of factors could lead to the fall of a civilization as powerful and dynamic as ancient Egypt’s? What influences undermined ancient Egypt’s social cohesion, sapped its military might and undermined the authority of the Pharaoh?
Facts About The Fall Of The Ancient Egyptian Empire
- Several factors contributed to the decline of ancient Egypt
- Growing concentration of wealth with the aristocracy and the religious cults led to widespread dissatisfaction with economic disparity
- Around this time, major climatic shifts ruined harvests triggering mass famines, which decimated Egypt’s population
- A divisive civil war combined with successive Assyrian invasions sapped the vigour of the Egyptian military opening the way for an invasion by the Persian empire and the usurpation of the Egyptian pharaoh
- The introduction of Christianity and the Greek alphabet by the Ptolemaic Dynasty eroded the ancient Egyptian’s cultural identity
- The ancient Egyptian empire lasted nearly 3,000 years before Rome annexed Egypt as a province.
Ancient Egypt’s Decline And Fall
The turbulence of the 18th Dynasty the heretic king Akhenaten had largely been stabilised and reversed by the 19th Dynasty. However, signs of decline were evident by the advent of the 20th Dynasty (c.1189 BC to 1077 BC).
While the highly successful Ramses II and his successor, Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE) had both defeated invasions by the Hyksos or Sea Peoples the defeats had not proved decisive. The Sea Peoples returned in force during the 20th Dynasty in the reign of Ramses III. Once more an Egyptian Pharaoh was forced to mobilize for war.
Ramses III subsequently defeated the Sea Peoples and ejected them from Egypt, however, the cost was ruinous both in lives and in resources. Clear evidence emerges after this victory, that the drain on Egyptian manpower badly affected Egypt’s agricultural output and its grain production in particular.
Economically, the Empire was struggling. The war had drained Egypt’s once-overflowing treasury while political and social dislocation impacted trade relations. Moreover, the cumulative effect of countless raids by the Sea Peoples on other states in the region resulted in economic and social dislocation on a regional scale.
Climate Change Factors
The bedrock of the ancient Egyptian Empire was its agriculture. The annual Nile floods rejuvenated the strip of arable land running along the riverbanks. However, towards the end of the Empire, Egypt’s climate became increasingly unstable.
Over roughly one hundred years, Egypt was beset by unseasonably dry spells, the annual Nile floods became unreliable and water levels dropped due to low rainfall. Spates of cold weather also stressed Egypt’s warm weather crops impacting its harvests.
Combined, these climatic factors triggered widespread hunger. The archaeological evidence suggests hundreds of thousands of ancient Egyptians may have perished from died from starvation or dehydration.
Ancient climate experts point to the Nile’s low water levels as a key factor behind the declining economic power and social adhesion of ancient Egypt. However, a two to a three-decade period of erratic flooding by the Nile during the later time of the Egyptian Empire appears to have destroyed crops and starved thousands of people leading to ruinous population losses.
In times of bounty, the uneven distribution of economic benefits within ancient Egyptian society was papered over. However as the state’s power was eroded, this economic disparity undermined ancient Egypt’s social cohesion and pushed its ordinary citizens to the brink.
Simultaneously, the cult of Amun had regained its wealth and now once again rivalled the Pharaoh in political and economic influence. Further concentration of arable land in the hands of the temples disenfranchised farmers. Egyptologists estimate that at one point, the cults owned 30 percent of Egypt’s land.
As the degree of economic disparity between ancient Egypt’s religious elite and the broader population grew, citizens grew increasingly fractious. These conflicts over the distribution of wealth also undermined the sects’ religious authority. This struck at the heart of Egyptian society.
In addition to these social issues, a seemingly endless series of wars proved prodigiously expensive.
Funding large-scale military expansion for a seemingly endless series of conflicts stressed the government’s financial fabric and further undermined the economic power of the pharaoh, fatally weakening the state. The cumulative effects of these series of economics shocks were to erode Egypt’s resilience, exposing it to catastrophic failure.
A chronic shortage of financial and natural resources gradually winnowed out to Egypt’s once powerful power projection capability. Several pivotal political occurrences dramatically shifted the balance of power amongst Egypt’s elites, resulting in a fractured nation.
First, the once dominant and unquestioned role of the Pharaoh was evolving. The murder of the Pharaoh Ramses III (c. 1186 to 1155 BC), possibly the last great Pharaoh of the 20th Dynasty created a power vacuum.
While Ramses III had been able to save Egypt from collapse during the upheaval of the Sea Peoples when other empires were foundering during the Late Bronze Age, the damage caused by the invasions took their toll on Egypt. When Ramses III was murdered, King Amenmesse seceded from the empire, splitting Egypt into two.
After a protracted civil war and several abortive attempts to reunite ancient Egypt, the empire remained divided ruled by a loose association between the rival regional governments.
While costly civil wars significantly undermined the military power of the ancient Egyptian Empire a series of devastating external conflicts further bled the Empire of manpower and military capability and eventually contributed to its total collapse and eventual annexation by Rome.
The impact of external threats was worsened by internal dislocation, which manifested as civil unrest, widespread tomb robbing and endemic corruption amongst the public and religious administration.
In 671 BC the aggressive Assyrian Empire invaded Egypt. They reigned there until c. 627 BC. Following the eclipse of the Assyrian Empire, in 525 BC the Achaemenid Persian Empire invaded Egypt. Egypt was to experience Persian rule for nearly a century.
This period of Persian rule was broken in 402 BC when a series of emerging dynasties regained Egypt’s independence. The 3oth Dynasty was to be the final native Egyptian dynasty after which the Persians regain control of Egypt only to be displaced by Alexander the Great in 332 BC when Alexander established the Ptolemaic Dynasty.
The End Game
This period of extended economic and political unrest and devastating climate changes, ended with Egypt losing sovereignty over most of its territory and becoming a province within the vast Persian Empire. With hundreds of thousands of its people dead, the Egyptian public was increasingly hostile towards with both their political and their religious leaders.
Two further transformative factors now came into play. Christianity began spreading through Egypt and it brought with the Greek alphabet. Their new religion brought a halt to many ancient social practices such as the old religion and mummification. This had a profound effect on Egyptian culture.
Similarly, the widespread adoption of the Greek alphabet particularly during the Ptolemaic Dynasty led to the gradual decline in the everyday use of hieroglyphics and a ruling Dynasty that was unable to either speak the Egyptian language or write in hieroglyphics.
While the outcome of the protracted Roman civil war finally ended the independent ancient Egyptian Empire These seismic cultural and political shifts signalled the ultimate fall of ancient Egypt.
Reflecting On The Past
For 3,000 years a vibrant ancient Egyptian culture had provided the impetus behind the rise of an Egyptian Empire. While the Empire’s wealth, power and military might wax and waned, it largely retained its independence until a combination of climate change, economic, political and military factors led to its eventual decline, fragmentation and fall.
Header image courtesy: Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons