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VCE Humanities

Ancient History Unit 2: Egypt

Elective Unit


There are no prerequisites for this unit.

Course Description

Ancient Egypt gave rise to a civilisation that endured for approximately three thousand years. Unlike Mesopotamia, Egypt was not threatened by its neighbours for the greater part of its history. The Nile served as the lifeblood of urban settlements in Upper and Lower Egypt. Kingdoms rose, flourished and fell around the banks of this great river. This unit highlights the importance of primary sources (the material record and written sources) to historical inquiry about Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt.

Areas of Study

Egypt: The Double Crown

  • What was the significance of the king in Old Kingdom Egypt?
  • What primary sources are available to historians for exploring power and authority during these periods?
  • What do primary sources reveal about beliefs, values and attitudes in Ancient Egypt?

This area of study begins at the start of the Early Dynastic Period (2920 BC) and concludes at the end of the First Intermediate Period (2040 BC).

In this area of study students explore kingship in Old Kingdom Egypt. The ancient Egyptians believed that in order for something to be complete it needed to be made up of two parts. The double crown of Egypt consisted of two parts: the red crown represented the Nile delta of Lower Egypt; the white crown signified dominion over Upper Egypt (the area south of the Nile Delta to First Cataract). The Nile Delta receives far greater rainfall than the south; agriculture is completely dependent on the River Nile in Upper Egypt. Connecting Upper and Lower Egypt, the Nile was also central to the economy and transport. During the Predynastic Period, Upper Egypt increased its territory until it conquered the north. The first ruler to unite the two crowns in a single dominion seems to have been

Narmer. The key source is the Narmer Palette which appears to depict the unification of Egypt. It was during the Early Dynastic Period (2920 –2575 BC) that Egyptian hieroglyphs came into use. This script remained a mystery to later ages until the Rosetta Stone was deciphered.

The Old Kingdom (2575 –2134 BC) was a period of prosperity and consolidation, but power was concentrated in the hands of the few. With its capital located at Memphis, Egypt was ruled by the king and state bureaucracy. It was during this period that the pyramids were constructed. These demonstrate the immense power of the kings, but also raise important questions about funerary practices and belief systems. The step pyramid of Djoser, the Meidum Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid at Dashur and the pyramids at Giza represent continuity and change in the design of these monuments. Although the pyramids reflect the authority of the king over the population, the closing years of the Old Kingdom are marked by an important change: kings found it increasingly difficult to control the

state. This was due to the growing power of local governors (nomarchs). Resources earmarked for Memphis were redirected to these officials. The result was the demise of the unified state. This was one of the causes of upheaval and decline during the First Intermediate Period (2134–2040 BC).

Middle Kingdom Egypt: Power and propaganda

  • How did the rulers of the Middle Kingdom use their power?
  • How did they present their power as authority?
  • What challenges did they face?

In this area of study begins with the end of the First Intermediate Period and reunification of Egypt (2040 BC) and concludes at the end of the Seventeenth Dynasty (1550 BC).

In this area of study students explore the use and representation of power in Middle Kingdom Egypt and the Second Intermediate Period (to 1550 BC). The civil wars of the First Intermediate Period were brought to an end by Mentuhotep II, governor of Thebes. He reunified Egypt and centralised government, subordinating local governors to more senior officials, thus addressing a structural flaw that had brought the Old Kingdom undone. Trade once again flourished. Mentuhotep II represented himself in a divine or semi-divine manner. This is evident from the material record and in the titles used by the king. Many aspects of the reign of Mentuhotep II reflect a desire to establish

continuities with the Old Kingdom, but his approach to funerary architecture represented an important change. Rather than constructing a pyramid, he demonstrated his power in a very different style of mortuary temple. This was constructed at Deir-el-Bahri, near what would become the Valley of the Kings. Students undertake a detailed investigation of this site. Later kings rejected the approach adopted by Mentuhotep II, turning to pyramids for burial, but the method of construction was different from those of the Old Kingdom.

Kings of the Twelfth Dynasty used literary texts as propaganda. Examples include The Prophecy of Neferti and The Story of Sinuhe. Students analyse these sources in terms of their presentation of royal power and what they reveal about other facets of life in the Middle Kingdom. Students explore the Instructions of King Amenemhet. This source reflects the challenges that the kings faced in maintaining power against governing families. The introduction of the co-regency was a response to this problem and enabled kings to maintain power. In the closing years of the Middle Kingdom, however, the balance of power shifted in favour of the governors, weakening central authority.

The Second Intermediate Period marked the end of Middle Kingdom Egypt. The Hyksos took power in the Nile Delta. This was the first time that Egyptian lands had fallen to outsiders. Taking up Egyptian beliefs and practices, Hyksos kings formed the Fifteenth Dynasty and ruled Lower Egypt from the capital of Avaris. During the same period the Seventeenth Dynasty held power in Upper Egypt from Thebes. The tension created by this division was only resolved through warfare. The result was the defeat of the Hyksos.


Assessment Tasks
(school-assessed coursework)

On completion of this unit the student should be able to explain the distribution of power in Old Kingdom Egypt and the First Intermediate Period, the social, political and economic reasons for the construction of pyramids, and Egyptian beliefs concerning the afterlife.

A historical inquiry and an analysis of primary sources.

On completion of this unit the students should be able to explain the use and representation of power in Middle Kingdom Egypt and the Second Intermediate Period.

An analysis of historical interpretations and an essay.

Overall Final Assessment

End of Semester Examination – 1.5 hours.

Information can be obtained from the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Victoria, Australia: