Towards the end of the fourth millennium BC several independent city-states were unified to form a single state, marking the beginning of over 3,000 years of pharaonic civilisation in the Nile Valley. Fertile earth left behind after the yearly Nile flood provided the basis for Egypt’s agricultural prosperity, a key factor in the longevity of the civilisation.
The British Museum collection includes statuary and decorated architecture from throughout pharaonic history, often inscribed with hieroglyphs. Many other aspects of ancient Egyptian culture are represented: coffins and mummies of individuals, but also furniture, fine jewellery and other burial goods. These reflect the practice of lavish burials for the wealthy, which included the royal family, government officials and the priesthood.
Texts preserved on papyrus help reveal the complex administration of the country, but also include magical, medical and mathematical works and poetry. Pottery vessels and a variety of tools and agricultural equipment hint at the day-to-day lives of ancient Egyptians.
At certain periods, Egypt’s empire extended over neighbouring areas, from Upper Nubia to the Euphrates river. But Egypt was also linked to other countries through trade, and many foreigners came to reside in Egypt, producing a cosmopolitan society.
Egypt did endure several periods of foreign domination, by Palestinian, Nubian, Persian, Greek and Roman rulers. Yet throughout, temples to the Egyptian gods continued to be built in the traditional style and aspects of Egyptian religion spread throughout the ancient world.
By the fourth century AD, Christianity had become the dominant religion along the Nile, with Islam first introduced in the seventh century AD.