Ancient Egypt, civilization that thrived along the Nile River in northeastern Africa for more than 3,000 years, from about 3300 bc to 30 bc . It was the longest-lived civilization of the ancient world. Geographically, the term ancient Egypt indicates the territory where the ancient Egyptians lived in the valley and delta of the Nile . Culturally, it refers to the ways ancient Egyptians spoke, worshiped, understood the nature of the physical world, organized their government, made their livings, entertained themselves, and related to others who were not Egyptian.
The Nile River , which formed the focus of ancient Egyptian civilization, originates in the highlands of East Africa and flows northward throughout the length of what are now Sudan and Egypt . Northwest of modern-day Cairo , it branches out to form a broad delta, through which it empties into the Mediterranean Sea . Because of seasonal rains farther south in Africa, the Nile overflowed its banks in Egypt every year. When the floodwaters receded, a rich black soil covered the floodplain. This natural phenomenon and its effects on the environment enabled the ancient Egyptians to develop a successful economy based on agriculture.
Other natural factors combined to give rise to a great civilization in the Nile region. In Egypt 's relatively cloudless sky the Sun almost always shone, consistently providing heat and light. The Nile served as a water highway for the people, a constant source of life-giving water, and the sustainer of all plants and animals. In addition, natural barriers provided good protection from other peoples. The desert to the west, the seas to the north and east, and the Nile 's rapids, or cataracts, to the south prevented frequent hostile attacks.
In this setting a sophisticated and creative society came into being. That society was the only one in the area to endure for thousands of years. Each of its rivals rose to power but ultimately faded from importance. It was in this land that two of the Seven Wonders of the World were found: the pyramids at Giza and the lighthouse at Alexandria . The ancient Egyptians produced a vast body of written records, including ethical and moralistic treatises, instructional texts, religious and magical scrolls, evocative love poetry, epic stories, and ribald tales. They possessed a sophisticated understanding of mathematics and the principles of architecture, enabling them to introduce to the world large stone buildings before 2500 bc . Their enduring images-sculpted, painted, and drawn-captivate viewers even today.
The ancient Egyptians processed thin flat sheets from the papyrus, a plant that grew along the Nile , and on these paperlike sheets they wrote their texts. Their earliest script, now known as hieroglyphs, began as a type of picture writing in which the symbols took the form of recognizable images. They originated many basic concepts in arithmetic and geometry, as well as the study of medicine and dentistry. They devised a calendar on the basis of their observations of the Sun and the stars.
Although the ancient Egyptians worshiped many gods, Egypt is also often recognized as the origin of the first recorded monotheist (worshiper of one god), the king who called himself Akhenaton. Egypt also developed one of the first religions to have a concept of the afterlife. No culture before or since paid as much attention to preparations for what was to come after death. Both royalty and private individuals built, decorated, and furnished tombs, which the ancient Egyptians understood to represent their eternal existence.
Politically, Egypt was a major power in the ancient world. Its kings governed the land through an elaborate bureaucratic administration. At certain periods, ancient Egypt 's influence extended even farther south and west in Africa as well as east into Asia.
Great pyramids, hieroglyphs, elaborately decorated underground burial chambers, sprawling temple complexes, and statues combining human and animal forms are only a few of the many remnants that survive from ancient Egypt . These relics of an extinct world raised numerous questions during the centuries after the civilization died out and still fascinate people today. Many questions were answered in the early 19th century, when a young French scholar, Jean François Champollion, deciphered the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone and reconstructed the ancient Egyptian language. While more questions have been answered since that time, much remains to be investigated. Scholars still debate, for instance, whether writing first emerged in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia . And while written documents attest to at least 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian civilization, archaeological evidence suggests a much longer span.