The sweep of Ancient Egyptian history is a long one, even if you just count from the first unification of the country through until the death of Cleopatra then it covers some 3000 years.
The ancient historian Manetho who wrote in the 3rd Century BCE divided up this history into dynasties, and modern historians follow his lead. They then further group these dynasties into longer periods which make it easier to get one’s head around the history. Of course it’s important to remember that they are artificial distinctions, just as with any division of history – the people living through it wouldn’t necessarily agree with us about where to draw the lines!
Prehistoric Egypt: There have been people living in the Nile Valley for millennia and as the climate changed around 7000 BCE the population became concentrated along the river as it is now. Archaeologists distinguish several periods and cultural groups that lived during this period and the roots of the later Egyptian civilisation are here.
Predynastic Period: The distinction between Prehistoric and Predynastic is particularly fuzzy but during the last few centuries before the unification of Egypt many of the key features of Pharaonic Egyptian civilisation appear or are refined.
Early Dynastic Period: Egypt is unified around 3000 BCE by a king called Narmer (or possibly Aha, there are differences of opinion). His successors in the 1st Dynasty, as well as the next dynasty or two, form the Early Dynastic Period.
Old Kingdom: The first of the three kingdoms of Egyptian history – the golden ages. Think Old Kingdom, think pyramids.
First Intermediate Period: At the end of the Old Kingdom, around 2100 BCE, the authority of the central government collapsed. The regional governors’ power and autonomy increased, and eventually after a period of civil war one of them reunified the country.
Middle Kingdom: To later Egyptians this was the golden age of culture and civilisation – they looked back at it in the same way Western civilisation looks back to the Romans and the Greeks.
Second Intermediate Period: Somewhere around 1650 BCE the Middle Kingdom undergoes its own collapse. The north of the country is taken over by a dynasty of foreign kings who are known as the Hyksos.
New Kingdom: The rulers of Thebes drive out the Hyksos and reunify the country around 1550 BCE. This is the era of almost all the Pharaohs who are widely known in modern pop culture: Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and Ramesses II.
Third Intermediate Period: Once again central authority waned and Egypt entered another period of disunity. This period also includes the Kushite 25th Dynasty who reunified the country but failed to hold off the Assyrian Empire for long.
Late Period: This three hundred year period from 664-332 BCE is a bit of a grab bag. It includes the last Egyptian dynasties, but also the Persian conquest of Egypt.
Ptolemaic Period: In the late 330s/early 320s BCE Alexander the Great swept through the known world conquering it all – including Egypt in 332 BCE. After his death his empire was divided between four of his generals and Ptolemy got Egypt where his descendants were to rule for the next 300 years, until Cleopatra’s fatal entanglement with the Roman Empire.
You may’ve noticed there were few dates in the preceding summary: I generally like to avoid dates as much as possible when talking about ancient Egyptian history, because they very quickly get very dubious. Some of the more recent ones are pretty solid: the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE for instance, or the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. The first fixed date isn’t really all that much before that in the grand scheme of things – the accession of the Pharaoh Taharqo of the 25th Dynasty was in 690 BCE. Then as you go back from there it all gets awfully fuzzy awfully quickly. The Egyptians themselves dated events using the regnal year of the current Pharaoh – so Year 5 of Khufu or whatever. And how long we think any given king reigned depends on what inscriptions have survived. Add to that that sometimes in the earlier periods they dated by referring to a particular cattle census during a reign – mostly the cattle were counted every 2 years, but sometimes it happened every year. So for a modern historian constructing a dateline for Egyptian history is like doing a jigsaw puzzle where you can’t even tell if you have all the pieces. Under these circumstances a bit of vagueness is a good idea!