From the time that the great king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated the last of the independent Egyptian Pharaohs, one Necho by name, and the country became a mere province of the Assyrian empire, until the present, is around 2,500 years. That is, exactly the same number of years from the original foundation of the Egyptian state until that sad moment of final absorption and enslavement by the Persians. The contrast between those two periods could hardly be greater. In the first, the nation and people of Egypt were in the ascent, achieving ever more resplendent feats of empire, of architecture, and of literature. The second, with one brief moment of brilliance before the flame of its civilisation guttered into darkness, was marked by a steady descent into anarchy and barbarism that has been reversed only in our own day.
The Assyrians held sway over Egypt for some three hundred years, during the golden age of that people when they had assumed the position of the dominant force in the Middle East. Eventually they also were conquered, by the astonishing Alexander the Great. He died too young to enjoy any of his conquests. But his appointed regent, the Macedonian Ptolemy Soter, founded the Ptolemaic dynasty which succeeded in re-awakening some of Egypt's former glories, notably in the great temples of Denderah, Edfu and Philae, where the old architectural styles were employed. Alexander's most enduring monument in Egypt, the city he named for himself - Alexandria - is discussed in greater detail below.
Just as the Persians succumbed to Alexander, so the Ptolemies fell to the Romans shortly before the beginning of the Christian era. That final collapse is chiefly of interest for its last ruler, the romantic, steely-willed and apparently irresistible figure of Cleopatra. An exceptional woman, she had various of her close relatives killed to ensure her continued power and was the queen and mistress of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony; she also succeeded in clinging on to at least nominal independence for many years before Egypt was reduced to a personal possession of the Roman emperor. One consequence of Rome's embrace of Egypt was the appearance of Egyptian gods and goddesses such as Isis in even the furthest-flung outpost of the empire - including Roman Britain.
As the Roman Empire - its capital now transferred to Constantinople - disintegrated, Egypt suffered increasingly from lawlessness, riots and uprisings among the varied religious and ethnic groups. When the Arabs invaded Egypt in 639, there were many who welcomed the new rulers with their promise of order and peace.
That promise was rarely realised in the ensuing millennium, as faction supplanted faction, governors were routinely deposed and murdered, and new despots sprang up everywhere. Even the country's occasional periods of prosperity threw up insane rulers such as al-Hakim, who executed all his advisers, and enjoyed riding at night on his mule so much that he attempted to reverse the patterns of life for all his subjects so that they worked by night and slept by day. Hating women, he imposed a 24-hour curfew on them, and when this failed, he banned the manufacture of their shoes to prevent them from leaving their homes. Mercifully, he went out riding one night and never returned, though his riderless mule was found the next day.
Around the time of the Crusades, the great Muslim warrior Saladin had restored some order, but in doing so established a dynasty that came increasingly to rely on Mamluks, Turkish slaves who were later to rule Egypt ruthlessly for several hundred years on their own account until the country was finally swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire.
Under these effete and corrupt rulers, Egypt sank deeper and deeper into degradation until Napoleon seized the country in 1805. Although his grip on the land soon weakened, and his reforms were quickly forgotten, this episode in the country's long and often sorry history marked a turning point because it was during Napoleon's marches through the land that the first scientific data on the lost monuments and civilisation of Egypt were obtained. The results were later published in France in 20 volumes as 'A Description of Egypt', triggering off the West's enthusiasm for the country, and leading to an increasing number of archaeological and touristic expeditions there.
It was also at this time that the critically important Rosetta stone was retrieved. It was taken from Napoleon by the British as war booty when they drove the French from Egypt. From this period the British began to exert their influence on the region, part of an almost naturally occurring global expansion of their empire. This British involvement in the area set in train events which would eventually lead to the emergence of an independent state of Egypt for the first time in two thousand years.