Egypt is a region of Africa that is home to one of the oldest known civilizations in the world. The ancient Egyptians are best remembered for their intricate beliefs about the importance of the afterlife, which led to their creation of the pyramid (a square-based triangular tomb of stone) and the mummy (a bandaged corpse specially prepared to last for eternity). They are generally the only African culture that the mass majority of people outside of Africa is actually aware of, which can at least be partly blamed on its presence in the Bible and the "Egyptology" craze that hit the US in the mid-1900s. Most people categorize it as a Middle-Eastern area due to the sand and the political influence of modern day Egypt, but most of its famous points are west of the Red Sea. Most North African nations tend to be closer to the Middle East culturally than sub-Saharan Africa, mostly due to that giant deadly obstacle known as the Sahara Desert; that being said, Egypt in particular did have some cultural connections to the South via the Nile starting way up in Lake Victoria in Tanzania.
As one of the earliest civilizations, the genetic makeup of their civilization and particularly their ruling classes are of great interest to those studying them. Despite being located in Africa, Egypt was not always a solely african civilization; the pharaohs of the Ptolemaic dynasty in particular were outright Greeks who, with the exception of Cleopatra, didn't speak the local language. Earlier mummies have been found with blonde and red hair, as well as non-African DNA. This is likely the result of constant campaigns by other civilizations into the continent early in the country's history, which would naturally require passage through Egypt, thus further emphasizing its importance in African history. It is worth mentioning that ascribing "whiteness" or "blackness" to ancient Egyptians is now considered anachronistic since they were a diverse admixture of many skin tones (the further "up"/south you went, the more "black" the people would be, and vice versa).
While it is usually Bronze Age Egypt that we are interested in, Egypt's strategic location helped it maintain relevancy on the world stage long after its golden age in the ancient world. Many empires wanted a piece of that Egyptian action, including the Persians, Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, French, British, etc. to name a few. And during the times that it was independent, Egypt set itself apart from its contemporaries, such as when the Mamluk slave-soldiers eventually became the rulers of medieval Egypt, and successfully resisted the goddamn Mongols.
Due to their cultural association with the afterlife, fictional portrayals of Egypt, or any fantasy equivalents thereof, will focus heavily on the undead and/or some means of attaining immortality (vis a vis mummification). The pyramids and the value of their tombs' contents - both in the sense of uncovering details about their culture throughout various era and in the sense of actual monetary value - tended to overlap with this, and both were ideal fodder for many an aspiring writer/director/what have you. Adventure movies, pulp novels, comic books - whatever the medium, the raiding of Egyptian tombs for treasures and the curses triggered by such robbery became fictional staples.
In fantasy games, Egypt (or its local stand-in) is generally portrayed as a hyper-religious dustbowl (ignoring that the civilization itself was actually centered around the enormous Nile River, which creates fertile land for them to farm) ruled over by grim and sinister priests, with ancient ruins half-buried in the desert full of ghosts, mummies and curses, and all manner of nasty desert beasts running around, most prominently various flavors of snake, scorpion and crocodile.
Being one of the first known human civilizations, it's a given that Egypt would have a fuckton of history under it's belt. It can be roughly divided into periods of stability with "intermediate" periods between them. It roughly spans from 5300 B.C to 30 B.C, though the periods most focused on in media are the ones on the either extreme of the timeline - the Old Kingdom and the Ptolemaic Egypt.
- Predynastic Period (~5300-3000 B.C) - Your typical "cave-men" period. The various tribes that settled the Nile valley initially forage for bountiful food growing on the banks before moving gradually to agriculture. There exist a number of "cultures" but no true polity as of yet.
- Early Dynastic Period (3000-2600 B.C) - After a struggle against the king of Naqada, the Scorpion King (alternatively known as Menes/Narmer) became the unifier of Upper and Lower Egypts. of note is that the aristocracy and nobility began to entomb themselves into mastabas which would later evolve into the pyramids we all know and love. Spans the 1.-2. dynasty.
- The Old Kingdom (2600-2100 B.C) - The formerly independent egyptian states become "Nomes" - administrative units under the authority of the Pharaoh. The period was marked by increase in administrative and overall civilizational sophistication which was necessary to construct the first pyramids which were essentially generational mega-projects (built by contract workers, not slaves). The famous Giza Pyramid Complex was erected during the old kingdom. This period was so awesome that the Egyptians from the New Kingdom (about a thousand years later) regarded it as a time of wonder and mystery. The worship of the Sun really took of and Ra was the most popular/powerful god in this era. A general decline began when the Nomarchs (nome governors) began getting uppity and this combined with an anomalous low level of Nile in 2200 B.C led to the dissolution of the kingdom and ushered the next period of fractured fiefdoms. Spans the 3.-6. Dynasty.
- The First Intermediate Period (2181-2055 B.C) - A period of obscure history and pharaohs spanning some 200 years when the Pharaoh was but a local ruler. It is telling how most documents found in these era are called "lamentations" and describe the dissolution of the Old Kingdom and the invasion of foreigners into egypt. Many of the tombs of the Old Kingdom were looted during this period. Basically the Age of Strife for ancient Egypt. Spans 6.-10./11. Dynasties.
- The Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 B.C) - Though Egypt stabilised under the rule of pharaohs tracing their ancestry form the nome of Thebes, warfare between the two rival dynasties of Thebes and Heracleopolis continued for some time. The two major dynasties: twelfth and thirteenth returned much splendor to Egypt, but were also embroiled in frequent conflict and conquest of the surrounding lands. During the twelfth dynasty the pharaoh Amenemhat III invited some settlers from Mesopotamia which would eventually conquer Egypt and take power as the Hyksos. Here too, the low levels of Nile contributed to the decline of the Middle Kingdom into the Second Intermediate period. Spans the 11.-13. Dynasty.
- The Second Intermediate Period (1650-1550 B.C) - A relatively brief period, lasting "only" 100 years when Egypt was ruled by the foreign Hyksos. The weak thirteenth dynasty was unable to maintain it's holdings and prevent the Hyksos incursion. They established the fifteenth dynasty, led by Salitis who established his capital at Memphis. Sometime late,r a native Egyptian house established the rival sixteenth dynasty at Thebes which, after a brief conquest and tributeship rose up as the seventeenth dynasty and drove the Hyksos out of Egypt, establishing the New Kingdom. Spans the 14.-17. Dynasty.
- The New Kingdom (1550-1069 B.C) - Egypt one again achieved great splendor and power during the reign of the eighteenth dynasty. The pharaoh Hatshepsut (a rare female pharaoh) expanded Egyptian trade northward and southward and ruled for two decades thanks to her political skill and widespread state propaganda. Her successor Thutmose III expanded and improved the Egyptian army. Of special note is also the nineteenth dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten who founded perhaps the first monotheistic religion. This didn't catch on for long and after his death and a couple of less notable pharaohs came Ramesses II during whose reign Egypt's New Kingdom reached it's zenith. The Abu Simbel complex was constructed during his reign and he won a decisive victory against the Hittites thus securing the hold Judea/Palestine all up to Levant. After that, the last "great pharaoh" was Ramesses III who successfully fought off the "Sea Peoples" who were ravaging the eastern Mediterranean and are now thought to have greatly contributed to the so called 'Late Bronze Age Collapse' of major civilizations such as Mycenaeans, Hittites and Babylonians. Sadly the same wars also drained Egypt's treasury and strained its resources to such a degree that it's power began to wane and this coupled with Ramesses's squabbling heirs pushed Egypt into the Third Intermediate Period. Spans 18.-21. dynasties.
- The Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 B.C) - The period is, as previous intermediate periods, characterized by decline and political instability of Egypt, only this time within the context of the larger Late Bronze Age collapse of civilizations in the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean. It was marked by division of the state for much of the period and conquest and rule by foreigners. If you want to draw a line as to when ancient Egypt truly started to decline, this is a good place as many pharaohs were either non-Egyptian or were murdered and eventually the country was conquered outright by the Persians. Spans 22.-25. dynasty.
- The Late Period (664-332. B.C) - Egypt was coming under ever increasing attacks form the nation on it's eastern borders. At first however, the Assyrians barged into Egypt and expelled the then ruling Nubians, establishing an Egyptian Psamtik I as a client-ruler under them. His twenty-sixth dynasty established a brief period of stability, lasting some 54 years, only for it to abruptly end with the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar II invading Egypt in 567. B.C and the Persians finally conquering Egypt wholly in 525. B.C. Spans 26.-31. dynasty.
- The Ptolemaic Period (332.-30. B.C) - After being under the heel of Persia for some 120 years, Egypt was conquered again by Alexander the Great, who incorporated it into his huge empire. After his death however, his empire fell into a succession crisis and Egypt was awarded to Ptolemy, a general of Alexander who was to rule it as one of the four regent-kings until Alexander's son was of age. He quickly said screw that and established himself as an independent ruler. He founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty which ruled Egypt for the next 300 years. The Ptolemaic pharaohs embraced many of the Egyptian customs while promoting many Hellenistic ones as well, making this late Egypt a curious blend of both. Eventually, it was conquered by Rome, with it's last ruler - Cleopatra killing herself rather than being captured and sent to Rome in chains. Spans Argead-Ptolemaic dynasty.
While Egyptian culture wasn't completely subsumed by the combined greco-roman one and continued to exist as the province of Aegyptus, it would never again recapture it's glory or status as an autonomous culture. After the decline of the Roman Empire, Egypt would find itself under a number of different Islamic polities and today, only the Kopts hold some deeper connection to ancient Egyptians.
Ancient Egyptian Magic
Perhaps a lesser known aspect of ancient Egyptian culture was its magic. The chief god of magic/vital force (ka) was Heka.
Egyptian magic differs from more known systems by placing great emphasis on texts and speech (basically a sophisticated incantation magic). Much of the "religious/state" magic performed by priests was focused on maintaining the stability of the natural order and pleasing the gods.
A major aspect of Egyptian magic also dealt with the dead, their interment and the protection for their tombs. This aspect is often the most accentuated one when dealing with Egyptian magic in various media, often making ancient Egyptians seem like a society of necromancers, though in reality, a dead person coming back to life as the typical fantasy mummy would be a thing of horror to most ancient Egyptians - the whole point of their rites and spells was to make sure the souls of the dead made it safely to the afterlife and stayed there.
Another great aspect of Egyptian magic were amulets, lucky charms and talismans. These had a variety of uses, but mostly focused on providing good health, luck in various endeavors and protection form curses and evil spirits.
Lastly, there is the famous 'Book of the Dead'. The name is misleading, since there existed no standard codification and each book was written for a specific individuals. They all however contained useful spells and instructions which were meant to help the deceased find their way through the gamut of Egyptian afterlife into paradise.
Egyptian Gods, Mythology and Religion
Ancient Egypt developed an immensely sophisticated religion and mythology, rivaling that of Greece, China or Mesoamerican civilisations.
To ancient Egyptians, their gods were the very personifications of natural and social phenomena, not mere metaphors, and pleasing them was thought to bring great boon as well as great misfortune should they be angered. The primary conduit to the gods, the supreme priest and a god in his own right was naturally the Pharaoh, who was an intermediary between his/her people and the gods. Pharaohs had the duty to sustain the gods through rituals and offerings so that they could maintain 'Ma'at' - the order of the cosmos. Ma'at was very, very important as it was THE proper order of everything, without which chaos and evil would consume the world.
Ordinary Egyptians too could interact with the gods on a more personal level, most often in temples which were public institutions that were obliged to offer religious and other services 24/7. Temples also offered medical and educational services as well, but to our knowledge, the promulgation of religious knowledge was done within the priestly class while common folk would get by from what they heard form them or what was passed form mouth to mouth. Of note is the fact that Egyptian religion, like many ancient ones was never exactly codified by any central religious authority, despite them having something of the kind in Pharaoh, so many Egyptian myths and religious practices often had conflicting or syncretic aspects to them.
As for the gods themselves, there are many, and a number of them are synonymous with one another (such as Bast(et)/Sekhmet). However, the most important ones are:
- Geb & Nut - The personified Earth and Heaven. They arose form the primordial Chaos as the first beings. They had five children who became the major gods of the egyptian pantheon.
- Ra - The god of the Sun and the first pharaoh. He would sail in his golden barge across the sky every day and descend into the underworld by night where he would fight various demons and monsters. With the passage of time he supposedly became old and stopped giving a f*ck so Osiris had to step in as the next sun god.
- Osiris - Son of Geb and Nut (the Earth and the Heaven), stepped in to fill the sun god role when Ra got tired of it. He taught humanity farming and created the first cities in Egypt. His brother Set tricked him by trapping him into a sarcophagus and then chopping him into several pieces. His wife Isis resurrected him by tying the pieces back together with cloth (hence the first mummy) but he came back only partially alive, so he became the god of underworld.
- Isis - Osiris's wife and the goddess of magic. Was fiercely intelligent and cunning, managing to trick Ra into abdicating the throne by poisoning him, offering to cure him if he told her his secret name (which gave her supreme power over him), and then using that to get Osiris as the new sun god. Mother of Horus and wife of Osiris.
- Set - The god of the desert, storms and evil. He was one of the most powerful gods and after tricking his brother Osiris, he usurped the throne of Egypt until Osiris's son Horus curbstomped him. Apparently he wasn't always a massive douche as he once sailed with Ra and helped him in battling the horrors of the underworld. Generally believed to have been increasingly demonized as Egyptians faced more and more invasions from hostile foreigners.
- Horus - Son of Osiris and Isis, also known as the Avenger. He avenged his father by defeating Set and thus became the new pharaoh of Egypt, and all the subsequent (human) pharaohs drew their lineage directly form Horus.
- Bastet - Cat-goddess of cats, health, joy, festivities and sex (so the best goddess). She was often looked to for protection and *khm* procreation. Also was beseeched for good luck and as a defense against evil. Fought with her father Ra in the underworld and led the souls of the deceased through it as a side-gig. Had her center in Bubastis where orgies and merriment were held annually.
- Sekhmet - Deciding that having one catgirl goddess wasn't awesome enough, there was also Sekhmet. A lion-headed goddess of war, she was the fiercest hunter in all of Egypt and her breath was so powerful that it formed the desert. She also protected the pharaohs during battle and if they fell in battle, she would carry them like a valkyrie into the afterlife.
- Anubis - God of funerals and thus one of the most important one by function. He helped prepare the souls of the dead for the afterlife and even helped Isis in bringing Osiris back to life. Responsible for Jackals being sacred along with Cats in Egypt. He is also widely considered the sexiest of all gods by furries, rivaled only by Sobek and Bastet.
- Thoth - God of knowledge, writing and the moon. Either self-born or created from Horus jizzing on Set's forehead (yeah...). As the son of these two deities who represented order and chaos, he was also the god of equilibrium and balance and associated closely with both the principle of Ma'at. Thoth presided over the judgment of the dead with Osiris in the Hall of the Truth, and those souls who feared they might not pass through the judgment safely were encouraged to call upon Thoth for help.
- Sobek - God of the Nile crocodiles. Would alternate between being an highly aggressive deity and a supremely benevolent one.
Egypt as a culture is also associated with Judaism & Christianity as well, making it probably a unique case in history where an entire CULTURE is a thing of someone else's religion. In Judaism, Egypt is the setting of The Exodus, the legendary period when the Jews were enslaved, escaped, were forced to wander the wilderness for decades, received the 10 Commandments from God and were ultimately allowed to found Jerusalem. Exactly when this was supposed to have occurred in unclear and whether or not it actually happened is disputed by modern historians.
In Christianity, Egypt is not as relevant (y'know, barring the inherited story of the Exodus), except for in the Gospel of Matthew where an angel tells Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt from Herod. Aside from that, the Copts are one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world, owing to Egypt's proximity to Judea and the resulting early conversion to Christianity.
The most iconic aesthetic element of Egypt is, of course, the great stone pyramids. Everybody recognizes these things instantly. They're technically not unique to Egypt, but what is unique is them being built smooth-sided and to a pointed capstone; South American pyramids were flat-topped staircase-flanked temple-complexes. Much like with Gladiators, there's a few things about the pyramids that people tend to assume, especially in older fantasy settings, but which aren't actually true. The primary thing is that the pyramids were built with slave labor... in fact, this isn't actually the case. The pyramids were built outside of the growing season, by farmers and laborers from the countryside who otherwise had no work, and they were paid to do the job - some of the oldest Egyptian records are actually details on a strike by pyramid-builders demanding better wages. Still, the idea persists, especially in Sword & Sorcery or Dark Fantasy settings, because the image of legions of abused slaves dragging massive stone blocks around whilst people crack whips is a natural fit for darker and edgier fantasy.
- Mulhorand & Unther: Two declined nations in the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons & Dragons, based on the fact Egypt was actually divided into the separate kingdoms of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt for most of its history. Also, at least one ethnicity in the Forgotten Realms descends from Earthly ancient Egyptians who were summoned by evil wizards to be a slave race, but fought their way to independence.
- The Amber Wastes: A Cluster in the Demiplane of Dread based around Egypt.
- Nithia: The Egypt region of Mystara and the Hollow World.
- Osiron: The Egypt region of Golarion
- Nehekhara: The Egyptian region of the Warhammer Fantasy world, inhabited solely by sapient mummy kings ruling over huge armies of mindless skeleton warriors because an insane necromancer with aspirations of godhood used an epic level spell to extinguish all life in the country and then raise it as undead. This also justifies why the country is mostly desert.
- Amonkhet: The Egyptian plane for Magic: The Gathering. Civilization consists of a single mega-city in a great zombie-infested desert, where the occupants spend their entire lives training in magic and martial arts, as well as pumping out kids, before undertaking a "sacred rite" that sees the entire generation slaughtered in ritual combat to be transformed into uber-mummy warriors. Those who died in the trials leading up to this rite are instead turned into the army of mummy laborers who handle all of the work, like producing food and rearing the children.