An excellent article by Richard Parkinson, who is a curator in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum. His main research interest is the poetry of the classical age of Egyptian literature. With photos.
Ancient Egypt rarely escapes our stereotypical view of it: an exotic place full of pyramids crammed with cursed treasure, waiting to be discovered by adventurous archaeologists. As in René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's comic Asterix and Cleopatra, it is often presented as a land of spooky tombs and people speaking in hieroglyphic pictures. These stereotypes are themselves quite ancient – even to the ancient Greeks, Egypt was a quintessentially different culture. But they trivialise a complex society.
Ancient Egypt is one of the first civilisations that children are taught about, and so people sometimes assume that it must be a "childish" culture, an early step in humanity's evolution towards modernity. People of all ages visit the displays of mummies in the British Museum, and there can be no more vivid way of stirring anyone's historical imagination than to look into an actual ancient face. But as we stare, we can sometimes forget that they were more than mummies, and that once they were people as complex and sophisticated as us.
Some of our misunderstandings about ancient Egypt come about in part because the Egyptians presented much of their history in a monumental and monolithic form. For centuries, the Egyptians codified in stone their history as a list of kings, each the son of the sun god, each a triumphant hero who, with each reign, re-established order in a chaotic universe. Even now, Egyptian history is conventionally divided into great kingdoms of centralised rule, the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, divided by periods of supposed chaos.