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Exploring the Rise and Fall of Old Kingdom Egypt: A Historical Overview





[This is a lecture written for the course 'HIST 262: History of the Ancient Near East,' taught Fall 2023 at God's Bible School and College, a regionally accredited College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Bibliographical material will be posted under Research on this site.]


Although not the oldest kingdom in Egypt, the period of time after the Early Dynastic Period is termed the Old Kingdom as Egyptian history is broken into three major phases: the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. The Three Kingdom periodization of Egyptian history originated in 1845 by a German archaeologist by the name of C. C. J. Bunsen (Schneider 2008: 182), and since then, the periodization has gone through major revisions. Today, each of the the phases have changed, and additional phases have been added, specifically ‘intermediate’ periods of instability, earlier phases, and of course later phases such as the Late, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. 

The Old Kingdom dates to ca. 2649-2130 B.C., and quite a few concepts and practices developed into what would eventually become characteristic of Egypt and the Pharaonic histories (Prakash 2000: 1). It can be said that it was not until the Old Kingdom that Egypt truly became the Egypt that we know today (Wilson 1951: 49). 

At this time, the roles of the kings appear to reinforce the cosmic order within the preordained world by linking the ruling king to divine beings and royal ancestors, legitimizing the king’s right to rule through a history of his royal deeds (Bárta 2013: 259). Many of these deeds seem to focus on the exploitation of resources, including copper, and the movement of luxury goods (Cohen 2016: 5), items that both maintained and improved the prestige of Egyptian rulers. Also during this period, the position of ‘vizier’ is created, an official second only to the king, a title which will continue throughout Egypt’s history (Muhs 2016: 13).


The Question of the Third Dynasty

Not much is known of the Old Kingdom of Egypt as the historical records are somewhat scarce (Mark 2016), writing spreading beyond the royal court only during this period (Muhs 2016: 17) and much of the papyri used having disintegrated long ago, thus architecture exists as the main historical narrative (van de Mieroop 2015: 54). Later writings of these early years are marred with repetitions and reign lengths that appear abnormally long (Seidlmayer 2006: 116) and therefore add to the confusion. 

The Old Kingdom is the period of pyramid construction, and the Third Dynasty is traditionally placed into the Old Kingdom of Egypt, rather than the Early Dynastic, because of the similarities in monumental building projects (Mark 2016). Specifically, during the third dynasty was the construction of the very first pyramid, the stepped pyramid of Djoser (Hassan 1997: 1). With that said, some believe that the building of the stepped pyramid, as well as differing cultural practices, to be more in line with Early Dynastic Egypt rather than the Old Kingdom (Mark 2016), and thus beginning the Old Kingdom with the Fourth Dynasty.

Dynasty

King

Approximate Dates

Pyramid?

3

Djoser (Netjery-khet)

2592-2566

X


Sekhem-khet

2565–2559

X


Kha'ba

2559–????

X


Nebka

????-????



Huni

????-2544


4

Snofru

2543–2510

XXX


Khufu

2509–2483

X


Ra'djedef/Djedefre'

2482–2475

X


Bikheris

2474–2473



Khephren (Ra'kha'ef )

2472–2448



Menkaure' (Mycerinus)

2447–2442

X


Shepseskaf

2441–2436

X

5

Userkaf

2435–2429

X


Sahure'

2428–2416

X


Neferirkare' Kakai

2415–2405

X


Ra'neferef/Neferefre'

        2404



Shepseskare' Izi

        2403



Neuserre' Ini

2402–2374

X


Menkauhor

2373–2366



Djedkare' Izezi

2365–2322

X


Wenis

2321–2306

X

6

Teti

2305–2279

X


Userkare'

????-????



Pepy I Meryre'

2276–2228

X


Nemtyemzaef Merenre'

2227–2217

X


Pepy II Neferkare'

2216–2153

X


Nemtyemzaef II

        2152


Still, the Third Dynasty would appear to be key to the transition between older ways and what would become standard Egyptian practices. For example, the capital of the kingdom was once again moved to Memphis, whereas the Second Dynasty appears to have ruled from Thinis, a city cited by Manetho but not yet discovered (Wilkinson 1999: 56), and from Memphis this capital continued throughout the remainder the Old Kingdom (Allen 2005: 2). During the Third Dynasty independent states within the Egyptian kingdom were pulled under centralized rule from Memphis as nomes, or districts (Wilkinson 1999: 11), a concept that continued in Egypt until the Muslim conquest. 

While high officials in Egypt during the Third Dynasty, other than the king, continued the previous tradition of mud-brick mastabas placed above their tombs, during this period small chapels were added. These chapels contained depictions of the deceased seated in front of a table, and lists of provisions were provided. This practice of providing for the dead became standard for the rest of ancient Egyptian history (Prakash 2000: 1). 


Old Kingdom Monumental Buildings and Innovations

One major break with the past was the abandonment of the ancient burial ground of former dynasties at Abydos in favor of closer royal mortuary complexes at Memphis (Wilkinson 1999: 213). As noted above, the Old Kingdom is the period of pyramid construction, introducing massive, monumental building practices to Egyptian history, though the practice of pyramid construction began to wane as early as the Sixth Dynasty. King Djoser, during the Third Dynasty, was the first to have a pyramid created, leaving the standard of mud-brick tombs in favor of more permanent stone (Wilson 1951: 51). This pyramid was built by the now infamous Imhotep, an individual who was later deified and ultimately became the antagonist in the early twentieth century movie The Mummy, along with its later twentieth century reboot. This Step Pyramid, dating to ca. 2680 B.C., was soon followed in the Fourth Dynasty by the great pyramids of Giza (Hassan 1997: 1). 

The largest pyramid, the Great Pyramid of Giza, belonged to Khufu; this pyramid was a 146 meters tall and measured 230 meters by 230 meters at the base and it is estimated to contain over two million stone blocks, each weighing around two and three quarter tons (van de Mieroop 2015: 58). Along with the pyramid of his son, the entire mortuary complex includes lesser pyramids, a causeway,  a valley temple, and a pyramid temple, all laid out on an east-west axis (van de Mieroop 2015: 58). 




This mortuary complex also included housing for the thousands of paid Egyptians who had built the complex (Pedersen et al. 2010: 130), rather than the often assumed slave labor (Mark 2016). Along with the dormitories were kitchens for the people to prepare food, workshops to manage their tools, kilns, and more (van de Mieroop 2015: 60-61). 

Experimenting with architectural techniques continued into the Fifth Dynasty, the final king of which was the first to include spells on the walls of his interior chamber (van de Mieroop 2015: 61). These spells are the best preserved of Old Kingdom sources, and they later became canonical, all of one of which being copied in the Middle Kingdom (Allen 2005: 15). It is important to note that the riches of these sacred sites had been robbed out long ago, which may had lead to the eventual dismissal of the projects.

The answer as to why pyramids were considered necessary may fall into the beliefs concerning these Old Kingdom rulers, namely their relation to the gods. Egyptian kings during the Old Kingdom were considered to be begotten by the sun god, Ra, and as such kept  order, acted as a mediator between the people and the gods, and executed the will of the gods (Bárta 2013: 259). This association of Ra to the kings began as early as the Third Dynasty, Imhotep, mentioned above, receiving the title of ‘greatest of seers,’ a title continued through the Old Kingdom onwards and held by the High Priest of Ra (Wilkinson 1999: 254). Egyptians also began to put religious and wisdom writings to text in the Old Kingdom, though most early writings date to the Sixth Dynasty and later (van de Mieroop 2015: 54).

Old Kingdom kings also provided the funding for the construction of royal chapels at local temples throughout the kingdom, which were important economic centers; thus, the king intervened in the affairs of these temples and controlled their economic activities (Moreno García 2008: 2). In combination with the pyramid building projects, of which the entire kingdom participated in some fashion, bureaucratic organization was extremely complex, particularly as the adult men conscripted to the building of these monumental structures worked three month stints away from their home duties, whose families also needed to be cared for (van de Mieroop 2015: 60-61). This bureaucracy partially consisted of estates scattered across the kingdom; these included a network of royal warehouses and production centers, as well as agricultural storage (García 2008: 1). That said, during the Old Kingdom, there is no evidence of individual registration for tax purposes; only estates and towns were ordered to pay taxes, and therefore the collection of taxes within their precincts was left up to them (Muhs 2016: 16).

Of the many innovations of the Old Kingdom, perhaps the establishment of a type of police force is the one most readily in continued use today. The concept of such appears to date back to the Fourth Dynasty where personal security officials were known as ‘Judges’ and ‘Police’ (Conser et al. 2005: 32). From the Fifth Dynasty, a relief from a tomb shows one of these officers seizing a thief in the local marketplace (Mark 2017). 


Decline and Fall

Although the elaborate building projects of Egyptian kings in the Old Kingdom may give the illusion of stability, there was an essence of power struggle at several points throughout, including the contestation of successors and ideologically different groups taking power (van de Mieroop 2015: 66). The decline in state control appears to have begun as early as the Fifth Dynasty, when the established bureaucracy underwent major changes; by the Sixth Dynasty, bureaucrats, themselves, appear to have had their own interests in mind and began to lose control over the state and how it developed (Bárta 2013: 277).  

Interestingly, during the last two dynasties of the Old Kingdom, pyramid sizes declined and investments were made in other areas, specifically in decorating temples; these decorations included reliefs of the king victorious over foreign enemies, associating with the gods, and receiving gifts from long lines of gift bearers (Prakash 2000: 3). By the time of the reign of the first king of the Sixth Dynasty, Teti, local officials were building mortuary complexes more elaborate than the kings (Mark 2016).  

According to a third century B.C. Egyptian historian, Teti was assassinated by his own guards (Mohamed Abdou Mohamed 2011: 204), and though the veracity of this is uncertain (Murnane 1995: 697), he would be the very first king of Egypt to receive such a punishment. When discovered, his tomb shows evidence that his burial was finished in haste, the sarcophagus still resting on the wooden beams intended to be used to install it (Bárta 2017: 10), and the names of a number of Teti’s officials had their names erased from history by scratching out the chiseled stone that contained them; the instability of Teti’s reign is further evidenced by one of his royal names, ‘he who pacifies the two lands’ (Bárta 2017: 10).

One theory as to the weakening of the Egyptian kingdom at this time mirrors the end of the Early Bronze Age in Mesopotamia, specifically the drying phase throughout the Akkadian Empire (Ur 2015: 75). These climatic changes occurred all over the northern hemisphere and impacted not only Mesopotamia and Egypt but other civilizations, including those in Greece and the Indus Valley (Emma 2014). Drying necessarily means drought, and drought very often turns hungry citizens against those who keep the granaries. Thus, these climatic changes played a major role in the demise of the Old Kingdom (Bárta 2013: 29).

As the climate changed, and as the Egyptian bureaucracy attempted to adapt, so a religious change occurred as well. The earliest sources that refer to the god Osiris date to the Fourth or Fifth Dynasty, found in private tombs (Smith 2014: 88). At the end of the Fifth Dynasty, Osiris had become favored to the point that the last two kings of the dynasty failed to build temples to the sun god, Ra, and the funerary chamber of the last king, Unas, predominantly contained Osirian religious inscriptions (Prakash 2000: 4). 

Unfortunately, attempts to revive the kingdom failed on the part of the kings. As drought continued, the palace did not respond, leaving local officials to care for their own regions without the needed resources and without the desire to help the rest of the kingdom. Ultimately, the Sixth Dynasty ended, and Egypt fell into a major period of instability known today as the First Intermediate Period (Mark 2016).




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