Yasser Metwally

My life…and the world

Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (2575 BC-2450)

The author: Professor Yasser Metwally

http://yassermetwally.com


Stunning advances in architecture, art, and technology were made during the Old Kingdom, fueled by the increased agricultural productivity made possible by a well developed central administration. Under the direction of the vizier, state officials collected taxes, coordinated irrigation projects to improve crop yield, drafted peasants to work on construction projects, and established a justice system to maintain peace and order. With the surplus resources made available by a productive and stable economy, the state was able to sponsor construction of colossal monuments and to commission exceptional works of art from the royal workshops. The pyramids built by Djoser, Khufu, and their descendants are the most memorable symbols of ancient Egyptian civilization, and the power of the pharaohs that controlled it.

Alabaster statue of Menkaura at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts...Click to enlarge Figure 1. Alabaster statue of Menkaura.

Along with the rising importance of a central administration arose a new class of educated scribes and officials who were granted estates by the pharaoh in payment for their services. Pharaohs also made land grants to their mortuary cults and local temples to ensure that these institutions would have the necessary resources to worship the pharaoh after his death. By the end of the Old Kingdom, five centuries of these feudal practices had slowly eroded the economic power of the pharaoh, who could no longer afford to support a large centralized administration. As the power of the pharaoh diminished, regional governors called nomarchs began to challenge the supremacy of the pharaoh. This, coupled with severe droughts between 2200 and 2150 BC, ultimately caused the country to enter a 140-year period of famine and strife known as the First Intermediate Period.

The scribe became the backbone of the royal administration that helped the government tighten its grasp on the society, enabling impressive building projects at Dashur and Giza.

Figure 2.  The scribe became the backbone of the royal administration that helped the government tighten its grasp on the society, enabling impressive building projects at Dashur and Giza.

The Old Kingdom is not as much a breach with the Early Dynastic Period as a continuation of it. The kings of the 4th Dynasty are believed to be descendants of Huni, the last king of the 3rd Dynasty. The Turin King-list, in fact, lists all kings from the first five dynasties without any further internal distinction. This means that the composers of the list considered these kings as belonging to a single group.

From a cultural, political and religious point of view, however, the 4th Dynasty has brought about several changes that set it apart from the first three dynasties.

The most remarkable change is the transition of Step Pyramids to ‘true’ pyramids with smooth surfaces. This transition was not only the result of increasing technical skills, but even more of religious views that shifted from stellar to solar. The Step Pyramid symbolised a staircase to the stars. The ‘true’ pyramid, on the other hand was considered as a solar symbol and as a representation of the primaeval mound from which all life had sprung.

The Old Kingdom is not as much a breach with the Early Dynastic Period as a continuation of it. The kings of the 4th Dynasty are believed to be descendants of Huni, the last king of the 3rd Dynasty. The Turin King-list, in fact, lists all kings from the first five dynasties without any further internal distinction. This means that the composers of the list considered these kings as belonging to a single group....Click to enlarge

Figure 3. This figure illustrates the evolution of the Early Dynastic Step Pyramid (to the left) to the ‘real’ pyramid shape of the pyramids at Giza (to the right). The pyramid of Meidum (second from left) was converted from a Step Pyramid into a ‘real’ pyramid by Snofru, the first king of the 4th Dynasty. The Bent Pyramid at Dashur was also built by Snofru. The angle of the pyramid may have been changed to alleviate the pressure of the weight of the pyramid.

The building of pyramids would not have been possible without a flourishing economy and a strong central government. Royal estates throughout the country centralised and provided the necessary resources that were needed in the construction of pyramid complexes. This required a powerful administration, both on a local and on a central level, to successfully manage the resources and ensure the flow of supplies, materials and riches to the central government.

Artists and craftsmen became increasingly skilled as state-sponsored ateliers produced the most exquisite objects of art for the royal family and the members of the ruling elite. The high-quality decoration of the private tombs that were grouped next to the royal pyramids, not only hint at the wealth and status of the tomb-owner, but are also a rich source of information about daily life in the age of the pyramids.

During the 4th Dynasty, there was also some military activity in the South, in Nubia, where a fortress was built at Buhen, near the 2nd cataract. This fortress not only confirmed the Egyptian military presence in  Nubia, it was also a commercial settlement where traders from all of Nubia would come to trade with the Egyptians. Since the 4th Dynasty, Nubia, rich in many raw materials and especially in gold, has always been of interest to the Ancient Egyptians.

The addition of the title "Son of Re" to the royal titulary from the reign of Djedefre on, shows the increasing importance in the solar cult. Even more, it stresses the role of the king as the representative of the sun on earth.

During the 5th Dynasty, the solar religion was even more firmly established, when the kings built solar temples as well as pyramids. This may well explain why the 5th Dynasty Pyramids are far less dominating than their predecessors: the building effort was no longer concentrated on the building of a single pyramid and their temples.

Economic and political factors may have had some importance as well: the 5th Dynasty government seems to have been less centralised and less strong. Private tombs were no longer restricted to the vicinity of the king’s pyramid and their decoration became richer and more elaborate. Some private people had their tombs built in their own province and not in or near the necropolis of Memphis.

The last king of the 5th Dynasty, Unas, introduced yet another innovation: his pyramid was the first to have been "decorated" with texts, the so-called Pyramid Texts. These texts relate to the fate of the king in the afterlife, when he takes his place among the gods and among the stars.

With the 6th Dynasty, the Old Kingdom would start its slow decline. Although some military activity is reported to the East of the Delta or in Palestine and in Nubia, the central power of the king kept on decaying. This may have been caused, in part, by the long reign of Pepi II, during which more power may have been relegated to the central and local administrations.

Another key factor in the decline of the Old Kingdom was a decreasing inundation of the Nile. By the end of the Old Kingdom, the inundation apparently became less abundant. Local measures needed to be taken to ensure that the inundation would flood enough land and keep it fertile. Local administrators and governors who succeeded in controlling the flow of the floods for their region strengthened their position against the central government.

The kings of the 7th/8th Dynasty lacked the power and prestige to prevent their country from becoming divided. With them, the Old Kingdom has come to an end and the 1st Intermediate Period has started. Some history books have the 7th/8th Dynasty at the end of the Old Kingdom, but since it was during that Dynasty that the central government lost its grip on the country, it seems preferable to already place this dynasty in the 1st Intermediate Period.


References

  1. The Egyptian dynasties [Full text]
Advertisements

November 27, 2009 - Posted by | Ancient Egyptian panorama

4 Comments »

  1. […] Egypt’s central government collapsed at the end of the Old Kingdom, the administration could no longer support or stabilize the country’s economy. Regional […]

    Pingback by First Intermediate Period in Ancient Egyptian life « Yasser Metwally | November 28, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt [Full text] […]

    Pingback by Ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom « Yasser Metwally | November 28, 2009 | Reply

  3. […] Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt [Full text] […]

    Pingback by Second Intermediate Period and the Hyksos « Yasser Metwally | November 28, 2009 | Reply

  4. […] Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt [Full text] […]

    Pingback by Ancient Egyptian New Kingdom « Yasser Metwally | November 28, 2009 | Reply


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: