ANCIENT EGYPT'S OLD KINGDOM (2686 to 2125 B.C.) AND MIDDLE KINGDOM (1975 to 1640 B.C.)


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small Pyramid of Menkaure
The Old Kingdom period (2700-2155 B.C.) of Ancient Egypt began with the construction of the first pyramids and the Great Sphinx. Great achievements were made in a number of fields. Perhaps one million to a million and a half people lived in the Old Kingdom.

The Old Kingdom was comprised of Dynasties 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, with 25 principal rulers.Before the Old Kingdom was established, ancient Egypt consisted of small regional chiefdoms with separate gods, rulers and government. The greatest achievements in the Old Kingdom took place during the forth, fifth and sixth dynasties. After the sixth dynasty the central state began to collapse.

The Old Kingdom pharaohs periodically moved to new places, perhaps so they could have enough room to construct monuments greater than their predecessors. The capital of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 B.C.) was in Memphis near present-day Cairo. The first pyramids where built around Saqqara, beginning with step pyramid, built in 2630 B.C. Two generations later the first pyramids were built in Giza.

The main Old Kingdom dynasties were: the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. (2649-2575 B.C.); the Forth Dynasty of Old Kingdom (2575-2465 B.C.); and the Fifth Dynasty of Old Kingdom (2465-2323 B.C.).

The Old Kingdom formed a central state with a national bureaucracy that supervised construction of canals, monuments and pyramids. An administration system was established to govern a large area that included parts of Nubia.

During the first dynasty of the Old Kingdom great advances were made in administration, astronomy, architecture, painting, sculpture, mass transportation, distribution of food, and sanitation. Their traditions were continued with few alterations by the dynasties that followed.

Exactly how the Old Kingdom pharaohs forged a powerful state and unified people through a shared national consciousness---that was strong enough to mobilize the labor and administration necessary to build the pyramids and produce great works of art---is not known.

Pyramid Builders

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Stepped pyramid of Snefu
Large amounts of government resources were diverted to build the pyramids and the royal tombs. The Pyramids were reserved for royals. The large priest and noblemen class built elaborate house-like stone tombs with detailed stone engravings and hieroglyphics.

The pyramid builders are regarded as good examples of Egyptian commoners. They lived in crowded, dirty villages consisting of mud brick houses with thatched roofs, some of which had a bakery in the back room. Men wore loin clothes and women dressed in long sheaths attached above the breasts with a shoulder strap. Children went nude until they were teenagers.

In ancient times, Egyptian commoners showed respect to people of superior castes by crawling on their stomachs. The teeth of the non-elite were worn down from eating course bread. They suffered from anaemia and had thick bones, more arthritis (indication of hard work) and more fractures and scars that members of the upper classes.

See Pyramid Builders Under Architecture, Pyramids

Old Kingdom Pharaohs

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Bust of Chephren,
Builder Second Pyramid
The Old Kingdom began with the reign of Snefu. Djoser (2630-2611 B.C.) began the age of the Pyramids. Although he was really an Early Dynastic Period ruler he and his architect Imhotep built the first step pyramid and ushered in a period in which much art was created.

The last three pharaohs of the 4th dynasty---Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus---built the three Great Pyramids of Giza and codified the structure of Egyptian society. Little is known about them. No papyrus scrolls from their era remain. There is only one existing likeness of Pharaoh Khufu---builder of the largest pyramid---and it is a small ivory statue. Herodotus wrote 2,000 years after Khufu’s death that Khufu was an impious tyrant who closed all the temples in his country and compelled his subjects “without exception to labor as slaves for his own advantage.” There is no hard evidence to back up these assertions.

See Pyramids. Sphinx and Step Pyramids Under Architecture, Pyramids

Pepi I and Pepi II

The most aggressive Old Kingdom pharaoh was Pepi I. His armies conquered the Nubians in the south and the sand-dwelling Libyans in the west. Pepi I married Ankhesenpepi II and died young. Ankhesenpepi II married her nephew and gave birth to Pepi II.

The Pyramid of Pepi I contains the most complete set of tomb texts in Egypt. Dating to 2300 B.C., they took 20 years to reassemble. In the tombs of Princess Idut, Maya and Teti there is evidence of images being erased and replaced with new images, which some scholars believe to be evidence of murder.

Pepi I
Murder and kidnaping may have been practiced in the ancient Egyptians court. Based on the reading of hieroglyphics and way figures in tomb were erased and replaced with new ones, some scholars think that a vizier named Ihy, who lived around 2230 B.C., was killed by a mysterious outsider and married the daughter of King Unas and became King Teti, who in turn is believed to have been murdered by Ihy’s son who became Pepi I

Pepi II---Pepi’s successor---gained the throne as a boy and ruled for more than 90 years. On a carved relief describing Pepi II's military victories were the names of the same Libyan chiefs that were listed 200 years before on the victory reliefs of King Sahure.

When eight-year-old Pepi II heard that one his donkey caravans had brought back a pygmy from Africa he wrote, "Come north to the residence at once! Hurry and bring with you this Pygmy whom you brought from the land of the horizon dwellers...When he goes down with you into the ship, get worthy men to be around on deck, lest he fall into the water! When he lies down at night, get worthy men to lie around him in his tent. Inspect ten times at night!" [Source: David Roberts, National Geographic, January 1995]

When Pepi II was young his mother Ankhesenpepi II ruled as his regent. She was the most powerful woman in the Old Kingdom and is regarded as a precursor of Cleopatra. It is very likely that Ankhesenpepi II and Pepi II's uncle ruled Egypt, not the pharaoh himself. The kingdom began to decline under weak leadership during Pepi II’s rule. Royal coffers shrunk, noblemen paid lip service to the pharaoh and amassed wealth for themselves, and the kingdom began to decline. Pepi II's pyramid was finished when he was 30 and the 60 years of rule that followed was characterized by six decades of corruption. After his death in 2150 B.C., the Old Kingdom came to an end.

End of the Old Kingdom

Kneeling Pepi I
Economic problems, drought and famine weakened the Old Kingdom. There was a severe 200-year drought in North and East Africa around 2200 B.C. Hieroglyphics record that the annual Nile flood failed for about 50 years and many people died in famine. This may have produced the collapse of the Old Kingdom and the period of chaos that followed.

At the beginning of the 5th dynasty the Pharaohs ceded some of their power to a rising class of nobles. Egypt fragmented into several rival principalities and the Old Kingdom collapsed into something resembling a police state.

The decline is indicated today by the presence of noblemen tombs in the districts where they ruled instead of around the pyramids of the pharaohs. The pyramids built during this period were of inferior quality to those built before.

Intermediate Periods and Middle Kingdom

Not that much new or of interest to historians happened between the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom. The period in between included the 1st Intermediate Period (2125 to 1975 B.C.), the Middle Kingdom (1975 to 1640 B.C.) and the 2nd Intermediate Period (1630 to 1520 B.C.).

The 1st Intermediate Period consisted of dynasties 9, 10, and 11, with 10 rulers. The 2nd Intermediate Period consisted of dynasties 14, 15, 16 and 17, with 12 rulers.

During the Intermediate Period Egypt became a group of states headed by warlords grouped loosely in confederations of north and south. This schism lasted for 700 years. At the beginning of this period one scholar wrote, "All the pyramids were looted, not secretly at night but by organized bands of thieves in broad daylight...The temples were burned. There was widespread violence. And a desperate famine took hold of the land."

Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt fought against one another. Poverty and hunger became widespread. Inscriptions show droughts, sandstorms and women forced to eat fleas to survive. One inscription read: "I gave bread to those who were hungry and clothes to those who were naked...All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger, to the point where children were eating their own children." Another read, "The entire country had become like a starved locust.”

Middle Kingdom

Mentuhotep II
The Middle Kingdom (1975 to 1640 B.C.) was a period of decline and then prosperity and economic and political expansion. It consisted of the second part of the 11th dynasty and the 12 and 13 dynasties, with 29 rulers. The Middle Kingdom ended with the invasion of a people called the Hyksos.

The Middle Kingdom pharaohs established their capital first at Lisht near Memphis. Later the capital was moved further south along the Nile to Thebes (Luxor) after a family from Thebes outmaneuvered its rivals and reunified the country around 2000 B.C. and promoted their gods. Egyptian territory expanded during the Middle Kingdom. Nubia was reconquered, forts were built in the south and foreigners from all over the Mediterranean came to live in Egypt.

During the Middle Kingdom there was a Renaissance of Egyptian culture. Temples were restored and new pyramids were built. Artists and craftsmen produced elaborate gold jewelry and painted wooden sculptures of everyday life. Writers produced some of ancient Egypt's best literature.

Mentuhotep II and Other Middle Kingdom Pharaohs

Seated Mentuhotep
The Middle Kingdom began with the reunion of Egypt under Mentuhotep II. Earlier rulers in the 11th dynasty, which was centered in Thebes, had begun to reassert their authority over fragmented Egypt but Mentuhotep II was the first to unify the kingdom.

Mentuhotep II was from Upper Egypt. His conquest of Lower Egypt took time as reflected by gradual changes in his title from "One Who Gives Heart to Two Lands" to "Lord of White Crown (Upper Egypt)" to "Unifier of the Two Lands." Mentuhotep II's 50-year reign ushered in a rebirth of Egyptian culture.

Sesotris III (1878 B.C. to 1841 B.C.) was the greatest of the warrior pharaohs. He consolidated power by restructuring the government and established a series of forts that were within signaling distance of one another. In 1822 B.C. the pharaoh Amenemhet III built a labyrinthine funerary temple with 3,000 rooms and a multitude of pillars.

The Middle Kingdom pharaohs ruled for 250 years. Over time squabbling and turmoil weakened the kingdom and allowed it be conquered by the Hyksos. The Hyksos and the forces from the city of Thebes fought naval battles in the Nile.

Hyksos Invade Ancient Egypt

Around 1700 B.C., the Hyksos---a mysterious Semitic tribe from Caucasia in the northeast--- invaded Egypt from Canaan and routed the Egyptians. The Hyksos were a chariot people. They and the Hittites were the first people to use chariots in the Middle East, an advancement that gave them an advantage over the people they conquered. The Hyksos introduced the horse and chariot to the Egyptians, who later used them to expand their empire.

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Hyksos chariot
Hyksos rule over Egypt was brief. They established themselves for a while in Memphis and exactly how they came to power is not clear. Later they established a capital in Avaris, along the Mediterranean in the Nile Delta. During the Second Intermediate Period they ruled northern Egypt while Thebes-based Egyptians ruled southern Egypt. In the 2nd Intermediate Period, the four rulers during 15 and 16 dynasties were Hyksos.

The Hyksos were thrown out of Egypt in 1567 B.C. Chronicles that portray Hyksos rule as cruel and repressive were probably Egyptian propaganda. More likely they came to power within the existing system rather than conquering it and ruled by respecting the local culture and keeping political and administrative systems intact.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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