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.

Professor Fekri Hassan wrote for the BBC: “Nothing prepared Egypt for the eclipse of royal power and poverty that came after Pepy II (Neferkare). He had ruled for more than 90 years (2246-2152 B.C.) as the fourth king of the 6th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Within the span of 20 years, fragmentary records indicate that no less than 18 kings and possibly one queen ascended the throne with nominal control over the country. This was the entire length of the 7th and 8th Dynasties (2150-2134 B.C.). In the last few years of the 6th Dynasty, the erosion of power of the centralized state was offset by that of provincial governors and officials who became hereditary holders of their posts and treated their regions as their own property. [Source: Professor Fekri Hassan, BBC, February 17, 2011, Professor Fekri Hassan is from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. His areas of interest include the cultural dynamics of state formation in Ancient Egypt, the role of gender in the early religious and political developments in rock art and the attributes of the earliest Egyptian goddesses]

Renate Mueller-Wollermann of the University of Tuebingen wrote: “In previous decades, Egyptologists explained the decline of the Old Kingdom by a growing decentralization of the administration and economy that led to the weakness, and eventually collapse, of the central state. More recently, climatic causes—specifically increasing desiccation— have been both proposed and denounced. An entirely new proposal was brought forward by Jansen-Winkeln, who claimed that an attack by foreigners from the northeast was feasible.” [Source: Renate, Mueller-Wollermann, University of Tuebingen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, escholarship.org ]

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Fragmentation and Decentralization of the Old Kingdom

Pepi II

Renate Mueller-Wollermann of the University of Tuebingen wrote: “The administration of the latter half of the 6th Dynasty is characterized by increasing decentralization. More and more posts were taken over by officials in the provinces and made de facto inheritable. Especially noteworthy is the number of provincial viziers, although some of these viziers may be titular. Many, but not all, nomes were governed by a nome administrator, who was often also the overseer of the priests of the main temple of the nome. These officials were responsible for recruiting manpower— especially soldiers, as a standing army did not exist. The training and recruiting of troops, Nubian mercenaries included, was increased, and forts were erected, in Balat, for example, or on the Sinai coast. [Source: Renate, Mueller-Wollermann, University of Tuebingen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, escholarship.org ]

“Prior to the reign of Pepy II most of the holders of the office of Overseer of Upper Egypt—responsible for the collection of taxes—were buried at the royal residence, only a few being buried in the provinces. Upon Pepy II’s reign, however, the situation was reversed. The nomes in the Delta, however, seem to have been administered from the royal residence. The number of royal domains increased in the 6th Dynasty, but not in those regions with major temples, such as el-Hawawish, Elkab, or Coptos. This indicates that royal domains and temples took over the same task—that is, to supply the royal residence with provisions.

“The increasing number of decorated tombs in the provinces produced a variety of texts and figures. Provincial tomb biographies show greater innovation and more frequent use of unconventional motifs than those in the royal residence. The quality of decoration in provincial tombs, however, declined and the scenes became increasingly less elaborate, due to, among other possible factors, the smaller size of many of the tombs. The decoration of tombs in the southern provinces in particular, where contact with skilled craftsmen from the royal residence was limited, shows a return to simplicity. In general, tomb decoration, including statues, exhibits a new, “second style” that became manifest in the representation of exceptionally long bodies, narrow waists, and wide eyes. Some scholars, however, have claimed that the canon of proportions did not change.”

Professor Fekri Hassan wrote for the BBC: ““Contrary to what some Egyptologists claim, the stability of the long reign of Pepy II was most likely due to the decentralization of the government. This is one of the most successful strategies in managing complex organizations. The ambitions of local governors in such a system are primarily curtailed by the economic and defence rewards of being a vassal. In addition, there is the strong likelihood of failure in staging an uprising because the king can count on many more loyalists. Only when the monarchy is undermined by some unforeseen cause, would charismatic and ambitious provincial governors seek to become kings. In this situation, they stand to gain from restoring the monarchy in their name, thus counting on the support of others who, in the absence of a powerful king, would rally behind them. [Source: Professor Fekri Hassan, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Pepi II and His Successors

Professor Fekri Hassan wrote for the BBC: ““We have no indication at the end of the 6th Dynasty that there was a bid for power by the local governors. It is only after the initial breakdown that power was wielded by the kings of a province in Middle Egypt, later called Herakleopolis. The capital was approximately 15 kilometers west of Beni Suef on the right bank of Bahr Yusuf. According to Manetho, Herakleopolis became the capital of Egypt during the 9th and 10th Dynasties and the town played a major role after the end of the Old Kingdom. Evidence for this account comes from inscriptions in the tombs of a vassal prince at Asyut. These reveal that war broke out between the kings of Herakleopolis and Theban kings. The war lasted for several years and ended when the Theban king Mentuhotep II Nebhepetre (2061-2010 B.C.) defeated Herakleopolis before re-unifying the country.[Source: Professor Fekri Hassan, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Renate Mueller-Wollermann of the University of Tuebingen wrote: “The decline of the Old Kingdom begins with the reign of Pepy II. Although the Turin Canon ascribes to him more than 90 years, there are no inscriptions later than the year after the 31st (cattle) count, which would be the 63rd year of his reign or even earlier, depending on the intervals of the count. A graffito in his pyramid at South Saqqara mentions a burial and probably the 32nd count; this may place his death in the 64th year of his reign, or earlier. [Source: Renate, Mueller-Wollermann, University of Tuebingen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, escholarship.org ]

“It is confirmed that in Pepy II’s reign expeditions were made to Hatnub to quarry alabaster, the Sinai to extract turquoise and copper, Byblos to obtain timber, and Nubia to acquire gold and exotics. Furthermore, nine royal decrees from his reign are known: one at Abydos for the benefit of royal statues, four at Coptos for the benefit of the temple of Min, one at Giza for the benefit of the pyramid of Menkaura, two at Saqqara in favor of a royal person and of a non-royal individual, respectively, and one at Dakhla for the benefit of the governors of that oasis. “Pepy II’s son and successor, Nemtiemsaef/Merenra II, may have left a decree at Saqqara in order to protect the cult of two king’s mothers. In the 8th Dynasty Neferkauhor left eleven decrees, all in Coptos. His successor, Demedjibtaui, also left a decree in Coptos. From these 8th-Dynasty decrees we learn that Neferkauhor protected an official and the official’s son, but subsequently withdrew his favor from them, and that later his successor attempted to protect the official and his son again.

“The location of the pyramids of the 6th- Dynasty kings who reigned after Pepy II remains unknown. Of the pyramids of the 8th Dynasty, only that of Ibi has been located, in the vicinity of Pepy II’s pyramid in South Saqqara.”

Lower Egypt nomes

Causes of the Decline of the Old Kingdom

Renate Mueller-Wollermann of the University of Tuebingen wrote: “There is no single cause that can be pinpointed to account for the decline of the Old Kingdom. Rather, the reasons are manifold, and it is difficult to determine their weight. Proposed internal causes include an economic weakening of the central government due to the exemption of the temples from duties; an administrative weakening due to the growing bureaucracy and inheritability of offices; and a political weakening caused by the increasing autonomy of the provinces and their governors. It is possible that the weakness of the central government was more significant than the strength of the provinces. Indeed the long reign of Pepy II produced a great number of potential successors and therefore possible rivalries following his death. [Source: Renate, Mueller-Wollermann, University of Tuebingen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, escholarship.org ]

“Economic reasons for the decline have very recently been rejected, since the income of the royal residence was based on the residence’s own domains situated throughout the country, and no overall tax system existed. Less recently, administrative causes were excluded, as the balance of power between the royal residence and the provinces does not seem to have been disturbed.

“Possible external political causes have recently been brought forward by Jansen- Winkeln, who maintains that the proposed internal reasons are not sound and that all the Egyptian empires were brought down by foreign invasions. In his view the rapid changeover from the Old Kingdom to the First Intermediate Period, the lack of documents of the elite in the Delta in the First Intermediate Period, the shift of the residence from Memphis to Herakleopolis, and the Teaching of Merikara all speak in favor of a foreign invasion. Excavations at Mendes, however, perhaps not yet noticed by Jansen- Winkeln, reveal the destruction of the town and the murder of its inhabitants at the end of the 6th Dynasty—that is, before the end of the Old Kingdom.

“Climatic changes have also been suggested to account for the Old Kingdom’s decline. Hassan was one of the first and most decisive supporters of the hypothesis that reduced Nile floods in conjunction with the invasion of desert sand in the Nile Valley led to desiccation of the land, and consequently to famines. Sand dunes in the area of Abusir were noticed since the reign of Tety . The exact dates of the occurrence of droughts, however, are difficult to determine and therefore it cannot be stated with certainty whether droughts occurred before or after the end of the Old Kingdom. According to Bárta they indeed accelerated the decline of the Old Kingdom.

“Buto appears to have been abandoned at the end of the Old Kingdom, probably due to a shift in the course of a nearby waterway, rather than to external or internal political reasons. A similar situation occurred in Memphis, which no longer offered ideal conditions for a royal residence subsequent to an eastward shift of the Nile.”

Drought and Famine Caused the Old Kingdom Collapse?


Professor Fekri Hassan wrote for the BBC: “What was the factor that weakened the monarchy and allowed provincial governors to assume royal power over their regions? One possibility is an invasion by Asiatics. However, there is no evidence that Asiatics invaded Egypt at the end of the Old Kingdom. Alternatively, the initial breakdown of the Old Kingdom was caused by a sudden, unanticipated, catastrophic reduction in the Nile floods over two or three decades. This was so severe that famine gripped the country and paralysed the political institutions. People were forced to commit unheard of atrocities such as eating their own children and violating the sacred sanctity of the royal dead. [Source: Professor Fekri Hassan, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The Egyptian sage Ipuwer gives a graphic description of the horrendous events of that time: ‘Lo, the desert claims the land Towns are ravaged, Upper Egypt became a wasteland Lo, everyone's hair [has fallen out] Lo, great and small say, 'I wish I were dead' Lo, children of nobles are dashed against walls Infants are put on high ground Food is lacking Wearers of fine linen are beaten with [sticks] Ladies suffer like maidservants Lo, those who were entombed are cast on high grounds Men stir up strife unopposed Groaning is throughout the land, mingled with laments See now the land deprived of kingship What the pyramid hid is empty [The] People are diminished. |::|

“The impact of a series of low floods, even if they occur over a few years, can cause distress, famine, plague and civil unrest in Egypt. For example, in AD 967, a low flood caused a severe famine that left 600,000 people dead in and around Fustat, the-then capital of Egypt. The famine lasted for two years and it was not until AD 971-2 that plentiful harvests returned. Once again, in 1201, low Nile floods followed by another low flood in 1202 caused a catastrophic famine.

“This eyewitness account comes from Abdel-Latif Al-Baghdadi, a physician/scholar from Baghdad who was in Egypt from 1194 to AD 1200. He reported that people emigrated in crowds and that those who remained habitually ate human flesh; parents even ate their own children. Graves were ransacked for food, assassinations and robbery reigned unchecked and noblewomen implored to be bought as slaves. Al-Baghdadi's account is almost an exact copy of that recorded by Ankhtifi, more than 3000 years earlier. ’All Upper Egypt was dying of hunger, to such an extent that everyone has come to eating his children ... The entire country had become starved like a starved grasshopper, with people going to the north and to the south (in search of grain).’ The low Nile episode that devastated the Old Kingdom was, however, of greater magnitude and duration than that of 967 or AD 1201.” |::|

Climate Change and the Old Kingdom Collapse?

Famine stela, inscribed during the Ptolemaic period (332 to 31 BC), describes a seven-year period of drought and famine during the reign of pharaoh Djoser of the Third Dynasty

Professor Fekri Hassan wrote for the BBC: “Egyptologists concede that there can be no doubt that these texts relate to fact. There is incontrovertible evidence that this terrible famine was caused by the reduction of the Nile floods. The scale of the failure of the floods is shown by the fact that the Faiyum, a lake of some 65 metres deep, dried up. This means that the lake actually evaporated over time. These low floods were related to global climatic cooling which reduced the amount of rainfall in Ethiopia and East Africa. In Iceland, researchers have detected a transition from birch and grassland vegetation to arctic conditions in about 2150 B.C. This correlates with a shift to drier climate in south-eastern Europe c.2200-2100 B.C. Also, the reappearance of oak at White Moss, UK, suggests fluctuating wetness in around 2190-1891 B.C. In Italy, drier conditions are found around 2200-1900 B.C. in Lake Castglione. Dry spells have also been detected as far away as Western Tibet at Lake Sumxi. [Source: Professor Fekri Hassan, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The most tantalizing recent discovery, however, was made when scientists made a high-resolution study of dust deposition from Kajemarum Oasis in north-eastern Nigeria. The study conclusively revealed that a pronounced shift in atmospheric circulation occurred in around 2150 B.C. This data indicates that an abrupt, short-lived event of cold climate led to less rainfall and a reduction of water flow in a vast area extending from Tibet to Italy. This had catastrophic effects on such early state societies as the Egyptian Old Kingdom. |::|

“Long-term variations in Nile floods are beyond the perceptions of people. The Nile, today and during the prosperous times of the Old Kingdom, is regarded unquestionably as the source of life in Egypt. Therefore, the Nile can be considered as the force which destroyed the civilization that it had nurtured. Inconceivable as it might be, the Nile is a temperamental river. The volume of flood discharge varies wildly in episodes which range from decades to hundreds of years. Furthermore, there is the impact of freak years where the floods can be disastrously low or high. |::|

Proof That the Old Kingdom Was Brought Down by Climate Change and Drought?

In 2012, scientists announced that had found proof of serious environmental problems around the time of the Old Kingdom’s demise: ancient pollen and charcoal preserved in deeply buried sediments in Egypt’s Nile Delta that indicated ancient droughts and fires, including a particularly nasty drought 4,200 years, when the Old Kingdom collapsed. The research was published in the July 2012 issue of Geology and carried out by a team led by Christopher Bernhardt, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey as part of his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Horton, an associate professor in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science, and Jean-Daniel Stanley at the Smithsonian Institution. [Source: sciencedaily.com, August 27, 2012 /*/]

Sciencedaily.com reported: “The researchers used pollen and charcoal preserved in a Nile Delta sediment core dating from 7,000 years ago to the present to help resolve the physical mechanisms underlying critical events in ancient Egyptian history. They wanted to see if changes in pollen assemblages would reflect ancient Egyptian and Middle East droughts recorded in archaeological and historical records. The researchers also examined the presence and amount of charcoal because fire frequency often increases during times of drought, and fires are recorded as charcoal in the geological record. The scientists suspected that the proportion of wetland pollen would decline during times of drought and the amount of charcoal would increase. /*/

“And their suspicions were right. Large decreases in the proportion of wetland pollen and increases in microscopic charcoal occurred in the core during four different times between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago. One of those events was the abrupt and global mega-drought of around 4,200 years ago, a drought that had serious societal repercussions, including famines, and which probably played a role in the end of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and affected other Mediterranean cultures as well. “Our pollen record appears very sensitive to the decrease in precipitation that occurred in the mega-drought of 4,200 years ago,” Bernhardt said. “The vegetation response lasted much longer compared with other geologic proxy records of this drought, possibly indicating a sustained effect on delta and Nile basin vegetation.”

“Similarly, pollen and charcoal evidence recorded two other large droughts: one that occurred some 5,000 to 5,500 years ago and another that occurred around 3,000 years ago. These events are also recorded in human history — the first one started some 5,000 years ago when the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt occurred and the Uruk Kingdom in modern Iraq collapsed. The second event, some 3,000 years ago, took place in the eastern Mediterranean and is associated with the fall of the Ugarit Kingdom and famines in the Babylonian and Syrian Kingdoms. “The study geologically demonstrates that when deciphering past climates, pollen and other micro-organisms, such as charcoal, can augment or verify written or archaeological records — or they can serve as the record itself if other information doesn’t exist or is not continuous,” said Horton.” /*/

Upper Egypt nomes

Consequences of the End of the Old Kingdom

Renate Mueller-Wollermann of the University of Tuebingen wrote: “Upon the end of the Old Kingdom, the territorial entity of the Egyptian state disintegrated; the position of the king, however, was not put into question. In Upper Egypt the end of the kingdom led to civil strife wherein coalitions of (some) nomes fought against other coalitions, famines plaguing a number of nomes, while others had ample resources. The situation in Lower Egypt is unclear. In general, the importance of nomes decreased in comparison to that of towns. The most obvious result of the end of the Old Kingdom was the cessation of Egypt’s relations with foreign countries and expeditions into mining regions, with a resultant lack of exotic goods and loss of prestige. [Source: Renate, Mueller-Wollermann, University of Tuebingen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, escholarship.org ]

“Several literary texts have traditionally been considered to describe the situation in Egypt following the end of the Old Kingdom, such as the “Teaching for Merikara,” the “Admonitions of Ipuwer,” and the “Prophecies of Neferti.” It is, however, unclear exactly when these texts were composed and which time period(s) they describe—and whether they describe an actual situation at all. In recent years the “Admonitions of Ipuwer” were dated to the end of the 12th, or to the 13th, Dynasty and the “Teaching for Merikara” and “Prophecies of Neferti,” as late as the 18th Dynasty. A king Neferkara (probably Pepy II) is held in bad repute in the “Tale of Neferkara and the General Sasenet,” a text transmitted from the New Kingdom onwards, which recounts the king’s homosexual relationship with his army general Sasenet.”

Professor Fekri Hassan wrote for the BBC: “There are four successive episodes during this upheaval of Egyptian civilisation. First came the initial episode of shock, upheaval and fragmentation which were caused by low floods. This lasted from the end of the 6th Dynasty to the end of the 8th (perhaps as early as 2100 and certainly by 2155-2134 B.C.). Then came the second episode of rehabilitation and re-development of regional polities which commenced c.2134 B.C. This encompassed the first two generations after the end of the 8th Dynasty (the 9th in Herakleopolis) and the first part of the 10th in Thebes. This was followed by the struggle between Thebes and Herakleopolis during the reign of Antef I who succeeded in re-establishing order during his 50-year reign. This incidentally did not lead to any weak successors. Finally occurred the consolidation of national unity by Mentuhotepe II and his immediate successors after c.2020 B.C. [Source: Professor Fekri Hassan, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Rebirth Of Ancient After the Old Kingdom Collapse

Professor Fekri Hassan wrote for the BBC: “Egypt, to be sure, survived the disastrous collapse of the monarchy. Within a century, Egyptians had re-invented centralized government. They refurbished the image of kings so that they were not merely rulers by virtue of their divine descent but more importantly had to uphold order and justice, care for the dispossessed and show mercy and compassion. The crisis that shook Egyptian society thus heralded the most dramatic transformation in the royal institution, which was destined never to be separated from this social function. [Source: Professor Fekri Hassan, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The crisis not only reformed the monarchy but also instilled the spirit of social justice and laid the foundation for mercy and compassion as fundamental virtues. It was these concepts that were later to infuse Christianity and Islam. It was these same concepts that eventually led to the overthrowing of monarchs who repeatedly usurped their powers and denied people their religious rights. |::|

“It was the Herakleopolitan kings from Bahr Yusuf who restored order and stability as the Nile floods allowed the return of plentiful harvests. This was perhaps after 20-30 years of low floods. In the meantime, the Theban rulers began to position themselves to appropriate and resurrect the tattered monarchy. They were on a collision course with the Herakleopolitan kings who, as texts reveal, lost to their southern rivals. However, the Herakleopolitan legacy of that period which emphasised notions of justice, mercy, and social services were never extinguished. Some of the treatise detailing these notions became Egyptian classics. They include the instructions attributed to Herakleopolitan King Khety to his son Merikare. In these instructions, the king stressed the social obligations of the king and advised the heir to the throne to remember that god created godly rulers to fortify the backbones of the weak and counteract the blows of fate.

“Within the context of the Herakleopolitan society of the early 12th Dynasty, The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, was certainly disseminated as a piece of official wisdom. It is clearly a bill of rights of ordinary citizens and the responsibility of state officials towards the poor and powerless. The tale regards the ruler as a father to the orphan, husband to the widow, brother to she who is divorced, a garment to the motherless, a just ruler who comes to the voice of those who call him. |::|

“The end of the Old Kingdom was not the end of Egyptian civilization. The so-called 'First Intermediate' period was not a Dark Age. The calamity triggered by low Nile floods was the impetus to radical social changes and a reformulation of the notion of kingship. The legacy of this period is still with us today. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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