The Old Kingdom (c.2850-2190 B.C.E.)
Egyptian civilization started much as Mesopotamian civilization did, with the rise of independent city-states, called nomes, organized around irrigation projects. These city-states often fought each other for land and power. Bit by bit, different nomes absorbed each other in these wars until there were only two kingdoms left: Upper Egypt in the south, and Lower Egypt in the north. Finally, a king of Upper Egypt, known variously as Menes or Narmer, conquered Lower Egypt and united the land. Soon afterwards, the period of Egyptian history known as the Old Kingdom began. Generally, during periods of prosperity such as the Old Kingdom, Egypt would be united under one pharaoh. However, during times of turmoil, it would split back into Upper and Lower Egypt until a strong ruler reunited the land.
The Old Kingdom was a peaceful and prosperous period. It was also the great age of building pyramids, massive tombs to preserve and protect the dead for the afterlife. Tied in with this was the involved and expensive process of mummification, which preserved the body for the next world. Contrary to popular belief, the pyramids were not built using slave labor, but rather the labor of peasants who were free for such work during the flood season. At this time, the pharaoh was seen as a god who embodied all of Egypt and was the only one entitled to an afterlife. However, Egyptian peasants could feel that they were sharing in some of that afterlife by working on the pyramids. Pyramid building also provided peasants with employment and some income from the pharaoh during the flood season when they could do little else anyway.
There were about eighty of these monumental structures built. The largest of these, the Great Pyramid at Gizeh, contained some 2.3 million limestone blocks, each weighing several tons. Even in the best of times, building such structures would be a huge burden on the economy. In times of low floods, such as started around 2250 B.C.E., the strain proved to be too much. As a result, the Old Kingdom went into a period of decline.
The First Intermediate Period (2190-2052 B.C.E.)
There were several reasons for this decline. The huge cost of the pyramids coupled with low floods and the resulting poor crops have already been mentioned. There were also religious, economic, and political factors. Since the pharaoh mainly worshipped Re, the sun god, at Heliopolis, the priests of Re gained power and prestige. Eventually, they undermined the divinity and status of the pharaoh himself, referring to him merely as the “Son of Re”. The pharaohs’ status also diminished because they often married women of non-royal blood, which made them seem closer to the people and less god-like.
Besides the economic strain of building pyramids and maintaining priests for the benefit of previous pharaohs, the royal treasury also suffered from giving out lands to various priesthoods and nobles. Consequently, they could establish their positions more independently of the pharaoh. The king’s officials ruling the different nomes were often of royal blood themselves. Many of them established hereditary positions in their nomes, passing the governorships on to their sons. In time, they became virtually independent rulers, splitting Egypt up into a number of separate city-states. Symbolic of the pharaoh’s decline was the fact that these governors started claiming afterlives for themselves, building their own tombs in their home provinces rather than in the shadow of the pharaoh’s pyramid.
As often happens, decline bred further decline. The poor harvests hurt the pharaohs’ power and prestige since they were supposedly responsible for good crops. This bred turmoil and civil war, further weakening the agriculture and economy. Nubian tribes from the south and Libyans from the western desert seized the opportunity to raid and add to this anarchy. Contemporary accounts reflect this situation. “The dead are thrown in the river…Laughter has perished. Grief walks the land.” According to one Egyptian historian, “Seventy kings ruled for seventy days.” The truth is that for nearly two centuries no king ruled all of Egypt. Five dynasties are listed from this period, but none of them could control more than just part of the land.
The Middle Kingdom (2052-1778 B.C.E.)
Eventually, a strong dynasty arose around the city of Thebes in the south and reunited Upper and Lower Egypt in 2052 B.C.E. The new pharaohs faced three major problems in restoring order to Egypt: powerful local governors, the powerful priesthood of the sun god Re, and agricultural turmoil. The new pharaohs replaced local governors with their own men and rotated them occasionally so they could not establish their power in one area. They also created many of their officials from the middle class of artisans and traders. These men would depend on the pharaoh for their positions since they were from humble origins. As a result, they would be more obedient to the pharaoh.
The priests of Re were dealt with by replacing Re with Amon, the patron god of Thebes, as the main state deity. This broke the power of one priesthood by putting another less threatening one in its place. However, over time the priests of Amon would gather huge amounts of land and power into their own hands, controlling an estimated thirty percent of Egypt’s real estate by the time of the New Kingdom.
Agriculture and prosperity revived as the pharaohs repaired the complex irrigation system that the Egyptian peasants relied on. One major engineering project was the restoration of Lake Moeris in the desert west of the Nile Delta. Over the years the channel feeding this lake had silted up, causing the lake to dry up. In the Middle Kingdom, the channel was dredged, the lake was restored, and new farmland was developed around it. The lake also served as a reservoir since its channel could be opened up or blocked off in times of high or low floods respectively.
The Middle Kingdom also saw Egyptian power expand beyond its borders. During the Old Kingdom, no major enemies threatened Egypt’s security. As a result, the pharaohs had been content to stay mostly within Egypt’s borders along the Nile, just safeguarding their gold supply from Nubia to the south and the copper mines in the Sinai Desert to the east from nomadic raiders. The pharaohs of the Old Kingdom had not even kept a permanent standing army, relying on civil officials to lead peasant recruits whenever campaigns were necessary.
The anarchy of the First Intermediate Period changed that a bit. The rulers of the Middle Kingdom extended Egypt’s power southward into Nubia. This land was important to Egypt as its primary source of gold and had been loosely controlled during the Old Kingdom. Now the pharaohs built a string of massive fortresses along the Nile in Nubia to secure their hold over it. Egypt’s influence was also felt to the northeast in Palestine in order to protect its copper mines in the Sinai. Its control here was not nearly as tight as it was over Nubia, which the Egyptians saw as especially vital to their interests.
This period also saw Egyptian trade with the outside world increase in importance. Commercial contacts extended to Cyprus for bronze and copper, Phoenicia for cedar wood, the Minoan civilization on Crete for pottery, and the legendary land of Punt (probably the Somali coast of East Africa) for incense.
Culturally, the Middle Kingdom was a golden age in Egyptian history. Art (especially statuary and jewelry) and literature reached a high point of development. In architecture, pyramids were still built, but not on the grand scale of the Old Kingdom. A burial complex known as the “Labyrinth” was built. It had some 3500 burial chambers and was meant to stop grave robbers with its bewildering complexity rather than with a pyramid’s mass. Unfortunately, neither method succeeded in foiling the thieves, and only one tomb from 2500 years of Egyptian history, that of Tutankhamen, escaped being looted. When the Greek historian Herodotus saw the Labyrinth, it was more than just ruins, and he claimed it was more impressive than the pyramids.