The Old Kingdom Egypt
The Great Sphinx of Giza, with the Pyramid of Khafre. Both date from the Old Kingdom in the background. The Old Kingdom is the name commonly given to that period in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. When Egypt attained its first continuous peak of civilization, complexity, and achievement this was the first of three so-called “Kingdom” periods, which mark the high points of civilization in the Nile Valley (the others being Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom). Historians apply the term “kingdom” to periods of stability under successive rulers. Some of the most well known monuments, such as the Sphinx and Great Pyramid, were built during this period. Old kingdom egypt had its ups and downs.
The Old Kingdom—also referred to as the Age of the Pyramids, is most commonly regarded as spanning the period of time when Egypt was ruled by the Third Dynasty through to the Sixth Dynasty (2686 B.C.E.–2134 B.C.E.). Many Egyptologists also include the Memphite Seventh and Eighth Dynasties in the Old Kingdom as a continuation of the administration centralized at Memphis.
The beginning: Third Dynasty
The first notable pharaoh of the Old Kingdom was Djoser (2630–2611 B.C.E.) of the Third Dynasty. Who ordered the construction of a pyramid (the Step Pyramid) in Memphis’ necropolis, Saqqara. An important person during the reign of Djoser was his vizier, Imhotep.
It was in this era that formerly independent ancient Egyptian states became known as nomes (Upper and Lower Egypt), ruled solely by the pharaoh. Egyptians in this era worshiped their pharaoh as a god, believing that he ensured the annual flooding of the Nile that was necessary for their crops. Egyptian views on the nature of time during this period held that the universe worked in cycles, and the Pharaoh on earth worked to ensure the stability of those cycles. They also perceived themselves as a specially selected people, “as the only true human beings on earth”
Golden age: Fourth Dynasty
The Old Kingdom and its royal power reached their zenith under the Fourth Dynasty, which began with Sneferu (2575–2551 B.C.E.). Using a greater mass of stones than any other pharaoh, he built three pyramids: A mysterious pyramid in Meidum (a failure), the famous Bent Pyramid in Dahshur (another failure), and the small Red Pyramid, also in Dashur. The period’s prosperity resulted from irrigation of the Nile and also from commerce and trade. The surplus wealth enabled the King to build these massive monuments because there was plenty of labor and materials available.
Later Egyptian literature describes him as a cruel tyrant, who imposed forced labor on his subjects to complete his pyramid. After Khufu’s death, his sons Djedefra (2528–2520 B.C.E.) and Khafra (2520–2494 B.C.E.) may have quarreled. The latter built the second pyramid and (in traditional thinking) the Sphinx in Giza.
Golden Falcon Head discovered at ancient Hekhen in 1897/8, now in the Cairo Museum
The later kings of the Fourth Dynasty were king Menkaura (2494–2472 B.C.E.), who built the smallest pyramid in Giza, and Shepseskaf (2472–2467 B.C.E.). Exquisite art work has also survived from this period. The Falcon Head, “one of the masterpieces of the Cairo Museum” discovered at Hieroconpolis (ancient Nekhen) with a headdress of gold and eyes made of obsidian.
The Pharaoh ruled by divine decree. Many of these, though, not all, were royal princes.Initially, the regional governors were also members of the royal family. While belief in the Pharaoh’s divinity and ability to control the Nile. It was a central motif of the political system, it was accompanied by motif of universal morality concept of Maat. Justice, of which the Goddess Maat was guardian in heaven. It was the Pharoah’s responsibility to enforce on earth. Similarities with China are notable. China, too, flourished historically when unified and declined when divided.
Decline and collapse: Fifth–Eighth Dynasties
The Fifth Dynasty began with Userkhaf (2465–2458 B.C.E.), who initiated reforms that weakened the Pharaoh and central government. After his reign, civil wars arose as the powerful nomarchs (regional governors). No longer belonged to the royal family, which meant that they did not feel too much loyalty and, as central authority weakened, could assert their autonomy. The worsening civil conflict undermined unity. Which, together with climactic change, contributed to severe famines. The massive building projects of the Fourth Dynasty. Especially under Khufu, may also have placed too much strain on the economy and populace, weakening the Kingdom at its roots.
Legacy: A lesson learned
Maat was “mainly recognized as such after the chaos of the Intermediate Period,” when the catastrophe of collapse was depicted as typical of what happens when Maat was not “actively maintained by joint action of people, king, and the Gods.” Had the concept been stronger earlier, the Kingdom’s collapse might have been avoided.
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