A brief history of Ancient Egypt: the Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period

Step pyramid of Saqqara (photo: Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0).

The Old Kingdom was ruled by the pharaohs from the Third to Sixth Dynasties.[1] In this period, which starts in the early 27th century BCE and ends in the early 22nd, Egypt’s most famous monuments were built: the pyramids. Many of these gigantic constructions – not all of them are tombs – are still standing, and especially those built by and for the pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty are among the most impressive monuments from Antiquity. The Old Kingdom was ruled from Memphis, which had by now fully taken over the position of This/Thinis as the country’s political and economic centre. From Memphis officials were sent to the provinces to govern them in the name of the pharaoh. Such officials are known as nomarchs. Although there are a few uncertainties, Djoser is generally considered to be the first pharaoh of the Third Dynasty and, as a consequence, of the Old Kingdom. His mother Nimaathap was the wife of Khasekhemwy, the last pharaoh of the Second Dynasty. We do not know whether Khasekhemwy was his father; he may in fact have been his stepfather. Djoser himself married Hetephernebti, who was possibly a daughter of Khasekhemwy and henceforth his sister, half-sister or stepsister.

The Third Dynasty: Djoser

Figurines of Imhotep from the Late Period (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

During Djoser’s reign, the Egyptians controlled parts of the Sinai desert, which was known for its rich copper and turquoise mines. A military occupation of the region was necessary to keep the local Bedouins in check. Djoser would, however, not win lasting fame for his military achievements. Together with his chief architect Imhotep he was the first to use stone for the construction of monuments. Stone was much more durable than mudbrick, the material which had until then been used. Djoser’s best-known monument is without a doubt his pyramid, the famous Step Pyramid of Saqqara (ca. 2680 BCE). This pyramid is basically a huge mastaba (the Arabic word for ‘bench’) onto which five smaller mastabas have been placed, one on top of the other. The pyramid has a total height of 62.5 metres and its construction is attributed to Imhotep.

The pyramid was part of a much larger funerary complex. The complex was enclosed and had big squares in the north and south and a temple in the east. Almost 30 metres below the pyramid we find corridors and rooms decorated with turquoise-porcelain tiles, for which Djoser probably made use of the turquoise that was mined in the Sinai. Djoser’s son or grandson Sekhemkhet also had a funerary complex with a step pyramid built. The complex arose not far from that of Djoser, but the pyramid was never completed. Huni was the last pharaoh of the Third Dynasty. During his reign smaller pyramids were built all over Egypt. These did not have burial chambers and can henceforth not be considered tombs. They were not cenotaphs either, but rather royal monuments and tokens of royal authority in the provinces.

Funerary stele of Abneb, keeper of the palace, Third Dynasty (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

The Fourth Dynasty: Sneferu

Map of Egypt with important settlements (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

The transition from the Third to the Fourth Dynasty, from Huni to Sneferu, was probably effectuated through the latter’s mother, Meresankh I. It is believed that she was Huni’s secondary wife. Sneferu ascended the throne in about 2640 BCE and was to become an extremely important pharaoh, earning his spurs in the field of religion, military leadership and architecture. During his reign the sun god Re (or Ra) became the chief deity of the Egyptian Pantheon. Sneferu’s son Khufu and his sons and successors all assumed the royal title of ‘Son of Re’. The cult of the sun god had consequences for the orientation of funerary complexes. These were no longer built along a north-south axis, but properly oriented towards the rising sun in the east.

The Old Kingdom had no external enemies to speak of. Tribes living along the borders of the realm were nonetheless a nuisance and necessitated military interventions. Conversely, the pharaohs were not afraid to use violence to secure trade routes and access to natural resources. This had been the case in the Sinai during Djoser’s reign and it was repeated under the pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty. Sneferu launched successful campaigns into Libya and Nubia. The enemies were defeated and much loot and many prisoners were taken back to Egypt. The Libyan campaign was said to have yielded 1,100 prisoners, the Nubian campaign first 17,000 and then another 7,000. It is of course no longer possible to establish whether these numbers are accurate. The prisoners were led away to the royal estates in the Faiyum and Nile Delta where they were resettled as a cheap labour force. Under Sneferu the Egyptians furthermore built an important fortress at Buhen near the second cataract of the Nile (in the north of modern Sudan). With this fortress Egyptian influence had been moved further south.

A relief from the Sinai, currently in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, shows how the pharaoh grabs an Asiatic enemy by the hair and smashes his skull. The relief presumably does not refer to an actual battle, but rather to Sneferu’s control of the Sinai. As was already mentioned above, this was a region known for its copper and turquoise, and under this pharaoh the exploitation of the mines was intensified. Of course not all contacts with foreign peoples were hostile. Timber was scarce in Egypt; there were no great forests there and the Egyptian wood that was available – mostly acacia and sycamore – was of poor quality. On the other hand the Levant – roughly present-day Lebanon – was known for its excellent cedar wood. It was especially the city of Byblos that provided Egyptian clients with this type of wood, and Sneferu was one of them. These trade contacts were peaceful and beneficial to all those involved.

Bent pyramid of Sneferu (photo: Ivrienen, CC BY 3.0).

Sneferu was a great builder, who among other things has left us three great pyramids. His Step Pyramid (ca. 2625 BCE) is in essence a pyramid much like Djoser’s, but later, towards the end of Sneferu’s reign, it was converted into a proper pyramid by encasing the steps in limestone. Unfortunately this construction proved to be unstable, causing the pyramid to collapse at an unspecified moment, so that nowadays we can see the original step pyramid again. A second attempt at a proper pyramid was also a failure. While the Step Pyramid was built at Maydum, Sneferu chose Dashur for his Bent Pyramid (ca. 2615 BCE). The intended height of this enormous pyramid was about 150 metres. The name ‘Bent Pyramid’ was chosen for a reason: the architects started construction under an angle of some 55 degrees, but when they had reached a height of 47 metres, they were forced to continue under an angle of 43 degrees for reasons of stability. As a result, the pyramid was just slightly more than 104 metres high upon completion. Sneferu’s Red Pyramid (ca. 2605 BCE), built two kilometres north of the Bent Pyramid, was a complete success. It reaches a height of 105 metres and is named after the red limestone of which it was made. The pyramid may be Sneferu’s final resting place.

The Fourth Dynasty: Khufu, Khafra and Menkaure

Sneferu was succeeded by a string of pharaohs, the best-known of whom are Khufu, Khafra and Menkaure. Their pyramids are among the most famous and most important monuments of Ancient Egypt. Khufu was a son of Sneferu and Hetepheres[2], and he is perhaps more widely known under his Greek name Cheops. Over 2,000 years after his death the Greek historian Herodotos (ca. 484-425 BCE) made an attempt at a mini-biography of this pharaoh. The veracity of the stories he tells about Khufu is highly questionable. Herodotos claims that Khufu subjected the Egyptians to forced labour in order to build his pyramid and had his daughter work as a prostitute when he was running out of funds (Book 2.124-126). The historian may have heard these stories from his Egyptian guide and translator. After all, he previously wrote that “I record whatever is told me as I have heard it” (Book 2.123). As there are incompetent and ignorant guides nowadays, there must have been incompetent and ignorant guides in Antiquity.

Pyramids on the Plateau of Giza. The three large pyramids are those of Menkaure (left), Khafra (centre) and Khufu (right). At the forefront are three smaller pyramids (photo: KennyOMG, CC BY-SA 4.0).

For his large pyramid (ca. 2585 BCE) Khufu did not choose a site at Maydum or Dashur, but selected the great Plateau of Giza further to the north. The pyramid is often attributed to the architect and vizier Hemiunu, who was a son of Khufu’s late older brother Nerfermaat. Khufu’s pyramid used to be over 146 metres high; the current height is between 137 and 138 metres. At present, the theory that the pyramid – and in general: the pyramids, plural – was built by slaves has few supporters left. South of the pyramid the remains of a village were excavated, which was used to house the labourers. It is possible that 20-25,000 people worked on the pyramid simultaneously, while Egypt’s population at the time is estimated to have been about two million.[3] Many of the labourers must have been professionals, although it cannot be ruled out that among them were also citizens fulfilling certain feudal obligations vis-à-vis their king. Nowadays the Great Sphinx of Giza is ever more often attributed to Khufu as well. However, some uncertainty remains, and some scholars assume that the Sphinx was commissioned by Djedefre or Khafra, both sons of Khufu.

Locations of the pyramids west of Memphis. In fact the locations combined are one big royal cemetery (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Khufu’s successor was Djedefre, who had a short reign. He was in his turn succeeded by his brother Khafra, who is also known under his Greek name Chefren. Herodotos believed that he was Khufu’s brother (which he was not) and that he was an evil ruler as well (which we simply cannot know). The Greek historian did correctly conclude that Khafra’s pyramid (ca. 2550 BCE; see the image above), which is located some 150 metres southwest of Khufu’s, was slightly smaller than its predecessor. However, his claim that the pyramid is 12 metres lower – “I have myself measured it” – is just plain wrong. The real height difference was closer to 3 metres; Khafra’s pyramid was slightly under 143 metres high at the time and currently slightly over 136. It does look like it is taller than Khufu’s for the simple reason that it was built on a higher spot on the plateau. The third pyramid built here is indeed much smaller and lower. It arose in about 2520 BCE by order of Menkaure, who is called Mykerinos in Greek. He was a son of Khafra and succeeded Baka, a son of Djedefre. Herodotos praises Menkaure for being a fair judge (Book 2.129), but this pharaoh’s biography is just as dubious as the calumnies levelled at Khufu and Khafra. Menkaure’s pyramid originally had a height of 65 metres, of which nowadays some 61 metres remain.

The Fifth and Sixth Dynasties

Shepseskaf was the last pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty. He may have been a son of Menkaure, but this is still uncertain. However this may be, he was laid to rest in a mastaba at Saqqara which is currently known as the Mastabet el-Fara’un. The Fourth and Fifth Dynasties are linked through Khentkaus, who was the mother of the first three Fifth Dynasty pharaohs: Userkaf, Sahure and Neferirkare. She may very well have been the wife (or a wife) of Shepseskaf, but for now we can only speculate. Under the pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty pyramids became smaller, but funerary temples ever larger. Pharaoh Nyuserre for instance had an enormous temple complex built for the sun god Re at Abu Gorab. An obelisk with a height of some 56 metres was at the centre of the complex. Fifth Dynasty pyramids first arose at Abusir and later at Saqqara. Under Sahure the Egyptians first made contact with the inhabitants of the mysterious land of Punt, which was presumably located in modern Somalia or Eritrea (ca. 2490 BCE). And under the penultimate pharaoh, Djedkare Isesi (ca. 2405-2367 BCE) Egyptian influence in the south extended well beyond the third cataract of the Nile (see the map above).

Pharaoh Pepi II on his mother’s lap (photo: Brooklyn Museum, New York).

The Fifth Dynasty ended with pharaoh Unas. His daughter Iput was married to Teti, who became the first pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty. Under the new dynasty, the Egyptians ceased construction of great solar temples and the cult of Osiris, the god of the underworld, became ever more popular. Osiris had his most important religious centre at Abydos. Nevertheless, Re was still an important deity, which is evident from the fact that his name reappears in the names of several pharaohs of this dynasty. The pharaohs Teti I, Pepi I, Merenre I and Pepi have left us pyramids, all of which were built at Saqqara. With a height of slightly more than 50 metres they are much smaller than the pyramids from the Fourth Dynasty. Under the Sixth Dynasty the city of Thebes (Waset) in Upper Egypt grew in importance. It would later play a pivotal role in ending the First Intermediate Period and securing the transition to the Middle Kingdom (see below).

Pharaoh Pepi I, Teti’s son, launched a military campaign, led by his general Weni, during which the Egyptian army penetrated deep into Palestine. The offensive was directed against Bedouins and Semitic peoples, and Weni ultimately reached a mountain that was called the ‘Nose of the Gazelle’. It is usually assumed that this was Mount Carmel in present-day Israel. Measuring by the standards of those days, it must have been an enormous operation, for which the Egyptians not only made use of conscripted citizens, but also of Nubian mercenaries. At the time, the Nubian rulers were in effect allies of the Egyptian pharaohs as they themselves suffered from attacks by Bedouins on important trade routes. Under pharaoh Pepi II, one of the longest reigning pharaohs in history, three Egyptian expeditions were sent into Nubia. These were led by the governor of Upper Egypt, one Harkhuf. The pharaoh was delighted when one of these expeditions led to the capture of a dwarf, probably a pygmy. A beautiful little statue of Pepi II has been preserved (ca. 2270 BCE). It shows him sitting on his mother’s lap.

Wall decorations from a mastaba, Fifth Dynasty (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

Osiris, god of the underworld.

The end of the Old Kingdom

The end of the Old Kingdom around 2170-2120 BCE cannot be attributed to external enemies. To explain Egypt’s decline at the time, we must look at internal factors. Provincial governors had always been appointed from Memphis and had received their instructions from the court, but already during the extremely long reign of Pepi II they began to act ever more autonomously. Central authority was eventually eroded and the governors transformed themselves into independent princes who went their own way. As revenues and materials had to come from the provinces, the position of Memphis, and henceforth that of the pharaoh, gradually became weaker and weaker.

Pepi’s successor Merenre II bore the brunt of these developments. As pharaoh he had just a short reign, and he can be connected to a story told by Herodotos in Book 2.100 of his Histories about the alleged only female pharaoh in history. The Greek historian calls her Nitokris (Neit-Ikeret), and she was said to have been the sister and wife of Merenre II, and therefore a daughter of Pepi II. After the murder of her brother-husband, she avenged him by murdering the murderers and then supposedly took her own life. The story, however, is highly dubious. Nitokris may very well have been a regent (there had been female regents as early as the First Dynasty), but another possibility is that she never existed and that she was confused with Netjerkare, the last (male!) pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty, of whom virtually nothing is known. It should be noted that the two names – Neit-Ikeret and Netjerkare – are fairly similar.

Mentuhotep II, relief from Thebes (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

Many scholars now doubt whether there has ever been a Seventh Dynasty. On the other hand, the Eighth Dynasty is considered historical, but it was short-lived (ca. 20-40 years) and not much is known about it. With the Seventh and Eighth Dynasties we enter the First Intermediate Period. Lack of a strong central government caused Egypt to fall apart. A new dynasty, the Ninth, emerged from Herakleopolis (or Henen-Nesut) with Meryibre Khety as its founder. The pharaohs from the Ninth and Tenth Dynasties basically only controlled Lower Egypt and further to the south their authority did not extend beyond Assiut (Zawty). After an internal power struggle, Upper Egypt was ruled by and from Thebes. The governors of this city became the founders of the Eleventh Dynasty. Under Mentuhotep II (ca. 2046-1995 BCE), the sixth Theban pharaoh, Egypt was reunited. Mentuhotep was responsible for ending the First Intermediate Period and became the founding father of the Middle Kingdom. During the Eleventh Dynasty there lived a governor named Mesehti, whose tomb gives us an idea about the composition of Egyptian army of the time. A unit of forty wooden miniature soldiers and an equally large unit of Nubian archers have been preserved. Neither the Egyptians nor the Nubian wear any armour. The soldiers are armed with bronze-tipped spears and carry wooden shields for protection. Chariots were not yet known in Egypt at the time.

Sources

  • Dieter Kessler, ‘The Political History of the Third to Eighth Dynasties’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 41-45;
  • Dieter Kessler, ‘The Political History from the Ninth to the Seventeenth Dynasties’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 105;
  • Manfred Gutgesell, ‘The Military’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 365;
  • Rainer Stadelmann, ‘Royal Tombs from the Age of the Pyramids’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 47-77.

Notes

[1] Sometimes the rather obscure Seventh and Eighth Dynasties are included, but this depends on the scholar.

[2] His older brothers Nefermaat and Rahotep had predeceased him.

[3] Stadelmann, p. 66.

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