Ancient Egypt: The History of the Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom was a period of stability, wealth and grandeur that would serve as the happy past in the imaginations of Egyptians for the rest of pharaonic civilization. It was a time of orderly successions, for the most part, and an ever-increasing organization of the resources of the land; at the same time, it was a dynamic age, in which royal ideology and architecture underwent mutually-reinforcing transformation. In the realm of funerary practices, this was truly the decisive period in Egyptian history. The afterlife began as the prerogative of the king, first in the form of a life among the stars and then in the form of accompanying the sun-god in his boat. As time went on, favored relatives and retainers might enjoy some form of eternal life by participating indirectly in the king’s afterlife. By the end of the Old Kingdom, it is Osiris who is the guarantor of eternal life, and at least potentially, anyone might live on in Osiris’ kingdom in the West.

There is some evidence to suggest that the Old Kingdom began with the restoration of order after a period of division, possibly even civil war. The conception of the king as the heir of Horus was briefly challenged by an alternate conception that championed his nemesis Seth, and the conclusion to this crisis came with a dualistic compromise by Khasekhemwy, whose name is given as “Horus and Seth name.”

His successor, Sanakht, appears to have ascended the throne by marriage to Khasekhemwy’s daughter. His own successor, Djoser, is generally thought to be his brother. Both returned to the tradition of selecting a Horus name only; “Djoser,” in fact, is the name of later tradition, very likely the king’s birth name, but in his reign he was known as the Horus Netjerikhet. The history of their reigns is sketchy, but Djoser in particular would be revered in future generations for his wisdom. If nothing else, he far outshone his brother in the manner of his burial.

Djoser’s reign is best known to history for the production of the first pyramid at Sakkara. The king’s vizier Imhotep is credited with the design of this marvel, which not only introduced the pyramid concept, but also pioneered the use of stone in the construction of the entire complex. Even the fact that this tomb was not a single building, but a sprawling complex, had important ramifications. Such a funerary establishment required a significant staff of priests and support personnel, ensuring that the pyramid complex was a town in miniature. Accordingly, the pyramid required a permanent endowment, and the parceling out of royal resources began.

Djoser’s successors in the Third Dynasty attempted to emulate his accomplishment, but they died before completion. The last ruler, Huni, may have come close to completion if the Meidum pyramid was actually his; traditionally this pyramid has been attributed to Snofru, but it is quite possible that he merely finished this one for his predecessor.

Snofru appears to be a son of Huni by a secondary wife, and by marrying his half-sister Hetepheres he may have bolstered his right of succession. Snofru found the means to expand Egypt’s influence greatly, especially in its trade with Byblos in Lebanon and in the exploitation of the mineral resources of the Sinai. He built not one, but two pyramids (three if the Meidum pyramid is truly his and not Huni’s), and discarded the step pyramid model for the straight lines of the true pyramid. This new shape, which is also found at the tip of obelisks, appears to be one sign of a new solar orientation in royal ideology. Another sign of the emergence of Ra as the preeminent god of rulership is the fact that Snofru is known by his birth name, not by a new Horus name, and that his name is enclosed in the representation of a knotted cord that we call the cartouche, which was another solar symbol.

His son, Khufu, is best known for the erection of the largest of all of Egypt’s pyramids, the Great Pyramid of Giza. Little else is known of him; two of his sons, Djedefra and Khafra, ruled after him, and two others, Kawab and Hordjedef, are known, but even his image is largely lost to us, with only one small sculpture surviving. Khufu was to have a bad reputation in future generations, with cruelty and a lack of respect for the gods being among the charges, but it is not known if there is any justification for it.

Djedefra is significant mainly for being the first king to call himself, officially, the Son of Ra. Khafra is far better known, both for a pyramid almost as large as his father’s (and by a trick of elevation, seeming to overshadow it) and for the Great Sphinx nearby. His son, Menkaura, completed the Giza Plateau with the Third Pyramid.

While a son of Menkaura briefly succeeded him, he amounted to little, and when the throne shifted to a cousin, Userkaf (Djedefre’s grandson), the Fifth Dynasty began. Userkaf had previously been the Greatest of Seers, the High Priest of Ra at Heliopolis, and he accentuated the emphasis on the sun cult. He had the first sun temple built at Abu Ghurob, emulating the unique characteristics of the Temple of Ra at Heliopolis much closer to Memphis and the royal necropolis.

Eight rulers succeeded him, mostly following his example. The first sign of a reversal in Egypt’s fortunes appears in the reign of Menkauhor, the seventh of this dynasty: Egyptian dominance in Lower Nubia was lost. For the time being, however, access to Nubian resources continues through trade routes.

It is Unas, the last king of the dynasty, who leaves the most lasting impact on the Egyptian culture. Pyramids had previously been largely barren of inscriptions; the Great Pyramid, for example, is marked with the name of Khufu in only one place. Unas had a pyramid that was filled with inscriptions, the first example of what is known as the Pyramid Texts. The source and the consequences of this change are profound. The Pyramid Texts came from a shift in emphasis in the funerary culture from a solar afterlife centered on Ra to an afterlife in the West centered on Osiris. The journey of the soul to the West was considered perilous, with hostile entities threatening passage, and the Pyramid Texts were a collection of spells intended to protect the soul on its journey, offering protection from demonic attackers, passwords or the answers to riddles that might be demanded on the way, even formulae to ensure the dead king’s welcome at the court of Osiris. This revolutionized the funerary arts, for the king himself was no longer the focal point of his followers’ afterlives. A person could secure his eternal life with Osiris without reference to the king. The Pyramid Texts would be truncated and used for commoners as early as the end of the Old Kingdom in the form of the Coffin Texts, and they in turn would become the basis for the Book of the Dead which served the same function in the New Kingdom.

Unas died without a clear successor, giving rise to a brief period of instability before the installation of the Sixth Dynasty under Teti, who married Iput, a daughter of Unas. Teti ruled a country where local officials had already assumed the status of hereditary nobility, and he may have given encouragement to this phenomenon by offering his daughter in marriage to his vizier, beginning a pattern of high nobility contracting beneficial marriage ties with the king’s family. By tradition, Teti is thought to have been assassinated by a bodyguard; some sources cite a usurper named Userkara after Teti’s death, before Teti’s young son Pepi was placed on the throne.

This Pepi is credited with fifty years of rule, an exceptional figure in those days. The rise in power of provincial nobles continued in his reign; his marriage to two daughters of the governor of Abydos may be both a consequence and a contributing cause of this diffusion of power. He appears to have been the intended victim of intrigue by a lesser wife, but the plot was discovered and the plotters, punished.

Pepi I was followed by one son, Merenra, who died early, leaving the throne to a six-year-old half-brother, Pepi II. Pepi II began and ended his reign as ward rather than ruler; it is said that he lived to be 100 years of age, and even if this were an exaggeration, documentary evidence points to at least a reign of about 66 years. At least by his middle age, Pepi II was presented as something of an ineffectual ruler, with real power having transferred to the provincial nobility. Weakness encouraged armed incursions from Nubia and the northeast frontier. Tepid Nile flooding raised the specter of possible famine. When at last Pepi II died, he left little to his successors.

The kinglists state that a son succeeded him, ruling only a brief time before being succeeded in turn by a woman, apparently his sister, wife or both. Both could be legendary; the king’s name was identical both in birth name and in throne name to those of Pepi’s half-brother, Merenra, which was not generally done. The queen, best known as Nitokris, is the heroine of a colorful story in which she avenges her husband’s murder, but no evidence of her reign has yet been found.

However it played out, Pepi II left no enduring successor, and the resulting chaos led to something more like a confederation centered at Herakleopolis. Egypt entered the First Intermediate Period.


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