Egypt: The Old and Middle Kingdoms

The Old and Middle Kingdoms

A high culture developed early, and the Old Kingdom is notable for artistic and intellectual achievements (see Egyptian architecture; Egyptian art; Egyptian religion). From the beginning there was a concept of the divinity or quasi-divinity of the king (pharaoh), which lasted from the time that Egypt was first united (c.3200 b.c.) under one ruler until the ultimate fall of Egypt to the Romans. According to tradition, it was Menes (or Narmer) who as king of Upper Egypt conquered the rival kingdom of Lower Egypt in the Nile delta, thus forming the single kingdom of Egypt. In the unified and centralized state created by Menes, the memory of the two ancient kingdoms was preserved in formalities of administration. Trade flourished, and the kings of the I dynasty appear to have sent trading expeditions under military escort to Sinai to obtain copper. Indications show that under the II dynasty, trade existed with areas as far north as the Black Sea.

The III dynasty was one of the landmarks of Egyptian history, the time during which sun-worship, a new form of religion that later became the religion of the upper classes, was introduced. At the same time mummification and the building of stone monuments began. The kings of the IV dynasty (which may be said to begin the Old Kingdom proper) were the builders of the great pyramids at Giza. The great pyramid of Khufu is a monument not only to the king but also to the unified organization of ancient Egyptian society. The V to the VII dynasties are remarkable for their records of trading expeditions with armed escorts. Although Egypt flourished culturally and commercially during this period, it started to become less centralized and weaker politically. The priests of the sun-god at Heliopolis gained increasing power; the office of provincial rulers became hereditary, and their local influence was thereafter always a threat to the state.

In the 23d cent. b.c. the Old Kingdom, after a long and flourishing existence, fell apart. The local rulers became dominant, and the records, kept by the central government, tended to disappear. Some order was restored by the IX dynasty, but it was not until 2134 b.c. that power was again centralized, this time at Thebes. That city was to be the capital for most of the next millennium.

The Middle Kingdom, founded at the end of the XI dynasty, reached its zenith under the XII. The Pharaoh, however, was not then an absolute monarch but rather a feudal lord, and his vassals held their land in their own power. The XII dynasty advanced the border up the Nile to the Second Cataract. Order was preserved, the draining of El Faiyum was begun (adding a new and fertile province), a uniform system of writing was adopted, and civilization reached a new peak. After 214 years the XII dynasty came to an end in 1786 b.c. In the dimly known period that followed, Egypt passed for more than a century under the Hyksos (the so-called shepherd kings), who were apparently Semites from Syria. They were expelled from Egypt by Amasis I (Ahmose I), founder of the XVIII dynasty, and the New Kingdom was established.

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