History Of A Nation: Ancient Egypt (Part 1: The Old Kingdom)

c. 3500 BC – c .2000 BC

Following Sumer, the next civilisation, still on the civilisations so the title of the series here is still a bit of a misnomer, to arise in a form we are familiar with was Egypt, indeed, arising independently of Sumer at approximately the same time in around 3500 BC. One of the most famous civilisations of all of history, covering Ancient Egypt in merely one post was rather daunting so this post will cover the Old Kingdom and when I get further down into the timeline I will cover the other kingdoms. Though essentially they are part of a reasonably continuous political structure, the difference over thousands of years would have made pharaohs of the New Kingdom consider the rulers of the Old Kingdom, who did not refer to themselves as pharaohs, legends, as we would consider the Romans.

While part of my initial plan would be to cover civilisations that had the same name as a modern state all the way down to said modern state I abandoned that idea fairly early on as well. The modern state of Egypt would have been the first, but it should go without saying it is completely different as a state now and it will require more than one post on that topic. So we won’t get to talking about any modern states for quite a while yet.

Time and Location

We know a lot more about Egypt than we do all of the other civilisations that emerged around this time, largely thanks to its position at a crossroads of the world and the dry weather that is helpful for preserving records. So the timeline will probably be highly detailed compared to what I wrote for Sumer, which was essentially a broad sweep.

Location first then. Ancient Egypt is located in modern Egypt. Good? Understood? Okay then. Well, technically, it was clustered around the Nile,  with settlements along the flood plains of that river’s length south to modern Aswan and Elephantine Island, during the Old Kingdom, this was the extent of the kingdom’s reach, as well as some control over Sinai and some oases west of the Nile in the desert. So it would have looked a lot thinner than modern Egypt, of course, these were not strictly defined borders and we estimate based on the effective control the Egyptians kings of the time had over what they’d have known as Egypt.

Before the Old Kingdom however, and before Egypt was united, there were two rival kingdoms that stood over the Nile, now known as Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt, known only because they would unite into Egypt, or the Two Lands, in a short time, hence why I didn’t do a post about them, although I plan to do that more often later on. The border between the two stood at modern Cairo or Khnum, it’s not certain. The rulers of these two kingdoms are referred to as the predynastic rulers, or the rulers of Dynasty Zero, and that’s because the kings of Egypt would be divided into a large number of dynasties.

The first dynasty begins with Narmer, or Menes (Menes’ identity is disputed but mainstream Egyptologists identify him as being Narmer), a king who successfully unified Upper and Lower Egypt into one kingdom in approximately 3100 BC. The Narmer Palette shows him doing this, along with some of the earliest hieroglyphics ever found. His dynasty is followed by Hor-Aha, Djer, Djet, Merneith (possibly the first queen regnant in recorded history), Den (the first ruler to use the title King of Lower and Upper Egypt), Adjib, Semerkhet and Qa’a. Qa’a had a long reign, ending around 2900 BC but there’s some evidence of short reigns and a succession war after his death. Like with Sumer, some sources, notably the Turin canon, give implausible reign lengths for these kings but we can estimate more realistic lengths, i.e. 10 years instead of 74 for Adjib.

The Second Dynasty begins with Hotepsekhemwy and ends with Khasekemwy, lasting approximately two hundred years, taking us down to 2690 BC. Very little is known about any of these kings, which is why I haven’t mentioned their names, although one, Seth-Peribsen is interesting because of his use of Seth, the god of disorder and desert storms in the royal name rather than Horus. You can see why I split the Middle and New Kingdom away from this.

After the Second Dynasty we finally get into what is properly considered to be the Old Kingdom, with Egypt as a unified, mostly stable nation. The Third Dynasty begins with Djoser, whose chancellor Imhotep is probably one of the most famous citizens of the Old Kingdom, a polymath whose fields, including architecture and engineering, would make him the earliest known practitioner of those in history. Imhotep also had the honour of divine status after his death, something that was mostly only accorded to the kings otherwise. His legend as a great thinker probably got exaggerated over time with this divine status but he was definitely one of the most important men of his century. The rest of the Third Dynasty was not hugely notable and ended before the 27th century did.

The Fourth Dynasty started with some of the most well-known rulers of the old kingdom, Sneferu and his successor Knufu. It was Knufu who was responsible for building the Great Pyramid of Giza, the most famous of all the pyramids of Egypt, as a burial spot for him and his immense wealth. Sneferu was no slouch either with many pyramids attributed to him. Those pyramids were likely built with skilled workers with many thousands of men working to erect a monument that would last to this day as, for the Great Pyramid, the only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World. The others can’t really compare when this one lasted twenty times as long as all of the rest of them put together.

The Great Sphinx nearby was built around this time, possibly by Knufu’s successor Djedefre, to honour his father. It is also a part of the necropolis that is for many the picture we most associate with Egypt. All built in the earliest part of that civilisation’s history. Other kings followed in the Fourth Dynasty, building other pyramids at Giza and other places. Khafre and Menkaure built the other two often seen in pictures of the pyramids, to consolidate it as a necropolis, all in the shadow of Knufu’s great work. This brings us to 2500 BC.

The kings of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties did not leave anywhere near the legacy that the Fourth Dynasty did. One of the number of the latter dynasty, Pepi II, was held to have reigned 94 years, which would make him the longest reigning ruler in history, he reigned for at least 62 years. Either way, it’s possible that on his death there was a succession crisis, with many heirs all wanting some power, you know what I’m going to say now… it’s like Game Of Thrones. No, no, no, that’s far too generic a statement. Pepi sounds like a good old Walder Frey. Except probably a lot less disgusting. The power of the kings after Pepi II waned considerably and this led to what is held to be the end of the Old Kingdom, into the First Intermediate Period, a period of instability in Egypt’s rulers with competing powers at Thebes and Heracleopolis at opposite ends of the country. Four dynasties with many many pharoahs passed during this period of 125 years, leading eventually to the advent of the Middle Kingdom and a restoration of stability in 2015 BC.

Old Kingdom Culture and Life

I didn’t talk as much about religion with Sumer but there is certainly more to talk about here. There was a strong sense of feeling around death, to ensure what would be the individual’s life in the next world was as comfortable as possible. There were many many gods, and the priests of this time spent considerable effort organising and codifying the pantheon to bring up the figures that may be familiar, Ra, Seth, Osiris, Isis and Horus, to have a creation myth. The following myth of Osiris and Isis is one of the most famous in Egyptian mythology. Osiris, here an ancient king of Egypt is murdered by Seth and made the ruler of the underworld by being brought back to life by Isis. Their son, Horus, defeated Seth and becomes the first legendary king of the monarchy. By the time religion  seemed to have become codified, around the Fifth Dynasty, Ra was the most important god, also associated with kingship and the power behind the throne of the kings, who ruled in their absolute monarchy, with royal authority equated with divinity, in descent from Horus. Osiris became important towards the end of the Old Kingdom as afterlife beliefs became more important. Things would seem to be much more complicated in the latter kingdoms, however.

Their skill with architecture and sculpting has obviously survived the generations, with some of the first portraiture and imagery we’ve seen. This would define later Egyptian art to a certain standard that I’m sure many of you are familiar with the exact style, it would get refined later. The Old Kingdom is a gold mine for what insights we can get into life back then, our best viable window into before 2000 BC, and it seems that they were a people of artisans after religiosity.

Most people were agricultural, used to the high floodplains that would transform Egypt into a series of islands at times. They seemed, in a very general sense, to enjoy pleasant lives with high hygiene, music, mainly flutes and harps, and board games, like Senet, were probably popular. Nobles would own the land and produce, while artists were under control of the state, so there was likely a high proportion of state control of lives, but if the state is made up of incredible individuals, then clearly that sort of absolute rule is superior to democracy of idiots (in speaking from a general 2016 sense here if you want to take that seriously). So if you were not rich, you would be controlled, what is new, but most were technically free with a few construction obligations here and there. We know there was slavery but to what extent we are unsure. We don’t think they were used to build structures like the pyramids as is a common misconception. They existed and were not afforded equal rights but that is all we know for sure.

Hieroglyphic writing dates from 3000 BC and would continue to be used as the system of writing until the end of Ancient Egypt.

Military And Foreign Policy

Unlike later, there was not much reason for the military of Egypt to go outside of Egypt. The Libyan and Canaanite tribes around them would occasionally send raiding parties but nothing serious and nothing worth conquering. The Old Kingdom would build plenty of forts along the Nile River though, to defend against the Nubians to their south, who would grow in power as the Old Kingdom wore on. We don’t think there was any large scale war during this time and the forts do not seem to have been attacked. Peace in our time, and what’s needed for that is to demote most of the world back to hunter-gatherer tribes desperately scavenging while a shining beam of civilisation houses the lucky few in paradise. (to clarify, it was not exactly like that, other civilisations were rising during this millennium, Egypt was just the first in the area and probably influenced most of them)

During the Old Kingdom there was no professional army and governors of local areas would raise volunteer armies with a mix of early troop types like archers, the most common form of soldier, spearmen, and soldiers with maces, daggers and cudgels. The army was not particularly prestigious at this time and the focus was clearly not on conquest.

Trade with Nubia was more common than fighting and Egypt would ship in gold and incense from there. Canaanites in Palestine and ancient Lebanon were known to be common trading partners and colonies were set up in southern Canaan. As the Old Kingdom went on, more and more trading partners were established and there is evidence of it coming from as far away as modern Afghanistan.

The Old Kingdom has inspired many archaeologists and historians to search for the full picture of the substantial but still very incomplete picture we have of the most successful civilisation of the Ancient World. And it was only the beginning, for the Middle and New Kingdom would consolidate this legacy of already a thousand years long into a legacy that would loom over antiquity and last forever.

Article Bibliography (I will put this section in whenever I read academic books as preparation for this writing)

Alan B.Lloyd (ed.) A Companion To Ancient Egypt, (Chichester, 2010)


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