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The Old Kingdom of Egypt Case Study



Chaos! This is how the Old Kingdom ended. Nothing prepared Egypt for the eclipse of royal power and poverty that came after Pepi II (Hassan), but it seems that the country fall down, maybe because of bad government, or, more likely, because of series of bad harvests, which ended in widespread and recurrent famine. Actually, the Old Kingdom was generally considered as spanning the time period when Egypt was ruled by the Third Dynasty through to the Sixth Dynasty (2686 BC – 2134 BC). A lot of Egyptologists also incorporate the Memphite Seventh and Eighth Dynasties in the Old Kingdom as a continuance of the governance centralized at Memphis. The Old Kingdom was followed by a disunity period and relative cultural turn down referred to by Egyptologists as the First Intermediate Period. The Old Kingdom is maybe best recognized for the large number of pyramids built at this time as pharaonic tombs. Hence, the Old Kingdom is often referred to as "the Age of the Pyramids."

The long history of ancient Egypt falls into eight periods referred to as the kingdoms. In 3200 BC, the nation of Egypt had gone through many stages of development before it reached the reign of Pepi II. “It had no less than 18 kings” (Hassan). “The whole country was forced into a period of war and disorder” (Breasted, 114). This marked the termination of the Old Kingdom, which was later overthrown. This essay will attempt to analyse the explanations put forward as reasons for the “Collapse of the Old Kingdom.”




 Numerous accounts as to the collapse of the Old Kingdom have been put forward including: Userkaf initiated reforms during the Fifth Dynasty that weakened the central government as well as the Pharaoh; the decline of trade and navigation of the Red Sea for the purposes of trading ebony, copper, gold, and incense such as frankincense and myrrh; the rise of the civil wars after the Userkaf regime which resulted in the undermining of the government and a severe famine; huge building projects in the Fourth Dynasty surpassed the populace’s and treasury’s capabilities; and the severe drought (Breasted, 117).

Hassan supports this argument to an extent but refers “to the crisis that shook Egyptian society.” It transformed the Royal Institution. It also instilled a spirit of social justice that led to the infusion of Christianity and Islam. The monarchy no longer prevented people from holding their own religious beliefs (Hassan).

The Egyptian administration tried to organize the supply of food to the kings and maintain the religious group associated with the king (Lichtheim, 87).

An offering which the king gives (and) Anubis, who is upon his mountain and in the place of embalming, the lord of the necropolis, in all his good and pure places: an offering for the revered one, the Sole Companion, Butler and Overseer of the slaughterers of the House of Khuu in its entirety, who says: I was the priest for slaughtering and offering in two temples on behalf of the ruler. I offered for thirteen rulers without a mishap ever befalling me....

... I buried the dead and nourished the living, wherever I went in this drought which had occurred. I closed off all their fields and mounds in town and countryside, not letting their water inundate for someone else, as does a worthy citizen so that his family may survive. When it happened that Upper Egypt barley was given to the town, I transported it many times. I gave a heap of white Upper Egyptian barley and a heap of hmi-barley, and measured out for every man according to his wish... (Lichtheim, 87)

It was initially thought that the Egyptian administration caused the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Hassan suggests that a 90-year reign under Pepi II would suggest stability. Hassan further states that it would be misleading to think that a long reign and a struggle with Pepi II’s heirs were contributing factors to the collapse. Referring to Pepi’s heirs as weak is “misleading and a baseless allegation. Further evidence needs to be examined before making an accurate judgment.”

“There is no indication at the end of the Sixth Dynasty that there was a bid for power by the local governors.” Herakopolis became prominent during the Ninth and Tenth Dynasties after the Old Kingdom collapsed (Hassan). This is corroborated by inscriptions at Asyut. Hassan further states that the “conflict between the kings of Herakopolis and Theban Kings...resulted in the Theban King Menuhotep II (Nebhepetre 2061-2010) overthrowing Herakopolis before Egypt became reunified.” This is further supported by Lichtheim (101) as she argued, “The Hyskos were drove out of the Egyptian soil by the military campaigns of King Ambrose who reunited the nation under a well-built dynasty and set forward a foreign expansionist policy to conquer other provinces.” With great success in conquering the Hyskos, the next ruler (Amenhotep I) devoted himself to building Thebes, the new capital city. The climax of the Kingdom’s luxurious living was reached during the reign of Amenhotep III, who strived to surpass his predecessors in terms of splendour, size and number of buildings. This age went beyond luxury, power and wealth to the expansion of the kingdom’s intellectual horizons.

“Contrary to what some Egyptologists claim, the stability of the long reign of Pepi II, the stability of Pepis long reign was due to the centralization of government” (Hassan). Central to the view of Egyptian kingship was the concept of maat, which refers to justice and truth. The concept of maat was personified in the goddess Maat and the king controlled the appearance of Maat (Dodson, 45).

Pharaoh used the divine decree to rule the country. In the early years, his sons and close relatives were his advisors. The country was later divided into small districts led by governors or monarchs. The monarchs were officials at first. The offices of the monarchs ultimately became hereditary as offices passed down through the sons (James, 47). According to Hassan, kingship is less about the king as a person and more about the institution. Kings would suffer if the institution were compromised in any way. Divine kingship was maintained by outside family members to ensure its enduring stability. This kingdom continued ruling the country until the central administration collapsed. This happened when the central administration collapsed.

The government’s decentralization strategy was the most successful in managing such a complex organization. Hassan further states, “There would be little chance of an uprising as it was successfully decentralized and ambitious governors were curtailed by the economic and defence rewards of being a vassal.”

What is being emphasized here is “something catastrophic” would have to occur for provincial governors to become kings. “Only when the monarchy is compromised dramatically, can leadership be challenged” (Hassan).

As Grimal argued, the kingdom’s fall was caused by climatic conditions that lowered the waters in the Nile River causing a great famine. The kings would have been disgraced by the famine because the people believed that only the king had the power to control the Nile (Grimal, 55).

As stated previously, Pharaoh ruled by divine decree. The central motif of Egypt’s political system was the Nile River. The people believed in the divinity of Pharaoh and his ability to control the Nile. There was an idea of an ideal state and universal laws. This idea restrained Pharaoh’s behaviour. The collapse of the Old Kingdom was hastened by the famine, which caused the people to blame Pharaoh for failing to control the Nile (Kapelrua).

This is supported by Hassan who stated, “The breakdown of the Old Kingdom was caused by a sudden, unanticipated, catastrophic reduction in the Nile floods over 20 to 30 years. It was at such a magnitude that famine resulted in the paralysis of the political institutions.” People resorted to cannibalism and this is further corroborated by the sage, Ipuwer, who said, “Lo the desert claims the land, and Towns are ravaged” (Hassan).

There is irrefutable evidence that famine caused a reduction in precipitation and Nile flooding. Hassan states, “The Faiyum, a lake 65 meters deep, simply evaporated over time.” This is crucial evidence to support the claim that a climatic event had a significant impact on the Old Kingdom’s collapse. Archaeological plant evidence in North and East Africa corresponds with a transition of birch and grassland vegetation to arctic conditions in Iceland, although cooling conditions were evident all over Europe even as far as Tibet. Further archaeological evidence indicates a pronounced shift in atmospheric circulation that occurred in 2150 BC in Nigeria.

Such a dramatic change resulted in famine, causing civil unrest, plague and resulting in the Moche’s demise. Al Bagdadi stated, “Parents ate their own children, graves were ransacked for food, and noblewomen were reduced to slavery.”

 Hoffner suggests that it is wrong to suggest that the failures of the Pharaoh and his administration caused the famines. With the great gods of Egypt becoming the gods of the entire universe, the religious thinking in the Old Kingdom was particularly affected by the new internationalism. The new religious internationalism viewed all gods as an expression of the sun god. Religion gave the kingdom and its people a sense of superiority over foreigners. With religion being a major cause of the collapse of the Old Kingdom, it was hugely affected by the conclusion of religious universalism that the sun god who ruled all humankind and the universe was not only supreme, he was the sole god (Hoffner, 37). The nation entered into turmoil due to this religious-revolutionary conclusion as soon as King Amenhotep IV died resulting in the offensive doctrine being swept away. The universality tendency within Egyptian religion remained alive, as the monotheistic doctrines of the Old Kingdom were defeated.

Ankhifi states 300 years earlier than Al Bagdadi that the “entire country had become starved like a grasshopper, with people going to the North and to the South to search for grains.”  Ancient Egypt spanned four dynasties from 2686-2181 BC, a period of 505 years. The First Dynasty was a period of cultural, political and technological achievements. The Second Dynasty represented a time of decline. In addition, there was a strong cultural link for almost 200 years between the two eras of the First Dynasty and the starting of Ancient Egypt (Kempinski, 43).

The Old Kingdom featured early monument building such as the building of the Pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara. The Third Dynasty did not have any pyramids of similar dimensions and quality. This is attributed to the short kingships with the exception of Hun who ruled 24 years and built a pyramid at Meidum (Ghalioungi, 63). It was the Herakopolis kings of Bahr Yusef who restored stability to the Nile. “They lost to the southerners and emphasized social justice reforms” (Hassan). In the instructions attributed to King Khety for his son Merikare, he reminded his son, “God fortified the backbones of the weak and counteracted the blows of fate” such as famine or any other catastrophic event.

The Old Kingdom was characterized by the construction of pyramids, the death cult of the Kings, efficient central government and increased foreign trade. Wealth in the Old Kingdom could not be measured by the size and quality of the pyramids (Engelhard, 89). On the other hand, pyramids were a picture of the strength of the central government as well as the position of the King. Based on this factor, the Old Kingdom marked the pinnacle of all the Egyptian dynasties. The great pyramids of Snefru, Khufu, and Khafre were built during this dynasty. The Fifth Dynasty was known for focusing on the sun cult. During this period, several sun temples were constructed (Naguib Kanawati, 37).

The Old Kingdom also had four stages of upheaval related to climatic changes. There were additional changes around the Sixth to Eighth dynasties followed by significant political changes resulting in stability around 2134 BC (Eighth – Tenth  dynasties) (Hassan). A struggle did occur between Thebes and Herakopolis under the reign of Antef. This later led to greater national unity under Menuhotep II. This totally contradicts Borghouts’ position. According to Borghouts, the name given to the period, which follows the Old Kingdom, is the first intermediate period and was a time of political, cultural and economic decline. From the Seventh Dynasty, the kings had no power to control their country from division (Borghouts, 63).






It is true that the Fifth Dynasty with Userkaf (2465–2458 BC), who initiated reforms weakened the Pharaoh and central government but this is not the sole reason of Old Kingdom downfall. In addition, the reigns of Userkaf and Sahure whereas civil wars arose can’t also be blame alone for the downfall of Old Kingdom. But how about the severe drought in the region that resulted in a drastic drop in precipitation between 2200 and 2150 BC, which in turn prevented the normal flooding of the Nile? Can this be blamed for Old Kingdom downfall? How about the construction of pyramids and the proliferation of death industry during that time? Can all of these be blamed for Old Kingdom downfall?

From the previous discussion, I concluded that Egypt’s administration during the Old Kingdom is not one of the best explanations for the collapse of the Old Kingdom. As stated by Lichtheim (87), significant climatic global cooling caused the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Meaning, it was also wrong to suggest that the period of the Old Kingdom was a period of tension. Within the royal family, there was fighting for control. At the start of the sixth dynasty, the first two kings were forced out of power. One was murdered while the other one was toppled. In the Old Kingdom, the major burial grounds were Giza, Saqqara, Dahshur and Abu Sir. The kings were buried in the ground within one of the pyramids (Meskell, 32). It is also wrong to suggest that the first intermediate period following the Old Kingdom was the “Dark Age” (Hassan). Rather, it was a catalyst for social and leadership reforms.  It was also wrong to state that the death industry contribute is the reason behind the collapse of the old kingdom of ancient Egypt.  Actually, pyramid construction itself was certainly not the cause, for the design of 5th Dynasty pyramids is much smaller, long before the end of the Old Kingdom, as the pyramid complex evolved to include a solar temple and more elaborate, inscribed burial chambers, as well as the usual pyramid, causeway, valley and pyramid temple layout. However, it is also evident that it also contributed for Old Kingdom downfall. The final ruler of the Old Kingdom, Pepi II came to the throne as an infant, i.e. under the influence of high official from the start, and is credited with a rule of over 90 years, meaning almost a century elapsing where the Pharaoh was unlikely to have had the extremely high degree of control over affairs that the Old Kingdom (and essentially, Pharaonic statecraft as a whole) was based upon. It is therefore not unreasonable to regard this as a major factor in the collapse of the Old Kingdom, moreso than the mortuary estates, which, although they likely played a part, were a factor in the economy that the Egyptian state had already learned how to deal with by returning lands to taxable use after a few generations had past.

The calamity of “low Nile floods” (Hassan) “occurred during the reign...of Pepi II and the emergence of famine” (Mendelssohn, 48).” It would be misleading to blame Pepi II for the famine in the presence of the irrefutable climatic evidence.

It is wrong for Kitchen or Hallo and William to state, “The seventh and eighth dynasties are regarded as a time of confusion in the history of Egypt and the kings or pharaohs were losing popularity and the rulers began to take grip of the country.” After Pepi II, several rulers took control of the country. By the end of the Eighth Dynasty, the Ancient Kingdom’s system collapsed at a time when there was famine and violence (Kitchen, 933).

In summary, people question societal beliefs when such a catastrophic climatic change occurs. When famine and hunger are rampant, society collapses and people resort to infighting to secure limited resources. It becomes survival of the fittest. In these circumstances, one cannot blame the leadership of one man, such as Pepi II, for causing the collapse of Egypt’s Old Kingdom.

Because the kingdom collapsed, the hereditary monarchs took control and assumed that they had the power to control and maintain order in their areas. Due to the collapse, there was a prolonged period of confusion from the Seventh Dynasty up to the Eleventh Dynasty. The kings of the Twelfth Dynasty controlled the central government during the period called the Middle Kingdom (Hallo & William, 221).

The Seventh and Eighth Dynasties are regarded as a time of confusion in the history of Egypt. The pharaohs were losing popularity and the local rulers began to take hold of the country. After Pepi II, several rulers took control of the country. By the end of the Eighth Dynasty, the Ancient Kingdom collapsed at a time when there was famine and violence (Kitchen, 933).

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