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The Xenophile Historian


A History of Africa


Egypt before 664 B.C.

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

The Gift of the Nile
Most Ancient Egypt
The Archaic or Protodynastic Era
The Pyramid Age
Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt
Egyptian Mathematics and Science
Ancient Nubia
The End of the Old Kingdom
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Part II

The First Intermediate Period
The Middle Kingdom
The Second Intermediate Period
The Rise of the New Kingdom

Part III

Thutmose I
The First Feminist
Imperial Egypt
The Amarna Revolution
The Ramessid Age
The Third Intermediate Period

The Gift of the Nile

Egypt is literally "the gift of the Nile," as the ancient Greek historian Herodotus observed. The Nile begins as two rivers: the White Nile, which flows from central Africa (Lake Victoria), and the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia. The White and Blue Niles join at modern Khartoum, in the Sudan, forming one great river that continues north to the Mediterranean Sea. Nearly 200 miles past Khartoum, the Atbara River, also called the Black Nile, joins with the main Nile, and then there are no more tributaries for the last 1500 miles of the river's journey. From here onwards the Nile is a canal flowing through desert terrain, a fertile oasis cut out of a limestone plateau. In the land of Nubia, between Khartoum and Aswan, a series of six rapids called cataracts interrupt the flow of the Nile, so traditionally the northernmost (first) cataract became the southern border of Egypt.

Nubia is a territory rich in gold and iron, and it connected Egypt with sub-Saharan Africa, but life there has always been tougher than in Egypt, so for most of history Nubia has lived in the shadow of its northern neighbor. The only area suitable for large-scale farming is the Dongola Reach, the S-curve between the third and fourth cataracts; elsewhere the area that can be cultivated is very narrow, with the desert beginning as close as a hundred yards from the riverbanks. As a result, this land could not support a large population, and it was usually behind Egypt where technological progress was concerned.

Along the last 750 miles of the river, from the first cataract to the Mediterranean, irrigation allowed agriculture in an area much wider than in Nubia, a zone two to thirty miles wide. The soil was renewed annually by the rich silt deposited by the flood water of the river that, unlike the unpredictable floods of Mesopotamia, rose and fell with unusual precision. The rise began in July and crested in September; by the end of October the river was again contained by its banks.

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Most Ancient Egypt

Before 3000 B.C., most of the Nile valley was a huge marsh, and much of today's delta didn't exist; it was a bay of the Mediterranean until enough soil came downstream to raise the land above sea level. The first Egyptians tamed the delta by draining marshlands and digging irrigation ditches, and they learned that the late summer floods were a blessing, because they brought down silt from the Ethiopian highlands and made the soil fertile enough to grow next year's plantings.(1)

The Nile turned out to be a more pleasant river than its Middle Eastern counterparts, the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq. There was plenty of wild game in the form of fish, ducks, lions, crocodiles, hippopotami, baboons, etc. In addition, it is one of the few major rivers in the world that flows north, while the prevailing winds in that region blow from north to south. This made transportation simple: to go north, let the currents carry your boat downstream, and to go south, just raise a sail and let the wind blow your boat the other way. This meant that instead of having the first cities bunch up near the end of the river, as they did in Mesopotamia, the population spread out fairly evenly from the Mediterranean to the first cataract. It also made for rapid growth; in the third and second millennia B.C. Egypt was the most densely populated country in the world.(2)

The ease of communications also meant that Egypt would unite politically long before anyone else did. They probably started with city-states like Mesopotamia, but by the time the first hieroglyphics appear, the land was well on its way to unification. Apparently the crucial step in the process came shortly after 3000 B.C., with the merging of three city-states in the south: Abydos, Nubt (Naqada) and Nekhen (Hierakonpolis). How this was done is unknown, but the myth of the war between Horus and Set (see below) may be an allegorical tale of the unification struggle; it appears to the author that Nubt first conquered Abydos, only to be overthrown by Hierakonpolis later on. The result was a single state 200 miles long, which wielded power that no other city-state could match.

Tradition holds that before the first pharaoh took over, Egypt was divided into two states: Lower (northern) Egypt in the Nile delta, with its capital at Buto, and Upper (southern) Egypt along the river's main channel.(3) Presumably this was an intermediate step between the city-states mentioned above and the united Egypt we see later on. There is some confusion as to whether Abydos or Hierakonpolis was the capital of Upper Egypt at this stage; the author believes that Abydos was the capital, even if the ruling family came from farther south, simply because it would make sense to put the capital as far north as possible, if all the action was in the north. Unfortunately, the relatively wet climate of the delta doesn't preserve artifacts as well as Upper Egypt; however, that doesn't rule out the possibility that a united Lower Egyptian state once existed, and that the dense, continuous population of the area is growing crops above the cities and battlefield(s) that were the scene of Egypt's first showdown. Archaeologists excavating Buto have found that in the early third millennium B.C., southern-style artifacts, especially pottery, replaced locally-made ones, and this is seen as evidence that Egypt was united when the south conquered the north, just like the Egyptians told us.

the real Scorpion King

Is this the world's oldest historical inscription? Found in the western desert in 1995, this petroglyph appears to show a predynastic king returning from a successful military expedition, with an enemy chief (the chief of Nubt?) as a prisoner. One of the predynastic rulers in Upper Egypt, perhaps the one immediately preceding Narmer, used a scorpion to identify himself, so it looks like the one carrying the staff is the "Scorpion King." Note the picture of a scorpion next to a picture of a falcon--by this time the falcon had become a royal symbol.

As in Mesopotamia, each city-state had its own god originally, and the local chiefs kept their position by claiming great mystical powers from those gods. For example, the god of the village of Naqada was Set, whom they portrayed as a fierce, long-snouted beast with square ears or horns(4), while the chieftain of Hierakonpolis claimed a falcon named Horus for his god; Abydos worshiped Osiris, a nature deity in human form who caused the ebb and flow of the Nile. These chiefs went further than their Mesopotamian counterparts, though; not content to be a high priest for the god, they called themselves living gods. Unification brought worshipers of the different gods together, and they put together an elaborate mythology to explain how they were related.

The most important Egyptian myth focused on the power struggle between Osiris, Set and Horus. According to this myth Osiris was the original ruler of Egypt, until the treachery of his jealous brother Set brought him down. Set caught him by displaying a wonderfully crafted wooden box at a banquet, and offered to give it to whomever could fit inside it. One by one the gods tried out the box, and when Osiris got in it, Set and his followers rushed up, nailed the box shut, and tossed it into the sea. The wife and sister of Osiris, Isis, went looking for the box, and she found it in Lebanon, inside a giant cedar tree that sprouted up where it had drifted ashore. Fearing that Isis would revive Osiris, Set cut the body of Osiris into fourteen pieces and scattered them across the land. Isis recovered all of them except the genitals (which a fish had eaten), patched them together, and resurrected her husband, who then retired from this world to become the lord of the afterlife. The priesthood used this story to teach that Osiris was the first mummy, and that every mummified Egyptian could become like Osiris, capable of resurrection from the dead and enjoying a blessed eternal life.

Despite Osiris' missing piece, he was able to have a son before he left the world for the last time. This was Horus, who challenged Set for rulership over Egypt when he grew up. They met in a great battle, in which Horus lost an eye while Set was castrated. The gods held a meeting afterwards, and they declared Horus the winner, because Set was no longer fit to rule if he could not have children to rule after him. They exiled Set to Asia, and afterwards the Egyptian name for Asians was Setyu, because they expected them to be worshipers of Set. At home Horus became king of Egypt; each king(5) afterwards called himself the god Horus in human form, and expected to become a part of Osiris when he died.

Isis Horus Osiris Set Nephthys

The five main characters of the Osiris myth, from left to right: Isis, Horus, Osiris, Set, Set's wife Nephthys.

Historians who came later on, like Herodotus and Manetho (see below), claimed that the name of the first pharaoh was Menes (Min or Mena in some texts). This was either Narmer, the king of Upper Egypt around 2840 B.C., or more likely the king who immediately followed him, Hor-Aha. Narmer marched into the Nile delta and conquered Lower Egypt, establishing the first (I) dynasty. To help unify the land, he married a Lower Egyptian princess named Neithhotep. However, he continued to rule all of Egypt from the south. Hor-Aha decided it was time to stop treating the north as a conquered territory, so he built a new city called Men-Nefer (Memphis in Greek) at the apex of the delta, right where Upper and Lower Egypt meet. It turned out to be a superb location for a capital; for most of its history Egypt put its capital near Memphis (Cairo is there now). Whichever ruler was Menes, Manetho said he enjoyed a long reign, and it ended when he was killed by a hippopotamus; we don't know if this was just a myth, or if he was really the oldest known victim of a hunting accident.

Sakkara (also spelled Saqqara), a site in the desert west of Memphis, became the cemetery for Memphis, but the kings continued to build tombs for themselves alongside those of their ancestors at Abydos, presumably to keep tradition. In the twentieth century it was believed that the oldest tombs at Sakkara also belonged to kings, but because their number exceeds the number of kings that we know of from the first two dynasties, we now believe only officials from the court at Memphis were buried at Sakkara; the names of the earliest kings are there because they insisted on having their names carved and painted larger than the names of their ministers, even on their graves.

3 Egyptian crowns

Menes encouraged unity by adopting several Lower Egyptian symbols (the cobra, papyrus, and the bee) and putting them alongside Upper Egyptian counterparts (the vulture, lotus, and sut reed). Up to this point Lower Egyptian kings had worn a red scorpion-shaped crown, and Upper Egyptian monarchs had worn a white crown shaped like a bottle, so Menes united them to form the double crown that pharaohs commonly wore afterwards (see the above picture). From time to time, though, the pharaohs might take part in a ceremony that only involved one part of the country, and for that occasion they reverted back to wearing either the white or red crown again. Egypt never forgot that it had been two nations originally, and frequently called itself T3wy, "the Two Lands," for the rest of its ancient history.

Narmer Palette

The most important artifact from archaic Egypt is the Narmer Palette, which is full of symbols showing the unification of the Nile valley. On the front side (right), we see King Narmer wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, using a mace to finish off an opponent (the king of Lower Egypt?). For thousands of years to come, the pharaohs would portray themselves in very similar poses to commemorate military victories. On the back side (left), we see Narmer with his retainers, wearing the crown of Lower Egypt and inspecting the bodies of ten decapitated enemies. The basin underneath this picture, formed by the long necks of two mythical animals, was used to grind eye shadow.

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The Archaic or Protodynastic Era

Egypt was the world's foremost nation for an amazingly long time. A good case has been made for the Mesopotamian and Indus valley civilizations getting started first, but the third millennium B.C. was more than halfway over before their city-states united to form nations. Until that happened, Egypt was the only nation-state in existence, so its civilization was the most impressive. Egypt's head start on political unification, combined with the conservative rhythm of life on the Nile, convinced everyone else that it had been around forever. As a result, when outsiders managed to conquer Egypt, most of them (Hyksos, Libyans, Nubians, Assyrians and Persians) felt the need to adopt Egyptian customs, or at least respect them. Not until the arrival of a stronger culture, that of the Greeks, did Egyptian culture begin to falter, but that's a story for Chapter 4.

The history of ancient Egypt is divided into thirty dynasties, a tradition started by an Egyptian historian named Manetho, in the third century B.C. Usually a new dynasty began when the current ruling family ran out of heirs or was overthrown, and a new family took over.(6) Inbreeding may have brought down some of them, too. From a very early date they believed that the king had to have royal ancestry on both sides of his family. Occasionally marrying foreign princesses accomplished this, but more often incest was the answer, with brothers marrying sisters regularly. If there wasn't a sister handy, the king might marry a first cousin, aunt, or even his mother (we have records of some queens outliving their husbands and being passed on to the next king)!

The first two dynasties (2840-2550 B.C., according to my chronology) are commonly called the archaic or protodynastic era, because this was the time when Egyptian culture completed its development. Very little is known about this era, because few artifacts have survived the 48 centuries between then and now. In fact, just about everything we have from before 2000 B.C. comes from the graves of Egypt.

The reason for this is that the ancient Egyptians looked upon the next life as being more important than this one, so they took special care to make sure that their tombs would last. Their houses, even royal palaces, consisted of sun-dried brick, which is practical because it hardly ever rains in Egypt, but when it did rain their buildings melted and had to be replaced. By contrast, they built their temples and tombs of stone, so they still stand today. Because we have learned so much of what we know about the ancient Egyptians through tomb-digging, we probably have a distorted view of what they were really like. The Egyptians were not morbid, weird people, but folks like us who saw the afterlife as being a lot like this life, only better (e.g., if you were a farmer, you would be a farmer again, but the grain would grow nine feet high with hardly any effort!). It was the Egyptians who first said at parties, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die." Look at it this way: if some archeologist comes along two thousand years from now and tries to learn about our civilization, and he has to go to our cemeteries to learn anything about us, would that give him some strange ideas about how we lived?

Now that the point has been made, let us go to the place where dead men do tell tales. Before the first dynasty the king was put to death when he became too weak to rule. Because of the king's importance, a simple grave was not enough, so the Egyptians put the king and his belongings, plus food and drink, in one or more underground chambers, with an artifical hill of dirt piled up on the surface, and a wall around the hill. With the unification of Egypt, a one-story brick structure replaced the hill. We call this structure a mastaba (Arabic for bench), and the fanciest ones were made to look like his earthly house.

mastaba diagram
The layout of a typical mastaba, showing the separate shaft from the roof to the burial chamber (see below).

For the kings, boats might be buried in separate pits, to provide transportation for his journey to the next world. On the outskirts of Abydos, one mile from the royal tombs, a chapel surrounded by a wall was constructed as well. Archaeologists call this structure a funerary palace, and one is tempted to compare it with the mortuary temples built later on, but curiously, it was destroyed shortly after it was completed, instead of being allowed to stand for the ages. Either it was only meant to be used at the time of the royal funeral, or each king was required to tear down his predecessor's funerary palace before he could build his own.

Besides boats, the burial pits around the royal tombs contained the king's servants, concubines, court dwarves, and animals (dogs, donkeys, and even lions), who were killed and buried near their king so they could serve him in the afterlife. Additional sacrifices, which appear to have included relatives of the deceased king, were buried at the funerary palaces. For the early king Hor-Aha, 41 people and pets went into the pits, 35 near his tomb and six at the funerary palace. His successor, Djer (Zer), got the most violent funeral in Egyptian history; 318 victims were buried around the tomb, and 269 at the funerary palace. Merneith, the widow of Djet, the next king, ran Egypt until her son Den grew up, and thus earned 41 retainers for her tomb.

However, the Egyptians have never been a bloodthirsty people. At some point in the I dynasty, the priests replaced the killing of the king with a festival called the Heb-Sed, where the king would prove he was physically fit to continue ruling. This took place when he reached the thirty-year anniversary of his reign, and once every three years afterwards. And the killing of servants stopped at the end of the I dynasty; none of the II dynasty kings had "satellite burials" around their tombs.(7) From now on, pictures and small statues of servants (ushabtis) were placed in the tombs, and these were expected to magically come to life and serve the tomb's owner. A thousand years after the I dynasty, during the Middle Kingdom, some priests examined the plundered remains of the Abydos tombs, and because Djer's tomb was the largest, they decided this must be the tomb of Osiris; they converted the tomb into a shrine for the god of life, and the pilgrims who went there never knew that most of Egypt's first government had been slain to dedicate the original structure!

Here, the British TV show Horrible Histories acted out how the retainers for Djer's burial might have been selected.

As the country grew rich, so did the kings. They commissioned artisans to make fine jewelry and works of art for them, and when they died these were buried in the tombs, since ancient Egyptians believed more than anyone else that you can take it with you. But as soon as the contents of the tombs became valuable enough, grave robbers went to work. To protect the king and his possessions, various methods were devised to deter robbers, like filling passages with sand and rubble, false doors, traps, etc. The tomb's security was also improved by putting the body at the bottom of a vertical shaft, which had its entrance in the roof and could go down as much as a hundred feet beneath the other chambers. This led to a second problem--when separated from the drying sands and put in a dank chamber walled with brick or stone, the royal corpse rotted. By this time Egyptians had come to believe that the dead needed not only their possessions, but also their original body, in order to have immortality.

We noted in Chapter 1 that the typical predynastic burial consisted of digging a hole in the sand and placing the body in it, along with a few possessions and pots containing food. Under desert conditions the body did not decay, but simply dried out. Thus, when the Egyptians invented mummification, they were trying to duplicate with artificial preservatives what the desert had done naturally.

At first they simply wrapped the head and hands of the dead with linen bandages; this was done to several bodies in the cemetery of Hierakonpolis, before 3000 B.C. By the beginning of the I dynasty they were wrapping the entire body, and soaking the banadages in resin; this retained the original shape of the corpse, but did nothing to keep the flesh from withering away. The oldest example of this practice, a plain wooden box containing a wrapped skeleton, was found at Sakkara in 2003; this may have been a court treasurer or vizier of Hor-Aha.(8)

The royal embalmers were not content to preserve appearances. Around the beginning of the IV dynasty, they started practicing true mummification. Now before they did the familiar bandaging they dried out the corpse in natron (a form of salt, sodium carbonate to be exact), and usually removed most of the internal organs so they could be dried separately, before decay set in. What the priestly surgeons took out was preserved with natron, in four jars called canopic jars; in their place the body cavity was packed with crushed myrrh leaves or resin-soaked linen. The heart, however, was left in the mummy, because it was thought it would be needed when the dead person appeared in judgment before the god Osiris, to testify that the soul was worthy to enter into Paradise. By contrast, the same embalmers who were careful in preserving all the other parts, thought the brain was unimportant, so if they removed it, they threw it away! The whole process took about 40 days, but they prolonged it to 70 days by reciting prayers and practicing magic every step of the way.

At first mummification was so expensive that only the rich could afford it. Later, when the embalmers developed more effective techniques, they offered the old ones at a discount, so by the time of the New Kingdom, people of ordinary means could afford a funeral that would guarantee them a chance at the afterlife. The poor could never afford even that, though, and continued to bury their dead in the sand the way their ancestors did originally. But you could say the poor had the last laugh, for robbers never bothered their final resting places.

prayers for a dead king
The last step in preparing a royal mummy--
saying the appropriate prayers.

Over the course of the I and II dynasties the tombs grew more elaborate. This was especially the case at Sakkara, where mastabas started out small, but later could be up to thirty feet high, with as many as seventy rooms inside. Eventually the upper-class dead were also buried with statues, a safety measure to give the ka (soul) a backup place to stay in should the body be destroyed. Sometimes the statue went into its own room, with a slot in the wall so it could watch the priests put offerings in an adjoining chamber. The priests could be practical as well as superstitious; they often consumed the food and drink brought in with the offerings before it had a chance to spoil.

It now appears that the I dynasty ended with a struggle for the throne (see footnote #7). One or more of the kings after Den appear to have been usurpers, and the first king of the II dynasty called himself Hotepsekhemwy, meaning, "peaceful in respect of the two powers." This may refer to an agreement reached between two rival factions, either political or religious. Hotepsekhemwy and the next two kings, Nebra and Ninetjer, had long, prosperous reigns, the evidence of which stands in the tomb complexes they built, the largest since the middle of dynasty I. However, the record becomes extremely difficult to follow after Ninetjer; several kings left artifacts at Sakkara, but nothing has been found from them at Abydos; in the Abydos cemetery, the next king after Ninetjer was Sekhemib, a ruler who left nothing at Sakkara. W. Helck (Thinitenzeit, 1987, p.105) has suggested that Ninetjer divided the country between two sons, crowning one in Memphis and one in Abydos. This is plausible--monarchs in other countries have made stranger arrangements for their heirs--but in a country where the natural geography encouraged unity, it seems odd, to say the least.

Sekhemib appears to have brought on a religious revolution. Previous kings had placed a picture of the god Horus above the hieroglyphics representing their names. Now Sekhemib changed his name to Peribsen and replaced the falcon of Horus with the Set-animal; then, like Akhenaten would do in a later age, he erased his original name wherever it could be found. He may have done this because the followers of Set, who did not disappear after the original Horus-king conquered them, enjoyed a major revival in the II dynasty, and grew in numbers and influence until the king had to join them to keep them on his side.

Peribsen's serekh.
How Peribsen wrote his name. From Wikimedia Commons.

After Peribsen's reign a violent revolution took place; all of the Abydos tombs up to this point were heavily damaged by fire, and it appears to have been done with official sanction, to destroy the afterlife of somebody's political opponents. Under a ruler named Kha-sekhem, we see pictures of warfare for the first time since unification; his portraits show only Horus and the white crown, suggesting that both Lower Egypt and the Set faction were among his enemies. Artifacts with Kha-sekhem's name on them have only been found in the neighborhood of Hierakonpolis, so for a while he may not have controlled anything but the far south; even Abydos appears to have been in rebel hands. One such object is a statue of the king which says on the base, "Northern enemies 47,209"; presumably this is a count of how many Lower Egyptians were killed, possibly with Libyan tribesmen as their allies.

Eventually Kha-sekhem prevailed, and restored order. Afterwards he changed his name to Kha-sekhemwy, and wrote it with both the falcon and the Set-animal on top, suggesting a compromise between the Horus and Set worshipers. In addition, he took two titles that suggest peace: "arising in respect of the two powers," and "the two lords are at peace in him." A major upswing in prosperity followed, and Kha-sekhemwy left the largest mastaba of all, a 230 x 59 foot-long building. Like Menes, he celebrated unification by marrying a northern princess, Nemathap, and she was later worshipped as the mother of the next two kings, Sanakht (Nebka) and Zoser (Djoser). It looks like Sanakht was a child from a previous marriage, for Egyptian historians marked his rise to the throne as the beginning of the III dynasty (2550-2477). Everything was now in place for the reunited Two Lands to begin the glorious age of the pyramid builders.

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The Pyramid Age

Under Zoser, the second king of the III dynasty, the royal burial place made such a dramatic transformation that we now regard him as the founder of the Old Kingdom. By this time the nobles had gotten so rich that they built mastabas for themselves, too. Zoser was up to meeting this challenge, because his vizier was a genius named Imhotep, a Renaissance man who was also a priest, a sculptor, a scribe, a scientist, an engineer, and a physician.(9) Zoser commissioned Imhotep to build a majestic tomb--the world's oldest known stone structure, an eternal house that would reach to the heavens.

To build this mausoleum Imhotep fetched granite, basalt and quartz from Aswan, at the southern border of the country; for an outer coating he selected a fine, white limestone, which came from the hills of Tura, just across the Nile from Sakkara. Peasants were conscripted in droves to carve the stone, transport it on barges to Sakkara, and drag it into place on wooden rollers or sleds. The architectural design, which was changed more than once before it was finished, consisted of six mastabas, stacked one on top of another, each one smaller than the ones below it. This produced a ziggurat-like tower more than 200 feet tall known as the Step Pyramid; the shape was meant to be a spiritual image of a "stairway to Heaven." Around it was built a mile-long wall and an elaborate temple, and under the pyramid was the king's burial chamber and a maze of galleries crammed with more than 40,000 stone vases holding funerary offerings.

the Step Pyramid
The Step Pyramid of Zoser.

Zoser may have considered his tomb a great success, since it was the most impressive building the world had seen up to that time, and people have been talking about both it and him ever since. But such a monument also comes with a serious liability. The pyramid's main function was to protect the king's body and a large portion of his personal possessions until the end of the world, but instead it gave the grave such an obvious marker that nobody could miss it; all the tomb robbers had to do was find out where the entrance was concealed. As one might expect, the typical pyramid was robbed of all its contents--the royal mummy was invariably taken out of its coffin and thrown away--but the Egyptians continued to build pyramids for a millennium before they realized there must be a better way bury their kings and queens.

The next king after Zoser, Sekhemkhet, tried to outdo him, by building a seven-step pyramid. Imhotep's name appears on a wall surrounding this pyramid, a hint that the great architect outlived his first master and served Sekhemkhet, too. However, Sekhemkhet died after a reign of six years, and only one step of his pyramid had been completed by then. His successors did not bother to finish it, but unlike most royal tombs, robbers did not disturb it, either. The pyramid was discovered in 1951, and the archaeologist who excavated it thought this was another intact burial, like the more famous one of Tutankhamen. He did not find rooms full of treasures, but he was encouraged to find several pieces of gold jewelry, a sealed alabaster sarcophagus, and the remains of a funeral bouquet on top of the sarcophagus. Instead of the lid being on top, as was usually the case, the sarcophagus had a sliding door on one end, but when it was opened, the sarcophagus turned out to be empty. Why wasn't Sekhemkhet in there? It may be that Sekhemkhet, like the kings of the first two dynasties, only wanted to build a cenotaph (false tomb) for himself at Sakkara. Or perhaps he feared that this tomb would be robbed, despite all the precautions, and left instructions for his servants to hold a fake funeral service there, meaning the pyramid and sarcophagus were decoys. Whatever the case, Sekhemkhet's real burial place has never been found, making it another one of Egypt's many unsolved mysteries.

The last two kings of the III dynasty did not build monuments as large as those of Zoser and Sekhemkhet. Either they could not afford to do it, or they did not want to make the mistake of dying before the project was finished. The next who tried building large was Snefru, the first king of the IV dynasty (2477-2367 B.C.). Snefru's wife, Hetepheres I, was a daughter of the previous king, Huni, but we don't know how Huni and Snefru might have been related, so we can't tell what kind of transition replaced dynasty III with dynasty IV.

By this time, somebody had gotten the idea that a pyramid with smooth sides would look nicer than a pyramid with steps. At first Snefru built another step pyramid, this time at Meidum, but when it was nearly complete, the plans were changed. Now the step pyramid was covered with white limestone to get the familiar triangle shape we associate with pyramids. Unfortunately, the sandy foundation could not support this much stone, and eventually the entire outside layer fell out, leaving a core surrounded by a huge pile of rubble. Years ago it was believed that the collapse happened during the construction, but because no skeletons have been found in the rubble, from workers caught in the disaster, it now appears more likely that the builders abandoned the project when severe structural problems were found, and the collapse of the pyramid took place some time after that. Leaving the Meidum pyramid unfinished, Snefru moved to another site, Dahshur, and started construction on another smooth pyramid. However, the architects of the second pyramid must have feared the same thing would happen again, because when they were halfway done they changed the angle of the slope from 54o to 42o, a move which greatly reduced the number of stones on the top; this is the curious Bent Pyramid of Dahshur. They managed to finish this pyramid, but cracks appeared in it from a settling of the foundation, and they had to put wooden beams in the burial chamber to keep it from caving in, meaning the pyramid was unsafe to use. Not willing to give up, Snefru built a third pyramid next the "Bent" one, with a continuous angle of 42o from bottom to top; this time the builders got it right. This was the first true pyramid, the Red Pyramid of Dahshur.

Meidum pyramid
Pyramid failures: the unfinished pyramid at Meidum . . .

Bent Pyramid
And the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur. From Guardian's Egypt.

It may be that the architectural change occurred because a new god from Heliopolis, the sun-god Ra, challenged the supremacy of Horus and Osiris. Egypt was a land where the sun could be felt all year round, and the kings thought it would be good to identify themselves with this blazing power. Ra (also called Re), was represented as a hawk with a sun-disk on his head. The pyramid was now seen as a sort of sunbeam in stone, its sides reproducing the slant of the sun's rays when they broke through the clouds. To honor Ra, temples were built so that their entrances faced east, toward the rising sun, and the first obelisks (short and stubby compared with the obelisks raised later on), were built in their courtyards.

Though he kept the people building pyramids, the ancient Egyptians considered Snefru one of their best rulers. We know it because our most complete Egyptian king list, the Turin Papyrus, has his name written in red ink instead of black; to the scribes he was a red-letter king! They may have liked him because his other activities made the Old Kingdom a roaring success. Besides the pyramids, he was the first Old Kingdom ruler to lead military campaigns (raids into Nubia and Libya), he sent boats to Lebanon to buy cedar wood (more about that later), and he opened up new copper and turquoise mines in the Sinai.

Snefru and Hetepheres were also the parents of Khufu (Cheops in Greek). Under Khufu the Old Kingdom reached its peak, which he symbolized by spending his entire 23-year reign and the resources of the realm to build a giant pyramid at Giza. When completed it became not only the largest tomb ever built, but also the first of the world's seven wonders, the "Great Pyramid." It was laid out with geometric precision; the 755-foot-long sides miss forming a perfect square by less than eight inches, and the structure rises 481 feet from a base that is flat as a table. 2.3 million stone blocks, averaging half a ton each, went into the construction, and were fitted together so closely that a knife cannot be inserted between them. The result was a masterpiece that has dwarfed later, more technologically advanced civilizations, a monument that has produced endless books and speculation ever since.(10)

The Pyramids of Giza.


A statue of Hemiunu, Khufu's nephew, vizier, and foreman in charge of building the Great Pyramid.

In front of each of the three large pyramids at Giza are smaller pyramids. We believe they were for IV dynasty queens, but no inscriptions or artifacts have been found to identify who was buried in them. However, the most interesting queen's burial was that of Khufu's mother, Hetepheres, and she was buried not in a pyramid, but in a simple shaft grave next to Khufu's monument. When discovered in 1925, the grave had the world's oldest furniture, made of gilded wood; also present was a stone chest containing the queen's internal organs, but the sarcophagus, like that of Sekhemkhet, was sealed and empty. This has led to the idea that Hetepheres was buried in a more impressive tomb originally, but it was robbed and her mummy was destroyed, so the order was given to rebury what was left in a secret location. As for the sarcophagus, it looks like the tomb guards pulled a fast one, putting an empty box in the grave while telling Khufu not to worry about anything. Since it does not look like Khufu inspected the new grave, we think they got away with their trick; no doubt the king would have been greatly dismayed to learn that his mother's body had been lost, because that meant she would be gone from the next world as well as this one.

The labor and resources consumed in building the pyramids of Giza must have bankrupted the country, for nobody after Khufu built on such an extravagant scale. His son and immediate successor, Djedefre, did not build a pyramid at Giza, where he would have been competing with the Great Pyramid. Instead, he built a much smaller pyramid at Abu Rowash, five miles to the north; hardly anything remains of it today. After an eight-year reign, Djedefre was followed by his brother Khafre (Chephren), who built his pyramid next to Khufu's, but he cut corners by making it a little smaller and leaving fewer passages inside it; by putting it on a higher elevation, he created an illusion that his pyramid was the larger of the two. Khafre also gets credit for building the famous Great Sphinx nearby, a symbol of the king's power which has the body of a lion and the head of a king, but now it appears that he merely put his name on somebody else's work (a recent study of the sphinx showed signs of water erosion, which only would have happened if it stood when Egypt was a wetter country than it is today). People who think the sphinx has the head of a woman are mistaken.

Khafre's successor, Menkaure (Mycerinus), raised the third pyramid at Giza, but scaled it down so that it was only one third the size of the first two. He may have done this because the cost of conscripting and feeding the workers had gotten too high, but Egyptians remembered him as a kind and pious king, while they called Khufu and Khafre tyrants. Menkaure left no son to succeed him, and we now believe that the most powerful person at the end of the IV dynasty was Khentkawes I, a daughter of Khafre and sister of Menkaure. Khentkawes gained her exalted status by being the mother of the next two kings, Shepseskaf and Userkaf. Either relative poverty or a short reign kept Shepseskaf from building great monuments; he did not even try for a small pyramid, but set up for himself an old-fashioned mastaba at Sakkara. It has also been suggested that he opposed the cult of Ra, which was now identified with the pyramids; note that there is no "Ra" or "Re" in the name of Shepseskaf. If that was his intention, he failed. Khentkawes, on the other hand, got a small step pyramid and a temple at Giza, and for many years afterwards, a full-blown funeral cult made offerings to the queen mother's spirit at the temple, making sure she would not be forgotten. Because the transition from Shepsekaf to Userkaf was not a standard father-to-son succession, it looks like Egyptians saw that event as a dynastic break, though the IV and V dynasties were really two branches of the same family. The V dynasty rulers went back to smooth-sided pyramids, and built impressive sun temples and obelisks, all dedicated to Ra.

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Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt

The pyramids reflected a rigid society, which was organized from top to bottom in four castes: gods, king, dead, humanity. The three groups on top were supported by and had absolute control over the masses on the bottom. The economy of Egypt can be called "theocratic socialism" because the state, in the person of the divine monarch, monopolized commerce and industry and was the ultimate owner of all land (although frequent grants were made to temples and private persons).(11) Pharaohs claimed their leadership role by performing essential religious rites on holy days, and by authorizing levees and canals to control the Nile on which everybody depended. The nobility lost its independence, and everyone, from field hand to vizier, was subject to a royal summons for whatever duty he might be assigned to perform. Since there was no law code or body of precedent, the king was the ultimate source of justice, whose word was law.

For a while, at least until the end of the Old Kingdom, the "humanity" caste was subdivided into three groups: Iry-Pat (also spelled Iry-Paut), Henemmet, and Rekhyt. The Iry-Pat were the original nobility, who could trace their ancestry back to the first worshippers of Horus. At first the king and his courtiers were Iry-Pat only; in the tombs of Old Kingdom nobles, funeral texts pointed it out if the deceased was not Iry-Pat, meaning that he had become successful through some other means besides family connections. As for the other groups, the Henemmet ("Sun People") were the indigenous population of Upper Egypt, while the Rekhyt ("Lapwings"), the original Lower Egyptians, were ranked lowest of all, because they were in the last part of the country to be conquered during unification. The Iry-Pat jealously tried to protect their power by marrying other members of the Iry-Pat group as much as possible, but with commerce and intermarriage being what they are, eventually the differences between the groups blurred until they no longer mattered.

The king could not be everywhere at once, so it became customary to delegate his duties. Thus, the day-to-day administration of the land became the responsibility of the vizier, who had a host of titles and at least thirty major functions. The vizier oversaw the royal estates, supervised public works, commanded the army and police, commissioned artisans, distributed food to the many laborers and officials who worked for the king, and (most importantly) collected the taxes. To get all this done the vizier employed a large corps of specialists--administrators, priests, scribes, artists, artisans, and merchants. Whatever a person's rank, he was taught that his welfare depended on absolute fidelity to the god-king. "If you want to know what to do in life," advised Ptah-Hotep, a V dynasty vizier, "cling to the pharaoh and be loyal." As a consequence, Egyptians felt a sense of security that was rare in Mesopotamia.

Ranked immediately beneath the vizier was a chancellor, who was followed by the nomarchs. Usually the nomarchs saw themselves as the ones who personally brought the king's righteousness to the provinces. "All the works of the king came into my hand," boasted one nomarch. "There was not the daughter of a poor man that I wronged, nor a widow that I oppressed. There was not a farmer that I chastised, not a herdsman that I drove away. There was not a pauper around me, there was not a hungry man of my time." This, however, was the ideal of government; in practice the main interest was not giving goods and mercy but to get labor and taxes from the peasants. Since it was a barter economy (money would not be invented for millennia to come), taxes were usually taken in the form of crops, and every part of the land was assessed according to its ability to pay. To make sure they did this fairly, markers called nilometers were put in the Nile to measure how high it flooded every year; that way they would know to be lenient in the bad year that followed when the Nile did not rise much, or when it did not rise at all.

In Egypt, both agriculture and government relied on a three-season year. The first season, which ran from August to October, was called Akhet ("Inundation"). This was the time when the Nile flooded the land, and the peasants couldn't work their fields, so this became their vacation time. However, this was also when the king was most likely to draft them into building pyramids and other monuments, since they weren't doing anything else useful then. Then from November to February, there came a season known as Peret ("The Coming Out"), when the Nile receded, the ground was plowed and crops were planted. The third season, Shemu ("Drought"), was the dry season from March to July when the crops were harvested and the king's tax collectors descended on the land to take their share.

The households of those who worked for the king were quite elegant and comfortable. Such a house was built around an open courtyard, where the main feature was often a decorative pool filled with water lilies. The household staff included bakers, brewers, gardeners, musicians and handmaidens, who were either local-born servants or slaves captured on military expeditions to Libya, Nubia or the Holy Land. Banquets were boisterous affairs, where the main dish was a roasted goose or duck, accompanied by side dishes heaped high with bread, figs, and dates. At these affairs scantily-clad servants handled the needs of guests, while dancers and harpists provided entertainment. Beer and wine were made on the premises, and it was considered a compliment to the host if you got too drunk to get home without help.

As in other places, the government's work generated an endless supply of records, and it became necessary to employ scribes to keep up with them. For a writing medium the Egyptians used papyrus, a reed that grew all over the Nile valley. They laid flat strips of the reed's pithy center down in two layers, one perpendicular and one horizontal; then the strips were moistened, pounded smooth, and dried to form sheets of the first manufactured paper. To write on it they used reeds for pens, and scribes habitually carried a small box containing pens and dried red and black ink (like us, the Egyptian scribes used red to mark something they wanted people to notice, like a "red-letter day" or the name of a famous person). Because papyrus is so much lighter and more easily portable than the clay tablets of Mesopotamia, it would remain one of Egypt's primary exports until the introduction of modern paper-making techniques.(12)

Unlike their Sumerian counterparts, the Egyptians did not replace their decorative picture writing with abstract shapes, but went on drawing pictures of birds, people, snakes and various other objects for the rest of their ancient history, like this:


At first they simply used a different picture to represent each noun and verb, and later added other symbols for intangible things like ideas. As a matter of fact, we cannot really "read" the inscriptions that have come to us from before the Old Kingdom, but have to guess at their meaning, since most of them consist on only one or two words. For example, the symbol representing the king who first unified Egypt is a catfish, for which the Egyptian word was "Na'r," so we call him Narmer, but can we really be sure that he wanted to be known as the Catfish King? The fully developed script of more than a thousand characters, which we call hieroglyphics ("priestly writing"), was used on temples, tombs and statues, for the same reason that we sometimes put Roman numerals on our buildings. However, they were difficult to learn and too cumbersome for everyday use, so early on the scribes came up with a simplified cursive script, known as Hieratic, where each symbol stood for a syllable rather than a word. This made their job easier when jotting down records that they did not expect to pass on to future generations. Eventually they also simplified Hieratic, to an alphabet known as Demotic, just before Greek and Roman scripts came in and replaced the older systems of writing completely.

It was this choice of scripts that made it possible for modern linguists to unlock the code of ancient Egyptian writing. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte's military expedition to Egypt uncovered an inscription dedicated to King Ptolemy V, who lived in 200 B.C.; this was the famous Rosetta Stone. The writing on the bottom third of the stone was Greek, which was already commonly known, while hieroglyphics decorated the top and Demotic filled in the middle. A young Frenchman, Jean Francis Champollion, correctly guessed that the three inscriptions all carried the same message, and reasoned that the ancient Egyptian language was Coptic, the same language used in the churches of Egypt. He also had a clue in that Ptolemy's name had already been translated by a British scholar, and it was written in an oval, called a cartouche by the French. This was a writing convention that the ancient Egyptians followed from the beginning to the end of their history; for them a king's name was so special that it had to be "roped off" from the other words. By applying Coptic sounds to the symbols and using the Greek translation to check his progress, Champollion eventually figured out how the ancient scribes used the enigmatic hieroglyphs, so now they are no longer a mystery.

It took twelve years of study and practice in a scribal school to master the system of writing. The student was not considered literate until he had learned 700 symbols, and discipline was tough, for teachers believed that "A boy's ears are on his back." Yet the prize was worth the pain. Those who succeeded in learning how to write could always find employment; it is estimated that less than two people along a mile-long stretch of the Nile Valley at any given time could read and write. This was the only place in Egyptian society where upward mobility was permitted; a peasant boy who did his homework could rise to become the king's personal secretary, or even his vizier. An exceptional scribe might even get deified; two famous examples were the aforementioned Imhotep, and the XVIII dynasty's Amenhotep, son of Hapu.

Statue of a scribe, from the V dynasty.

Compared with other ancient civilizations, Egypt gave its women extraordinary freedom. Equality of the sexes in Egypt is reflected in statues and paintings. Wives are shown standing or sitting beside their husbands, and little daughters are depicted with the same tenderness as little sons. The right of succession to the throne was based on royal descent from the mother as well as the father. Business and legal documents show that women in general had rights to own, buy and sell property without reliance on legal guardians, and to make wills and testify in court. A few became physicians, scribes and members of the administration.

As one might expect from this, the priests usually taught the scribes. There were plenty of priests around, since the Egyptian pantheon grew to house more than 2,000 gods. Besides national deities like Osiris and Horus, every town kept its own, and a few were imports from nearby non-Egyptians like the Canaanites. The myths surrounding the gods often clashed on details, like who created the universe (they gave credit for creation at various times to Ra; a deity named Tem or Atum; Ptah, the god of Memphis; and Amen, the chief god of Thebes), so Egyptian mythology is filled with an array of contradictions and inconsistencies that bewilder the non-Egyptian reader. Many of them were represented as animals, so one could say that the Egyptians worshiped anything that moves! Later they gave the gods more human forms; e.g., Horus went from being a falcon to a man with a falcon's head. During periods when certain gods were in favor, their home cities enjoyed prosperity from official patronage, pilgrims and commerce; for example, Heliopolis saw its best years as long as Ra was one of the chief gods.

The priests profited from the support of king and commoner alike. As time went on the gifts, especially those of land, made them powerful enough to act independently of the kings. The position of priest was hereditary--they regularly passed the job from father to son--but only the highest-ranking priests worked full time. Common clergymen and specialists like astrologers, scribes, readers of sacred texts, singers and musicians (the latter were usually women), lived on the temple grounds and performed their sacred duties for one month out of four. While on duty they lived ascetically; they wore white robes and animal skins, abstained from sex, washed themselves frequently, and the men shaved off all body hair, including their eyebrows. When their turn was up, they went back to being lay members for the next three months.

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Egyptian Mathematics and Science

The Egyptians were less skilled in mathematics than the Mesopotamians. Their arithmetic was limited to addition and subtraction, a modified form of which served them when they needed to multiply and divide. They could cope with only simple algebra, but they did have considerable knowledge of practical geometry. The obliteration of field boundaries by the annual flooding of the Nile made land measurement a necessity. A knowledge of geometry was also essential in computing the dimensions of ramps for raising stones during the construction of pyramids. In these and other engineering projects the Egyptians were superior to their Mesopotamian contemporaries. Like other pre-Greek civilizations, the Egyptians acquired a "necessary" technology without developing a truly scientific method. Yet what has been called the oldest known scientific treatise, The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, was composed during the Old Kingdom. Its author described forty-eight cases requiring surgery, drawing conclusions solely from observation and rejecting supernatural causes and treatments. In advising the physician to "measure for the heart" that "speaks" in various parts of the body, he recognized the importance of the pulse and approached the concept of the circulation of the blood. This text remained unique, however, for in Egypt as elsewhere in the ancient Near East, doctors and scientists failed to free themselves from domination by priests and bondage to the gods. The Greeks would be the ones to accomplish this task.

The Old Kingdom also produced the world's first known solar calendar, the direct ancestor of our own. In order to plan their farming operations in accordance with the annual flooding of the Nile, the Egyptians kept records and discovered that the average period between inundations was 365 days. There were twelve months of thirty days each, with five holidays at the end of the year to make it an even 365; the new year began with annual flooding of the Nile flood. In this form it passed to the Romans in Julius Caesar's time, to become the Julian calendar.

Ancient Nubia

Archaeologists have been working intermittently in what is now the Sudan for more than a century, but only with the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which flooded lower Nubia in the 1960s, was a determined effort made to uncover the past of Egypt's neighbor to the south. So far they have found evidence of three Nubian cultures existing before 1500 B.C., and for want of a better name (the Nubians left no written inscriptions at this early date), they have named the two northern ones the A-Group and the C-Group. For a while they also identified a B-Group, but now it is seen as an impoverished, latter phase of the A-Group. The third culture, called the Kerma culture, came later and was centered around the third cataract.

A-Group artifacts span a seven-hundred-year period, ending with the founding of Egypt's I dynasty (about 3500-2800 B.C.). At first it was thought that the A-Group people were simply nomadic herdsmen, but recently, the discovery of a large cemetery provided evidence that at Qustul, just north of the second cataract, a line of kings ruled there as early as, or even before, the unification of Egypt. The residents of Qustul buried their dead in stone-lined graves, usually in a contracted position facing west, and like the Egyptians, gave them a considerable selection of goods: pottery; jewelry made from shells, bone, ivory, stone or faience; feathers and leather caps, and linen or leather kilts for clothing; palettes for grinding eye shadow; baskets containing food; and clay figurines of people and animals. One grave contained copper axes, a lion's head of rose quartz inlaid with glaze, a mica mirror, and two maces with gilded handles. Still others contained Egyptian beer and wine jars; these may have been imports or gifts from Egypt. Archaic Egyptians called Nubia Ta Sety, the "Land of the Bow," because the Nubians were excellent archers.

It now appears that Egypt bartered with Nubia at first, but after Egypt's unification, the Egyptians were strong enough to take what they wanted. An Egyptian relief on a rock near the second cataract shows a Nubian chief tied to the prow of an Egyptian ship, dead bodies floating in the water, and the I dynasty king Djer capturing two Nubian villages. Snefru of the IV dynasty also reported an expedition into Nubia, which brought back 7,000 slaves and 200,000 head of cattle. Nubia declined rapidly, in population and wealth, and the A-Group disappeared, presumably because of the Egyptian advance. By the II dynasty, Egyptian soldiers and merchants were active as far south as Buhen, on the second cataract, and they opened up gold and copper mines in lower Nubia; later on in the IV dynasty, Khufu established diorite quarries.

Buhen and the diorite quarries were abandoned in the V dynasty, and Nubia's population recovered at that time; the Egyptians may have decided to trade with the Nubians again, rather than dominating them. Around 2200 B.C., the C-Group emerged between the first and second cataracts. The C-Group was similar to the A-Group, but showed a preoccupation with livestock: sheep, goats, gazelles, dogs, and most of all cattle. By this time the Egyptians had four names for Nubia:

  1. Wawat, the east bank of the Nile, between the first and second cataracts. Later that name would apply to all of lower Nubia.
  2. Irtjet, also between the first and second cataracts, but on the west bank.
  3. Medja, on the Red Sea coast of modern Sudan. The Medjay were often hired to serve as mercenaries in Egypt.
  4. Yam, beyond the second cataract. This was apparently the most powerful Nubian kingdom; after 2000 B.C. the Egyptians called it Kush.
Because he was in charge of Egypt's southernmost town, the Egyptian nomarch of Aswan acted as the official ambassador to Nubia. In the VI dynasty, he routinely led trading expeditions upstream, in search of cattle, mercenaries, gold, ivory, ebony, ostrich feathers and animal pelts. The most famous such foray was led by Harkhuf, the governor at the beginning of Pepi II's reign. By this time the trips had gotten risky; Harkhuf needed soldiers from Yam on the return trip to escort him safely through C-Group territory. Still, they were very profitable, and on his last journey Harkhuf announced his return by sending a letter ahead to Pepi. The letter listed all the merchandise, plus a dancing pygmy. At this point Pepi was only a child, and he did not care about the valuables Harkhuf had obtained, for all he talked about in his reply was the pygmy:

"Come northward to the court immediately; thou shalt bring this dwarf with thee, which thou bringest living, prosperous and healthy from the land of the spirits, for the dances of the god, to rejoice and gladden the heart of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, who lives forever. When he goes down with thee into the vessel, appoint excellent people, who shall be beside him on each side of the vessel; take care lest he fall into the water. When he sleeps at night appoint excellent people, who shall sleep beside him in his tent; inspect ten times a night. My majesty desires to see this dwarf more than the gifts of Sinai and of Punt."

We can assume that the pygmy arrived at Pepi's court safely, because Harkhuf had both the record of the expedition and a picture of the pygmy inscribed on the walls of his tomb. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. You will see in the next section that the reign of Pepi II is now considered the end of Egypt's first golden age, the Old Kingdom. The rise of Yam and the C-Group happened at this time because Egypt lost whatever control and influence it had over lower Nubia. We won't hear of Egyptians south of the first cataract again until after order is restored, with the establishment of the Middle Kingdom.


A map of Nubia, from the TourEgypt site.

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The End of the Old Kingdom

By and large, the Old Kingdom was a time of supreme confidence; Egypt felt completely secure and the pride of its god-kings bordered on cockiness. The V dynasty (2367-2241 B.C.) and VI dynasty (2241-2075 B.C.) saw a gradual decline in the power of the kings, and a proportional increase in that of the nobles. Once again we go the tombs to get our data. None of the kings in these dynasties built a pyramid more than 200 feet high, meaning they were all smaller than the three famous Giza pyramids of the IV dynasty; they also had shoddy workmanship.

In the middle of the V dynasty there was a backlog on the royal monument projects. The third king, Neferirkare, died before his pyramid was completed, and the next two rulers, Shepsekare and Neferefre, were so short-lived that they not only failed to finish the job, but barely got started on their own tombs. Therefore it fell on the pharaoh who came after them, Niuserre, to get these monuments done. He completed the pyramid of Neferirkare as planned, and because Neferefre had only laid down the first tier of stones for his pyramid, Niuserre dispensed with the pyramid's peak and finished it as an oversized mastaba instead. Fortunately Niuserre lasted longer than his predecessors, and thus had enough time left to build a pyramid for himself.

Up to this point, all of the pyramids had blank walls; the owners did not even put their names on them. That changed when Unas, the last ruler of the V dynasty, built for himself a pyramid full of inscriptions. These inscriptions are the famous "Pyramid Texts," the oldest existing portion of the Book of the Dead, a collection of prayers and magic spells that was regularly placed in coffins later on to provide the dead with a "how-to" manual for getting safely past the final judgment that every soul was expected to undergo. There is reason to believe that the Pyramid Texts were composed centuries earlier, though, for the Egyptologists who translated them, E. Wallis Budge and Gaston Maspero, reported signs of extensive editing and revision. Budge claimed that "It would seem even at that remote date, the scribes were perplexed and hardly understood the texts which they had before them."(13)

The kings lost power because they gave it away. The prosperity of the Old Kingdom allowed Egypt's population to grow rapidly, and as it did, the government grew with it, and took on new responsibilities--and expenses. To ease the growing workload, the kings naturally delegated some of their duties to the nobles. As in other times and places, this worked fine as long as the nobles were loyal; when they weren't, trouble would soon follow.

In this case, the trouble seems to have started with Teti, the next monarch after Unas. Teti was a son-in-law of Unas, not his son, so his rise to the throne marked the break between the V and VI dynasties. We see evidence of turmoil either when he took over or during his reign; for one thing, a mastaba tomb intended for the vizier of Unas was instead given to Idut, a daughter of Teti. Manetho also reported that Teti was murdered by his bodyguards, the first known regicide in Egyptian history, and several early VI dynasty tombs had the names and pictures of the owners severely damaged. Our guess is that the owners were among the conspirators, and the Egyptians saw this crime as so heinous, that they did what they could to keep the conspirators from going to the afterlife. Teti's successor, Userkare, was not a son of Teti, and had a short reign; it looks like he was a usurper who failed to keep the throne, for he was followed by a real son of Teti, Pepi I.

Another conspiracy arose early in Pepi I's reign, but he survived it and became the most successful king of the VI dynasty, ruling for more than forty years and conducting military campaigns against the neighboring lands: Nubia, Libya, the Sinai and Canaan. These weren't wars of conquest, because Egypt did not have enough people at this point to administer lands far from the Nile valley; rather these were raids done for the purpose of securing resources unavailable at home, and to make sure the rulers of foreign lands would trade instead of make trouble.

Again, non-royal individuals used their tombs to show they were growing more wealthy and powerful. Mereruka, the son-in-law and vizier for Teti, built for himself the largest non-royal mastaba at Sakkara, with thirty-three rooms and halls and excellent sculptures. In the nomes (provinces), the governors had once been appointed by the kings, but gradually their positions became hereditary, and once free of the crown they were less inclined to bow and scrape before the king. Now they chose to build their tombs near their homes, rather than in the royal cemeteries near their monarchs. Some of them even displayed a form of arrogance that their predecessors would not have dared. For example, a nomarch of Hierakonopolis wrote that: "I claimed from King Pepi II the honor of obtaining a sarcophagus, funerary wrappings, and oils for my father."

Maybe the kings were preoccupied with religious duties and preparing for the afterlife, but they also found opportunities to make this life more enjoyable. We already mentioned the trading expeditions to Nubia in the previous section. They also had commercial ships venture into the Red Sea, and from the IV dynasty onward they made regular trips to Byblos in Lebanon. The commodity which attracted them to Byblos was timber, because the only trees that grew in Egypt were date palms, which are suitable for log rollers but a very poor material for carpenters. We believe that the first watercraft used by the Egyptians were woven out of papyrus reeds, though some wooden boats were found buried near the I dynasty tombs at Abydos. Once the trade with Byblos started, they could build large wooden ships; two fine examples were buried next to Khufu's pyramid. The fleets were not led by independent merchants, but by personal representatives of the kings, who went forth hoping to find royal profits for both themselves and their royal sponsors.

Pepi II came to the throne at the age of six, so at first his mother, Ankhesenpepi II, acted as regent. He went on to enjoy what may be the longest reign in history; according to later historical records, he ruled for ninety-four years. This remarkable tenure should have given him more than enough material to fill his memoirs; indeed, we have more records and inscriptions from Pepi's time than we do from the reign of any previous ruler. Instead, Pepi took credit for the feats of his predecessors. On one wall of his temple are the names of some Libyan chieftains captured by the army--names copied verbatim from a list written by Sahure, a king who ruled some 200 years earlier (see footnote #16). He also appears to have exhausted the treasury; though he had plenty of time to build his pyramid complex, the pyramid itself was no larger than those of the other kings from this period; the quality of the construction wasn't any better, either. Meanwhile his courtiers had shabby tombs built of mud brick, suggesting that they had fallen on hard times. And he may have overdone it on the pampered royal lifestyle; one story, which I have not been able to verify, claims that Pepi had naked slaves covered with honey, so that flies in the palace would bother the slaves instead of him!

Finally, Pepi's longevity may have contributed to the unraveling of the country and the VI dynasty. As a ruler he was only mediocre at best, and once he was past his fifties he couldn't have done an effective job. What's more, it looks like he outlived most of his family. Two kings after Pepi finished up the dynasty, and each only ruled for about a year, suggesting that both were senior citizens when they got the crown. Thus, one can say the Old Kingdom died with Pepi II.

This is the end of Part I. Click here to go to Part II.


1. In fact, the Egyptians did not need to use much fertilizer until the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, which stopped the silt's downstream journey in the newly created Lake Nasser. The dam, however, is a mixed blessing; Lake Nasser is also a great place for fishing!

2. In recent years some utterly ridiculous ideas have been taught in our schools under the name of "Afro-centric education." Basically, these assert that the ancient Egyptians were black, and that their knowledge and wealth was later stolen by white men. Those who put forth such claims are certified black racists, and nothing they teach agrees with the plain facts. For example, on the supposed race of the Egyptians, anthropologists have examined thousands of skeletons and mummies and concluded that as far back as the Old Kingdom, Egypt was inhabited by the same types of people one sees there today: some white, some black, most brown.

3. After unification the city-states became about forty provinces known as nomes; their governors were called nomarchs.

4. Archeologists have never figured out what animal Set is modeled after. It may have been the jackass, which is associated with him later on, or the okapi, a short-necked giraffe that currently lives in the central African jungle.

5. The word "pharaoh" comes from per-ao, meaning "great house." At first it meant the central government or royal family in general, while the word heka was used to mean "king." It wasn't until the XVIII dynasty that "pharaoh" could also mean the head of state. This was the doing of Queen Hatshepsut, who needed to be called by a title more gender-neutral than "king." So while the typical history text will use the term "pharaoh" for every Egyptian monarch from the I dynasty to Cleopatra VII, and technically this is correct, the Egyptians themselves only called their rulers by that term from Hatshepsut onward. This chapter will try to follow the Egyptian example, and use the word pharaoh sparingly until the narrative gets to the New Kingdom.

6. Occasionally a major political change also marked the recording of a new dynasty; e.g. Ahmose's successful war of liberation against the Hyksos has caused him to be listed as both the last ruler of the XVII dynasty and the first of the XVIII.

7. Humorist Larry Gonick suggested this happened when a king came along whose soldiers liked him better than the system, and this king said on his deathbed, "I think I'd better take some priests with me, boys." This would have immediately given the priests a reason to make changes!
An article in the April 2005 National Geographic proposed that the servants rebelled and overthrew the I dynasty to save their skins. Because we have so little evidence to go on, we cannot say for sure if this is what happened, or if the change in custom was less dramatic. The Egyptians may have stopped burying people and animals around the mastabas because they realized that it is harder to find people willing to work for the government, if they are expected to die when the king does. Or the would-be victims may have convinced the priests that Pharaoh could wait until all his servants had died of natural causes, before they joined him in the next life.

8. One man's treasure is another man's trash. Sir Flinders Petrie discovered some arm bones wrapped in linen and wearing four bracelets, in the tomb of King Djer at Abydos. This had to be part of the oldest royal mummy ever found, either Djer himself or one of his wives. When Petrie sent the arm to the Cairo Museum, the curator removed the bracelets to put in a display case, and threw away the rest!

9. Imhotep nearly overshadowed his boss. After his lifetime the Egyptians proclaimed him the god of healing and made statues of him. So did the Greeks, who put him in their myths as Aesculapius, a great doctor who could even bring dead patients back to life.

10. The subject of these books is how and why the Great Pyramid was built in the first place. One suggested that the stone blocks were not really stone, but a form of mortar or cement that was molded into the right shape on the site. Others have speculated on advanced machinery or flying saucers; see what I wrote here about that.

Unfortunately, the figures given by Herodotus on the pyramids are false. He wrote that 100,000 workers did the labor during the three-month flood season of each year, that they spent ten years constructing a causeway to the site, and another twenty years on the actual construction of the pyramid. Excavations of the tombs and campsite of the Giza workers since 1991 have revealed a different story. Now it appears that the maximum number of workers on the site was 20,000, and a fourth of them were skilled workers (artisans, doctors, architects, bakery cooks, etc.) who stayed there all year. Also, they weren't slaves, but well-paid employees; they had plenty of good food to eat, they brought their families along, and if injured on the job, they got the best medical care available. And while it still probably took them 20 years to build the pyramid, they could have done it faster by bringing in more men. Inscriptions on the Red Pyramid of Snefru, which is half as big as Khufu's, claim that it took only two years to build. How a government project could have been completed so quickly is a mystery to me!

To keep track of how many stones were produced, those who supervised the construction of the Great Pyramid required every group of stonecutters to mark the finished stones with their names. Accordingly, most work crews gave themselves names that represented strength, like "The Vigorous Gang" and "The Enduring Gang." One very daring crew signed their stones with a political statement: "How drunk is the king!"

11. By contrast, the temples controlled the economy of Sumerian society.

12. You won't find papyrus growing in Egypt today; it was killed off by modern pollution. The same goes for crocodiles, hippopotami, and most of the other wildlife that flourished there 5,000 years ago.

13. E. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead: Papyrus of Ani, New York, Dover, 1967, pg. 6.
Actually, the Egyptians never called any text "The Book of the Dead"; the name is modern. The text Budge translated was originally called "The Book of Coming Forth By Day," and it wasn't the only text used to get one's soul safely to the fields of the afterlife. The current title came from the nineteenth-century tomb robbers who found papyrus scrolls with mummies, and called them Kitab al-Mayyit ("book of a dead person") or Kitab al-Mayyitun ("book of the dead"). Because they couldn't read the writing on the scrolls, they didn't know the subject matter, but were simply stating that they had found a "dead man's book."
An intermediate stage between the Pyramid Texts and the Book of the Dead is called the "Coffin Texts." In the Middle Kingdom, as we shall read later, mummification and a fancy burial became available to members of the middle class, and they wanted the same kinds of prayers and spells that appear in the Pyramid Texts. However, most of them did not have a large tomb where the texts could be inscribed on the walls, so the priests chose to write the texts on the inside of the coffins. But the amount of space for writing on a coffin is strictly limited, and either the tomb's owner or the priests must have been concerned that they might leave out something important, like a spell to restore life and health to a certain part of the body. The solution they came up with was to write everything that mattered on a scroll and stick it in the coffin, whether it was part of the Coffin Texts or not; that became the "Book of the Dead" used thereafter.

First Intermediate Period coffin.
This is the wooden coffin of Ipi-ha-ishutef, a scribe who worked as an army clerk during the First Intermediate Period. It is shown here because some coffin texts are visible on the inside of the lid. Early in Egyptian history coffins/sarcophagi were simple boxes; often eyes were painted on one end so that the spirit of the coffin's occupant could see his surroundings. The man-shaped "mummiform" coffins that most people associate with ancient Egypt first appeared in the XII dynasty, and weren't common until the beginning of the New Kingdom. (From the Oriental Institute, Chicago.)

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