The Divine Pharaohs
Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BCE) flourished on the flood-enriched banks of the Nile River. It was an era of prosperity, relative stability, and strong centralized rule, during which the great pyramids were built and Egyptian society worshipped their mighty kings, or pharaohs, as “gods on Earth.”
Old Kingdom society was tightly controlled by a centralized government headed by a highly powerful ruler, the pharaoh. Central to life, politics, and religion, which were all closely combined, was the idea that the pharaoh was a semidivine figure who acted as mediator between the gods and his subjects.
As a religious and political leader, the pharaoh not only oversaw elaborate religious rituals that underlined his links with the gods, he also headed a vast, highly organized political and administrative bureaucracy, peopled by an army of advisors and officials, chief of which was an officer called a vizier. The bureaucracy also included local governors, who oversaw regions called nomes (former independent regions). Pharaohs are often seen as being despotic. However, although their word was law, the pharaohs did delegate a signiﬁcant amount to the governors and, as the Old Kingdom progressed (see AFTER), gave them more and more power.
Kingdom of the Sun
The ﬁrst pharaohs were believed to be earthly representations of the mythical ﬁgure Horus, son of the god Osiris, and Isis (see pp.68–69). Horus was strongly linked with Ra (or Re), creator of life and falcon-headed god of the Sun. The Sun cult became very important during the Old Kingdom and Ra emerged as a separate ﬁgure from Horus. “Ra” even became incorporated into pharaohs’ names.
Through these connections, the pharaoh was the upholder of a justice system that aimed to reﬂect the cosmic order. He was also, vitally, the ﬁgure who worked with the gods to ensure that the Nile brought silt-rich annual ﬂoods each year, keeping the Nile Valley fertile enough to support the great Egyptian state.
The pharaoh was the ultimate all seeing, all-knowing ﬁgure. He was often depicted dressed in a kind of kilt and false beard, bearing a crook, ﬂail, and scepter, and with the double crown of Lower and Upper Egypt on his head. A cobra, the “eye” of Ra, was shown rising up off his forehead. He was accompanied by the royal fan-bearer, and people fell prostrate before him. Egyptians did seem to realize he was a ﬂesh-and-blood human, but they stood in awe of his sacred power.
Gift of the Nile
Ancient Greek historian Herodotus described the Nile’s bounty as a “gift.” The mighty river cut a huge valley in the northeastern corner of Africa (see pp.64– 65). To the north, in Lower Egypt, the Nile’s tributaries fanned out to create a wide, fertile delta, home to a high concentration of people. At the delta’s south was the “capital city” of Old Kingdom Egypt— Memphis. Farther south, in Upper Egypt, the valley snaked away in a narrow strip, with towns clinging to its fertile banks.
The Nile’s annual inundation left in its wake the rich black silt on which the Egyptians relied to grow their crops. Vast irrigation programs were devised to direct the waters to wide areas of agricultural land. Marshlands along the banks provided waterfowl for eating (by wealthy people only) and the papyrus reed, used for making writing materials. The river waters themselves supplied ﬁsh and a means of getting from one place to another. The Egyptians, surrounded by vast stretches of arid, inhospitable desert, were only too aware of how dependent they were on this massive ﬂoodplain, As a result, lookouts were posted along the Nile in southern Egypt to spot early signs of high or low waters that would affect the annual harvest. Society’s pecking order Society was fairly clearly divided into different levels. At the top was the royal family, presiding over court and administrative ofﬁcials, such as scribes, and also priests. There was a strict pecking order, and showing duty and loyalty were top priorities.
It is said that most ordinary people in the Old Kingdom led miserable lives pressed into the pharaoh’s service, building vast constructions or growing crops to feed the cities, in return for just enough sustenance to stay alive. However, evidence suggests that there was an independent local life, too, including markets where people sold produce and simple crafts. The fact that anyone could, theoretically, gain high ofﬁce also contradicts the idea of a total dictatorship.
The age of the Pyramids
The Old Kingdom is best known for its advances in stone building techniques, which saw fruition in the famous “step pyramid” at Saqqara, and then in the colossal royal pyramid tombs of the 4th dynasty (c. 2613–2494 BCE). Built at Giza, close to Memphis at the edge of the desert, these are among the greatest building achievements in history. The Great Pyramid—the tomb of the pharaoh Khufu—was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and the only one that survives intact today. Just to the east of the pyramid lies the Great Sphinx, a massive part-lion, part-human statue, thought to have Khufu’s features. The Giza pyramids are one of the earliest examples of using quarried stone. Huge blocks of limestone were transported from some distance away, cut with incredible precision, and lifted into place to make a perfectly ﬁtted construction. No one knows exactly how this was achieved. Each pyramid may have been surrounded by a sloping bank, built upward as the pyramid grew higher. The stone blocks may have been moved up the slope manually by using rollers and levers.
A Middle Eastern power
Egypt became a major player in Middle Eastern politics during the Old Kingdom period. There is evidence of long-distance contact with many regions, including parts of modern Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and Sudan. Contact arose because Egypt wanted to keep its borders safe, and to trade for materials, such as wood. Borders cannot be maintained or crossed without negotiation, so Egypt must have started to develop the diplomatic skills for which it became famous.
Imhotep is credited as the main architect of Djoser’s “step pyramid.” Djoser was the second pharaoh of the 3rd dynasty (c. 2686–2613 BCE) and Imhotep was his chief adviser and physician, as well as being the leading genius of his day. His step pyramid is seen as the building that helped establishes the Old Kingdom as an era of remarkable achievement. The oldest surviving building made from cut blocks of stone, it was the ﬁrst true Egyptian pyramid. Giza’s great tombs adapted Imhotep’s design, but ﬁlled in the stepped sides to produce what we now think of as the classic pyramid. Imhotep’s skills as a physician were such that he was worshipped as a god in later ancient Egypt and Greece.