The Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and Second Intermediate Period, 2686 to 1552 B.C.

Egypt Table of Contents

Historians have given the name "kingdom" to those periods in Egyptian history when the central government was strong, the country was unified, and there was an orderly succession of pharaohs. At times, however, central authority broke down, competing centers of power emerged, and the country was plunged into civil war or was occupied by foreigners. These periods are known as "intermediate periods." The Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom together represent an important single phase in Egyptian political and cultural development. The Third Dynasty reached a level of competence that marked a plateau of achievement for ancient Egypt. After five centuries and following the end of the Sixth Dynasty (ca. 2181 B.C.), the system faltered, and a century and a half of civil war, the First Intermediate Period, ensued. The reestablishment of a powerful central government during the Twelfth Dynasty, however, re-instituted the patterns of the Old Kingdom. Thus, the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom may be considered together.

Divine kingship was the most striking feature of Egypt in these periods. The political and economic system of Egypt developed around the concept of a god incarnate who was believed through his magical powers to control the Nile flood for the benefit of the nation. In the form of great religious complexes centered on the pyramid tombs, the cult of the pharaoh, the godking , was given monumental expression of a grandeur unsurpassed in the ancient Near East.

Central to the Egyptian view of kingship was the concept of maat, loosely translated as justice and truth but meaning more than legal fairness and factual accuracy. It referred to the ideal state of the universe and was personified as the goddess Maat. The king was responsible for its appearance, an obligation that acted as a constraint on the arbitrary exercise of power.

The pharaoh ruled by divine decree. In the early years, his sons and other close relatives acted as his principal advisers and aides. By the Fourth Dynasty, there was a grand vizier or chief minister, who was at first a prince of royal blood and headed every government department. The country was divided into nomes or districts administered by nomarchs or governors. At first, the nomarchs were royal officials who moved from post to post and had no pretense to independence or local ties. The post of nomarch eventually became hereditary, however, and nomarchs passed their offices to their sons. Hereditary offices and the possession of property turned these officials into a landed gentry. Concurrently, kings began rewarding their courtiers with gifts of tax-exempt land. From the middle of the Fifth Dynasty can be traced the beginnings of a feudal state with an increase in the power of these provincial lords, particularly in Upper Egypt.

The Old Kingdom ended when the central administration collapsed in the late Sixth Dynasty. This collapse seems to have resulted at least in part from climatic conditions that caused a period of low Nile waters and great famine. The kings would have been discredited by the famine, because pharaonic power rested in part on the belief that the king controlled the Nile flood. In the absence of central authority, the hereditary landowners took control and assumed responsibility for maintaining order in their own areas. The manors of their estates turned into miniature courts, and Egypt splintered into a number of feudal states. This period of decentralized rule and confusion lasted from the Seventh through the Eleventh dynasties.

The kings of the Twelfth Dynasty restored central government control and a single strong kingship in the period known as the Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom ended with the conquest of Egypt by the Hyksos, the so-called Shepherd Kings. The Hyksos were Semitic nomads who broke into the Delta from the northeast and ruled Egypt from Avaris in the eastern Delta.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress