The First Intermediate Period

The god king no longer enjoyed exalted status. Local rulers and nomarchs had grabbed much of his authority. When the collapse finally came, it was sudden and complete.  While general disorder and the independence of local rulers helped bring about the collapse of the Old Kingdom, many scholars believe that climate change in Africa and the Near East had at least as much to do with it. Changes in the patterns of monsoon rains over the Abyssinian highlands caused widespread drought and a series of low Niles. Food production abruptly declined.

Hot winds blew from the south for weeks at a time, according to some ancient texts. Sandstorms and dust storms hid the sun for days. Already dry farms turned to dust. In some places, the Nile was so shallow that it could be crossed on foot. Drought and famine in the Near East drove bands of starving, desperate refugees to Egypt’s borders, putting additional pressure on food and water supplies. These disastrous events called into serious question the god-king’s ability to control the river and to ensure agricultural success. The king quickly lost any reputation he still had for magical powers.

Only local warlords had the power to repel invaders, control distribution of scarce food, and enforce water conservation. Egypt quickly splintered into numerous small feudal kingdoms ruled by powerful chieftains. Their only concerns were keeping their domains secure and keeping invaders out. Art, tomb building, and everything else had to wait.  This period spans from about 2130 B.C.E. to 1980 B.C.E., Dynasties 9 to 11 (early). But in fact, there is little information and much confusion about the length of this period (estimates range from 140 to 200 years) and the number of kings.

A rapid succession of kings (sometimes more than one at a time) claimed the throne. None of these self proclaimed rulers had much influence beyond Memphis. By 20 years after Pepy II’s death, the Delta had been invaded by “Asiatics” refugees and nomadic tribes from northeast of Egypt in the Near East, Palestine, and beyond, to the Tigris Euphrates Valley. Egypt’s government, such as it was, fled south. One powerful faction ruled the Delta during the ninth and tenth dynasties, and parts of Middle Egypt from Herakleopolis. They brought a temporary end to warfare, expelled Asiatic invaders from the Delta, fortified the eastern borders, improved irrigation systems, and reestablished Memphis as a regional capital. Another powerful ruling family (the Eleventh Dynasty) ruled from Thebes. There were frequent border clashes between the Thebans and Herakleopolitans.

Ancient Egypting Old Kingdom

 The Old Kingdom spans Dynasties 4 through 8, a period of 495 years from 2625 B.C.E. to 2130 B.C.E. It was the age of the great pyramids. The rule of the god king was absolute. He alone was privileged to enjoy eternal life. As chief priest, he controlled the Nile and the inundation, and made sure the sun rose every day. As leader of an increasingly prosperous country, he commanded enormous power and wealth.

Old Kingdom kings poured all of Egypt’s resources into ensuring that their afterlives would be as luxurious and glorious as possible. For a few hundred years at the height of the Old Kingdom, all Egypt’s wealth stone, gold, and gems, every peasant’s labor, every artisan’s skill, the central government, and the entire religious establishment were harnessed for a single goal: building royal tombs. Advances in architecture, astronomy, surveying, construction, quarrying, stonework, sculpture, art, and hieroglyphic writing were focused on designing, building, decorating, and maintaining the king’s tomb and vast necropolis a city of the dead, where tombs were laid out like a well planned town.

Ancient Egypting Old Kingdom


Like Djoser, later kings also wanted pyramids. And now they had the wealth to build on a large scale. They tried several designs. During his 40 year reign, Fourth Dynasty king Sneferu built at least two pyramids of different designs: his Bent pyramid, and the Red Pyramid, both at Dahshur. The Bent pyramid was an attempt to build a true, smooth sided pyramid. But during construction, it almost collapsed. So the builders had to reduce its almost 54 degree angle of incline to 43 degrees halfway up, resulting in a curiously asymmetrical profile. The Red Pyramid is a smooth sided (not stepped) structure, making it the first true pyramid.

Unlike the Great Pyramid and others in the Giza Plateau, the Red Pyramid at Dahshur rises at a 43 degree angle of incline.  Sneferu’s son, Khufu, was the biggest builder of all. He spent his entire 25 year reign getting ready for his afterlife. It still holds many mysteries. The Great Pyramid of Khufu, second king of the Fourth Dynasty, is the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world still standing. Khufu took the art and science of pyramid building to heights it had never achieved before, and never would again.

Khufu built his pyramid and necropolis at the edge of the desert on the northwestern corner of the Giza Plateau, southwest of modern Cairo. No one had built there before. When fully developed, the complex stretched over four miles long. It included the Great Pyramid (surrounded by an eight foot high wall) and a huge mortuary temple for the king’s funeral. A 2,700 foot long paved causeway led to the Valley Temple by the Nile. At least five pits held boats in which Khufu’s spirit could sail the heavens. 

The vast necropolis included hundreds of mastabas for royals, nobles, priests, and officials. Villages housed construction workers and priests to tend to the king’s cult after his death. There were three small pyramids for Khufu’s queens, and a small cult pyramid a very small pyramid used in religious/magical rituals and ceremonies during the king’s funeral, and afterward as a site of rituals for his mortuary cult. It may have been meant for the king to use in some (unknown) way during his afterlife. It was excavated only recently, and its precise meaning and use within the necropolis is still a hot topic of debate among Egyptologists.

 Khuit Khufu Khufu’s Horizon, as the Egyptians called the Great Pyramid was the largest, most complex, and best built of all the pyramids. When first built, it rose 481 feet into the desert sky. (The top 31 feet, including the capstone, are long gone.) The pyramid’s base covers about 13 acres. Each of the four sides is 755 feet long at the base. Until 1889, when the 1,045 foot Eiffel Tower was built in Paris, it was the tallest artificial structure on earth. It held this record for more than 4,000 years. More than 2 million limestone blocks, weighing an average of two  and one half tons each (some weigh up to 15 tons), were stacked, with amazing accuracy, in 210 ascending rows.

The blocks in the lowest row are five feet tall; the blocks at the summit are 21 inches tall. The outer walls are slightly concave (bowed inward) to increase stability. The Pyramid was topped with a gold covered pyramidion (pyramid shaped capstone). No one is sure exactly how the Great Pyramid was built or how long it took. Egyptian priests told Herodotus it had taken 20 years. He calculated that the project would have required more than 100,000 workers.

Modern Egyptologists believe it was more like 15,000. The pyramid builders had mostly stone age tools. But they also had unlimited  manpower, religious motivation, excellent organization, strong leadership, and plenty of time. For measuring, the builders used ropes and sticks, a plumb bob (a weight at the end of a string), leveling staffs, and a set square to mark angles. For cutting limestone, they used flint knives, copper chisels, long copper saws, and wooden wedges. A stonecutter, recognizing natural seams in the rock, pounded in wooden wedges, soaked the wedges, and waited for the heat of the sun to expand the wood.

The wood split the rock at the seams. Harder stone was pounded free with diorite slabs, using pumice or quartz sand as an abrasive. Most of the blocks were quarried from limestone outcrops near the site. The outer casing was fine white limestone from Tura, east of the Nile. (Most of the casing blocks are long gone, used to build medieval Cairo.) The pink granite for the burial chamber and sarcophagus (the outer stone coffin) was floated on barges from quarries near Elephantine. At the time the Great Pyramid was built, the Egyptians had donkeys and oxen, but no horses. They did not use pulleys or wheels.

The massive blocks were probably raised using earth and mudbrick ramps. The design of the ramps is a subject of much controversy. On flat ground and slight inclines, the blocks were dragged with heavy flax ropes over oiled rollers made of wood or stone. The Great Pyramid was not built by slaves. Manual laborers, drafted from all over Egypt, worked under a core of architects, engineers, master builders, stonemasons, artisans, and scribes. Draftees were mostly farmers who had nothing to do while their fields were underwater as a result of the inundation.

They worked for a season, then returned home. The Pyramid’s interior is a complex maze of chambers, tunnels, shafts, and corridors. There is much controversy about the purpose and nature of some of these features, and whether there might be stillundis covered features inside, or beneath, the Great Pyramid. Khufu’s son, Khafre, built his slightly smaller pyramid complex near his father’s. He added a unique touch: the Great Sphinx. A reclining lion with a human head and Khafre’s face, this guardian of the necropolis, carved from a natural outcrop of limestone, is 60 feet tall and 240 feet long.

King Menkaure’s pyramid, the third at Giza, is only half the height of the Great Pyramid. In fact, the huge pyramids of Sneferu, Khufu, and Khafre were a departure from the normal scale of the vast majority of pyramids. Many scholars think that after Khafre the emphasis turned to temples and their decoration. As they observed the sun and the other objects in the sky, the as  tronomer priests of the popular sun god Re at Heliopolis made many discoveries. They documented the movements of celestial bodies, and learned to calculate the passage of time based on the rising and setting of stars and constellations. They understood the geometry of angles and were skilled at surveying land.

They guarded their scientific knowledge closely. Because its priests possessed so much useful knowledge, the solar cult became wealthy and powerful. The first kings of the Fifth Dynasty final ly realized that building lavish tombs for themselves while ignoring the rest of the country was not wise. They quickly saw the advantages of being associated with Re’s powerful cult. Fifth Dynasty king Userkaf built the first temple to the sun god. His successors built many more. Fifth Dynasty pyramids were not as well built at their Fourth Dynasty predecessors: They were constructed with rubble or mudbrick cores covered with stone casings.

When the outer stone was stolen for other buildings (as always happened, sooner or later), the pyramids crumbled. Since the pyramids could not be relied on to stand forever, kings started looking to magic to ensure a comfortable afterlife. The tomb of the last king of the Fifth Dynasty, Unas, contains the first known example of the Pyramid Texts, which are hundreds of magic spells to help the dead king navigate the dangers of the underworld on his way to paradise. During the Fifth Dynasty, power was somewhat decentralized and nomarchs and provincial nobles became increasingly wealthy and powerful. Many local posts became hereditary, with fathers passing power and taxfree estates to their sons. A feudal system developed, especially in Upper Egypt.

Local rulers controlled mini kingdoms and paid little attention to dictates from Memphis. As long as Egypt remained peaceful and taxes rolled in to the royal treasuries, the kings went along with this arrangement. But there was rumbling on the borders. Soldiers often had to be sent to Nubia to protect trade routes and to recruit mercenaries (soldiers for hire) for the army and police forces. A major fort was established at Buhen, near the second cataract. Libyan raiders made repeated incursions from the western desert.

The Fifth Dynasty ended in confusion. The first king of the Sixth Dynasty, Teti, settled things down. But the power and influence of the king was severely declining. Local nobles no longer felt it necessary or even desirable to be buried near the king. They built tombs for themselves and their families in their own districts. The last known king of the Old Kingdom, Pepy II, took the throne when he was a child. (Pepy II was, in fact, a Sixth Dynasty king, and the Old Kingdom ended in the Eighth Dynasty.

However, not much is known about the kings of Dynasties 7 and 8, and Pepy II is the last king from this period to have had much influence over the course of events in the Old Kingdom.) His 94 year reign appears to have been marked by a steady decline in royal power. As the power of central government decreased, the power of local rulers increased. Instability and civil disorder followed Pepy’s death. A few hundred years of gloriously high culture had been followed by a severe backlash.

Many scholars believe the artistic and architectural achievements of the Old Kingdom were never equaled. But the Great Pyramid and similar projects were enormous drains on Egypt’s resources. The royal pretensions that led to such projects got out of hand. When powerful and all too independent nobles rebelled against the king’s authority and a series of low Niles brought widespread crop failure and famine, pyramid building was the last thing on the king’s mind.