Ancient Egypt Old Kingdom

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

Ancient Egypt Old Kingdom. Historians have given the name Kingdom to those periods in ancient Egyptian history when:
  •     The central government was strong
  •     The country was unified
  •     There was an orderly succession of pharaohs

Intermediate Periods are the times when:
  •     Central authority broke down
  •     Competing centres of power emerged
  •     The country was plunged into civil war
  •     Or was occupied by foreigners

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. 

The Old Kingdom is also known as "The Age of the Pyramids" . Divine kingship was the most striking feature of Egypt in these periods. The political and economic system of ancient 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.

Ancient Egypt Old Kingdom

Ancient Egypt Old Kingdom

Ancient Egypt Old Kingdom

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 11th dynasties. In the period known as the Middle Kingdom the kings of the 12th Dynasty restored central government control and a single strong kingship.

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. 

Ancient Egypt Under Rome and Byzantium

Egypt Under the Roman Empire,
30 B.C.-640 A.D.

Ancient Egypt Under Rome and Byzantium. With the establishment of Roman rule by Emperor Augustus in 30 B.C., more than six centuries of Roman and Byzantine control began. Ancient Egypt again became the province of an empire, as it had been under the Persians and briefly under Alexander. As the principal source of the grain supply for Rome, it came under the direct control of the emperor in his capacity as supreme military chief, and a strong force was garrisoned there. Gradually, Latin replaced Greek as the language of higher administration.

 In 212 Rome gave the Egyptians citizenship in the empire. The emperor ruled as successor to the Ptolemies with the title of "Pharaoh, Lord of the Two Lands," and the conventional divine attributes assigned to Egyptian kings were attributed to him. Rome was careful, however, to bring the native priesthood under its control, although guaranteeing traditional priestly rights and privileges.

Ancient Egypt Under Rome and Byzantium

Ancient Egypt Under Rome and Byzantium

Ancient Egypt Under Rome and Byzantium

Ancient Egypt Under Rome and Byzantium

Augustus and his successors continued the tradition of building temples to the local gods on which the rulers and the gods were depicted in the Egyptian manner. The Romans completed the construction of an architectural jewel, the Temple of Isis on Philae Island (Jazirat Filah), which was begun under the Ptolemies. A new artistic development during this period was the painting of portraits on wood, an art that originated in the Fayyum region. These portraits were placed on the coffins of mummies.

The general pattern of Roman Egypt included a strong, centralized administration supported by a military force large enough to guarantee internal order and to provide security against marauding nomads. There was an elaborate bureaucracy with an extended system of registers and controls, and a social hierarchy based on caste and privilege with preferred treatment for the Hellenized population of the towns over the rural and native Egyptian population. The best land continued to form the royal domain.

The empire that Rome established was wider, more enduring, and better administered than any the Mediterranean world had known. For centuries, it provided an ease of communication and a unity of culture throughout the empire that would not be seen again until modern times. In Western Europe, Rome founded a tradition of public order and municipal government that outlasted the empire itself. In the East, however, where Rome came into contact with older and more advanced civilizations, Roman rule was less successful.

The story of Roman Egypt is a sad record of shortsighted exploitation leading to economic and social decline. Like the Ptolemies, Rome treated ancient Egypt as a mere estate to be exploited for the benefit of the rulers. But however incompetently some of the later Ptolemies managed their estate, much of the wealth they derived from it remained in the country itself. Rome, however, was an absentee landlord, and a large part of the grain delivered as rent by the royal tenants or as tax by the landowners as well as the numerous money-taxes were sent to Rome and represented a complete loss to ancient Egypt.

The history of ancient Egypt in this period cannot be separated from the history of the Roman Empire. Thus, Egypt was affected by the spread of Christianity in the empire in the first century A.D. and by the decline of the empire during the third century A.D. Christianity arrived early in ancient Egypt, and the new religion quickly spread from Alexandria into the hinterland, reaching Upper Egypt by the second century. According to some Christian traditions, St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in A.D. 37, and the church in Alexandria was founded in A.D. 40. The Egyptian Christians are called Copts, a word derived from the Greek word for the country, Aegyptos.

 In the Coptic language, the Copts also called themselves "people of Egypt." Thus the word Copt originally implied nationality rather than religion. In the third century A.D., the decay of the empire gradually affected the Roman administration of ancient Egypt. Roman bureaucracy became overcentralized and poorly managed. The number of qualified applicants for administrative positions was seriously reduced by Roman civil war, pestilence, and conflict among claimants to imperial power.

A renaissance of imperial authority and effectiveness took place under Emperor Diocletian. During his reign (284-305), the partition of the Roman Empire into eastern and western segments began. Diocletian inaugurated drastic political and fiscal reforms and sought to simplify imperial administration. Under Diocletian, the administrative unity of ancient Egypt was destroyed by transforming Egypt from one province into three. Seeing Christianity as a threat to Roman state religion and thus to the unity of the empire, Diocletian launched a violent persecution of Christians.

The Egyptian church was particularly affected by the Roman persecutions, beginning with Septimius Severus's edict of 202 dissolving the influential Christian School of Alexandria and forbidding future conversions to Christianity. In 303 Emperor Diocletian issued a decree ordering all churches demolished, all sacred books burned, and all Christians who were not officials made slaves. The decree was carried out for three years, a period known as the "Era of Martyrs." The lives of many Egyptian Christians were spared only because more workers were needed in the porphyry quarries and emerald mines that were worked by Egyptian Christians as "convict labor."

Emperor Constantine I (324-337) ruled both the eastern and western parts of the empire. In 330 he established his capital at Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). Ancient Egypt was governed from Constantinople as part of the Byzantine Empire. In 312 Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the empire, and his Edict of Milan of 313 established freedom of worship.

By the middle of the fourth century, Egypt was largely a Christian country. In 324 the ecumenical Council of Nicea established the patriarchate of Alexandria as second only to that of Rome; its jurisdiction extended over Egypt and Libya. The patriarchate had a profound influence on the early development of the Christian church because it helped to clarify belief and to formulate dogmas. In 333 the number of Egyptian bishops was estimated at nearly 100.

After the fall of Rome, the Byzantine Empire became the center of both political and religious power. The political and religious conflict between the Copts of Egypt and the rulers of Byzantium began when the patriarchate of Constantinople began to rival that of Alexandria. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 initiated the great schism that separated the Egyptian Church from Catholic Christendom. The schism had momentous consequences for the future of Christianity in the East and for Byzantine power. Ostensibly, the council was called to decide on the nature of Christ. 

If Christ were both God and man, had he two natures? The Arians had already been declared heretics for denying or minimizing the divinity of Christ; the opposite was to ignore or minimize his humanity. Coptic Christians were Monophysites who believed that after the incarnation Christ had but one nature with dual aspects. The council, however, declared that Christ had two natures and that he was equally human and equally divine. The Coptic Church refused to accept the council's decree and rejected the bishop sent to ancient Egypt. Henceforth, the Coptic Church was in schism from the Catholic Church as represented by the Byzantine Empire and the Byzantine Church.

For nearly two centuries, Monophysitism in ancient Egypt became the symbol of national and religious resistance to Byzantium's political and religious authority. The Egyptian Church was severely persecuted by Byzantium. Churches were closed, and Coptic Christians were killed, tortured, and exiled in an effort to force the Egyptian Church to accept Byzantine orthodoxy. The Coptic Church continued to appoint its own patriarchs, refusing to accept those chosen by Constantinople and attempting to depose them. The break with Catholicism in the fifth century converted the Coptic Church to a national church with deeply rooted traditions that have remained unchanged to this day.

By the seventh century, the religious persecutions and the growing pressure of taxation had engendered great hatred of the Byzantines. As a result, the ancient Egyptians offered little resistance to the conquering armies of Islam.

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