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Rise & Fall of the
Old Kingdom
by Miroslav Barta
he so-called Old Kingdom (about
2700-2200 BC) represents not
only the first centralized territo-
rial state in the history of Africa, but in
fact in the history of mankind, lasting
for about half a millennium. Yet after
several centuries the Old Kingdom
seemingly all of sudden vanished. This
article attempts to identify causes that
may have led to the demise of this once
invincible state.
The causes for the Old Kingdoms
crisis and the eventual demise of its po-
litical and economic structure may be
found at its very beginning. The avail-
able evidence shows that most of the
late Old Kingdom critical factors were
deeply rooted in the rise of the Third
and the early Fourth dynasties around
2500 BC. The eventual disappearance of
the Old Kingdom came about as a result
of long-term and predominantly inter-
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nal critical factors in the state organization and
in society generally that were hastened by a ma-
jor climatic event around 2200 BC.
n about 3000 BC, Narmer, the most powerful
chieftain in the southern part of Egypt, be-
came the first ruler on the throne of a unified
Egypt. He and his successors were considered
descendants of the gods, especially of the sun
god, Re, by whose commission they governed
their world. Numerous ruling elite emerged rela-
tively quickly, representing the connecting link
between the king and the remainder of the popu-
lation. As a consequence of deep social transfor-
mation connected with the emergence of the
nascent centralized state, the Egyptian society
became more distinctly stratified.
Especially after 2700 BC, the number of
officials mastering writing and mathematics, who
were essential for the exchange of information,
its archiving and tax collection, grew rapidly.
This enabled the administration of all areas of
ancient Egypt, reaching from the Mediterranean
coast up to todays Aswan. In the course of four
centuries, the count of officials in the land mul-
tiplied greatly.
By this time the basic tools of governance
and techniques of power and status display were
established. The ruling elite wielded their
strength with the help of a specifically created
ideology, advocating the actual social alignment.
To convey its special rank, the elite mainly uti-
lized rare and imported commodities that were
otherwise unavailable and which were acquired
through controlled long-distance trade. Another
important role was also gradually played by mon-
umental architecture. The system of privileges
that was granted by the ruler (as every loyalty
always had and still has its price) distinctly help-
ed to hold the whole system in check. Generally
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Tax collection depicted in this raised relief scene from the Tomb
of Mereruka at Sakkara was essential for raising sufficient funds
to enable the emergence of a highly specialized & complex society
such as the Old Kingdom. Photo by the Author
said the system was built in such a way that a priori hinder-
ed any social change and rigidly kept the status quo.
ithin the framework of monumental architec-
ture, the most important role was played by the
pyramid complexes. These can, in their nature
and main aspects, allegedly be considered the economic tools
that clarified the fundamental elements of the rise and final
fall of the Old Kingdom. In order to finance their construc-
tion, a sophisticated tax-collection system was required. Tax-
es were measured by the height of the yearly Nile flood,
which determined the area of irrigated fields. To keep track
of the dynamic evolution of the state, the troops of trained
administrators were soon to merge into an army.
It took approximately 300 years from the unifica-
tion of Egypt before the Egyptian architect Imhotep would
be able to build the first monumental funerary complex
made purely of stone, which belonged to King Netjerikhet
Djoser. His six-stepped pyramid, which was created in the
course of the Twenty-seventh Century BC, is situated at to-
days Sakkara, approximately forty kilometers south of Cairo.
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The Third Dynasty mortuary complex which the
architect Imhotep built for his king, Netjerikhet
Djoser, included the Step Pyramid, the first all-
stone funerary monument, & set the precedent
for the extensive pyramid building which char-
acterized the Old Kingdom. Authors photo
The pyramid complex of Djoser was made to resemble the
earthly residence of the king, consisting of many rooms and
spaces, and equipped with thousands of luxurious objects.
The sovereign was considered a god and after his death his
soul could temporarily dwell in an immortal (e.g., stone)
Several decades later the greatest ancient Egyptian
pyramid of King Khufu was built. It is estimated that over
10,000 workers partook directly in its building and the same
number worked in the quarries and participated in the logis-
tic background of a construction endeavor that took approx-
imately twenty years.
Now we come to a further aspect of complex soci-
eties the tenability of reciprocity. An ancient Egyptian so-
vereign and the ruling elite could not wield their power if
they had not (to a certain extent) guaranteed the welfare
of their populace. Already in this period the king was re-
sponsible for the governance of the land, for unchanging
order, defense of the state from external attacks and the well-
being of his subjects, all in the framework of the principle
that was named after the ancient Egyptian goddess of order,
justice and harmony, Maat.
One of the examples of his responsibility for their
welfare consisted of the provision of food to a large part of
the population. Officials were given offices and privileges,
while common peasants were given subsistence rations for
taking part in state projects, which included the construc-
tion of the pyramids. About 20,000 adult men (measured by
ancient Egyptian standards) working on the building of the
Pyramid of Khufu had, in most cases, extended families and
children, and also took care of their parents (the idea of re-
tirement homes serving to put aside the unneeded had not
yet come to be, and the wider family was taken care of) im-
plies that almost a fourth of the then population of Egypt
could benefit from this particular construction project it
is estimated that Egypt had 1,000,000 inhabitants in that pe-
f course with the increasing complexity of the state
administration and specialized ministries, the sov-
ereign lost direct control over the development of
state matters and necessarily adopted a rather symbolic role.
This turning point came about with the onset of the Fifth
Dynasty, at around 2500 BC.
Highly positioned officials were gradually able to
promote members of their families to prominent state offic-
es, their sons were named to the offices held by their fathers
and nepotism flourished. The state was by degrees divided
among powerful families who had control of different parts
of the land, and the politics of pressure and interest groups
were ubiquitous. The king, in order to maintain most of his
authority and secure loyalty of his subjects, had to devise
new measures to enable this. One of those was the politics
of marrying some of his daughters to important officials of
non-royal origin. The evolution of this practice led to the
circumstance when, at the end of the Old Kingdom, Pepy I
had a need to take the daughters of provincial officials for
his wives.
he uncontrollable growth in the number of state offi-
cials, regionalization as a consequence of interest
groups pressure, economic matters such as uncon-
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Above, The Mastaba of Ptahshepses at
Abusir, dating to the 5th Dynasty reign of
Niuserre. Authors photo Ptahshepses (far left)
began his career as a royal hairdresser &
advanced to vizier, the highest position in
Egypt after the king. At left, the imposing
entrance to his mastaba (Photos Kmt/Forbes),
one of the largest non-royal tombs of the
Third Millenium.
trollable state expenses, erosion of central state authority, so-
cial disorder, lawlessness and the like are today, just as they
were in ancient Egypt, quite distinctive features of a col-
lapse. By the term collapse is meant here the fact that the
state becomes dysfunctional in most of the parameters enu-
merated above.
This conflict is sharpened between the spheres of
influence of the functions of formerly authorized officials
and gray eminences who, although not possessing any offi-
cial function, can decide state matters more than a minister
or a deputy. We know a few such figures from ancient Egypt.
As an example we may mention the vizier (prime minister)
Ptahshepses of Abusir. By coincidence the Czech Institute of
Egyptology initiated excavations at the necropolis of Abusir
with the exploration of his tomb. This official began his ca-
reer at the court as a royal hairdresser. Apparently, he helped
King Niuserre to the throne and was subsequently made vi-
zier out of gratitude. Also, the king allowed him to marry
his daughter, Princess Khamerernebty. By degrees Ptahshep-
ses usurped some of the royal privileges this is clearly
manifested in the construction of his mastaba, which be-
came one of the largest non-royal tombs of the Third Millen-
nium. In this way Ptahshepses initiated the tradition of pow-
erful officials of the Old Kingdom building luxurious and
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richly decorated tombs for themselves. He also initiated ne-
potism at the highest levels of state administration, by en-
abling his sons to establish and advance their careers at
court, just as he had done.
The Orwellian description of the rather recent rule
of the last Ethiopian emperor, Haille Selassi, who governed
19301974, in the work of Ryszard Kapuciski, sounds very
similar. It is full of unbelievable details of the mechanisms of
Selassis rule. It indicates that a plebian Aklil (without any
function in the state or the palace) had more influence on
the happenings at the court and in the land than most of the
ministers. This was due to the fact that spheres of influence
were not defined by official status and titles, but instead by
the possibility of direct access to the king and his ear. Todays
parallels need no mention at all.
o return to ancient Egypt, the erosion of central au-
thority was soon linked to a crisis of the ability of
the sovereign and state to ensure enforcement of his
decisions in the regions further from the center of state
power, followed by a crisis of legitimacy. This is not surpris-
ing, in so far as we realize that the influence and power of
the highly positioned families whose members executed
the most prominent functions in the ancient Egyptian
state were in a rapid stage of advancement at the end of
the Old Kingdom during the Twenty-third Century BC. The
individual Egyptian nomes (administratively discrete units)
were basically doing whatever they wanted in the period of
decline and shifted under the authority of several local oli-
Naturally, the ancient Egyptian sovereigns attempt-
ed to respond to these tends. The last seven or eight rulers
of the Old Kingdom tried to prevent, through administrative
reforms, the increasing influence of the officials governing
the southern part of the land. However, the biggest mistake
in their internal politics was the constant return to modifica-
tions of an already dysfunctional model of central state-con-
trol. Unknowingly, they were making an ever-present and
even today very common mistake in not recognizing that
certain factors had exhausted their effects; and they believed
that crises could be diverted through inveterate improve-
ment and modifications with only short-term effectiveness.
Above, Raised relief in the Tomb of Ptahhotep II at Sakkara reflects
the lavish food offerings and vast redistribution system which at the
end suffocated the Old Kingdom state. Authors photo Right, Officials
such as the scribe Nefer (his statue found in only 2012 at Abusir)
were the backbone of the state during the Old Kingdom. Photo: M. Frouz
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Nevertheless, crises were constantly deepening, not
linearly but in steps, when after a short period of imminent
consolidation, there suddenly came an even worse decline.
Also, the intervals between individual crises became shorter.
Thus this process brings to mind the theory of punctuated
equilibrium, originally developed by American natural sci-
entists N. Eldrige and S. J. Gould, as an explanation of gen-
eral evolutionary processes.
An additional factor which contributed to the down-
fall of the era of the pyramid building was the growing, un-
productive, mandatory expenses on the part of the state or-
gans. In order for the ancient Egyptian sovereign to keep his
outer godly status and be honored as the only intermediary
between the people and the deities of the ancient Egyptian
pantheon, he needed a plethora of paid priests who worked
in his interest and in their own, as well. Together with
the growth of the ancient Egyptian state, this group also
multiplied. Every king built a mortuary complex dedicated
to maintaining his personal cult after death. Hundreds of
priests took part actively, on a full-time basis, in these cults,
and their numbers grew accordingly, as the number of these
mortuary complexes multiplied.
This mechanism is very well recorded in the papy-
rus archives of Abusir, which represent one of the most un-
ique of the Czech discoveries there. The peak in this trend
can be seen in an entry from the papyrus archive of King
Raneferef (a rather insignificant ruler who lived in the
Twenty-fifth Century BC). From this we learn that during a
particular religious holiday in the Temple of Ptah in Men-
nefer (then the capital of Egypt, situated close to Abusir)
which lasted seventeen days, 221 head of cattle were butch-
ered. With regard to the fact that in ancient Egypt wages
were not paid in money but in kind, these offerings, after
they were symbolically laid on the altars for some period of
time, were subsequently divided among the priests, accord-
ing to their status. This included not only meat but also
beer, bread, and other miscellaneous food and beverages.
It is unnecessary to note that the ancient Egyptian
calendar was full of holidays. Analogous festivities occurred
simultaneously in all the mortuary complexes of the kings,
where the storage facilities for keeping the commodities des-
ignated as offerings in the temples increased radically to-
wards the end of the Old Kingdom. In a way these forced
(mandatory) and unproductive expenses resemble todays
condition of public budgets in several states, especially some
European ones. The upkeep of a certain myth or symbol has
its cost, and one thing is certain it is not an infinite process.
n the end the last significant factor contributing to the
downfall of the Old Kingdom was a climatic change.
Thanks to geology and its related fields, we have long
known that the cyclic swings in the climate such as the
alternation of ice ages and inter-ice ages were and are a
natural part of the course of the world. The question is what
has been happening with the climate in the course of ap-
proximately the last 10,000 years, when its instability has
been rather significant and Europe, for example, has passed
through several large climatic stresses in the past few cen-
turies? One certainty is that the swings in climate had and
still have a considerable impact on the course of human his-
tory; the decrease in the extent of the annual Nile inunda-
tion contributed to the disintegration of the era of the pyra-
mid builders: without reasonable floods, there were no rea-
sonable harvests and therefore very bad taxes; without ap-
propriate taxes there were no sufficient means to finance the
state apparatus and maintain the ideology and integrity of
the state.
In a period when highly positioned officials of the
state were acting as they chose to, when the central authori-
ties had become merely bystanders to happenings in the land
and when unproductive expenses of the state had grown un-
tenably, increasing drought was the last blow and the cat-
alytic component of the collapse. However, this has not been
an exception in history. Climatic changes were perceptible,
for example, in the time of the origin of the Hussite move-
ment (Bohemia, Fifteenth Century). From a different angle,
the melting of glaciers may lead within a few decades to
Greenland becoming a meaningful economy based on the
extraction of crude oil.
he above-mentioned factors inducing the collapse of
the ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom, may be summa-
rized as follows: (1) The crisis of identity and credi-
bility (how the ruling elite was accepted and considered
legitimate); (2) The crisis of participation (who and how
they took part in the state administration); (3) The crisis of
penetration (the ability and effective control in the function-
ing of the state); (4) The crisis of legitimacy (the question of
authority and the ability to enforce decisions); (5) The crisis
of distribution (the effectiveness in the redistribution of eco-
nomic resources); (6) The climate fluctuation having direct
bearing on economic output and potential of the country.
It is important to stress again that de facto the same
features which stood at the birth and unbelievable boom of
Egypt in the era of the pyramid builders eventually caused
its collapse. These transformations can be described in six
(1) The king: While in the beginning he was an ex-
ceptional figure with untouchable status, at the end of the
development of the Old Kingdom, the sovereign had to
share his power with the families of provincial officials who
acquired extensive political and economic independence.
(2) Organization of the state apparatus: At the be-
ginning this consisted of loyal officials, subject directly to
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The end of the Old Kingdom high
provencial official Harkhuf, who in
his biography recorded in his rock-
cut tomb at Aswan (Qubbit el Hawa)
made significant mention of his many
ablilities, high standing & admirable
character. Authors photo
the king. Subsequently they were able to usurp more and
more power, to introduce the principle of hereditary state of-
fices, to crumble the state administration and greatly con-
tribute to the boom in clientelism.
(3) The structure of state administration: At the be-
ginning of the development of the state, it was vertical and
centralized, while at its end decentralization and regional-
ization occurred, with several self-contained centers existing
(4) Construction of royal pyramid-complexes: Early
on in the existence of the Old Kingdom, it stimulated the or-
ganization of state management and its economic basis; but,
as a consequence, it led to a gradual growth in state admin-
istration, a huge increase in mandatory expenses and crucial
multiplication in the number of officials of all grades.
(5) The running of the royal pyramid complexes:
At first it functioned to strengthen royal power, state ideol-
ogy and the development of technologies; eventually it led
to a disproportionate encumbrance of the economy, im-
peaching royal authority and a build-up of regional elites.
(6) Economic system: In the beginning we have an
efficient system of collection, distribution and redistribution
of the taxes which, finally evolved into disintegration and
regionalization; a disintegration of effectively functioning
central elements came to pass, together with the inability to
share economic potential with the class of subjects as it was
fter a closer examination of the above-mentioned
factors, it is not complicated to identify most of
them even today. If we explore how people perceiv-
ed collapses (in the quality of life, social security, mobility,
nutrition, level of crafts, fuzzy ideology, lawlessness and
general insecurity) in the past, we will find that, as a matter
of fact, it does not differ, except in its phraseology, from how
collapses have been described in all later civilizations. We
may quote an extract from a text almost 4,000 years old. It is
known among scholars as The Admonitions of Ipuwer (or The
Lamentations of Ipuwer; see Gardiner, 1909) and describes
the situation that came to pass after the dissolution of the
Old Kingdom around the year 2200 BC. The disintegration
of the central government and administration had transpired
and manifested itself in lawless times, the delivery of sup-
plies had collapsed, the climate had deteriorated, there was a
common deficiency in food products and the state had bro-
ken into several independent regions, where power was
usurped by the most powerful:
Indeed, the private council-chamber, its writings are taken
away Indeed, public offices are opened and their inventories
are taken away; the serf has become an owner of serfs. Indeed,
[scribes] are killed and their writings are taken away. Woe is
me because of the misery of this time! Indeed, the writings of
the scribes of the cadaster are destroyed, and the corn of Egypt
is common property. Indeed, the laws of the council chamber are
thrown out; indeed, men walk on them in public places, and
poor men break them up in the streets Behold, the land has
knotted itself up with confederacies, and the coward takes the
brave man's property Behold, the possessors of tombs are
ejected on to the high ground, while he who could not make a
coffin for himself is now [the possessor] of a treasury Be-
hold, no craftsmen work, for the enemies of the land have im-
poverished its craftsmen [Behold, he who once recorded]
the harvest now knows nothing about it, while he who never
ploughed [for himself] takes place but is not reported. The
scribe [sits in his office], but his hands [are idle] in it Au-
thority, knowledge, and truth are with you, yet confusion is
what you set throughout the land
In this text, we may find a pure extract of how the
ancient Egyptians imagined a collapse. Namely, as a total
failure of the top administrative structures, unexpected and
sudden changes in social hierarchy, the loss of education,
poor availability of information, knowledge and ability in
craftsmanship, the slowing down or prevention of the trans-
fer of information; in other words, chaos.
owever, already at this time a new order began to
arise that would, in its foundation, use the chief
trends of this period. The collapse after 2200 BC
had positive features, as well. We can observe (re-)emer-
gence of many local centers of craftsmen production and po-
litical power. In 200 years the Egyptian so-called Middle
Kingdom would sprout from these roots and would adapt its
structure to new social developments.
The sovereigns of the Middle Kingdom would call
themselves shepherds. They would heed the position of
the middle rank of officials at the court and in the provinces
(thus respecting the previous development), and they would
permit the middle class access to the official religion. The
rulers themselves would start to be represented in front of
the gods on their knees, in positions of adoration, which
was a tradition that had already formed in the period of the
declining Old Kingdom. Statues of the kings would show
them with individualized features, as care-worn leaders who
looked after their people, maintaining order and justice in
the land. However, even these shepherds would fail in the
end. One cannot trust shepherds, just as one cannot trust
About the Author Dr. Miroslav Barta is a professor at the
Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University, Prague,
Czech Republic. Since 1991 he has been director of the
Abusir South Project, excavating in the Old Kingdom ceme-
teries there. He is also the author of several monographs.
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