18 Pre-Dynastic Egypt and The Old Kingdom

Pre-Dynastic Egypt

Hunter-gathering nomads sought the cool of the water source of the Nile River Valley and began to settle in the region sometime prior to 6000 BCE. Organized farming began in the region c. 5000 BCE and communities known as the Badarian Culture began to flourish alongside the river. Industry developed at about this same time as evidenced by faience workshops discovered at Abydos dating to c. 5500 BCE. The Badarian were followed by the Amratian, the Gerzean, and the Naqada cultures (also known as Naqada I, Naqada II, and Naqada III), all of which contributed significantly to the development of what became Egyptian civilization.

The written history of the land begins at some point between 3400 and 3200 BCE when Hieroglyphic Script is developed by the Naqada Culture III. By 3500 BCE mummification of the dead was in practice at the city of Hierakonpolis and large stone tombs built at Abydos. As in other cultures world-wide, the small agrarian communities became centralized and grew into larger urban centers. (23)

The image represents both sides of the Narmer Palette. On the left hand side, king Narmer stands above his enemy while the falcon-god Hathor looks on in approval. Here Narmer wears the cone crown of Upper Egypt. On the right hand side, king Narmer leads a procession of soldiers following victory in battle. Here Narmer wears the bowl-shaped crown of Lower Egypt. The decapitated bodies of his enemies lay before them.
Figure 3-2: The Narmer Palette by unknown author from Wikimedia is licensed under Public Domain

Over time, Egypt became divided into Upper (the south) and Lower (the north, closer to the Mediterranean Sea) divisions. Upper Egypt was more urbanized with cities like Thinis, Hierakonpolis, and Naqda developing fairly rapidly. Lower Egypt was more rural (generally speaking) with rich agricultural fields stretching up from the Nile River. Both regions developed steadily over thousands of years throughout the Predynastic Period of Egypt until trade with other cultures and civilizations led to increased development of Upper Egypt who then conquered its neighbor most likely for grains or other agricultural crops to feed the growing population or to trade. The Narmer Palette remembers king Narmer as the ruler to successfully unify the regions Upper and Lower Egypt.

The Narmer Palette is an Egyptian ceremonial engraving, a little over two feet (64 cm) tall and shaped like a chevron shield, depicting the First Dynasty king Narmer conquering his enemies and uniting Upper and Lower Egypt. It features some of the earliest hieroglyphics found in Egypt and dates to c. 3200-3000 BCE. On one side, Narmer is depicted wearing the war crown of Upper Egypt and the red wicker crown of Lower Egypt which signifies that Lower Egypt fell to him in conquest. Beneath this scene is the largest engraving on the palette of two men entwining the serpentine necks of unknown beasts. These creatures have been interpreted as representing Upper and Lower Egypt but there is nothing in this section to justify that interpretation. The other side of the palette (considered the back side) is a single, cohesive image of Narmer with his war club about to strike down an enemy he holds by the hair. Beneath his feet are two other men either dead or attempting to escape his wrath. (28)

The first crown is the white cone-shaped crown of Upper Egypt. The second crown is the red bowl-shaped crown of Lower Egypt. The third crown depicts the white crown of Upper Egypt seated inside the red crown of Lower Egypt.Figure 3-3: Hedjet by Käyttäjä:Kompak is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Figure 3-4: Deshret by Käyttäjä:Kompak is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Figure 3-5: Double crown by Jeff Dahl is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom is the name commonly given to the period from the Third Dynasty through the Sixth Dynasty (2686-2181 BCE), when Egypt gained in complexity and achievement. The Old Kingdom is the first of three so-called “Kingdom” periods that mark the high points of civilization in the Nile Valley. During this time, a new type of pyramid (the step) was created, as well as many other massive building projects, including the Sphinx. Additionally, trade became more widespread, new religious ideas were born, and the strong centralized government was subtly weakened and finally collapsed.

The king (not yet called Pharaoh) of Egypt during this period resided in the new royal capital, Memphis. He was considered a living god, and was believed to ensure the annual flooding of the Nile. This flooding was necessary for crop growth. The Old Kingdom is perhaps best known for a large number of pyramids, which were constructed as royal burial places. Thus, the period of the Old Kingdom is often called “The Age of the Pyramids.”

Egypt’s Old Kingdom was also a dynamic period in the development of Egyptian art. Sculptors created early portraits, the first life-size statues, and perfected the art of carving intricate relief decoration. These had two principal functions: to ensure an ordered existence, and to defeat death by preserving life in the next world. (29)

Death and Burial in the Old Kingdom

The first notable king of the Old Kingdom was Djoser (reigned from 2691–2625 BCE).

A diagram of the interior of a flat mastaba with tunnels leading downwards to two lower chambers.
Figure 3-6: Schematic of an Egypt Mastaba from the Old Kingdom originally uploaded by Oesermaatra0069 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Remains of a real mastaba, standing alone in the desert.
Figure 3-7: Example of a Mastaba by Jon Bodsworth is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

During the Old Kingdom, royal mastabas eventually developed into rock-cut “step pyramids” and then “true pyramids,” although non-royal use of mastabas continued to be used for more than a thousand years. As the pyramids were constructed for the kings, mastabas for lesser royals were constructed around them. The interior walls of the tombs were decorated with scenes of daily life and funerary rituals. Because of the riches included in graves, tombs were a tempting site for grave-robbers. The increasing size of the pyramids is in part credited to protecting the valuables within, and many other tombs were built into rock cliffs in an attempt to thwart grave robbers. (30)

The picture is that of Djoser's stepped pyramid. The pyramid includes five mastabas stacked on top of one another like a pyramidal layer cake. A camel sits in front of the pyramid.
Figure 3-8: Djoser’s stepped pyramid in Egypt by Charlesjsharp is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The first king to launch a major pyramid building project was King Djoser, who ruled in the 3 rd Dynasty. By 2611, the famed Egyptian architect Imhotep had constructed the famous “Step Pyramid” for the king at Saqqara, not far from the capital city of Memphis (near modern-day Cairo). In the following dynasties, the pyramid design changed from the “step” pyramid to a true pyramid shape as kings continued to build tombs for their kings. Among these, the Pyramids of Giza are considered the greatest architectural achievement of the time (30)

Pyramid Construction

The Old Kingdom and its royal power reached a zenith under the Fourth Dynasty, which began with Sneferu (2613–2589 BCE). Using a greater mass of stones than any other king, he built three pyramids: Meidum, the Bent Pyramid, and the Red Pyramid. He also sent his military into Sinai, Nubia and Libya, and began to trade with Lebanon for cedar. (29)

The picture is that of the pyramid of Meidum. Here, a mound of dirt and stone lies around the smooth-sided stone tower within, from which it has rescinded over time.
Figure 3-9: pyramid of Meidum by Jon Bodsworth is licensed under Public Domain

The pyramid of Medium is the first true pyramid constructed in Egypt but did not last. This is because modifications were made to Imhotep’s original pyramid design which resulted in the outer casing resting on a sand foundation rather than rock, causing it to collapse. (31)

The picture is that of the Bent Pyramid. In this image, a smooth-sided pyramid has a large lower base and a disproportionately smaller triangular top.
Figure 3-10: Bent Pyramid. Original image by Chanel Wheeler. Uploaded by Ibolya Horvath is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Bent Pyramid is so called because it rises at a 55-dgree angle and then shifts to 43 degrees of smaller stones giving it the appearance of bending in toward the top. The workers had completed the foundation and the sides before realizing that a 55-degree angle was too steep and modified their plan to finish the project as best they could. Sneferu seems to have understood the problem and moved on to build his third pyramid. (31)

The picture is that of the Red Pyramid. The image is that of a triangular pyramid rising from the ground, Smooth-sided but stony in appearance, traces of the limestone that once covered its surface lay at its base.
Figure 3-11: Red Pyramid. Original image by Arian Zwegers. Uploaded by Ibolya Horvath is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Red Pyramid (so called because of the use of reddish limestone in construction) was built on a solid base for greater stability, rising at a 43-degree angle. 344 feet (105 meters) high, the Red Pyramid was the first successful true pyramid built in Egypt. Originally it was encased in white limestone, as the other later pyramids were also, which fell away over the centuries and were harvested by locals for other building projects. (31)

The picture is that of the six Pyramids of Giza. In the background are the three large pyramids of kings Menkaure, Khafre, and Khufu situated in a line. All three are smooth-sided. In front, are three smaller pyramids, of which only one is not a stepped pyramid.
Figure 3-12: the six Pyramids of Giza by Ricardo Liberato is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Pyramids of Giza, also known as the Giza Necropolis, are one of the oldest remaining wonders of the world. The Necropolis includes three pyramid complexes: the Great Pyramid (built by King Khufu of the 4 th Dynasty); the somewhat smaller Pyramid of Khafre (buit by Khufu’s son); and the relatively modest-sized Pyramid of Menkaure. The Necropolis also includes several cemeteries, a workers’ village, an industrial complex, and a massive sculpture known as the Great Sphinx. The Great Sphinx is a limestone statue of a reclining sphinx—a mythical creature with a lion’s body and a human head. It is commonly believed that the head is that of King Khafra, who ruled during the 4 th dynasty. It is the largest monolith statue in the world, standing 241 ft long, 63 ft wide, and 66.34 ft high. (30)

Considering the technology of the day, some have argued, a monument such as the Great Pyramid of Giza should not exist. Others claim, however, that the existence of such buildings and tombs suggest superior technology which has been lost to time. Most modern scholars today reject the claim that the pyramids and other monuments were built by slave labor, and recent archaeological excavations in and around Giza support this view. Such monuments were considered public works created for the state and used both skilled and unskilled Egyptian workers in construction who were paid for their labor (23)

Sculpture During the Old Kingdom

The image is that of the Egyptian king Menkaure and his queen, Khamerernebty II. Hewn from dark stone, both king and queen are stoic in appearance and possess ideal bodies. Although standing shoulder to shoulder, Menkaure's foot steps ahead of his wife to illustrate his superior position.
Figure 3-13: Statue of king Menkaure and his queen, Khamerernebty II by  Keith Schengili-Roberts is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

Egyptian sculptors created the first life-sized statues and fine reliefs in stone, copper, and wood. They perfected the art of carving intricate relief decoration and produced detailed images of animals, plants, and even landscapes, recording the essential elements of their world for eternity in scenes painted and carved on the walls of temples and tombs. Kings used reliefs to record victories in battle, royal decrees, and religious scenes, and sculptures of kings, goddesses, and gods were common as well. Sculptures from the Old Kingdom are characteristically more natural in style than their predecessors. Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, images of people shifted toward formalized nude figures with long bodies and large eyes.

While most sculptures were made of stone, wood was sometimes used as a cheap and easily carved substitute. Paints were obtained from minerals such as iron ores (red and yellow ochres), copper ores (blue and green), soot or charcoal (black), and limestone (white). Paints could be mixed with gum arabic as a binder and pressed into cakes, which could be moistened with water when needed.

By the Fourth Dynasty, the idea of the ka statue was firmly established. Typically made of wood or stone, these statues were placed in tombs as a resting place for the ka, or spirit, of the person after death. Other sculptural works served as funerary art, accompanying the deceased in burial tombs with the intention of preserving life after death. Strict conventions that changed very little over the course of Egyptian history were intended to convey the timeless and non-aging quality of the figure’s ka. (32)

Close of the Old Kingdom

The enormous resources required for these projects ran out as the Old Kingdom went on. It was not just a problem of what it cost to build the pyramid complexes but also a matter of maintaining them. The maintenance was left to the priests of the complexes and the local official, the nomarch , of the region, who received money from the royal treasury. As more money went to the districts from the capital at Memphis, those districts naturally increased in wealth, and with the rise in popularity of the Cult of the Sun God Ra, the priests gained more wealth and power. This situation, combined with others of the time, brought about the end of the Old Kingdom. (33)


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