The Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and Second Intermediate Period, 2686 to 1552 B.C.
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
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.
Data as of December 1990