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Why Ancient Egypt’s Old and Middle Kingdoms Collapsed? Essay


Introduction

The Egyptian civilization is one of the most ancient in the world. It started existing over 5,000 years ago, and a little more than 4,500 years ago it turned into a strong, developed state which had numerous technological advancements and a highly developed culture. The fact that the construction of the famous Egyptian pyramids began approximately at that time shows the capabilities of the civilization.

The history of Ancient Egypt is divided into a number of periods. It began with the Early Dynastic period. That period was followed by the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom, with two Intermediate Periods between them. In this paper, we will be interested in the periods of the first two Kingdoms, and the Intermediate Periods after them. More specifically, we will discuss the events which led to the collapse of the two Kingdoms, and consider how exactly they caused the fall. We will also examine how Egypt managed to reform after collapsing. We will also into the Intermediate Periods as well, for they will help us to better understand the causes of both collapse and restoration of the respective Kingdoms.

The Old Kingdom of Egypt

The Old Kingdom of the Egypt lasted from the earlier half of the 26th century until the latter half of the 22nd century BC. (It should be pointed out that the names were given to the periods by historians; people of those times did not attribute such names to their epochs.) This is the period during which the Third Dynasty through the Sixth Dynasty of Kings ruled, from the city of Memphis.1

The Old Kingdom was a period of a developed, prosperous civilization during which the country enjoyed rather high levels of internal security. At first, during the Old Kingdom, the state was strong and centered; the King of Egypt was considered to be a god, and he could have an absolute power over his subjects. (It is worth pointing out that, strictly speaking, the title “pharaoh” started to be used to address the Egyptian kings only during the New Kingdom, during the reign of Thutmose III, circa 1479-1425 BC. For earlier times, therefore, it is more appropriate to use the term “king”.)2 The Old Kingdom was also the period during which the Egyptian Pyramids were first built in order to serve as burial vaults for the kings.

How Did the Old Kingdom Collapse?

The power of the Egyptian king became significantly weakened during the Sixth Dynasty. One of the factors which might have caused additional problems with the king’s power was the exceptionally long reign of Pepi II, who was the king from his early childhood until very old age. Ancient sources state that he ruled for over 90 years.3 He lived longer than a large number of his children, which led to additional difficulties with the succession of the king’s post.

It also should be stressed that nomarchs, or governors of the nomes (regional divisions of Egypt), were able to attain more power gradually, as the influence of the king became weaker. It is noteworthy that these nomarchs started local dynasties of their own, and with time the representatives of these dynasties were, in fact, independent of the King of Egypt to a certain extent. This caused a number of conflicts inside the country, and this strife persisted for a long time.

At a certain point, nomarchs started to challenge the King of Egypt in order to gain his power. The resulting major conflicts led the country to a continuous period of hunger and internal conflicts that lasted for approximately one and a half centuries. This period ended what the modern historians call the Old Kingdom; the new epoch has gained the name of the First Intermediate Period, and lasted from the 22nd to the 21th centuries BC.4

Why Did the Old Kingdom Collapse?

There are a number of reasons by which the fall of the Old Kingdom is usually explained. We have already mentioned that the king’s power became gradually weaker, and that the strengthening of the nomarchs in the regions, as well as the fact that their titles and posts also were passed to their children, which led to the conservation of power by these families, also led to the further decline of the central state power. The nomarchs, enjoying growing amounts of independence from the king, in some cases started building their own armies and engaged in numerous internal conflicts between each other. It is clear that this situation also weakened Egypt greatly.

It is also pointed out that, while at first the power of the king was absolute, it eventually became partially distributed among other members of the society. As a result, power in Ancient Egypt did not come only from kings, royal institutions, and gods; it was also given to various representatives of the society.5 For instance, it is stated that an important factor which added up to the gradual decline of the central power was the way in which the ownership of the land in Ancient Egypt was organized.

For example, in Egypt there arose a whole social stratum of officials and priests. Egyptian kings often provided land to the members of this stratum in order to repay some of their services. They also often gave territory to the temples to make sure that the clergy were able to properly worship the king after his death. Thus, the king of the state gradually lost his ownership of the territory, and the ownership passed not only to religious establishments but also to private hands. It is stated that the loss of the land weakened the authority of the king with time, for he and his representatives were not able to fulfill the expectations of his subjects.

The transformation of the state property on the land into the private property made the state economy weak, and the king had no effective means of restoring his authority. The state was deprived of resources necessary for sustaining large administrative apparatus. On the other hand, the nomarchs gained more land and power, which, in the absence of controlling institutions that would be strong enough, allowed them to eventually start internal conflicts that led the Old Kingdom to the decline.6

Another important factor that significantly contributed to the collapse of the Old Kingdom and should not be forgotten is the drought. The decreased amounts of precipitation struck the already weakened Egypt at some point, in the earlier half of the 22th century BC. Because of this, the Nile could not satisfy the needs for water of the local communities or farmers. The resulting famine led to worsening of the conflicts already taking place inside the country, and the Old Kingdom of Egypt collapsed under the total weight of the named causes.

There existed a number of other factors that also might potentially have played their role in the collapse of the Old Kingdom. For instance, the requirement of the regular sacrifices for the dead (which is shown in e.g. the ancient inscriptions7), or the donations for the temples, or other needs dictated by the culture. However, these needs did not take much from the dwellers of Egypt.

Therefore, the main reasons that led to the fall of the Old Kingdom were the internal conflicts between the influential members of the society such as nomarchs, the grown inability of the central power to properly address these conflicts (although initially it would have been able to resolve the matters), and the drought which led to hunger and significantly exacerbated the situation in the society. On the other hand, it also should not be forgotten that some of the local rulers, nomarchs, having become rich, improved the situation in some of the provinces. Still, the central state administration was extremely weak during these times. 8

Why Was Egypt Able to Reform into the Middle Kingdom after the Collapse of the Old Kingdom?

The collapse of the Old Kingdom ended the Sixth Dynasty of the Egyptian kings. The First Intermediate Period of Egypt (22nd – 21th centuries BC) is described as a time of chaos and numerous internal conflicts. Not much is known about the Seventh and the Eighth Dynasties; there is a statement that the Seventh Dynasty consisted of a large number of kings (either five of seventy kings of Memphis, who ruled for 70 or 75 days); the Eighth Dynasty lasted longer, for 100 or 146 years, but the knowledge is still very limited.9

The Ninth and Tenth Dynasties, on the other hand, were comprised of kings who reigned from Heracleopolis, a city located in Lower Egypt. They took part in numerous conflicts, in particular, with nomarchs of Thebes, Upper Egypt. At a certain point, the representatives of Thebes started gaining victories. Finally, Mentuhotep II finally overcome Heracleopolitan kings and united the country under his rule. This event was the beginning of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. Mentuhotep II is considered to be a representative of the Eleventh Dynasty of Egyptian kings; his rule lasted for over 50 years.

It is interesting that Mentuhotep II, having conquered the country, restored the cult of the ruler that existed in the Old Kingdom, and proclaimed himself a god, as his predecessors had done. Clearly, he also secured the control of military and political resources of the country, as well as the territorial wealth. It is apparent that the constant chaos and internal conflicts occurring during the First Intermediate Period would eventually come to an end; but why did the Middle Kingdom become another absolute monarchy?

There is a hypothesis that, had it been not for the drought, Egypt might have turned into a conglomeration of small territories after fall of the Old Kingdom, and that this conglomeration might have turned into a different type of society. However, it is further assumed that the Egyptians were not able to develop to that condition due to the fact that too many issues were pressing the Egyptian society. This is why, once tendencies toward reunion of the territories emerged, the end result was similar to what existed during the Old Kingdom – the new monarch to a large extend copied what was before, during the prosperous times of the Egyptian civilization, perhaps in hopes to return those times, perhaps for his own benefit.

The Middle Kingdom of Egypt

The Middle Kingdom of Egypt was a period that lasted approximately from the 21st to the 18th centuries BC. This period is associated with the rule of the Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties of Egypt. The degradation and collapse of the Middle Kingdom occurred with the end of those dynasties, during the rule of the subsequent Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasties. The following period bears the name of the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt.10

In 1798 BC, Makherure Ammenemes IV of the Twelfth dynasty became the king of Egypt. In contrast to his predecessors, his rule was brief; however, it is apparent that during his rule the wealth and prestige of the country remained rather high and did not degrade. A number of monuments and temples were built for him. His successor, Queen Sobkneferu (the earlier part of the 18th century BC, ruled for approximately four years), had a sphinx and statues made in her name during her short period of rule. Her rule is considered to be the last reign in the Epoch of the Middle Kingdom.11

Queen Sobkneferu was followed by a large number of various rulers who reigned for very short periods of time; these rulers bear the name of the Thirteenth Dynasty, even though many of them apparently were not related to one another. It is stated that the first of these kings might have been puppets appointed for limited periods of time. It is also considered to be a certain fact that, even though the royal power still was highly respected inside Egypt for over a century since the beginning of the Thirteenth Dynasty, the feebleness and unsettledness of the crown that came to existence with the passage of time had an adverse impact on both the internal condition of the country and its external relations. The building activities were still carried out in the country, though, and the reputation of Egypt remained intact in western Asia and Nubia for a period of time.12

How Did the Middle Kingdom Collapse?

Among the prominent rulers of the Thirteenth Dynasty, Neferhotep I should be noted as a king who ruled for nearly eleven years and preserved a large amount of power of the Twelfth Dynasty. Still, at a certain point during the rule of the Thirteenth Dynasty, a number of cities and towns started to have more and more influential nomarchs, which was similar to what occurred during the fall of the Old Kingdom. It is supposed that this again was a result of the social problems present in the Egyptian society.

During the rule of King Tutimaios, weakened Egypt started to fall under the Hyksos. They were a group of peoples of the Asian origins who started invading Egypt and gradually spread across the Nile Delta. It is noteworthy that a number of the last representatives of the Thirteenth Dynasty were just local rulers, nomarchs, who controlled a few nomes at best, or a single town in most cases.13

The Hyksos infiltration into Egypt started in the 18th century BC. It is stated that the infiltration was not a sudden invasion of a united army of Asians; on the contrary, it is believed that a number of different peoples coming from Western Asia, mainly of the Semitic origins, migrated to Egypt and overrun its lands. First, they occupied the Delta of the Nile; after that, they spread to the Upper Egypt. Gradually, they spread over the whole country and consolidated. These people also started a dynasty of their own rulers in Egypt. The point of final disintegration of the country between various rulers is considered to be the end of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. The following epoch received the name of the Second Intermediate Period, and lasted from the middle of the 17th to the middle of 16th centuries BC.14

In the 18th century BC, the Fourteenth Dynasty emerged; noteworthy, it was partially comprised of Hyksos. Some of them ruled synchronically to the Thirteenth Dynasty over different lands. The Fifteenth Dynasty also consisted of Hyksos kings.

Why Did the Middle Kingdom Collapse?

As it was already pointed out, it is apparent that a number of social conflicts took place at some point during the period of the Middle Kingdom. Similarly to the earlier situation, these conflicts weakened the central power. Apparently, the weakening of the kings’ rule led to the gradual decline of the condition of the country’s internal affairs. The fact that the central power was weak allowed a number of nomarchs to take power over their towns, cities or regions, which once again led to the division of the country among various rulers and to internal conflicts. That the Fourteenth Dynasty for some time existed simultaneously with the Thirteenth Dynasty also points at the fact of Egypt being split after the Middle Kingdom.

The arrival of large numbers of Hyksos also was a cause of the downfall of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. As it was mentioned, they arrived in the country not as a single army, but as a number of separate peoples who gradually took over large territories. It is worth pointing out that in many cases it might be easier for the central government to fight off a single army of invaders than to control numerous people who come independently from each other and spread around a country. Perhaps this was also the case with Hyksos; besides, the weakness of the representatives of the Thirteenth Dynasty also added to the factors which made the ivasion of these peoples easier.

Why Was Egypt Able to Reform into the New Kingdom after the Collapse of the Middle Kingdom?

After the Hyksos infiltration, Ancient Egypt fell under the rule of these people. However, they were not active military invaders; the process of invasion took a number of tens of years. Finally, they claimed a large part of Egyptian territory, but not the whole of it. While they were able to keep the territory of the country under their control, they still had opponents who wanted to rule. Some of them came from Thebes; the Seventeenth Theban Dynasty comprised of native Egyptians was able to discover some technologies that Hyksos brought with them.

One of such technologies was bronze-working; it allowed Egyptians to learn from their foreign rulers how to create superior weapons. It is also important that the success of Hyksos showed the native Egyptians that, despite the power of the Middle Kingdom, they were not safe against foreign invaders. This idea had a major impact on the future New Kingdom, which is also known as the Egyptian Empire.15

Therefore, it should be noted that native Egyptian dynasties coming from Thebes started making attempts to dispose of rulers of the country coming from the Hyksos people, as well as of the Egyptian collaborators. It is claimed that Thebans had some type of resentment against Hyksos, and wanted to dispose of them in order to restore the rule of the native Egyptians. The first explicit attempt to recapture Egypt was made by Ka-mose of Thebes, the last king of the Seventeenth Dynasty.16 However, the throne was only won by his brother Ahmose, the first king of the Eighteenth Dynasty, in the last decade of his reign.17

Interestingly, it is pointed out that “the nature of the Egyptian state at the beginning of the [Eighteenth] dynasty was surely mainly a continuation of forms and traditions that had never been entirely disrupted by the internal squabbles of the Second Intermediate Period. It must have been in part the commanding faith in those traditions that enabled Ahmose’s predecessors in the 17th Dynasty to consolidate a power base among other powerful Upper Egyptian families.”18

This allows to explain the nature of the reformation of Egypt into the New Kingdom after the Second Intermediate Period. Indeed, it is apparent that the Theban rulers attempted to return the reign of native Egyptians to the country. The fact that the culture of the Egyptians did not change significantly, and native Egyptians perhaps still regarded Hyksos as aliens in many cases, allowed Ahmose to eventually capture the throne. The experience of being exposed to an external threat and having failed rose a type of anxiety and the wish to conquer more surrounding lands in order to secure themselves in the key representatives of the Egyptians, whereas the new technologies taken from the former rulers allowed them to successfully make war and take over many new territories.

Conclusion

As we were able to see, it might be argued that the collapses of both the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom were caused by conditions that were somewhat similar. In both cases, the Egyptian state was supposed (or, should we say, “tailored”) to have strong central power that would be able to regulate the events happening inside the country.19

However, at or after the end of both periods, the king was not able to do so due to the gradual weakening of his position, caused e.g. by the way the lands were distributed among the members of the society. This allowed nomarchs to accumulate private property, build their own armies, and fight for power with each other. The resulting conflicts, along with other factors such as the drought, divided the country (which was perhaps beneficial for people in the regions in a number of cases, but not to the Egyptian state).

In the case of the Middle Kingdom, Hyksos also became involved, and significantly affected the situation. Still, the Egypt was able to reform in both cases; in the first case, a victor appeared in these conflicts who managed to unite or claim the land; in the second case, the victor was additionally driven by the idea of protecting against the external threats. In both cases, it might be concluded that strong state ideology helped a strong state to emerge – a situation that always has many dangers, and, undoubtedly, had its cost for the people who lived there, but, as it might be argued, led to some positive cultural achievements at the time.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2006.

Manetho. ”The University of Chicago. Web.

.” The Royal Titulary of Ancient Egypt. Web.

Secondary Sources

Coogan, Michael David. The Oxford History of the Biblical World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Edwards, I. E. S., C. J. Gadd, N. G. L. Hammond, and E. Sollberger, eds. The Cambridge Ancient History. Volume II, Part 1: History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region, c. 1800-1380 B.C. 3rd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Hayes, William Christopher. The Cambridge Ancient History. Egypt: From the Death of Ammenemes III to Seqenenre II. Revised Edition of Volumes I & II. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

Hayes, William Christopher. The Scepter of Egypt: A Background for the Study of the Egyptian Antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Part II: The Hyksos Period and the New Kingdom (1675-1080 B.C.). New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.

Kamil, Jill. The Ancient Egyptians: Life in the Old Kingdom. Cairo, Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press, 1996.

Malek. Jaromir, and Werner Forman. In the Shadow of the Pyramids: Egypt during the Old Kingdom. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.

Ryholt, K. S. B. and Adam Bülow-Jacobsen. The Political Situation in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, c. 1800-1550 B.C. Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1997.

Shaw, Ian, ed. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Warden, Leslie Anne. “Webs of Power: identifying Royal and Private Power in Old Kingdom Egypt.” Expedition 57, no. 2 (2015): 24-29.

Footnotes

  1. Jill Kamil, The Ancient Egyptians: Life in the Old Kingdom (Cairo, Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press, 1996), 3.
  2. Michael David Coogan, The Oxford History of the Biblical World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 66.
  3. “The Turin Papyrus King List,” The Royal Titulary of Ancient Egypt. Web.
  4. I. E. S. Edwards, C. J. Gadd, N. G. L. Hammond, and E. Sollberger, eds, The Cambridge Ancient History. Volume II, Part 1: History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region, c. 1800-1380 B.C. 3rd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 44-50.
  5. Leslie Anne Warden, “Webs of Power: identifying Royal and Private Power in Old Kingdom Egypt,” Expedition 57, no. 2 (2015): 29.
  6. Jaromir Malek and Werner Forman, In the Shadow of the Pyramids: Egypt during the Old Kingdom (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 119-120.
  7. Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature. Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2006), 15-16.
  8. Jaromir Malek and Werner Forman, In the Shadow of the Pyramids: Egypt during the Old Kingdom (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 119.
  9. Manetho, ”Manetho’s History of Egypt,” The University of Chicago. Web.
  10. William Christopher Hayes, The Cambridge Ancient History. Egypt: From the Death of Ammenemes III to Seqenenre II. Revised Edition of Volumes I & II (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 3-5.
  11. William Christopher Hayes, The Cambridge Ancient History. Egypt: From the Death of Ammenemes III to Seqenenre II. Revised Edition of Volumes I & II (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 3-4.
  12. I. E. S. Edwards, C. J. Gadd, N. G. L. Hammond, and E. Sollberger, eds, The Cambridge Ancient History. Volume II, Part 1: History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region, c. 1800-1380 B.C. 3rd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 44-45.
  13. I. E. S. Edwards, C. J. Gadd, N. G. L. Hammond, and E. Sollberger, eds, The Cambridge Ancient History. Volume II, Part 1: History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region, c. 1800-1380 B.C. 3rd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 51-53.
  14. I. E. S. Edwards, C. J. Gadd, N. G. L. Hammond, and E. Sollberger, eds, The Cambridge Ancient History. Volume II, Part 1: History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region, c. 1800-1380 B.C. 3rd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 54-58.
  15. K. S. B. Ryholt and Adam Bülow-Jacobsen, The Political Situation in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, c. 1800-1550 B.C. (Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1997), 151-162, 168-169, 171-182.
  16. William Christopher Hayes, The Scepter of Egypt: A Background for the Study of the Egyptian Antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Part II: The Hyksos Period and the New Kingdom (1675-1080 B.C.) (New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990), 42.
  17. Ian Shaw, ed., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 207.
  18. Ian Shaw, ed., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 207.
  19. Jaromir Malek and Werner Forman, In the Shadow of the Pyramids: Egypt during the Old Kingdom (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 119.
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IvyPanda. "Why Ancient Egypt's Old and Middle Kingdoms Collapsed?" July 1, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/why-ancient-egypts-old-and-middle-kingdoms-collapsed/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Why Ancient Egypt's Old and Middle Kingdoms Collapsed?" July 1, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/why-ancient-egypts-old-and-middle-kingdoms-collapsed/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Why Ancient Egypt's Old and Middle Kingdoms Collapsed'. 1 July.

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