's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Dynasties in Egypt: the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Egypt, like all nations, did not emerge full-grown onto the world stage. Archaeological investigations have demonstrated that several cultures emerged and thrived on the banks of the Nile River, before two kingdoms managed to take hold of the land, and eventually unite under a single royal standard. The earliest era in Egyptian history is called the Predynastic period. The neolithic ended in Egypt around 4400 BCE with the appearance of the Amratian culture in Upper Egypt. The Amratians buried their dead in communal cemeteries in the desert, and showed signs of caring about the fate of the dead by such actions as covering the bodies with mats. In Lower Egypt, the Maadi culture developed around 4000 CE, about the same time that the Amratians underwent significant changes, evolving into or being replaced by the Gerzean culture. The Gerzeans continued to bury their dead in the desert, while the Maadi placed their dead in burial mounds. All three cultures produced distinctive pottery, which has helped Egyptologists to identify where and when each culture was active. Around 3200 BCE, a group from Upper Egypt came to dominate the whole country, which Egyptologists designate as Dynasty 0. The burial of the Dynasty 0 ruler King Scorpion shows signs of the formation of Pharaonic civilization. Tags that served as an inventory of King Scorpion's funerary goods are the earliest known example of a writing system.

Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BCE)[edit | edit source]

The Old Kingdom is the name given to the period in the 3rd millennium BC when Egypt attained its first continuous peak of civilization in complexity and achievement – the first of three so-called "Kingdom" periods, which mark the high points of civilization in the lower Nile Valley (the others being Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom).

The term itself was coined by nineteenth century historians and the distinction between the Old Kingdom and the Early Dynastic Period is not one which would have been recognized by Ancient Egyptians. Not only was the last king of the Early Dynastic Period related to the first two kings of the Old Kingdom, but the 'capital', the royal residence, remained at Ineb-Hedg, the Ancient Egyptian name for Memphis. The basic justification for a separation between the two periods is the revolutionary change in architecture accompanied by the effects on Egyptian society and economy of large-scale building projects.

The Old Kingdom is most commonly regarded as the period from the Third Dynasty through to the Sixth Dynasty (2686 BC – 2181 BC). Many Egyptologists also include the Memphite Seventh and Eighth Dynasties in the Old Kingdom as a continuation of the administration centralized at Memphis. While the Old Kingdom was a period of internal security and prosperity, it was followed by a period of disunity and relative cultural decline referred to by Egyptologists as the First Intermediate Period. During the Old Kingdom, the king of Egypt (not called the Pharaoh until the New Kingdom) became a living god, who ruled absolutely and could demand the services and wealth of his subjects. The numerous references to the Old Kingdom kings as pharaohs in this article stems from the ubiquitous use of the term "pharaoh" to describe any and all Ancient Egyptian Kings.

Under King Djoser, the first king of the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, the royal capital of Egypt was moved to Memphis, where Djoser established his court. A new era of building was initiated at Saqqara under his reign. King Djoser's architect, Imhotep is credited with the development of building with stone and with the conception of the new architectural form—the Step Pyramid.[4] Indeed, the Old Kingdom is perhaps best known for the large number of pyramids constructed at this time as pharaonic burial places. For this reason, the Old Kingdom is frequently referred to as "the Age of the Pyramids."[1]

Middle Kingdom (2055–1650 BCE)[edit | edit source]

The Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian history is characterized by a powerful noble class and similarly powerful priesthoods of several prominent gods jockeying for power. The Middle Kingdom collapsed when a group of outside invaders called the Hyksos invaded Egypt using chariots, horses and iron. The Hyksos established their own monarchy and controlled Lower Egypt for approximately 200 years.[2]

New Kingdom (1550–1069 BCE)[edit | edit source]

Statue of Akhenaten in Amarna style

The New Kingdom period of Egyptian history commenced with the uprising of Pharaoh Ahmose, who used the Hyksos technologies of chariots, horses and iron against the outside invaders, and re-conquered Lower Egypt. The New Kingdom's pharaohs were powerful compared with their authority in the Middle Kingdom, but still had to balance their wills against both priesthoods and nobility. A rising middle class also appeared in Egypt, and the idea of a universal afterlife (and acceptance of mummification for all social classes) took hold throughout the country. No pyramids were constructed during this age, since the nobles and the temples had building projects of their own which competed with royal building. However, the rock-cut tombs of the Valley of the Kings date to this period, including the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Religious controversy also shattered the internal peace of Egypt several times, most notably during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who attempted to institute monotheism upon his subjects.

Amarna Period The Amarna Period was a brief, yet significant, era during the Eighteenth Dynasty coinciding with the reign of Amenhotep IV, better known to history as Akhenaten (reigned 1353–1336 BCE). Akhenaten's name alteration was just one of the sweeping changes he instituted in his reign. His name, translating to "Horizon of the Aten", reflects his most important change: the rejection of Egypt's traditional polytheistic religion for the institution of the near-monotheistic worship of the sun-disc "Aten". While the worship of Aten was the most significant, and controversial, of Akhenaten's reforms, in addition, he moved the royal residence from Thebes to the city of Amarna and ordered a change in artistic aesthetics which would become known as the Amarna style. The Amarna style is characterized by its depiction of human subjects with elongated heads, necks with spindly arms and legs. Even more distinct about the art of the Amarna era was the androgynous depiction of males, particularly of Akhenaten. Compared to traditional Egyptian depictions of pharaohs, images of Akhenaten often feature wide hips, prominent breasts, stomach and thighs, all features associated with feminity.[3]

Attribution[edit | edit source]

  1. "Old Kingdom of Egypt" (Wikipedia)
  2. "Ancient History: Egypt-Middle Kingdom" (Wikibooks)
  3. "Ancient History: Egypt-New Kingdom" (Wikibooks)