November 6, 2012

Decline of the Old Kingdom in Ancient Egypt

Decline of the Egyptian Old Kingdom
Divine kingship did not remain frozen at its inception. When the political structure was strong, the God-king was strong. When wealth was depleted and loyalties divided, the God-king lost prestige. With the loss of prestige came loss of power. From generation to generation in the 4th dynasty, one family had headed the priesthood, nominated the governors, pronounced final judgement and reaped the benefits of a highly organised state. There was no overshadowing of their figurehead, the pharaoh. It was the God-king who smote enemies, conducted expeditions and attended official functions. The God-king was the symbol of power and the authority of the state. By the reign of Isesi king, the fourth pharaoh of the 5th dynasty, we see the first hint of the rising power of the officials a short text accompanying a relief of a triumphant march in which the officer in charge of the expedition is mentioned by name. The provincial governors began to agitate for independence. They were the first to throw off the restraint imposed by the Great House and establish themselves as landed Egyptian  lords.

According to the Annals of the Ramesside era, the direct line of Menes came to an end with Unas, the last pharaoh of the 5th Egyptian dynasty, and a new dynasty of Memphite origin began.

The enfeebled monarchy proved powerless against the growing influence of the provincial governors. As power passed to them their local deities grew proportionately popular and sun worship was correspondingly on the wane. Among the fine reliefs in the Egyptian Sun Temples is a representation of the pharaoh, once the ‘Great Power, who has power over the powers . . . the most sacred of the sacred images of the Great One’ (U. 273/4) depicted being nursed at the breast of the vulture- goddess of Nekhen. This revealing vision of the God-king’s power being so reduced that he takes sustenance from another god is followed by further loss of prestige: by the reign of the 6th dynasty pharaoh Pepi I he is kneeling before another god to present offerings. And finally, among the ruins of the causeway of Pepi II’s pyramid, we see him no longer as a God- king, but represented as a sphinx and a griffin, trampling enemies.

There were violent political disturbances during the transition from the 5th to 6th dynasties. The governors abandoned their tide ‘First after the King’ and called themselves 'Great Chief’ (Lord) with the name of their province. One Great Chief boasted of bringing people from neighbouring areas to settle in the outlying districts of his province to infuse new blood into it. No longer aspiring to be buried on the royal necropolis, in the shadow of their pharaoh’s pyramid, the Great Chiefs constructed Egyptian tombs in their own provinces.

The country had segmented into those very provinces of Upper and Lower Egypt which had emerged from the strongest neolithic settlements. At the end of the 6th Egyptian dynasty political confusion erupted in national chaos. Civil war broke out and the monarchy collapsed.

Many factors probably contributed to the collapse of the Egyptian  Old Kingdom. It may have been the undertaking of huge noneconomic enterprises like the building of the Great Pyramids. The royal house may have been impoverished by maintaining temples whose endowments increased from generation to generation. The famine of the 5th dynasty may have hastened its collapse (in the causeway of the pyramid of Unas are scenes showing men with bony limbs and hollow flanks sucking their fingers to appease the pains of hunger), or the need to fight aggression (the first battle scenes appear in Sahure’s Sun Temple). Or it may have been the division of power and wealth between two opposing factions, following the first crack in the structure when Ptah-Shepses infiltrated the Heliopolitan ranks, married a pharaoh’s daughter and became High Priest of Ptah. The final rift may, indeed, have come when Pepi I married a woman of non-royal blood and, in breaking the class structure, shattered the very foundations upon which the Old Kingdom rested. Political rivalry between two priesthoods, which fired the cultural explosion in the Egyptian Old Kingdom, seems also to have been a main cause for its collapse.

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