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SUMMER 2009 (Volume 25, No. 1)
What Caused Egypt’s Old Kingdom to Collapse?
The farmers of Egypt’s Old Kingdom did not have to worry much about local rainfall, irrigated fields, or poor soil. If the annual Nile River floods were too low, however, disaster could strike the kingdom.
The Agricultural Revolution appeared relatively late in ancient Egypt. The lush environment of the Nile River provided an abundant food supply of wild edible plants and seeds, fish, birds, and big game to the people who lived there.
Nile is a Greek name for what the ancient Egyptians simply called “the river,” which flows northward through Upper and Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt begins in the southern end of the country at the first Nile cataract (waterfalls), near present-day Aswan. The river then heads downstream about 600 miles through the Nile Valley to where it forms a wide delta before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. The marshes and islands of the delta form Lower Egypt.
A branch of the Nile breaks away in the middle of Egypt. The branch flows roughly parallel to the main channel for a couple hundred miles, turns sharply west into the Sahara Desert, and fills a lake and marshlands called the Faiyum Oasis.
Around 5000 B.C., Egypt’s growing population required a larger food supply. This forced the early Egyptians to domesticate animals like cattle and to plant grain crops such as barley, which depended on winter rainfall. But the Egyptians soon developed a unique method of growing their crops by taking advantage of the Nile River flood that occurred each summer.
The Nile Flood
The annual Nile flood happened because of heavy summer rains far away to the south in the highlands of what are now Ethiopia and East Africa. Rivers from these areas drained into the Nile. The river’s floodwaters surged northward through Upper and Lower Egypt to the Mediterranean.
The Nile overflowed its banks each year around September. The water went onto a flood plain that extended the length of the river and averaged a dozen miles wide. Each year, the floodwaters deposited new fertile silt into natural basins. Farmers did not have to add fertilizer to the soil.
After the water soaked into the earth in the late fall, farmers cast seeds onto the moist rich soil and turned it over with wooden plows pulled by oxen. Nature did the rest until it was time to harvest the crops in the spring. The cycle started all over again with the next Nile summer flood.
The annual Nile flood made it unnecessary to construct complex irrigation projects, as was the case in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Local authorities merely directed farmers to dig channels and construct small earthen dams and riverbank levees to divert floodwaters into or away from certain areas.
The first extensive Egyptian irrigation projects did not occur until after 300 B.C. in the area of the Faiyum Oasis. The early Egyptians had largely ignored this area as a major farming region.
Furthermore, the early Egyptians did not have the technology to lift or pump water from one level to another except by physically carrying buckets. The Nile flood did this work for them. Only much later in Egyptian history did farmers use a pole and bucket lever (shaduf) to lift water from the Nile during the dry season to grow a second or even third crop.
The ideal flood in the Nile Valley was about 30 feet above the usual river level. A flood above this level could destroy villages, drown livestock, and cause loss of human life. A low flood could also cause great damage. Less land could be cultivated resulting in food shortages.
A series of Nile failures, lasting several years or even decades, had disastrous consequences. When these Nile failures periodically occurred, famine stalked the land, causing mass starvation.
The ancient Egyptians kept records of the Nile floods using Nilometers. These were usually stone structures with markings that measured the highest level of each flood.
Following the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under King Narmer around 3000 B.C., surviving Nilometer records show the beginning of a trend toward lower than normal floods. This eventually spelled trouble for the Egyptian people.
The Rise of the Old Kingdom
Historians have traditionally organized Egypt’s history by groups of dynasties (families of kings or pharaohs). The Old Kingdom includes the first important dynasties that made Egypt an advanced civilization. The Old Kingdom began with the Third Dynasty of kings in 2686 B.C. and ended with the Eighth Dynasty, more than 500 years later.
Memphis (also a Greek name) was the capital of the Old Kingdom. It was located on the banks of the Nile where Upper and Lower Egypt joined (near modern Cairo). Upper and Lower Egypt were organized into about 40 districts, called nomes, each with a governor who owed his post and loyalty to the king.
The king, wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, held absolute authority. Officials kissed the ground before his feet. Egyptians did not consider the king to be a god, but only the king could speak to the gods on their behalf.
By carrying out sacred rituals and ceremonies, the king assured order, protection of the people, and the seasonal Nile flood. When trouble occurred, such as a low flood or plague, Egyptians believed the king had failed to perform his duties adequately.
A capable bureaucracy of officials, literate in reading and writing hieroglyphics, served the king. During the early Old Kingdom dynasties, members of the royal family made up this elite class. Later, the king chose those without royal blood, largely by merit, to administer the kingdom.
Since no monetary system yet existed in Egypt, the king paid his most important government officials by granting them estates, including the people who worked on them. When these officials died, the estates went back to the king.
The highest official and adviser of the king was the vizier, who was in charge of all government departments. Surprisingly, no department had responsibility to oversee the annual Nile flood.
The common people in the Old Kingdom lived mostly in small towns and farming villages attached to large estates. The king claimed ownership of all land in Egypt, but he handed out estates to royal family members, to high government officials, and for temples to the gods or former kings.
The common people who worked on these estates were bound to them. They did not have the freedom to leave. But they were not slaves who could be bought and sold. Men and women bound to an estate had a duty to work the land to feed themselves and to hand over a portion of their crops to the landowner. The king occasionally drafted men to work on royal construction projects and to serve as soldiers.
During most of the Old Kingdom, the population remained stable at around 1.5 million. In times of normal floods, Nile flood-plain agriculture could easily supply food for this number of people.
Unless exempted by the king, estate owners paid taxes in the form of grain, cattle, or other agricultural products. The king’s treasury consisted of storehouses for these products to be used as pay for government workers and craftsmen, donations to temples, and trade goods in foreign commerce.
The Old Kingdom was almost economically self-sufficient. The Nile Valley of Upper Egypt supplied staple crops such as barley, wheat, and vegetables along with fish and wild game. The less populated and wetter Lower Egypt delta had fruit orchards, grape vineyards, and grazing areas for herds of cattle and sheep.
But Egypt had no forests, so it imported timber from Syria and Lebanon. Old Kingdom kings also sent expeditions south of Aswan into Nubia to trade for luxury items like ivory, incense, spices, gold, and animal skins.
No major foreign powers threatened Egypt, so the Old Kingdom had no permanent army. Occasionally, however, kings would draft men for a military campaign into Nubia or North Africa to take resources such as cattle and slaves.
The Age of Pyramid Building
Religion evolved during the Old Kingdom. Most common people worshipped local gods, but the king increasingly became the central figure of an official state religion that emphasized life after death.
Tomb artists portrayed most traditional Egyptian gods as having the body of a man or woman with the head of an animal or bird. Egypt’s kings early on adopted Horus, the hawk god “who is high,” as their protector.
During the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, the sun god Ra took a dominant place in the state religion. When the king died, Egyptians believed he accompanied Ra on his trip each day through the sky in a “solar boat.” In addition, Osiris, who judged the dead in the underworld, became increasingly important. Strangely, there never was a god of the Nile River.
Egyptians believed in preserving a dead person’s body to sustain his ka or life force in the afterlife. This belief led to mummification. The Old Kingdom kings seemingly became obsessed with creating tombs that would protect their mummies along with all the comforts they would need in the afterlife. Thus the age of pyramid building began.
The first tombs for kings were rectangular structures with flat tops. Next came step pyramids, huge square-based pyramids with six big steps. Finally, kings built true pyramids with four smooth sides. Khufu (also called Cheops), who reigned from about 2589 to 2566 B.C., built the largest true pyramid, known today as the Great Pyramid of Giza, next to modern Cairo. It rises to a height of almost 500 feet.
For about 20 years, Khufu’s builders moved 2 million blocks of stone, each weighing from 2 to 17 tons. Recent evidence indicates that they may have used an ingenious stone ramp, spiraling upward inside the pyramid as they constructed it.
The kings built their pyramids not far from Memphis. The builders quarried most of the stone blocks nearby, but transported higher quality stone on barges from as far away as Aswan during the flood season.
The Egyptians knew about the wheel but did not have wheeled vehicles or even major roads at this time. They also did not have horses or camels. The pyramid builders used only oxen and the drafted labor of tens of thousands of men to haul stone blocks on wooden sleds over sanded or mud surfaces. The most active building time took place in the summer when the Nile flood prevented much farm work.
Nearly 300 years after Khufu’s death, a 6-year-old became king of Egypt in 2278 B.C. Pepy II remained on the throne for an astounding 94 years.
When Pepy II reached old age, his authority weakened, his government officials grew ineffective. Many nome governors evolved into semi-independent local rulers. The government was beginning to fall apart.
Pepy II (also called Neferkara) died in 2184 B.C. He was buried in the last major Egyptian pyramid, which was named “Neferkara is established and living.”
Then, 19 kings, including one woman, took and lost the throne in less than 25 years. By the end of this chaotic period in 2160 B.C., the Old Kingdom had completely collapsed.
Why Are There No More Nile Floods Today?
In A.D. 1971, Egypt with the aid of the Soviet Union completed a dam across the Nile at Aswan, forming Lake Nasser. This dam replaced a smaller one built by the
The Aswan High Dam has increased Egypt’s agricultural production and electricity, but at a cost to the environment. The dam traps the fertile silt upstream in Lake Nasser. Farmers depend on chemical fertilizers rather than the natural rich soil deposited by the Nile floods. In
What Caused the Collapse?
We know from ancient writings that Egypt was experiencing many low Nile floods toward the end of the Old Kingdom. Why were these Nile failures happening? Scientists are assembling increasing evidence that drought conditions helped caused the collapse of a number of ancient civilizations from the eastern Mediterranean to India around 2200 B.C. This date coincides with the last years of the long reign of Pepy II.
Soil borings from Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, the source of a major river that flows into the Nile, show the lake was very shallow around 2200 B.C. Downstream at the same time, borings from the lake at the Faiyum Oasis indicate it dried up entirely.
Scientists think that a shift in the circulation of the atmosphere may have reduced rainfall and caused widespread climate change in many places, including Ethiopia and East Africa. This would account for the series of low Nile floods at the end of the Old Kingdom.
Climate change alone, however, probably did not cause the Old Kingdom to collapse. Dry periods had taken place earlier in Egypt’s history.
When the Nile failures were reaching their peak and drastically shrinking the food supply, Pepy II was in his 80s or 90s. At the end of his extremely long reign, he and his government administrators undoubtedly lacked the vigor and creativity to cope with such a natural disaster. After his death, as the drought continued, the lack of any strong king to emerge and handle this crisis guaranteed the permanent collapse of the Old Kingdom.
Over the next 100 years, Egypt split apart. A civil war raged in the Nile Valley between kings at a new capital near Memphis and rival kings at Thebes. In addition, some nome governors challenged the kings on both sides.
Meanwhile, below normal Nile floods persisted, causing widespread starvation and death among the common people. No one authority was in charge to deal with this crisis. One nome governor probably exaggerated in his tomb inscription about how he saved his own people from starving:
I gave bread to the hungry, and clothing to the naked. . . .
All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger and people were eating
their children, but I did not allow anybody to die of hunger in this nome.
Finally in 2055 B.C., King Mentuhotep II of Thebes reunited Upper and Lower Egypt under his rule. His dynasty launched a new era in Egyptian civilization called the Middle Kingdom.
For Discussion and Writing
1. Why did farmers in the early Old Kingdom not have to worry much about local rainfall, irrigation, or poor soil?
2. Why did Old Kingdom kings build pyramids? Why do you think they stopped building them not long after the death of Pepy II?
3. What do you think was the most important reason for the collapse of Egypt’s Old Kingdom? Why?
For Further Reading
Hassan, Fekri A. “A River Runs Through Egypt: Nile Floods and Civilization.” Geotimes. April 2005. URL: http://www.agiweb.org/geotimes/apr05/feature_NileFloods.html
Shaw, Ian, ed. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
A C T I V I T Y
Acting Before Catastrophe Hits
In 2005, UCLA geographer Jared Diamond published a book titled Collapse. It describes case studies of civilizations facing environmental challenges and how some societies collapsed and others met the challenges successfully. Diamond does not believe that environmental challenges doom any society, including our own, as long as the society acts to meet the challenges.
Imagine the year is 2250 B.C. and Pepy II is 34. His vizier has informed him that Nilometer records for the past 10 years show Nile floods getting lower and lower. Food production has also been dropping. The king has ordered his vizier to assemble the best minds of the kingdom to advise him what to do about the Nile failures before catastrophe hits.
1. Form small groups to each develop a strategy to deal with the Nile failure crisis. Get ideas by reviewing the information on the Old Kingdom in the article.
2. Each group of advisers will explain its strategy. Then, all the advisers will vote to decide which one is the best.