Ancient Egypt

  • Mr. Giotto's Online Textbook » Ancient Egypt » Ancient Egypt - the Archaic Period and Old Kingdom
    Ancient Egypt- the Archaic Period & Old KingdomAncient Egypt - the Archaic Period and Old Kingdom


    Egypt is one of the oldest countries in the world.  Mesopotamia was a region separated into independent city-states. Mesopotamia was only united by warfare as an empire. The people of Egypt were united, and accepted the rule of one person, called pharaoh. Pharaoh is a Greek word that means "great house."

    Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, visited Egypt and called it, "The Gift of the Nile." Without the Nile and its annual flooding, which deposited silt on the banks of the river, Egypt would be nothing more than a desert, unable to maintain a civilization.

    The Archaic Period (3100-2649 BC)

     Upper and Lower Egypt.

    During the earliest history of Egypt, called the ArchaicPeriod, Egypt was separated into two lands: Upper and Lower Egypt, each with its own king. This can be confusing when we look at a map, because Lower Egypt is at the top of the map, while Upper Egypt is at the bottom. This is because the Nile River flows from the high land in the south to the low land in the north. The Nile is one of the few rivers to flow north, the other that comes to mind is our own Genesee River.

    We have very few records from the Archaic period, but one account tells of a king of Upper Egypt named Menes. Menes sent an army down the Nile and defeated the king of Lower Egypt in battle. In this way Menes united the two kingdoms. Unification means the joining together of two separate parts, in the case, the two kingdoms.

    Menes, sometimes known as Narmer, became the first pharaoh. He set up his new capital of the united Egypt in the city of Memphis in Lower Egypt. The city of Memphis, Tennessee is named after Memphis, Egypt. During the Archaic Period the Egyptians developed a system of writing we call Hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics come from Greek words meaning "sacred writings." 

    The Old Kingdom (2649-2150 BC) - The Time of Pyramid Building

    Kingdom periods in ancient Egyptian history were times when the people of Lower and Upper Egypt were unified under the rule of a single pharaoh. Kingdoms were also periods when Egypt reached peaks in achievements. During kingdoms it was not uncommon for one family to rule for many years. The rule was passed on from father to son and then to grandson, this is called a dynasty. A dynasty is a succession of rulers from the same family. Dynasties Three through Six made up the rulers of the Old Kingdom.

    Ancient Egyptians believed in many gods and goddesses, they also believed in life after death. The Egyptians believed that, when they died, their spirit needed to recognize their body in the after-life. Most Egyptians were buried in pits in the desert sands, in this way the body was naturally dried and mummified. In pit burials, the body would be recognized by the spirit.

     The mudbrick mastaba acts as a marker, the burial chambers are below ground.

    Important Egyptians were buried in a mastaba. Mastaba is an Arabic word that means "bench of mud." A Mastaba is a bench-like structure made from mudbrick, marking the grave site, with a crypt underneath to hold the body and materials needed for the after-life. Bodies buried within crypts were cut off from the dry desert air. These bodies needed artificial mummification. Egyptians devised a means of drying and preserving bodies before burial, otherwise the body would decompose within the crypt.

    One of the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom was Pharaoh Djoser. Djoser ruled from about 2630-2611 BC. Djoser belonged to the family that ruled in Dynasty III (Three), in other words, the third family to rule as pharaohs. Djoser wanted his tomb to be the grandest ever built in Egypt. Djoser wanted something different from the mastaba burials of former pharaohs. Djoser's architect, named Imhotep, came up with a grand idea. Imhotep decided to stack one mastaba on top of another, with each additional story of the tomb slightly smaller than the last. Unlike mastabas of the past, Imhotep used stone for his construction. This structure became Egypt's first Pyramid, called the Step-Pyramid (located at Sakkara, see map above), because of its shape. It resembles a Mesopotamian ziggurat, and some people believe Imhotep got his idea from the Sumerians, but unlike Sumerian ziggurats, Imhotep's structure was made from stone. Imhotep created Djoser's burial chamber below the ground of the Step-Pyramid.

    Imhotep shows pharaoh Djoser plans for the Step-Pyramid, a stone structure that stacked one mastaba on top of another.

    The Old Kingdom was the time when the Egyptians build most of their pyramids. Pharaohs would commission the building of these great monuments so that they would be ready for the pharaoh's after-life. Pyramid comes from a Greek word that means "wheat cakes." When Alexander the Great, a Greek-speaker, came to Egypt with his army, his soldiers marvelled at the sight of the pyramids. They called them pyramis, because they resembled the same shape as the pyramis, a pointy-topped wheat cake baked in their homeland.

    After Djoser, Pharaoh Snefru (reign 2575-2551) of Dynasty IV (Four) was the next great pyramid builder. Snefru commissioned the building of not one, but three pyramids. The first is called the Maidum pyramid, it is named for its location in Egypt. Snefru abandoned this pyramid after the outside casing fell off of the pyramid. The Maidum pyramid was the first to have an above-ground burial chamber.

    Next, Snefru built the Bent Pyramid. The Bent Pyramid is named for its shape. The Pyramid started with a steep angle and about half-way to the top, it was built with a less severe angle, giving it a bent shape. Snefru must have been disappointed with this pyramid, because he set out to build another.

    Snefru's final attempt was his best effort. Many consider the Red Pyramid (Shining Pyramid), built by Snefru, to be the perfect pyramid. It is not Egypt's largest, but it certainly is very pleasing to the eye.

    The last pyramid builder from the Old Kingdom we will study is Pharaoh Khufu. Khufu (reign 2551-2528) of Dynasty IV (Four), also known as Cheops, created the largest pyramid in Egypt, called the Great Pyramid. The Great Pyramid, along with the pyramids of Khufu's son, and grandson, still stand in Giza, just outside of the modern Egyptian city of Cairo.

    After all of their efforts, pharaohs realized that pyramids were too expensive and time-consuming to build, they also gave tomb-robbers an exact location of the pharaohs burial along with his treasures. All of these pyramids have been robbed through the ages.

    Farmers harvest fields of grain as pyramids glisten in the background.

    In the next chapter, we will learn about the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom.