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Ancient Egypt: Old, Middle, And New Kingdom

The ancient Egyptians are considered among many to be the civilization
upon which much of the western world’s views and attitudes are based.
Everything from religion, to architecture, to art has been handed down,
generation by generation, to us in the present day. Although many of the
ancient Egyptians’ traditions have been modified or altered, the majority of
their core principles remains constant. Yet, despite the ancient Egyptians’
conservative nature, there were some changes within the infrastructure of their
society. Throughout the ages known as the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New
Kingdom, there has been alterations to their religion, art, and architecture.
Internal forces, as well as outside influences, have molded ancient Egyptian
civilization. This paper will attempt to determine these forces which changed
the Egyptians. Modifications of Egyptian life were subtle, but noticeable and
significant nonetheless. Art, architecture, and religion will be the focus of
this paper. Let us begin at the beginning, with the Old Kingdom.

The Old Kingdom began in the year 2700 B.C. and ended 2200 B.C. The
pharaohs, or kings, of this time include the third through the sixth dynasty,
beginning with Djoser and ending with Pepi II. Djoser, who ruled from 2700 B.C.
to 2650 B.C., changed his name to the more commonly known Zoser. It was Zoser
who made the famed Step Pyramid, the first pyramid to be constructed.

Pyramids were erected for the pharaoh in the belief that it would serve
as a stairway to the heavens, and allow the divine pharaoh to reach the Milky
Way, or the Nile river in the sky. The pharaoh’s afterlife was extremely
dependent on a proper burial, as were the afterlives of those who served him;
therefore, it was imperative that the pyramids be erected. These pyramids could
not have been built through coercion or slavery, for such an architectural feat
could only have been accomplished by a labor force of 70,000, and there is no
possible way for a small group of rulers to force the people to labor day in and
day out without some kind of reward in the afterlife.
Previously, no such architectural feat had ever been dreamed of, let
alone actually thought out and complete. The properties of stone, massiveness,
strength, and durability, had not even be contemplated by masons and architects,
yet under the guidance of Imhotep, the royal architect of the pharaoh Zoser,
this magnificent structure was erected (David 14). It is of little wonder why
the Greeks, when they listed the seven wonders of the world, placed the great
Step Pyramid at the top.
By the fourth dynasty, the pharaohs were buried in true pyramids, that
is, all sides were flat planes meeting at some certain point, and the angle of
each corner was 52 degrees. The three built at Gizeh, for Cheops, Chephren, and
Mycenrinus, were the peak of achievement of this field. The pyramids were of
better architecture, more advanced design, and longer durability; however, by
the fifth dynasty, the pyramids were significantly smaller and the construction
was of a lower quality, the result of which can be seen today; the pyramids of
the fifth dynasty are little more than mounds of rubble (David 14). The reason
for the decline in the pyramids has to do with the shifting of power due to new
religious attitudes.
The religion of the ancient Egyptians was rather complex. Creation was
believed to have been made out of darkness and chaos. With the physical
creation of earth, mankind, and gods came the abstract concepts of law, religion,
ethics, and kingship. Those were to last for eternity, which solidifies the
notion that ancient Egyptians were very conservative. They believed there was
no change; the universe worked according to a certain pattern governed by
principles laid down at the beginning of time. Ancient Egyptians took the
seasons to mean life was a cylindrical process, and that there was life after
death (David 81).
There were two distinct groups of gods: local and state, and household.
The household gods were the gods of the people; they protected the poor, who
worshipped them in their own humble surroundings (David 78). These deities
possessed no temples of their own and had no religious doctrines, but it was to
these gods the people offered their prayers to. The local gods were usually
animal, such as Bastet, the cat goddess, or Sobeck, the crocodile god. When the
chief of a particular village came into state power, it was his local god that
became a nationally-renowned state god. The first god to do this was Re, the
sun-god. He had a steady rise in power beginning in the second dynasty, and by
the fifth dynasty Re was considered the chief god of state.
It was believed that the pharaoh was a god himself, and that his power
was to be revered and worshipped. Such was the case with Zoser, and the
pharaohs of the preceding dynasties. But the priesthood that worshipped Re
began a slow steady usurpation of power from the pharaohs in the fifth dynasty.
The divinity of the pharaoh was reduced in magnitude; he was no longer a god
himself, but merely the son of the god Re (David 16). The decline in the
quality as well as the size of pyramids were the result of this shift in power.
The art of the time flourished nowhere else like it did in Egypt. Art
in the Old Kingdom was not simply for beauty, but for utility as well.
Everything was to have a purpose. For that reason, statues were not erected in
marketplaces, but rather in a temple where they might serve some practical
purpose in the afterlife (Breasted 102).
Eventually, the pharaohs themselves became a major contributor in their
own downfall. There were marriages of non-royal women, as was the case with
Pepi I. This led to the belief that the divinity of the royal line was diluted,
thereby reducing the pharaoh’s power. In addition, the royal treasury was
rapidly being depleted due to maintenance costs of pyramids, the construction of
new pyramids, and numerous gifts to the priesthood and nobles. It wasn’t long
before the priesthood and the nobles were as wealthy as the pharaoh himself
(David 16).

After Pepi II, central government was completely lost, and anarchy
reigned. It wasn’t until the Middle Kingdom that Egypt began to recapture the
glory it once held. This era endured from 2050 B.C. until 1800 B.C., and
included the twelfth dynasty (Wilson vvi).
Pyramids were once again being used to bury the pharaohs, after a lapse,
where kings were buried in rock-hewn tombs during the first intermediate period,
but were never anywhere near the size and splendor of those built in the Old
Kingdom. There were new pyramids at Lisht, Dahshur, El-Lahun, and Hawara.
There were also a great number of temples erected, most of which were later
dismantled and incorporated in the structure of other temples (David 20).
The once-absolute sun god, Re, was replaced by the god Osiris. The
appeal of Osiris was that he promised a more democratic afterlife; the common
man could look forward to his own life after death. Osiris began as an obscure
local god and rose to great power due to the wide public appeal.
The myth of Osiris has its root in mortality. Supposedly, King Osiris
was a human king who established order and brought the elements of civilization
to his people. His jealous and evil brother Seth had murdered him to gain
Osiris’ throne, a plot not unlike that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Isis, Osiris’
wife, fled to the delta of the Nile and gave birth to Osiris’ son, Horus,
posthumously. There she trained Horus to extract their revenge upon Seth. When
the confrontation between Seth and Horus occurred, both were severely injured,
but it was Horus who finally defeated Seth. Through powerful charms placed by
Isis, Osiris was restored to life, albeit as a king of the dead and judge of the
The charm that Osiris had over other deities was the fact that he was
once human, and had triumphed over death. This bears striking resemblance to
Christian’s beliefs that Jesus had died and was resurrected. Isis had become
the symbol for a loving and devoted wife, Horus was the embodiment of a
courageous and righteous son, whereas Seth became the symbol of absolute
evilness. This, too, bears an uncanny resemblance to many Christian beliefs;
Isis could be compared to the Virgin Mary, and Satan to Seth. Although great
changes were made in religion, even greater advances in Egyptian art were
The Middle Kingdom bore witness to the finest pieces of jewelry ever
crafted in Egypt. Craftsmen used semi-precious stones inlaid in gold and laden
with numerous designs to grace the crowns, armlets, and collars worn by the
royal princesses (David 20). Once again, the pharaoh was supreme, and this is
reflected in the sculptures of them, as there is a grim determination and
disillusionment about the features, perhaps to guard against such mistakes that
were made in the Old Kingdom.
In addition, the Middle Kingdom was renowned for it’s literary
masterpieces. The Shipwrecked Sailor was the first literary piece to have a
story within a story. In addition, the hieroglyphic language of the period is
today regarded as the classical form, and “Middle Egyptian” is the first stage
of the language which would-be Egyptologists learn.
The Middle Kingdom came to an end when the Hyksos invaded Egypt and took
over. It wasn’t until 1465 B.C. that Egypt regained control of their country.
The ensuing era, known as the New Kingdom, lasted from 1465 B.C. until 1165 B.C.
The New Kingdom included the eighteenth through twentieth dynasty. It
was the eighteenth dynasty that produced a series of active, able pharaohs who
conquered many lands and brought prosperity back to Egypt. Pyramids were no
longer used as burial grounds; instead, the famed Valley of Kings is the final
resting place for the pharaohs of this age. The tombs were hewn out of the
native rock; sadly, with the exception of Tutankhamun, many of them fell victim
to grave-robbers.
The religion of this period would take a drastic turn. The god Re came
back into power when he was unified with another god called Amun. This new god
was known as Amun-Re, and was once again the focus of the priesthood. This
priesthood was gaining great strength, as they did at the end of the Old Kingdom,
by selling magic charms and elixirs to the common people with promises that it
will aid in their passage to a favorable afterlife. The pharaoh Amenhotep IV
made a revolutionary change in the whole religious system by disbanding the
priesthood, defiling all of the old temples, and placing in power a new god,
Aton. Amenhotep would change his name, which meant “Amun rests,” to Akhenaton,
which meant “Aton is satisfied.”
The significance of such a movement was that it was the earliest form of
monotheism. All previous ages practiced one form or another of polytheism, with
room for an unlimited number of gods and goddesses. With this new religion, the
only supreme powers were Aton and Akhenaton himself. Aton was not embodied in
an animal or human form, but rather in terms of the life-giving, warming rays of
the sun. Aton was not simply the god of Egypt, but a god of the entire universe.
This god was to be thought of a benevolent father, overseeing all of his
followers from high above in the heavens. He was the source of all truth and
justice, and he would reward those who followed his laws.
This new form of religion did not last, for Akhenaton disappeared
fifteen years after the beginning of his reign, and the old beliefs came back.
Akhenaton did more than simply form a new religion, he started the art
form of naturalism. This was partly because he wished to break all ties with
the former religion, and partly because it was the teaching of Aton which stated
that all things must be admired as they appear, in Aton’s desired state. The
artwork of this period of time is also the most sought-after, for therein lies
the clearest picture of an ancient Egyptian possible (David 18).
Eventually, internal struggles led to the weakening of Egypt, until they
were finally conquered by the Greeks. But the legacy of ancient Egypt lives on
in a great number of our beliefs today. We base much of our culture upon the
lives of ancient Egyptians, from art, to architecture, to the basis of western
religion, that being Christianity. Ancient Egypt’s glorious reign lasted two
and a half millennia, and that fact alone makes Egypt a remarkable and notable
society, for we are all sobbing babes compared to the longevity and stability of
ancient Egypt.


Breasted, James Henry, History of Egypt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son’s,

David, A. Rosalie, The Egyptian Kingdoms. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1975.

Wilson, John A., The Burden of Egypt. Chicago & London: The University of
Chicago Press, 1951.

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