The Old Kingdom Part I

With a history spanning thousands of years, Egypt’s political history is long and complex, but there are ways of breaking it down. Earliest Egyptian history begins at 5,550 BCE and carries through to about 2,586 BCE. Two of the most important periods which shaped a unified Egyptian history and about which we have most information, are the “Old Kingdom” roughly from 2,686 BCE to 2,181 BCE and the “New Kingdom” from about 1,570 BCE to about 356 BCE when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. He started a Greek lineage which ruled Egypt up to 30 BCE when Cleopatra gave up power to the Romans and famously committed suicide.

The Old Kingdom was the first to unify upper Egypt with Lower Egypt into the Egypt we know today. This was during the Bronze Age and the time of the Minoans on the Greek Islands who may have competed with Egyptians for copper and tin (most copper came from what is now the Island of Cyprus).

The earliest centre of power was in Northern Egypt (also counterintuitively referred to as Lower Egypt – referring to the direction of the flow of the Nile from Lake Victoria in Uganda down into the Mediterranean) and this is where the iconic architecture of the Old Kingdom (including the pyramids at Giza) are found. The first important god-king, or pharaoh, was Zoser who ruled from 2,668 BCE to 2,649 BCE.

Zoser, depicted in earliest known statue at Cairo Museum
Zoser, depicted in earliest known statue at Cairo Museum

Zoser commissioned the brilliant architect Imhotep to build his palace.  At the time, architecture was constructed of mud-bricks.  Imhotep built the first stone building in history.  Initially it was a single-storey building, but Imhotep engineered a way to add storeys by adding new levels in decreasing size.  Ultimately, this produced what became known as the “Step Pyramid,” thought to have inspired the Great Pyramid at Giza.  We visited the Step Pyramid and Imhotep Museum at Sakkara.

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We were lucky enough, thanks to our well-respected guide Waleed, who holds a Ph.D in Egyptology, to enter one of the other nearby tombs at Sakkara, a memorable experience.

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The walls inside the tomb were covered with heiroglyphs, the ceiling with stars:

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Next we went to Memphis, the old capital of Egypt, our tour leaders stopping en route for sweet, fresh fruit:

"Weighing Fruit"
“Weighing Fruit”

The site at Memphis is from the New Kingdom era (Ramses II) so I’ll deal with that later.

Other important Old Kingdom artifacts we saw at the Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities:

Pharoah Khufu, reigm 2,589-2,2,56 BCE, whose only surviving statue is 3" tall, is thought to be the Pharoah who commissioned the Great Pyramid.
Pharoah Khufu, reigm 2,589-2,256 BCE, whose only surviving statue is 3″ tall, is thought to be the Pharoah who commissioned the Great Pyramid.

Pharoah Khafra, reign 2,558-2,532 BCE, depicted sitting on a throne with the symbol of a unified Egypt, the lotus flower and the papyrus:

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Pharaoh Menkaure, reign 2,532-2,504 BCE, depicted here in a wonderful carving of Menkaure, Hathor and a goddess.  The technology used to carve this piece is unknown to us today.  I thought it was da Vinci in the Renaissance who opened cadavers to study human musculature for the most graceful depictions of limbs and bodies?  Beautiful!

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The wooden statue of Sheik el-Beled, a priest of the 5th dynasty, is worth noting, the haunting eyes were made of rock crystal (whole books have been written on the subject):

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A visit to a rug factory completed our day* and not all of us came home empty-handed 🙂

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Best,

Jan

*We were told that these kids are paid for their time and work part-time after school.  There were several adult employees on site, like this shy woman who allowed me to photograph her.

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