Old Kingdom

Move to the North


It is in the third dynasty, from around 2700 BC onwards, that Egypt takes a great step forward and starts building pyramids. The process was not altogether a smooth one. The first pyramid was a step pyramid, built 20 miles south of the great pyramids and to a very different design.  Then over the course of nearly a century, there are three further appearance increasing in size and complexity, and it is only with the fourth dynasty, just before 2,600 that we see the building of the great pyramid.

But there is another big change too. Hitherto the story of Egypt has taken place in the South, in Upper Egypt. The pyramids however were built in the North, in Lower Egypt around the new capital at Memphis, situated 20 miles south of today’s capital at Cairo, sharing the same geographical position as being at the point where the Nile branches out into its huge delta. But why the change? If, as the Narmer palette suggests, the unification was an act of aggression, the conquest of the North by the South, why was the capital placed in the North? Was it an act of aggression, setting the new capital in conquered territory, rather like William the Conqueror placing the Tower of London in conquered territory to overawe it?  Or was it on the other hand a magnanimous gesture by some Augustus-like ruler who wanted to cement the new found unity by establishing the capital in the north?  Whichever it was, it appears to have been very successful, for after the second dynasty, the Pharaohs were no longer buried in the south, at Abydos, but in the north, near Memphis.

Little is known of Memphis itself in the Old kingdom: it appears that the remains of early Memphis are buried deep in the silt of the Nile: it is on the high ground to the west of the Nile that the pyramids were established. In the North a rather different form of burial had evolved known as the Mastaba, an Arabic word meaning a low bench.  Whereas the burials in the south were essentially subterranean, in graves dug deep into the ground,  in the north the pits were covered by a long narrow rectangular mound, often with stepped sides.  They still exist by the thousand, and for the nobles and middle classes were buried in mastabas to the end of the Egyptian period.

Following the foundation of Memphis, a row of very grand mastabas was erected at Saqqara on the high ground overlooking Memphis, which were excavated by W. B. Emery between 1935 and 1956.  At first they were thought to be the cemetery of the Pharaohs of the first dynasty, but it is now believed that they were in fact the graves of major officials. Some became quite elaborate, with panelled facades imitating palace decoration,  but it is from these  that the first pyramid,  the step pyramid would develop.


On to The Step Pyramid


26th August 2017