After the Great Pyramids

The end of the pyramid era


And then the building of the great pyramids ceased.  The ridge of hard rock at Giza was full up, there was no more room for any pyramids here – pyramid building reverted to Saqqara, 10 miles to the south, and at a much smaller extent. Does one get the feeling that exhaustion set in and that after four or five generations of frantic work, the country was perhaps just a little bit exhausted? Was there a general sigh of relief that the next generation of pyramids would be smaller, or was there perhaps a certain sadness that the great pyramid building machine on which so many relied for their sustenance and their work  – however hard – was now to some extent being wound down?

There is perhaps a tendency to pass over the decline of a society, but in any overall enquiry into the history of mankind, the downs are every bit as important as the ups and we need to look at the reasons for decline, just as much as we have looked at the story of growth.  After the building of the great pyramids ceased, the Old Kingdom continued, and indeed thrived for some 200 years before we enter the First Intermediate period.  The First Intermediate Period was a time when the central control broke down and the various parts of Egypt went their different ways.  What this meant for ordinary people is perhaps debatable; local control may after all be preferable to central control, but we can perhaps begin to look out for this loss of centralisation.

After the building of the third pyramid on the Giza plateau, pyramid building did not cease, instead it moved south back to Saqqara where Userkaf built a pyramid right adjacent to the Great Step pyramid built 200 years earlier.  His successors however moved a mile to the north, to Abusir where a string of pyramids were built over the following century.  But there was a change in theology: hitherto the pyramids had been built by the pharaoh for the pharaoh, now the sun god Ra began to play a larger role, often now amalgamated with a local god Amun to become Amun-Ra.  Does this perhaps mark a slight diminution of the power of the pharaoh, that he was now merely the servant of the sun god rather than being himself the supreme god?

There is a new centre for the sun god at Heliopolis.  Heliopolis lies slightly to the north, today in the north-eastern suburbs of Cairo and thus diagonally opposite to Giza which lies in the south-western suburbs of Cairo.  Today Heliopolis is marked by a single obelisk, but here lay the great sun temple, an open courtyard with no roof – for the sun needs no roof – with at the centre the Ben Ben stone, a round topped stone not unlike the stone that marks the centre of the Great Mosque at Mecca.  Several other such sun temples are known – two indeed have survived at Abu Gurob and at Abusir, where there were also slaughter yards where cattle were slaughtered to be offered to the god.

We also begin to know something of the theology behind the pyramids, for various Pyramid Texts were inscribed on the walls of the royal pyramids.  These are the forerunners of the later Books of the Dead that are deposited in tombs of the New Kingdom.  But both give instructions as to how the soul of the dead man or in this case the Pharaoh can ascend into heaven – one text suggests that he should use a ladder to do so.  One of the best known texts as translated by Miriam Lichtheim gives a flavour of these texts.

Oho! Oho! Rise up, O Teti!
Take your head, collect your bones,
Gather your limbs, shake the earth from your flesh!
Take your bread that rots not, your beer that sours not,
Stand at the gates that bar the common people!
The gatekeeper comes out to you, he grasps your hand,
Takes you into heaven, to your father Geb.
He rejoices at your coming, gives you his hands,
Kisses you, caresses you,
Sets you before the spirits, the imperishable stars…
The hidden ones worship you,
The great ones surround you,
The watchers wait on you,
Barley is threshed for you,
Emmer is reaped for you,
Your monthly feasts are made with it,
Your half-month feasts are made with it,
As ordered done for you by Geb, your father,
Rise up, O Teti, you shall not die!

At the same time a new god makes his appearance – Osiris.  Hitherto Osiris had been one of the many minor and local gods, but now he becomes one of the most important of all the gods alongside Amun – Ra.  His centre was later to be at Abydos where the Great temple seen by tourists today is the temple to Osiris.  But he became prominent at Heliopolis too.  In Roman times he was merged yet again with another god to become Serapis.

How did the bureaucracy function in the Old Kingdom? A valuable insight is given by the Abusir papyri which were discovered and are still being discovered at Abusir.  These give the instructions for organising the temples that lay at the entrance to the pyramid tombs.  They fall under three main headings.

  1. Some are basically an inventory of the contents of the treasures of the temples: bowls and vases both black and white, flint knives and blades, and offering tables.  The defects were noted too – one of the flint knives had a chip missing where it had been dropped.  It is important to note such things when you take over so you will not be blamed for the defects when you hand them over to your successors.
  2. Then there are the goods received by the temple.  The temple had many scattered holdings, some 34 estates in Upper Egypt and at least 4 in Lower Egypt – the tally is not complete.  But these were the source of the temple’s wealth.
  3. Then there were the rosters of the temple staff which seemed to be divided into two parts: the full-time priests and the permanent temple staff, and then the backup staff who were on a temporary basis.  They were organised in tribes – phyle in Greek, and each subdivision of the tribe served one month in ten.  This was presumably the corvée duties, and there is the impression was this was not altogether an imposition, for you were given your rations while serving in the temple, and these rations were the benefits of the gift exchange system.

However one should note that all these papyri refer to the workings of the temple, not of the state (or pharaoh).   The temple was indeed a royal temple serving the needs of a pharaoh, but the pharaoh was long dead and one gets the impression that the temple was beginning to function as an independent unit.  The temples were indeed one of the big problems of pharaonic Egypt as the temples became autonomous units, freed from the burdens both of taxation and of administrative services, that is the workings of the corvée system.  They were rather like the monasteries in Medieval England, becoming independent centres of power that divert away the taxes that the pharaohs needed for their central administration.


Princess Redji, Old Kingdom statue in the Turin Museum

One of the finest examples of the art of the Old Kingdom is this statue of the Princess Redji, now in the Turin Museum. The style is typical of the period for its rigid posture, a very short neck and a voluminous wig.

But it was not just the temples that drained away central power: local administrators were increasingly a rival centre of authority.  From pre-dynastic times Egypt was divided into administrative districts or provinces called by the Greek name of ‘nomes’.  There were forty two of these in all – twenty two in Upper (southern) Egypt and twenty in Lower Egypt. Each nome had its own capital city and its own totem, and sometimes its own god. The nomarchs, the head of the nome,  were the provincial governors, and formed the backbone of administration. If the pharaohs were wise, they would send out their sons and relatives to be the nomarchs, and made sure that they were rotated regularly; but by the 5th dynasty, it appears that these local administrators had put down roots and that the administration had become hereditary.  Archaeologically the best evidence for this is the growth of local cemeteries in the 5th and 6th dynasties.  The best known of these very rich private tombs is that of Ti at Saqqara itself whose richly decorated tomb is today one of the most visited tombs on the tourist circuit at Saqqara.

The great pyramids were built in the 4th dynasty, but the 5th dynasty – 2494 to 2345 BC — saw continued prosperity. However  things began to go wrong in the 6th dynasty which was dominated by the father and son duo Pepi I and Pepi II.  Pepi 1st ruled for 34 years from 2321 – 2287 BC and saw expeditions sent down into Nubia, extending the power of Egypt to the south: the expeditions were led by Weni, who according to a long inscription in his tomb, was a brilliant general who re-organised the army and also  sent loads of building stones from Aswan down the Nile. Pepi I was succeeded for a brief interval by his elder son, who was then succeeded by a younger son, who is recorded to have ruled for no less than 94 years from 2278 – 2184 BC.  He certainly seems to have become pharaoh as a child, for one of the top administrators, Harkhuf, carved his memoires on the walls of his tomb, telling how in an expedition to the south into Nubia he captured a pygmy and the young child Pepi II was desperately keen to see this pygmy.  Whether Pepi II really did rule for 94 years is a matter for discussion.  But although he apparently began well, the latter part of his reign saw the collapse of central control that led to the First Intermediate Period.

Two rather different reasons are given for the collapse. There are some who would like to bring in environmental concerns and posit a great famine to cause the collapse.  Famines in Egypt are generally caused by the Nile failing to flood, or not flooding enough – it is all due to the amount of rain that falls in the sources of the Nile in Ethiopia.  Indeed if one is to be really wide thinking, one links this with the collapse of the Early Bronze Age in Mesopotamia and the ending of the third dynasty at Ur; an event that again is linked to environmental factors.  In both cases the evidence, though interesting, is far from being conclusive. In Egypt, the other, more important reason, is the collapse of central control and the rise of local warlords that led to the first Intermediate Period; and this must be the subject of our next chapter.


On to  The First Intermediate period


10th April 2017