The Old Kingdom
Sometime around 2700 BC – the textbooks give the date of 2686 BC – the real history of Egypt begins. This is when Egypt takes a great step forward and starts building pyramids. It is the start of the Old Kingdom and the third dynasty, and also the reign of King Djoser who built the Step Pyramid. The Step Pyramid marks the big advance. It is a building very much bigger than anything that had been seen before in Egypt or indeed in the whole world. This has the very important implication that Egypt had become very rich. Not indeed in a monetary sense, but in terms of food: the wonderful fertility of the Nile meant that there was now so much food available that a considerable portion of the population could be taken away from the basic tasks of agriculture and instead build a massive though wholly useless structure, a pyramid, to serve as a tomb for the Pharaoh when he died.
In terms of the later pyramids, the Step Pyramid was only half right. Instead of a smooth outline, it had five steps. But it was not just a pyramid, there were also massive ancillary buildings, but here again, the plan established by the Djoser was not followed (even though it seems to me, 5,000 years later, to make better sense). The ancillary buildings were for ceremonies, not altogether comprehensible to us, but clearly ceremonies to do with the life of the king, not just his death. The later pyramids had a different set of ancillary buildings, mortuary temples and valley temples, concerned essentially with death.
The Step Pyramid is followed by three or four what might be called experimental pyramids which gradually got together the idea of a pyramid with a smooth outline. And then came the ‘great’ pyramids: they were clearly designed to be great, because the builders realised that the geology at Saqqara was not right, so they moved to the outback, a ridge 20 miles to the north of Memphis, well outside the confines of the great city, Here, at Giza, they found a really firm rock outcrop on which to build a great pyramid. Indeed they went on to build three pyramids until the whole of the outcrop was filled up.
And then, after the fourth dynasty, the building of great pyramids suddenly ceases. There are pyramids, yes, but they are all titchy by comparison. It is as if Egypt was exhausted and there was no longer the energy to devote the whole surplus of the state to building these magnificent structures. There follows the fifth and sixth dynasties when Egypt relaxed and grew soft. And the result? The result was the First Intermediate period, when Egypt split once again into two parts and came under a series of warlords rather than pharaohs. But that is another story.
The old kingdom, and the building of the great pyramids, was a huge success – the great pyramid is the only one of the seven great Wonders of the World that is still standing, virtually complete. It has proved to be indestructible. But by my reckoning, and in the terminology which I am tempted to use in this book, it is part of barbarism, a totalitarian society, not using money, and ruled over by one man. It is the achievement of a whole nation working for the will of one man – I almost said to the benefit of one man, but what benefit is it to produce a huge tomb that only comes into use when one is dead? Nevertheless one cannot but admire the achievement that the pyramid represents and wonder at the organisation that lay behind. And it must remind us that such barbarian societies can be very, very efficient.