ANCIENT EGYPT: OLD, MIDDLE, AND NEW KINGDOM
I. Thesis: Ancient Egyptians were the basis for many western traditions. Their
influences are noticable in art, architecture, and religion.
II. The Old Kingdom
A. Zoser, the first pharaoh.
1. built the famed Step Pyramid
2. brought unity to Egypt
D. Downfall of the Old Kingdom
III. The Middle Kingdom
B. Middle Kingdom religion
1. Myth of Osiris
2. Similarties between the myth of Osiris and Christian beliefs
C. Middle Kingdom art
D. Downfall of the Middle Kingdom
IV. The New Kingdom
A. Valley of the Kings
B. Shift in religion
C. New art form, naturalistic
D. Downfall of the 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
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
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 underworld.
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 evident.
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
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, 1905.
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