Ancient Egypt spanned nearly 3,000 years. To better understand the ebb and flow of this vibrant civilization, Egyptologists introduced three clusters, splitting this vast period of time firstly into the Old Kingdom, then the Middle Kingdom and finally the New Kingdom.
Each time period saw dynasties rise and fall, epic construction projects initiated, cultural and religious developments and powerful pharaohs ascend the throne.
Dividing these epochs were periods where the wealth, power and influence of Egypt’s central government waned and social turbulence emerged. These periods are known as the Intermediate Periods.
Facts About The Three Kingdoms
- The Old Kingdom spanned c. 2686 to 2181 BC. It was known as the “Age of the Pyramids”
- During the Old Kingdom, pharaohs were buried in pyramids
- Early Dynastic Period is distinguished from the Old Kingdom by the revolution in architecture wrought by colossal construction projects and their impact on the Egyptian economy and social cohesion
- Middle Kingdom spanned c. 2050 BC to c. 1710 BC and was known as the “Golden Age” or “The Period of Reunification” when the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt were unified
- Middle Kingdom pharaohs were buried in hidden tombs
- The Middle Kingdom introduced copper and turquoise mining
- The New Kingdom’s 19th and 20th Dynasties (c. 1292–1069 BC) is also known as the Ramesside period after 11 Pharaohs who took that name
- New Kingdom was known as the age of the Egyptian Empire or the “Imperial Age” as Egypt’s territorial expansion powered by the 18th, 19th, and 20th Dynasties reached its zenith
- New Kingdom royal family were buried in the Valley of the Kings
- Three periods of social unrest when Egypt’s central government was weakened are known as the Intermediate Periods. They came before and immediately after the New Kingdom
The Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom spanned c. 2686 B.C. to 2181 B.C. and comprised the 3rd through to the 6th dynasties. Memphis was the capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom.
The first pharaoh of the Old Kingdom was king Djoser. His reign lasted from c. 2630 to c. 2611 B.C. Djoser’s remarkable “step” pyramid at Saqqara introduced the Egyptian practice of building pyramids as tombs for its pharaohs and their royal family members.
Notable Old Kingdom pharaohs included Djoser and Sekhemkhet from Egypt’s Third Dynasty, the Fourth Dynasty’s Snefru, Khufu, Khafre and Menkaura and Pepy I and Pepy II from the Sixth Dynasty.
Cultural Norms In The Old Kingdom
The Pharaoh was the leading figure in ancient Egypt. It was the Pharaoh who owned the land. Much of his authority was also derived from leading successful military campaigns in his role as head of the Egyptian army.
In the Old Kingdom, women enjoyed many of the same rights as men. They could own land and gift it to their daughters. Tradition insisted a king marry the daughter of the previous pharaoh.
Social cohesion was high and the Old Kingdom mastered the art of organizing the vast workforce needed to construct colossal buildings such as the pyramids. It also proved highly skilled at organizing and sustaining the logistics needed to support these workers for extended periods of time.
At this time, priests were the only literate members of society, as writing was viewed as a sacred act. Belief in magic and spells was widespread and an essential aspect of Egyptian religious practice.
Religious Norms In The Old Kingdom
The pharaoh was the Head Priest during the Old Kingdom and the soul of the Pharaoh was believed to migrate to the stars after death to become a god in the afterlife.
Pyramids and tombs were constructed on the Nile’s west bank as the ancient Egyptians associated the setting sun with the west and death.
Re, the sun-divinity and Egyptian creator god was the most powerful Egyptian god of this period. By building their royal tombs on the west bank, the Pharaoh could more easily be reunited with Re in the afterlife.
Every year the pharaoh was responsible for performing sacred rites to ensure the Nile would flood, sustaining Egypt’s agricultural lifeblood.
Epic Construction Projects In The Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom was known as the “Age of Pyramids” as the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx and the extended mortuary complex was built during this time.
The pharaoh Snefru had the Pyramid of Meidum converted into a “true” pyramid by adding a smooth layer of external cladding to its original step pyramid design. Snefru also ordered the Bent Pyramid constructed at Dahshur.
The 5th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom ushered in smaller-scale pyramids compared to those of the 4th dynasty. However, the inscriptions discovered carved in the walls of the 5th Dynasty mortuary temples represented a flourishing of outstanding artistic style.
The Pyramid of Pepi II at Saqqara was the last monumental construction of the Old Kingdom.
The Middle Kingdom
The Middle Kingdom spanned c. 2055 B.C. to c.1650 B.C. and comprised the 11th through to the 13th Dynasties. Thebes was the capital of Egypt during the Middle Kingdom.
The pharaoh Mentuhotep II, the ruler of Upper Egypt founded the Middle Kingdom’s dynasties. He defeated the 10th Dynasty kings of Lower Egypt, reuniting Egypt and ruled from c. 2008 to c. 1957 B.C.
Notable Middle Kingdom pharaohs included Intef I and Mentuhotep II from Egypt’s 11th Dynasty and the 12th Dynasty’s Sesostris I and Amehemhet III and IV.
Cultural Norms In The Middle Kingdom
Egyptologists consider the Middle Kingdom to be a classic period of Egyptian culture, language and literature.
During the Middle Kingdom, the first funerary Coffin Texts were written, intended for use by ordinary Egyptians as a guide to navigating the afterlife. These texts comprised a collection of magic spells to assist the deceased in surviving the many perils posed by the underworld.
Literature expanded during the Middle Kingdom and the ancient Egyptians wrote down popular myths and stories as well as documents official state laws, transactions and external correspondence and treaties.
Balancing this flowering of culture, the Middle Kingdom pharaohs mounted a series of military campaigns against Nubia and Libya.
During the Middle Kingdom, ancient Egypt codified its system of district governors or nomarchs. These local rulers reported to the pharaoh but often accrued significant wealth and political independence.
Religious Norms In The Middle Kingdom
Religion pervaded all aspects of ancient Egyptian society. Its core beliefs in harmony and balance represented a constraint on the office of the pharaoh and emphasized the need to lead a virtuous and just life in order to enjoy the fruits of the afterlife. The “wisdom text” or “The Instruction of Meri-Ka-Re” provided ethical guidance on leading a virtuous life.
The cult of Amun replaced Monthu as the patron deity of Thebes during the Middle Kingdom. The priests of Amun together with Egypt’s other cults and its nobles accumulated significant wealth and influence eventually rivalling that of the pharaoh himself during the Middle Kingdom.
Major Middle Kingdom Construction Developments
The finest example of ancient Egyptian architecture in the Middle Kingdom is Mentuhotep’s mortuary complex. It was constructed abutting sheer cliffs in Thebes and featured a large terraced temple adorned with pillared porticoes.
Few pyramids constructed during the Middle Kingdom proved to be as robust as those of the Old and few have survived to the present day. However, Sesostris II’s pyramid at Illahun, together with Amenemhat III’s pyramid at Hawara still survives.
Another fine example of Middle Kingdom construction is Amenemhat I’s funerary monument at El-Lisht. It served as both the residence and tomb for Senwosret I and Amenemhet I.
In addition to its pyramids and tombs, the ancient Egyptians also undertook extensive construction work to channel the Nile waters into large-scale irrigation projects such as those discovered at Faiyum.
The New Kingdom
The New Kingdom spanned c. 1550 B.C. to c. 1070 B.C. and comprised the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties. Thebes began as the capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom, however, the seat of government moved to Akhetaten (c. 1352 B.C.), back to Thebes (c. 1336 B.C.) to Pi-Ramesses (c. 1279 B.C.) and finally back to the ancient capital of Memphis in c. 1213.
The first 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Ahmose founded the New Kingdom. His rule extended from c. 1550 B.C. to c. 1525 B.C.
Ahmose expelled the Hyksos from Egyptian territory, extending his military campaigns into Nubia in the south and Palestine to the east. His reign returned Egypt to prosperity, restored neglected temples and built funerary shrines.
Some of Egypt’s most luminous pharaohs were produced by the New Kingdom’s 18th Dynasty including Ahmose, Amenhotep I, Thutmose I and II, Queen Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun.
The 19th Dynasty gave Egypt Ramses I and Seti I and II, while the 20th Dynasty produced Ramses III.
Cultural Norms In The New Kingdom
Egypt enjoyed wealth, power and substantial military success during the New Kingdom including dominion over the Mediterranean’s east coast.
Portraits of men and women became more lifelike during Queen Hatshepsut’s rule, while art embraced a new visual style.
During Akhenaten’s controversial reign the members of the royal family were shown with slightly built shoulders and chests, large thighs, buttocks and hips.
Religious Norms In The New Kingdom
During the New Kingdom, the priesthood acquired power never previously seen in ancient Egypt. Changing religious beliefs saw the iconic Book of the Dead replaced the Middle Kingdom’s Coffin Texts.
Demand for protective amulets, charms and talismans exploded increasing numbers of ancient Egyptians adopted funerary rites previously restricted to the wealthy or nobility.
The controversial pharaoh of Akhenaten created the world’s first monotheistic state when he abolished the priesthood and established Aten as Egypt’s official state religion.
Major New Kingdom Construction Developments
Pyramid construction ceased, replaced by rock tombs cut into the Valley of the Kings. This new royal burial location was partly inspired by Queen Hatshepsut’s magnificent temple at Deir el-Bahri.
Also during the New Kingdom, the pharaoh Amenhotep III constructed the monumental Colossi of Memnon.
Two forms of temples dominated New Kingdom construction projects, cult temples and mortuary temples.
Cult temples were referred to, as the “mansions of the gods” while mortuary temples were the cult of the deceased pharaoh and was worshipped as the “mansions of millions of years.”
Reflecting On The Past
Ancient Egypt spanned an incredible length of time and saw Egypt’s economic, cultural and religious life evolve and change. From the Old Kingdom’s “Age of Pyramids” to the “Golden Age” of the Middle Kingdom, through to the “Imperial Age” of Egypt’s New Kingdom, the vibrant dynamism of Egyptian culture is hypnotic.