Ancient Egypt Old Middle And New Kingdom

Ancient Egypt: Old, Middle, And New Kingdom Essay, Research Paper

Ancient Egypt: Old, Middle, and New Kingdom


I. Thesis: Ancient Egyptians were the basis for many western traditions.


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

B. Religion

1. creation

2. gods

C. Art

D. Downfall of the Old Kingdom

III. The Middle Kingdom

A. Pyramids

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

1. Aton

2. Akhenaton

C. New art form, naturalistic

D. Downfall of the New Kingdom

V. Conclusion

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 Kingdom.

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 (Wilson vvi).

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


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


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 18).

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,


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 Press, 1951.


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