King Menes united Upper and Lower Egypt in 2686 BC, establishing the new capitol in Memphis, from where the Pharaoh would rule with the support of a strong central government. The political basis of Egypt was a kingship in which the throne was passed on to the oldest son of the pharaoh. To maintain royalty, the pharaohs intermarried. The success of this government depended upon the loyalty and diligence of the governors. This was a complex and effective system. A vizier was the main power under the king, with the princes, courtiers, and provincial governors being on the next level, doorkeepers, soldiers and quarrymen succeeding them, followed by peasants and slaves.
The function of the government was three fold. One function was to locate and collect resources for the support of the court and its projects. The second was to issue laws and variations of laws with detailed codes and punishments. This Egyptian basis for laws is known as Ma'at; their concept of justice and truth that went beyond present existence to include the ideal state of the universe. The third function of the Egyptian government was to maintain subordinate position of the people. They could be forced into work for the government or service in the military.
Back to "Ancient Egypt" Chronology
In Ancient Egypt, religious beliefs were a direct means of social control. The people had a strong sense of loyalty to the pharaoh, and believed that he ruled by divine right, that he was a god incarnate. The Egyptians believed in a polytheistic system in which the gods controlled the world and man. Social interaction and society was based on three writings: The Memphite Theology, The Ramessem Dramatic Papyrus, and the Pyramid Texts. Under these rules and standards for life, the Old Kingdom (comprised of the 3rd to 6th dynasties) experienced prosperity which lasted until the end of Pepy II's reign. The crown held common land and farms, as did wealthy landowners who formed Pious Foundations. These Foundations also received land granted from the crown. Social status was determined by wealth and the titles pharaoh had bestowed.
Collapse of the Strong Central Government and the Kingship
When King Pepy II died after 94 years of reign, the government lost control of power. This decline in royal power allowed provincial governors to form states, ruling their districts. The people no longer felt an allegiance to the pharaoh.
In 2181 BC, the system faltered upon the loss of newly conquered Nubia to Kail (the governor of Aswan). Foreign relations were also problematic at this time. The empire had stretched itself out too far to maintain military control. Problems arose with the Punt (Ethiopia) Beduin on the northeast frontier, with Lebanon and Syria, as well as an ongoing war with Lybia and the Philistines. Another factor contributing to the faulty system was the king's marriage to a foreign wife. The king's marriage had vast political implications such as being representative of diplomatic alignment. The theory is that the kingship was brought down from the inside by a foreign wife. As the pharaohs power decreased, the power of the governors increased. Most of the administrative districts known as "Nomes" which had originally existed under the Pharaoh emerged as city-states independent of the central government. The governors had become more powerful than the pharaoh due to the social emphasis and reliance on wealth and title.
Due to new directions in philosophical reasoning concerning the power and humanity of the king, the pharaoh was no longer respected, or regarded as god. "God" no longer controlled the land or provided for the people; this function had been passed to the landowners. This related directly to the rise of cults and the priesthood.
When climactic changes occurred in the Nile valley and the land became too dry to successfully grow crops (even with irrigation), the power of the pharaoh was doubted all the more. A famine swept the land and pharaoh was blamed for the lack of planting and control. The people had trusted in him to prevent the famine and control the river; he had failed. Under this weak control, the society began to disintegrate, resulting in a social and political breakdown.
Society turned to the provincial leaders to provide for care and control. Disputes were now settled by favoritism, rather than through the pharaoh and courts. The government lost its tax revenue due to the large amounts of tax-free land given to the Pious Foundations, and the lack of land given to the taxpaying lower class.
Egypt's vast trade routes, reaching as far as Lebanon and Western Asia, were demolished by war, hostile bands of nomads, and lack of ensured safety along the routes.
The government and people were left without a pharaoh or any central figure of power. The governors ruled during this time of provincial assertion and the chaotic social upheaval of the civil war. The war resulted from governors desiring more land to control, and lasted for one and one half centuries.
Biographical Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. David, Rosalie and Anthony. Seaby Press: London, England 1992.
Cambridge History of Africa. vol. 1. Fage, J. D and Oliver Rolland. Cambridge University Press: London, 1982.
Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East and North Africa. Mostyn, Trevor. Cambridge University Press: New York.
Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations. Cotterel, Arthur. Rainbird: 1980. Metz, Hellen Chapin. "Egypt: A Country Study." Library of Congress: 5th ed. 1991.