Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 3
ABSOLUTE POWER

COMMAND ECONOMY

IDEOLOGY IS NEVER ENOUGH, ON ITS OWN, TO GUARANTEE POWER. To be successful over the long term, a regime must also exercise effective economic control to reinforce its claims of legitimacy. Governments seek to manipulate livelihoods as well as lives. The development in ancient Egypt of a truly national administration was one of the major accomplishments of the First to Third dynasties, the four-hundred-year formative phase of pharaonic civilization known as the Early Dynastic Period (2950–2575). At the start of the period, the country had only just been unified. Narmer and his immediate successors were faced with the challenge of ruling a vast realm, stretching five hundred miles from the heart of Africa to the shores of the Mediterranean. By the close of the Early Dynastic Period, the government presided over a centrally controlled command economy, financing royal building projects on a lavish scale. Just how this was achieved is a story of determination, innovation, and, above all, ambition.

Among the great inventions of human history, writing has a special place. Its transformative power—in the transmission of knowledge, the exercise of power, and the recording of history itself—cannot be overstated. Today, it is virtually impossible to imagine a world without written communication. For ancient Egypt, it must have been a revelation. We are unlikely ever to know exactly how, when, and where hieroglyphics were first developed, but the evidence increasingly points toward a deliberate act of invention. The earliest Egyptian writing discovered to date is on bone labels from a predynastic tomb at Abdju, the burial of a ruler who lived around 150 years before Narmer. These short inscriptions already used fully formed signs, and the writing system itself showed the complexity that would characterize hieroglyphics for the next three and a half thousand years. Archaeologists dispute whether Egypt or Mesopotamia should take the credit for inventing the very idea of writing, but Mesopotamia, especially the southern city of Uruk (modern Warka), seems to have the better claim. It is likely that the idea of writing came to Egypt along with a raft of other Mesopotamian influences in the centuries before unification—the concept, but not the writing system itself. Hieroglyphics are so perfectly suited to the ancient Egyptian language, and the individual signs so obviously reflected the Egyptians’ particular environment, that they must represent an indigenous development. We may imagine an inspired genius at the court of one of Egypt’s predynastic rulers pondering the strange signs on imported objects from Mesopotamia—pondering them and their evident use as encoders of information, and devising a corresponding system for the Egyptian language. This may seem far-fetched, but the invention of the Korean script (by King Sejong and his advisers in A.D. 1443) provides a more recent parallel, and there are few other entirely convincing explanations for the sudden appearance of fully fledged hieroglyphic writing.

Whatever the circumstances of its invention, writing was swiftly embraced by Egypt’s early rulers, who recognized its potential, not least for economic management. In the context of competing kingdoms expanding their spheres of influence, the ability to record the ownership of goods and to communicate this information to others was a marvelous innovation. Straightaway, supplies entering and leaving the royal treasury began to be stamped with the king’s cipher (his Horus name). Other consignments, destined for his tomb, had labels attached to them, recording not just ownership but other important details such as contents, quantity, quality, and provenance. Having been developed as an accounting tool, writing found an enthusiastic reception among bureaucratically minded Egyptians. Throughout ancient Egyptian history, literacy was reserved for a tiny elite at the heart of government. To be a scribe—to be able to read and write—was to have access to the levers of power. That association was evidently formed at the very start.

Writing certainly transformed the business of international trade. Many of the labels from the royal tombs at Abdju—whose miniature scenes of royal ritual serve as an important source for early pharaonic culture—were originally attached to jars of high quality oil, imported from the Near East. An upsurge in such imports during the First Dynasty can be associated with the establishment of Egyptian outposts and trading stations throughout southern Palestine. At sites such as Nahal Tillah and Tel Erani in present-day Israel, imported Egyptian pottery (some stamped with the cipher of Narmer), locally made pottery in an Egyptian style, and seal impressions with hieroglyphs testify to the presence of Egyptian officials in the heart of the oil- and wine-producing region. At the springs of En Besor, near modern Gaza, the Egyptian court established its own supply center, for revictualing trade caravans using the coastal route between Palestine and the Nile delta.

Under state sponsorship, Egypt’s international relations entered a new period of dynamism—not that you would have guessed it from the official propaganda. For domestic consumption, the Egyptian government maintained a fiction of splendid isolation. According to royal doctrine, the king’s role as defender of Egypt (and the whole of creation) involved the corresponding defeat of Egypt’s neighbors (who stood for chaos). To instill and foster a sense of national identity, it suited the ruling elite—as leaders have discovered throughout history—to cast all foreigners as the enemy. An ivory label from the tomb of Narmer shows a Palestinian dignitary stooping in homage before the Egyptian king. At the same time, in the real world, Egypt and Palestine were busy engaging in trade. The xenophobic ideology masked the practical reality. This should serve as a warning for the historian of ancient Egypt: from earliest times, the Egyptians were adept at recording things as they wished them to be seen, not as they actually were. The written record, though undoubtedly helpful, needs careful sifting, and must always be weighed against the unvarnished evidence dug up by the archaeologist’s trowel.

The Palermo Stone  MUSEO ARCHEOLOGICO REGIONALE DI PALERMO, ITALY/ GIRAUDON/THE BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

Whereas Egypt’s relationship with the Near East was, from the start, contradictory and complex, its attitude toward Nubia—the Nile Valley south of the first cataract—was far more straightforward … and domineering. Before the beginning of the First Dynasty, when the predynastic kingdoms of Tjeni, Nubt, and Nekhen were rising to prominence in Egypt, a similar process was under way in lower (northern) Nubia, centered on the sites of Seyala and Qustul. With a sophisticated culture, kingly burials, and trade with neighboring lands, including Egypt, lower Nubia displayed all the hallmarks of an incipient civilization . Yet it was not to be. The written and archaeological evidence tell the same story, one of Egyptian conquest and subjugation. Egypt’s early rulers, in their determination to acquire control of trade routes and to eliminate all opposition, moved swiftly to snuff out their Nubian rivals before they could pose a real threat. The inscription at Gebel Sheikh Suleiman, discussed in the previous chapter, which shows a giant scorpion holding in its pincers a defeated Nubian chieftain, is a graphic illustration of Egyptian policy toward Nubia. A second inscription nearby, dating to the threshold of the First Dynasty, completes the story. It shows a scene of devastation, with Nubians lying dead and dying, watched over by the cipher (hieroglyphic marker) of the Egyptian king. The prosperous city-states of the Near East, which were useful trading partners and geographically separate from Egypt, could be allowed to exist, but a rival kingdom immediately upstream was unthinkable. Following Egypt’s decisive early intervention in lower Nubia, this stretch of the Nile Valley—though it would remain a thorn in Egypt’s side—would not rise again as a serious power for nearly a thousand years.

TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION

SECURE IN ITS BORDERS, WITH HEGEMONY OVER THE NILE VALLEY AND flourishing trade links, the early Egyptian state witnessed a marked rise in overall prosperity, but the rewards were not evenly spread across the population. Cemeteries that span the period of state formation show a sudden polarization of grave size and wealth, a widening gap between rich and poor, with those who were already affluent benefiting the most. The greatest beneficiary by far was the state itself, for the practical effect of political unification was to convey all land into royal ownership. While individuals and communities continued to farm their land as they had before, they now found themselves with a landlord who expected rent in return for their use of his property. The First Dynasty government lost no time in devising and imposing a nationwide system of taxation, to turn the country’s agricultural productivity to its own advantage. Once again, writing played a key role. From the very beginning of recorded history, the Egyptian government used written records to keep accounts of the nation’s wealth and to levy taxes. Some of the very earliest ink inscriptions—on pottery jars from the time of Narmer—refer to revenue received from Upper and Lower Egypt. It seems that, for greatest efficiency, the country was already divided into two halves for the purposes of taxation.

The government’s ambition to control every aspect of the national economy is underlined by two measures introduced in the First Dynasty. Both are attested on the Palermo Stone, a fragment of royal annals that were compiled in the Fifth Dynasty, around 2400, and stretched back to the beginning of recorded history. The earliest surviving entry, for a First Dynasty king, probably Narmer’s immediate successor, Aha, concerns an event called the “Following of Horus,” which evidently took place every two years. Most probably, it consisted of a journey by the king and his court along the Nile Valley. In common with the royal progresses of Tudor England, it would have served several purposes at once. It allowed the monarch to be a visible presence in the life of his subjects; enabled his officials to keep a close eye on everything that was happening in the country at large, implementing policies, resolving disputes, and dispensing justice; defrayed the costs of maintaining the court, and removed the burden of supporting it year-round in one location; and, last but by no means least, facilitated the systematic assessment and levying of taxes. (A little later, in the Second Dynasty, the court explicitly recognized the actuarial potential of the Following of Horus. Thereafter, the event was combined with a formal census of the country’s agricultural wealth.) From the third reign of the First Dynasty, the Palermo Stone also records the height of the annual Nile inundation, measured in cubits and fractions of a cubit (one ancient Egyptian cubit equals 20.6 inches). The reason why the court would have wished to measure and archive this information every year is simple: the height of the inundation directly affected the level of agricultural yield the following season, and would therefore have allowed the royal treasury to determine the appropriate level of taxation.

When it came to collecting taxes, in the form of a proportion of farm produce, we must assume a network of officials operated on behalf of the state throughout Egypt. There can be no doubt that their efforts were backed up by coercive measures. The inscriptions left by some of these government officials, mostly in the form of seal impressions, allow us to re-create the workings of the treasury, which was by far the most important department from the very beginning of Egyptian history. Agricultural produce collected as government revenue was treated in one of two ways. A certain proportion went directly to state workshops for the manufacture of secondary products—for example, tallow and leather from cattle; pork from pigs; linen from flax; bread, beer, and basketry from grain. Some of these value-added products were then traded and exchanged at a profit, producing further government income; others were redistributed as payment to state employees, thereby funding the court and its projects. The remaining portion of agricultural produce (mostly grain) was put into storage in government granaries, probably located throughout Egypt in important regional centers. Some of the stored grain was used in its raw state to finance court activities, but a significant share was put aside as emergency stock, to be used in the event of a poor harvest to help prevent widespread famine. Whether this represented genuine altruism or practical self-interest on the part of the state depends on one’s point of view. The people as a whole certainly benefited from this national insurance policy, but at a cost to themselves. This, of course, is the enduring truth about taxes.

With a national system in place for assessing, collecting, and redistributing taxes, Egypt’s early kings could turn their attention to increasing productivity, both in agriculture and in the machinery of government. Administrations develop their own momentum, bureaucracies their own priorities, and while the Egyptian populace may have benefited indirectly from enhancements to the nation’s political and economic infrastructure, it is difficult not to see the enhancements as essentially self-serving on the part of the ruling elite. In ancient Egypt an increase in national prosperity facilitated the construction of yet more sumptuous monuments celebrating the king—not the provision of facilities for the masses or the amelioration of their living conditions.

The government’s focus on the elite is especially apparent under King Den, whose reign in the middle of the First Dynasty (circa 2850) marks an important milestone in the rise of ancient Egypt. In his three or four decades on the throne, innovations were introduced in many different spheres, from the royal titulary to the design of the royal tomb. (The introduction of an entrance stairway, to facilitate access to the burial chamber, seems obvious in retrospect, but the stairway revolutionized the provisioning of the tomb and paved the way for much larger funerary monuments in due course.) Changes were also afoot beyond the narrow confines of the court. An entry on the Palermo Stone records the reorganization of agricultural lands in the delta, possibly involving the relocation of entire communities to allow for the establishment of royal estates. The government, it seems, was not a particularly benevolent landlord.

The redesignation of whole tracts of Lower Egypt as “crown land” was the precursor to wider administrative reforms. To allow for more effective political control of the regions, the state introduced a system of local government that divided the Nile Valley and delta into forty-two provinces (nomes), each governed by a centrally appointed official (the nomarch) answerable to the king. The Upper Egyptian provinces seem to have been based upon traditional community boundaries, themselves reflecting the irrigation basins of prehistoric times. In the delta, by contrast, there was no such template, and here the newly created provinces seem to have been more arbitrary, no doubt working around the location of royal estates. Either way, replacing an earlier system of allegiance with a new, systematic pattern of provincial administration gave the king and his government much tighter control.

Governmental reforms continued during the latter half of the First Dynasty. A rise in the number of high officials who were granted a lavish burial, paid for by the state, indicates an expansion and professionalization of the administration. At North Saqqara, the main court cemetery serving Memphis, the highest functionaries in the land built huge mud brick tombs (known by the Arabic term “mastaba”) along the edge of the escarpment. Facing the sunrise and overlooking the capital city, these imposing monuments promised their occupants both rebirth and a continuation of their earthly status. The façades of the tombs, modeled on White Wall at Memphis, provided a visual demonstration of their owners’ royal connections. For the king was the ultimate fount of authority, and most, if not all, high officials at this period were royal relatives.

One such tomb was built at North Saqqara for a man named Hemaka, who served under King Den as chancellor, at the head of the treasury. Among his grave goods was a small inlaid wooden box containing two rolls of papyrus—the earliest examples yet discovered. There could be no better illustration of the close connection between writing and power in early Egypt. Indeed, the earliest “autobiographical” inscription from the Nile Valley is written on the gravestone of one of Hemaka’s successors. Merka served under the last king of the First Dynasty, and his particular combination of titles and appointments reveals the nature of high office in early Egypt. Despite holding a number of positions connected with the royal household, including director of the royal barque (the king’s state boat) and controller of the audience chamber, Merka gained his exceptional status from an ancient religious office associated with the cult of divine kingship. For him and his contemporaries, the king was the only route to career advancement. Merka’s motley collection of administrative, courtly, and religious titles reflects an administrative system that was, on the whole, rather loosely organized. Except perhaps in the treasury, there was no precise demarcation of responsibilities. Proximity to the king was all that mattered.

The tombs constructed at North Saqqara for Hemaka, Merka, and other high officials were not just rewards for loyal service, however. They also served as a bold and highly visible statement of the government’s authority, silhouetted against the skyline. At sites found along the length and breadth of the Nile Valley, from Giza and Tarkhan in the north to Inerty (modern Gebelein) and Iuny (modern Armant) in the south, the unification of the country and the resulting royal omnipotence were announced in the same way. The sudden appearance of imposing tombs in the palace-façade style, dominating their local communities, must have had a profound effect on the population at large. The impact must have been comparable to that felt after the construction of motte and bailey castles throughout England after the Norman conquest, and the message was the same: the whole country was now ruled by the king and his appointees. The tentacles of government reached into every province. A new order had arrived.

A final, telling example of how the early Egyptian state imposed its control can be found at the country’s southern frontier, on the island of Abu. Here, at the very beginning of the First Dynasty, the government lost no time in building a massive fortified customs post, to monitor and regulate the movement of people and goods across the border with Nubia. The fact that the chosen location for the fortress—an elevated part of the island, overlooking the main channel for shipping—also cut off access to the local shrine was evidently of no concern to the national authorities. Economic and political control were far more important considerations than local sensibilities. From the dawn of history, the state’s arrogance in its dealings with the population set the scene for the next three thousand years. For the ancient Egyptians, the price of national unity, effective government, and a successful economy was authoritarian rule.

NEW DIRECTIONS

THE DEATH OF QAA, LAST KING OF THE FIRST DYNASTY, AROUND 2750, was marked with the usual obsequies in the ancestral royal burial ground at Abdju. The king’s funeral cortège made its way slowly from his palace of eternity, a huge mud brick enclosure near the town, to his remote burial place among the tombs of his forebears. The chosen spot was aligned with a prominent cleft in the cliffs, which the Egyptians believed to be an entrance to the underworld. The king’s body was placed in his burial chamber, accompanied by a host of supplies to sustain his spirit in the afterlife. So that his unfortunate attendants could cater for his every need, their bodies were interred around him in subsidiary graves. Then the chamber was sealed, the process watched over by Qaa’s heir, the new king, Hetepsekhemwy. A smooth transition of power had been effected, a new reign had begun. There was little to suggest that Hetepsekhemwy would inaugurate a very different era of Egyptian history. Yet later chroniclers identified him as the first king of a new dynasty. The reason lies in his dramatic decision to abandon Abdju—where kings had been buried for more than three centuries—and found an entirely new royal burial ground hundreds of miles to the north. The site he chose was Saqqara, overlooking the capital city of Memphis.

The reasons behind the move to Saqqara are obscure. Perhaps Hetepsekhemwy had family ties to the region, or perhaps he calculated that a monument as symbolically charged as the king’s tomb should stand at the very balance of the Two Lands, not in an Upper Egyptian province. Whatever the motive, the radical location of his tomb was matched by its design. It was aligned to true north, rather than to the local geography. It was cut into the rock rather than built of mud brick. It was arranged as a series of long galleries opening off a central corridor, rather than as a burial chamber surrounded by storerooms. And it terminated in a suite of rooms resembling the private quarters of a contemporary house. Hetepsekhemwy was concerned that his spirit should be provided with every necessity for the hereafter—not just food and drink, but all modern conveniences, including a bedroom and bathroom.

His two successors, Kings Nebra and Ninetjer, maintained his innovations and built their tombs at Saqqara, but the Second Dynasty’s outward stability masked rising tensions in the country at large. In the middle of Ninetjer’s reign (circa 2700), civil unrest seems to have broken out. An obscure entry on the Palermo Stone speaks of “hacking up Shem-ra and the north.” If Lower Egypt was trying to secede from central control, it might explain why the two or three kings after Ninetjer are unknown in the south of the country. Perhaps the First Dynasty’s focus on Upper Egypt had led to simmering resentment among Egypt’s northern population. The latter half of the Second Dynasty provides further tantalizing clues that hint at a political breach. Three or four generations after it had been abandoned, Abdju was promptly reinstated as the royal burial ground. The decision was taken by a king who—unique in the history of ancient Egypt—cast himself as the earthly incarnation not of Horus (celestial god and patron deity of kingship) but of Seth (god of the deserts, and local god of Nubt). The reasons for such a radical move can only be guessed at. The Upper Egyptian focus on the Seth cult may have appealed to a king whose authority seems to have been greatest in the south of the country. Yet, despite his unprecedented titulary, the Seth king, Peribsen (circa 2680), seems to have taken great pains to adopt the other trappings of traditional Egyptian monarchy. His tomb at Abdju was consciously modeled on its First Dynasty precursors, deliberately harking back to the early years of the pharaonic state. Peribsen was also the first king since Qaa to build a separate funerary palace at Abdju.

All in all, the written and architectural evidence from the middle of the Second Dynasty suggests a period of turmoil. The hard-won unity of the early Egyptian monarchy was weakened and undermined, and the institution of kingship itself was under greater stress than at any time since the wars of unification. What the state needed was another strong leader in the mold of Narmer, someone with the charisma, strength, and determination to rebuild the edifice of power before all was lost. Step forward, Khasekhem.

Ancient Egyptian civilization may never have progressed beyond its formative stage, may never have developed its distinctive pyramids, temples, and tombs, had it not been for the last ruler of the Second Dynasty (circa 2670). Khasekhem’s very name, “the power has appeared,” announced his intentions, and he lived up to them. He is a pivotal figure in ancient Egyptian history, bridging the transition between an older culture, essentially derived from prehistoric forms, and a new, quintessentially pharaonic civilization with a bolder vision.

Like Peribsen, Khasekhem seems to have come from Upper Egypt, and his power base, too, was in the south. He lavished particular attention on Nekhen, dedicating statues and stone vessels in its cult center and starting work on a massive enclosure behind the town. His so-called fort is the oldest standing mud brick structure in the world, its walls still towering thirty-four feet high more than four and a half thousand years after they were built. Khasekhem’s intention to reign as a traditional king was likewise signaled by his restoration of the traditional royal titulary, announcing himself as the incarnation of the sky god Horus.

It was crucial for Egypt’s destiny that these outward displays of authority were matched by Khasekhem’s resolve to reunify the country and bring the whole of the Two Lands under his sway. Two life-size statues of the king from Nekhen show him wearing the tight-fitting robe of the royal jubilee, one of the most ancient celebrations of kingship. Their bases are inscribed not with the king’s titles but with scenes of war dead in contorted positions. The accompanying hieroglyphs read “47,209 northern enemies.” Khasekhem’s stone vessels from the same shrine are also carved with scenes of triumph: the Upper Egyptian vulture goddess, Nekhbet, stands on a ring containing the word “rebel,” while an inscription reads “the year of fighting the northern enemy.” These ancient documents seem to record the launch of an offensive by Khasekhem’s forces. His intention was to reconquer rebellious Lower Egypt and forcibly reannex it to the crown. It was a bold vision, but under Khasekhem’s leadership it was swiftly realized. The king marked his successful reunification of Egypt by subtly changing his name and titles. Khasekhem became Khasekhemwy, “the two powers have appeared,” supplemented by the epithet “the two lords are at peace in him.” The Horus falcon was joined by the Seth animal atop the royal cipher. Conflict had been resolved, harmony restored, and opposing forces reconciled in the person of the king.

Once again, national unity ushered in a period of economic activity and cultural renaissance. And once again, the basis was tight central control of the country’s resources. The Palermo Stone records the reinstatement of a regular census, only this time it was a “census of gold and fields,” encompassing both the mineral and agricultural wealth of Egypt. With the government coffers full again, Egypt reestablished trading contacts with the Near East. Its particular interest was no longer southern Palestine, as in the past, but the port of Kebny (classical Byblos, modern Jubayl, north of Beirut). The king even presented the local temple with an inscribed stone vessel, to cement the bond of friendship. For their part, the traders of Kebny supplied Egypt with two of the most important raw materials it coveted, cedar and tin. Cedar logs were essential for shipbuilding, since Egypt lacked its own supply of good quality timber, and large seagoing ships were an imperative for trade contacts with the rest of the eastern Mediterranean. An entry on the Palermo Stone for the seventeenth year of Khasekhemwy’s reign (circa 2655) refers to shipbuilding, and the results of the tin trade are evident in his burial at Abdju: a ewer and basin from the royal tomb are the earliest bronze vessels from the Nile Valley.

The superior technology of bronze, together with an increase in trade income, facilitated an upsurge in state construction projects, and Khasekhemwy was by far the most prolific builder in Egypt’s early history. He dedicated new temple buildings throughout Upper Egypt and completed his cult enclosure at Nekhen before turning his attention to Abdju. Following in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor, he chose the ancient burial ground of kings for his own funerary monuments. His enclosure at Abdju dwarfed even its counterpart at Nekhen, and dominates the surrounding area to this day. As for the royal tomb, the king’s architects chose an entirely new design, combining elements from First Dynasty and early Second Dynasty traditions. It was as if he were announcing that all the developments of Egyptian civilization up to that point were being brought together under his leadership. And he was looking to the future, too. His burial chamber was lined with carefully dressed blocks of limestone, on a scale that had never been attempted before. It was a taste of things to come.

It used to be thought that Khasekhemwy confined his building projects to Upper Egypt. But recent survey and excavation suggest that he decided to make his mark in the north as well. Far out in the desert at Saqqara, beyond the modern tourist trail, beyond even the reach of the camel drivers, lie the remains of a truly vast enclosure. It is most easily visible in aerial photographs; on the ground its walls are discernible only as a low ridge. The dimensions are staggering: it measures a quarter of a mile wide by nearly half a mile long. No wonder its local Arabic name is Gisr el-Mudir, “the enclosure of the boss.” Partial excavation of the walls shows that they were built of huge stone blocks laid in sloping courses, while the corners are of solid masonry construction. No inscriptions have yet been found to confirm the date of the Gisr el-Mudir, but it looks increasingly likely that it was built by Khasekhemwy—a third monumental enclosure of his reign. In its finished state, it would have been by far the biggest and most impressive royal monument Egypt had ever seen. Khasekhemwy had brought the country to the threshold of a new age.

PYRAMIDS AND POLITICS

TODAY, THE GISR EL-MUDIR IS BUT A SHADOW OF ITS FORMER SELF. The reason is not that it was left unfinished, nor that it was poorly built. The explanation lies within view, on the skyline of Saqqara—the Step Pyramid of King Netjerikhet. The builders of Egypt’s first pyramid did what their successors would do throughout Egyptian history: they looked around for a ready source of building stone and found it in a nearby monument. Rather than going to the trouble of quarrying new stone, they simply dismantled the Gisr el-Mudir and reused its blocks to build something even grander. The result, the Step Pyramid, dominates our view of the Third Dynasty (2650–2575) just as it dominates the landscape. The ruler for whom it was built was Khasekhemwy’s immediate heir and chosen successor. But if Netjerikhet inherited his father’s predilection for grand designs, he was equally determined to eclipse Khasekhemwy’s achievements. He would take the visible expression of absolute power to new heights—literally as well as metaphorically.

The Step Pyramid at Saqqara  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

The Step Pyramid started life ambitiously enough, as a huge mastaba tomb, built in stone to last for eternity. It rose in one single step, towering above the king’s burial chamber, a mountain of stone to replicate the primeval mound of creation. In a brilliant flash of inspiration, the two elements of the earlier royal burials at Abdju—a tomb and a separate funerary enclosure—were combined into a single monument, by constructing a huge wall around the mastaba. From the outside, it resembled White Wall at nearby Memphis and thus announced its royal associations. The space inside the enclosure was filled with a collection of dummy buildings, for this was the grandest of all stage sets, designed as an eternal backdrop for the ceremonies of kingship.

For the first time in history, the brilliant conception and execution of a royal monument can be attributed to a known individual. His name echoes down the centuries as the epitome of ancient Egyptian wisdom and learning: Imhotep. A statue base from the entrance colonnade of the Step Pyramid—where it could be seen by all those entering the enclosure—bears his name together with that of his king. Although Imhotep bore a string of titles (royal seal bearer, first under the king, ruler of the great estate, member of the elite, greatest of seers, and overseer of sculptors and painters), he is nowhere explicitly named as the architect of the Step Pyramid. Yet it was as the pyramid’s architect that he achieved posthumous fame, and he is the only plausible candidate. Nobody else held such a prominent position at the court of King Netjerikhet, nobody else was immortalized within the Step Pyramid complex itself. Imhotep’s extraordinary vision saw the development of the royal tomb from a single-stepped mastaba to a four-stepped pyramid and finally to a six-stepped form, the tallest building of its time. The idea for the stepped shape may already have been latent within Egyptian ideology, but the translation of this idea into stone, on a monumental scale, was Imhotep’s lifetime achievement. His innovation marks the beginning of the Pyramid Age, and it had far-reaching effects.

The administrative effort required for pyramid building was greater than anything Egypt had developed to date. A step change in government organization was needed, and one of the first moves was the creation of the post of vizier, a single individual in overall charge of the government machine, reporting directly to the king. The vizier was hence Egypt’s chief minister, with the added power that came from direct access to the monarch. Netjerikhet’s inner circle of trusted lieutenants—who are better known than any of their predecessors—likewise exemplify the increasing professionalism of the court: Ankh and Sepa were district administrators; Ankhwa was the controller of the royal barque; Hesira was master of the royal scribes, perhaps the leading civil servant; and Khabausokar was the controller of the royal workshops. The old system of royal relatives holding a portfolio of unrelated offices was being replaced by a more structured bureaucracy, opened up, for the first time, to career professionals drawn from a wider section of society and promoted on merit. As Egypt embarked on pyramid building, the pyramids were building Egypt.

This quiet revolution in government is particularly well illustrated by the career of Metjen. His tomb inscription from Saqqara includes the earliest extensive autobiographical text, and it charts his rise from humble storehouse clerk to a position in local government, followed by promotion to the governorship of several delta provinces. At the end of his career, as a trusted courtier, Metjen was appointed controller of the king’s pleasure palace in the Fayum. It was a pattern of advancement that would be followed for many centuries to come. From now on, the history of ancient Egypt would be made by private individuals as well as their royal masters.

The reign of Netjerikhet (2650–2620) and the achievements of his court were so impressive that his successors in the Third Dynasty pale into insignificance by comparison. Most are little more than obscure names in the historical record—Sekhemkhet, Khaba, and Sanakht. None left a monument even approaching the Step Pyramid in scale (although several tried). Only when we reach the end of the Third Dynasty and the reign of King Huni (2600–2575) do the advances of the Pyramid Age manifest themselves. Yet, unless a ruined pyramid at Meidum has been misattributed, Huni did not indulge in pyramid building on a lavish scale. His greatest contribution to the future glories of pharaonic civilization was far more prosaic, but no less significant—its architectural manifestation not one gigantic pyramid but a series of small ones, scattered throughout the provinces of Egypt. From those monuments discovered so far, a clear building program emerges. The southernmost pyramid was constructed on the island of Abu, always a favored location for statements of royal power. This monument and its associated palace were named “the diadem of Huni.” Moving downstream, the king commissioned another pyramid at Djeba (modern Edfu); a third at el-Kula, near Nekhen; a fourth at Tukh, near Nubt; and a fifth at Abdju. Further monuments in the series have been identified at Zawiyet el-Meitin, in Middle Egypt; Seila, at the entrance to the Fayum; and Hut-heryib (modern Tell Atrib), in the delta. Each of the locations was either a provincial capital or an important regional center. Abu was the capital of the first province of Upper Egypt, Djeba the capital of the second, and Nekhen the capital of the third. Huni’s intention seems to have been to erect a visible marker of royal power in every province. And, to judge from the Abu pyramid, collection centers for the royal treasury were also part of the plan. The monuments were not just symbols of the king’s authority throughout the country; they were also practical instruments of that authority in the central management of the economy. For the local population, the small step pyramid in their midst would have served as a constant reminder of their economic duty to the state: a duty to pay their taxes to support the court and its projects. From the state’s point of view, the monuments and their associated administrative buildings—with one facility in each province—made the collection of revenue both easier and more systematic.

At the end of the Third Dynasty, the monarch and his administration had achieved their ultimate goal: absolute power. The stage was set for the greatest royal project the world had ever seen.

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