Ancient History & Civilisation



IN ONE VERY CRUCIAL SENSE, THE APPARENT STABILITY OF THE PYRAMID Age was an illusion. Behind the veil of glorious majesty, there were ripples of dissent within the royal family. In response to a series of dynastic crises at the height of the Fourth Dynasty (hushed up, but no less real for that), the rulers of the later Old Kingdom took conscious steps to regain control of the succession. These steps, in turn, laid the foundations for a very different style of monarchy—and a different model of society—in the three centuries after the masons’ chisels fell silent at Giza.

Given that ancient Egyptian kings were invariably polygamous, it is not altogether surprising that sons born of different wives (and the wives themselves) should have jostled for influence and power. Factional quarrels are never explicitly mentioned in the written record—these quarrels hardly supported the picture of a serene and unchallengeable monarchy that the kings wished to present—but they can be guessed at from tantalizing clues: fleeting reigns in the midst of apparent dynastic stability (like Khafra’s ephemeral successor, whose name is not even preserved), and sudden, unexplained departures in royal policy, such as the relocation of the royal burial ground from Giza to Saqqara at the end of the Fourth Dynasty.

After the lackluster reign of Menkaura’s successor, Shepseskaf—notable only for his singular funerary monument that, in a radical departure from recent tradition, was shaped like a giant sarcophagus instead of a pyramid—a new dynasty, the Fifth (2450–2325), came to power in the person of King Userkaf. From the outset, he was eager to make a fresh start, presenting himself as the founder of a new age, a new model of government, and a new concept of kingship. The first and most public statement of his intent was his choice of tomb. Ignoring Shepseskaf’s bizarre innovation, he reverted to the traditional pyramid model. What’s more significant, however, is that he chose to build it at the corner of Netjerikhet’s great Step Pyramid enclosure, by now a venerable two-hundred-year-old monument. He was thus explicitly associating himself with one of the great kings of the past. Just as the reign of Netjerikhet had marked a new beginning, so, too, would the reign of Userkaf.

But whereas Netjerikhet’s massive pyramid—and those of his Fourth Dynasty successors—had projected an uncompromising image of the king’s political power, Userkaf chose a different path, emphasizing instead the sacred character of his office. While his pyramid was a rather small affair (at only 161 feet in height, it was the smallest royal pyramid to date), far greater resources were devoted to a monument quite separate and distinct from the king’s tomb. This was a sun temple, built at the site of Abusir, midway between Saqqara and Giza. It was an innovation as bold and epoch-making, in its own way, as the Step Pyramid. Comprising a walled stone enclosure with a symbolic mound at its center, Userkaf’s monument—called Nekhen-Ra, “Ra’s stronghold”—was designed, above all, to underline the king’s unique relationship with the sun god. Sacrifices were made in its open court, under the rays of the sun, and consecrated to Ra upon an altar in front of the mound. If contemporary hieroglyphic representations are to be believed, the mound may even have been topped with a wooden perch, for the convenience of the sun god in his falcon form. As befitted a monument dedicated to the preeminent deity, the sun temple was endowed with its own land and personnel, and was at least as important an institution as the royal pyramid. Indeed, supplies destined for the king’s mortuary temple were often delivered via the sun temple, which acted as a sacred filter, giving the goods used in the celebration of the king’s own cult an extra, divine stamp of approval.

The sun temples built by Userkaf and his Fifth Dynasty successors were a bold attempt to rebrand Egyptian kingship. No longer able to bear the economic burden of colossal pyramids, the monarchy had to find a new way of projecting itself and underlining its position at the apex of ancient Egyptian society. It did so by removing the king even further from the mortal sphere, linking him more closely than ever with the realm of the divine. In the first three dynasties, royal ideology had stressed the king’s position as the earthly incarnation of the ancient sky god Horus. In the Fourth Dynasty, Djedefra had taken the step of calling himself “son of Ra,” adding the sun god to the web of royal associations. Building upon these developments, Userkaf gave concrete expression to his relationship with the solar deity, and he would be remembered in later folk tradition as the very offspring of Ra—subtle theology in place of naked displays of power. Psychology had replaced tyranny as the favored tool of royal propaganda.

The deliberate distancing of the king from his subjects took other forms, too. While the tombs of bureaucrats had clustered tightly around the Fourth Dynasty pyramids at Giza—proximity to the royal monument reflecting rank at court—in the Fifth Dynasty a marked separation was enforced between the divine king and mere mortals. Royalty and the common people would be carefully demarcated in death as well as in life. A necropolis for high-ranking officials was established at Saqqara (less prominent individuals had to make do with a tomb at Giza, now abandoned as the main center of royal activity), but the royal pyramid kept its distance, moving even farther away, to Abusir, under Userkaf’s successors. Nor were the officials themselves as closely connected to the royal family as they had been in times past. From the dawn of Egyptian history until the late Fourth Dynasty, the highest offices of state had been reserved for the king’s relatives. Without exception, every vizier from the reign of Sneferu to the reign of Menkaura had been a royal prince, and most of the overseers of works as well. In a dramatic and far-reaching departure, Userkaf opened up the top jobs in the administration to men of nonroyal birth. The motives for such a radical shift of policy seem to have been both ideological and pragmatic. It allowed the king and his family to rise above the nitty-gritty of government. Just as important, by removing political power from the hands of (often quarrelsome) princes, Userkaf no doubt hoped to avoid the internal wranglings that so often threatened the stability of the monarchy.

The result was a new class of professional bureaucrats, men who achieved power as much by their own abilities as by their royal connections. At the same time, the administration expanded to reflect increased job specialization. Whereas it might have worked for a prince to hold a diverse portfolio of responsibilities, connected only by the fact of his royal blood, a full-time, professional administrator could scarcely be expected to excel at a dozen different roles simultaneously. From now on, career officials, not royal relatives, would be the backbone of the ancient Egyptian government machine. And without the aura or status of royalty, they would have much more to prove.

An expanded professional bureaucracy composed largely of commoners, and the establishment of a new necropolis in which they could build their eternal resting places without reference to—and without being overshadowed by—the king’s pyramid: these interlinked developments set the scene for the defining monuments of the later Old Kingdom—the tombs of the courtiers. For the first time in Egyptian history, they allow us to enter the world of the king’s subjects—with often surprising results.


ABOVE ALL, THE PRIVATE TOMBS OF THE FIFTH AND SIXTH DYNASTIES (2450–2175) are extraordinary works of art. The sophistication of their painted reliefs testifies to the skills of ancient Egyptian craftsmen, skills that had been honed over many generations in the royal cemeteries of Dahshur and Giza. With space to build larger monuments and ambitious peers to impress, the high officials of the later Old Kingdom took the business of tomb construction and decoration very seriously. It swiftly became a competitive activity, and a bureaucrat would wait as long as he dared before commencing work on his monument, hoping for one final promotion that would enable him to lord it over his contemporaries (and their descendants) in appropriately grand architectural fashion. Officials lavished particular attention on their tomb chapels, the public rooms or suites of rooms aboveground where family members and other visitors would come after the owner’s death to present offerings to his statue. By contrast, the burial chamber itself, belowground and out of sight, rarely received more than the most cursory decoration. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” would certainly have struck a chord with the ancient Egyptians.

A statue of Mereruka emerges from its niche to receive offerings from visitors to his tomb.  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

As for the decoration, certain themes were de rigueur. Although an elaborate tomb was an essential piece of one-upmanship in the competitive world of the Old Kingdom civil service, its more fundamental purpose—to protect and nurture the undying spirit of the deceased for all eternity—could neither be forgotten nor neglected. So the most important tomb scenes were those that depicted the manufacture and presentation of offerings, ranging from the basics of life (bread and beer) to the finer accoutrements of privilege, such as furniture, jewelry, and wine. Incidentally, such scenes provide a wealth of information about the techniques of agriculture, craft production, and food preparation, but recording daily life was not their primary purpose. Rather, they were an artistic insurance policy: according to Egyptian beliefs, if the actual grave goods buried with the body were ever exhausted or destroyed, the scenes would come to life in the tomb and ensure a continuous supply of every requirement by magical means. The lines of painted offering bearers, marching incessantly toward the false door that communicated with the burial chamber below, would similarly become animated by magic and never fail to deliver their bounty to the tomb owner.

Given the twofold purpose of a tomb chapel—to proclaim the owner’s status and guarantee him a comfortable afterlife—it is not surprising that the decoration presents a highly idealized view of life in ancient Egypt. The sculptors and painters were required to depict things not as they really were but as the client wished them to be. Decoration was designed, above all, to reinforce the established social order. For example, while the owner stands tall, dominating every scene, his servants—and, indeed, his wife and children—are more often shown as diminutive figures, sometimes barely reaching his knees. This principle of hierarchical scaling, so strange to modern eyes, perfectly reflects the Egyptians’ obsession with rank. Another feature of tomb decoration is its deliberate timelessness. There is little or no sense of narrative progression. Scenes appear as if suspended in space and time. The key moments in the owner’s life, such as his childhood, marriage, and promotion to high office, are conspicuous by their absence, for to have included them in the decoration would have perpetuated them for eternity. Only the endpoint—the peak of achievement, wealth, and status—was deemed appropriate to immortalize in art.

Although tomb scenes may not be reliable evidence for the realities of daily life, they do allow us to enter into the fantasies of the ancient Egyptian elite. The pleasures of the idle rich are meticulously recorded: hunting in the desert, fishing and fowling in the marshes, and a range of indoor pursuits. Mereruka, a vizier of the early Sixth Dynasty, is shown painting and playing board games. In another scene, members of his household staff prepare his bed, arranging the mattress, headrest, and canopy; Mereruka then relaxes on his four-poster while his wife entertains him by playing the harp. When, from time to time, he had to bestir himself and actually do some work, he could at least enjoy traveling from place to place in the comfort of a shaded palanquin, borne on the shoulders of servants. Such activities were, of course, a world away from the harsh realities of life in rural Egypt (ancient and modern). The bureaucrats of the later Old Kingdom may have been commoners, but once they had climbed the greasy pole of career advancement, they were more than content to shut themselves off from the rest of the population and wallow in pampered luxury—or at least the promise of it after death. Very occasionally, a glimpse of the world beyond the silken veil is allowed to intrude, but only to emphasize a point. In Mereruka’s tomb, his life of leisure is contrasted with the brutal punishment meted out to tax defaulters over whom he exercised authority. An unpleasant fate indeed awaited the head man of a village found in arrears. After being frog-marched to the local tax office, he could expect to be lashed naked to a whipping post and flogged with wooden sticks, while scribes stood by recording the offense and the punishment. Away from the cloistered lives of the hunting and fishing set, life was mean and miserable.

Nowhere is this disparity better illustrated than in matters of health. The upper echelons of society were able to call upon the services of doctors, dentists, and other medical specialists. In their tombs, the elite are always depicted in vigorous good health, the men fit and virile, the women nubile and graceful. By contrast, skeletons and mummified remains—as well as the occasional tomb scene—confirm that the peasantry suffered from a range of debilitating and painful diseases, many of them still prevalent in Egypt today. Schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by water snails in canals, ditches, and stagnant pools, caused blood in the urine, sometimes leading to anemia, and must have been a common cause of ill health and early death. Tuberculosis seems to have been prevalent, often leading to deformation of the spine (Pott’s disease), and similar symptoms were no doubt a common result of unremittingly hard physical labor. Tumors, too, are attested on Old Kingdom skeletons, while three depictions in contemporary tombs may represent individuals suffering from hernias. Apart from adding a little color to scenes of peasants at work, disease, deformity, dirt, and dissent had no place in the artisocratic ideal of the ruling elite.

The impression of a governing class badly out of touch with the rest of the population is only reinforced when we look at the jobs of these tomb owners. To be sure, some of them, such as Mereruka and his predecessor Kagemni, were viziers and held important government offices. But others seem to have had little or no administrative responsibility, instead deriving their exalted status purely from their proximity to the king. Irukaptah, the head of palace butchers, undoubtedly had a central part to play in the provisioning of the royal court, but the splendor of his tomb at Saqqara (complete with scenes of butchery) suggests that the king cared rather more about what he ate for dinner than about how his ministries were run. In a similar vein, the twin brothers Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, joint heads of palace manicurists, were rewarded for their devoted attention to the royal fingernails with a beautifully decorated tomb. The vizier Khentika owed his promotion not to his experience of sound administration but to his varied roles in the king’s personal service, which included controller of the robing room, overseer of clothes, administrator of every kilt, chief of secrets of the bathroom, and even overseer of the king’s breakfast. At an effete royal court steeped in pampered privilege, the most sumptuous of all Fifth Dynasty tombs at Saqqara was built not for a chancellor or overseer of works but for the head of palace hairdressers. Ty’s magnificent edifice comprises a vast open courtyard with pillars forming a shady portico on all four sides, a long corridor leading to a further two rooms, and a separate chamber to house his statue. He demonstrates the extent to which royal favor was still the main passport to wealth and status. The administration had indeed been opened up to commoners, but old habits died hard.

This age-old method of advancement is exemplified in the career of Ptahshepses (circa 2400), owner of the largest known Fifth Dynasty private tomb in all Egypt. The major turning point in his career was his second marriage, when he took the hand of the king’s own daughter. Becoming a royal son-in-law gained Ptahshepses access to the innermost circle at court. His newfound status prompted a major enlargement of his funerary monument, including the addition of a grand columned entrance. But such dizzying success came at a price. He seems to have been forced to disinherit his eldest son, born of an earlier marriage, in favor of the children from his second, royal marriage. Loyalty to the monarch counted for more than loyalty to one’s own family.

The reforms of the early Fifth Dynasty, which had been designed to distance the royal family from the business of government, unintentionally resulted in an overstaffed, overpaid, and overbearing bureaucracy. By the middle of the dynasty, government jobs—and the highfalutin titles that went with them—had multiplied to such an extent that a special system of ranking titles was introduced, to help distinguish between different degrees of privilege. But the growing influence of high officials had begun to threaten the king’s monopoly on power and could not be allowed to continue unchecked. Toward the end of the dynasty (circa 2350), the monarchy implemented a major reorganization of the administration, to reduce the number of bureaucrats and curb their powers. A central plank of these reforms was the delegation of responsibilities to officials based in the provinces. While the intention was to restrict the influence of the ambitious men at court, the unintended consequence was a weakening of central government itself, with far-reaching and long-lasting repercussions for the stability of the Egyptian state. Officialdom, once given a taste of power, would not be easily muted. The bureaucrats whose careers defined the later Old Kingdom would, in the end, be responsible for its demise.


WHILE THE RULING CLASS WAS LEAVING ITS MARK IN A SERIES OF LAVISHLY decorated tombs, the kings of the Fifth Dynasty (2450–2325) concerned themselves with their own architectural legacy: pyramids and sun temples. Userkaf’s five successors paid homage to the sun god Ra in their names (Sahura, Neferirkara, Shepseskara, Neferefra, and Niuserra) and erected their pyramids at Abusir, in the vicinity of Userkaf’s sun temple. While nowhere near as large or as solidly built as Fourth Dynasty pyramids, these Fifth Dynasty counterparts were beautifully and extensively decorated in keeping with the fashion of the time. Sahura’s pyramid complex alone contained an estimated twelve thousand square yards of relief carving. The decoration included several new genres, such as scenes of gods presenting foreign captives to the king, or a goddess suckling the monarch. The sophisticated taste of the court is also evident in the deliberate and careful use of contrasting types of stone: Sahura’s valley temple had a dado and columns of red granite (the latter shaped like palm fronds), a floor of black basalt, and upper walls of fine white limestone, while the roof was painted dark blue with golden stars, to resemble the night sky. The covered causeway leading up the escarpment was decorated with reliefs along its whole length, and further decoration covered the walls of the mortuary temple next to the pyramid proper. The whole effect must have been spellbinding.

The mortuary temple was not merely the inner sanctum of the whole complex; it also housed the king’s statue, which was the focus of cult activity during his reign and—he hoped—for eternity. (Needless to say, every monarch was to be frustrated in this hope, and few cults were maintained for more than a few generations after their founders’ deaths.) Remarkably, archives of papyrus documents have survived from two mortuary temples at Abusir, the temples attached to the pyramids of Neferirkara and Neferefra, and they give unrivaled information about the day-to-day operation of a royal funerary cult in the Old Kingdom. They reveal a system obsessed with bookkeeping, but a mind-set that was more concerned with processes and protocols than standards.

The personnel of Neferirkara’s temple served on a monthly rota, and at the beginning of each thirty-day period the members of staff coming on duty were required to carry out a thorough inspection of the temple and its contents. The building itself was examined for damage, and each piece of furniture or equipment was checked against a detailed inventory, arranged systematically by material, shape, and size. One sheet of papyrus lists items made from stone and flint. Under the heading “crystalline stone,” subheading “bowls,” category “white,” an inspector has noted “various repairs to rim and base, and to sides.” A blade of flint is recorded as having “chips missing, having been dropped,” while a small silver offering table was found in an equally parlous state, “badly split; loose joints; corroded.” The fact that these inspections took place just fifty years after Neferirkara’s death shows how quickly items of temple equipment could become damaged. Apparently, regular inspection and recording was more important than actually looking after the items in question. Style over substance, impression over action—an all-too-common phenomenon in societies hamstrung by bureaucracy.

Deliveries of foodstuffs and other supplies were also meticulously recorded, but here again there were systemic failures that even the most assiduous record keeping could not mask. Among the commodities due each day at Neferirkara’s sun temple were fourteen consignments of special bread. During one year, none arrived on the first day of the month, none on the second, and none on the third or fourth, until on the fifth day of the month seventy batches were delivered in one go. The next six days’ supplies failed to materialize at all and seem to have been written off. By contrast, the next eleven days’ deliveries were received on time. Apparently even a society as structured and prescribed as ancient Egypt could not ensure the regular delivery of the most basic commodities being transported from one royal foundation to another. It is a surprising revelation, at odds with the outward impression of a well-ordered, confident, and efficient civilization. Perhaps the Old Kingdom governmental machine was not as robust as its monuments liked to suggest, even in times of peace and plenty, let alone in the face of serious political or economic turbulence. Those who dared to look beyond their own rhetoric might have seen that the seeds of collapse had not only been sown, they were already germinating.

Not that Unas, the last king of the Fifth Dynasty (2350–2325), was outwardly concerned with such problems. He was far too busy reinventing traditions, adding new and innovative elements to the already weighty edifice of royal ideology. Like Userkaf before him, he chose a site for his pyramid at one corner of Netjerikhet’s Step Pyramid enclosure. And it was not only the pyramid’s location that announced Unas as a renaissance ruler. The most radical innovation was reserved for the chambers underneath the monument. Eschewing the stark simplicity of earlier undecorated walls, Unas commissioned an altogether more elaborate resting place for his afterlife. His coffin was painted black to symbolize the earth, while the ceiling of the burial chamber was studded with golden stars against a dark blue background to mimic the night sky. Around the sarcophagus, the walls of the burial chamber were lined with white alabaster, grooved and painted to resemble an enclosure made from a wooden frame and reed matting, representing the type of primitive shrine that the ancient Egyptians believed had existed at the dawn of creation. The whole ensemble was designed to be nothing less than a microcosm of the universe.

The greatest novelty of all was the decoration on the walls of the burial chamber and anteroom—column after column of texts, painted blue to recall the watery abyss of the underworld. The so-called Pyramid Texts constitute the earliest surviving body of religious literature from ancient Egypt, and the only large corpus of inscriptions from the Old Kingdom. They are a motley collection of prayers, spells, and hymns, all designed to assist the king in his afterlife journey into the cosmic realm to join the indestructible circumpolar stars. The language and imagery of some utterances suggest that they date back many centuries, perhaps even to the dawn of Egyptian history. Others were surely composed anew at the end of the Fifth Dynasty.

Spells, incantations, and prayers must have played a part at all royal funerals and in all royal mortuary cults. Yet the idea of inscribing them permanently on the walls of the king’s tomb, to serve for eternity, was an innovation of Unas’s reign. They were not simply carved, willy-nilly, on any available surface. Rather, the careful disposition of texts on different walls was designed to reinforce the symbolic geography of the pyramid itself. Texts explicitly concerned with the underworld were concentrated in the burial chamber, while the antechamber was identified as the horizon, the place of rebirth where the king might rise into the heavens. In this way, hieroglyphs and architecture complemented and strengthened each other, enhancing the magical power that was designed to guarantee Unas’s resurrection.

But there was more to it than mere magic. The king could look forward to a glorious rebirth because he commanded absolute obedience—from deities as well as mere mortals. As far as the king’s relationship with the gods was concerned, he had might, as well as right, on his side. This rather shocking presumption is given voice in one of the most chilling of Unas’s Pyramid Texts. Dubbed “the Cannibal Hymn,” its graphic imagery has made it (in)famous. A brief extract gives the flavor:

Unas is he who eats people, who lives on the gods …

Unas is he who eats their magic, swallows their spirits:

Their big ones are for his morning meal,

Their middle ones for his evening meal,

Their little ones for his night meal,

Their old males and females for his burnt offering.1

The king’s theologians and hymnographers had excelled themselves in conveying the starkest of messages: Unas was omnipotent because he had literally consumed and assimilated the powers of the divine realm in all their manifestations. Nothing and no one could stand in his way of achieving cosmic immortality.

Such a tyrannical attitude toward the gods did not bode well for the king’s relationship with his mortal subjects. The reign of Unas has left little in the way of evidence for historic events—a battle scene showing Egyptians fighting Asiatics is a rare exception—but one particular series of scenes from his pyramid causeway suggests a grim episode with dreadful human consequences. The images of famine, rendered in excruciating detail, are horribly familiar to modern audiences, who are accustomed to scenes of misery and degradation emanating from the African continent. On the Unas causeway, the tableau is just as harrowing: a man on the verge of death is supported by his emaciated wife, while a male friend grips his arm; a woman desperate for food eats the lice from her own head; a little boy with the distended belly of starvation begs a woman for food. The mental and physical anguish is real enough, yet there are no inscriptions to identify the starving people. It is scarcely conceivable that they were supposed to be native Egyptians, since the whole purpose of art in a funerary context—especially in the king’s pyramid complex—was to immortalize an ideal state of affairs. The only logical conclusion is that the famine victims are desert tribespeople, the descendants of Egypt’s prehistoric cattle herders, who continued to eke out a precarious existence in the arid regions to the east and west of the fertile Nile Valley. Their parlous state was illustrated to contrast with the good fortune of the Egyptians; the miserable wretchedness of those living beyond Unas’s rule served both as a stark reminder and as a warning to his own subjects. For all the outward piety of the Fifth Dynasty kings, an older model of despotic monarchy had never entirely gone away.


ALL THE PROPAGANDA OF ART AND ARCHITECTURE, OF TEXT AND IMAGE, might buy the king immortality, but it could not bring him an heir. Mocking Unas’s self-promotion as the founder of a new age, fate decreed that he should die without a son to inherit his kingdom. The throne passed instead to a commoner, a man called Teti, who swiftly married his predecessor’s daughter to secure his legitimacy. So began the Sixth Dynasty (2325–2175), in an atmosphere of uncertainty, court intrigue, and barely managed crisis that was to haunt it until the very end.


With his rather tenuous claim to the kingship, Teti needed to surround himself with trusted lieutenants. Their magnificent, decorated tombs at Saqqara, nestling close up against the royal pyramid, testify once again to the critical importance of royal patronage for career advancement, but also to the claustrophobic oligarchy of Teti’s court. The vizier Kagemni exercised unrivaled authority as the king’s right-hand man. His successor, Mereruka, enjoyed great wealth and status, and luxuries unimaginable to the majority of the population. He could indulge his palate with haute cuisine of the most exotic kind: the scenes of animal husbandry in his tomb go beyond the normal depictions of cattle rearing to include semidomesticated antelopes eating from mangers, cranes being force-fed (it seems foie gras was on the menu in Sixth Dynasty Egypt), and—most bizarre of all—hyenas being fattened for the table.

Such refined pleasures were the reward for ultraloyal service to the king, and were designed to ensure that Teti’s closest advisers were also his strongest supporters. Yet the greatest danger to his crown, and indeed his life, came not from his chief ministers but from disgruntled royal relatives, especially the male offspring of minor wives. For them, an attemped coup, however risky, was the only alternative to a life of idle frustration. If the historian Manetho is to be believed, Teti suffered just such a fate, succumbing to assassination in a palace plot. The contemporary evidence, too, points to a hiatus in the succession, with an ephemeral king, Userkara, ruling for the briefest of periods after Teti’s demise and not deemed worthy of mention in biographies of the time. Little wonder, perhaps, that when Teti’s chosen heir, Pepi I, finally achieved his birthright and was enthroned as king, he pursued a policy of extreme caution. He placed an unusual degree of trust in a very few high officials, notably his own mother-in-law—whom he appointed vizier for Upper Egypt—and brother-in-law, Djau. Pepi pursued a vigorous policy designed to reassert royal prestige by commissioning cult chapels dedicated to himself at important sites throughout the land, from Bast, in the central delta, to Abdju and Gebtu (modern Qift), in Upper Egypt. (By contrast, temples dedicated to local gods were still virtually unknown in a country where public works focused entirely on kingship.) But while such bold architectural statements of the king’s power might have convinced the populace, the statements were less effective at stifling dissent among his entourage.

Our best insight into palace politics during Pepi’s forty-year reign (2315–2275) comes from the tomb autobiography of a career courtier named Weni. He rose from the humble position of storehouse custodian to a financial position in the palace administration. Proximity to the king duly brought opportunities for advancement, and Weni was promoted to overseer of the robing room and head of the palace bodyguard , becoming a key confidant of the monarch. As a measure of the trust placed in him by his sovereign, Weni was given responsibility for sensitive judicial matters: “I heard a case alone with the vizier, in complete confidence. [I acted] in the name of the king for the royal harem.”2 The royal harem, comprising the households of the king’s female relatives and minor wives, was an important institution in its own right. It owned land and operated workshops (notably for textile manufacture), and was thus a potential power base for an ambitious rival to the reigning king. Throughout ancient Egyptian history, palace intrigue and attempted coups would often originate inside the harem. It was therefore vitally important for the king to have someone on the inside he trusted implictly, someone who could provide surveillance and report back to his royal master. In Weni the king had chosen well. Thanks to his diligence, a plot against Pepi I was discovered before it could achieve its seditious aims. To keep the lid on such a dangerous act of treason, the matter had to be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice quickly and quietly. Weni duly obliged:

When secret proceedings were launched in the royal harem against the “great of sceptre” [that is, the queen], His Majesty sent me to judge on my own. There was no judge, no vizier, no official there, only myself alone.… Never before had one like me heard a secret of the royal harem; but His Majesty made me judge it, for I was excellent in His Majesty’s heart, more than any [other] official of his, more than any noble of his, more than any servant of his.3

Weni’s rewards were commensurate with his loyal service: promotion to the rank of “sole companion” and a stone sarcophagus, a token of status usually reserved for members of the royal family. The great monolith was transported “in a great barge of the residence together with its lid, a false door, an offering table, two jambs, and a libation table”4 by a company of sailors under the command of a royal seal bearer. This show of royal favor must have been a signal honor. Being responsible for the king’s safety had its compensations.

But in the uncertain world of the Sixth Dynasty, the dangers to an Egyptian ruler came not only from his own palace. Beyond the borders of Egypt, too, less fortunate peoples—those very nomads so mercilessly caricatured in Unas’s reliefs—were starting to view the Nile Valley’s wealth with increasingly greedy eyes. These “sand dwellers,” as the Egyptians disparagingly called them, now rebelled against centuries of domination, provoking an immediate and savage response. Weni was put in charge of the operation to suppress the insurgency. Swapping the gilded opulence of the royal robing room for the dusty field of battle, he led an army of Egyptian conscripts and Nubian mercenaries through the delta to engage the rebels in their desert homeland of southern Palestine. Using a classic pincer movement, Weni ordered half of the army to proceed by boat, landing in the enemy’s rear, while the other half marched overland to launch a frontal attack. This strategy carried the day for the Egyptians, but the nomads were no pushovers. Weni boasted, rather shallowly, that “His Majesty sent me to lead this army on five occasions, to crush the land of the sand dwellers every time they rebelled.”5


THE USE OF MERCENARIES FROM NUBIA TO BOLSTER A CONSCRIPT ARMY showed a renewed interest by Egypt’s rulers in the lands to the south of the first cataract. And for once Egyptian concern was not merely directed at exploiting Nubia’s human and mineral resources. Along the upper reaches of the Nile, new powers were beginning to stir—powers that, if left unchecked, might disrupt the trade routes with sub-Saharan Africa and threaten Egypt’s economic interests. The Egyptian government responded to the growing risk with a raft of policy initiatives. A fortified outpost of the central administration was established in the distant Dakhla Oasis, a key point along the desert route between Egypt and Nubia. The town of Ayn Asil was provided with strong defensive walls and garrisoned with soldiers under the oasis commander. As part of the same military infrastructure, all major access routes into and out of the oasis were guarded by a network of watch posts. Situated on hills, within signaling distance of one another, and supplied directly from the Nile Valley, the guard stations allowed Egyptian security personnel to keep an eye on all movements of people and goods entering or leaving the area. By such means, Egypt could both safeguard its crucial trade routes and help to prevent infiltration by hostile Nubians.

Under Pepi I’s successor, Merenra, Weni was appointed governor of Upper Egypt, the first commoner to hold this strategically important post. Weni gave the king eyes and ears in the far south of the country, the better to monitor developments across the border in Nubia. Merenra even made a personal visit to Egypt’s southern border to receive a delegation of Nubian chiefs. By this unprecedented gesture he hoped, no doubt, to secure their continuing loyalty to Egyptian overlordship or, failing that, at least a promise to refrain from outright hostility. However, a one-off royal visit and second- or thirdhand reports from a local official were scarcely a good enough basis for deciding matters of national security. What was needed was firsthand intelligence from Nubia itself. This would form the third plank of the government’s new policy toward its restive southern neighbor.

The frontier town of Abu was Egypt’s gateway to Nubia. Its inhabitants knew the upper Nile better than any of their compatriots, and many had close economic or family links with the Nubian population just over the border. Government-sanctioned expeditions into Nubia had been taking place sporadically since the reign of Teti, at the beginning of the Sixth Dynasty. The time had come to place these reconaissance missions on a more systematic footing, and of all the people in Abu none was better qualified to undertake such a mission than the chief of scouts. He, after all, was the government official responsible for maintaining security and for ensuring that the peoples of Nubia and beyond delivered a steady supply of exotic products to the royal treasury. On Merenra’s orders, the chief of scouts, a man named Harkhuf, set out with his father, Iri, on an epic journey. His ultimate destination was the distant land of Yam, far up the Nile, beyond the limits of Egyptian control. The one-thousand-mile return trip took seven months, at the end of which Harkhuf and Iri returned safely to Egypt, laden with exotic goods for their sovereign.

Just as valuable must have been the intelligence they brought with them about political developments in Nubia. So troubling were the reports that Harkhuf was sent to Yam a second time. Abandoning the pretense of a trade expedition, the intrepid traveler acknowledged the true purpose of his eight-month mission: “I returned through the region of the realm of the ruler of Satju and Irtjet, having opened up those foreign lands.”6 What Harkhuf reported back to his master was an alarming development in the political geography of lower Nubia. The local population, for so long subservient to the Egyptians, was showing signs of wishing to reassert its autonomy. The coalescence of districts such as Satju and Irtjet was a dangerous warning sign that Egypt could not afford to ignore.

Taking account of these new political realities on his third expedition to Yam, Harkhuf studiously avoided the river valley, following instead the Oasis Road. On arrival at Yam, Harkhuf discovered to his dismay that its ruler had left to fight his own battle against the Tjemeh people of southeastern Libya. Old political certainties were crumbling, and across northeast Africa, lands were in a state of flux. Undeterred, Harkhuf set out immediately in pursuit of the Yamite chief, following him to Tjemeh land. The rendezvous accomplished, the two men concluded their negotiations to mutual satisfaction. Harkhuf embarked on the journey home “with three hundred donkeys, laden with incense, ebony, precious oil, grain, panther skins, elephant tusks, throw sticks—all good tribute.”7However, the situation in lower Nubia was now more hazardous than ever for an Egyptian envoy. Harkhuf swiftly discovered that the chief of Satju and Irtjet had added the whole of Wawat (lower Nubia north of the second cataract) to his growing territory. Such a powerful chief was not about to allow Harkhuf and his considerable booty to pass unhindered. Only the presence of an armed escort provided by the Yamites allowed Harkhuf to continue his journey unmolested.

Suddenly, Egypt was no longer the only serious power in the Nile Valley. Under its very nose, upstart Nubian chiefs had taken control, threatening Egypt’s centuries-old domination. It was a dramatic reversal of fortune for the most prosperous and stable nation of the ancient world. Only decisive leadership might hope to restore Egyptian hegemony. Yet soon after Harkhuf’s return, Merenra died, leaving the throne to a boy of six. The infant king, Neferkara Pepi II, was not in a position to offer any kind of guidance to his beleaguered country. At home, government was exercised by a regency council, headed by the king’s mother and uncle. As for foreign affairs, the inexperienced advisers seem to have decided to maintain a semblance of continuity by sending Harkhuf on his fourth (and final) journey to Yam. But gone, it seems, was the intelligence-gathering motive of earlier missions. Instead , this was to be an old-fashioned trade expedition, its objective to bring back exotic tribute for the new sovereign. This act of homage would serve publicly to proclaim Egypt’s continued authority over neighboring lands, even as that authority ebbed away. It was the ancient Egyptian equivalent of fiddling while Rome burned.

Harkhuf abided loyally by his new orders and found just the trophy to delight his six-year-old monarch: “a pygmy of the god’s dances from the land of the horizon dwellers.”8 News of this dancing pygmy from the ends of the earth reached the boy king back in Egypt. Pepi II hurriedly penned an excited letter to Harkhuf, urging him to hurry back to the royal residence with his precious human bauble:

Come northward to the residence immediately! Hurry and bring this pygmy with you … to delight the heart of the Dual King Neferkara, who lives forever. When he goes down with you into the ship, appoint excellent people to be around him on both sides of the ship, lest he fall into the water! When he lies down at night, appoint excellent people to lie around him in his hammock. Inspect ten times per night! My Majesty wants to see this pygmy more than the tribute of the Sinai and Punt!9

Receiving personal correspondence from the king (albeit a boy of six) was the ultimate accolade for an Egyptian official. Harkhuf had the complete text of the royal letter inscribed on the façade of his tomb, in pride of place next to the account of his four epic expeditions. It was to stand as an eternal testament to his sovereign’s favor.

Pepi II’s boyish exuberance may have touched the heart of an old retainer, but it was hardly an effective remedy for a country beset by problems, internal and external. In Nubia, the coalition of states first reported by Harkhuf in the reign of Merenra grew increasingly powerful and increasingly troublesome to Egyptian interests. One of Pepi’s senior officials, the chancellor Mehu, was killed by hostile locals while on an expedition to Nubia, and his body had to be retrieved by his son in the course of a difficult mission. Although the Egyptian presence remained strong in the Dakhla Oasis, Egypt had effectively lost control of events in Nubia.

At home, too, authority was slipping from the government’s grasp. The devolution of political power to provincial officials, instigated in the late Fifth Dynasty, had proved both unwise and unstoppable. Local bigwigs—some now calling themselves “great overlord” of their province—were amassing ever more authority, arrogating to themselves a combination of civil and religious offices. When a mere local magistrate like Pepiankh of Meir could revel in a list of dignities that covered an entire wall of his tomb—member of the elite, high official, councilor, keeper of Nekhen, head man of Nekheb, chief justice and vizier, chief scribe of the royal tablet, royal seal bearer, attendant of the Apis, spokesman of every resident of Pe, overseer of the two granaries, overseer of the two purification rooms, overseer of the storehouse, senior administrator, scribe of the royal tablet of the court, god’s seal bearer, sole companion, lector-priest, overseer of Upper Egypt in the middle nomes, royal chamberlain, staff of commoners, pillar of Kenmut, priest of Maat, privy to the secret of every royal command, and favorite of the king in every place of his—then, clearly, the system was out of control. Officials were now so busy feathering their own nests and ensuring their own eternal existence that they neglected the future well-being of the Egyptian state. In matters of traditional royal patronage, too, the central government seems to have lost its way. Outwardly, Pepi II’s pyramid was the model of a Sixth Dynasty royal monument, complete with Pyramid Texts. But much of the decoration of the pyramid temple was slavishly copied from Sahura’s complex at Abusir. With artistic creativity stalled, looking back to an earlier golden age was an easy refuge for an administration that had lost its way.

To compound the difficulties caused by a weak administration headed by an ineffectual king, a prolonged period of low Nile floods wreaked havoc with Egypt’s agricultural economy. So marked was the drought that the level of Birket Qarun dropped alarmingly, forcing the abandonment of the nearby basalt quarries that had supplied the state’s building projects throughout the Old Kingdom. The lakeshore was now simply too far from the quarry site to make the transportation of huge granite blocks practicable. The inadequate inundations caused widespread crop failure and economic stress on a national scale. In happier times, an effective government could have taken action to alleviate hardship, releasing stocks of grain from the state granaries to feed its hungry population. But Pepi II’s regime seems to have been unable to respond adequately, crippled by inaction. In later periods, Pepi II would be remembered in scurrilous stories as a weak, ineffectual, effeminate ruler, sidetracked from the business of government by a clandestine affair with his army general.

In truth, much of the problem did indeed lie with the king—not his sexual preferences but his sheer longevity. Usually, a long reign was the sign of a stable dynasty. But Pepi II’s six or more decades on the throne (2260–2175) caused major problems for the succession. Not only did the king see ten viziers come and go, but he outlived so many of his heirs that the royal family struggled to find a single candidate who could command widespread support. Egypt was set on an unstoppable course toward political fragmentation. The young monarch full of boyish exuberance had become a frail old man. In theory immortal (and he must increasingly have seemed so to his subjects), in practice he had gone on too long. His passing, when it finally came, marked both the end of a life and the end of an era. The Old Kingdom had run its course.

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