Archaeological discoveries

Egypt:the Old and Middle Kingdom

With the Old Kingdom, a long period of peace and prosperity, Egypt experienced its first golden age, which resulted in colossal architecture. Two centuries of instability followed, before the country regained its power under the 11th dynasty.

Statuette of the crouching scribe in the Louvre Museum. It dates from the 4th or 5th dynasty.

This article is from the Special Issue of Sciences et Avenir n°197 dated April-May 2019.



III e - VI e dynasty (c. 2700 - 2200*). The Egyptian monarchy continues its consolidation. The pharaohs Djoser - under the III th dynasty -, then Snefrou, Cheops, Chephren and Mykerinos under the IV th dynasty carry out large-scale architectural projects. This is the golden age of the pyramids (2620 - 2515).


VII e - beginning of the IX th dynasty (c. 2200 - 2033). During this little-known period, Egypt was divided into rival principalities. The VII th dynasty would have counted 70 pharaohs in 70 days! This is followed by the kings of Herakleopolis (Upper Egypt) who face a parallel dynasty, that of the princes of Thebes.


XI e dynasty - beginning of the 13th th dynasty (circa 2033 - 1710). Under the princes of Thebes, who reunified Egypt, it experienced a new prosperity.


End of the XIII th dynasty - 17 th Theban dynasty (circa 1710 - 1540). The Hyksos, originating from Syria-Palestine, dominate Egypt, with Avaris as their capital. One hundred years later, the Theban prince Ahmose drove them out and founded the XVIII th dynasty, ushering in the New Kingdom.

Politics and religion

The Old Empire was a brilliant and prosperous era, marked by the solidity of the institutions and of the central and provincial administration. Nomarchs (governors) are instituted in order to administer the provinces in the name of the pharaoh and to make order reign there. At the end of this period, taking advantage of the weakening of royalty, some become true potentates. But in the Middle Kingdom, Sesostris III reforms the administration to limit their power, and they gradually disappear.

The necropolis of Abydos, where stelae, chapels and temples were erected in honor of Osiris, became a major center of pilgrimage during the Middle Kingdom. It will remain so until the end of the New Kingdom.

Funeral art

Canopic jars are attested from the end of the IV e dynasty. These four receptacles placed near the sarcophagus of the deceased contain his viscera - liver, stomach, intestines, lungs - and are intended to guarantee the integrity of his mummified body in the afterlife. Originally simple and sober vases whose lids will be decorated, in the New Kingdom, with figures of the four sons of Horus, protective deities of the viscera.

Iconic figures

Djoser, the precursor, is the founding king of the III th dynasty. He entrusted his vizier and architect Imhotep with the construction of his tomb - the first pyramid - in Saqqara, his capital, around 2650 BC. AD (see also "Sites and monuments").

Montouhotep II inaugurates a new period of prosperity. Theban pharaoh whose reign lasted fifty-one years, he restored the unity of the empire at the end of the First Intermediate Period by fighting the rival dynasty of Herakleopolis, which ruled the Delta and part of Upper Egypt . He orders the construction of a funerary complex in the circus of Deir el-Bahari, where Queen Hatshepsut will have her temple built, five centuries later.

Arts and techniques

Funerary literature emerges under the Old Kingdom. The first characters engraved in the pyramids appear in that of King Unas, at Saqqara, at the end of the V th dynasty. Previously, funerary inscriptions adorned only temples of royal worship. These Pyramid Texts , which include nearly 800 formulas (hymns, litanies and magic utterances) should facilitate the rebirth of the king in the afterlife, allowing him to ascend to heaven and join the boat of the god Re. They testify to conceptions already existing under Cheops but not yet formulated in writing. They also mention for the first time Osiris, the god of the dead, who comes back to life, opening the way to resurrection for the king who identifies with him. These Texts will have a lasting influence on Egyptian funerary literature. Witness the Texts of the sarcophagi which appear around 2200, mainly adorning the coffins of provincial dignitaries.

The first literary works date from the Middle Kingdom. These are tales composed by scribes, including The Adventures of Sinouhé , The Eloquent Peasant, The Tale of the Castaway or the cycle of tales from the Westcar papyrus. It was also the time of extreme refinement of art, especially in the royal temples, as evidenced by the sumptuous jewels found in the tombs of certain princesses.

The Hyksos spread for their part in Egypt the use of the horse for the war and the transport of the elite.

Sites and monuments

The royal tombs abandon the shape of the mastaba to take that of the pyramid. An architecture that manifests absolute royal power. The Egyptians see it as a staircase - or the rays of the sun - that the soul of the sovereign must symbolically climb to reach heaven.

Djoser (c. 2680 - 2650) built the first on the Saqqara plateau near Memphis. At six degrees, it is 60 meters high and includes an underground vault and a funerary complex. It is the first of the large-scale constructions made entirely of stone.

Snefru (circa 2620 - 2590) had the first smooth-faced pyramid erected in Meidum, south of Saqqara.

Cheops (2590 - 2565) built a pyramid of 146.50 meters - today 137 meters - with perfect geometric shapes, on the Giza plateau.

Chephren - to whom we owe the Sphinx - and Mykerinos, the sons of Cheops, also build their pyramids (respectively 136 and 66 meters high). Others, of more modest size, shelter the bodies of their wives.

Egypt and its neighbors

From the Old Kingdom, exchanges developed with Syria-Palestine but also the country of Punt - in the Horn of Africa -, producer of incense. In the Middle Kingdom, the pharaohs partially annexed Nubia, rich in gold, ivory and ebony, and traded with Greece and Crete.

*All dates mentioned in this article are before the Christian era.

By Laureen Bouyssou