The two basic kingdoms of ancient Egypt—Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt—were first unified into a single kingdom about 3150 BCE when King Narmer from Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt. For the next thousand years, Egypt would remain unified and Egyptian civilization would flourish, resulting in massive public works including the pyramids and the Great Sphinx. About 2125 BCE, however, this unity began to crumble as Ancient Egypt entered a period which archaeologists would later call the First Intermediate Period.
The disintegration of Egyptian unity was not sudden, but developed over time. Some archaeologists place its beginning as early as 2125 BCE. Politically, Pepi II was the last major pharaoh of the sixth dynasty and thus the last pharaoh of the Old Kingdom. He ruled from his childhood until he was in his 90s. He ruled from 2278 until 2184 BCE according to some sources, though others claim he only reigned for 64 years. He is generally regarded as the longest reigning Egyptian monarch. He outlived many of his heirs and created problems with succession.
Shown above is Pepi II on his mother’s lap.
Beginning about 2180 BCE there were a series of poor floods. Since floods nourished the lands, poor floods meant that the agricultural production dropped and the people starved. The pharaoh was unable to feed the people.
Poor floods also meant that people began to lose faith in the gods that brought the floods. Since the pharaohs were closely identified with the gods, this meant that there was less faith in the power of the pharaohs to act on the people’s behalf with the gods.
The centralized government of the pharaoh was unable to cope with the results of this change. It was up to provincial governors and other local rulers to come up with a solution about how to best irrigate their own territory. As a result, the unified kingdom dissolved into competing kingdoms.
During the First Intermediate Period, Egyptians became less dependent on the state which had virtually disintegrated. Local governors now became kings. They stressed their economic self-sufficiency.
Archaeologists have found that during this era the local governors commissioned monumental works in their own name, a practice which had previously been done by the pharaoh. They took credit themselves for their policies, rather than giving it to the pharaoh. In other words, it was increasingly obvious in the archaeological record that the pharaoh had less power and less relevance to the people.
As the unity of Egypt dissolved, competing dynasties were established at Heracleopolis and Thebes. While the less powerful local leaders had some degree of independence, most declared their loyalty to either the Heracleopolitan or the Theban dynasties.
While Egyptian unity dissolved, a number of kings attempted to rule Lower Egypt from Memphis. Little is really known about the seventh and eighth dynasties as little textual or archaeological evidence has been found regarding them. These obscure dynasties were followed by a consolidation of power at Heracleopolis. The ninth dynasty was founded by Wakshare Khety I who is often described as an evil and violent ruler. He is followed by Khety II and Khety III who brought order to Lower Egypt. None of the kings of the ninth dynasty had the power and significance as the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom.
While power was being consolidated at Heracleopolis in Lower Egypt, a new dynasty of kings was being established at Thebes in Upper Egypt. Intef (also spelled Inyotef) organized Upper Egypt into an independent kingdom. While Intef did not declare himself as king, his descendents did.
While these two factions waged a civil war, this civil war did not impact some areas. At Balat, for example, archaeologists found that the city had been rebuilt after a fire at the end of the 6th Dynasty. The new city was not protected by an enclosure wall. In this part of the Egyptian territories there was a feeling of security during the First Intermediate Period.
With regard to religion during the First Intermediate Period, the god Amon-Ra (also spelled Amun and Amen) became more prominent. Amon-Ra was the god of Thebes. This was almost entirely a political deity, without elaborate formulation of doctrine. During the First Intermediate Period Amon-Ra seems to have replaced Monthu as the patron deity of Thebes.
Some images of Amon-Ra are shown above.
In art during this period, the reliefs and statues often lack the refinement of their Old Kingdom predecessors. The craftsmanship was rather clumsy or even sloppy. Figures were stiff and disproportionate.
In 2055 BCE, Upper and Lower Egypt were once again unified when Mentuhotep II from Thebes conquered Lower Egypt. This marked the beginning of what archaeologists call the Middle Kingdom.