IN THE REIGN OF THE SUN KINGS
Archaeology|November/December 2020
Old Kingdom pharaohs faced a reckoning that reshaped Egypt’s balance of power
ERIC A. POWELL

ONE OF EGYPT’S GREAT VISTAS, says archaeologist Miroslav Bárta, is the view from the top of the pyramid of the 5th Dynasty pharaoh Neferirkare in the necropolis of Abusir. On a clear day, you can see all the iconic monuments of Egypt’s Old Kingdom from there. Ten miles to the north are the Great Pyramids of Giza. To the south rise the Bent Pyramid at Dashur and the great pyramid complex of Djoser in the nearby necropolis of Saqqara. This majestic tableau on the Nile’s west bank is the most visible legacy of the Old Kingdom pharaohs of the 3rd through 6th Dynasties, who reigned from about 2649 to 2150 B.C. and were celebrated throughout Egyptian history. The monarchs of the 3rd and 4th Dynasties oversaw the creation of the country’s most massive pyramids and loomed large in the Egyptian historical imagination. But Bárta, head of the Czech Institute of Egyptology’s Abusir Mission, says that the true legacy of the Old Kingdom lies in the momentous social changes that occurred during the reign of the 5th Dynasty pharaohs. Their relatively modest pyramids in the necropolis of Abusir may be somewhat overlooked by tour groups today, but the discoveries made by Czech teams there since the 1960s have shown how radical changes instituted during the 5th Dynasty irrevocably impacted the trajectory of Egyptian history. “Abusir tells the story of a time when Egypt changed utterly,” says Bárta.

First built during the 3rd Dynasty near the newly established capital of Memphis, pyramids were symbols of the pharaohs’ unrivaled ability to command vast resources and labor. At least initially, the pyramid-building projects also seem to have contributed to an increasingly sophisticated bureaucracy and the spread of resources throughout the kingdom. “During the construction of the Great Pyramid, I would say that perhaps a quarter of the whole population profited from this single project,” says Bárta. By the end of the 4th Dynasty, though, these incredibly expensive royal constructions came close to bankrupting Egypt. The pharaohs of the 5th Dynasty not only inherited a precarious financial and political situation from their predecessors, whose profligate tastes in mortuary practices may have soured large segments of the Egyptian populace on the entire concept of royalty, they also came to power during a period when the climate was becoming increasing unstable. Decreased rainfall seems to have led to droughts, and the subsequent poor harvests threatened both the country’s prosperity and the royal tax revenue, which would have made the pharaohs’ hold on absolute power tenuous. The model that had held sway during earlier dynasties—that of power being invested in a single royal family—was not adequate to the challenges the 5th Dynasty pharaohs faced when they inherited the task of running an increasingly complex government. Suddenly, they found themselves compelled to share authority with a new class of non-royal officials.

The necropolis of Abusir was the domain of most of the 5th Dynasty pyramids, but it is also densely packed with hundreds of other funeral monuments, including large rectangular tombs known as mastabas that held the remains of non-royal elites and testify to the growing social and political clout of this newly influential group, whose ranks included important priests and scribes. “It’s a story familiar to us today,” says Bárta. “A few families grew powerful and began to control more and more resources.” This new breed of official made their standing clear by commissioning lavish tombs close to those of the pharaohs. “There was a race for status,” says Bárta, one that included the pharaohs themselves, who had to find novel ways to compete with their newly potent subjects.

Recent discoveries made by Bárta’s team in Abusir and nearby Saqqara are providing a new look at this period, when a radical shift in political organization transformed the face of the Egyptian monarchy. It was also a time that witnessed an efflorescence of new styles of art and saw the rise of the cult of Osiris, the god of the dead. The 5th Dynasty pharaohs closely identified themselves with the sun god Ra, and controlled worship of the deity. But veneration of Osiris was not overseen by the pharaohs and was available to all who worshipped the god in the proper manner. Osiris ruled over a netherworld that contained not just the pharaoh’s soul, but the souls of all Egyptians. “We can call this a process of ‘democratization’ or widening participation in sacred affairs,” says Bárta. “It was a new way to balance power.”

THE KINGS OF THE 5th Dynasty were not the first to retrench from their predecessors’ extravagant mortuary practices. This pattern had played out during the 2nd Dynasty, too. The pharaohs of the 1st Dynasty were buried in tombs in the necropolis of Abydos along with hundreds of sacrificial burials. But the practice of killing great numbers of citizens evidently became a burden on society, and the 2nd Dynasty pharaohs were buried along with fewer and fewer people. By the dynasty’s end, the number of sacrificial victims accompanying their rulers to the underworld had dwindled to zero. It may have been that in the face of popular resistance, the pharaohs curtailed the practice.

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