Old Kingdom Egypt: Geography & Environment

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

A lot changed for Egypt in the Old Kingdom, and this was made possible by the geography and environment of the region. In this lesson, we'll see how the land both helped and hindered Egyptian development, and explore the ways that the pharaohs sought to use their lands.

The Old Kingdom

Egyptian history is pretty long, but one thing that remained consistent across time was the importance of geography. Each of the Egyptian dynasties had to manage resources in their home, supplemented by imported products from abroad. This was always an issue, dating back at least to the Old Kingdom, when a still-young, recently unified Egyptian kingdom grew in size and power into a major world force. From roughly 2613-2181 BCE, and spanning the Third through Sixth Dynasties of Egyptian rulers, the Old Kingdom was when Egyptian civilization learned that growth was possible, even in an environment as unforgiving as Egypt.

Resources of the Old Kingdom

Every kingdom needs certain resources to survive, and Egypt was no exception. Luckily, there was one resource that seemed limitless. The Nile River is the longest river in the world, flowing north through Egypt and emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. Not only did the Nile provide fresh water to drink, fish and waterfowl to eat, and papyrus reeds that the Egyptians used to create paper, it also flooded. Yes, that's a good thing. Every year in late summer, the Nile flooded its banks, inundating a wide flood plain. When this happened, the waters replenished the soils with new minerals and nutrients. As a result, the Egyptians were able to farm very efficiently throughout the flood plain. In fact, their agriculture was good enough to allow for incredible population growth.

The annual flooding of the Nile kept the soil fertile for millennia
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Resources Outside Egypt

However, as Egypt grew at the start of the Old Kingdom, it became apparent that there were some things they needed more of. Outside of the Nile River basin, Egypt is basically a desert. From the beginning, Old Kingdom pharaohs tried to improve their access to various resources. The first pharaoh of this era, Djoser, sent his army to expand the borders of Egypt and conquer the Sinai Peninsula, an area that divides North Africa and the Middle East and is rich in minerals like turquoise and copper. These mines would remain extremely important to the Egyptians.

Djoser's example set an important precedent, and Egyptian pharaohs throughout the Old Kingdom would expand the borders of Egypt based on acquiring new resources. They also became more and more active in international trade. In the Fourth Dynasty, pharaohs like Sneferu and Khufu started trading with Lebanon for cedar, and with Byblos for more copper. Fifth Dynasty pharaohs increased trade further, going as far as the kingdom of Punt (likely in modern Somalia) for ebony, gold, copper, frankincense, and myrrh. However, growth would catch up with them. The Old Kingdom ended in the 6th Dynasty with widespread famine and food shortages, perhaps from mismanagement of the Nile River.

Major Cities

The next step to understanding the relationship between the Egyptians and their land is understanding where exactly they lived within it. Prior to unification, the Egyptian cultures were divided between the kingdoms of Upper Egypt, located along the southern part of the Nile River, and those of Lower Egypt, located in the north, where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean.

After unification, the pharaohs decided to keep their palaces in Lower Egypt, near the Nile Delta. Their capital city was called Memphis. It's just south of where Cairo is today. From here, the pharaohs had easy access to the river and all the resources it provided, as well as the trade routes that ran from the Nile Delta into the Mediterranean.

The Old Kingdom was centered in Lower Egypt, near the fertile Nile Delta
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Of course, that wasn't their only major city. The Egyptians, obsessed with death and believing in a complex afterlife, were very careful with how they treated the bodies of the dead. The pharaohs, and other wealthy people, were buried in elaborate necropolises, cities of the dead. There were three major ones in the Old Kingdom, all located near Memphis but all on the opposite side of the Nile.

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