The god king no longer enjoyed exalted status. Local rulers and nomarchs had grabbed much of his authority. When the collapse finally came, it was sudden and complete. While general disorder and the independence of local rulers helped bring about the collapse of the Old Kingdom, many scholars believe that climate change in Africa and the Near East had at least as much to do with it. Changes in the patterns of monsoon rains over the Abyssinian highlands caused widespread drought and a series of low Niles. Food production abruptly declined.
Hot winds blew from the south for weeks at a time, according to some ancient texts. Sandstorms and dust storms hid the sun for days. Already dry farms turned to dust. In some places, the Nile was so shallow that it could be crossed on foot. Drought and famine in the Near East drove bands of starving, desperate refugees to Egypt’s borders, putting additional pressure on food and water supplies. These disastrous events called into serious question the god-king’s ability to control the river and to ensure agricultural success. The king quickly lost any reputation he still had for magical powers.
Only local warlords had the power to repel invaders, control distribution of scarce food, and enforce water conservation. Egypt quickly splintered into numerous small feudal kingdoms ruled by powerful chieftains. Their only concerns were keeping their domains secure and keeping invaders out. Art, tomb building, and everything else had to wait. This period spans from about 2130 B.C.E. to 1980 B.C.E., Dynasties 9 to 11 (early). But in fact, there is little information and much confusion about the length of this period (estimates range from 140 to 200 years) and the number of kings.
A rapid succession of kings (sometimes more than one at a time) claimed the throne. None of these self proclaimed rulers had much influence beyond Memphis. By 20 years after Pepy II’s death, the Delta had been invaded by “Asiatics” refugees and nomadic tribes from northeast of Egypt in the Near East, Palestine, and beyond, to the Tigris Euphrates Valley. Egypt’s government, such as it was, fled south. One powerful faction ruled the Delta during the ninth and tenth dynasties, and parts of Middle Egypt from Herakleopolis. They brought a temporary end to warfare, expelled Asiatic invaders from the Delta, fortified the eastern borders, improved irrigation systems, and reestablished Memphis as a regional capital. Another powerful ruling family (the Eleventh Dynasty) ruled from Thebes. There were frequent border clashes between the Thebans and Herakleopolitans.