OLD KINGDOM OF ANCIENT EGYPT
small Pyramid of Menkaure The Old Kingdom (2686 to 2125 B.C. or 2649-2150 B.C.) by most reckonings was comprised of Dynasties 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, with 25 principal rulers. Before the Old Kingdom was established, ancient Egypt consisted of small regional chiefdoms with separate gods, rulers and government. The greatest achievements in the Old Kingdom took place during the fourth, fifth and sixth dynasties. After the sixth dynasty the central state began to collapse. The main Old Kingdom dynasties were the Forth Dynasty (2575-2465 B.C.) and the Fifth Dynasty (2465-2323 B.C.). Some also regard the Third Dynasty (2649-2575 B.C.) as a critical period.
As there is with most everything related to ancient Egypt, there is some debate about what the term Old Kingdom means. Some say it is comprised of Dynasties 3, 4, 5, and 6, with 29 principal rulers . Other say it is is comprised of Dynasties 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, with 25 principal rulers. Others still say it begins with Dynasty 1.Renate Mueller-Wollermann of the University of Tuebingen wrote: “The term “Old Kingdom” was minted in the mid-nineteenth century and at that time meant the period of the 1st through the 16th dynasties; later the term referred to the period of the 1st through the 10th dynasties, and today it refers to the 1st through the 8th dynasties. Some scholars, however, put the end of the Old Kingdom at the end of the 6th Dynasty, or after the reign of Pepy II. Most Egyptologists now designate the first two dynasties as the Early Dynastic Period, the Old Kingdom beginning with the 3rd Dynasty. [Source: Renate, Mueller-Wollermann, University of Tuebingen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, escholarship.org ]
Before the Old Kingdom was established, ancient Egypt consisted of small regional chiefdoms with separate gods, rulers and governments. The main Old Kingdom dynasties were: the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. (2649-2575 B.C.); the Forth Dynasty of Old Kingdom (2575-2465 B.C.); and the Fifth Dynasty of Old Kingdom (2465-2323 B.C.). The greatest achievements in the Old Kingdom took place during the Forth, Fifth and Sixth dynasties. After the Sixth dynasty the central state began to collapse and the First Intermediate Period transpired. Some scholars used to consider the First Intermediate Period as part of the Old Kingdom Period.
Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk
Highlights of the Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt is when the great pyramids and the Great Sphinx were built. Great achievements and advances were made in a number of fields: administration, astronomy, architecture, painting, sculpture, mass transportation, distribution of food, and sanitation. In many cases Old Kingdom traditions were continued with few alterations by the dynasties that followed. Perhaps one million to a million and a half people lived in Old Kingdom Egypt. The the construction of the first pyramids and the Great Sphinx took place early in the Old Kingdom period. Perhaps one million to a million and a half people lived in the Old Kingdom.
The Old Kingdom formed a central state with a national bureaucracy that supervised construction of canals, monuments and pyramids. An administration system was established to govern a large area that included parts of Nubia. Exactly how the Old Kingdom pharaohs forged a powerful state and unified people through a shared national consciousness — that was strong enough to mobilize the labor and administration necessary to build the pyramids and produce great works of art — is not known.
The Old Kingdom pharaohs periodically moved to new places, perhaps so they could have enough room to construct monuments greater than their predecessors. The capital of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 B.C.) was in Memphis near present-day Cairo. The first pyramids where built around Saqqara, beginning with the Step Pyramid, built in 2630 B.C. Two generations later the first pyramids were built in Giza.
Memphis — Capital of the Old Kingdom and Gateway to the Pyramids
Memphis was the capital of the Old Kingdom and home to extraordinary funerary monuments, including rock tombs, ornate mastabas, temples and pyramids. According to UNESCO: “Memphis is located in the center of the floodplain of the western side of the Nile. Its fame comes from its being the first Capital of Ancient Egypt. The unrivaled geographic location of Memphis, both commanding the entrance to the Delta while being at the confluence of important trade routes, means that there was no possible alternative capital for any ruler with serious ambition to govern both Upper and Lower Egypt. Traditionally believed to have been founded in 3000 BC as the capital of a politically unified Egypt, Memphis served as the effective administrative capital of the country during the Old Kingdom, then during at least part of the Middle and New Kingdoms (besides Itjtawy and Thebes), the Late Period and again in the Ptolemaic Period (along with the city of Alexandria), until it was eclipsed by the foundation of the Islamic garrison city of Fustat on the Nile and its later development, Al Qahira. As well as the home of kings, and the centre of state administration, Memphis was considered to be a site sacred to the gods. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]
“The site contains many archaeological remains, reflecting what life was like in the ancient Egyptian city, which include temples, of which the most important is the Temple of Ptah in Mit Rahina. Ptah was the local god of Memphis, the god of creation and the patron of craftsmanship. Other major religious buildings included the sun temples in Abu Ghurab and Abusir, the temple of the god Apis in Memphis, the Serapeum and the Heb-Sed temple in Saqqara. Being the seat of royal power for over eight dynasties, the city also contained palaces and ruins survive of the palace of Apries overlooking the city. The palaces and temples were surrounded by craftsmen’s workshops, dockyards and arsenals, as well as residential neighbourhoods, traces of which survive. =
“The Necropolis of Memphis, to the north and south of the capital, extends southwards from the Giza plateau, through Zawyet Elarian, Abu Ghurab, Abusir, Mit Rahina and Saqqara, and northwards as far as Dahshur. It contains the first complex monumental stone buildings in Egyptian history, as well as evidence of the development of the royal tombs from the early shape called "mastaba" until it reaches the pyramid shape. More than thirty-eight pyramids include the three pyramids of Giza, of which the Great Pyramid of Khufu is the only surviving wonder of the ancient world and one of the most important monuments in the history of humankind, the pyramids of Abusir, Saqqara and Dahshur and the Great Sphinx. Besides these monumental creations, there are more than nine thousand rock-cut tombs, from different historic periods, ranging from the First to the Thirtieth Dynasty, and extending to the Graeco-Roman Period. The property also includes the remains of many smaller temples and settlements, which are invaluable for understanding ancient Egyptian life in this area. =
“Memphis is associated with the religious beliefs related to the God of the Necropolis "Ptah" who was sanctified by the kings, as well as with outstanding ideas, artistic works and technologies.The ensemble of structures and associated archaeological remains at Memphis, including the archaic necropolis at Saqqara, dating back to formation of Pharaonic civilization, the limestone step pyramid of Djoser, the oldest pyramid to be constructed, the tombs and pyramids that reflect the development of funerary monuments, and the remains of the city, together form an exceptional testimony to the power and organization of the ancient capital of Egypt.” =
Great Dynasties of the Old Kingdom
Dr Aidan Dodson of the University of Bristol wrote: “3rd Dynasty: During the first dynasties, architecture was largely based on mud-brick and organic material, and it was not until Djoser came to the throne around 2700 B.C. that the first large-scale building in stone took place. The first of these structures was in the form of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, shown here. It was designed by the chancellor Imhotep, who was later worshipped as a god of medicine. |The Step Pyramid and the buildings surrounding it owe much to the forms previously created with traditional materials, but are entirely rendered in stone. As the oldest major stone building in the world, this pyramid remains a pivotal monument. The history of the dynasty itself is little known, with even the names and succession of its kings still debated by Egyptologists. [Source: Dr Aidan Dodson, Egyptologist, University of Bristol, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“4th Dynasty: The pyramids at Giza, on the outskirts of modern Cairo, are perhaps the most iconic of all Egyptian monuments, and they mark the high point in the engineering skills first displayed by Imhotep in the previous dynasty. The largest, the Great Pyramid, shown here furthest from the camera, remains the most massive freestanding monument ever raised by humankind. |The 4th Dynasty was the period at which many of the institutions of the state appeared in mature form, and the art of this dynasty became firmly established in the canons that would endure until the end of Egyptian civilisation. |::|
“5th Dynasty: The end of the 4th Dynasty marked the close of the era of great pyramids. Henceforth rather smaller and less well built pyramids would be the norm, such as the one shown here, of Sahure at Abu Sir (c.2450 B.C.). In contrast, the temples that adjoined the pyramids, dedicated to the posthumous wellbeing of the dead pharaoh, were greatly increased in size and splendour, being adorned with beautifully carved reliefs on the walls, and paved with exotic stones.” |::|
List of Rulers from the Old Kingdom
Dynasty 3, (ca. 2649–2575 B.C.)
Zanakht (ca. 2649–2630 B.C.)
Djoser (ca. 2630–2611 B.C.)
Sekhemkhet (ca. 2611–2605 B.C.)
Khaba (ca. 2605–2599 B.C.)
Huni (ca. 2599–2575 B.C.)
[Source: Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002]
Dynasty 4, (ca. 2575–2465 B.C.)
Snefru (ca. 2575–2551 B.C.)
Khufu (ca. 2551–2528 B.C.)
Djedefre (ca. 2528–2520 B.C.)
Khafre1 (ca. 2520–2494 B.C.:
Nebka II (ca. 2494–2490 B.C.)
Menkaure2 (ca. 2490–2472 B.C.)
Shepseskaf (ca. 2472–2467 B.C.)
Thamphthis (ca. 2467–2465 B.C.)
Dynasty 5, (ca. 2465–2323 B.C.)
Userkaf (ca. 2465–2458 B.C.)
Sahure (ca. 2458–2446 B.C.:
Neferirkare (ca. 2446–2438 B.C.)
Shepseskare (ca. 2438–2431 B.C.)
Neferefre (ca. 2431–2420 B.C.)
Niuserre (ca. 2420–2389 B.C.)
Menkauhor (ca. 2389–2381 B.C.)
Isesi (ca. 2381–2353 B.C.)
Unis (ca. 2353–2323 B.C.)
Dynasty 6, (ca. 2323–2150 B.C.)
Teti (ca. 2323–2291 B.C.)
Userkare (ca. 2291–2289 B.C.)
Pepi I (ca. 2289–2255 B.C.)
Merenre I (ca. 2255–2246 B.C.)
Pepi II (ca. 2246–2152 B.C.)
Merenre II (ca. 2152–2152 B.C.)
Netjerkare Siptah (ca. 2152–2150 B.C.)
Art During the Old Kingdom
Catharine H. Roehrig of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Egypt's Old Kingdom (Dynasties 3–6, ca. 2649–2150 B.C.) was one of the most dynamic periods in the development of Egyptian art. During this period, artists learned to express their culture's worldview, creating for the first time images and forms that endured for generations. [Source: Catharine H. Roehrig Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, metmuseum.org \^/]
“Architects and masons mastered the techniques necessary to build monumental structures in stone. Sculptors created the earliest portraits of individuals and the first lifesize statues in wood, copper, and stone. They perfected the art of carving intricate relief decoration and, through keen observation of the natural world, produced detailed images of animals, plants, and even landscapes, recording the essential elements of their world for eternity in scenes painted and carved on the walls of temples and tombs. \^/
“These images and structures had two principal functions: to ensure an ordered existence and to defeat death by preserving life into the next world. To these ends, over a period of time, Egyptian artists adopted a limited repertoire of standard types and established a formal artistic canon that would define Egyptian art for more than 3,000 years, while remaining flexible enough to allow for subtle variation and innovation. Although much of their artistic effort was centered on preserving life after death, Egyptians also surrounded themselves with beautiful objects to enhance their lives in this world, producing elegant jewelry, finely carved and inlaid furniture, and cosmetic vessels and implements in a wide variety of materials.” \^/
Study of the Old Kingdom
Renate Mueller-Wollermann of the University of Tuebingen wrote: “Scholarly research on the Old Kingdom has traditionally relied on textual evidence. Texts have been considered to be more expressive than archaeological finds, because they “speak.” A compilation of ancient Egyptian records was already published by 1933, preceded and followed by several anthologies of translations. Moreover, Egyptian literary texts—especially the “Admonitions,” which describe the world as being turned upside down (i.e., in a chaotic state)—have influenced historians. [Source: Renate, Mueller-Wollermann, University of Tuebingen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, escholarship.org ]
“Only recently a change in methodologies has taken place and archaeological evidence has been given more weight. This is due partly to the fact that archaeology has become increasingly scientific and is no longer confined to “digging for treasures.” Furthermore, new sites continue to be opened up (for example, el- Hawawish and Balat in the Kharga Oasis), adding to our information. Because the preponderance of philological and archaeological evidence derives from Middle and Upper Egypt, research has tended to focus on those regions, such evidence from the Delta having so far been lacking; some exceptions are Mendes, Kom el-Hisn, Buto, and the northeastern Delta.
“Still lacking are safe criteria for dating texts and archaeological material, especially in order to distinguish between material from the end of the Old Kingdom and that of the First Intermediate Period. The dating of tombs and their owners is still much debated; progress has been made in establishing temporal sequences of pottery types, but only rarely can equations be made with absolutely dated finds.”
Primary Sources from the Old Kingdom
Jaromir Malek wrote for the BBC: “The historical period that we call the Old Kingdom (2686-2160 B.C.) was immensely long, lasting as it did for over 500 years. When it began, the unified Egyptian state was only about 300 years old and when it came to an end, the state still had nearly 2,000 years left ahead of it. Remoteness in time is one of the main difficulties we encounter when we look for sources of information about the Old Kingdom. Many simply have not survived. [Source: Jaromir Malek, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“Most of our traditional sources of information about the Old Kingdom are those concerned with death and the rituals surrounding death: these include pyramids, tombs and graves, but also statues, reliefs and paintings. Even papyri come mainly from pyramid temples. But this does not mean that death was the Egyptians' only preoccupation. |::|
“There are other reasons why so much of our evidence is based on funeral rites. Egyptian towns and villages were situated in the Nile valley, where old houses were pulled down and new ones built on the same spot, because space was valuable-so little remains of the older buildings. Pyramids and tombs, by contrast, were built on desert margins, where the space was not needed for other buildings, so were left to tell their tale centuries after they were built. Also, while domestic housing was made of sun-dried bricks, pyramids and tombs were built of stone-so their chances of survival were infinitely better.” |::|
About the author: Jaromir Malek studied Egyptology and archaeology at Charles University, Prague. Since 1971 he has been editor of the Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Statues, Reliefs and Paintings at the Griffith Institute, Oxford. He has taken part in excavations and epigraphic surveys in Nubia, Abusir, Saqqara and Memphis. He has published several books and a number of specialised papers in Egyptological journals. His books include “Egyptian Art” (London, 1999) and another book on ancient Egyptian art published by Phaidon in 2003. |::|
Chronology of the Old Kingdom
Renate Mueller-Wollermann of the University of Tuebingen wrote: “The succession of kings in the 6th Dynasty is fairly certain: Tety, Userkara, Pepy I, Merenra I, Pepy II, Merenra II, and Nitocris (who was in fact a king, not a ruling queen, as has long been believed), plus two additional kings. The 8th Dynasty comprises 18 kings, most of them wearing the name Neferkara or variants thereof. [Source: Renate, Mueller-Wollermann, University of Tuebingen, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, escholarship.org ]
“The end of the 6th Dynasty has been handed down to us by Manetho. In the Turin Canon we find that the 6th and 8th dynasties are combined. According to this list both dynasties lasted 187 years, six months, and three days. The succession of kings reconstructed by the Turin Canon and the Abydos King List is certain, although the last kings of the 6th Dynasty and most of the kings of the 8th Dynasty are not known by contemporary evidence. The succession and reign length of the kings of the 6th Dynasty reconstructed by the Turin Canon are as follows: Tety: X years; Userkara: X years; Pepy I: 20 years; Nemtiemsaef/Merenra I: 44 years; Pepy II: 90+ years; Nemtiemsaef/Merenra II: one year; Netjerkara: X years. Tety may have reigned about 15 years, Userkara a very short time, perhaps two to four years, and Nemtiemsaef/Merenra I less than ten years. The kings of the 8th Dynasty were ephemeral: all their reigns combined probably lasted about one generation, or 50 years at the most.
“The absolute chronology is more difficult to determine due to the paucity of radiocarbon data and the lack of Sothic data. According to recent radiocarbon data, Tety acceded to the throne around 2340 B.C. and the reign of Pepy II ended around 2170 B.C.. This corresponds more or less with the high chronology proposed by Shaw.”
Annual Records from the Old Kingdom
Jaromir Malek wrote for the BBC: “There was no history writing during the Old Kingdom but there were annals, brief records of important events. These are only incompletely preserved. We also have lists of kings, although they date from later periods, mostly from the New Kingdom, which started about a thousand years after the Old Kingdom ended. The most important among the annals is the so-called Royal Canon of Turin, copied in about 1250 B.C. In the third century B.C., Manetho, a priest from the town of Sebennytos (Samannud) in the Nile delta, wrote a history of Egypt based on ancient records. Unfortunately, his work has survived only in brief excerpts. [Source: Jaromir Malek, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“The Egyptians counted the years of each king's reign, but began again when a new king came to the throne. There are no astronomical dates known from the Old Kingdom, which could have provided us with fixed chronological points. The only way of establishing exactly when each king ruled is by adding up the lengths of the reigns known from the lists of kings (but these are not complete) or from the dates that survive on contemporary monuments (although we cannot be sure that the last year of the reign is recorded). |::|
“Modern scientific techniques, especially radiocarbon dating (based on the changes in the radioactive isotope C14), are helpful, but the margin of error is still too large. Other methods, e.g. that based on astronomical observations reflected in the building of pyramids, have the potential to be useful, but more work is needed before they can be used with confidence.” |::|
People and Life During the Old Kingdom
Jaromir Malek wrote for the BBC: “We know infinitely more about the wealthy people of Egypt than we do about the ordinary people, as almost all the monuments were made for the rich and influential. Houses in which ordinary Egyptians lived have not been preserved, and when most people died they were buried in simple graves with few funerary goods...Few Egyptian towns of the Old Kingdom have been located. Elephantine (an island opposite Aswan, in the region of the first Nile cataract) and Ayin Asil (in the Dakhla Oasis, in the Western Desert) are the notable exceptions. [Source: Jaromir Malek, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“We know little about the temples of local gods. But important texts have been found at the sites of some of these temples, especially at Koptos (modern Qift) and Abydos, both in Upper Egypt. The texts are copies of documents that were originally written on papyrus, and are concerned with the temples' administration, especially endowments and exemptions from taxes and forced labour. One such decree, issued by Pepy II for the temple of the god Min at Koptos, includes the following clause concerning the temple personnel: 'My Majesty does not allow them to be employed in royal cattle pens or on the pastures of cattle or the pastures of donkeys and sheep of the department of herdsmen, or on any duty or forced labour demanded by the royal administration throughout the length of eternity.' “|::|
“Texts concerning expeditions sent outside the Nile valley have been found in Sinai (Wadi Maghara and Wadi Kharit), in the Eastern Desert (Wadi Hammamat), and in Nubia. The aim of these enterprises was to bring back stone for building and for the making of statues, also semi-precious stones (turquoise) and possibly copper. An inscription on a rock at Wadi Maghara, in Sinai, records one such expedition sent there by Pepy II: |'The year of the second occasion of the census of all the great and small cattle of Lower and Upper Egypt... The royal mission which was sent with the god's treasurer Hepy to the terraces of turquoise. There served with him: pilots and quarry-masters Bekenptah and Udjai...' [Here follows a long list of names.]” |::|
Tomb Texts from the Old Kingdom
Jaromir Malek wrote for the BBC: “Practically everything that we know about Egyptian kings derives from their monuments. The Pyramid Texts, which were spells concerning the king's afterlife, began to be inscribed inside Egyptian pyramids from the reign of King Unas, about 2350 B.C. The temples for the king's posthumous cult were decorated with reliefs and contained many statues, all of which give us information about the role of the king in Egyptian society. Scenes that show real events are rare. We must not forget that the purpose of these reliefs was to show an ideal state of affairs, which the king wished to last forever, not the contemporary reality. [Source: Jaromir Malek, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“Documents written on papyri were found in some pyramid temples, especially at Abusir. They concern such matters as lists of priests on duty, records of offerings brought to the temple, accounts, inventories of temple equipment and passes authorizing access to the temple. Several settlements of priests, and of craftsmen and artists, involved in the running of pyramid temples, have been located, in particular at Giza. |::|
“Representations carved on the walls of tombs include scenes of everyday life on the owner's estates and so show how even ordinary people lived and worked. We must be rather careful when interpreting these scenes and must not take them entirely at face value. They were included in order to play a role in the tomb owner's afterlife, not as an accurate record. |::|
“Sometimes, especially in the later part of the Old Kingdom, the tombs contained biographical texts. Many are just self-praising but others are real records of the tomb owner's achievements. This is how one of them, an official called Weni, described a mission assigned to him by King Merenre of the Sixth Dynasty: 'His Majesty sent me to Hatnub in order to bring a great altar of travertine of Hatnub. I brought this altar down for him in 17 days. After it had been quarried at Hatnub, I had it transported downstream in the barge that I had made for it, a barge of acacia wood of 60 cubits in length and 30 cubits in width. It was built in 17 days and in the third month of summer, when there was no water on sandbanks, it was safely moored at the pyramid of King Merenre.'” |::|
Old Kingdom Archaeology
Jaromir Malek wrote for the BBC: “Some knowledge of Old Kingdom technology and working procedures derives from pictures, but most information must be deduced from the monuments and objects that survive from that time. Certain activities were never shown, for example pyramid building, and written documents concerning such works have not survived. [Source: Jaromir Malek, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“Modern scientific methods are now beginning to provide a wealth of information on aspects of the Old Kingdom society-aspects that we have not known much about, until now. The study of pottery has become very useful, especially in the search for chronological clues and trade contacts. The study of botanical (plant) and faunal (animal) remains can show us how people in the Old Kingdom lived-which plants they cultivated, which animals they bred, and what they ate. |::|
“Examination of human remains informs us of the Egyptians' state of health. Research concerning different types of stone and metal can also be very revealing: when we establish from where these materials came, and in what quantities, we can make deductions about trade contacts, expeditions sent to procure these materials, the state of technology, and so on. |::|
“There is no one way of searching for sources of information concerning the Old Kingdom. They are all interconnected, and each has a contribution to make. Egyptologists must be prepared to examine any kind of evidence available, whether it is 'traditional' (archaeological and art historical-based on monuments; or philological-based on inscriptions), or 'non-traditional' (mostly new scientific techniques). They must be scavengers of information, leaving no source of information neglected, and must be constantly searching for new approaches.” |::|
Third Dynasty 2686-2613 B.C.
The Third Dynasty (ca. 2649–2575 B.C.) marks the beginning of the Old Kingdom. It was a prosperous and innovative period: when of the worlds first great monumental buildings – the Pyramids — appeared. Djoser, one of the first great kings of Egypt, produced the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, the first large stone building and the precursor of great pyramids of Giza, The kings of this Dynasty were: Sanakht 2686-2667, Djoser 2667-2648, Sekhemkhet 2648-2640 and Huni 2637-2613. [Source: Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com]
According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “The Pharaohs of the Third Dynasty were the first to have actual pyramids constructed as shrines to their deaths. Although crude, these step pyramids were the predecessors to the later Pyramids of Giza and others. The first of these pyramids was designed by Imhotep for Dzoser. Prior to, and during the construction of the step pyramids, rulers were buried in a structure called Mastaba. The Mastaba were non-pyramidal shaped structures which did not contain walls or stone art and closely resembled burial mounds, with long shafts leading down into the tomb area. Sanakhte and Dzoser, the first two Pharaohs of this Dynasty, began exploitation of the Sinai Peninsula, which was rich in turquoise and copper. Little else was done by the kings during this dynasty [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com]
On the 3rd Dynasty, Dr Aidan Dodson of the University of Bristol wrote: “During the first dynasties, architecture was largely based on mud-brick and organic material, and it was not until Djoser came to the throne around 2700 B.C. that the first large-scale building in stone took place. The first of these structures was in the form of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, shown here. It was designed by the chancellor Imhotep, who was later worshipped as a god of medicine. |The Step Pyramid and the buildings surrounding it owe much to the forms previously created with traditional materials, but are entirely rendered in stone. As the oldest major stone building in the world, this pyramid remains a pivotal monument. The history of the dynasty itself is little known, with even the names and succession of its kings still debated by Egyptologists.” [Source: Dr Aidan Dodson, Egyptologist, University of Bristol, BBC, February 17, 2011]
Fourth Dynasty 2613- 2494 B.C.: Age of the Giza Pyramids
The Fourth Dynasty (2613- 2494 B.C.) is when the Great Pyramids of Giza were built. The Egyptians was able to achieve this extraordinary feat because there was a long period of peace and no threats from outsiders and food was abundant and society was organized so that labor could be put to use building massive things like pyramids. The fourth dynasty originated from Memphis near present-day Cairo while the fifth came from in Elephantine in Upper (southern) Egypt. The transition from one ruling family to another appears to have been peaceful. The kings from the Fourth Dynasty were Sneferu 2613-2589, Khufu 2589-2566, Radjedef 2566-2558, Khafre 2558-2532 (son of Khufu), Menkaura 2532-2503 (grandson of Khufu) and Shepseskaf 2503-2498. The great pyramids were built by Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren, 2nd biggest) and Menkaura (Mycerinus). [Source: Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com]
On the 4th Dynasty, Dr Aidan Dodson of the University of Bristol wrote: “The pyramids at Giza, on the outskirts of modern Cairo, are perhaps the most iconic of all Egyptian monuments, and they mark the high point in the engineering skills first displayed by Imhotep in the previous dynasty. The largest, the Great Pyramid... remains the most massive freestanding monument ever raised by humankind. |The 4th Dynasty was the period at which many of the institutions of the state appeared in mature form, and the art of this dynasty became firmly established in the canons that would endure until the end of Egyptian civilisation.” [Source: Dr Aidan Dodson, Egyptologist, University of Bristol, BBC, February 17, 2011]
Richard Bussmman of University College London wrote: "“The early 4th Dynasty is a true age of pyramids. The pyramids at Maidum, Dahshur, Giza, and Abu Rawash are the biggest ever built in Egypt. Pyramids also served as a template for royal representation in provincial Egypt in the late 3rd to early 4th Dynasty. On a morphological level, the early 4th Dynasty witnessed the emergence of the mortuary temple to the east of the pyramid. The focus of royal funerary culture shifted from the burial itself towards the mortuary cult, a process originating in the Early Dynastic Period. Over time, the royal funerary cult maintained a growing number of priests and became the center of royal representation and economy in the Old Kingdom. [Source: Richard Bussmman, University College London, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2015, escholarship.org ]
Age of the Pyramids
According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “The earliest known pyramid structure is that of the Pyramid of Meidum. There are two theories as to the pyramids construction. One states that the pyramid was started by Huni, Snefer's predecessor, the other that it was began and ended with Sneferu. Whatever the case, the reign of Sneferu went on to produce two more pyramids after Meidum. Meidum, however, was not always in it's rough state as is seen in the picture at left. As is evidenced by graffiti on the outside of the pyramid, the pyramid survived well into the time of the 18th Dynasty. Meidum still stands as a great attempt, if not a triumph of Egyptian architecture. Other pyramids constructed during the time of the Fourth Dynasty include, the Pyramid of Djeddefre, (created by the son of the Pharaoh Khufu), The Pyramids of Giza, The Sphinx, and many many other tombs, temples and pyramids. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com +]
Stepped pyramid of Snefu The reigns from Huni, the last king of the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom to Djedefre — Radjedef the son of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid — in the middle of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom is regarded by some scholars as the true Age of the Pyramids, a period of great technological and ideological innovation.Richard Bussmman of University College London wrote: "Different from the later Old Kingdom, the pyramids and court cemeteries of this period are located within a radius of seventy kilometers from Maidum in the south up to Dahshur, Giza, and Abu Rawash in the north. This wide geographical spread is typical of the early and mid-4th Dynasty. In the late 4th, 5th, and 6th Dynasties, the court cemeteries cluster around Saqqara and Abusir, closer to where an urban center formed, later called Memphis. The Manethonian copies insert a break before Sneferu, whereas the earlier annalistic tradition does not single out the early 4th Dynasty as a separate period. [Source: Richard Bussmman, University College London, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2015, escholarship.org ]
“The reigns from Huni to Radjedef date approximately to the mid-third millennium B.C.. However, the annalistic tradition offers conflicting information on the names of kings and the length of their reigns, especially for the 3rd Dynasty. If “year of counting” and “year after counting” refer to a strictly biannual rhythm, the entries in the Turin Royal Canon would contradict the contemporaneous 4th Dynasty evidence derived predominantly from graffiti on pyramid blocks . Absolute dates for the reigns of Huni to Radjedef vary between a “high chronology,” 2637 to 2558 B.C., and a “low chronology,” c. 2550 to 2475 B.C. Radiocarbon dates are in better agreement with the high chronology. Estimations of the length of the early to mid- 4th Dynasty significantly exceeding 100 years have not been proposed so far.”
See Separate Articles on the Pyramids and Pyramid Builders
Geographical History of the Age of the Pyramids
Richard Bussmman of University College London wrote: "Geographically, the archaeological and inscriptional evidence of the early 4th Dynasty concentrates on the Memphite cemeteries. The location of Huni’s tomb is unknown. Sneferu built the pyramid at Maidum and the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid at Dahshur. The tombs of the 4th Dynasty courtiers and later officials at both sites have recently been reinvestigated. Khufu moved the court cemetery to Giza and buried huge boats next to his pyramid. The burial (?) equipment of Hetepheres, perhaps Khufu’s mother, was found secondarily deposited in a cache and yielded spectacular finds, such as wooden poles of a royal canopy, a bed, and a carrying chair. The pyramid and court cemetery of Radjedef is located at Abu Rawash. When Khafra returned to Giza, he embedded his pyramid and the sphinx in the infrastructure established by Khufu. [Source: Richard Bussmman, University College London, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2015, escholarship.org ]
"Old Kingdom rock inscriptions flank the expedition route to the Red Sea through the Wadi Hammamat. Some may date to the 4th Dynasty. The inscription with a list of 4th Dynasty kings and princes was probably carved during the Middle Kingdom. Recently, the administrative papyri of an official of Khufu were found at Wadi el-Jarf, an Old Kingdom harbor site at the Red Sea. Seal impressions and inscriptions recording expeditions of Khufu’s officials were also found at a camp in the Western Desert, a resting place on the Abu Ballas trail to sub- Saharan Africa.
"Stone bowls bearing the names of Hetepheres and Khafra were recovered in post-4th Dynasty contexts at Ebla and Byblos together with later material. Similar to stone sherds found at Coptos and Hierakonpolis, both inscribed with the name of Khufu, they may have passed through several hands, during trade and gift exchange, prior to their final deposition.
"Royal penetration into local administration is evident at various sites. A granite fragment of Huni found on Elephantine might belong to the local pyramid attached to an administrative area. The sealing material from Elephantine includes royal names of the 3rd to 6th Dynasties, but none with a name of an early 4th Dynasty king. Seal impressions with names of Sneferu were found in the town area of Hierakonpolis. A small statuette of Khufu came to light in one of the mud-brick buildings within the temple enclosure of Abydos.”
Features of the Forth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom
Richard Bussmman of University College London wrote: “Junker famously described the austere style of the early 4th Dynasty court cemeteries as “strenger Stil,” which differed from the more vivid expression of 3rd Dynasty art and architecture. The term implies severity, rigor, and political control. According to Junker, Khufu commanded that elaborate false doors be restricted to “slab stelae,” mounted over the cult place, and statues replaced with “reserve heads”, deposited in front of the subterranean burial chamber, in order to draw the attention of the viewer exclusively to the pyramid, the symbol of the eternal power of the king. Alexanian (1995), Stadelmann (1995), and Flentye (2011) argue that Khufu’s vision was already developed in the reign of Sneferu. Jánosi (2005: 280-283), in contrast, interprets slab stelae as emergency solutions of individuals who died prematurely rather than as a reflection of royal power. [Source: Richard Bussmman, University College London, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2015, escholarship.org ]
“The debate resonates modern attitudes towards the period, oscillating between the appreciation of human achievements and the dismissal of total power. Whatever drives their perception, the empirical record certainly contributes to the difficulties. The lack of a broad stream of written sources, other than royal inscriptions and the names and titles of high officials, and the monumentality of pyramids and tombs tend to overshadow the human factor in the evidence and invite for visions of the extreme.
“Following Lehner (2010), the discussion above contextualizes monumentality in questions of social modeling, urbanism, and core-periphery interaction. It is argued that the royal family became the center of a hyperhierarchy at court. Large-scale organization, reflected in settlement and cemetery planning around the court cemeteries, was possible only due to a web of informal structures filling the gaps. The administrative integration of the country was not fully successful because the political center did not understand how the society was organized on a local level. Egyptian kings increased the exploitation of natural resources within the country and maintained interregional trade connections, possibly with the help of military force. Compared to the dense record of later periods, however, the scale and permanency of these activities seems yet limited, even if the royal annals suggest a different scenario.
“Administrative titles of the early 4th Dynasty show that kingship depended on a complex web of people. High courtly titles were typically combined with the title “son of the king” in this period. The majority of high-ranking titles were probably of an honorific nature designed to monitor rivalry at court. Some officials, such as Meten and Neteraperef, were responsible for specific Egyptian provinces, but were buried at court. 4th Dynasty administration is often described as highly centralistic and focused on the royal family. Seal inscriptions reveal that lower ranking officials, who were not members of the royal family, were also instrumental for royal administration already in this period.
“On the level of material culture, the mastaba is the typical type of non-royal tomb during the 4th Dynasty. The idea of rock tombs, so popular among Egyptian elites from the late Old Kingdom onward, is not yet fully established. Petrie coined the term “Maidum bowls” for the red-polished bowls with carinated rim that he discovered at Maidum. They play a key role for dating in the Old Kingdom and have two distinctive shapes in the early 4th Dynasty, one being deep, the other shallow with a flaring rim.”
Fifth Dynasty (2465 – 2325 B.C.)
Pyramids were built during the Fifth Dynasty (2465 – 2325 B.C.) but they were smaller and less solidly constructed than those of the Fourth Dynasty, however carvings from the mortuary temples are well preserved and of the highest quality. During the Fifth Dynasty a quasi merit system for officials was introduced, allowing people from outside the royal family to be high officials. Extremely old papyri from this period survives and they show developed forms of accounting and record keeping existed. Some documents show that goods were redistributed between the royal residence, temples and officials. [Source: Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com ^^^]
Kings from this period are: Userkaf 2494-2487, Sahura 2487-2475, Neferirkara Kakai 2475-2455, Shepseskara Isi 2455-2448, Raneferef 2448-2445, Nyuserra 2445-2421, Menkauhor 2421-2414, Djedkara Isesi 2414-2375, Unas 2375-2345. The first two kings of the fifth dynasty, were sons of Khentkaues (a woman), who was a member of the Fourth Dynasty royal family. ^^^
On the 5th Dynasty, Dr Aidan Dodson of the University of Bristol wrote: “The end of the 4th Dynasty marked the close of the era of great pyramids. Henceforth rather smaller and less well built pyramids would be the norm, such as the one shown here, of Sahure at Abu Sir (c.2450 B.C.). In contrast, the temples that adjoined the pyramids, dedicated to the posthumous wellbeing of the dead pharaoh, were greatly increased in size and splendour, being adorned with beautifully carved reliefs on the walls, and paved with exotic stones.” [Source: Dr Aidan Dodson, Egyptologist, University of Bristol, BBC, February 17, 2011]
Sixth Dynasty 2345 – 2181 B.C.
We know a fair amount about the Sixth Dynasty (2345 – 2181 B.C.) because many inscriptions from the period have survived to this day. They include records of trading expeditions to the south from the reigns of Pepi I and an interesting letter written by Pepy II. The pyramid of Pepi II at southern Saqqara is the last major monument of the Old Kingdom. The kings from this period were: Teti 2345-2323, Userkara 2323-2321, Pepy I 2321-2287, Merenra 2287-2278, Pepy II 2278-2184, Nitiqret 2184-2181 [Source: Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com]
According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “During this Dynasty, General Weni gave the army an organizational foundation which lasted well into the New Kingdom. This new army was built around a core of veterans which led to the development of a military caste. Weni was the first person,other than the pharaoh, to be depicted in Egyptian Art. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com +]
“The collapse of the centralized government greatly influenced Egyptian Art and further changed the way in which Egyptians viewed their gods. During prior dynasties, the Pharaoh and his nomarchs had already decided most of the policies of the state. Towards the end of the dynasty, the change of power from the Pharaoh to the nomarchs and other nobles greatly influenced all aspects of Egyptian culture. As a result of such changes, many of the sculptures of the time show the gods and their pharaoh's in a more human light, perhaps suggesting that the gods were more transcendental in the universe than earlier thought.+\
“The role of the pharaoh also seems to be an area of controversy during this era. The pharaoh, Pepi II, in some sculptures, is depicted in stone, as holding most of the tools and markings ascribed to Osirius, as a living god. Most pharaohs near the end of the Sixth Dynasty were represented in such a way. However, Pepi I's statue, suggests a different aspect. Rather than being regarded as a god, the pharaoh takes on the role of a son to the gods, lessening both his power and possibly the ties of the priesthood over the government of the state. +\
“During this period, the exploitation of the Sinai Peninsula, which was rich in turquoise and copper, was taking place. Trade outside the Nile Valley began during the reign of Sahure. During the reign of Pepi I the Egyptian army was organized by General Weni and a warrior caste developed. The Old Kingdom came to an end with the death of Pepi II. Following his death, the central government collapsed. This brought about a period of turmoil known as the 1st Intermediate Period.” +\
The Minoan civilization (c. 3000 – 1400 B.C.) of Crete existed at the same time as the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom of Egypt. Stefan Pfeiffer of Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg wrote: “Occupying the island of Crete, the Minoans were skilled sailors who had established hegemony in the Aegean; it was therefore natural that they made contact with neighboring civilizations. With Egypt they established mainly economic relations as far as can be judged by archaeological evidence. First contacts between Crete and Egypt are attested by a fragment of a 1st or 2nd Dynasty Egyptian obsidian vase found in Crete in an EM-II-A stratum, testifying to (indirect?) trading contacts since earliest historical times. [Source: Stefan Pfeiffer, Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org ]
“There were three possible routes by which the Minoans (or their trade goods) could have traveled to Egypt. First, there was the direct passage over 350 miles of open sea, which does not seem very likely. The second option was to sail within sight of the shore along the Levantine coast (and probably trade with the settlements there) to (later) Pelusium. The third, and most likely, passage was to cross the Mediterranean to (later) Cyrene and then sail along the coast to Egypt. The Minoans valued gold, alabaster, ivory, semiprecious stones, and ostrich eggs, but Egyptian stone vessels and scarabs were also found in Crete. Some scholars maintain that Egyptian craftsmen were present on the island, based upon a statuette (14 centimeters high) of an Egyptian goldsmith called User that was found at Knossos; this single example, however, should not be considered as evidence for the migration of Egyptian craftsmen. In addition to these items of Egyptian origin, a certain adaptation of Egyptian styles in Minoan art is apparent. The Minoan artisans used some Egyptian elements eclectically, adjusting or adapting their meaning to new contexts.
“Conversely, Egypt imported Minoan pottery, metal vessels, and jewelry, and probably also wine, olive oil, cosmetics, and timber, as the archaeological record proves. We know that the first Minoan artifacts found in Egypt do not date prior to the time of Amenemhat II (1928 – 1893 B.C.), because from his times Middle-Minoan pottery (so-called Kamares ware) is attested. All in all, Minoan culture had at least some influence in Egypt, as can be judged from Egyptian copies of Kamares ware. Even Minoan textiles seem to have been appreciated by the Egyptian elite, as Aegean textile patterns were copied on the walls of tombs from the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III.
“The pinnacle of Minoan-Egyptian relations can be dated to the beginning of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. Having already established good relations with the Hyksos, the Minoans stayed in close contact with a number of Egyptian pharaohs as well, as is proven by Minoan frescoes found in two palaces at Tell el- Dabaa/Avaris in the Nile delta. It was at first assumed that these royal houses were decorated during the rule of the Hyksos kings, but this view has been revised. It is now clear from the stratigraphical evidence that the palaces date to the Thutmosid era. Contemporary with this evidence from Lower Egypt are scenes in seven Theban tombs of 18th- Dynasty high court officials that show Minoan legates from “Keftiu “(as Crete is called in Egyptian texts) bearing tribute. According to some scholars, these scenes bear witness to reciprocity of political contacts rather than formal tribute to a dominant partner. Thus the Minoan frescoes in the Lower Egypt and the pictorial evidence in tombs of almost the same period in Upper Egypt underscore rich cultural, economic, and eventually even political, contacts between Egypt and the Minoan civilization during the 18th Dynasty, just before the time of Akhenaten. This is corroborated by the fact that some Egyptian scribes seem to have known the Minoan language .”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018