The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom is the name commonly given to that period in the 3rd millennium BC when Egypt attained its first continuous peak of civilization complexity and achievement - this was the first of three so-called "Kingdom" periods which mark the high points of civilisation in the Nile Valley (the others being the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom).

The Old Kingdom is most commonly regarded as spanning the period when Egypt was ruled by the Third Dynasty through to the Sixth Dynasty (2630 - 2151 BC). Many Egyptologists also include the Memphite Seventh and Eighth Dynasties in the Old Kingdom as a continuation of the administration centralised at Memphis. The Old Kingdom was followed by a period of disunity and relative cultural decline referred to by Egyptologists as the First Intermediate Period.

The royal capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom was located at Memphis, where Djoser established his court. The Old Kingdom is perhaps best known, however for the large number of pyramids which were constructed at this time as pharaonic burial places. For this reason, the Old Kingdom is frequently referred to as "the Age of the Pyramids".


The Beginning: the Third Dynasty

The first famous pharaoh of the Old Kingdom was Djoser (2630 - 2611 BC) of the Third Dynasty who ordered the construction of the first pyramid (the Step Pyramid) in Memphis's new necropolis, Saqqara. An important person during the reign of Djoser was his vizier Imhotep, who oversaw the constructions of that necropolis.

Golden Age: the Fourth Dynasty

The Old Kingdom and its royal power reached their zenith under the Fourth dynasty, which began with Sneferu (2575 - 2551 BC). Using a greater mass of stones than any other Pharaoh, he built three pyramids: a mysterious pyramid in Meidum (a failure), the famous Bent Pyramid in Dahshur (another failure) and the small Red Pyramid, also in Dashur.

Sneferu was succeeded by his (in)famous son, Khufu (2551 - 2528 BC), who built the Great Pyramid of Giza. Later Egyptian literature describes him as a cruel tyrant, who imposed forced labour on his subjects to complete his pyramid. After Khufu's death his sons Djedefra (2528 - 2520 BC) and Khafra (2520 - 2494 BC) may have quarrelled. The latter built the second pyramid and the Sphinx in Giza.

The later kings of the Fourth dynasty were Menkaura (2494 - 2472 BC), who built the smallest pyramid in Giza, and Shepseskaf (2472 - 2467 BC)

Decline and Collapse: Fifth through Eighth Dynasties

The Fifth Dynasty began with Userkhaf (2465 - 2458 BC), who initiated reforms that weakened the Pharaoh and central government. After his reign civil wars arose as the powerful nomarchs (regional governors) no longer belonged to the royal family. The worsening civil conflict undermined unity and energetic government and also caused famines. But regional autonomy and civil wars were not the only causes of this decline. The massive building projects of the Fourth dynasty exceeded the capacity of the treasury and populace, and weakened the Kingdom at its roots.

Rulers of the Sixth Dynasty saw themselves confronted with the worst excesses of civil war, which devoured the Old Kingdom after the very long reign of Pepi II (2246 BC - 2151 BC). The eighteen kings that followed between 2150 and 2134 BCE comprised the whole of the Seventh and Eighth Dynasties.

The final blow was a sudden and short-lived cooling in the region that resulted in a drastic drop in precipitation between 2200 and 2100 BCE, which in turn prevented the normal flooding of the Nile. The result was decades of famine and strife. An inscription on the tomb of Ankhtifi , a leader of the First Intermediate Period describes the state of the country at the end of the Old Kingdom: All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger and people were eating their children...

Further Reading

  • Jamomir Malek, In the Shadow of the Pyramids: Egypt During the Old Kingdom, University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. ISBN 0806120274
  • Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999. ISBN 0870999060 (catalogue for travelling exhibition of the same name)
Last updated: 10-17-2005 14:33:10
The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy