Old Kingdom Period Begins in Egypt

In the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians built on the advances of the Predynastic Period and First and Second Dynasties to achieve an unparalleled level of accomplishments.

Summary of Event

The Old Kingdom (c. 2687-c. 2125 b.c.e.), the pinnacle of Egyptian civilization, includes the Third through Eighth Dynasties and was characterized by two opposing tendencies. In the early part of this period, there was an evolving concentration of all power in the central figure of the king. The architectural symbol of this centralization, the pyramid, gives this period its second name, the Pyramid Age. Later, a gradual tendency toward decentralization began, which led to the ephemeral reigns of the kings of the Seventh and Eighth Dynasties (c. 2180-c. 2160). They, in turn, ushered in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2160-c. 2055 b.c.e.), once described, in overdrawn terms, as an interval of anarchy. Pepi II

The term Old Kingdom is an invention of the nineteenth century. From an Egyptian perspective, there may have been no sharp break because the dynasty’s founder may have been either related by marriage to or a son of the Second Dynasty (c. 2775-c. 2687 b.c.e.) ruler Khasekemwy. Of the kings of the Third Dynasty (c. 2687-c. 2613), the most illustrious was Netjerikhet, better known as Zoser, but also known as Djoser. He was either the first king of the Third Dynasty (r. c. 2687-c. 2650) or the second king (r. 2667-2650) if an obscure predecessor, Nebka, is inserted.

Twenty-five hundred years after Zoser’s death, the priests of the god Khnum at Elephantine, an island near modern Aswān, forged an inscription in his name to assert their rights to land against claims of the priests of Isis, an action testifying to the ruler’s enduring prestige. He organized the construction of the first monumental set of stone buildings in the world, the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara, south of Cairo.

His architect was Imhotep, the Leonardo da Vinci of the Pyramid Age. High priest of Heliopolis (now in a Cairo suburb), royal treasurer, administrator of the Great Palace, builder, and sculptor were just some of the recorded titles and labels of this versatile genius. Imhotep later became the patron saint of scribes and a virtual god of healing, whom the conquering Greeks equated to the healer Aesclepius. Zoser’s pyramid, a symbol of the primordial mound on which the god Atum arose to initiate creation, ascended in six unequal steps to 204 feet (62 meters). An encircling wall, thirteen of whose fourteen gates were false, encompassed a mortuary complex in which the spirit of the king could dwell and endlessly celebrate the heb-sed, the festival of renewal. Within an enclosed offering structure known as a serdab (“cellar” in Arabic) was discovered the earliest-known life-size royal sculpture, a limestone statue of Zoser in which his ka (spiritual double) could reside and receive offerings of food or incense.

Zoser’s three successors apparently were not as distinguished. Sekhemkhet (r. c. 2648-c. 2640) began but did not complete a similar complex at Saqqara. Khaba (r. c. 2640-c. 2637) also left behind an unfinished smaller step pyramid at Zawiyet el-Aryan, just south of modern Cairo. The unsuccessful attempt to build a geometrically true pyramid at Meidum near the Faiyum region, many scholars now believe, should be ascribed to the Fourth Dynasty king, Snefru (r. c. 2613-2589) and not Huni (r. c. 2637-c. 2613), the final ruler of the Third Dynasty.

The names of three kings of the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2613-2494 b.c.e.)—Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure (Mycerinus; r. 2532-c. 2503)—stand out, not so much for their recorded exploits but more for their pyramids of extraordinary magnitude on the Giza plateau. The founder of the dynasty was Snefru, perhaps a son of Huni; he apparently legitimized his rule by marrying Hetep-heres, the daughter of Huni and mother-to-be of Khufu.

Unlike his successors, Snefru is remembered in later tradition as a genial sovereign who became the object of cults in certain areas such as the turquoise mines of Sinai. The Meidum pyramid’s new east-west orientation perhaps reflects a shift in emphasis from stellar to solar cults. Its smooth-faced sides may also reflect new Heliopolitan doctrines. The strange Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid are also ascribed to him.

His successor Khufu constructed the Great Pyramid at Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ironically, few sources survive for this king who later developed a tyrannical reputation, perhaps simply inferred from his immense project. One image of him that survives is a 3-inch (8-centimeter) ivory figurine that sharply contrasts with his pyramid, which rose 481 feet (147 meters). A later successor, Khafre, built another pyramid at Giza, 448 feet (136 meters) high, as well as the Sphinx, perhaps a guardian for his complex. Menkaure’s pyramid, the smallest at 228 feet (70 meters), completes the tripartite symbol of this period. The shabby tomb of his son and successor, Shepsekhaf (r. c. 2503-c. 2498), suggests declining resources and unrest.

The Westcar papyrus contains a folklore account of the origins of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2494-c. 2345 b.c.e.). The Sun god Ra (Re) allegedly had relations with the wife of a high priest of Heliopolis. From their union came triplets, all supposedly destined to become kings of Egypt. At least two related historical figures partially confirm this story, Sahure (r. c. 2487-2475) and Neferirkare (r. c. 2475-c. 2455). Dedicated to the god Ra, this line of Sun kings built sun-temples, the first, in the desert at Abu-Gurob between Giza and Saqqara, in the reign of Userkaf (r. c. 2494-c. 2487). Within these temples, large masonry obelisks were built on a podium. At Abusir, they constructed pyramids that were small relative to those at Giza. Despite these changes among the elite, the power of local gods apparently continued unabated.

The reigns of many of these kings are poorly documented. In the pyramid of Unas (r. c. 2375-c. 2345) were the Pyramid Texts (c. 2350-2100 b.c.e.; English translation, 1924), the world’s earliest religious literature. The purpose of these magical and ritualistic spells was to allow the king to pass into the celestial realms. The death of Unas led to some instability because he left behind no heir.

The Sixth Dynasty (c. 2345-c. 2181 b.c.e.) was marked by possible regicide, conspiracy, decentralization, and the fiscally unsound granting of royal exemptions from taxes and other obligations. Teti (r. c. 2345-2323), the founder of this dynasty, apparently legitimized his rule by marrying Iput, the daughter of Unas. A mere twelve years later, he was dead, the victim of his own bodyguard, according to a later source.

Excluding the scarcely attested Userkare, he was succeeded by a young son Pepi I (r. c. 2321-2287 b.c.e.). In a tomb inscription, the noble Weni refers allusively to involvement in an investigation of an alleged harem conspiracy initiated by Queen Weret-Imtes, a consort of Pepi. The pharaoh’s later marriage to two daughters of a powerful southern official is seen by some scholars as an indication of dependency. From the sisters were born the two succeeding kings, Merenre (r. c. 2283-c. 2278) and Pepi II. Pepi I conducted military campaigns against the Syro-Palestinian Aamu, the success of which is difficult to gauge because the sources are one-sided. Nubia in the south also became the more intensive object of commercial and military forays in this period.

Although Merenre ruled for only five uneventful years, his brother Pepi II came to the throne at age six and supposedly held it for ninety-four years, the longest reign in Egyptian history. The inscription of Harkhuf, governer of Elephantine, records the young pharaoh’s boyishly enthusiastic reaction to the news that Harkhuf was bringing a pygmy back from Nubia. A Middle Kingdom tale suggests that Pepi II had an irregular, perhaps homosexual, relationship with his general Sasenet. His long rule, probably senescent near the end, is viewed by many scholars as paving the way to the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Particularly singled out are his too frequent grants of immunity from taxation and other burdens to cultic endowments, apparently to shore up his own central position. The effect of these grants was to weaken the economy and thus accelerate decentralization. Climate changes and overexpenditure on building projects are other theoretical explanations of this later collapse.

The fifth century b.c.e. Greek historian Herodotus reported that a queen, Nitocris (r. 2184-2181), ended the dynasty after avenging the death of her predecessor and brother Merenre, but this late story is widely doubted by historians. The female name may be a male name corrupted in transmission. This ruler was followed by more than seventeen queens and kings during the last two dynasties of the Old Kingdom, the Seventh and Eighth.


In the Old Kingdom, the achievements of the Predynastic Period and the First and Second Dynasties came to fruition and set a standard for later generations. Among the technological marvels is the first monumental stone complex, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, which played a part in the evolution of the true pyramid forms of the Fourth Dynasty. The pyramid of Khufu became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Relief sculpture was refined, and life-size sculpture first appeared. The centrality and divinity of the kingship, with its emphasis on solar cults, was never again equaled. The pyramid of Unas contained the world’s earliest religious texts.

Further Reading

  • Clayton, Peter A. Chronicle of the Pharaohs. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994. A lucid presentation in a well-designed format.
  • Hornung, Erik. History of Ancient Egypt: An Introduction. Translated by David Lortun. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. A brief but masterly presentation by a major authority.
  • Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000. A standard but, in parts, a rather lifeless account. Excellent bibliography.
  • Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. New York: Routledge, 1999. A current account of the First through Third Dynasties. Excellent bibliography.

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