The Old Kingdom is an era of ancient Egypt that comprises the third to sixth dynasties from around 2686 - 2181 B.C. It is an era which saw ultimate prosperity and the manifestation of the world’s first grand monumental building—the Pyramid. The Old Kingdom is dated from (2686- 2181 B.C.)—from the Third Dynasty to the Sixth Dynasty. This era is called “the Age of the Pyramids” because of the plethora of pyramid constructioned at the time.
The Pyramids of Sakkarah from the North East by Frith, Francis (1858)
Egyptians in ancient times listed their pharaohs in sequence, starting with the rule of the sun god—Ra. Events weren’t noted down by the normally known calendar system, instead it was chronicled according to the ruling days of kings. The precise dates of episodes in the history of Ancient Egypt are therefore unreliable.
The Third Dynasty of Egypt
The time during which the Third Dynasty ruled in Egypt is said to be the milestone of Human history. Architecture tremendously developed in course of the Old Kingdom. Also, amongst the many celebrated monuments of Egypt were built: the pyramids and the Great Sphinx at Giza were but a few.
The first Step Pyramid at Saqqārah, 2630 B.C., was built by the second king of the Third Dynasty–Djoser. Imhotep was the main architect and designer of this grand monument. He also authored one of the earliest medical manuscripts expounding on the treatment of over 200 various diseases.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu, otherwise known as The Great Pyramid of Cheops—last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—was built in 2528 B.C. In 2494 and 2474 B,C, there were also constructions of the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure.
List of the Dynasty III Pharaohs
2686- 2667 B.C.—Sanakht
2667- 2648 B.C.—Djoser
2648- 2640 B.C.—Sekhemkhet
2637- 2613 B.C.—Huni
The most outstanding king of the Old Kingdom of the Third Dynasty was Djoser (also spelled Zoser), the heir of Sanakhte. He ruled from 2691- 2625 and issued orders to construct the Step Pyramid at Saqqārah outside the royal capital. Having completely been constructed out of stone, the groundbreaking edifice marked the end of the use of mud bricks together with stone. The Step Pyramid was encircled with many limestone buildings projected to epitomize shrines meant for royal rituals.
Saqqarah Djoser, by Neithsabes (2005)
It was in the course of this period that the sovereign ancient Egyptian states came to be known as Nomes. The previous rulers were forced to undertake the position of a governor or else work in tax collection.
The pharaoh, during this era, was idolized as a deity by the Egyptians; they believed that he guaranteed the yearly deluge of the Nile, which was essential for agriculture. The Egyptians held the views of time functioning in cycles, and that the Pharaohs on earth toiled to maintain the steadiness of those cycles. They also considered themselves as superior beings, ones who have been selectively chosen.
Sekhemkhet, also spelt as Sechemchet, was the Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty during the Old Kingdom, who ruled from 2648-2640 B.C. He is believed to be either the sibling or the eldest son of King Djoser.
Records of Sekhemkhet’s reign are meager. The only relics that exist of him are the two rock inscriptions located at Wadi Maghareh. The first one depicts Sekhemkhet twice: once crowned in the Hedjet and the other, the Deshret. The second inscription portrays an act known as “smiting the enemy.”
Huni, who was the last pharaoh of the 3rd dynasty during the Old Kingdom period, reigned for 24 years. It is the belief of several Egyptologist that Huni was the father and immediate predecessor of the pharaoh Sneferu, but other scholars have reservations. Huni is considered a rather perplexing figure in Egyptian history, because enduring documents, objects or monuments of that time are precious few, even though he never ceased to exist in Egyptian tradition.
Huni’s burial place is unknown. It is said that he constructed the pyramid of Maydūm; scholars, however, believe that it was most likely the work of his successor, Snefru.
Huni’s genealogical position in the family of ruling kings is highly disputed. Huni is often mentioned, in contemporary and later documents, with Snefru in the same sentence. Thus, it is the belief of historians and Egyptologists that Huni might have had relations with his successor, Snefru. Queen Meresankh I is indeed a key figure in this regard. She is the royal mother of Snefru, who assumed the title of queen; however, there are no existing sources which associate her name with the title of a daughter or wife of Huni. This condition raises doubts about whether Huni had any family relations with Snefru or not.
The Fourth Dynasty of Egypt
Egypt, under the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (2613-2494), was able to achieve the grand feat of building the Giza pyramids owing to the extended peace which was devoid of any foreign threats. Thus, their time and energy was expended on nurturing art.
List of the Dynasty IV Pharaohs
2566-2558 B.C.—Radjedef (Djedefre)
The first king of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom was Sneferu (also spelled Sneferu), who, according to Manetho, ruled from 2613-2589 B.C. He built three pyramids—monuments that stand till today— and introduced magnificent designs and buildings of pyramids in Ancient Egypt.
Snefru hailed from a family in Middle Egypt, near Hermopolis, and possibly ascended to the throne through marital relations from the royal heiress, daughter of his predecessor.
According to Royal recordings of the Old Kingdom, Snefru carried out a massive raid southwards into Nubia, where he seized a lot of valuable goods. In the later days of his reign, the forays carried out westward against the Libyans were less severe.
From Sneferu’s reign, the most popular monuments are the three pyramids he built in Dahshūr: the Bent Pyramid, the Red Pyramid and the Meidum Pyramid. Sneferu is known for moving more stone and brick moved than any other pharaoh, making his pyramids unparalleled in size to those built by his predecessors. The structures of these pyramids also demonstrate the transformation from the Step Pyramids to the flat-sided true pyramids erected in the fourth dynasty.
Snefru’s pyramid at Maydūm, which was the first pyramid made in tribute to him, was initially built as a Step pyramid and then changed to a true pyramid under the direction of king Snefru. The Blunted (or Bent) Pyramid at Dahshūr, was the second pyramid of Snefru and the first one sculpted as a true pyramid.
The construction of the pyramids started with steep sides, but when structural errors emerged halfway through the construction, the engineers were compelled to minimize the angle of the sides. And this adjustment ended up creating the bent look of the pyramid structure. Snefru, some years later, succeeded in building a true pyramid called the Red Pyramid, which is believed to have become the king’s burial place.
Snefru’s foreign relations might have been strong in order for him to undertake massive building projects. Snefru’s conquest into Libya and Nubia had two objectives: one was to create an extensive labor force, and the other was to obtain the raw materials and other special products that were accessible in these nations.
Several people were captured and made prisoners under Snefru’s reign. These prisoners were often added to his labor force. During his forays in Nubia and Libya, Snefru would also seize cattle for the consumption of his huge labor force.
In the latter period of the Middle Kingdom, Snefru’s reign was regarded as Egypt’s a golden age.
After Sneferu reigned for 24 years, his son Khufu (Cheops, 2589- 2566 B.C.) acceded to the throne. Khufu was the renowned constructor of the Great Pyramid of Giza (Al-Jīzah).
Djedefre (Djedefra or Radjedef) was the ancient Egyptian king of the Fourth Dynasty during the Old Kingdom. Djedefre was the immediate successor and son of the pharaoh Khufu; the identity of his mother is not clearly known. He was married to his half-sister Hetepheres II.
Red granite head of Djedefre from Abu Rawash
Djedefre built a pyramid at Abu Rawash. It is the belief of some people that the sphinx of his wife, Hetepheres II, was the first to be created. It was part of Djedefre’s pyramid complex at Abu Rawash. According to the French Egyptologist Vassil Dobrev in 2004, Djedefre is responsible for the construction of the Sphinx at Giza in representation of his father.
Although Egyptologist formerly thought that his pyramid at Abu Rawash was not complete at the time of his death, evidence from 1995 to 2005 has validated its completion. More recent evidence indicates that in the later periods, his pyramid was devastatingly raided.
Owing to the fragile shape of Abu Rawash, only the vestige of his mortuary has been discovered.
The Fifth Dynasty of Egypt
The Fifth Dynasty of ancient Egypt (Dynasty V) is dated approximately from 2494 to 2345 B.C. The first two kings of the Fifth Dynasty were the sons of lady Khentkaues—member of the fourth dynasty royals. With the emergence of the Fifth Dynasty came the establishment of an administrative system and for the first time came high officials that were not a member of the royals.
The pyramids of the Dynasty V are smaller and weaker than those of the Fourth Dynasty. Nevertheless, carvings of the mortuary temples are well conserved and of supreme quality.
The enduring papyri of this period attest to the development of accounting and record keeping. They recorded the re-allocation of property between the royal residence, the officials and temples.
The pharaohs of this dynasty reigned for roughly 150 years.
Lists of the Dynasty V Pharaohs
2475-2455 B.C.—Neferirkara Kakai
2455-2448 B.C.—Shepseskara Isi
2414-2375 B.C.—Djedlkara Isesi
Userkaf was the first king of the Fifth Dynasty of ancient Egypt who reigned from 2494-2487 B.C. Throughout the period of his rule, the cult of Ra (god of the sun) obtained unprecedented importance.
Possibly a descendent of Redjedef (third king of the Fourth Dynasty), Userkaf fortified his position in the kingdom after tying the knot to the heiress Khentkaues, a descendant of the royal family.
The position of his queen was of high prominence, she even constructed her own tomb at Al-Jīzah (Giza), sometimes referred to as ‘the Unfinished Pyramid.’ Userkaf himself also built the first series of temples to Ra at AbūṢīr, situated in the west bank of the Nile —north of present-day Cairo.
The Sixth Dynasty of Egypt
The Sixth Dynasty of ancient Egypt (Dynasty VI) is dated from 2345-2181 B.C. The surviving relics of several inscriptions from the Sixth Dynasty include documents of trading expeditions southward starting from the reign of Pepi I. Experts believe that the Sixth Dynasty is the last dynasty of the Old Kingdom.
The influence of the Sixth Dynasty pharaohs, who reigned for 164 years, progressively declined in favor of powerful Nomarchs (provincial governors). These Nomarchs became independent and were no longer part of the monarchs and their charge became hereditary, eventually producing local dynasties.
Lists of the Dynasty VI Pharaohs
2321-2287 B.C.—Pepi I
2278-2184 B.C.—Pepi II
The Pharaoh Teti was the founder of the Sixth Dynasty, who reigned from 2345-2323 B.C. He is believed to have married Iput, the daughter of the Fifth Dynasty Pharaoh Unas. According to Manetho, Teti was murdered by his own bodyguard; however, there is no confirmation from contemporary sources.
2321-2287 B.C.—Pepi I
Pepi I was the third king of the Sixth Dynasty of ancient Egypt, who reigned from 2321-2287 B.C. Pepi I was the son of Teti. Before succeeding his father, Pepi lived through the short sovereignty of Userkare, whose connection to Teti is unknown and who has been thought, based on precious little evidence, to have been a usurper.
During Pepi I’s reign, expeditions were carried out to Wadi Maghara in the Sinai Peninsula for mining expedition. There were also journeys to Hatnub and Wadi Hammamat.
2278-2184 B.C.—Pepi II
The most distinguished pharaoh of the Dynasty VI was Pepi II, the 5th king of the Sixth Dynasty. He ruled for almost a century. Late Egyptian tradition indicates that Pepi II assumed the throne at the tender age of six.
Pepi II was the son of Pepi I, who was born in the later years of his father’s reign. Pepi II, although very young, succeeded his half-brother Merenre, who had an abbreviated life span. His mother acted as a regent for many years, and until he acceded to the throne, the old group of royal officials ensured the peace of the kingdom.
Ruins of the pyramid complex of Pepi II, by Jon Bodsworth (2006)
During his ruling days, as a result of internal and external dilemma, the government was gradually weakened. His pyramid at southern Saqqārah is the Old Kingdom’s last major monument.
Nitiqret is believed to not only be the first female Pharaoh, but also the first queen in the world. However, it is argued that her name might have been a mistranslation of the king Neitiquerty Sitah.
First Intermediate Period and the fall of the Old Kingdom
The fall of the Old Kingdom and the poverty that came after Pepi II was indeed unexpected. The destruction of the Old Kingdom was occasioned by a sudden, unforeseen decline in the Nile flood. The situation was so brutal that famine, as a result, pervaded the country, paralyzed the political institutions, and engendered civil unrest. People were conducting unfathomable deeds such as killing and eating their own children and defying the sacred sanctity of the dead.
Following the fall of the Old Kingdom, emerged the time known as the First Intermediate period which lasted for about 200 years. The period is generally considered to include a rather unknown set of pharaohs (who’s reign was rather ephemeral after Pepi II) running from the end of the Sixth to the Tenth Dynasties, and most of the Eleventh Dynasty.
Egypt’s Old Kingdom was one of the most vibrant eras in the laudable growth of Egyptian art. Artists, in the course of this period, learned to depict the worldview of their culture, producing images and forms that survived for generations. Techniques necessary to construct monumental structures in stone were mastered.
The first portraits of individuals and the first life-sized statues in wood, copper and stone were created by sculptors. They became masters of the art of carving, relief decoration and, by attentively observing the mechanism of the natural world, created detailed images of animals, plants and even landscapes.