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Old Kingdom

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Dynasties of Ancient Egypt
Predynastic Period
Protodynastic Period
Early Dynastic Period
1st 2nd
Old Kingdom
3rd 4th 5th 6th
First Intermediate Period
7th 8th 9th 10th
11th (Thebes only)
Middle Kingdom
11th (All Egypt)
12th 13th 14th
Second Intermediate Period
15th 16th 17th
New Kingdom
18th 19th 20th
Third Intermediate Period
21st 22nd 23rd 24th 25th
Late Period
26th 27th 28th
29th 30th 31st
Graeco-Roman Period
Alexander the Great
Ptolemaic Dynasty

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 civilization in the Nile Valley (the others being Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom). The Old Kingdom is most commonly regarded as spanning the period of time when Egypt was ruled by the Third Dynasty through to the Sixth Dynasty (2575 BC–2134 BC). Many Egyptologists also include the Memphite Seventh Dynasty and Eighth Dynasties in the Old Kingdom as a continuation of the administration centralized 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: Third Dynasty

The first notable pharaoh of the Old Kingdom was Djoser (2630 BC–2611 BC) of the Third Dynasty, who ordered the construction of a pyramid (the Step Pyramid) in Memphis' necropolis, Saqqara. An important person during the reign of Djoser was his vizier, Imhotep.

It was in this era that formerly independent ancient Egyptian states became known as Nomes, ruled solely by the pharaoh. Subsequently the former rulers were forced to assume the role of governors or otherwise work in tax collection. Egyptians in this era worshiped their pharaoh as a god, believing that he ensured the annual flooding of the Nile that was necessary for their crops. Egyptian views on the nature of time during this period held that the universe worked in cycles, and the Pharaoh on earth worked to ensure the stability of those cycles. They also perceived themselves as a specially selected people, "as the only true human beings on earth"[1].

Golden Age: Fourth Dynasty

The Old Kingdom and its royal power reached their zenith under the Fourth Dynasty, which began with Sneferu (2575 BC–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 BC–2528 BC), who built the Great Pyramid of Giza. Later Egyptian literature describes him as a cruel tyrant, who imposed forced labor on his subjects to complete his pyramid. After Khufu's death his sons Djedefra (2528 BC–2520 BC) and Khafra (2520 BC–2494 BC) may have quarrelled. The latter built the second pyramid and (in traditional thinking) the Sphinx in Giza. Recent reexamination of evidence has suggested that the Sphinx may have been built by Djedefra as a monument to Khufu.

The later kings of the Fourth Dynasty were king Menkaura (2494 BC–2472 BC), who built the smallest pyramid in Giza, and Shepseskaf (2472 BC–2467 BC).

Decline and Collapse: Fifth – Eighth Dynasties

The Fifth Dynasty began with Userkhaf (2465 BC–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, therefore, weakened the Kingdom at its roots.

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 BC, 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.


  1. Ancient African Civilizations to ca. 1500: Pharaonic Egypt to Ca. 800 BC, by Dr. Susan J. Herlin, 2003, p 27.

Further reading

  • Jaromir Malek, In the Shadow of the Pyramids: Egypt During the Old Kingdom, University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8061-2027-4
  • Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999. ISBN 0-87099-906-0 (catalogue for travelling exhibition of the same name)

External links

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