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

The term itself was coined by nineteenth century historians and the distinction between the Old Kingdom and the Early Dynastic Period is not one which would have been recognized by Ancient Egyptians. Not only was the last king of the Early Dynastic Period related to the first two kings of the Old Kingdom, but the 'capital', the royal residence, remained at Ineb-Hedg, the Ancient Egyptian name for Memphis. The basic justification for a separation between the two periods is the revolutionary change in architecture accompanied by the effects on Egyptian society and economy of large-scale building projects.[1]

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 (2686 BC – 2134 BCE). Many Egyptologists also include the Memphite Seventh 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 for the large number of pyramids 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 (2630–2611 BCE) 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".[2]

Golden Age: Fourth Dynasty

The Great Sphinx of Giza.

The Old Kingdom and its royal power reached their zenith under the Fourth Dynasty, which began with Snofru (2613–2589 BCE). Using a greater mass of stones than any other pharaoh, he built three pyramids: a now collapsed pyramid in Meidum, the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, and the Red Pyramid, at North Dahshur.

Snofru was succeeded by his son, Khufu (2589 - 2566 BCE) 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 (2528–2520 BCE) and Khafra (2520–2494 BCE) may have quarreled. 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 (2494–2472 BCE), who built the smallest pyramid in Giza, Shepseskaf (2472–2467 BCE) and Djedefptah (2486–2484 BCE) .

Decline and collapse: Fifth to Eighth Dynasties

The Fifth Dynasty began with Userkaf (2465–2458 BCE), who initiated reforms that weakened the Pharaoh and central government.

Egypt's expanding interests in trade goods such as ebony, incense such as myrrh and frankincense, gold, copper and other useful metals inspired the ancient Egyptians to build suitable ships for navigation of the open sea. They traded with Lebanon for cedar and traveled the length of the Red Sea to the Land of Punt, which is modern day Ethiopia and Somalia for ebony, ivory and aromatic resins. Ship builders of that era did not use pegs (treenails) or metal fasteners, but relied on rope to keep their ships assembled. Planks and the superstructure were tightly tied and bound together.

After the reigns of Userkaf and Sahure, 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 had exceeded the capacity of the treasury and populace and, therefore, weakened the Kingdom at its roots.

The final blow was a severe drought in the region that resulted in a drastic drop in precipitation between 2200 and 2150 BCE, which in turn prevented the normal flooding of the Nile.[3] The result was the collapse of the Old Kingdom followed by decades of famine and strife. An important inscription on the tomb of Ankhtifi, a nomarch during the early First Intermediate Period, describes the pitiful state of the country when famine stalked the land.


  1. Malek, Jaromir. 2003. "The Old Kingdom (c2686–2160 BC)". In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0192804587 p.83
  2. Ancient African Civilizations to ca. 1500: Pharaonic Egypt to Ca. 800 BC, by Dr. Susan J. Herlin, 2003, p 27.
  3. Jean-Daniel Stanley et al. (2003). "Nile flow failure at the end of the Old Kingdom, Egypt: Strontium isotopic and petrologic evidence". Geoarchaeology 18 (3): 395–402. 

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)

Extternal links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Old Kingdom. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.