Old Kingdom: Definition, History, Pharaohs, & Major Facts
Old Kingdom was a period in the timeline of ancient Egypt that saw the entire society get fascinated with the construction of gargantuan pyramids. As such, the Old Kingdom era, which spanned from the 27th century BCE to the 22nd century BCE, is often referred to as the “Age of the Pyramids”.
The first two dynasties of the Old Kingdom were famed for having strong-willed kings (or pharaohs) and a very robust central government. As a result, the land of Egypt became prosperous, allowing Egyptian rulers expand the kingdom’s boundaries just enough to keep the people safe from foreign invasions.
Fast Facts about the Old Kingdom
Started: c. 2686 BCE
Ended: c. 2181 BCE
Dynasties: Dynasty III to Dynasty VI
Capital city: Memphis
Most Known For: Large pyramids, strong centralized government, and architectural feats
Popular inventions: Irrigation dams, Gargantuan Pyramids, Pyramid Texts
Famous Kings: Sneferu, Khufu, Khafre, Mankaure, Unas
Reasons for its fall: Diffusion of power from Memphis to other places in Egypt
Also known as: ‘Age of the Pyramid Builders’ or ‘Age of the Pyramids’
Old Kingdom: How did it begin?
The Old Kingdom Period came after the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3100 BCE – c. 2686 BCE), an era credited with laying the pillars for subsequent Egyptian dynasties to build upon.
Although it is commonly held that the Old Kingdom Period began with the reigns of the Third Dynastic kings, some scholars opine that the era actually began much later, i.e. in the Fourth Dynasty.
The reason for including the Third Dynasty of Egypt (c. 2650 – 2613 BCE) in the Old Kingdom is because of King Djoser’s Step Pyramid, Egypt’s first known pyramid.
Since the Old Kingdom is nicknamed the “Age of Pyramids”, then it makes a whole lot of sense to include the Third Dynasty in the era. However, it must be noted that to the ancient Egyptians the term ‘Old Kingdom’ was not used; instead they simply saw the two eras – Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom Period – as one.
Did you know: Not only was King Djoser the first builder of pyramids in ancient Egypt, he was also the founder of the Third Dynasty, an era of increased organization and control of resources and people?
Dynasties of the Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom period comprised a total of four dynasties – from the Third Dynasty to the Sixth Dynasty – which was then followed by the First Intermediate Period.
The Third Dynasty, which lasted from the 27th century BCE to the 26th century BCE, was a period that gave birth to Egypt’s first pyramid, in the form of the Step Pyramid of King Djoser.
Djoser’s Pyramid (as it is sometimes called) was built at Saqqara using stone. Before that, mud bricks were the materials used in building the burial tombs (mastaba) of the kings. Djoser’s grand vizier Imhotep (c. 2665 – 2600 BCE) is the one credited with introducing this change. Imhotep wanted to create a structure that could stand the test of time.
Deploying building techniques from the previous era, Imhotep simply stacked several mastabas up in an increasingly smaller order.
Additionally, King Djoser is credited with introducing a centralized way of governing the people of Egypt. Starting during the Third Dynasty, the nation was divided into a number of districts (nomes) that were headed by governors. The governors of those nomes reported to the central government in the capital city, Memphis.
Even after Djoser’s death, his immediate successors would continue to follow in his footstep, adding more and more bureaucracy to the affairs of the nation. Their efforts made the rulers in the 4th and 5th Dynasty better equipped to build larger burial tombs and funerary structures than the ones seen in the 3rd Dynasty.
The Fourth Dynasty, which had brave and visionary leaders like Sneferu and Khufu, was arguably the most successful of all the dynasties of the Old Kingdom. Rulers of this dynasty tediously put in place a very strong centralized government. With those bureaucratic systems in place, the rulers could successfully pull off ambitious projects, as they had ample resources at their disposal. The Fourth Dynasty was also buoyed on by trading relationships between Egypt and people in the surrounding region.
King Sneferu’s Reign and Pyramids
Taking inspiration from Huni (c. 2630 – 2610 BCE) – the last king of the 3rd Dynasty – King Sneferu built the Meidum Pyramid* (also known as the “collapsed pyramid”). Sneferu also built two more pyramids at Dahshur – the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid. The Bent Pyramid’s 55-degree angle from the base and 43-degree angle towards the top make it look like it is bent.
Sneferu used the lessons learnt from the Meidum Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid to build the Red Pyramid, which rose at an angle of 43 degrees and reached 344 feet (105 meters). The Red Pyramid is generally considered as Egypt’s first real pyramid.
King Sneferu could certainly not have been able to complete all those magnificent building projects without a very strong central government. Such projects required enormous amounts of resources, including several tens of thousands of paid laborers, many of whom were brought from places in Nubia, Libya, and the Levant.
A very well-organized central government was also needed to keep peace and stability in the land so as to ensure that construction of the pyramids moved on smoothly.
* Some scholars credit King Huni with building the pyramid at Meidum instead. It has also been stated that Huni was father of Sneferu.
Khufu’s Reign and the Great Pyramid of Giza
After the death of King Sneferu, his son, Khufu (2589 – 2566 BCE), was crowned king. Known by the ancient Greeks as Cheops, King Khufu is most famous for building the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Contrary to what ancient Egyptian texts say about King Khufu’s benevolent rule, there were many ancient Greek scholars and historians, particularly Herodotus, who tagged Khufu as a very wicked ruler. Herodotus even stated that Khufu forced his daughters to work as sex workers in order to raise money to continue his grandiose construction projects. Herodotus also claimed that Khufu used several thousands of slaves and forced labor in his projects.
However, archaeological evidences from the site of the pyramid beg to differ. Those evidences, as well as Egyptian texts, show that Khufu was not unkind to his daughters or the laborers that worked on the pyramid.
In building the Great Pyramid, Khufu is believed to have employed laborers by offering them food in exchange for their labor. Every year, tens of thousands of laborers from across Egypt trooped to the site to transport quarried blocks that were cut to such precision that the builders did not need to use mortar to keep the blocks in place.
All in all, it has been estimated that more than 2,000, 000 blocks of stone went into the Great Pyramid. And the fact that some of the blocks weighed close to 16 tons, makes the entire construction of the pyramid even more mind-blowing.
The Great Pyramid, which is by the way the only surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the World, rises to a height of 479 feet. At that height, the structure was the tallest man-made structure in the world until the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 CE.
Did you know: Khufu is credited with a number of agricultural innovations, including the building first known dams at Wadi Gerawi?
The Sphinx and the Reigns of Djedefre and Khafre
King Khufu bequeathed a very wealthy and united Egypt to his successors and descendants. Upon Khufu’s death, his son Djedefre (2560-2558 BCE) was crowned king, even though it came amidst a bit of succession struggles with other family members.
Djedefre’s reign saw the increased worship of sun god Ra. As a matter of fact, Djedefre was the first known Egyptian king to use the title “Son of Ra”.
It has been stated that either Djedefre or his brother and successor, Khafre, built the Great Sphinx of Giza. The statue, which stands right in line with Khafre’s pyramid complex, shows a mythical animal (most likely a lion) with the head of a human, most likely that of Khafre’s head. Located in the Giza Necropolis, the Sphinx to this day remains the world’s largest monolithic statue.
Khafre’s Pyramid at the Giza Necropolis comes in second behind Khufu’s Pyramid. Unfortunately, Khafre was viewed by the Greeks as brutal, if not more, as his father, Khufu.
Unlike his brother Djedefre, Khafre associated more with the falcon-headed god and sky god Horus. As a result, Khafre and the kings that came after him often took the title “Son of Horus”.
Did you know: The Greeks called King Khafre Chephren?
King Menkaure and his Pyramid at the Giza Plateau
After the death of Khafre, his nephew and son of Djedefre, Baka, was crowned king. Baka, who many considered an illegitimate ruler, reigned for less than a year. Baka was succeeded by Menkaure, Khafre’s son.
Compared to his grandfather and father, Menkaure, who was called Mykerinos in Greek, was viewed in a more favorable light by the Greeks. Of all the three pyramids at the Giza plateau, Menkure’s pyramid is the smallest. Scholars reason that Menkaure did not have as much resources as his predecessors had; hence he had to make do with a smaller pyramid compared to the ones built by his predecessors. Because of King Menkaure’s untimely death, completion of his pyramid had to be done by his successor, Shepseskaf, who was the last king of the 4th Dynasty.
How did the Old Kingdom decline?
By the end of Shepseskaf’s reign, priests that administered the mortuary complex and temples were beginning to exert greater control compared to the power they had in the 3rd and early parts of the 4th Dynasty. As the priests became powerful, the kings were left with reduced powers and fewer resources at their disposal.
Since the likes of Sneferu and Djedefre started describing themselves as the sons of the gods, the power of the Egyptian kings in the Old Kingdom began to diminish, swaying into the hands of the priests. Undoubtedly the kings were still powerful; however, they were “merely the sons of the gods” and not the embodiment of the gods. This point explains why the 5th Dynasty came to be called the “Dynasty of the Sun Kings”.
The 5th Dynasty comprised of rulers such as Userkaf, Sahure, Kakai, and Djedkare Isesi. These kings also stopped building their mortuary complex at the Giza plateau. Many of them preferred building their mortuary tombs, which were called Temple to the Sun, at Abusir.
With every passing pharaoh of the Fifth and Sixth dynasties, the central government became weaker and more decentralized compared to the 3rd and 4th Dynasties. Amidst this, the governors of the various nomes (i.e. provinces) started to exert greater influence and control over resources.
The local governors (normarchs) and officials even began building more splendid tombs than the ones built by the Egyptian kings at the time. Ultimately, those nomarchs stopped taking instructions from the pharaoh. This kind of insubordination started during the 6th Dynasty, particularly during the reigns of Pepi I (2331-2284 BCE), Merenre Nemtyansaf I (2284-2275 BCE) and Pepi II (2278-2185 BCE).
By the end of Pepi II’s very long reign, the power of the kings was nothing to write home about. The priesthood and nomarchs were more influential and wealthier in their respective provinces than the king of Egypt.
The Sixth Dynasty ended (around c. 2181) with the reign of Netjerkare. By this time, there was no strong-willed leader to assert his control over the provinces and the governors.
The problem was further compounded by the fact that there were severe droughts and famine in Egypt towards the end of the Sixth Dynasty. Egyptian kings in Memphis could barely hold the nation together as real power shifted to regions and governors, who were better able to come out with regional solutions to the drought and famine facing their provinces.
Another contributory factor to the decline of the Sixth Dynasty had to do with Pepi II’s long reign which left no strong-willed heir. With the Sixth Dynasty broken down, the land of Egypt entered into an era historians like to call the First Intermediate Period (c. 2181 BCE- c.2040 BCE). This period was not in the truest sense of the word an outright collapse; rather it was a transition period, a transition from a centralized government to localized governments. With that came the diffusion of wealth and power from Memphis to other places in the country.
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Famous religious invention of the Old Kingdom
A popular religious invention of the Old Kingdom came in the form of the Pyramid Texts, a set of religious and funerary writings designed to help the pharaoh or queen safely fly or leap from the land of the living to the afterlife. The Pyramid Texts, which were written on the sarcophagi and walls of the deceased pharaoh’s pyramid, are regarded by scholars and archeologists as the world’s oldest religious writings.
Facts about the Old Kingdom Period
Owing to how ancient the Old Kingdom era is, much of what we know about the history of that era comes from the historical records written in stone. Another great source material can be found from the architectural projects of that era. For example, the mortuary temples in the vicinity of the pyramids of the era provide some bits of information about the kings, architects, workers and laborers that built those large monuments.
Over the years, archaeologists have found evidence that supports the notion that the pyramids in the Giza plateau was in fact not built by slaves, as ancient Greeks had us believe for a very long time. Archaeological remains from the area show that construction of those pyramids was done primarily by Egyptians themselves and not by captured slaves from the Levant. Furthermore, a large portion of the construction workers were skilled and received wages (in kind) in exchange for their labor. This notion is supported by the absence of slave quarters in the Giza plateau. The portion of slaves that were used in the projects was most likely used in the quarries.
Egyptians believed that the pyramids symbolized ben-ben, a primordial mound in the waters of Nu from which the creator god Atum emerged.
King Pepi II – one of the last pharaohs of the Old Kingdom – ruled for about 90 years.