The Old Kingdom refers to a specific period in Egyptian history (2575 BC to 2150 BC) that was incredibly vibrant. Many of ancient Egypt’s concepts, rituals, and monuments can be connected to previous periods, but it was under the Old Kingdom that they took on the shapes that would define and influence the rest of pharaonic history. The Old Kingdom was marked by a variety of wide aesthetic, historical, and religious developments. However, the exact parts and manifestations of these broad commonalities varied considerably throughout time, and the Old Kingdom’s end was markedly different from its inception.
10. The Rise of the Old Kingdom
The Early Dynastic Period refers to the era before the Old Kingdom. Despite the fact that Egypt had united under the First Dynasty, it was under Pharaoh Djoser’s reign (the first king of the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom) that the central government became structured, powerful, and highly organized. The royal capital of Egypt was relocated to Memphis, where Djoser founded his court, and a new age of construction began in Saqqara.
Egypt was divided into “nomes” under Djoser’s reign. Each nome had a governor who reported to the pharaoh; nonetheless, the pharaoh, who was regarded a deity, oversaw both the administration and the official religion. Many of the government’s day-to-day operations were overseen by the vizier, who served under the pharaoh. Only the richest families received an education and were taught to read and write. These people worked their way up the government’s ranks to become priests, high-ranking officials, scribes, and army generals. The Kingdom swiftly became prosperous under Djoser’s control, allowing him to build the Pyramid of Djoser.
9. The name ‘Old Kingdom’ was coined by archaeologists in the 19th century
The Egyptians did not refer to the era as the Old Kingdom, and in their minds there would have been no discernible distinction between it and the periods that came before or after it. Egypt’s first sustained peak of civilization occurred during the Old Kingdom, the first of three “Kingdom” periods in the lower Nile Valley, and led to the rise of the Middle Kingdom and later the New Kingdom.
The German Egyptologist Baron von Bunsen coined the concept of an “Old Kingdom” as one of three “golden ages” in 1845, and its definition would change dramatically during the 19th and 20th centuries. Not only was the last monarch of the Early Dynastic Period linked to the first two kings of the Old Kingdom, but Inebu-hedj (translated as “the white walls”), the Ancient Egyptian name for Memphis, remained the royal residence. The fundamental basis for separating the two periods is the revolutionary change in architecture, as well as the impacts of large-scale construction projects on the Egyptian economy and society.
8. Floral arrangements became a thing and art flourished
Flowers played a significant role in the daily life of ancient Egyptians throughout the Old Kingdom when looking at paintings and sculptures created during the period. Bas-relief carvings in Perneb’s tomb depict lotus buds and blossoms artistically arranged in flaring bowls that were laid onto banquet tables during important events. Formal bouquets can also be seen being offered to the dead in paintings from other tombs in Thebes. In the tombs of Beni Hasan, archaeologists also discovered several paintings of functional vases with purpose-created spouts designed to support the heavy-headed lotus flower.
The further discoveries of perfume recipes, flower wreaths on mummies, as well as Greek and Roman inscriptions, point to a far more diverse native plant life than previously imagined, as well as evidence of the introduction of foreign plants, most importantly the rose. Due to the established standards of Egyptian art, the lotus (Nymphaea), dedicated to the goddess Isis, and papyrus, which were both easily stylized, were the plant materials depicted nearly exclusively throughout the Old Kingdom. Most of the art styles, techniques, and standardized images established during the Old Kingdom would in fact, remain unchanged for the next 3,000 years.
7. The Old Kingdom lasted 400 years
The “Old Kingdom,” which lasted from 2575 BC to 2150 BC, was made up of the 4th and 5th dynasties, with a total of 25 Pharaohs. While the fourth and fifth dynasties were the main dynasties in the Old Kingdom, most archaeologists regard the third dynasty as a crucial transitional phase. During the Old Kingdom, Egypt not only had a strong central government and economy, but the ancient Egyptians also developed a highly sophisticated culture that made significant advances in medical practices and procedures, religious belief and tradition, architectural and construction innovations, literary motifs in poetry and prose and had a vision of the afterlife which was more comforting than any other during this period in time.
In the ancient world, art and colossal structures were evidence of organizational and economical achievement and success. These achievements are a clear indication They indicate that individuals had more time and resources to dedicate to things other than food production and survival. During the Old Kingdom, Egypt’s pharaohs were able to feed their subjects while coordinating massive workforces to build some of the greatest structures the world has ever seen.
6. The Old Kingdom is better known as the “Age of the Pyramids”
The Old Kingdom is more popularly known as the “Age of the Pyramids” or the “Age of the Pyramid Builders,” since it encompasses the time when King Sneferu mastered the art of pyramid construction and the monarchs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure built the Giza Pyramids. The advancements in management, building and architecture, astronomy, sculpture and painting, transportation, food distribution, and sanitation were all highlighted during this period of time.
The amount of construction accomplished by the rulers of the Old Kingdom is unparalleled when looking at the rest of the world’s history. Unparalleled bureaucratic efficiency was required to coordinate the workforce that built the pyramids at Giza and elsewhere during this era, and this bureaucracy could only function under a vigorous centralized government. The 4th-6th Dynasties of Egypt also left few historical records, and historians consider the era’s history as practically “carved in stone” and mostly architectural.
5. The first true pyramid collapsed
The first true pyramid constructed in Egypt was the pyramid of Maydum (also often spelled Meidum or Maidum). Unfortunately, it wasn’t built to last. This is because the high priest Imhotep’s pyramid design was altered, resulting in the outer casing sitting on a foundation of sand, rather than rock, leading it to collapse. Whether the collapse happened during construction or over a longer duration of time is a point of contention among experts. Maydum, on the west bank of the Nile River near Memphis, has everything an Old Kingdom funerary monument should have, including the pyramid itself, a mortuary temple, and a curving roadway descending to a temple complex near the waters of the Nile.
The Maydum pyramid was initially a seven-step pyramid with an additional level added afterward. After the main construction was completed, the stairs were filled in, and the entire structure was covered in beautiful Tura limestone to give it the appearance of a true pyramid. Most experts agree that Huni, the last ruler of the 3rd dynasty, began construction on the pyramid and that it was finally completed by his successor, Sneferu, the first ruler of the 4th dynasty.
4. It took several more tries to get it right
Sneferu didn’t stop once the Maydum pyramid was completed; in fact, he was only getting started. In the following years, the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid were erected at Dahshur. The Bent Pyramid, so named because it appears to curve inwards toward the summit, was originally constructed at a 55-degree angle before builders switched to a 43-degree angle using smaller stones. Sneferu was evidently unfazed by failure or disappointment since he moved on to his third try when the Bent Pyramid failed to meet his expectations. The Red Pyramid, made of red limestone and set at a 43-degree inclination, was erected on a solid base for further stability and became Egypt’s first successful true pyramid.
It was initially covered in white limestone, as were the other subsequent pyramids, but it crumbled away over time and was gathered by locals for other construction projects. Closely following the layout of Djoser’s complex at Saqqara, Sneferu had funerary temples and other structures built around his pyramids, with priests overseeing the day-to-day activities once the Red Pyramid was finished. All of his accomplishments point to a stable society throughout his reign, a successful and powerful reign that he passed along to his son Khufu when he died. Ancient Greek writers referred to Khufu as Cheops, and today he is best known for his Great Pyramid at Giza.
3. The Pyramids of Giza were built by Egyptians (not slaves)
All three of Giza’s famous pyramids, as well as their intricate burial complexes, were built in a frenzied period between 2550 BC and 2490 BC. They were constructed by Pharaohs Menkaure (front), Khufu (tallest), and Khafre (background). Contrary to common belief, the pyramids of Giza were not built by slaves (particularly, Hebrew slaves), but rather by Egyptians, many of whom were skilled professionals who were compensated for their time.
The pyramids are thought to represent the ben-ben, the primordial mound that arose from the waters of chaos at the creation of the world. Slaves from Libya, and possibly Canaan, Nubia, and Syria were most likely utilized in the quarry sites or gold mines, but they would not have been entrusted with or permitted to build the king’s infinite residence in the image of the first land to rise from the earth’s waters. So far, no slave quarters have been discovered at Giza, and no Egyptian records acknowledge any occurrences similar to those described in the Bible’s Book of Exodus.
2. There are almost no historical records left of the Old Kingdom
The written or documented accounts from this era, Egypt’s 4th-6th Dynasties, are limited, and academics describe the period’s history as practically “written in stone” and mostly architectural, in that academics have been able to piece together a history through the monuments and their inscriptions. When looking for sources of knowledge regarding the Old Kingdom, one of the biggest challenges we face is the remoteness in time. Many have simply perished. The pyramids themselves provide very little information about their builders, but the adjacent funerary temples and the stelae that accompanied the ancient kings provide us with their names and other crucial details.
In addition, several events and dates were recorded (and later rediscovered) in stone inscriptions from the time period. The Pyramid Texts, which were spells (detailed paintings and engravings inside the tomb) regarding the pharaoh’s eternal life, actually started to be inscribed within the Egyptian pyramids around 2350 BC, during the reign of King Unas. Its discovery provided us with invaluable information about the religious beliefs at the time.
1. The Fall of the Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom’s 4th Dynasty was a time of growth and rapid progress coupled with a strong centralized government capable of commanding the kind of respect required for its building projects. However, throughout the 5th and 6th Dynasties, the priesthood began to gain authority, elevating district authorities and undermining the kingship. As local governors gained more influence over their territories, the Old Kingdom began to fall apart, and the central government in Memphis slowly became obsolete. The governors grew in power and began to disregard the pharaoh’s control. To top it off the country was also struck by drought and famine, leading to the collapse of the central government.
Nothing could have prepared Egypt for the eclipse of royal power and the subsequent poverty. Fragmented records show that no less than 18 kings ascended the throne within the next twenty years, but none could regain authority over the country. However, Egypt managed to endure the monarchy’s terrible demise. Egyptians re-invented centralized governance in less than a century. They restored the image of their rulers by emphasizing that they were more than just leaders by right of their godly descent; they also had to maintain order and justice, care for the poor, and demonstrate compassion and mercy. The Egyptian society’s crises thus signaled the most profound transition in the royal institution, which was never to be divorced from its social purpose.