Ancient Egypt Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom (2686–2333 or 2181 BCE) was a time of great royal wealth and economic power.

This period included the third to the sixth dynasties of Egyptian pharaohs, and it is best known for pyramid building.

The Old Kingdom is famous for its pyramids, which required a strong central government to organize the labor force.

Because of that, the Old Kingdom is commonly known as the Age of the Pyramids.

Formerly independent regions of Egypt, now known as nomes, were firmly unified under the centralized power of the pharaoh.

Former local rulers had become governors and tax collectors.

The people of Egypt believed their pharaoh was a god, and that he ensured the stability of natural cycles, especially the annual flooding of the Nile because their crops depended on it.

Old Kingdom Facts

  • Pepi II was pharaoh for around 90 years during the Old Kingdom.
  • Memphis was Egypt’s capital city during this time
  • This period is often referred to as the “Age of Pyramids.”
  • Egypt traded with many different civilizations at this time.
  • Our knowledge of the Old Kingdom comes from tombs, pyramids, and temples.
  • People lived in mud cities, which are long gone.

A strong centralized government characterizes the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. In the Old Kingdom, however, the priesthood began to grow in power and the Old Kingdom began to collapse.

Old Kingdom’s 4th Dynasty was a time of progress and centralized government, but at the end of the 6th Dynasty, Egypt entered a period of social unrest.

The collapse of the Old Kingdom was caused by a severe drought and the exceptionally long reign of Pepi II of the 6th Dynasty, but many scholars today see the end of the Old Kingdom as a transition to the First Intermediate Period.

The Third Dynasty

Egypt’s long history was referred to as the Old Kingdom by archaeologists in the 19th century CE. The Egyptians never referred to it by that name and would have been unaware of any differences between it and preceding or succeeding periods.

Djoser’s architect Imhotep built the king’s tomb at Saqqara out of stone, which revolutionized construction in Egypt. It was also during the Third Dynasty that independent states came under the rule of a centralized government at Memphis.

Scholars see the 3rd Dynasty as a transitional phase between the earlier and later periods, although Djoser’s pyramid of stone utilized Early Dynastic Period techniques.

The First Pyramid

Huni, the last king of the Third Dynasty, may have been the son of Sneferu, the first king of the 4th Dynasty, who built the pyramid at Meidum.

The pyramid of Meidum, the first true pyramid constructed in Egypt, collapsed during construction because the outer casing rested on sand instead of rock. Some scholars believe that the outer casing lasted into the New Kingdom, while others claim that it collapsed during construction.

The Bent Pyramid

Bent Pyramid

Bent and Red pyramids are known as Sneferu’s pyramids at Dahshur. The Bent Pyramid was built at an angle of 55 degrees.

Sneferu, who was undeterred by failure or disappointment, built the Red Pyramid, which was 344 feet (105 meters) high and was the first successful true pyramid built in Egypt.

Sneferu established a powerful central government in Memphis and built the Red Pyramid and other buildings around it. He left a stable society to his son, Khufu.

The Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid

Khufu, known as Cheops by the ancient Greek writers, built the Great Pyramid at Giza. The Westcar Papyrus features four stories about the kings of the 4th Dynasty and does not portray Khufu as a tyrant or oppressive in any way.

The ancient Greeks wrote of “Cheops” as a tyrant, but Egyptian texts praise Khufu’s reign, and physical evidence suggests the workers on the Great Pyramid were well cared for and performed their duties as part of community service.

Khufu’s military campaigns against Nubia and Libya and his prosperous trade agreements with cities such as Byblos made Egypt even more wealthy, and Khufu also built the earliest known dam in the world.

Khufu gave the greatest amount of power to his most trusted family members, and there was no record of internal strife during his reign.

The Sphinx

Khufu’s successor was Djedefre, but the pyramids in Abu Rawash were destroyed in Roman times when the Romans used the stone for other building projects.

Djedefre’s reform of the kingship made the king a subordinate of the sun god Ra, and therefore the position of king was subordinate to the sun god.

The Great Sphinx of Giza was created by Djedefre, while others claim Khafre created it. The sphinx’s face resembles Khafre’s more than Khufu’s.

Khafre, the son of Chephren, built a grand mortuary monument at Giza but followed his father’s policies and model of government.

Khafre associated himself with the god Horus, but referred to himself as a “Son of Horus,” and the power of interpreting the will of the gods grew increasingly in the hands of the priests.

Following Khafre’s death, Baka, son of Djedefre, took the throne, but Menkaure, Khafre’s son, became king. Menkaure began building his pyramid and temple complex at Giza.

The pyramids at Giza were built by Egyptians, who were paid for their work. No slaves were used, and no records related to any event such as that set forth in the biblical Book of Exodus.

Menkaure’s pyramid and complex are smaller than his father’s and grandfather’s pyramids, and this signifies that resources were running out in Menkaure’s time and that his son’s and chosen successor’s death upset the dynastic succession.

The 5th & 6th Dynasties

Sneferu had first associated his dynasty with the solar cult of the god Ra, but Djedefre reduced the status of the king to that of a son of that god.

The 5th Dynasty began with Userkaf and was named after the god Ra. A woman named Khenkaues is mentioned in inscriptions as the mother of two kings.

The Temple of the Sun at Abusir was built by Userkaf which marked the end of the king’s role as representative of the god.

Sahure, the son of Userkaf, built the first mortuary complex near the Temple of the Sun and conducted the first Egyptian expedition to Punt, one of Egypt’s most valuable resources.

Nyussere Ini succeeded him and increased the power of the priests of Ra. Menkauhor Kaiu succeeded him and built a Temple to the Sun, but Djedkare Isesi rejected this practice and reduced the number of priests necessary for mortuary complex maintenance.

As a result of the Osiris cult’s development, Djedkare Isesi may have left the cult of the sun god, which was associated with death and resurrection during the Old Kingdom. Djedkare Isesi’s decentralization of the government at Memphis was the most significant aspect of his reign.

Djedkare Isesi was succeeded by his son Unas, who had the interior of his tomb painted and marked with inscriptions. The inscriptions show Ra and Osiris in communion with the king.

The 6th Dynasty

The 6th Dynasty began with Teti, whose role as king was already greatly diminished. His successors were Userkare, Meryre Pepi I, Merenre Nemtyensaf I, and Neferkare Pepi II, whose long reign saw the Old Kingdom slowly collapse.

Pepi II was followed by Merenre Nemtyemsaf II and Netjerkare, who is identified as the Queen Nitocris from Herodotus’ account.

When a drought brought famine to the land, there was no longer any meaningful central government to respond to it, and Egypt slowly tumbled into the First Intermediate Period.

The dynasties and pharaohs of the Old Kingdom:

Pharaoh Djoser

Pharaoh Djoser, who belonged to the third dynasty and ruled around 2691 and 2625 BCE, built the first pyramid which was also the first stone building in Egypt. It was the Step Pyramid at Saqqara (the necropolis in Memphis), and it was constructed as an extension added to a more traditional tomb and stepped monument.

The pyramid was probably designed by Djoser’s vizier and high priest, Imhotep.

The Fourth Dynasty

The Fourth Dynasty (around 2613-2494 BCE) of the Old Kingdom of Egypt is often referred to as a “golden age.” It was a period of prosperity and peace. Furthermore, this was the first time that trade with other countries is documented.

King Sneferu

King Sneferu of the fourth dynasty contributed to the evolution of pyramid building. Since he wasn’t happy with his first pyramid in Meidum, he constructed another two – the Bent Pyramid at the royal necropolis of Dahshur near Cairo, and the Red Pyramid at the northern part of the same necropolis. T

he Red Pyramid was not only the most substantial pyramid that pharaoh Sneferu has built at Dashur – it is the third-largest pyramid that the Egyptians have even built-in their three-millennium long history.


Pharaoh Sneferu’s son, Khufu – also known as Cheops – has constructed the famous Great Pyramid of Giza, and his son Khafra built the second Giza pyramid and the Sphinx (although it is possible that it was Khafra’s brother, Djedefra, who actually built the Sphinx). The smallest pyramid in Giza was built by their descendant, king Menkaure, also known as Mykerinos.

Priorities were somewhat different during the rule of the fifth dynasty. Pyramids were not as colossal as those in the previous dynasty, but now they had the Pyramid Texts – the oldest known ancient Egyptian religious texts, carved onto the sarcophagi and subterranean walls of pyramids at Saqqara.

These texts gave us valuable information about the earliest funerary beliefs and bureaucracy of the Old Kingdom. Rather than building massive pyramids, the Fifth dynasty rulers constructed a number of temples in Abusir, dedicated to the cult of the sun god Ra.

The sixth dynasty had some serious challenges to deal with. The economy of Egypt had changed, and nomarchs(the governors of the local nomes) became wealthier and more powerful than the kings. These nomarchs started ruling their regions independently and even created local dynasties.

One of the most important factors that led to the fall of the Old Kingdom was a severe drought that hit the region, which caused famine and disease.

The last pharaoh of the Old Dynasty who ruled the unified country was Pepi II. Decades after his death, the kingdom slipped into civil wars and collapsed, and the First Intermediate Period began.

What did you learn?

What is the Old Kingdom particularly well known for?
It is known for its colossal pyramids.

Which pharaoh built the first pyramid in Egypt?
It was Pharaoh Djoser of the third dynasty.

The famous pyramid builders, Khufu, Khafra, and Menkaure, belonged to which dynasty of the Egyptian pharaohs?
They belonged to the fourth dynasty.

What caused the collapse of the Old Dynasty?
Several factors, including severe climate change, led to the end of this period.