The Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2130 B.C.) was an incredibly dynamic period of Egyptian history. While the origin of many concepts, practices, and monuments can be traced to earlier periods, it was during the Old Kingdom that they developed into the forms that would characterize and influence the rest of pharaonic history. A number of broad artistic, historical, and religious trends distinguished this period. Yet, the specific elements and manifestations of these overarching commonalities changed dramatically over time, and the end of the Old Kingdom differed remarkably from the beginning. Although several important settlement sites provide some insight into everyday life, our knowledge of Old Kingdom material culture is largely based on funerary evidence.
Dynasty 3 (ca. 2649–2575 B.C.)
Dynasty 3 began with king Netjerikhet (r. ca. 2649–2630 B.C.), who would later be called Djoser. Djoser’s funerary complex at Saqqara exemplifies the notable architectural and cultural developments that occurred during his reign. This was the earliest stone structure in Egypt, and at its center stood Egypt’s first pyramid, the Step Pyramid. The complex consisted of multiple cult buildings and an enormous series of underground apartments within a large rectangular enclosure that was oriented from north to south.
Symbolically, it aligned the deceased king with the circumpolar stars and the gods, enabled him to eternally celebrate the rituals of kingship, and provided a place for his funerary cult to be performed.
Dynasty 3 high officials built mud-brick rectangular superstructures, known today as mastabas, above their tombs in Saqqara, continuing the practice of the previous dynasty. In many of these, what had before been offering niches were enlarged into small chapels that were lined with stone and decorated. An offering scene, which depicted the tomb owner seated before a table of bread, with lists of food and other provisions, was usually depicted inside the chapel. This scene magically provided for the deceased in the afterlife, thus guaranteeing his continued existence. Such scenes were ubiquitous for the remainder of Egyptian history 64.100.
Dynasty 4 (ca. 2575–2465 B.C.)
Pyramid building reached its height during early Dynasty 4. Snefru (r. ca. 2575–2551 B.C.), who had three massive pyramids constructed in Meidum and Dahshur, transformed the stepped pyramid into a true, smooth-sided one. The Great Pyramid at Giza, which is the largest Egyptian pyramid, belongs to his son and successor, Khufu (r. ca. 2551–2528 B.C.). Around this time, the basic elements of the pyramid complex became standardized. These were aligned along an east-west axis and included the pyramid itself in the west marking the king’s tomb; the pyramid temple (also sometimes referred to as the funerary temple or the mortuary temple), which was directly adjacent to the east side of the pyramid; the valley temple in the east and at the edge of cultivation; and the causeway, which connected the temples and led from the cultivation toward the pyramid in the desert.
While these elements were reproduced with remarkable consistency throughout the rest of the Old Kingdom, the plan of each element could vary widely. The walls of the temples and causeway were covered with painted reliefs, and multiple statues were placed inside. Particularly during the reigns of Khafre (ca. 2520–2494 B.C.) and Menkaure (ca. 2490–2472 B.C.), who built the other two pyramids at Giza, there seems to have been great interest in royal statuary, as both kings had many statues set in their monuments. With smooth, fleshy faces and muscular bodies, their images epitomize the highly idealized artistic style of Dynasty 4 and early Dynasty 5.
The changes in the layout and structure of the royal funerary complex reflected the sun god’s increased prominence and evolving beliefs of kingship. The pyramid was a solar symbol, thought to mimic the sacred benben stone in Heliopolis, where the solar cult was centered. The close relationship between the king and the sun god was further emphasized in a new royal epithet that asserted the king as the sun god’s son. The king was essentially a living god, who held all power and was at the apex of a highly stratified society. Indeed, the administration was extremely centralized, and most top-level high officials were close relatives of the king, often his own sons. Many officials were buried within two vast cemeteries of stone mastabas that the state planned out and constructed around Khufu’s pyramid, and their afterlife may have been dependent on the king’s.
Dynasty 5 (ca. 2465–2323 B.C.)
The solar cult’s importance continued to increase during early Dynasty 5. Six kings had sun temples in Abusir. This was a new type of monument that these kings built in addition to their pyramid complexes. While the worship of the sun god was the primary purpose of these temples, they were also closely connected to the cult of the deceased, and possibly the living, king.
Already by the reign of Menkaure, pyramid size had declined and become less significant. During Dynasties 5 and 6, kings invested in other aspects of their monuments, particularly the decoration of the associated temples, which became larger. The pyramid complex of Sahure (r. ca. 2458–2446 B.C.) is particularly well preserved and offers an excellent example of the types of reliefs that usually covered the temple walls. These depicted the king triumphing over foreign enemies, interacting with deities, and receiving long lines of offering bearers.
In the middle of Dynasty 5, several major social and cultural changes mark an important turning point in Old Kingdom history. For example, the wealth and power of high officials seem to have increased around this time. Unlike during the previous dynasty, Dynasty 5 high officials were usually drawn from elite private families, and the increased size of their mastabas reflect their growing influence. These tomb complexes, erected in Saqqara, Giza, and Abusir, had more rooms, expanded relief decoration with new scene types, and multiple statues of the deceased representing him in different compositions, poses, or materials ( 48.67). Scenes of daily life, which could depict hunting, agricultural activities, or butchering, became extremely common and ensured that the deceased successfully transitioned to and was provided for in the afterlife (08.201.2a–g).
The artistic style changed dramatically toward the end of Dynasty 5, and this is likely linked to other contemporaneous cultural developments. The expressionistic late Old Kingdom style, or the so-called Second Style, which features large eyes, slightly upturned lips, narrow shoulders, and a lack of musculature, was common throughout Dynasty 6.
By the end of Dynasty 5, the cult of the new god Osiris had gained momentum. The last two kings chose not to build sun temples, and the royal cemetery was moved back to Saqqara. Perhaps most significantly, Unis (r. ca. 2353–2323 B.C.) had Pyramid Texts carved on the walls of the funerary apartments inside his pyramid. Although these texts and spells include solar and stellar references, the Osirian religion is dominant, and thus they epitomize the decline in the prominence of the sun god and the rise of Osiris within the funerary realm.
Dynasty 6 (ca. 2323–2150 B.C.) and the End of the Old Kingdom
The funerary apartments of all subsequent Old Kingdom kings were inscribed with Pyramid Texts, and by the end of Dynasty 6, queens’ pyramids had them as well. This is one sign of the changing role of the king, which further evolved over Dynasty 6 as the men and women who surrounded him became increasingly wealthy and powerful. Both Pepi I (r. ca. 2289–2255 B.C.) and Pepi II (r. ca. 2246–2152 B.C.) seem to have married an unusually large number of women, probably between six and eight, with many being from outside the royal family. At the same time, the status of kings’ wives seems to have increased. Their funerary temples became larger and more complex, and they could be buried under pyramids, a practice that had formerly been limited to queen mothers.
The state’s interest in the provinces grew throughout Dynasty 6, and the wealth and influence that had previously been localized among high officials at the capital spread across the country as the prominence of officials residing in and governing the provinces increased. By the reign of Merenre I (ca. 2255–2246 B.C.), many of these men were choosing to be buried there, often in rock-cut tombs. While Upper Egyptian officials had used this type of architecture before, the size and decoration of late Dynasty 6 provincial tombs was greatly expanded. Scholars debate whether this trend was a sign of a weak central government with high officials acting on their own outside of the king’s grasp, or part of the state’s effort to extend its authority by sending agents to establish its presence in the countryside. However, to some degree, it could reflect a gradual decline in central power and influence during Dynasty 6 even as the state maintained control over these regions and attempted to exploit provincial resources.
Effectively, the last king of Dynasty 6 was Pepi II, who, according to tradition, ruled for more than ninety years. Though recent scholars have questioned this, his reign was undoubtedly long, and it is often cited as a primary reason for the subsequent breakdown of the central government. Yet, while dynastic issues may have played a role in the collapse of the Old Kingdom, there were many contributing factors, including increasing decentralization, provincial policies, growing hostility and pressure from Nubian populations to the south, and climate change and the desiccation of the region. Several ephemeral kings followed Pepi II and comprise Dynasties 7 and 8 (ca. 2152–2100 B.C.), but the degree to which the capital retained control of the rest of the country during this time is debatable. As the governors of the provinces became autonomous, the Old Kingdom came to an end.
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