Old Kingdom: Ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom Period

Saqqara step pyramid of Djoser
Peter Gutierrez/ Moment Open/ Getty Images

The Old Kingdom ran from about 2686-2160 B.C. It started with the 3rd Dynasty and ended with the 8th (some say the 6th).

  • 3rd: 2686-2613 B.C.
  • 4th: 2613-2494 B.C.
  • 5th 2494-2345 B.C.
  • 6th: 2345-2181 B.C.
  • 7th and 8th: 2181-2160 B.C.

Before the Old Kingdom was the Early Dynastic Period, which ran from about 3000-2686 B.C.

Before the Early Dynastic Period was the Predynastic which began in the 6th millennium B.C.

Earlier than the Predynastic Period were the Neolithic (c.8800-4700 B.C.) and Paleolithic Periods (c.700,000-7000 B.C.).

Old Kingdom Capital

During the Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom Egypt, the residence of the pharaoh was at White Wall (Ineb-hedj) on the west bank of the Nile south of Cairo. This capital city was later named Memphis.

After the 8th Dynasty, the pharaohs left Memphis.

Turin Canon

The Turin Canon, a papyrus discovered by Bernardino Drovetti in the necropolis at Thebes, Egypt, in 1822, is so-called because it resides in the northern Italian city of Turin at the Museo Egizio. The Turin Canon provides a list of names of the kings of Egypt from the beginning of time to the time of Ramses II and is important, therefore, for providing the names of the Old Kingdom pharaohs.

For more on the problems of ancient Egyptian chronology and the Turin Canon, see Problems Dating Hatshepsut.

Step Pyramid of Djoser

The Old Kingdom is the age of pyramid building beginning with Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara, the first finished large stone building in the world. Its ground area is 140 X 118 m., its height 60 m., its outside enclosure 545 X 277 m. Djoser's corpse was buried there but below ground level. There were other buildings and shrines in the area. The architect credited with Djoser's 6-step pyramid was Imhotep (Imouthes), a high priest of Heliopolis.

Old Kingdom True Pyramids

Dynasty divisions follow major changes. The Fourth Dynasty begins with the ruler who changed the architectural style of the pyramids.

Under Pharaoh Sneferu (2613-2589) the pyramid complex emerged, with the axis re-oriented east to west. A temple was built against the eastern side of the pyramid. There was a road running to a temple in the valley that served as entrance to the complex. Sneferu's name is connected with a bent pyramid whose slope changed two-thirds of the way up. He had a second (Red) pyramid in which he was buried. His reign was considered a prosperous, golden age for Egypt, which it needed to be to construct three pyramids (the first collapsed) for the pharaoh.

Sneferu's son Khufu (Cheops), a far less popular ruler, built the Great Pyramid at Giza.

About the Old Kingdom Period

The Old Kingdom was a long, politically stable, prosperous period for ancient Egypt. The government was centralized. The king was credited with supernatural powers, his authority virtually absolute. Even after death, the pharaoh was expected to mediate between gods and humans, therefore preparation for his afterlife, the building of elaborate burial sites, was vitally important.

Over time, the royal authority weakened while the power of viziers and local administrators grew. The office of overseer of Upper Egypt was created and Nubia became important because of contact, immigration, and resources for Egypt to exploit.

Although Egypt had been self-sufficient with its bountiful annual Nile inundation allowing farmers to grow emmer wheat and barley, building projects like the pyramids and temples led the Egyptians beyond its borders for minerals and manpower. Even without currency, therefore, they traded with their neighbors. They manufactured weapons and tools of bronze and copper, and perhaps some iron. They had the engineering know-how to build pyramids. They carved portraits in stone, mostly soft limestone, but also granite.

The sun god ​Ra grew more important through the Old Kingdom Period with obelisks built on pedestals as part of their temples. A full written language of hieroglyphs was used on the sacred monuments, while hieratic was used on papyrus documents.

Source: The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. by Ian Shaw. OUP 2000.

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Gill, N.S. "Old Kingdom: Ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom Period." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/ancient-egypt-old-kingdom-period-118153. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Old Kingdom: Ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom Period. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-egypt-old-kingdom-period-118153 Gill, N.S. "Old Kingdom: Ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom Period." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-egypt-old-kingdom-period-118153 (accessed June 3, 2023).