Old Kingdom

2686 BC
2181 BC

The Third to Sixth Dynasties make up the Old Kingdom. The king’s power continued to grow during this period. The early-Third Dynasty King Djoser built an even grander tomb, this time back in Saqqara. He intended to built a mastaba tomb like the kings of the First and Second Dynasties. This was gradually expanded, and five successive mastabas were built on top of one another, resulting in Egypt’s first pyramid and oldest fully stone structure, the Step Pyramid. The attempted step pyramids of the other kings of the Third Dynasty were never completed, presumably due to a succession of short reigns.

          Little is known of the first ruler of the Fourth Dynasty, Huni. The reign of the second king, Snefru (c.2613–2589 BC), was immensely prosperous and successful. Three massive pyramids were built during his reign alone. The first, in Meidum, was begun as a Step Pyramid, and later completed as a true pyramid. The second, the so-called Bent Pyramid in Dahshur, was the first pyramid to have been intended as a true pyramid, but structural flaws meant that this could not be achieved. With his third pyramid, the Red Pyramid, also in Dahshur, Egypt’s first true pyramid was completed, paving the way for the building of the perfect pyramid.

          This was achieved in the immediately succeeding reign of King Khufu (c.2589–2566 BC), who built the largest and most ambitious pyramid and pyramid complex. The Great Pyramid, with its original height of 146.5 meters, was the tallest structure in the world for 3,800 years. Khufu’s brother and successor, Djedefre (c.2566–2558 BC), did not finish his pyramid. He was succeeded by Khufu’s son, Khafre (c.2558–2532 BC), who constructed the Great Sphinx, and a pyramid very nearly as large as his father’s. The two temples associated with his pyramid were larger and more elaborate than those of his predecessors.

          The pyramid of Khafre’s son, Menkaure (c.2532–2503 BC), is considered to mark the beginning of a downward trend in royal power. Although his pyramid is indeed substantially smaller, at least a quarter of its height was encased in granite, a much harder stone that is obtained from Aswan, Egypt’s southern border. Furthermore, the temples adjacent to his temple are proportionally larger than those of his predecessors, suggesting a shift in the king’s priorities, from his tomb to his cult that would be practiced in these temples.

          This trend grew more pronounced in the Fifth (c.2494–2487 BC) and Sixth (c.2345–2181 BC) Dynasties. The last king of the Fifth Dynasty, Unas, had the interior of his pyramid in Saqqara decorated with the Pyramid Texts, the precursors to the more famous so-called Book of the Dead. The purpose of these texts was to help the king successfully reach the afterlife and achieve godhood.

          By the Sixth Dynasty, it is clear that the king’s power had decreased. This, in combination with a range of other factors, meant that, by the end of the long reign of its final king, Pepy II (c.2278–2184 BC), the central government was no longer in firm control of the entirety of Egypt.

Old Kingdom