Everything You’d Want to Know About the Egyptian Old Kingdom

Hey there! This is the first of a series of blog posts about the different kingdoms of ancient Egypt, by yours truly, Cheyenne, student intern at THATMuse. We’ll start with the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the first of the Kingdom periods.

First, it’s important to realize that the periods commonly recognized as the Kingdoms were first distinguished by 18th century historians, and these distinctions would not have been used by the Ancient Egyptians themselves. Specifically, the ‘Kingdoms’ refer to high points in the lower Nile Valley civilization. Some historians disagree on when exactly these periods began and ended, but there are some generally acknowledged dates for each of them. What we call the Old Kingdom of Egypt is commonly recognized as occurring from 2686 to 2181 BC, or from the Third Dynasty to the Sixth Dynasty.

During the Old Kingdom, the kings of Egypt (yes King! They weren’t called by the name of Pharaoh until the New Kingdom) were considered living gods with almost unlimited power throughout their physical kingdom. The first king of the Third Dynasty was Djoser, who moved the capital of Egypt to Memphis. His architect, Imhotep, is credited with developing a new architectural form, the Step Pyramid, which was to be used over and over throughout Egypt’s history. You can see a picture of his famous pyramid to the right.  

Djoser was followed by a succession of kings, most of whom carried on his tradition of building large and grand pyramids, which is why the Old Kingdom is sometimes referred to as ‘the Age of Pyramids.’ In fact, during the Fourth Dynasty, the Great Pyramid of Giza was built, and the Sphinx in Giza (below) is also thought to have been built during this time, although there is significant disagreement about exactly when, and who it was built by.  

The Fifth and Sixth Dynasty saw a drastic weakening of the king’s power. Powerful nomarchs, which were similar to regional governors, gained more and more power, lessening the king’s by default. Civil wars after a succession crisis likely contributed to the downfall of the Old Kingdom, compounding by famine and a horrible drought in the 22nd century BC. The Nile didn’t flood normally for several years during a 50 year periods, causing extreme strife and unrest in Egypt. This period of turmoil is known as the First Intermediate Period, and the kingdom does not begin to recover until about 2055, the start of the Middle Kingdom, the subject of our next post.

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