Egypt attained its first sustained peak of civilization during the Old Kingdom, the first of three so-called “Kingdom” periods (followed by the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom), which marked the high points of civilization in the lower Nile Valley. In ancient Egyptian history, the Old Kingdom was the period spanning c. 2700–2200 BC. It is also known as the “Age of the Pyramids” or the “Age of the Pyramid Builders”. It encompassed the reigns of the great pyramid-builders of the Fourth Dynasty, such as King Sneferu, who perfected the art of pyramid-building, and the kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, who constructed the pyramids at Giza.
The concept of an “Old Kingdom” as one of three “golden ages” was coined in 1845 by the German Egyptologist Baron von Bunsen. Its definition would evolve significantly throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The fundamental justification for separating the two periods is the revolutionary change in architecture accompanied by the effects on Egyptian society and the economy of large-scale building projects. Not only was the last king of the Early Dynastic Period related to the first two kings of the Old Kingdom, but the “capital”, the royal residence, remained at Ineb-Hedj, the Ancient Egyptian name for Memphis.
The Old Kingdom is most commonly regarded as the period from the Third Dynasty to the Sixth Dynasty (2686–2181 BC). Information from the Fourth to the Sixth Dynasties of Egypt is scarce, and historians regard the era’s history as literally “written in stone” and primarily architectural in that it is through the monuments and their inscriptions that scholars have been able to construct an account. Egyptologists also include the Memphite Seventh and Eighth Dynasties in the Old Kingdom as a continuation of the administration centralized at Memphis. During the Old Kingdom, the King of Egypt (not called the Pharaoh until the New Kingdom) became a living god who ruled absolutely and could demand the services and wealth of his subjects. While the Old Kingdom was a period of internal security and prosperity, it was followed by disunity, and relative cultural decline, referred to by Egyptologists as the First Intermediate Period.
Under King Djoser, the first king of the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, the royal capital of Egypt was moved to Memphis, where Djoser established his court. A new era of building was initiated at Saqqara under his reign. King Djoser’s architect, Imhotep, is credited with the development of building with stone and with the conception of the new architectural form, the step pyramid. The Old Kingdom is perhaps best known for many pyramids constructed at this time as burial places for Egypt’s kings.
Rise of the Old Kingdom
The first king of the Old Kingdom was Djoser (sometime between 2691 and 2625 BC) of the Third Dynasty. The latter ordered the construction of a pyramid (the Step Pyramid) in Memphis’s necropolis and Saqqara. An important person during the reign of Djoser was his vizier, Imhotep.
In this era, formerly independent ancient Egyptian states became known as nomes under the king’s rule. The former rulers were forced to assume the role of governors or otherwise work in tax collection. Egyptians in this era believed the king to be the incarnation of Horus, linking the human and spiritual worlds. Egyptian views on the nature of time during this period held that the universe worked in cycles, and the Pharaoh on earth worked to ensure the stability of those cycles. They also perceived themselves as specially selected people.
Height of the Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom and its royal power reached a zenith under the Fourth Dynasty (2613–2494 BC). King Sneferu, the first king of the Fourth Dynasty, held territory from ancient Libya in the west to the Sinai Peninsula in the east to Nubia in the south. An Egyptian settlement was founded at Buhen in Nubia, which endured for 200 years. After Djoser, Sneferu was the next great pyramid builder. Sneferu commissioned the building of not one but three pyramids. The first is called the Meidum Pyramid, to its location in Egypt. Sneferu abandoned it after the outside casing fell off of the pyramid. The Meidum pyramid was the first to have an above-ground burial chamber. Using more stones than any other Pharaoh, he built three pyramids: a now collapsed pyramid in Meidum, the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, and the Red Pyramid, at North Dahshur. However, the full development of the pyramid style of building was reached not at Saqqara but during the construction of the Great Pyramids at Giza.
Sneferu was succeeded by his son, Khufu (2589–2566 BC), who built the Great Pyramid of Giza. After Khufu’s death, his sons Djedefre (2566–2558 BC) and Khafre (2558–2532 BC) may have quarrelled. The latter built the second pyramid and (in traditional thinking) the Great Sphinx of Giza. Recent re-examination of evidence has led Egyptologist Vassil Dobrev to propose that Djedefre built the Sphinx as a monument to his father, Khufu. Alternatively, the Sphinx has been proposed to be the work of Khafre and Khufu.
There were military expeditions into Canaan and Nubia, with Egyptian influence reaching up the Nile into what is today Sudan. The later kings of the Fourth Dynasty were Menkaure (2532–2504 BC), who built the smallest pyramid in Giza; Shepseskaf (2504–2498 BC); and, perhaps, Djedefptah (2498–2496 BC).
The Fifth Dynasty (2494–2345 BC) began with Userkaf (2494–2487 BC) and was marked by the growing importance of the cult of the sun god Ra. Consequently, fewer efforts were devoted to constructing pyramid complexes than during the Fourth Dynasty and more to building sun temples in Abusir. Userkaf was succeeded by his son Sahure (2487–2475 BC), who commanded an expedition to Punt. Sahure was, in turn, succeeded by Neferirkare Kakai (2475–2455 BC), who was Sahure’s son. Neferirkare introduced the prenomen in the royal titulary. He was followed by two short-lived kings, his son Neferefre (2455–2453 BC) and Shepseskare, the latter of uncertain parentage. Shepseskare may have been deposed by Neferefre’s brother Nyuserre Ini (2445–2421 BC), a long-lived pharaoh who built extensively in Abusir and restarted royal activity in Giza.
The last pharaohs of the dynasty were Menkauhor Kaiu (2421–2414 BC), Djedkare Isesi (2414–2375 BC), and Unas (2375–2345), the earliest ruler to have the Pyramid Texts inscribed in his pyramid.
Egypt’s expanding interests in trade goods such as ebony, incense such as myrrh and frankincense, gold, copper, and other valuable metals inspired the ancient Egyptians to build suitable ships for navigation of the open sea. They traded with Lebanon for cedar and travelled the length of the Red Sea to the Kingdom of Punt—possibly modern-day Somalia—for ebony, ivory, and aromatic resins. Shipbuilders of that era did not use pegs (treenails) or metal fasteners but relied on rope to keep their ships assembled. Planks and the superstructure were tightly tied and bound together. This period also witnessed direct trade between Egypt and its Aegean neighbours and Anatolia.
The dynasty’s rulers sent expeditions to the stone quarries and gold mines of Nubia and the mines of Sinai. There are references and depictions of military campaigns in Nubia and Asia.
Decline into the First Intermediate Period
The sixth dynasty peaked during king Pepi I and Merenre I with flourishing trade, several mining and quarrying expeditions and effective military campaigns. Militarily, aggressive expansion into Nubia marked Pepi I’s reign. At least five military expeditions were sent into Canaan.
There is evidence that Merenre was not only active in Nubia like Pepi I but also sent officials to maintain Egyptian rule over Nubia from the northern border to the area south of the third cataract.
During the Sixth Dynasty (2345–2181 BC), the Pharaoh’s power gradually weakened in favour of powerful nomarchs (regional governors). These no longer belonged to the royal family, and their charge became hereditary, thus creating local dynasties largely independent from the central authority of the Pharaoh. However, Nile flood control was still the subject of extensive works, especially the canal to Lake Moeris around 2300 BC, which was likely also the water source for the Giza pyramid complex centuries earlier.
Internal disorders set in during the incredibly long reign of Pepi II (2278–2184 BC) towards the end of the dynasty. His death, certainly well past that of his intended heirs, might have created succession struggles. The country slipped into civil wars mere decades after the close of Pepi II’s reign.
The final blow was the 22nd century BC drought in the region that resulted in a drastic drop in precipitation. For at least some years, between 2200 and 2150 BC, this prevented the regular flooding of the Nile.
Whatever its cause, the collapse of the Old Kingdom was followed by decades of famine and strife. An important inscription on the tomb of Ankhtifi, a nomarch during the early First Intermediate Period, describes the pitiful state of the country when famine stalked the land.
The most defining feature of ancient Egyptian art is its function, as that was the entire purpose of creation. Art was not made for enjoyment in the strictest sense but rather served a role of some kind in Egyptian religion and ideology. This fact manifests itself in the artistic style, even as it evolved over the dynasties. The three primary principles of that style, frontality, composite composition, and hierarchy scale, illustrate this exceptionally well. These characteristics, initiated in the Early Dynastic Period and solidified during the Old Kingdom, persisted with some adaptability throughout ancient Egyptian history as the foundation of its art.
Frontality, the first principle, indicates that art was viewed directly from the front. One was meant to approach a piece as they would a living individual, for it was meant to be a place of manifestation. The act of interaction would bring forth the divine entity represented in the art. It was therefore imperative that whoever was designated be as identifiable as possible. The guidelines developed in the Old Kingdom and the later grid system designed in the Middle Kingdom ensured that art was axial, symmetrical, proportional, and, most importantly, reproducible and therefore recognizable. Composite composition, the second principle, also contributes to the goal of identification. Multiple perspectives were used to ensure that the onlooker could precisely determine what they saw. Though Egyptian art almost always includes descriptive text, literacy rates were not high, so the art gave another method for communicating the same information. One of the best examples of composite composition is the human form. In most two-dimensional relief, the head, legs, and feet are seen in profile, while the torso faces directly in front.
Another typical example is an aerial view of a building or location. The third principle, the scale hierarchy, illustrates relative importance in society: the larger the figure, the more influential the individual. The king is usually the largest, aside from deities. The similarity in size equated to the similarity in position. However, this is not to say that physical differences weren’t shown either. Women, for example, are usually portrayed as smaller than men. Children retain adult features and proportions but are substantially smaller in size.
Aside from the three primary conventions, several characteristics can help date a piece to a particular time frame. The human figure’s proportion is one of the most distinctive, as they vary between kingdoms. Old Kingdom male figures have broad shoulders and a long torso, with apparent musculature. On the other hand, females are narrower in the shoulders and waist, with longer legs and a shorter torso. However, in the Sixth Dynasty, the male figures lose their muscularity and narrow shoulders. The eyes also tend to get much more prominent. To help maintain the consistency of these proportions, the Egyptians used a series of eight guidelines to divide the body. They occurred at the following locations: the top of the head, the hairline, the base of the neck, the underarms, the tip of the elbow or the bottom of the ribcage, the top of the thigh at the bottom of the buttocks, the knee, and the middle of the lower leg. From the soles of the feet to the hairline was also divided into thirds, one-third between the soles and the knee, another third between the knee and the elbow, and the final third from the elbow to the hairline. The broad shoulders in the Fifth Dynasty also constituted roughly one-third of the length. These proportions not only help with the identification of representations and the reproduction of art but also tie into the Egyptian ideal of order, which is tied into the solar aspect of their religion and the inundations of the Nile.
Though the above concepts apply to most, if not all, figures in Egyptian art, there are additional characteristics that applied to the representations of the king. Their appearance was not an exact rendering of the king’s visage, though kings are somewhat identifiable through looks alone. Identification could be supplied by inscriptions or context. A vast, more critical part of a king’s portrayal was the idea of the office of kingship, which depended on the period. The Old Kingdom was considered a golden age for Egypt, a glorious height to which all future kingdoms aspired. As such, the king was portrayed as young and vital, with features that agreed with the standards of beauty of the time. The musculature seen in male figures was also applied to kings. A royal rite, the jubilee run, which was established during the Old Kingdom, involved the king running around a group of markers that symbolized the geographic borders of Egypt. This was meant to demonstrate the king’s physical vigour, which determined his capacity to continue his reign. This idea of kingly youth and strength was pervasive in the Old Kingdom and thus shown in the art.
The sculpture was a significant product of the Old Kingdom. The position of the figures in this period was mostly limited to sitting or standing, either with feet together or in the striding pose. Group statues of the king with either gods or family members, typically his wife and children, were also common.
It was not just the subject of sculpture that was important, but also the material: The use of hard stone, such as gneiss, graywacke, schist, and granite, was relatively common in the Old Kingdom. The stone’s colour had a great deal of symbolism and was chosen deliberately. Four colours were distinguished in the ancient Egyptian language: black, green, red, and white. Black was associated with Egypt due to the colour of the soil after the Nile flood, green with vegetation and rebirth, red with the sun and its regenerative cycle, and white with purity. The graywacke came from the Eastern Desert in Egypt and is associated with rebirth and the sun’s rising in the east. The statue of Menkaure with Hathor and Anput is an example of a typical Old Kingdom sculpture. The three figures display frontality and axiality while fitting with the proportions of this period.