Third Dynasty of Ancient Egypt

Third Dynasty of Ancient Egypt

The Third Dynasty of ancient Egypt (III Dynasty) is the first dynasty of the Old Kingdom Period. Other dynasties of the Old Kingdom include the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth. The capital during the period of the Old Kingdom was Memphis.


After the turbulent last years of the Second Dynasty, which might have included civil war, Egypt came under the rule of Djoser, marking the beginning of the Third Dynasty. Both the Turin King List and the Abydos King List record five kings, while the Saqqara Tablet only records four, and Manetho records nine, many of whom did not exist or are simply the same king under multiple names.

  • The Turin King List gives Nebka, Djoser, Djoserti, Hudjefa I, and Huni.
  • The Abydos King List gives Nebka, Djoser, Teti, Sedjes, and Neferkare.
  • The Saqqara Tablet gives Djoser, Djoserteti, Nebkare, and Huni.
  • Manetho gives Necheróphes (Nebka), Tosorthrós (Djoser), Týreis (Djoserti/Sekhemkhet), Mesôchris (Sanakht, probably the same person as Nebka), Sôÿphis (also Djoser), Tósertasis (also Djoserti/Sekhemkhet), Achês (Nebtawy Nebkare; unlikely Khaba, perhaps nonexistent), Sêphuris (Qahedjet), and Kerpherês (Huni).

The archaeological evidence shows that Khasekhemwy, the last ruler of the Second Dynasty, was succeeded by Djoser, who at the time was only attested by his presumed Horus name Netjerikhet. Djoser’s successor was Sekhemkhet, who had the Nebty name Djeserty. The dynasty’s last king is Huni, who may be the same person as Qahedjet or, less likely, Khaba. There are three remaining Horus names of known third dynasty kings: Sanakht, Khaba, and perhaps Qahedjet. One of these three, most likely Sanakht, went by the nebty name Nebka.

Dating the Third Dynasty is similarly challenging. Shaw gives the dates as being approximately from 2686 to 2613 BCE. The Turin King List suggests 75 years for the third dynasty. Baines and Malek have placed the third dynasty as spanning the years 2650–2575 BCE, while Dodson and Hilton date the dynasty to 2584–2520 BCE. It is not uncommon for these estimates to differ by more than a century.

The Third Dynasty of ancient Egypt (c. 2670-2613 BCE) begins with king Djoser, famous for his Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Although some sources claim a king named Sanakht (also known as Nebra) founded the Third Dynasty, these claims are routinely challenged for lack of evidence. The chronology of Manetho is vague on who Sanakht was when he ruled in the Third Dynasty and even his name. Sanakht’s name is only known through the Abydos king list, the Turin papyrus, and two reliefs found in the tomb known as Mastaba K2 at Beit Khallaf. This structure was once considered Sanakht’s tomb, but this identification has been challenged and refuted. Nothing is known of Sanakht’s reign, and his name may be a reference to some other king. Although few details are available on Djoser’s reign, he was undoubtedly king at the beginning of the Third Dynasty. Equally clear, he followed the last king of the Second Dynasty, Khasekhemwy.

Scholars have routinely included the Third Dynasty in the period of the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) rather than the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2613 BCE) because of the grand building projects which characterize it. Modern scholarship, however, tends to regard the Third Dynasty as belonging to the Early Dynastic Period owing to a continuation of cultural and architectural practices (religious observances and building methods) which are more closely aligned with the past of Egypt than the future. The construction of the first pyramid in the Third Dynasty, under Djoser, suggested to early archaeologists a clear link with the rise of the most fantastic pyramids in the Old Kingdom.

The first pyramid

Although Djoser’s pyramid, designed by the architect and vizier Imhotep, is Egypt’s first pyramid, it is closer in construction to the mastaba tombs of the Early Dynastic Period than the so-called ‘true pyramids’ of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. The development of pyramid building in the Third Dynasty moved from mastabas to the stacked mastabas of the step pyramids of Djoser, Sekhemkhet, and Khaba. These pyramids would later give rise to the monumental pyramids of Giza but, as noted, have more in common with the earlier mastaba than the later structures.

The Step Pyramid began as a simple mastaba tomb with a flat roof and sloping sides, along the lines of many such tombs from earlier dynasties. The architect Imhotep, however, had a grander scheme in mind for the eternal home of his king. The Step Pyramid is a series of mastabas stacked on top of each other, each level a little smaller than the one beneath, to form the shape of a pyramid. Earlier mastabas were constructed of clay brick, but the Step Pyramid was made of stone blocks on which were carved images of trees (sacred to the gods of Egypt) and reeds (possibly symbolizing The Field of Reeds, the Egyptian afterlife). When completed, the Step Pyramid rose 204 feet (62 meters) high and was the tallest structure of its time. The pyramid complex included a temple, courtyards, shrines, and living quarters for the priests covering an area of 40 acres (16 hectares) and surrounded by a wall 30 feet (10.5 meters) high. The actual chambers of the tomb were dug beneath the base as a maze of tunnels with rooms off the corridors to discourage robbers and protect the body and grave goods of the king. However, this plan did not work as the tomb was robbed in antiquity of all valuables, including the king’s body; only his foot was found in the burial.

Still, the design and construction of the Step Pyramid epitomize the ingenuity and vision of the Third Dynasty builders who would later raise the Buried Pyramid and the Layer Pyramid, among many other monuments and temples. These early visionaries lay the foundations for the later ‘true pyramids’ of the Fourth Dynasty, which have intrigued and fascinated people throughout the centuries since their creation. During the Third Dynasty, architecture, technology, religion, and the arts took a huge step forward as the people planned and built these great tombs and monuments for their rulers. The pyramid was designed to house the mortal remains of a king and provide a home for his spirit to recognize and be able to travel to for visits to the earthly plane; whatever other designations or uses people have attributed to the pyramids in the centuries since they were built, this was their original purpose. Further, despite repeated claims to the contrary, neither these great works nor the later pyramids were created by enslaved people but by skilled Egyptian craftsmen and hired labour. Archaeological evidence makes clear that those who worked on the pyramids and other monuments throughout Egypt were paid or performed their duties as a service to the gods and their king.

The design and construction of Djoser’s step pyramid required the builders to think more practically than their predecessors. Further, the technology required to move, shape and position the stone required innovative thinking and skill in the stonework, which was not necessary in earlier times. Formerly, a simple mastaba served as a tomb, but now the plan was to create a series of mastabas stacked on each other to reach toward the heavens, surrounded by a necropolis which would honour the dead and astound the living. To achieve this vision, old ways of the building using mud-baked brick and wood were discarded in favour of stone, and this single decision would influence Egyptian art and architecture for the next 2,000 years.

These changes seem to have been brought about by the stability of Djoser’s reign and the developments in religious concepts regarding the soul, which this stability encouraged. The deceased’s soul was thought to have nine parts, and one of them, the Ba, was bird-shaped and could descend again to earth or fly to the heavens. This concept, along with the long-established belief in a life after death, inspired the Egyptians to build grand houses for their pharaohs to house the physical body (the Khat) and enable the Ba to descend to visit it if they so chose. Djoser’s pyramid, the first of its kind, epitomizes this belief and stands as a symbol of the inspiration and innovation of Imhotep and the builders of the Third Dynasty of Egypt.

Rulers of the Third Dynasty of Ancient Egypt

The pharaohs of the Third Dynasty ruled for approximately seventy-five years. Due to recent archaeological findings in Abydos revealing that Djoser was the one who buried Khasekhemwy, the last king of the Second Dynasty, it is now widely believed that Djoser is the founder of the Third Dynasty, as the direct successor of Khasekhemwy and the one responsible for finishing his tomb. These findings contradict earlier writings, like Wilkinson 1999, which proposed that Nebka/Sanakht was the dynasty’s founder. However, the two were not far apart; they may have been brothers, along with Sekhemkhet, as the sons of Khasekhemwy and his favoured consort Nimaathap.

The following list of pharaohs of the Third Dynasty is based on Manetho’s chronology, the Turin King List, and archaeological evidence as presented in Douglas J. Brewer’s work, Ancient Egypt: Foundations of a Civilization.

  • Djoser (c. 2670 BCE; Greek Name: Tosorthros) reigned for over twenty years. He ruled over a stable country, as evidenced by the luxury of being able to engage in several building projects. Djoser built many monuments, tombs, and temples that scholars claimed he must have reigned for over thirty years. Military expansion into the Sinai region took place under his reign, and industry and technology flourished, as did the arts. His vizier, Imhotep, designed his burial place at Saqqara, the excellent Step Pyramid he is most famous for today.
  • Sekhemkhet (c. 2650 BCE; Greek Name: Tyreis) was Djoser’s eldest son (though possibly his brother) who ruled for less than ten years. He seems to have continued the policies of Djoser, including military campaigns in the Sinai region, as inscriptions from his reign have been found there. He is best known for the so-called ‘buried pyramid’ (because it was discovered beneath the sand) at Saqqara. Some scholars now challenge the claim that the buried pyramid is Sekhemkhet’s and believe it was built for his wife, Djeseretnebi.
  • Khaba (c. 2640 BCE) was the third king of the Third Dynasty, although some scholars insist he was preceded by a man named Sanakht. Little is known of his reign other than through his building projects, including the Layer Pyramid at Zawyet el-Aryan near Giza and the complex which once surrounded it.
  • Huni (c. 2630-2613 BCE; Greek Name: Aches) was the last ruler of the Third Dynasty. Although he is referenced in later inscriptions, almost nothing is known of his reign. As there is no evidence of a disruption in the development of the culture, it could be assumed he continued the policies of his predecessors with success. Still, there is no actual evidence for him doing so. He was initially thought to have built the Meidum Pyramid, but that has now been positively identified with the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh, Snefru. He has also been associated with Layer Pyramid by some scholars who equate Huni with Khaba, but this is contested. With Huni, the Third Dynasty ended, and the Fourth began, initiating the period known in Egyptian history as the Old Kingdom.

While Manetho named Necherophes, and the Turin King List names Nebka (a.k.a. Sanakht) as the first pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, many contemporary Egyptologists believe Djoser was the first king of this dynasty, pointing out the order in which some predecessors of Khufu are mentioned in the Papyrus Westcar suggests that Nebka should be placed between Djoser and Huni, and not before Djoser. More importantly, seals naming Djoser were found at the entrance to Khasekhemwy’s tomb at Abydos, demonstrating that it was Djoser, rather than Sanakht, who buried and succeeded this king. The Turin King List scribe wrote Djoser’s name in red ink, which indicates the Ancient Egyptians’ recognition of this king’s historical importance in their culture. In any case, Djoser is the best-known king of this dynasty for commissioning his vizier Imhotep to build the earliest surviving pyramids, the Step Pyramid.

Nebka’s identification with Sanakht is uncertain. However, many Egyptologists support the theory that the two kings were the same man. An opposition exists because this opinion rests on a single fragmentary clay seal discovered in 1903 by John Garstang. Though damaged, the seal displays the serekh of Sanakht, together with a cartouche containing a form of the sign for “ka,” with just enough room for the symbol for “Neb.” Nebka’s reign length is given as eighteen years by both Manetho and the Turin Canon. However, it is essential to note that these sources write over 2,300 and 1,400 years after his lifetime, so their accuracy is uncertain.

In contrast to Djoser, both Sanakht and Nebka are attested in considerably few relics for a ruler of nearly two decades; the Turin Canon gives a reign of only six years to an unnamed immediate predecessor of Huni. Toby Wilkinson suggests that this number fits Sanakht (whom he identifies concretely with Nebka), given the sparsity of archaeological evidence for him. (Wilkinson places Nebka as the penultimate king of the Third Dynasty before Huni, but this is by no means definitively known or overwhelmingly supported among Egyptologists.) Still, it could also be the reign length of Khaba or even Qahedjet, kings whose identities are uncertain.

Some authorities believe that Imhotep lived into the reign of the Pharaoh Huni. Little is known for sure of Sekhemkhet, but his power is considered to have been only six or seven years, according to the Turin Canon and Palermo Stone, respectively. Attempts to equate Sekhemkhet with Tosertasis, a king assigned nineteen years by Manetho, find almost no support given the unfinished state of his tomb, the Buried Pyramid. It is believed that Khaba possibly built the Layer Pyramid at Zawyet el Aryan; the pyramid is far smaller than it was intended. But it is unknown whether this is due to natural erosion or because it was never completed like Sekhemkhet’s own tomb. In any case, the duration of Khaba’s reign is uncertain; a few Egyptologists believe Khaba was identical to Huni, but if Khaba is the same person as the Ramesside names Hudjeta II and Sednes, he could have reigned for six years.