Egyptian Development & Achievements: 2686-2160 BCE

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
The third millennium BCE saw the rise of Egypt as an increasingly prosperous unified state under successive dynasties. This lesson examines the developments of this Old Kingdom period, covering politics, architecture, trade, and religion.

Formation of the Kingdom

The civilizations that took shape in the Nile valley were not always united. Ancient Egypt, as a political entity, was formed by often aggressive centralization efforts. Surviving monuments tell us that there were rival lines of kings in the third millennium B.C.E., claiming the right to rule over the valley. These early centuries of centralization are sometimes known as the Old Kingdom of Egypt. A significant shift came with the unification of the lower and upper Nile valleys, and the kings' new power was celebrated in art.

Sanakh smites an enemy

In this relief, King Sanakht, an early and possibly mythical Pharaoh, is slaying a warrior (no longer visible) who personified the tribes of the Eastern Desert. The sovereign, whose name is inscribed in a 'serekh' at right on the wall of a palace surmounted by the falcon god Horus, is wearing the red crown, the symbol of his power over Lower Egypt. The use of the god Horus signifies the religious authority of the pharaohs, which was a significant component of their power throughout the history of ancient Egypt.


Djoser, the first pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, is often known as the first ruler of the Old Kingdom. Under his reign, agriculture in the Nile Valley was expanded and the rise of cities began. Djoser also patronized great architectural achievements like the Saqqara pyramid complex.


The step pyramid at Saqqara is an early example of the ornate tombs built by Egypt's pharaohs as monuments to their power and statements of their role in this world and the next. It was in the Fourth Dynasty that most of these pyramids were built, including the tomb of Khufu at Giza, called the Great Pyramid for obvious reasons.


Whether or not the Sixth Dynasty is reckoned as the last of Egypt's Old Kingdom, it is generally viewed as having witnessed the Old Kingdom's decline. Ironically, we have a lot more sources for this period (2345-2181 BCE) than for earlier centuries because of the growth of writing among Egypt's expanding nobility and bureaucracy. Pepi II, having succeeded to the throne at the age of six, ruled for almost a century, but the dynasty ended shortly after his death.

Egypt and the world


During the Old Kingdom of Egypt, trade with other powers was not as important as it would later become to the civilization of the Nile Delta. Still, even during this early period, Egypt traded with their neighbors. Precious stones, such as lapis lazuli, were imported from Mesopotamia. Trade to the north extended from the capital of Memphis, a great port city, through the Mediterranean and the Aegean.

Evidence for Egypt's trade comes not only from material records but also from paintings, such as those from the Fifth Dynasty temple complex of the pharaoh Sahure. These depict a trading expedition with four ships returning from the mysterious land of Punt. (The Egyptians knew exactly where Punt was, but archaeologists have never been able to find out!)


Valuable products such as gold and salt could also provide a motive for warfare. Egypt was often at war with Nubia, its neighbor to the south. Gold and salt were mined in Nubia and traded through Africa; Egypt's control of these products fed the kingdom's vast wealth. The centralization and expansion of Egypt under the rule of Djoser were also dependent in part on his successful wars with Libya.

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