Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt: Timeline & Facts

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  • 0:01 Ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom
  • 1:03 Timeline
  • 4:12 Pyramids
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tracy Musacchio
The Old Kingdom, from ca. 2649-2150 BCE, saw Ancient Egypt ruled by a strong, centralized government. The pyramids at Giza, built during the Old Kingdom, are a visible indicator of the strength of the pharaoh. This lesson offers a timeline and major cultural developments of Old Kingdom history.

Ancient Egypt's Old Kingdom

The Egyptians divided their own history into 31 dynasties, and modern historians have further grouped these dynasties into three main periods: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. The Old Kingdom, the first of these periods, was the strongest in terms of the centralization of the government. The pharaoh held a tight control over his subjects, even going so far as to insist that the provincial rulers, known as nomarchs, were buried near the capital city of Memphis in the northern part of the country regardless of which province they were from and ruled over.

Egypt's history didn't begin with the Old Kingdom; modern historians recognize the Predynastic Period (for the time prior to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under a single pharaoh) and the Early Dynastic Period (for Dynasties 0-2). However, the government reached an apex in the Third Dynasty that made it noticeably more advanced than the previous periods. Part of this apex included the introduction of the pyramid as the burial place for the pharaoh.

Timeline

The Third Dynasty

The Old Kingdom began with the rule of King Djoser, who immediately marked a sharp change from his predecessors by ordering the building of a major monument for his burial place: the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. He also reorganized the state, creating the regional districts called nomes. Later Dynasty Three pharaohs continued building pyramids, although pyramid building increased significantly during the Fourth Dynasty.

Fourth Dynasty

From the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, during the reign of Snefru, pyramids became a major focal point for each king. Snefru built at least three major pyramids, including the Bent Pyramid, the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, and a pyramid at Meidum. His son Khufu moved the royal necropolis to Giza and built the Great Pyramid, which still stands today as the largest of all pyramids. Khufu's successors, Khafre and Menkaure, also built their pyramids at Giza. With relative peace and prosperity through Egypt, the kings of the Fourth Dynasty also participated in foreign trade. Objects from Old Kingdom Egypt have been found throughout Syro-Palestine, and Snefru's pyramid includes wooden beams sourced from somewhere outside of Egypt.

Fifth Dynasty

During the Fifth Dynasty, pharaohs built not only pyramids (moving their necropolis to Abusir) but also sun temples dedicated to Ra. These pyramids were of lower quality than those of the Third and Fourth Dynasty, possibly reflecting the diversion of resources toward the sun temples and possibly suggesting that the pharaoh was no longer able to command the same control that he had been able to previously. The Fifth Dynasty also saw the first major governmental reforms when King Djedkare passed a series of edicts designed to strengthen royal control over Egypt by reorganizing the regional bureaucracy. Unfortunately, his decrees had the opposite effect, and the central government weakened.

Dynasties 6-8: the fall of the Old Kingdom

Several reasons have been cited for the fall of the Old Kingdom, including climate changes, governmental reforms from the Fifth Dynasty (intended to strengthen the pharaoh's control) contributing to a weakening of the government, and the long reign of Pepi II.

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