History of Egypt - The Old Kingdom (2686-2181BC)

History of Egypt - The Old Kingdom (2686-2181BC) Last updated on Thursday 15th April 2010

Pharaonic burial practices continued to develop during the Third Dynasty, lasting from 2686-2613BC, which marked the beginnings of the Old Kingdom. The first of Egypt's pyramids were constructed during the 27th century BC. The Step Pyramid of Saqqara built for King Zoser by his chief architect Imhotep, who later generations deified, is considered by many to be the first pyramid ever constructed in Egypt. Prior to this, most royal tombs were constructed of sun-dried bricks. Zoser's gargantuan step pyramid attested to the pharaoh's power and established the pyramid as the pre-eminent Pharaonic burial structure. During Zoser's rule the Sun God Ra attained a supra-eminent place over all other Egyptian deities.

The Fourth Dynasty (2613-2494BC) was characterized by expansionism and pyramid construction. King Sneferu constructed the Red Pyramid at Dahshur near Saqqara and the Pyramid of Meidum in Al-Fayoum. He also sent military expeditions as far as Libya and Nubia. During his reign trading along the Nile flourished. Sneferu's descendants, Cheops (Khufu), Chephren (Khafre) and Mycerinus (Menkaure) were the last three kings of the Fourth Dynasty. These three pharaohs built the pyramids of Giza.

Egypt under Cheops became the first state in the history of the world to be governed according to an organized system. The Fourth Dynasty also extended trade relations with the Near East and mined and smelted copper in Nubia.

The Fifth Dynasty (2490-2330BC) was marked by a relative decline in Pharaonic power and wealth, evidenced by the smaller pyramids of Abu Sir built during this period. The pharaohs ceased to be absolute monarchs and began to share power with the aristocracy and high officials. As the independence of the nobility increased, their tombs became larger and were built at increasing distances from the pharaohs.

Worship of the sun god Ra also spread during the Fifth Dynasty. It was during the reign of Unas that religious texts were placed in the pyramids bearing descriptions of the afterworld which were later gathered into the Book of the Dead.

Decentralization of Pharaonic authority increased during the Sixth Dynasty (2330-2170BC) as small provincial principalities emerged to challenge Pharaonic power. The Sixth Dynasty kings were forced to send expeditions as far as Nubia, Libya and Palestine to put down the separatists, but these campaigns served to further erode the central authority. By the reign of the last Sixth Dynasty Pharaoh Pepi II, the Old Kingdom had become a spent force.

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