Old Kingdom, overview (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

"Old Kingdom" is the term used by modern scholars to define the first lengthy period of documented centralized government in the history of ancient Egypt. It includes the 3rd through 8th Dynasties (in absolute chronology, circa 2665-2140 BC) within the traditional division of Egyptian history which has been adopted by modern Egyptologists. A further issue relates to the time when the end of the Old Kingdom is to be fixed. From a political point of view, the timespan from the 3rd to 8th Dynasties refers to the period of Egyptian history in which the country’s residence was in the northern city of Memphis and pharaohs claimed total control over a unified Egypt. From a social point of view, however, beginning with the last decades of the 6th Dynasty and throughout the 7th and 8th Dynasties, Egypt had already developed into a more flexible cultural landscape with numerous local centers of individual initiative as well as administrative power; what modern scholars refer to as the First Intermediate Period.


While quantitatively rather scarce, our sources for the study of the Old Kingdom display a high degree of variety. The documents closest to historical records in our modern sense are the annals (gnwt), records of the natural or political events of particular importance which took place in a specific regnal year. The most important document of this type is the Palermo Stone, a broken piece of diorite from the 5th Dynasty which originally recorded the history of the country back to the first pharaoh, but which is now fragmentary.

Similar to the annals are the king lists, chronicles relating the names of former kings mostly in diachronic succession. These were meant to testify to the contemporary sovereign’s legitimate claim to the throne. These texts constituted the basis for Manetho’s compilation of the Egyptian dynasties in Hellenistic times. While conveying hardly anything more than names of kings, they nonetheless document the internal Egyptian sense of the historical past. Of historical importance, although highly ideological, are also scenes in the funerary complexes of Old Kingdom kings, such as Sahure or Unas, representing events which took place during their reign.

Far more informative for modern historians are contemporary administrative records. The most important of these are the papyri from the pyramid temple of King Neferirkare (5th Dynasty) at Abusir, compiled under King Djedkare-Isesi, two generations after the establishment of the funerary cult of the king. There are also royal decrees (wd nzw), formal decisions by the king on specific matters (as opposed to the laws (hpw) which governed general life). Royal decrees exempt the dependants of private funerary estates from state corvees, and communicate promotions or demotions within the bureaucratic hierarchy. Rare royal letters and a few testaments (jmjt-prw, literally "what-is in-the house") round out the Old Kingdom administrative records.

The intellectual history of the Old Kingdom is mainly documented by monumental texts. The religious corpus of Pyramid Texts are inscribed in the inner chambers of the royal tombs from King Unas of the 5th Dynasty onward. While primarily connected with the funerary ritual of the king. Autobiographies of the higher officials of the administration are inscribed on the external walls of their rock tombs. Framed as accounts of the services rendered to the king during the tomb-owner’s lifetime, these texts are the first examples of the individual concerns, ideas and aspirations of the high officials of the Egyptian administration.

The most impressive source of records for Egyptian society during the Old Kingdom is undoubtedly offered by the architectural and artistic documentation. In the region of the capital at Memphis, the royal funerary complexes in stone architecture around the king’s tomb as well as the private tombs of higher administrators document the fixation of formal conventions of stone architecture and the funerary expectations of Egyptian society. They provide an insight into the patterns which governed political effectiveness as well as social cohesion, subsumed under the concept of ma’at.

Cultural features: societal centralism versus individual freedom

The main cultural feature of this historical period is the tension between a state structure with a high level of centralization on the one hand and movements toward forms of localism and individualism on the other. A unifying tendency can be observed in the political and religious centers of the country in the Memphite area (Giza, Saqqara, Memphis, Heliopolis, Abusir, etc.) and especially in the earlier periods of the Old Kingdom, during the 3rd-5th Dynasties. A tendency toward individual freedoms is more tangible in the provincial centers in Upper Egypt; this trend characterizes mainly the later phases of the Old Kingdom, achieving a breakthrough during the 6th Dynasty and exploding during the transition to the First Intermediate Period.

The most visible sign of the centralism of Old Kingdom society is represented by the dramatic evolution which affected royal funerary architecture. The funerary complex of King Zoser at Saqqara marks the political change from the Early Dynastic period to the Old Kingdom, in the sense that it conveys a modified picture of the relation between the state and its subjects. Through the use of stone instead of mudbrick and the development of the step pyramid as a superstructure to the shaft containing the king’s burial chamber, Zoser’s funerary complex indicates the permanent and preeminent role of kingship in Egyptian society. The king of Egypt has now acquired a role as the cultural focus of the country as a whole. His funerary complex is a highly symbolic mirror of the state’s ideology rather than a purely religious area for the funerary cult of an individual, however prestigious.

Next to the royal pyramid, Zoser’s funerary complex exhibits a series of ceremonial buildings connected in various ways with the country’s religious history and identity. The evolution initiated by Zoser and pursued with even greater consistency under his successors of the 3rd and 4th Dynasties shows the fixation of a royal ideology typical of a mature and well-structured society. The final form of the funerary complex as expressed during the 4th Dynasty at Giza and during the 5th Dynasty at Abusir and Saqqara, with its combination of enclosure wall, main pyramid, subsidiary pyramids, mortuary temple, causeway and valley temple, surrounded by fields of the private tombs (mastabas or rock-cut tombs) of administrative officials, becomes in fact the core structure for the development of Egyptian towns, consisting of brick-built private dwellings for the personnel in charge of the construction of the buildings and the maintenance of the cult.

In the domain of private funerary architecture, an explicit sign of centralization in Old Kingdom society is represented by the concentration of the administrative officials’ tombs in the Memphite necropolis, especially in Giza (4th Dynasty) and Saqqara (5th Dynasty). These individual mastabas tend to be grouped around the royal funerary complexes; the scenes depicted on their walls suggest the cohesive ideology of Egyptian society (referred to by the term m3et, or ma ‘at), but perceived from the point of view of the aristocracy rather than of the king (as in the pyramid complex). The ideal of a well-administered social life and an ordered political hierarchy is depicted in the tombs.

A parallel symptom of centralization coming from a different aspect of Egyptian society during the Old Kingdom is represented by the state monopoly in religious affairs. The formula establishing the funeraiy cult for the individual after his or her death is always presented as a "royal concession" (jttp-df-iuwt literally "an offering given by the King"). Similarly, most of the temples known from the Old Kingdom are dedicated either to the royal funerary cult or to the worship of the sun god, itself theologically connected with the king. During the 4th Dynasty, the king adopts compound names with the sun god Re and acquires the title of "son of Re"; the first example is Khufu’s successor Djedefre, literally "Re-is-durable." Full-fledged theological discourse is developed around the figure and the role of the king, as is known to us through the Pyramid Texts, whereas the metaphysical status of the individual Egyptian remains largely unspecified.

During the 5th Dynasty the pyramid loses the monumentality of earlier periods. With the development of the Pyramid Texts, it acquires instead primarily the function of vehicle of theological discourse. Similarly, during the 5th and 6th Dynasties the tombs of the Upper Egyptian nomarchs (provincial governors) not only support the societal ma ‘at, as expressed in the representations of idealized life in the tombs of the residential Memphite cemeteries, but also indicate the individual striving for autonomous self-realization. This movement of intellectual emancipation becomes particularly explicit in the development of the tomb autobiography, the inscriptions on the outer walls of the rock-cut tomb in which the owner recounts his individual achievements in the royal service. These texts convey a focus on values of competitiveness and career which express individual concerns; this individual focus inevitably lessened the elite’s total commitment to royal (and societal) expectations. In fact, the intellectual divorce between the royal residence and the powerful nomarchs eventually becomes one of the main causes of that crisis of Old Kingdom society which Egyptologists call the First Intermediate Period.


The fundamental feature of Old Kingdom administration is a central organization of the country from Memphis under a vizier (t3jtj z3b ‘^0), who combined judiciary and executive functions. The central administration was active in the areas of archival recording, supervision of the state’s building activities, taxation, storage and jurisdiction. From the 5th Dynasty the Nile Valley, but not the Delta, was placed under the control of an "overseer of Upper Egypt," probably residing in Thinis. Both Upper and Lower Egypt were divided into "nomes" (sp3t), each governed by a nomarch, represented by a varying array of titles. Traditionally, there were 22 nomes in Upper Egypt and 20 in Lower Egypt. The office of nomarch involved the loyal representation of the king’s (i.e. the state’s) interest in all areas of economic activity, but from the end of the 5th Dynasty onward, when it began to move away from the royal family and to fall under the control of powerful local clans, this office gradually became the catalyst of the new, less centralistic and more individually oriented culture referred to above.

An important feature of the country’s administration during the Old Kingdom was the progressive establishment of pious foundations (similar to the concept of waqf in Islamic societies) to ensure the maintenance of the king’s mortuary cult in the Memphite pyramid towns, of the king’s (or the gods’) service in provincial temples, and also of the private funerary cult of selected members of the aristocracy. The personnel of these settlements were exempt from compulsory state corvees. The income from these foundations was assigned to those who maintained the cult, an economic decision which favored the concentration of wealth in private hands. The consequent crisis of the economic system based on the total control by the state of the means of production contributed to the profound revision of political structures at the end of the Old Kingdom and during the First Intermediate Period.

International relations

During the Old Kingdom, Egypt’s most important foreign contacts were with the neighboring cultures to the south in Lower Nubia. There, the dissolution of the Nubian A-culture during the Early Dynastic period in Egypt provoked an increased Egyptian attempt on the one hand to create (until the 5th Dynasty) centers of permanent occupation, and on the other hand to control the semi-nomadic chiefdoms by means of incursions and consequent seizure of animals and men. The autobiographical inscriptions in the tombs of Upper Egyptian nomarchs in the 6th Dynasty, particularly that of Harkhuf, and the inscriptions they left behind in Nubia are our most important source of information for these activities. At the end of the Old Kingdom, with the progressive formation in Lower Nubia (called Wawat by the Egyptians) of a new local kingdom, replacing the former smaller units referred to in Egyptian texts (mainly Irtjetj, Irtjet, Zatju) and probably representing the original structure behind the Nubian C-Group of the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptian presence in Nubia changes its patterns and moves to a higher degree of parity, with the contemporary presence of Egyptian imports in Lower Nubian tombs and of organized Nubian contingents (especially of mercenary soldiers) in Egypt.

Farther south, the kingdom of Yam competed with Egypt for control of Lower Nubia. As the autobiographical texts show, Yam was located in Upper Nubia to the south of Wawat. From the 5 th Dynasty onward, as documented by the annals of King Sahure on the Palermo Stone, the most important land in this area is coastal Punt. Located along the Red Sea around the Bab el-Mandeb, Punt provided Egypt with myrrh and other valuable commodities. Old Kingdom references to the Western Desert, inhabited by Libyan populations, are scarce and confined to military confrontations, as documented in the autobiography of Harkhuf; however, a 5th Dynasty statue refers to an Egyptian official as "governor of the Farafra Oasis," and in the 6th Dynasty we know of an extensive Egyptian settlement in the Dakhla Oasis.

During the Old Kingdom, inscriptions in situ confirm that the Sinai, particularly Wadi Maghara and Serabit el-Khadim, was extensively exploited because of its turquoise. For the 6th Dynasty, we know not only of military campaigns in the southern urbanized portion of Palestine from autobiographies (e.g. Weni) as well as from tomb representations, but also of contacts between Egypt and the Syrian kingdom of Ebla (Tell Mardikh) as early as the 4th-6th Dynasties. But the most intensive relations between Egypt and the Levant during the Old Kingdom were undoubtedly with Byblos on the Phoenician coast. Byblos was the main center for trade in timber and resin, as proven by the presence of Egyptian objects in the local temples throughout the whole period. Contacts with the Aegean region, while made likely by scattered objects from the Old Kingdom in the Aegean world, cannot be established with any degree of certitude.

Intellectual and religious life

The Old Kingdom is the period of the gradual development of structures of religious belief and of patterns of social behavior which remained characteristic for Egypt throughout pharaonic history. During the Old Kingdom, Egyptian culture experiences the need to find a unifying model for three independent dimensions of religious life: (1) the worship of the gods; (2) the representativeness of the king; and (3) the maintenance of the private funerary cult.

The ideology resulting from the blending of these conflicting dimensions is known to us through the Pyramid Texts, the corpus of spells and hymns dating to the 5th Dynasty; these have traditionally been taken to present the theological views of the school of thought centered around the cult of the sun god at Heliopolis. In this corpus the dead king is both Osiris, as dynastic ancestor of the reigning king (i.e. Horus), and Re, as the sun god who reappears daily at the eastern horizon, whose son is once more the king of Egypt himself. The description of the dead king’s condition in the afterworld thus comes ultimately very close to a presentation of the Egyptian religious world view. As the unifying factor of Egyptian society, the Old Kingdom monarch is at the same time creator and beneficiary of its cohesiveness. If the private funerary cult needs the king as intermediary between the individual and the funerary gods (in the Old Kingdom, especially Anubis), the king also needs Egypt and her people as a stage for the fulfillment of his functions: cosmic as sun god, mythical as Horus, and ritual as the gods’ sole priest on earth.

This model of interaction between "royal divinity" (rather than the "divine kingship" frequently displayed by other civilizations of the ancient world) and "kingly society" is best rendered by the Egyptian concept of ma ‘at, a word originally meaning "foundation," which then acquired the sense of "truth, justice,".

Fixation of linguistic and artistic canons

After experiments in the Early Dynastic period, a phase still characterized by a high degree of variety in many areas of Egyptian culture, the Old Kingdom is the period during which the canons governing Egyptian civilization throughout its historical development were uniformly fixed. In the area of language, the Pyramid Texts and the tomb autobiographies are the main textual sources for the written language of the Old Kingdom, usually called Old Egyptian. In terms of graphic system, of grammatical structures and of vocabulary, this phase of the history of the Egyptian language represents the basis for the development of the literary language of the Middle Kingdom, which is usually referred to as "Classical Egyptian." The rigid organization and the social values of Old Kingdom society also remain a source of inspiration for later Egyptian literature. Particularly noteworthy in this context are the pseudepigraphic attribution of Middle Kingdom wisdom texts to sages of the Old Kingdom (such as Ptahhotep), the mention of Old Kingdom pharaohs in the narrative literature of the Middle Kingdom (for example, Seneferu, Khufu, Hardjedef and the 5 th Dynasty origins of the Tales of Papyrus Westcar, or Seneferu in the Prophecy of Neferti), and the "classicistic" reference to the great literati of the past (including Old Kingdom figures such as Hardjedef, Imhotep, Ptahhotep in Papyrus Chester Beatty IV) in Ramesside school literature.

The same holds true for artistic conventions. In architecture and sculpture the rules of construction and decoration of temples and tombs and the canon of proportions, which will remain a constant characteristic of Egyptian civilization, are formalized. Here too, the Old Kingdom maintains its paradigmatic function throughout pharaonic history, being the era to which later periods will look back as the most successful compound of the ideological values and the intellectual features of Egyptian culture as a whole.

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