When did the Old Kingdom start and finish?

The Old Kingdom is rightly considered to have been a golden age of technological and artistic achievement, perhaps best exemplified by the construction of the iconic pyramids. However, the term “Old Kingdom” would have meant nothing to the ancient Egyptians as it was an invention of nineteenth century historians seeking to describe the “emerging state gradually developing the definitive characteristics of pharaonic culture” (Malek).

Wilkinson notes that the distinction between the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom is a “scholarly convenience with little ancient relevance”. As a result, it should come as no surprise that the beginning and end of this period have been the subject of much debate.

It is often proposed that the Old Kingdom began at the start of the third dynasty, largely because of the outstanding achievement of Djoser in building the step pyramid – the first edifice completed entirely in stone. Clayton and Bard give the same approximate date for the beginning of this period as 2686BC, the start of the reign of Sanakhte. It is, however, notable that we know little about Sanakhte and the designation of his reign as the beginning of the Old Kingdom owes more to the dynastic divisions established by Manetho than to the events of his ephemeral reign.

Malek comments that the inherent weaknesses of the dynastic structure instituted by Manetho are particularly evident with the chronology of the Old Kingdom, and, although it is possible to suggest reasons for many of the breaks, they do not necessarily relate to a break in continuity. That being the case, if the achievements of Djoser heralded the onset of a golden age, surely this age should be dated to his reign?

The importance of the reign of Djoser was recognised by later Egyptians. His title “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” is the only one written in red in the Turin Canon and reference to him in the Famine Stela (while of dubious historical authenticity) confirms that the Ptolemaic Egyptians considered him to be of great importance. However, the step pyramid complex of Djoser, while undoubtedly a great innovation, also included many typical early dynastic elements (such as the crescent shaped stones echoing those on the Namer Macehead, and the ivory label of Den) combined in a different manner and constructed in stone. This point is conceded by Malek who notes that the step pyramid was initially planned as a rectangular mastaba – the typical tomb of an early dynastic king. It is also notable that it is in fact Djoser’s Horus Name (Netjerikhet) which is recorded on this monument – another link with the early dynastic kings who are also referred to by their Horus names in their tombs.

Other commentators consider the fourth dynasty to be the beginning of the Old Kingdom. For example Lehner confirms the beginning of the Old Kingdom as the fourth dynasty circa 2575 BCE and Wilkinson has commented that as our understanding of the Early Dynastic Period improves the similarities between the first three dynasties become more obvious, and concludes that Sneferu was the first king of the Old Kingdom.

It is undeniable that Sneferu built on a grand scale constructing at least two but probably three large pyramids including the first “true” pyramid (the “red” pyramid of Dashur) and may also have been responsible for at least one of the small step pyramids which are dotted along the River Nile. His successors Khufu, Khafre, Djedefre, and Menkaure followed suit building huge pyramid complexes at Giza and Abu Rawash. Building works on this scale would have required an army of administrators, craftsmen, and manual labourers combined with the wealth and willpower to bring these projects to fruition.

If the Old Kingdom is to be characterised as the Age of the Pyramid, the fourth dynasty was its apex with the pyramids of the fifth and sixth dynasties being notably less grand. Furthermore, the tombs of fourth dynasty officials in Saqqara, Maidum, Dashur, and Giza were constructed to a remarkably high standard and encompass many of the subjects considered to form the repertoire of classic Old Kingdom art.

The fourth dynasty also set the scene for the meteoric rise of the sun god, Ra. The details of early dynastic religion may be hard to pin down, but it is proposed that stellar mythology was to some degree replaced by solar theology during this period. Sneferu himself is described as a “solar innovator” but the development of solar theology was not confined to his reign.

Djedefre was the first pharaoh to add the epithet “Son of Ra” which was adopted by the majority of his successors. One aspect of this was the change in the format of the funerary complex of the king during the fourth dynasty. Robins suggests that the mortuary complex was no longer a stage for the re-enactment of the “territorial rituals of kingship” but rather a statement of the connection between the king and the sun god, Ra. Accordingly, on balance I would also mark the beginning of the Old Kingdom with the rule of Sneferu in the fourth dynasty.

There is also significant evidence of continuity between the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom. The last king of the second dynasty and the first two rulers of the third dynasty were probably all related and the royal palace remained at Ineb-Hedj (Memphis). Furthermore, Sneferu was the son-in-law of Huni so there was no major break in the royal succession at the end of either dynasty. Developments in art and architecture at this time were also continuous. The statue of Khasekhemwy (second dynasty) represents an early example of fully formed pharaonic art and architectural innovation did not cease with the development of the true pyramid during the fourth dynasty.

It is therefore interesting that there seem to be a number of experts who either cannot decide whether the third or fourth dynasty should be considered as the beginning of the Old Kingdom, or perhaps want the best of both worlds. Kemp appears to place the start of the period at the beginning of the third dynasty (c2686 BCE) confirming that by this time the state had “reached levels of scale and competence marking the beginning of the plateau of achievement”. However, in an earlier work he provides the approximate dates c2695-2160 for the Old Kingdom, placing the third dynasty firmly in the Early Dynastic Period. Similarly, Malek gives the approximate date of 2686 BCE as the start of the third dynasty and the Old Kingdom, but in an earlier joint work with Baines proposes that the fourth dynasty (c2575 BCE) marks the beginning of the Old Kingdom.

Manley suggests that the classic elements of pharaonic culture (as characterised by kingship, art and religion) developed during the first, second and third dynasties, implying that the fourth dynasty saw the emergence of the Old Kingdom, but then somewhat confusingly asserts that the Old Kingdom began at around 2650BC, the date he confirms as the beginning of the third dynasty.

Robins characterises the third dynasty as “a further period of transition” and a “link between the formative period of the first two dynasties and the classic pyramid age of the Old Kingdom initiated in the fourth dynasty” but in her chronology places the third dynasty in the Old Kingdom with the approximate start date of 2649 BCE.

The end of the Old Kingdom causes similar problems. Experts are divided over whether the death of Pepi II or the end of the eighth dynasty constituted the termination of the period.

Manley notes that the construction of the pyramid complex of Pepi II at Saqarra was the last great monumental project of the Old Kingdom. He comments on the “undistinguished” court cemetery surrounding it as further confirmation of decline and suggests that following the reign of Pepi II the centralised government failed and power devolved to the provinces (c2150BCE). Kemp concurs noting that following the sixth dynasty (c2181 BCE) the state “faltered” and there was around one hundred and fifty years “provincial assertion and civil war”.

Clayton regards Pepi II as the last Old Kingdom ruler but although his reign is given an end date of 2184 BCE, he also confirms the end of the period as c2181 BCE. It is also notable that the Saqqara list ends the sixth dynasty with the reign of Pepi II and then jumps to Montuhotep II of the eleventh dynasty who re-unified Egypt following the First Intermediate Period.

Malek notes that although we may have little information on the shadowy “kinglets” of the eighth dynasty, they had at least a theoretical right to call themselves Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt and still ruled from Memphis. Accordingly, he suggests that the Old Kingdom ended with the close of the eighth dynasty at around 2160BC. In his earlier work with Baines the end of the Old Kingdom is ascribed the date c2150. Although ten years earlier, this date is still after the sixth dynasty which is proposed to end in 2175 BCE40. Lehner and Robins agree that the end of the eighth dynasty marks the end of the Old Kingdom (c2134 BCE), however, Lehner also describes the pyramid of Qakare Iby as a monument of the First Intermediate Period.

The Egyptians were certainly aware of the differences between what we call the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period. Van de Meiroop notes that the Intermediate Period is always characterised negatively in Middle Kingdom literature. He warns that these descriptions cannot be taken to be historically accurate (as they once were) but the fact that the difference was remarked upon confirms that this break is not only in the conception of modern historians.

The Turin Canon begins with the rule of the gods and spirits and then lists the kings from Menes in a continuous flow until the end of the fifth dynasty when there is a break and a total of reigns to date is inserted. A further break is placed at the end of the eighth dynasty. Malek proposes that the breaks in the Turin Canon indicate the change in location of the capital and palace which would imply such a change at the end of the fifth dynasty as well as the end of the eighth dynasty. Thus, this text does not unambiguously support the conclusion that the Old Kingdom ended with the eighth dynasty, but the fact that many of the rulers of the intermediate period are omitted confirms at least that for the ancient Egyptians (as for modern scholars) a major break was recognised.

The Abydos kings list confirms the names of a series of eighth dynasty kings and then jumps to the eleventh dynasty. However, on balance, I think that the death of Pepi II of the sixth dynasty was at least the beginning of the end of the unified, powerful state which was capable of building huge monuments, so it is probably reasonable to end the Old Kingdom with the demise of the sixth dynasty.

  • J Baines and J Malek (2000) Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt
  • P Clayton (1994) Chronicle of the Pharaohs
  • B.J. Kemp (1991) Ancient Egypt, Anatomy of a Civilisation
  • B.J. Kemp (2005) “Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period” in Ancient Egypt a Social History edited by G.B. Trigger, B.J. Kemp D.O’Connor and A.B. Lloyd
  • M Lehner (1997) The Complete Pyramids of Ancient Egypt
  • M. Lichtheim (1975) Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I
  • J. Malek (2003) “The Old Kingdom” in Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by I Shaw
  • B. Manley (1996) The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt
  • G. Robins (2008) The Art of Ancient Egypt
  • I. Shaw (2003) “Introduction” to Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by I Shaw
  • T.A.H. Wilkinson (1999) Early Dynastic Egypt
  • M. Van de Meiroop (2011) A History of Ancient Egypt

Copyright J Hill 2010