The Old Kingdom: 2650-2134 BC

   While the unification of Egypt in the Archaic period was the single most important event in Egyptian history, it was a long and drawn-out affair. Although Narmer is credited with unifying the country, all the kings of the first two dynasties had to fight constant wars against considerable opponents all along the Nile. But the third dynasty of Egyptian kings began powerfully; the second king of that dynasty, a man named Netcheriche or Djoser (or Zoser) became powerful enough to control the whole of the country. Egypt had, meanwhile, prospered and grown beyond everyone's wildest dreams. Agricultural production had been revolutionized by the building of massive irrigation projects; trade had ballooned to super-human proportions; the population had swelled exponentially. Suddenly Egypt found itself wealthy; the country literally exploded with creativity for the next several generations. This period,from 2650-2134, the Old Kingdom, was the richest and most creative period in Egyptian history. All the pyramids were built at this time; the growth in population and wealth allowed the kings to apportion vast amounts of labor and materials to these monuments to themselves.

   And the first to build one was Djoser himself. Pyramid-building is mathematically not a complex affair, but the Egyptians learned the art slowly. Djoser's pyramid, called the Step Pyramid, is not a smooth pyramid, but a series of six bases built one on top of another. A later king, Snofru, would build a pyramid closer to the classic design, but it was his son, Cheops, who built the largest of them all, the Great Pyramid of Giza. All of the enormous pyramids were built in the lifetimes of only four kings: Snofru, Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus, but they remain an icon of the richest and most powerfully creative period of Egyptian culture.
The Djoser Step Pyramid

The Djoser Step Pyramid

The Great Pyramid of Cheops

The Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza


   What do they represent? What did an Egyptian of the Fourth Dynasty see when those massive man-made mountains of stone loomed on the horizon? They represented the institution of the monarchy itself. The king was a living god. As a god he was above every other human being; his power was not given to him, it was an aspect of his divine nature. As a god, he brought life, fertility, order, stability, and rationality to the Egyptian state just as the gods brought life, fertility, order, stability,and rationality to the universe as a whole. He stood aloof and distant from the rest of humanity, and only the king had the right or the ability to join the gods after he died. The Egyptian in the street did not expect an afterlife of bliss or rebirth during the Old Kingdom; it was only in later Egyptian history that rebirth was seen as common to all humans. The pyramids represent all of these things. As monuments, they represent the inherent power of the king. As geometry, they represent the order, balance, and rationality of the universe and its incarnation in the king himself. As tombs, they represent the life after death available to the king as living god.

   There's no question that the first pyramids were almost entirely political in nature. All the pyramids were built during the lifetime of the king who would occupy it; if the king died, the pyramid would be abandoned. The very first pyramid, Djoser's Step Pyramid, has a Sed ("slaughter") court where the king would perform the Sed celebrations reconfirming his position as king.
The Djoser Pyramid Complex

The Djoser Tomb/Pyramid Complex


   The Old Kingdom lasted for four dynasties (3-6), but declined rapidly near the end of the sixth dynasty. The annual floods of the Nile, which would water the ground and bring rich soil, fell off precipitously. People began to starve, and the once proud united kingdom fell into disarray and chaos until it fell completely into the darkness of the First Intermediate Period.


Next . . .
The First Intermediate Period: 2134-2040 BC


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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-28-97