Early Dynastic Period (3150 BC – c. 2686 BC) and Old Kingdom of Egypt (2686 BC - 2181 BC)

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Early Dynastic Period
The Prehistory of Egypt spans the period of earliest human settlement to  the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt, starting  with King Menes/Narmer.  By about 3600 BC, neolithic Egyptian societies along the Nile had based their culture on the raising of crops and the domestication of animals. Shortly after 3600 BC Egyptian society began to grow and advance rapidly toward refined civilization. A new and distinctive pottery, which was related to the pottery in the Southern Levant, appeared during this time. Extensive use of copper became common during this time. The Mesopotamian process of sun-dried bricks, and architectural building principles—including the use of the arch and recessed walls for decorative effect—became popular during this time.

The Protodynastic Period in ancient Egypt was characterised by an ongoing process of political unification, culminating in the formation of a single state to begin the Early Dynastic Period. Furthermore, it is during this time that the Egyptian language was first recorded in hieroglyphs. State formation began during this era and perhaps even earlier. Various small city-states arose along the Nile. Centuries of conquest then reduced Upper Egypt to three major states: Thinis, Naqada, and Nekhen. Sandwiched between Thinis and Nekhen, Naqada was the first to fall. Thinis then conquered Lower Egypt. Nekhen's relationship with Thinis is uncertain, but these two states may have merged peacefully, with the Thinite royal family ruling all of Egypt. The Thinite kings were buried at Abydos in the Umm el-Qa'ab cemetery. Most Egyptologists consider Narmer to be both the last king of this period and the first king of the First Dynasty. He was possibly preceded over some parts of Upper Egypt by Crocodile, Iry-Hor, Ka and perhaps by the so-called "Scorpion King(s)", whose name may refer to, or be derived from, the goddess Serket, a special early protector of other deities and the rulers.

The Scorpion macehead (also known as the Major Scorpion macehead) is a decorated ancient Egyptian macehead found by British archeologists James E. Quibell and Frederick W. Green in what they called the main deposit in the temple of Horus at Hierakonpolis during the dig season of 1897/1898. It is made of limestone, is pear-shaped, and is attributed to the pharaoh Scorpion due to the glyph of a scorpion engraved close to the image of a king wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt.

The 3rd century BC Egyptian priest Manetho grouped the long line of pharaohs from Menes to his own time into 30 dynasties, a system still used today. He chose to begin his official history with the king named "Meni" (or Menes in Greek) who was then believed to have united the two kingdoms  of Upper and Lower Egypt (around 3100 BC). Narmer was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the Early Dynastic Period (c. 32nd century BCE). He is thought to be the successor to the Protodynastic pharaohs Scorpion (or Selk) and/or Ka, and he is considered by some to be the unifier of Egypt and founder of the First Dynasty, and therefore the first pharaoh of unified Egypt. The famous Narmer Palette, discovered in 1898 in Hierakonpolis, shows  Narmer displaying the insignia of both Upper and Lower Egypt, giving rise to the theory that he unified the two kingdoms in c. 3100 BC

[The Palette, which has survived five millennia in almost perfect condition, was discovered by British archeologists James E. Quibell and Frederick W. Green, in what they called the Main Deposit in the Temple of Horus at Hierakonpolis, during the dig season of 1897-1898. The Narmer Palette is part of the permanent collection of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Hierakonpolis was the ancient capital of Upper Egypt during the pre-dynastic Naqada III phase of Egyptian history.]

The Egyptians began construction of the mastabas which became models for the later Old Kingdom constructions such as the Step pyramid. Cereal agriculture and centralization contributed to the success of the state for the next 800 years.

The pharaohs of the first dynasty were buried in Abydos, including Narmer, who is regarded as founder of the first dynasty, and his successor, Aha. It was in this time period that the Abydos boats were constructed. From earliest times, Abydos was a cult centre, first of the local deity, Khentiamentiu, and from the end of the Old Kingdom, the rising cult of Osiris and Isis. Decorations in tombs throughout Egypt, such as the one displayed to the right, record journeys to and from Abydos, as important pilgrimages made by individuals who were proud to have been able to make the vital trip.

Human sacrifice was practiced as part of the funerary rituals associated with the first dynasty. The tomb of Djer (Djer was the second or third pharaoh of the first dynasty of Egypt) is associated with the burials of 338 individuals thought to have been sacrificed. The people and animals sacrificed, such as asses, were expected to assist the pharaoh in the afterlife. It appears that Djer's courtiers were strangled and their tombs all closed at the same time. For unknown reasons, this practice ended with the conclusion of the dynasty, with shabtis taking the place of actual people to aid the pharaohs with the work expected of them in the afterlife.

The tomb of Djer

Egyptians believed that the soul could live only if the body was preserved from corruption and depredation.

From the predynastic era forward, the ancient Egyptians strove to develop methods for preserving the bodies of the dead. Initially embalming methods were used, and later architectural  tombs were devised to preserve the corpse indefinitely.The body would  be placed in a deep, sealed chamber such as a Mastaba. The remains were not in contact with the dry desert sand, consequently natural mummification of the remains could not take place. In order to preserve the remains, the ancient Egyptian priests had to devise a system of artificial mummification

The mastaba was the standard type of tomb in pre-dynastic and early dynastic Egypt for both the pharaoh and the social elite. 

The ancient Egyptian city of Abydos was the location chosen for many of the cenotaphs. The royal cemetery was at Sakkara, overlooking the capital of early times, Memphis.  Today, Abydos is notable for the memorial temple of Seti I, which contains an inscription from the nineteenth dynasty known to the modern world as the Abydos King List. It is a chronological list showing cartouches of most dynastic  pharaohs of Egypt from Menes until Ramesses I, Seti's father.

The King List in Seti's Temple at Abydos

Even after pharaohs began to construct pyramids for their tombs in the Third Dynasty, members of the nobility continued to be buried in mastaba tombs. This is especially evident on the Giza Plateau, where hundreds of mastaba tombs have been constructed alongside the pyramids.


The cults of gods like Horus, Set and Neith associated with living representatives became widespread in the country.  In the Egyptian mythology, the unification of Egypt is portrayed as the falcon-god, called Horus

[Horus was born to the goddess Isis after she retrieved all the dismembered body parts of her murdered husband Osiris (murdered by Seth), except his penis which was thrown into the Nile and eaten by a catfish, and used her magic powers to resurrect Osiris and fashion a gold phallus to conceive her son. Once Isis knew she was pregnant with Horus, she fled to the Nile Delta marshlands to hide from her brother Set who jealously killed Osiris and who she knew would want to kill their son.

Isis used her magic powers to resurrect Osiris

In the Egyptian language, the word for this symbol (Horus) was "Wedjat":


To achieve immortality the Egyptian had to meet three conditions: - First, his body had to be preserved by mummification. - Second, nourishment was provided by the actual offering of daily bread and beer. - Third, magical spells were interred with him. His body doesnt rise from the dead; rather elements of his personality - his Ba and Ka - continued to hover over his body.

Old Kingdom of Egypt

The Old Kingdom is most commonly regarded as the period of time when Egypt was ruled from the Third Dynasty through to the Sixth Dynasty (2686 BCE - 2181 BCE)

Under King Djoser, the second king of the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, the royal capital of Egypt was moved to Memphis, where Djoser established his court. A new era of building was initiated at Saqqara under his reign. King Djoser's architect, Imhotep is credited with the development of building with stone and with the conception of the new architectural form
the Step Pyramid.

Menphis was the Capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom, it remained an important city throughout ancient Mediterranean history.According to legend related by Manetho, the city was founded by the pharaoh Menes (aka Narmer) around 3000 BC. It has been theorised that Menes was possibly a mythical king, similar to Romulus and Remus of Rome. Some scholars suggest that Egypt most likely became unified through mutual need, developing cultural ties and trading partnerships, although that the first capital of united Egypt was the city of Memphis is undisputed. Memphis declined briefly after the 18th dynasty with the rise of Thebes and the New Kingdom, and was revived under the Persians before falling firmly into second place following the foundation of Alexandria.

[The golden age of Memphis began with the 4th dynasty, which seems to have furthered the primary role of Memphis as a royal residence where rulers received the double crown, the divine manifestation of the unification of the Two Lands. Coronations and jubilees such as the Sed festival were celebrated in the temple of Ptah. The earliest signs of such ceremonies were found in the chambers of Djoser.
The architecture of this period was similar to that seen at Giza, royal necropolis of the Fourth dynasty, where recent excavations have revealed that the essential focus of the kingdom at that time centred on the construction of the royal tomb. All these necropoleis were surrounded by camps inhabited by craftsmen and labourers, dedicated exclusively to the construction of royal tombs.

In the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, the capital and court of the pharaoh had moved to Thebes in the south, leaving Memphis for a time in the shade. Although the seat of political power had been shifted, however, Memphis remained perhaps the most important commercial and artistic centre, as evidenced by the discovery of handicrafts districts and cemeteries, located west of the temple of Ptah.

With the invasion of the Hyksos, and their rise to power ca. 1650 BC, the city of Memphis came under siege. Following its capture, many monuments and statues of the ancient capital and were dismantled, looted or damaged by the Hyksos kings, who later carried them to adorn their new capital at Avaris.

In the New Kingdom, Memphis became a centre for the education of royal princes and the sons of the nobility. Amenhotep II, born and raised in Memphis, was made the setem the high priest over Lower Egypt during the reign of his father.

There is evidence that, under Rameses II, the city developed new importance in the political sphere through its proximity to the new capital Pi-Rameses. The pharaoh devoted many monuments in Memphis and adorned them with colossal symbols of glory.

During the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period, Memphis is often the scene of liberation struggles of the local dynasties against an occupying force, such as the Kushites, Assyrians and Persian.

In 332 BC, Alexander the Great was crowned pharaoh in the Temple of Ptah, ushering in the Hellenistic period. The city retained a significant status, especially religious, throughout the period following the takeover by one of his generals, Ptolemy.

Alexander at the Temple of Apis in Memphis, by Andre Castaigne (1898–1899).
On the death of Alexander in Babylon (323 BC), Ptolemy took great pains in acquiring his body and bringing it to Memphis. Claiming that the king himself had officially expressed a desire to be buried in Egypt, he then carried the body of Alexander to the heart of the temple of Ptah, and had him embalmed by the priests. By custom, kings in Macedon asserted their right to the throne by burying their predecessor. Ptolemy II later transferred the sarcophagus to Alexandria, where a royal tomb was constructed for its burial.The exact location of the tomb has been lost since then.

With the arrival of the Romans, like Thebes, the city lost its place permanently in favour of Alexandria, which opened onto the empire. The rise of the cult of Serapis, a syncretic deity most suited to the mentality of the new rulers of Egypt, and the emergence of Christianity taking root deep into the country, spelled the complete ruin of the ancient cults of Memphis. The city then became a quarry to build new settlements nearby, including a new capital founded by the Arabs who took possession in the 7th century. The foundations of Fustat and later Cairo, both built further north, were laid with stones of dismantled temples and ancient necropoleis of Memphis. The Temple of Apis in Memphis was the main temple dedicated to the worship of the bull Apis, considered to be a living manifestation of Ptah. It was said (in the Shabaka Stone) that it was Ptah who called the world into being, having dreamt creation in his heart, and speaking it, his name meaning opener, in the sense of opener of the mouth. Indeed the opening of the mouth ceremony, performed by priests at funerals to release souls from their corpses, was said to have been created by Ptah.

Under King Djoser, the second king of the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, the royal capital of Egypt was moved to Memphis, where Djoser established his court. A new era of building was initiated at Saqqara under his reign. King Djoser's architect and vizier, Imhotep is credited with the development of building with stone and with the conception of the new architectural form the Step Pyramid (built in 2630-2611 BC)
The Step Pyramid
The pyramid was not simply a grave in ancient Egypt. Its purpose was to facilitate a successful afterlife for the king so that he could be eternally reborn. The symbolism of the step pyramid form, which did not survive the 3rd Dynasty, is unknown, but it has been suggested that it may be a monumental symbol of the crown.

Indeed, the Old Kingdom is perhaps best known for the large number of pyramids constructed at this time as pharaonic burial places. For this reason, the Old Kingdom is frequently referred to as "the Age of the Pyramids." . Imhotep is credited with being the founder of medicine and with being the author of a medical treatise remarkable for being devoid of magical thinking; the so-called Edwin Smith papyrus containing anatomical observations, ailments, and cures. The surviving papyrus was probably written around 1700 BC but may be a copy of texts a thousand years older. This attribution of authorship is speculative, however. The location of Imhotep's self-constructed tomb was well hidden from the beginning and it remains unknown, despite efforts to find it. The consensus is that it is hidden somewhere at Saqqara.

It was in this era (third dinasty) that formerly independent ancient Egyptian states became known as nomes, under the rule of the pharaoh. The former rulers were forced to assume the role of governors or otherwise work in tax collection. Egyptians in this era worshiped their pharaoh as a god, believing that he ensured the annual flooding of the Nile that was necessary for their crops. Egyptian views on the nature of time during this period held that the universe worked in cycles, and the Pharaoh on earth worked to ensure the stability of those cycles

Fourth Dynasty: Golden Age

Seated Scribe, dated from the 4th dinasty, Louvre museum
The Old Kingdom and its royal power reached a zenith under the Fourth Dynasty, which began with Sneferu (2613-2589 BCE). Using more stones than any other pharaoh, he built three pyramids: a now collapsed pyramid in Meidum, the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, and the Red Pyramid, at North Dahshur. However, the full development of the pyramid style of building was reached not at Saqqara, but during the building of the "great pyramids" at Giza.
Bent Pyramid at Dahshur
Red Pyramid, at North Dahshur

Although the chambers and burial vaults are all present in the monument's main body, no ascending passageway has been excavated, nor is there evidence of a western entrance or diagonal portcullis, J.P Lepre is convinced that there are secret chambers waiting to be uncovered within the stone superstructure of the the Red pyramid . Considering that the remains of King Sneferu have not yet been found, it still may be possible that his sarcophagus and mummy lie hidden in his mysterious last structure. Lepre claims:

the Red pyramid remains one of the chief pyramids that may possibly contain secret chambers, not the least of which may be the true burial chamber of King Sneferu himself.

According to this inscription, Sneferu was able to capture large numbers of people from other nations, make them his prisoners and then add them into his labour force. During his raids into Nubia and Libya, he also captured cattle for the sustenance of his massive labour force. Such incursions must have been incredibly devastating to the populations of the raided countries.

Prince Rahotep, King's Son of his Body, High Priest of Re in Heliopolis was buried in Meidum with his wife Nofret.

Rahotep and Nofret

Sneferu was succeeded by his son,  Khufu (aka Cheops) (2589 - 2566 BCE) who built the Great Pyramid of Giza. After Khufu's death his sons Djedefra (2528-2520 BCE) and Khafra (2520-2494 BCE) may have quarreled. The latter built the second pyramid and (in traditional thinking) the Sphinx in Giza. Recent reexamination of evidence has suggested that the Sphinx may have been built by Djedefra as a monument to Khufu.

Khufu (aka Cheops): He is generally accepted as being the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Khufu's full name was "Khnum-Khufu" which means "the god Khnum protects me. Unlike his father, Khufu is remembered as a cruel and ruthless pharaoh in later folklore. Khufu had nine sons, one of whom, Djedefra, was his immediate successor. He also had fifteen daughters, one of whom would later become Queen Hetepheres II.
Since He is credited with building the single largest building of ancient times, it is ironic that the only positively identified royal sculpture of his was discovered not at Giza, but in a temple in Abydos during an excavation by Flinders Petrie in 1903. Originally this piece was found without its head, but bearing the pharaoh's name. Realizing the importance of this discovery, Petrie halted all further excavation on the site until the head was found three weeks later after an intensive sieving of the sand from the area where the base had been discovered.
The mass of the pyramid is estimated at 5.9 million tonnes. The volume, including an internal hillock, is roughly 2,500,000 cubic metres. Based on these estimates, building this in 20 years would involve installing approximately 800 tonnes of stone every day. Similarly, since it consists of an estimated 2.3 million blocks, completing the building in 20 years would involve moving an average of more than 12 of the blocks into place each hour, day and night. The pyramid remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years, unsurpassed until the 160-metre-tall spire of Lincoln Cathedral was completed c. 1300. The first precision measurements of the pyramid were done by Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie in 1880 and published as The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh. Almost all reports are based on his measurements

The Greeks believed that slave labour was used, but modern discoveries made at nearby worker's camps associated with construction at Giza suggest it was built instead by tens of thousands of skilled workers. Verner posited that the labor was organized into a hierarchy, consisting of two gangs of 100,000 men, divided into five zaa or phyle of 20,000 men each, which may have been further divided according to the skills of the workers.
An empty sarcophagus is located in the King's Chamber inside the pyramid though it is unclear if it had ever been used for such a purpose as burial. While his mummy has never been recovered, two impressive and well preserved solar barges or Khufu ships were discovered buried in a pit at the foot of his great pyramid at Giza in 1954 by Egyptian archaeologists.

Khafra (aka Khafre) (2520-2494 BCE) was an Egyptian pharaoh of the Fourth dynasty, who had his capital at Memphis. According to some authors he was the son and successor of Khufu, but it is more commonly accepted that Djedefre was Khufu's successor and Khafra was Djedefre's. Khafra built the second largest pyramid at Giza. The Egyptian name of the pyramid was Wer(en)-Khafre which means "Khafre is Great".
The sphinx is said to date to the time of Khafre. A temple dedicated to Haremakhet was erected by Khafre. It was located right in front of the paws of the Sphinx.
The one-metre-wide nose on the face is missing. Examination of the Sphinx's face shows that long rods or chisels were hammered into the nose, one down from the bridge and one beneath the nostril, then used to pry the nose off towards the south. The Egyptian Arab historian al-Maqr, writing in the 15th century AD, attributes the loss of the nose to iconoclasm by Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim from the khanqah of Sa'id al-Su'ada. In AD 1378, upon finding the Egyptian peasants making offerings to the Sphinx in the hope of increasing their harvest, Sa'im al-Dahr was so outraged that he destroyed the nose, and was hanged for vandalism. Al-Maqr describes the Sphinx as the "talisman of the Nile" on which the locals believed the flood cycle depended. Menkaure (or Men-Kau-Ra) was the last pharaoh of the Fourth dynasty of Egypt (c. 2620 BC 2480 BC) who ordered the construction of the third and smallest of the Pyramids of Giza. His name means "Eternal like the Souls of Re". He was the successor of Khafra. Several of his statues were unfinished upon his death suggesting the shorter reign while his pyramid is the smallest of all the three royal pyramids at Giza.
Menkaura and Queen Khamerernebty
Decline and collapse: Fifth-Eighth Dynasties

After the reigns of Userkaf and Sahure, civil wars arose as the powerful nomarchs (regional governors) no longer belonged to the royal family. The worsening civil conflict undermined unity and energetic government and also caused famines. But regional autonomy and civil wars were not the only causes of this decline. The massive building projects of the Fourth Dynasty had exceeded the capacity of the treasury and populace and, therefore, weakened the Kingdom at its roots.

The final blow was a severe drought in the region that resulted in a drastic drop in precipitation between 2200 and 2150 BCE, which in turn prevented the normal flooding of the Nile. The result was the collapse of the Old Kingdom followed by decades of famine and strife. An important inscription on the tomb of Ankhtifi, a nomarch during the early First Intermediate Period, describes the pitiful state of the country when famine stalked the land.
Pyramid Texts from Pyramid of Teti I (2345
2333) in Saqqara
The decline of the Old Kingdom arguably began during Pepi I's reign, with nomarchs (regional representatives of the king) becoming more powerful and exerting greater influence.

Pepi II (reigned c. 2278 BC-2184 BC) (2284 BC - 2184 BC) was a pharaoh of the Sixth dynasty in Egypt's Old Kingdom. His throne name, Neferkare (Nefer-ka-Re), means "Beautiful is the Ka of Re". He succeeded to the throne at age six, after the death of Merenre I, and is generally credited with having the longest reign of any monarch in history at 94 years (c. 2278 BC- 2184 BC) although this figure has been disputed by some Egyptologists who favour a shorter reign of not much more than 64 years Pepi II carried on in ways very similar to his predecessors. Copper and turquoise were mined at Wadi Maghareh in the Sinai, and alabaster was quarried from Hatnub. He is mentioned in inscriptions in Byblos in ancient Palestine. Increasing wealth and power appears to have been handed over to high officials during Pepi II's reign. Large and expensive tombs appear at many of the major nomes of Egypt, built for the reigning nomarchs, the priestly class and other administrators. Nomarchs were traditionally free from taxation and their positions became hereditary. Their increasing wealth and independence led to a corresponding shift in power away from the central royal court to the regional nomarchs. A statue which is now in the Brooklyn Museum, depicts Queen Ankhenesmerire II with her son Pepi II on her lap. Pepi II wears the royal nemes headdress and a kilt. He is shown at a much smaller scale than his mother. This difference in size is atypical because the king is usually shown larger than others. The difference in size may refer to the time period when his mother served as a regent.
Queen Ankhenesmerire II with her son Pepi II on her lap
This was the end of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, a prelude to the roughly 200-year span of Egyptian history known as the First Intermediate Period

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