Old Kingdom (ca 2686 - 2121 BC)

The Old Kingdom, the period between ca. 2686 and 2181 BC and encompassing the 3rd to 6th Dynasties, is best known for the royal tombs in the shape of pyramids built at that time. The practice was inaugurated by king Djoser of the 3rd Dynasty, who had his architect Imhotep build the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. King Sneferu of the 4th Dynasty inaugurated the use of true pyramids by having two of them built at Dahshur, and this practice was taken to unparalleled heights at Giza, where the famous trio of pyramids was built for kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. After this, the pyramids of the 5th and 6th Dynasties located at Abusir and at Saqqara dwindled in size, though the quality of the decoration of the ever growing funerary complexes remained high (take for instance the pyramid temple of Sahure). The solar cult also reached new heights during this time, as is demonstrated by the introduction of the royal epithet 'Son of Re' under Djedefre, a title that remained in use until the end of ancient Egyptian history. The significance of the cult is also demonstrated by the large solar temples built by at least six rulers of the 5th Dynasty. Following the example of Unas, the kings of the 6th Dynasty had the walls of their burial chambers inscribed with the so-called Pyramid Texts: funerary spells to ensure the well-being of the dead king. Reports have survived from this time of journeys to far-away countries, such as Nubia and western Asia. Slowly, however, the power of the kings began to dissipate, in part probably as a result of deteriorating economic times. Also, it is well possible that there was a period of famine, the result of a series of poor harvests which in turn had been caused by insufficiently high inundations. The breakdown in central authority, whatever the causes, was used by local officials to expand their own power on a regional base, which eventually led to the collapse of the Old Kingdom.