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The Old Kingdom
3100-2181 B.C
Dynasties III-VI
The Beginning: Third Dynasty
The Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara
The first notable pharaoh of the Old Kingdom was Djoser (2630–2611 BC) of the Third Dynasty, who ordered
the construction of a pyramid (the Step Pyramid) in Memphis' necropolis, Saqqara. An important person during
the reign of Djoser was his vizier, Imhotep.
It was in this era that formerly independent ancient Egyptian states became known as nomes, ruled solely by the
pharaoh. Subsequently 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. Pharaohs were considered to be “god kings” or people favored by,
or the actual earthly version of, the gods. 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. They also
perceived themselves as a specially selected people, "as the only true human beings on earth".
Golden Age: Fourth Dynasty
The Great Sphinx of Giza in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza
The Old Kingdom and its royal power reached their zenith under the Fourth Dynasty, which began with Snofru
(2613–2589 BC). Using a greater mass of 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.
Snofru was succeeded by his son, Khufu (2589 - 2566 BC) who built the Great Pyramid of Giza. Later Egyptian
literature describes him as a cruel tyrant, who imposed forced labor on his subjects to complete his pyramid.
After Khufu's death his sons Djedefra (2528–2520 BC) and Khafra (2520–2494 BC) 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.
The later kings of the Fourth Dynasty were king Menkaura (2494–2472 BC), who built the smallest pyramid in
Giza, Shepseskaf (2472–2467 BC) and Djedefptah (2486–2484 BC).
Decline and collapse: Fifth – Sixth Dynasties
The Fifth Dynasty began with Userkaf (2465–2458 BC), who initiated reforms that weakened the Pharaoh and
central government.
Egypt's expanding interests in trade goods such as ebony, incense such as Myrrh and frankincense, gold, copper
and other useful metals inspired the ancient Egyptians to build suitable ships for navigation of the open sea.
They traded with Lebanon for cedar and traveled the length of the Red Sea to the Kingdom of Punt, which is
modern day Ethiopia and Somalia for ebony, ivory and aromatic resins. Ship builders of that era did not use
pegs (treenails) or metal fasteners, but relied on rope to keep their ships assembled. Planks and the
superstructure were tightly tied and bound together.
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 BC, 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.
Study Notes:
Sculpture of a scribe from the
fifth dynasty of Egypt