Old Kingdom

by Porin Šćukanec Rezniček

The Old Kingdom in Ancient Egypt (c. 2686-2125) is most famous as the age of monumental pyramid construction, but it also represents a period of strong centralised state rule across the country.

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Figure 1: The exterior of the mastaba of Khentika.

The centre of political power during the Old Kingdom was Memphis and the cemeteries found within its vicinity preserve some of the best known monuments of the period, such as the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Step Pyramid of Saqqara. The Step Pyramid of king Djoser is comprised of six mastabas (a low bench-shaped superstructure) built on top of each other and reflects the first attempt at pyramid construction. Over a period of 100 years the pyramid shape developed further until the form we recognize today in the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza.

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Figure 2: Interior of the mastaba of Khentika.

The burial grounds around Memphis were not reserved for royal use. Just like at Abydos, the elite were permitted to construct their tombs around those of their rulers.  The usual form of these tombs was the mastaba (figure 1). In 1951, M.R. Apted and T.G.H. James excavated one of these monuments, belonging to Khentika, as part of an EES project. The mastaba is next to the pyramid of Teti, first king of the Sixth Dynasty and its context and interior decoration reflect Old Kingdom style.

The decorations of these monuments preserve the earliest monumental inscriptions which begin a development which will last for several millennia. The Pyramid Texts from the pyramids of 5th and 6th Dynasty rulers reflect the growing popularity of funerary texts and development of complex funerary beliefs. The mastabas of Khentika and Ptahhetep (see below) also had numerous inscriptions and reliefs covering their walls representing art of the period, depicting scenes of everyday life and ritual practice.

The physicality of the king’s power can be seen to diminish towards the end of the Old Kingdom. Mastabas begin to rival royal tombs with their architecture, size, and detailed artistic depictions. The elaborately decorated mastaba of Ptahhetep excavated by Norman de Garris Davies in 1898 as part of an EEF mission reflects this growth of elite status. Thus, it would seem that while the power of the king diminished, that of his courtier and regional officials increased. This steady shift of power resulted in the eventual collapse of the Old Kingdom and the rise of regional rulers during the First Intermediate Period.

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Figure 3: Ptahhetep shown as the largest figure being offered food, drink and other gifts.

Further Reading

Davies, No. de G. 1900. The mastaba of Ptahhetep and Akhethetep at Saqqarah: Part I. The chapel Ptahhetep and the Hieroglyphs. London: The Egypt Exploration Fund.

James, T.G.H. and Apted, M.R. 1953. The Mastaba of Khentika called Ikhekhi. London: The Egypt Exploration Society.

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