The Old Kingdom which was
from about 2755-2255 BC, spanned five
centuries of rule by the 3rd through the
6th dynasties. The capital was in the
north, at Memphis, and the ruling
monarchs held absolute power over a
strongly unified government. Religion
played an important role, as recorded in
Egyptian mythology. In fact, the
government had evolved into a theocracy,
wherein the pharaohs, as the rulers were
called, were both absolute monarchs and,
possibly, gods on earth.
A Golden Age
The 3rd Dynasty was the first of the
Memphite houses, and its second ruler,
Zoser, or Djoser, who reigned about
2737-2717 BC, emphasized national
unity by balancing northern and southern
motifs in his mortuary buildings at
Saqqara. His architect, Imhotep, used
stone blocks rather than traditional mud
bricks in the complex there, thus creating
the first monumental structure of stone. Its
central element, the Step Pyramid, was
Zoser's tomb. In order to deal with affairs
of state and to administer construction
projects, the king began to develop an
effective bureaucracy. In general, the 3rd
Dynasty marked the beginning of a golden
age of cultural freshness.
The 4th Dynasty began with King
Snefru, whose building projects included
the first of the true pyramids at Dahshur
(south of Saqqara). Snefru, the earliest
warrior king for whom extensive
documents remain, campaigned in Nubia
and Libya and was active in the Sinai.
Promoting commerce and mining, he
brought prosperity to the kingdom. Snefru
was succeeded by his son Khufu (or
Cheops), who built the Great Pyramid at
Giza. Although little else is known of his
reign, that monument not only attests to
his power but also indicates the
administrative skills the bureaucracy had
gained. Khufu's son Redjedef, who
reigned about 2613-2603 BC, introduced
the solar element (Ra, or Re) in the royal
titulary and the religion. Khafre (or
Chephren), another son of Khufu,
succeeded his brother to the throne and
built his mortuary complex at Giza. The
remaining rulers of the dynasty included
Menkaure, or Mycerinus, who reigned
about 2578-2553 BC. He is known
primarily for the smallest of the three
large pyramids at Giza.
Under the 4th Dynasty, Egyptian
civilization reached a peak in its
development, and this high level was
generally maintained in the 5th and 6th
dynasties. The splendor of the engineering
feats of the pyramids was approximated in
every other field of endeavor, including
architecture, sculpture, painting,
navigation, the industrial arts and
sciences, and astronomy; Memphite
astronomers first created a solar calendar
based on a year of 365 days. Old
Kingdom physicians also displayed a
remarkable knowledge of physiology,
surgery, the circulatory system of the
body, and antiseptics.

Beginning of Decline
Although the 5th Dynasty
maintained prosperity with extensive
foreign trade and military incursions into
Asia, signs of decreasing royal authority
became apparent in the swelling of the
bureaucracy and the enhanced power of
nonroyal administrators. The last king of
Pyramid of Unas
the dynasty, Unas, who reigned about
2428-2407 BC, was buried at Saqqara,
with a body of religious spells, called
Pyramid Texts, carved on the walls of his
pyramid chamber. Such texts were also
used in the royal tombs of the 6th
Dynasty. Several autobiographical
inscriptions of officials under the 6th
Dynasty indicate the decreasing status of
the monarchy; records even indicate a
conspiracy against King Pepi I, who
reigned about 2395-2360 BC, in which
the ruler's wife was involved. It is believed
that during the later years of Pepi II, who
reigned about 2350-2260 BC, power may
have been in the hands of his vizier (chief
minister). Central authority over the
economy was also diminished by decrees
of exemption from taxes. The nomes
(districts) were rapidly becoming
individually powerful, as the
nomarchs—governors of the
districts—were beginning to remain in
place rather than being periodically
transferred to different nomes.
First Intermediate Period
The 7th Dynasty marked the
beginning of the First Intermediate period.
As a consequence of internal strife, the
reigns of this and the succeeding 8th
Dynasty are rather obscure. It is clear,
however, that both ruled from Memphis
and lasted a total of only 25 years. By this
time the powerful nomarchs were in
effective control of their districts, and
factions in the south and north vied for
power. Under the Heracleopolitan 9th and
10th dynasties, the nomarchs near
Heracleopolis controlled their