The Peak and Splendour of the Old Kingdom from the Fourth

Dynasty to the end of the Sixth Dynasty

By Zahi Hawass

The Old Kingdom, from the Fourth Dynasty to the end of the Sixth Dynasty, represents the height of ancient Egyptian culture and gave birth to the distinctive style and canons of Egyptian art and architecture. It was as if a master plan or program was devised during the Fourth Dynasty, which defined the specific forms, proportions and order of art and architecture. Each elements of official and fimerary architecture, statuary, wall reliefs, even the smaller objects of daily or fimerary use had its own program which was a systematic organization of the relevant elements intended to fulfill a set of specific functions Each element was linked inseparably to the other categories and was part of a basically unified program. The overall purpose was to confirm the perfect nature of each king's governance and to emphasize his special relationship with the divine world. This program continued to the end of ancient Egyptian history.

Our knowledge of the Old Kingdom comes chiefly from the monuments and objects found in the desert cemeteries of Giza. Abu Rawash, Zawiet el-Ayrian, Abusir, Saqqara, Dahshur and Meidum - all sites lying in the vicinity of the ancient capital of Memphis. With the rediscovery of ancient Egypt in the nineteenth century, these sites were first ransacked for portable objects, large and small, to grace foreign collections. This wholesale looting ceased after the foundation of the Egyptian Museum in 1857 when Mariette, a young protege of the Egyptian Khedive, employed vast teams of workmen to clear large cemeteries and buried temples. For the first time, major works of art stayed in Egypt. However, Mariette paid the workmen according to the objects found, and it is rumoured that, if finds were short, the workmen were quite capable of buying objects on the flourishing antiquities market, to present as their own discoveries, or even when they hit a particularly productive site, to withhold objects 'for a rainy day'!

Later archaeologists working in this area supervised their men more closely, and the provenance of objects found by Junker, Reisner, Abubakr, Fakhry and Hassan are well documented and have contributed to our detailed knowledge of this period.


The first true pyramids appeared at the very beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, having evolved from the Third Dynasty step pyramids. From the first experimental pyramids of Snofru, the first ruler of the Fourth Dynasty, they quickly evolved within a single generation into the largest stone monuments of the ancient world.

Snofru built four pyramids; two near the entrance to the Fayum at Meidwn and Seila, and two at Dahshur, the Bent pyramid and North pyramid. The Meidum pyramid seems to have been started as a step pyramid but was completed after Snofru's fifteenth year as a true pyramid. The Dahshur pyramids, which were completed later in his reign, demonstrate how quickly skills in engineering and stone working were developing. These pyramids did not stand on their own, but were part of a complex of buildings. A typical pyramid complex contains about fourteen architectural components, each with a specific function and location. The Meidum pyramid is the first example of this type of fimerary complex which continues through the Old Kingdom with little change except to accommodate a new cult or for topographic reasons.

The Giza group of pyramids, built by the descendants of Snofru, follow the same architectural program. The pyramid, sited on the high desert overlooking the valley, contained the burial of the king and was the focal point of the cult carried out at the lower and upper temples linked by a causeway. These temples contained all the necessary halls, rooms and corridors for the enactment of the rituals for the king's spirit and for the gods. In particular, they also provided the space for the statuary and wall reliefs thought necessary to enhance these cults.

Although most of these buildings suffered over the millennia from the depredations of tomb and stone robbers, exploration and clearing have brought to light some of the finest sculpture produced in Egypt. One of the earliest such discoveries was made by Mariette when Khafre's valley temple was cleared in the 1850s and the astonishing diorite statue of Khafre was found concealed in a pit.

Contemporary documents are scarce at this period, and are almost all tailored to religious and royal needs. Official records only yield bald factual statements, religious and fimerary texts are magical in nature, and officials of the Fourth Dynasty only record their titles. The economic records, which must have existed, have not been found.

The complexity and size of the Fourth Dynasty monuments, however, allows important insights into the more prosaic details of governmental organisation. The sheer volume of stone moved, especially during the first three reigns, is a powerful indication of the king's control over the vast agricultural and mineral wealth of the country, unified under a powerful civil service, which revolved around the king's immediate family. From the time of Snofru, pyramid building was the country's foremost national project. The precision of the engineering and orientation of these colossal stone structures of the Fourth Dynasty imply a profound knowledge of astronomy and mathematics for which there is as yet no written evidence. The enormous workforce required must have been drawn from villages throughout the country and organized into teams, probably based on their home district. Their housing and food supplies were probably administered through the same system of teams. The success of these mammoth building projects indicates that the necessary social organization and the administrative skills were well developed.

A few years ago, a chance discovery in the low desert margin south of the Great Sphinx was made by a rider whose horse stumbled into a hole, revealing a mud brick wall. When I sent a team to investigate, we uncovered a small densely-packed cemetery of mud brick and stone tombs of a variety of shapes and sizes: tiny, flat-topped rectangular mastabas, conical 'bee-hives', vaulted corridors and all sorts of in-between variations, often constructed with chunks of granite and basalt. Excavation showed that this was the burial ground of workmen and labourers connected with the pyramids.

A narrow flight of steps led from this cemetery up the cliff face to larger tombs, partly carved out of the rock. These proved to be the tombs of the artisans and overseers. In one such tomb, a small hole in the mud brick wall revealed a pair of gleaming eyes; four and a half thousand years ago, a group of statues had been placed in this niche and bricked up except for a small hole from which to look out.

The kings of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties built their tombs at Saqqara and Abusir. Although their pyramids are not as famous as those of Giza are, they exhibit several innovations. The last king of the Fifth Dynasty, Unas, covered the walls of the internal chambers of his pyramid with vertical columns of hieroglyphs. These are the Pyramid Texts; a series of magical spells and utterances based on solar and Osirion religious beliefs. They seek to ensure a prosperous afterlife for the King. So powerful was the magic of the written word that its presence alone made the expressed thought a future reality. The discovery of these texts, in the last years of Mariette's life opened a new chapter in the study of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs.

In addition to the decoration of the internal chambers, the temples outside the pyramids were richly decorated with wall reliefs and adorned with statues of the king and gods. At Abusir, a German team under Borchardt cleared the pyramids and temples there, finding an estimated ten thousand square meters of decorated wall reliefs. It was hardly imagined that more than eighty years later, there could be anything more to uncover. However, when the Supreme Council of Antiquities decided to clear away the wind-blown sand with a bulldozer, the driver uncovered decorated blocks from the causeway. Thinking he would not be believed, he took photographs of scenes of starving people and of teams of men dragging the pyramid capstone, and astonished everyone at the Inspectorate with his discovery. When he showed them to me, we started excavating and found more blocks with interesting scenes.


All artistic endeavours in the Old Kingdom were developed in connection with the Egyptian concept of kingship and religion. Art was thus a function of religion and the human body was celebrated as an image of the spirit within. Once a statue was animated by the ritual of 'Opening of the Mouth', it offered the possibility of housing the spirit which could then exist forever. The beauty that the Egyptian craftsman strove for was part of this function, to provide a handsome dwelling place for the spirit, and an attractive focus for veneration and offerings.

All the wall reliefs and royal statues now seen in the museum once adorned the enormous pyramid complexes. The correlation between their different programs can now only be reconstructed on paper to show the complex interaction between different art forms and the architecture for which they were produced.

The timeless appeal of Egyptian art was achieved through a combination of pleasing proportions and superb craftsmanship. All formal representations were drawn to a strict canon so that for the human figure, the ratio between different parts of the body is always the same, no matter what the size. The basic iconography was established during the Third and Fourth Dynasties, and changed little thereafter. In paintings and reliefs, the human body was drawn with the head in profile, the shoulders and chest frontally, and the lower torso and legs in profile. Such a figure, although anatomically impossible, is remarkably lifelike. The most important figures are always shown much larger, be it the king or a deity or the tomb owner. The same canon applied to figures sculpted in the round or in relief and also to the hieroglyphic script, which was often used to enhance and extend pictorial and plastic art.

Other traditions were also established at this time. For example, there are subtle differences in the depiction of male and female figures which enhance their different roles in ancient society. Men are shown striding forward in contrast with women who have one foot slightly advanced or both feet placed sedately together (see fig.). This distinction between the active, outward life of men and the quieter, house-orientated existence of women is maintained by the conventions of depicting women's skin a pale yellow colour in contrast to the deep red-brown of the men. Eyes were sometimes inlaid; the iris made of gleaming rock crystal with a hole filled with black paint for the pupil (see fig.). The effect is startling and lifelike, especially when seen in the half-light of a tomb, as was the case when the famous statues of Rahotep and Nofret were found.

The craftsmen who made the statues and wall decorations worked in teams, under the direction of a master. Young apprentices were trained in workshops and, as their skills increased, were given more complex assignments. When working on a statue, the outline was painted onto the initial stone block. Assistants then removed excess stone using copper chisels and stone mauls. The outline was repainted and the whole operation repeated until the statue was roughed out. At this stage, trained sculptors finished the body while the master completed the head.

To produce these pieces, workshops were maintained by the palace and by some temples. The temple workshops probably originally formulated the canons of art, whereas the stylistic details which changed from time to time may have originated in the royal workshops and were certainly most influenced by the idealised official portraits of the king and royal family. Works from provincial workshops can usually be distinguished by their lack of sophistication.

Royal Statues

Because they were functional, all statues were part of the architectural program. Their size, type and placement were according to a formula which integrated them into the building they adorned.

Seated and standing figures of the king are the earliest type of royal statuary. Of the first ruler of the Fourth Dynasty, only one statue survived, found by Fakhry in the valley temple of the Bent pyramid at Dahshur. It had been broken into three pieces and part of the head was missing With the help of the German Archaeological Institute, this statue had recently been restored and will now be exhibited in the Egyptian Museum.

We have been less fortunate with likenesses of Khufu, second ruler of this dynasty. Only one tiny statuette survives, found not in the vicinity of the Great Pyramid, but over five hundred kilometres south at Abydos by Flinders Petrie, often called 'the father of Egyptology'. When his workmen presented him with a headless statuette, he noticed the new break at the neck, and ordered his workmen to sift the sand and scour the local antiquities market until the head was found. Two weeks later, it was reunited with the body.

The most famous royal statue of this period is undoubtedly the diorite seated statue of Khafre, originally placed in his granite valley temple at Giza. This statue is the embodiment of divine kingship. The king seated on his elevated throne projects an elegance and majesty on a monumental scale not seen before. The anatomical details of his body enhance the impression of human strength and stability, while the divine falcon hovers behind his head as if to fly with him to the realms of the gods. This statue can also be seen as representing the triad of Osiris, Isis and Horus. Horus is the falcon, the throne is the hieroglyphic sign of the goddess Isis, and the king represents the ruler of the Underworld, Osiris.

It is estimated that the Khafre pyramid complex at Giza once contained 58 statues, of which only a few have survived, and even these are damaged. Emplacements for four colossal sphinxes, each more than 26 feet long, flank the entrances of the valley temple. Inside the entrance passages are tall niches which once held colossal statues, possibly of baboons. Within the valley temple itself were emplacements -for 23 almost life-size statues of the king, of which fragments of several have been found. In the fimerary temple, there were at least seven large statues of the king in the inner chambers and twelve more colossal ones round the open courtyard. In the Sphinx Temple, next to the valley temple, were ten more huge statues of Khafre? No other Old Kingdom pyramid temple has evidence for so many statues on such a large scale.

The largest statue of this reign is, however, the Great Sphinx. Hewn out of a knoll of rock left in the bed of the quarry from which building stones for the pyramids and temples came, the Sphinx lies in a man-made hollow at the foot of the desert hills next to the causeway and valley temple of Khafre's pyramid complex. Its face, carved in a likeness of Khafre, once had a long, braided 'false' beard, such as gods or deified kings wore. Fragments of this were found by Caviglia in 1817 and raised the question of whether the beard was part of the original design, or a New Kingdom addition. Although the fragments seem to be made from the same limestone as the body, they are only about 30cm thick with a roughened back surface, as if to assist bonding to the living rock. Only 13% of the beard survives, which makes it impossible to put it back without extensive restoration. Its replacement would also alter radically one of the best-known faces from the ancient world. Its nose seems to have been deliberately chiselled off in the 14th century, perhaps as a reaction to a wave of disasters which swept the country then - plague, famine, wars and suchlike - for which pagan images were held responsible.

The Sphinx has recently been in the news as its surface is crumbling and some of the ancient veneer stones have fallen off, as well as a chunk of bedrock from the shoulder. Recent conservation efforts have succeeded in stabilising its condition. Its very ruinous state has prompted speculation that it is really much older that the Fourth Dynasty constructions around it, but the arguments for an older date rest entirely on geological speculation. The archaeology of the site shows clearly that the Sphinx was created at the same time as the lower temple and causeway of Khafre.

Khafre's successor, Menkaure, also adorned his pyramid complex with statues. When Reisner excavated the temples, he found several intact sculptures and many fragments, including pieces of a larger-than-life alabaster statue which had stood in the central axis of the funerary temple. Some of the best preserved pieces are the group statues from the valley temple of the king in the company of the goddess Hathor and a nome-deity. The king is always shown in the white crown of Upper Egypt and the nome deities are those of Upper Egypt likewise. Perhaps they were originally placed around the central court where many fragments of others were found. These triads could also be interpreted as representing Horus, (the king), Hathor and Re (represented as the sun disc on Hathor's crown). They would then be the focus of the cult of the sun god, Re, as creator and sustainer of the world. Hathor is the daughter and wife of Re, depicted with the features of the queen who is the wife of this king and mother of the next one. These triads suggest that the Old Kingdom pyramid complexes were dedicated to the king and these deities and reinforces the close relationship between them.

Few monumental sculptures have survived from the Fifth Dynasty, but those that we have show that the skills of the early Old Kingdom had not diminished. The head of Userkaf, found in his sun temple, is of outstanding quality, as is the colossal red granite head of the same king from Saqqara.

Recent discoveries at Abusir by the Czech team under Verner, in the unfinished pyramid of Raneferef, have brought to light six small scale portrait statues of this little-known king, beautifully executed in a variety of different stones. Seventy years earlier, a German team had abandoned work at this pyramid, considering unprofitable. The Czech team went on to discover in the funerary temple statuettes of the traditional enemies of Egypt; Asiatics, Libyans and Nubians.

A remarkable life-size statue of Pepi I, made of beaten copper, has survived from the Sixth Dynasty. It, and a companion, smaller statue of Merenre, have recently been cleaned and restored. Although records show that copper statues were made as early as the second Dynasty, these are the only extant examples from the Old Kingdom.

Wall reliefs

The use of relief sculpture to adorn the walls of the temples evolved during the Old Kingdom. At first, in the time of Snofru, they are found only in the valley temple. In Khufu's time, they were used throughout the pyramid complex, and by the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, the program was fully developed in its final form.

Wall reliefs were made in a similar way to sculpture in the round. The outline was roughly sketched out on the wall in red ink, and then corrected in black ink. Masons would then remove the background, leaving the images standing out for the skilled craftsmen to carve the details.

The subject matter of the reliefs divides into four categories: A. Dominating scenes in which the king is subduing disorderly elements of the universe, such as wild animals or foreigners, or asserting his sovereignty over his kingdom. These scenes include hunting wild animals in the desert, smiting foreigners and receiving offerings from inside and outside Egypt. The dedicatory titles of the king reinforce this important part of kingship.

B. The king is identified with the deities and is depicted as Horus, the falcon god. He is always shown in the company of gods and goddesses of Egypt, and one of his principle duties is to present offerings to them.

C. Scenes of the king celebrating the jubilee festival (sed festival), showing the king in his palace with his officials and courtiers, seated in the special heb-sed chapel, and performing the dance to celebrate his renewed kingship and successful accomplishment of his obligations.

D. Scenes of the deities confirming the king's power and authority. By offering him the hieroglyphic symbols for power, authority, dominion, and a long life, they confirm the reality and effectiveness of his kingship.

These scenes were designed to confirm the perfect nature of the king's governance for ever, culminating in the scene of his own deification. Once a series of scenes had become part of the repertoire, they were repeated in later temples, not always in the same order, or even as the complete program, but they were nevertheless effective. For example, a scene from the Fifth Dynasty temple of Sahure depicts the king smiting his Libyan foes. This same scene was copied in all its details, including the names of the enemy, two hundred years later in the temple of Pepi 11. The historical reality of the event was unimportant but the repetition of the scene ensured the current king's ability to dominate the foes of Egypt.


Objects, both those used in daily life and those intended as fimerary objects follow a program which parallels the dual functions of the temple and the palace attested by wall reliefs and statuary. In the Old Kingdom temples, the southern storerooms contained the objects used to maintain the cult. Those in the northern storerooms contained the palace objects which the kings would use in the Afterlife. Other objects chosen according to a prescribed program would be placed in the burial chamber.

No royal burial of the Old Kingdom has yet been found intact. Even the subsidiary pyramids, used for the royal women, did not escape later plundering, probably during the breakdown of central power at the end of the Sixth Dynasty. However, in 1925, an unmarked shaft was discovered on the east side of the Great Pyramid. Various inscribed objects from the tomb chamber at the bottom indicate that its owner was Hetepheres, the wife of Snofru and mother of Khufu. Amongst the objects found were an empty alabaster sarcophagus, a complete set of canopic jars, and many items of furniture covered in gold and bearing her names and titles or those of Snofru. The lack of any superstructure above the shaft and the lack of a body have excited many theories. Reisner, who excavated the tomb, thought that the queen had died early in the reign of Khufu and was originally buried at Dahshur, near her husband's pyramid. At some point during Khufu's reign, her tomb was broken into and the body stolen, so her son had the remains brought to Giza, where it was buried hastily near his pyramid.

Another recent theory is that the queen was interred in the Giza shaft as an interim measure during the early years of the construction of the pyramid complex, with the intention of building a small pyramid above the burial. Instead, the small pyramids were built further to the south (to make way for the causeway of the Great Pyramid) and the queen's body was transferred, leaving her sarcophagus, furniture and canopic jars behind. A third suggestion is that the queen was originally buried in the northern small pyramid but her burial was plundered in the disturbed period at the end of the Old Kingdom. The priests of Khufu's fimerary cult removed the fimerary furniture and the empty sarcophagus and transferred it to a more secure, unmarked shaft.

Private Tombs

As dwelling places were built of mud brick, the only non-royal architecture to survive is that of the private tombs. These present less of a uniform and consistent pattern than the royal pyramid complexes, and also show more development the course of the Old Kingdom. In the early Old Kingdom, the king's family and officials were usually buried near his tomb. As the period progressed, these tombs became larger and more elaborately decorated.

Most of what we know about the history and civilization of the pyramid age comes,, not from the cities of the Old Kingdom, which were largely destroyed, but from the desert cemeteries which stretch *a a great arc from Abu Rawash in the north to Meidurn in the south. Grouped around the foot of the royal pyramids are the tombs of the citizens of that remote age, both high court luminaries like Ti and Mereruka at Saqqara, and lesser folk such as Debhen at Giza, and the workmen's tombs. At Giza, the private tombs form a veritable city of the dead laid out according to a regular plan of streets and avenues. When Mariette's men first viewed these flat-topped, oblong structures with sloping sides, they were reminded of the low mud brick seats outside their houses and hence called them 'mastaba', the Arabic word for a 'bench'; and so they have been known ever since.

The tomb-chapel, the focal point of a private burial, evolved initially from the offering stela which identified the owner's name and titles, and the 'false door' which allowed the deceased access to the world of the living. By the Old Kingdom, these two features were placed inside a tomb chapel, on the west wall. The gradual expansion of both these essential features and the need for increased wall space was the motivation for the enlargement of private tombs throughout this period. Inscriptions at first gave only names and titles; later on, they included the family and the biography of the owner.

The simple offering stela was elaborated into processions of offering bearers, depictions of official and family life, and recreation scenes. The simple, oneroomed chapel had become a labyrinth of decorated chambers and corridors by the end of this period.

The pattern of themes within the tombs runs from the general outdoor motifs, such as water scenes, agriculture, and animal husbandry, to more specific scenes of workshops and offices. The inner chambers were usually occupied with offering scenes, processions of offering bearers and animals and butchery. The actual list of offerings and the offering table were depicted in the innermost chapel next to the false door.

The shape of the tomb-chapels changed also, as they increased in size, but their basic program was flexible enough to accommodate architectural variations. Rock-cut tombs in the cliffs bordering the Nile presented different orientations, as the chapel entrance was often dictated by the terrain, rather than the architect.

Private Statuary

As with royal statues, the statues of private individuals were supposed to function as suitable receptacles for the spirit of the deceased, and were the focus for the rituals and offerings. Most of the private statues were made of limestone and wood, which were easier to fashion than the harder stones. A few wooden statues have survived, such as the famous 'Sheikh el Beled', a prosperous, middle-aged official called Ka-aper. These softer materials allowed for the depiction of very fine details of the eyes and ears and the strands of hair. A rare example of a basalt statue of a non-royal individual was recently discovered at Giza, that of Per-nyankhu, a dwarf who was depicted carrying the staff and baton of authority. The miscription on his right leg says "He who pleases his majesty every day". Recent evidence suggests that he was the father of the dwarf Seneb.

Individual statues, nearly always male, are usually standing figures (see fig.), or, less commonly, seated small chair (see fig.), or cross-legged as a scribe. They often hold a staff or some other indication of their rank. Although usually depicted in their prime, with lean muscular figures, there was no inhibition in depicting the older bureaucrats with a comfortable middle-aged spread.

Women, on the other hand, are rarely depicted as anything other than slim and youthful Even pregnancy is shown only as a discrete rounding of the otherwise flat stomach. There are few statues of single women, the best known of which is the seated figure of Nofret. However, her statue forms a pair with that of her husband, Rahotep, and should properly be considered as part of a group. The realistic way in which this high-ranking pair have been portrayed represents a sudden development 'in three-dimensional art at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty

In the pair statues, where husband and wife are shown together, the woman is usually shown as shorter and slighter than, the man, a distinction that reflects a real difference in male and female bone structures is. Children are nearly always depicted naked, sometimes with a finger to the mouth in a childlike gesture and, although shown as smaller in size, the bodily proportions are the same as those of adults.

Husband and wife are often represented together, sometimes side-by-side in a pair statue where the wife will place one arm around her husband's waist, the other arm across to touch his arm in a conventional gesture of affection and support. It has the effect of thrusting the man forward, as if to receive the offerings presented, reinforced by the convention of showing the wife with both feet together, while the husband strides out. This mirrors the real-life situation where the breadwinner supports his wife and children; likewise, the deceased will receive the offerings in the tomb on behalf of his family.

Another common arrangement of figures shows the wife at a much smaller scale, kneeling at her husband's knees, clasping his leg. At this diminutive scale, she is often not much bigger than the small children who appear at their parents' sides.

An unusual arrangement of a pair statue is that of the dwarf Seneb and his wife. The tiny legs of the dwarf are accommodated by seating him crosslegged on a bench so that he is the same height as his wife sitting next to him. In the space where the legs of a normal man would be are his two diminutive children, an attractive and clever way of drawing attention away from the dwarf s abnormalities, while fulfilling the requirements of this family group.

As well as private individual statues, the Old Kingdom artists also produced another genre, the so-called servant statues. These are small figures of men and women engaged in various every-day tasks, such as grinding grain, making beer, tending fires and baking bread, or butchering animals. It may be that placing these figures in the tomb magically ensured a food supply for the deceased. Whether they are servants or helpers, or even members of the family is not clear.

Another category of sculpture is the enigmatic 'reserve heads'. These were realistically sculpted heads which bore no indication that they had ever been attached to a body, which were placed at the entrance of the burial chamber of certain individuals during the Fourth Dynasty. Only 37 examples are known. Some of them are masterpieces of portraiture and may have been made in the royal workshops, in which case they would have been gifts from the king. Their purpose may have been to act as a substitute if the mummy or statue of the deceased were damaged or removed. A curious, distinctive feature which has not been explained convincingly is that in nearly all cases, the ears are either deliberately broken or just missing; it could be due to the rough handling of the heads by tomb robbers, or a deliberate mutilation.

The End of the Old Kingdom

When the Memphite government collapsed at the end of the Sixth Dynasty, it ushered in a century of famine and trouble. Perhaps it was the long reign of Pepi II, over ninety years according to ancient sources, that weakened the reins of the central government, or a series of low, or destructively high Nile floods which brought famine. Large scale buildings and works of art cease and it is probable that the tombs and pyramids. were entered and robbed at that time. It was not until the country was reunited under a new line of rulers from the southern city of Thebes in the Eleventh Dynasty that prosperity was restored.

BACK to The Plateau Homepage

Hit Counter