A brief history of the Old Kingdom

King Sahure and a nome god
King Sahure and a nome god

The Age of the Pyramids—Egypt during the Old Kingdom—is surely one of the most glorious periods in human history. Its monuments are among the most celebrated, and what remains of their decoration provides valuable information not only about the magnificent life-styles of the pharaohs but also about the daily lives and occupations of the humble fellahs, or peasants. Despite all this evidence, however, it remains especially difficult to present a “historical” overview of the Old Kingdom.

For one thing, the ancient Egyptians’ cosmos is the product of conceptions very different from our own; for another, their notion of the passage of time was radically different from ours. The chroniclers of each reign felt no need to establish a temporal succession of events, but rather saw it as their duty to simply mark the individual years. Thus, one typically finds mentions only of day X of season Y of sovereign Z (“day 4 of the shemu season of King Pepi,” for example). The woefully incomplete Palermo Stone (cat. no. 115) is the sole record from the earliest years that attempts to cover a broad period, providing the annals of rulers from Aha, the first king of the First Dynasty, to Neferirkare, the third ruler of the Fifth Dynasty; fragmentary details have recently been added to this information by the so-called Stone of South Saqqara. After these two documents in stone, the next record we have dates to Ramesside times: a fragmentary papyrus written during the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1212 B.C.E.), which was acquired by the Museo Egizio in Turin, where Jean-François Champollion was the first to reconstruct its Canon of Kings. Similar lists have been retrieved from the Chamber of Ancestors at Karnak, now at the Louvre, and from the temple of Seti I at Abydos. Much later, when the Ptolemies needed to secure their claim to the throne, they revived the cult of the rulers, and about 280 B.C.E. an Egyptian priest, Manetho, undertook to translate into Greek the list of kings preserved in the archives of the temple at Sebennytos. Excerpts from Manetho’s manuscript have survived in the texts of various chroniclers, including Sextus Julius Africanus and Syncellus.

While Manetho’s text classifies the sequence of pharaohs into “dynasties,” these were determined more by the geographical center of power or by affinities of other sorts than by family lineage. It was not until the 1840s that the great Prussian scholar Karl Richard Lepsius grouped the chief dynasties into the Old Kingdom (Third to Sixth Dynasty), Middle Kingdom (Eleventh to Twelfth Dynasty), and New Kingdom (Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasty). In this terminology, inspired by Baron von Bunsen, we can detect the influence of the tradition of the Holy Roman Empire. The French school of Egyptologists, led by Auguste Mariette, did not at first adopt this terminology, but eventually, for the sake of convenience, the entire community of Egyptologists came to accept the classification of pharaonic history into thirty-one dynasties, further divided into the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, which are separated by “intermediate” periods. Nonetheless, differences—even important ones—still exist among experts.

To contemporary minds, chronology implies, at the very least, the establishing of dates.1 Yet in the study of early periods, much uncertainty persists concerning dating, despite data obtained from carbon 14 and thermo-luminescence tests. The determination of relatively discrete time frames, which these methods implicitly strive for, itself rests on the trustworthiness of their results and on parameters that are fairly broad. Given the fragmentary and ambiguous nature of such evidence, the syntheses that periodically flow from the pens of Egyptologists, including those who are otherwise extremely competent, are really only tentative, even in the realm of economic and social history.

Nowadays we agree that the Old Kingdom covers approximately five centuries (about 2700-2200 b.c.e.), although there is some question concerning whether the Third Dynasty should be included in that period, with five kings (or even eight or nine, following the various versions of Manetho). Its first king, Zanakht, who bore the Horus name Nebka, was probably descended from Khasekhemui, the last pharaoh of the Second Dynasty, who had established himself in Upper Egypt. But the kings of the new dynasty settled at the boundary between Upper and Lower Egypt, at a place later known as Memphis. This city remained the major center for subsequent dynasties, and the Old Kingdom can in fact be called the Memphite Kingdom.

The decisive reign of the Third Dynasty was that of Nebka’s successor, Djoser, whose name is written in red ink in the Turin Canon. Contemporary sources give him the Horus name Netjeri-khet (Divine of Body), which perhaps should rather be read as Netjeri-er-khet (More Divine than the Body), “the Body” referring to the assembly of other gods. The name Djoser (Holy One or Magnificent), by which he is known to history, is his nebti name, the one that identifies him as the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, and is not found before the Middle Kingdom. Djoser’s renown was immense, as was that of his architect and prime minister, Imhotep (He Who Comes in Peace). During his reign, large-scale stone architecture was perfected: his funerary complex of fifteen hectares (fig. 1) included the Step Pyramid, which was more than sixty meters high, hewn-limestone walls, and a series of superb reliefs. With Djoser, Egyptian civilization underwent an evolutionary leap, as pharaonic Egypt broke free of the cultural stops and starts of earlier periods: for the next three millennia, the art of the Nile Valley would continue to be as powerful and elegant as that developed in Djoser’s time. The Egyptians themselves were very much aware of the importance of this turning point and, in the Ptolemaic period, made a god of Imhotep, whom the Greeks called Imouthes and equated with Asclepius, their god of medicine. No definitive historical evidence remains from Djoser’s glorious reign. The famous Famine Stela, carved on a boulder on Sehel Island, purportedly of this time, is a late forgery devised by the priests of the god Khnum to buttress their claims to the lands of Lower Nubia.

The name of Djoser’s successor remained unknown until 19 51, when vestiges of a huge rectangular enclosure with the leveled foundation of an unfinished step pyramid similar to Djoser’s were found on the Saqqara plateau. Jar sealings discovered at the site were inscribed for a king called the Horus Sekhemkhet, to whom a relief cut on a cliff near the Wadi Maghara in Sinai should also be assigned.

After Sekhemkhet’s brief reign (seven years according to the Manethonian tradition), next to nothing is known of the remainder of the Third Dynasty. However, there must have been some progress in the development of Egyptian philosophy, some enrichment of its pantheon and religious rites. Clearly, the foundations of monarchy were firmly established during this time, and the pharaoh, a god-king, ultimately took his place at the peak of a pyramidal structure; below him were the royal court and the administrative officials of a highly stratified society. Thus were worked out the mechanics of a cosmic institution whose balanced structure bound Egypt to the rest of the universe under the aegis of Maat, goddess of world order and justice.

The period from about 2600 b.c.e. until about 2200 b.c.e.—the Fourth through the Sixth Dynasty—witnessed a succession of universally known and recognized accomplishments. Giza and Saqqara, their royal pyramids, nobles’ mastabas filled with stunning reliefs, and famous statues of rulers and scribes are the cultural legacy of all humankind. While the daily lives of both the nobles and the peasants of the period remain astonishingly alive through such works, the history of Egypt during these centuries continues to be obscure. The number of sovereigns is very much a matter for discussion, and the exact length of their respective reigns—the one element that would make it possible to write a continuous chronology in the modern sense—is quite often unclear. For instance, was Snefru, the first king of the Fourth Dynasty, a son of Huni, the last of the Third? Did he reign for four decades, as graffiti in a mortuary temple at Meidum would have us believe, even though the Turin Canon accords him twenty-four years and one version of Manetho gives twenty-nine?

From the Middle Kingdom onward, tradition has considered He of the Two Ladies Snefru, also called the Horus Neb-maat, an excellent pharaoh. Recent studies indicate that he reconfigured the step pyramid of Huni at Meidum by adding a revetment, transforming it into a true pyramid, the first of its kind. Reflecting the influence of the solar religion, the pyramid at Meidum—and henceforth all such structures—was considered, in some sense, a petrification of the sun’s rays. Snefru next turned his attention fifty kilometers north, to Dahshur, where he built two pyramids. The first is called the Bent Pyramid, by reason of its unusual shape. Its lower portion has a slope of 54 degrees 27 minutes, while its upper portion is inclined 43 degrees 21 minutes. It attains a height of 105 meters instead of the 138 meters that was originally intended. The reason for this change in the angle of inclination is not known, but it is so beautifully executed that the line separating the two slopes is almost perfectly horizontal. The interior had two burial chambers, another inexplicable feature of this enigmatic monument. The second of Snefru’s pyramids at Dahshur, north of the first, has a base measuring a little more than 220 meters on each side. This dimension is comparable to that of the baseline of his son Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza, but Snefru’s second pyramid is not as high (104 meters instead of 146). Although it looks squatter than Khufu’s monument, it easily dominates the vast desert at the southern limit of the Memphite necropolis. The use of corbeling in its funerary apartments, which consist of two antechambers and a main room, created a vaulted ceiling that was more than twelve meters high.

Snefru’s monuments dominate by their sheer mass and by the technical perfection of their construction, yet, again, scarcely anything is known of his reign. He built boats for the transport of goods and for military expeditions to Nubia, Sinai, and Libya. The brilliant court life is evoked in the celebrated Westcar Papyrus, written at a later period, and reflected in the furniture and jewelry of Queen Hetep-heres I (cat. nos. 31-33), which were buried at the bottom of a very deep shaft located east of her son Khufu’s pyramid at Giza.

Snefru’s successor, Khufu, is mentioned in Herodotus as Cheops, the Greek form of his name. In hieroglyphs he is called Khufu, an abbreviation of Khnum-khuef-wi (May the God Khnum Protect Me); the reading of his Horus name, transcribed as Medjedu, is only conjectural. Modern historians think the prince must have been about forty when he assumed power. The Turin Canon gives twenty-three years as the length of his reign, but Herodotus gives fifty and Manetho sixty-three. Among the scant details known concerning his reign is the fact that expeditions were conducted outside the Nile Valley—to Sinai in quest of turquoise and copper; to the deserts of Nubia, northwest of Abu Simbel; to the Wadi Hammamat to exploit sources of green breccia; and to Lebanon for cedar logs. Vases bearing Khufu’s cartouche have been found at Byb-los. The Palermo Stone records information about events from a mere four years of his reign, including the height of one inundation and an uncertain reference to the making of statues of the king, only one of which has unquestionably come down to us—a modest example in ivory nine centimeters high, now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo (JE 36143). On the other hand, the perfection of artistic production during the period is attested by many statues of dignitaries and the decorated walls of their mastabas, such as the depictions of Snefru’s son and daughter-in-law, Ra-hotep and Nofret (fig. 31), and the famous painting of geese from Meidum, all now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo (CG 1742).

The crowning achievement of Khufu’s reign is the celebrated pyramid at Giza, called the Great Pyramid, 146 meters in height on a base 230 meters per side and with an amazing ascending corridor (fig. 2). Admired throughout the centuries, it remains the focus of endless speculation and mystical-fantastical interpretations by those dedicated to the study of pyramids.

Khufu himself has been detested as harsh and cruel in Egyptian folk memory ever since the First Intermediate Period, when the authority of the central power came into question. He had a large family, with many wives and more than twelve children. Prince Kawab, the eldest son of his first wife, Meret-ites, died before his father.

His second son, Djedefhor or Har-djedef, was remembered as a sage author of moral precepts; his name was associated with that of Imhotep, and he was the object of a similar type of deification. Although he never ruled, his name is written within a cartouche in the Wadi Hamma-mat together with that of Baufre, his brother.

When Khufu died, the royal succession was so hotly contested that work was abruptly interrupted on the mastabas of many royal princes. Out of these palace intrigues, Djedefre emerged the victor, but he was considered a usurper according to some traditions and thus his name was excluded from the royal lists. Djedefre or Radjedef, the Horus Kheper (He Who Evolves), was the husband of Khufu’s eldest daughter, Princess Hetep-heres. He reigned for only a short period—eight years is the span given in the Turin Canon—just long enough to decide to build a pyramid outside Giza, on a superb site overlooking the apex of the Delta near the present-day village of Abu Rawash. His funerary complex remains unfinished, and the pyramid itself seems not to have been completed; only a superb cutting, intended to serve as the burial chamber, remains. Excavations at the beginning of the twentieth century also uncovered a head of the king in red quartzite (cat. no. 54). One of the masterpieces of Egyptian art, it is now in the Louvre, along with numerous statue fragments. Excavation at the site has recently resumed under a Franco-Swiss team.

The return to the plateau at Giza was to be made by Khafre, another son of Khufu. Perhaps his claim to the throne was through his wife Mer-si-ankh, but many princesses bore that name, including a younger daughter of Khufu and a daughter of Queen Hetep-heres II, the widow, it seems, of both Kawab and Djedefre. Known as Chephren in Herodotus, the ruler was also identified as Ra-khaef or He of the Two Ladies Khafre, the Horus User-ib (Powerful of Heart). It was during his reign that the cartouche bearing the king’s actual birth name, or Son of Re name, preceded by the epithet “Netjer nefer” (Perfect God), first appeared in the royal titulary. Although renowned for his pyramid and for the Great Sphinx, cut from the living rock near his valley temple, Khafre is actually little known: nothing concerning his period of kingship is preserved on the Palermo Stone, no length of reign is given in the Turin Canon, and Manetho’s information concerning him is not credible.

Khafre’s pyramid is only slightly less important than Khufu’s. While its base is smaller by fifteen meters and its height by four, its steeper slope makes it appear somewhat higher than Khufu’s. In the valley temple, built of enormous blocks of granite and alabaster, Mariette political, and economic events. During this period, the form of the royal titulary was also regularized as five elements, two of which were enclosed in cartouches, one giving the name of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt and the other the Son of Re name—in this case, Neferirkare-Kakai.

The name of his successor, Shepseskare (Distinguished Is the Ka of Re), occurs on only one small item from his reign. The Czech excavations conducted at Abusir have given us a rich harvest of material for the next king, Neferefre, or Raneferef, including papyrus archives, statues, and statuettes.

With regard to historical events, much more has long been known about Niuserre, the Horus Iset-ib-tawi (Darling of the Two Lands), thanks to his funerary complex at Abusir and his sun temple at Abu Ghurab. His rule lasted approximately thirty years, and one of his daughters married a vizier named Ptah-shepses, whose fine mastaba (fig. 4) near the royal pyramid has been restored. One room in Niuserre’s sun temple is famous: the Weltkammer, or Room of the Seasons (cat. nos. 119, 120), which was decorated with reliefs depicting personifications of the seasons of the Egyptian year. Behind the representation of each season there is a scene showing, in sequence, the major activities of a day during the season, including depictions of animals mating and giving birth. These paeans to nature also represent the nomes, or provinces, bringing their gifts to the creator god Re. Niuserre’s funerary complex has yielded statues of the king and important reliefs that, along with other material, attest to the king’s activities outside the Nile Valley in Syria-Palestine, Libya, and Sinai. The temple at Byblos contained objects with his name, and his cartouche appears with those of Userkaf, Sahure, and Neferirkare on jar sealings at Buhen in Nubia, at the downstream limit of the second cataract.

Fig. 3 . The pyramids of Abusir
Fig. 3. The pyramids of Abusir

The reign of Menkauhor seems to have been brief. While it is known that the priests of his funerary cult were active as late as the New Kingdom, neither the sun temple of this ruler nor his pyramid has been definitively located. Would it be productive to search for the latter at North Saqqara?

The eighth king of the Fifth Dynasty was Isesi, the Horus Djed-khau (Permanent of Appearances), whose Son of Re name was Djedkare (Permanent Is the Ka of Re) and whose reign is said to have exceeded forty years. In a rupture with previous reigns, he located his funerary complex (which has still not been fully excavated or published) at South Saqqara. Isesi’s active foreign policy is indicated by the fact that his name appears in Sinai, at Byblos, and at Buhen, ancient gateway to Upper Nubia, in present-day Sudan.

The Turin Canon and Manetho suggest that the Fifth Dynasty closed with the Horus Wadj-tawy (He Who Makes the Two Lands Flourish), the Son of Re Unis—a suggestion confirmed by the newly interpreted Stone of South Saqqara. His reign must have lasted about thirty years. That a dynastic break occurred after he ruled should, however, be questioned, since it is by no means supported by archaeological evidence (which instead underscores continuities in art and architecture) nor by any interruption in the administrative life of the country. The official Ka-gemni, for instance, initiated his career under Isesi, continued it under Unis, and finished it, loaded with honors, under Teti. Even more decisive in terms of continuity is the possibility that Unis, who may have been the son of Isesi, may also have been the grandfather of Pepi I.

That Unis enjoyed considerable prestige is attested by the fact that his cult lasted into the Middle Kingdom.

The layout of his funerary complex (fig. 11, fig. 12) is generally similar to that of his predecessor and to those of the Sixth Dynasty kings (although his pyramid itself is smaller), but it is marked by one major innovation. The walls of Unis’s burial chamber are inscribed with a series of texts designed to guarantee his resurrection and immortality. Known as Pyramid Texts, inscriptions of this kind would be augmented under subsequent kings (cat. no. 177), but even from the outset they affirmed the wish of the deceased sovereign to triumph over every obstacle that might jeopardize his survival in the afterlife. Furthermore, that survival is envisioned in numerous ways that may appear contradictory to us but did not seem so to the ancient Egyptians. In the dark world of the dead, in the West, the sovereign is master of Osiris’s kingdom. But each morning he is reborn, as he sails alongside his father, Re, in the solar bark; each night he rejoins the imperishable stars that endlessly circle the globe. Unis’s name is linked not only with this spiritual revolution— which recorded on the walls of the pharaoh’s tomb humankind’s oldest funerary ritual—but also with actions undertaken beyond the frontiers of Egypt, in Libya, on the shores of Lebanon, and in Nubia.

Manetho assigned a length of 203 years to the Sixth Dynasty, in which he included six kings originally from Memphis. Other sources are more tentative, particularly regarding the end of the dynasty and the transition into the years that modern historians refer to as the First Intermediate Period. Critical examination of extant texts and consideration of the dates of the Sothic cycle (the cycle of the star Sirius), carbon 14 results, and data derived from other laboratory tests have led the most recent textbooks to suggest dates between about 2350 and 2200 b.c.e. for the Sixth Dynasty. While many impediments to our historical understanding of this era still remain, advances in archaeological methods may one day provide some help. At South Saqqara, for instance, the necropolis of the dignitaries associated with Pepi I and Merenre I has still not been excavated; without such basic documentation, the diversity of views offered on the period should not be surprising. Over the course of a ten-year excavation, the funerary complex of Pepi I and his queens has revealed vestiges of the burials and the names of five additional—and until now totally unknown—queens. The clearance of the Sixth Dynasty governors’ mastabas at Balat in the Dakhla Oasis has provided new information on the extent of the Egyptian kingdom at that time. While certainly welcome, such new discoveries also often create a host of new problems for historians.

The first king of the Sixth Dynasty—Teti, the Horus Sehetep-tawi (He Who Pacifies the Two Lands)—came to the throne in uncertain circumstances, but at least his accession does not seem to have been violent. Indeed continuity is attested by the king’s funerary complex at North Saqqara, which is in perfect harmony with those of his predecessors. The burial chambers are still inscribed with the Pyramid Texts; at most, the only significant changes are that images of the god Seth (but not his name) are prohibited and that certain signs, such as desher, “the red one” (an epithet of Seth), are avoided. The nobles associated with Unis are known to have continued to serve under Teti. Although the Manethonian tradition attributes at least thirty years to Teti’s reign, the Palermo Stone assigns him only six biennial cattle censuses, or a total of twelve or thirteen years.

The Turin Canon and the Stone of South Saqqara both indicate that there was a pharaoh between Teti and Pepi I. This could be the king of Upper and Lower Egypt User-kare (Powerful Is the Ka of Re) from the List of Seti I from Abydos. Might he be the Son of Re Ity mentioned in two inscriptions at the Wadi Hammamat? Was he perhaps responsible for the murder of Teti, reported in Manetho? Only a few documents bore his name, his pyramid remains unknown, and biographical texts of the period pass directly from Teti to Pepi I.

The Horus Mery-tawi (Beloved of the Two Lands), the Son of Re Pepi, King of Upper and Lower Egypt Meryre (Beloved of Re), originally named Neferzahor (Excellent Is the Protection of Horus), had a long reign. His twenty-fifth biennial cattle census is known, and the Manethonian sources assign him a rule of fifty-three years. The apogee of the Old Kingdom may have been reached under Pepi I, judging by the number of temples built throughout the country during the administrative reorganization that took place and by his activities outside Egypt, which are reported in the great biographical inscription from the mastaba chapel of Weni at Abydos. (The same inscription also mentions, with appropriate discretion, a conspiracy hatched in the royal harem.) Pepi I sent forth major expeditions to the quarries of Wadi Hammamat and the copper mines of Sinai, and his presence is attested from Byblos to present-day Tumas, deep in Nubia. The Heb Sed, or royal jubilee, celebrated in the thirty-sixth year of Pepi’s reign, is mentioned in many sources, including an inscription on a beautiful alabaster vase (cat. no. 179).

The funerary temple of Pepi I, which the French team excavated at South Saqqara, is still well preserved in some sections, but many statues of kneeling prisoners with their arms tied behind them have been reduced to fragments. The expressive countenances of these statues make for an astonishing ethnographic gallery of the peoples of Africa and Asia with whom the Egyptians were in contact. Pepi’s pyramid, which was fifty meters high and therefore easily visible from the Nile Valley, was called Men-nefer-pepi (Pepi Is Stable and Perfect). The first part of this name came to be applied to the nearby capital and was later transcribed by the Greeks as Memphis. Only twelve meters of the pyramid’s height remain, but it has been possible to clear its entire perimeter, the sides of which measure a little more than seventy-five meters. During the excavation of the burial chamber, more than three thousand fragments of various sizes were collected, and these were used to reconstruct the walls at the site. The magnificently carved, finely chiseled hieroglyphs often preserve, in its first freshness, their original green paint—an eternally fertile green, the color of the young shoots that ceaselessly revitalize the Nile Valley. The sarcophagus itself had been broken into, but at its head a granite chest contained the canopic vases holding the remains of the viscera, which were carefully swathed in fine linen bandages.

The cemetery of the queens, just south of the pyramid of Pepi I, was found by means of electromagnetic detectors supplied by Electricite de France. This site has yielded the remains of funerary temples and sculpted images of several queens whose names were unknown until now: Nubunet, whose charming profile is found on a pair of doorjambs; Inenek-Inti, who bears the title of vizier; Nedjeftet; and Mehaa, mother of a Prince Hor-netjeri-khet. The results of excavations now underway relating to Queen Meret-ites should clarify the relationship of this queen with the Sixth Dynasty sovereigns. Also of note is the very recent find of the extensive funerary structure of Queen Ankh-nes-pepi (also known as Ankh-nes-meryre), wife and mother of kings. The queen’s name has been well known since the discovery of the Abydene inscription of Djau—a noble who was a son of the nomarch Khui and who was promoted to vizier under Pepi I—mentioning that his two sisters had married the king. The inscription goes on to say that both sisters were named Ankh-nes-pepi, which certainly seems odd. Modern historians consider them to be the respective mothers of the two pharaohs Merenre I and Pepi II. It is to be hoped that archaeologists will soon shed some light on a matter that has long been anything but clear.

There is much controversy concerning the length of the reign of Pepi I’s successor, the Horus Ankh-khau (The Living Apparition), Son of Re Antiemsaf (Anti [a funerary god] Is His Protection), King of Upper and Lower Egypt Merenre (He Whom Re Loves). Manetho assigns him seven years, the Turin Canon more than forty; in any case, a fifth counting of cattle, signifying a year ten or eleven, is known. Monuments bearing Merenre’s name are fairly numerous, and one in particular, a gold object associating his cartouche with that of Pepi I, may suggest a coregency. The partial excavation of Merenre’s funerary temple reveals that it remained unfinished. The Pyramid Texts were first discovered there in 1880 by Gaston Maspero, who also found the king’s mummy, which has since deteriorated so badly that it cannot furnish any indication of Merenre’s age. The walls of the burial chamber, which were also very damaged, were decorated with long columns of inscriptions. When restored from collected fragments, these inscriptions revealed an epigraphy that is less elegant than that found in the texts of Pepi I.

The last, relatively well known pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty is the Horus Netjer-khau (Divine of Appearances), Son of Re Neferkare, King of Upper and Lower Egypt Pepi, called Pepi II by Egyptologists to distinguish him from his father. At the death of his half brother Merenre, Pepi II was exceedingly young—only six according to Manetho—but he ruled until his hundredth year, thus achieving the longest reign in history. While some new readings of fragmentary texts limit his reign to seventy years, only a single date is clearly attested to, “year thirty-three of the counting,” perhaps the sixty-sixth year of his rule.

Many celebrated inscriptions date to the reign of Pepi II. One, in the rock-cut tomb of the official Har-khuf in Aswan, tells of the expeditions that Har-khuf directed southward as far as the country of Yam, to bring back “all sorts of rare and excellent products.” On his return from his third journey, he brought with him three hundred donkeys loaded with incense, ebony, oil, panther skins, and elephant tusks, as well as a Pygmy for the pharaoh’s amusement. Among the less successful expeditions was the one in which the prince and seal bearer Mehu lost his life (his remains were carried back by his son Sabni in the course of yet another campaign). It would appear that the relations between Egypt and the lands to the south were difficult: inscriptions often speak of the necessity to “pacify” (sehetep) the regions traversed, although the exact meaning of the verb is uncertain.

The Swiss archaeologist Gustave Jequier excavated the funerary complex of Pepi II in the 1930s and later published his findings, including the excellent bas-reliefs decorating the funerary temple. Near Pepi’s pyramid were found the remains of the pyramids of three of his queens, Neith, Iput II, and Wedjebten, which were also embellished with Pyramid Texts.

How did the Sixth Dynasty come to an end? How did Egypt enter the dark age of the First Intermediate Period? For a long while it has been sufficient to invoke Pepi IPs advanced age to support the conclusion that the entire country weakened and was thereafter delivered into the hands of the supposedly rivalrous nomarchs. Following Manetho, some point to the ephemeral one-year reign of a King Antiemsaf-Merenre, recorded as Merenre II, and then a Queen Menkare-Nitocris. But for now nothing further is known of these two sovereigns.

The Turin Canon cites the names of six additional rulers, whose reigns are all exceedingly short and for whom no archaeological evidence is attested. Of the seventeen royal cartouches given for this period in the List of Seti I from Abydos, only three can be confirmed by contemporary monuments. Manethonian sources end the Sixth Dynasty with Nitocris, who is followed by “seventy kings of Memphis reigning for seventy days” and then by the First Intermediate Period. Specialists will no doubt debate for many years to come the circumstances surrounding the collapse of Old Kingdom Egypt.

For more than two millennia, generations of Egyptians have drawn inspiration from the great example of the Old Kingdom and its astonishing achievements—the superb pyramids; the system of rules governing art, technology, and thought; and the religious beliefs. Despite our ignorance of so many events that transpired during these glorious five centuries, we people of modern times cannot help but marvel as well.

Jean Leclant

1. In the absence of a verified chronology, the early period of Egyptian history must be treated in relative terms and there still remains a high degree of uncertainty about dates among scholars.