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Narmer Palette: a slate stone with a carved man beating up his enemy: Old Kingdom Egypt

Old Kingdom Egypt: Narmer Palette (about 3100 BC)

Egypt becomes one country

When Egypt first became one unified country around 3000 BC under a Pharaoh from Upper Egypt (the south), the Pharaohs quickly came to have a great deal of power over their subjects. (Technically they were not called Pharaohs yet though.) Egypt was the first big state in Africa, because they had the best location for trading with other people.

Bronze Age timeline
What is a Pharaoh?
Early African economy
All our ancient Egypt articles

The Pharaohs’ capital was at Memphis. This slate palette – the Narmer Palette – has a hole in the middle of the other side for mixing eye shadow.

Old Kingdom Egyptian art
More about Egyptian clothing

But the carvings seem to show the Pharaoh of Upper Egypt standing up and beating the Pharaoh of Lower Egypt.

Egypt’s irrigation system

Because the Old Kingdom was so long ago, nobody knows much about this time. But it’s generally a time when people all over the world were starting to move into river valleys, use irrigation, and build cities: in Peru, in China, in India, in Mesopotamia, and in Egypt.

What is irrigation?
The Nile and Egyptian geography
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It seems that the Pharaohs organized the first systematic irrigation from the Nile river, which allowed still more people to live in Egypt without starving. This happened a little later in Egypt than in West Asia or Peru.

A woman rules Egypt

Not long after the Old Kingdom got started, about 2950 BC, Egypt may have had its first woman Pharaoh – Merneith, whose son Den ruled after her.

The family in ancient Egypt

Four pyramids against a blue sky: Old Kingdom Egypt

Old Kingdom Egypt – the Pyramids at Giza

The Pyramids in Egypt

The Pharaohs built the Pyramids in this period as great tombs for themselves. Probably the workers were not enslaved but people who were usually farmers, like most people at that time.

Was there slavery in Egypt?
More about the Pyramids

They may have built the pyramids a little at a time each year, during the Nile floods when people couldn’t do farm work anyway. Recent archaeology suggests that the earliest Pharaohs also engaged in human sacrifice.

A stone statue of a woman holding a boy on her lap: Old Kingdom Egypt

Ankhesenpepi II and her son Pepy II

Another woman rules Egypt

The last pharaoh of the Old Kingdom was Pepy II. But Pepy II was only six years old when he became Pharaoh – Pepy II’s mother, Ankhesenpepi II, probably was really the one ruling Egypt.

She would have been used to the idea of women having political power: Ankhesenpepi II’s mother, Nebet, had been the vizier for Pepy II’s grandfather, Pepy I.

Ankhesenpepi II may have ruled until Pepy II grew up, or maybe until she died. But Pepy II never really got power for himself. After Ankhesenpepi II, the other rich men and women of Egypt began to rule their own areas as if they were kings themselves – this was the First Intermediate Period.

Learn by doing: Build a Pyramid
On to the First Intermediate Period(2160-2040 BC)
Sumerians in West Asia
Meroe south of Egypt

Bibliography and further reading about Old Kingdom Egypt:

Eyewitness: Ancient Egypt, by George Hart. Easy reading.

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, by Ian Shaw (2002).

History of Ancient Egypt: An Introduction, by Erik Hornung (1999). A college textbook. On the conservative side – not much on new developments.

Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture, by William H. Stiebing (2002). Expensive for a paperback, but brief and very up to date. And yes, it includes Egypt in the Near East.

Old Kingdom(2686-2160 BC)
First Intermediate Period(2160-2040 BC)
Middle Kingdom(2040-1633 BC)
Second Intermediate Period(1786-1558 BC)
New Kingdom(1558-1085 BC)
Third Intermediate Period(1085-525 BC)
Persian rule(525-332 BC)
Greek rule(332-30 BC) (also called the Hellenistic)
Roman rule(30 BC-700AD)
Islamic rule(700 AD to present) home