The Old Kingdom, Part I:Dynasties 3 through 5 (ca. 2649–2323 B.C.)Ancient Egyptian culture came of age during the Old Kingdom, when society, religion, and art acquired their unique identity and form. Architecture and art reached a peak that made this phase–in the eyes of post-Old Kingdom Egyptians–the ever-exemplary, classical period of their culture.HistoryAlthough the sequence of rulers (pharaohs) in the Old Kingdom has been established, their great monuments are known, and workable chronological systems exist, it is difficult to elaborate on this framework. Old Kingdom sources are mostly of an abbreviated nature, following on oral and religious festivals, temple dedications, the height of the Nile flood, and, occasionally, trade expeditions or raids. Supplementing them with a variety of other inscriptional and archaeological evidence, however, allows a summary picture to be presented.According to a system derived by the ancient Egyptian priest Manetho, pharaohs of the Old Kingdom were assigned to four dynasties known to us a Dynasties Three, Four, Five, and Six. They ruled from the city of Memphis, which lay at the transition between Upper and Lower Egypt, and built their cemeteries in its vicinity.The Third Dynasty (ca. 2649-2575 B.C.) occupied something of an intermediatry position between the Archaic Period and the rest of the Old Kingdom. Its most renowned ruler is Djoser (ca. 2630–2611 B.C.), the builder of the Step Pyramid complex with its stone evocation of sacred rituals and natural forms.The Fourth Dynasty (ca. 2575–2475 B.C.) included Snefru (ca. 2575–2551 B.C.), Khufu (ca. 2551–2528 B.C.), Khafre (ca. 2520–2494 B.C.), and Menkaure (ca. 2490–2472 B.C.). These important kings, who built the renowned pyramids at Dahshur and Giza, exemplified the Egyptian notion of a divine and omnipotent pharaoh. The incorporation of the name of the sun god Re into royal names, the adoption of the title Son of Re, and the creation of Khafre of the Great Sphinx (an image of the god of the rising sun, Horemakhet) and its temple are evidence of the rise of the solar religion.Elaborate sun temples, containing huge obelisks on towering bases, were built by pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty (ca. 2465–2323 B.C.), such as Userkaf (ca. 2465–2458 B.C.) and Niuserre (ca. 2420–2389 B.C.). These structures mark the climax of the solar god's importance in the Old Kingdom. Fifth Dynasty pharaohs shifted the site for their funerary monuments back to Saqqara and Abusir.Relations with the outside world throughout the Old Kingdom are attested by inscriptions and archeological finds. Old Kingdom pharaohs mounted expeditions to the eastern desert for hard stones and to Sinai for turquoise and copper. They traded through Byblos (near present-day Beirut) for cedar, wine, oil and resins, and with Nubia for woods, panther skins, incense, and elephant tusks. Some relief scenes give evidence of raids against foreign countries. Alll sources regarding foreign lands, however, emphasize the Egyptians' sense that Egypt, under the rule of the pharaohs, was a secure and nurturing place outside of which it was precarious to venture.SocietyEgypt was an agricularural society supported by the Nile River and structured around the pharaoh, who embodied the Egyptian belief that their socity was divinely guided and nurtured. Viziers, originally princes of the royal home, headed the administration and often directly or indirectly oversaw the royal workforce and, thus, the building projects of the king. Subordinate officials, under the vizier's authority, headed particular branches of government. All these officials probably resided primarily in Memphis, the capital, but also owned large country estates and were awarded prominent honorary priestly offices throughout the country.Scribes and leading craftsmen attached to royal or temple administrations or the households of great officials made up a sort of middle class. Scribes and certain classes of officers were also recruited to serve as priests in the temples for certain parts of the year as both an honor and as a source of income. The lowest class were the 'rekhit' ("subjects") workers attached to the land who also supported the huge workforce for royal building projects and for the military. In tombs of the nobility, both the middle and lower classes are depicted as part of the effort to record the aspect of life on the Nile valley.The Architectural and Functional Context of Old Kingdom Art.Royal residences and other houses may have been decorated with paintings, and temples to the gods surely held statues and may have had other types of embellishment, but most Old Kingdom works of art belonged to the stone constructions at elite burial sites near the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis. Situatted alog the desert margns on the west bank of the Nile, these sites stretch from Abu Rawash in the north to Meidum in the south. At each site, a pyramid marking the burial of a pharaoh, or a group of pyramids was surrounded by the tombs of officials and the royal family.Cult installations at the pyramid complexes focussed on the rites of divine kingship and a particular pharaoh's funerary cult. The pyramid complex of Sahure (ca. 2458–2446 B.C.), a reconstructon of which is shown in a photograph in this gallery near his red granite column, was the model for many subsequent complexes and thus provides a good illustration of the typical features.Officials' tombs, called mastabas after the Arabic work for "bench," were, during the Fourth Dynasty, mainly solid rectangular structures. They incorporated a shaft leading to a simple burial chamber below ground, and a niche or chapel accessible from the exterior had an offering place with a false door where the deceased's spirit was believed to emerge to receive offerings. Most mastabas had a serdab, a chamber for statues that was closed except for a slit on the wall to allow incense and perhaps spells to penetrate. During the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, while the simpler type of mastaba continued in use, a more complex version developed with multiple chambers that offerered expanses of wall space for relief decoration. These more elaborate mastabas seem to have served also for the worship of the deceased as a venerable person. Rock-cut tombs were a variation throughout the period.Statues and reliefs adorned the temples attached to pyramids, as well as the tombs of officials. Statues were endowned with life by rituals ("opening of the mouth" ceremony) and understood to serve as repositories for the ka ("life force") of gods, deceased pharaohs, and ordinary mortals. Reliefs in the pyramid temples mainly reinforced the potency of divine kingship, while those in officials' tombs replicated for the afterlife an ideally productive and pleasureable existence.Old Kingdom ArtIn the Old Kingdom the consolidation of stable formal guidelines permitted the emergence of what we call Egyptian art. The art especially emphasized naturalness and the clear depiction of forms, evidenced strong yet flexible hierarchies, and employed restricted though somewhat changeable themes.Within the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties, certain characteristics may be noted. Royal sculpture attained a very high level during the Fourth Dynasty, when artists strove to achieve a subtle embodiment of the divinity and power of the pharaoh. On the whole, the rarely preserved royal statuary of the Fifth Dynasty provides a more generic image of power. Nonroyal sculptures emphasize round, connected, or (especially in the Fifth Dynasty) serious countenances and firm physicality. Grand relief programs in royal temples and private tombs are best known from the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. As at all periods, artistic mastery in sculpture and relief is very often associated with astonishingly sensitive treatment of anatomical detail in the rendering of both humans and animals.Some characteristics particularly evoke the rich texture of Old Knigdom art and thought. Fourth Dynasty sculpture shows a strongly realistic, even individualized, strain. In general and particularly during the Fifth Dynasty, the rich inventiveness of nonroyal family groups conveys a sense of formal and personal choices within the overall acceptance of set artistic conventions. Figures of servants and other three-dimensional images shown in action attest to a more complicated range in Egyptian statuary than is usually supposed.