By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University
The Egyptian Old kingdom is one which is, to date, associated with opulence, riches, ornate temples, statues, and, of course, the Great Pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza. However, it cannot be refuted that the periods of extravagance for the Egyptians were transient, and with the fifth dynasty, the old kingdom began to fall.
The fourth dynasty came to an end with Shepseskaf as its last pharaoh. Before Shepseskaf, the kingdom was ruled over by Menkaure, the last pharaoh to erect a pyramid on the Giza plateau. His pyramid, though still grand, was a mere fifth the size of the great pyramid, and pointed towards the economic declension of the kingdom.
Now, instead of going the way of his ancestors and building on the Giza plateau, Shepseskaf decided to move to Saqqara, where the Step Pyramid was constructed ages ago, and instead of a pyramid, he constructed a mastaba, called the Mastabet el-Fara’oun in Arabic. It means ‘the mastaba of the pharaoh’, and it was built in the shape of a cartouche. With him, the fourth dynasty came to an end.
Learn more about The Great Pyramid of Giza.
The Story of the Fifth Dynasty – On Papyrus
Although the greatness of the Kingdom is said to have diminished with the end of the fourth dynasty, the fifth dynasty is unique and interesting in its own way.
There is an interesting story about the beginning of the fifth dynasty that is inscribed on papyrus, called the Papyrus Westcar, which is kept in the Berlin Museum. Along with other interesting stories from the kingdom, it also has a story set during the time of Khufu, the builder of the great pyramid. According to the story, one of Khufu’s sons summoned a magician to entertain his father by telling the future. The magician told of the coming of a new dynasty, which would begin with the birth of triplets, who would go on to be the first kings.
The Solar Kings
The fifth dynasty brought with it a lot of changes, ranging from the way of life of royalty to the religious beliefs of the time. The kings of the fifth dynasty can be called the Sun Kings, or the Solar Kings, because of their obeisance to the Sun. They also came up with temples dedicated to the sun. Further, they built pyramids as well, but on different sites, such as Abu Gurob and Abu Sir (are about a mile apart from each other, and close to Saqqara).
The sun temples built by these kings were large altars, with a huge stone in front of the altar. This stone was not precisely an obelisk and was called a ben-ben stone. To date, the function of this stone remains a mystery. Perhaps, it was worshiped in some manner.
This is not the only incorporation of the sun in their lives, however. While the first of the kings was named Userkaf, the pharaohs after him all incorporated ‘Re’, the sun god, into their names, resulting in names such as Sahure and Neferirkare.
The Pyramid Texts
While the beginning of the fifth dynasty brought about some changes, some even more interesting developments took place towards its end.
The last king of the Fifth Dynasty, called Unas, started a unique tradition that went on for a while. He built a pyramid at Saqqara, which, despite its modest size, was absolutely incredible. He had texts carved all over the burial chamber and on the walls leading to the burial chamber inside the pyramid. Today, these texts are referred to as the Pyramid Texts.
The texts are written in columns from the ceiling to the floor, each column a separate spell in hieroglyphics. Even more impressive is the fact that these hieroglyphics have not been created using stencils; each symbol has been inscribed individually by hand.
The Pyramid Texts are intended to protect the body of the pharaoh in three different stages. The first stage is to make sure that the body of the king stays undisturbed in its sarcophagus until it’s ready for the ‘big journey’, through a series of ‘magical’ spells. The second stage is for when the pharaoh is ready to go ‘westwards’ in the sky. West was always associated with dying, perhaps because the sun sets in that direction. So, when one was making their journey to the next world, they would go through the sky westwards in a solar boat. This set of spells, therefore, ensure that the journey is not impeded in any manner. The third and final set of spells is to make sure that the pharaoh is accepted into the next world.
Learn more about The First Intermediate Period.
The Rulers of the Sixth Dynasty
Unas was the last king of the fifth dynasty. The rulers of the sixth dynasty who came after Unas built pyramids at Saqqara, but these were almost inconsequential when compared in grandeur and importance to the ones at Giza. today, they look akin to small hills and are almost unrecognizable as pyramids.
An important observation that comes from the decline in the lavish state of pharaohs’ lives is the increasing power and wealth amassed by the nobles around them.
For instance, the Pharaoh Teti in the sixth dynasty built a pyramid – a small, unimpressive affair. Around the same time, his Chancellor, Mereruka built his mastaba. The fascinating fact is that Mereruka’s mastaba rivaled the pharaoh’s pyramid in size and grandeur.
Mereruka’s mastaba had 32 rooms, featuring his paintings in impressive stances. His chamber also housed an almost royal statue of his. It featured him wearing a kilt. The kilt is a significant detail, because, at the time, a starched kilt, such as the one worn by Mereruka in the statue signified the official status of a person. A manual laborer would never wear such a kilt. These displays of power and wealth can be construed into something akin to a competition between the pharaoh and his nobles.
This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The End of the Old Kingdom
Egyptologists have divided the almost 3200 years long recorded history of the Egyptian empire into a number of chunks – The Old Kingdom, an Intermediate Period, The Middle Kingdom, another Intermediate Period, The New Kingdom, and then the Late Period and Decline.
The end of the Sixth dynasty brought along with it the demise of the Old Kingdom.
Learn more about The End of the Old Kingdom.
The last pharaoh of the Sixth dynasty was called Pepi II, and he holds his place in the annals of history as the longest-reigning monarch in a record, ruling for 94 years. He was only a child, perhaps around four years of age when he ascended to the throne. A lot of documentation exists to paint colorful tales of the Pharaoh’s long years as a monarch.
Unfortunately, it was perhaps his long life as a monarch that led to the downfall of the Old Kingdom. The Pharaoh was supposed to be the physical leader of Egypt, and lead his men into the battlefield, but Pepi II, given his age, was too feeble to do so for a significant part of his monarchy.
The end of the Old Kingdom paves the way for the first intermediate period, while also highlighting the demerits of a pharaoh – centric government, which may also be what manifested into the end of the Egyptian empire a few centuries from the time of Pepi II.
Commonly Asked Questions about the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties of Ancient Egypt
Shepseskaf, the last pharaoh of Egypt’s fourth dynasty, shifted to Saqqara, where he built a mastaba, called the Mastabet el-Fara’oun.
The sun temples built by the pharaohs of Egypt’s fifth dynasty were large altars, with a huge stone in front of the altar. This stone was called a ben-ben stone and was perhaps worshiped in some manner
Mereruka was the chancellor to Egypt’s sixth dynasty pharaoh, Teti. His significance arises from the fact that his mastaba, built around the same time when the pharaoh built his pyramid, was so opulent and large that it rivaled the pharaoh’s pyramid, and thus pointed towards a shift in economic and political power from the pharaoh to his nobility.