Fourth Dynasty of Egypt

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The Fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt (notated Dynasty IV or Dynasty 4) is characterized as a "golden age" of the Old Kingdom of Egypt. Dynasty IV lasted from c. 2613 to 2494 BC.[1] It was a time of peace and prosperity as well as one during which trade with other countries is documented.

Pottery shred with male head in relief and incised torso. Possibly part of pot stand. Nile silt fabric. 4th Dynasty. From Qift, Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London

The Fourth Dynasty heralded the height of the pyramid-building age. The relative peace of the Third Dynasty allowed the Dynasty IV rulers the leisure to explore more artistic and cultural pursuits. The Pharaoh Sneferu's building experiments led to the evolution from the mastaba styled step pyramids to the smooth sided “true” pyramids, such as those on the Giza Plateau. No other period in Egypt’s history equaled Dynasty IV’s architectural accomplishments.[2] Each of the rulers of this dynasty commissioned at least one pyramid to serve as a tomb or cenotaph[citation needed].

It was the second of four dynasties that made up the "Old Kingdom". It has been acknowledged as the most remarkable of all in that isolated period of Egyptian history. It was part of the golden age of Egyptian culture and took place between 2613 and 2494 BC. King Sneferu, the first king of the fourth dynasty, held territory in ancient Libya to the Sinai Peninsula, and Nubia in the south. It was a successful period and this era is known for its advancement and concentrated government, as seen in the organized building of pyramids and other monuments.

Our understanding of the Old Kingdom comes mainly from these structures and objects discovered in the desert cemeteries of Giza. It is not easy to measure the extent of change or explain the causes since there are not many records from the time. They did not have primitive customs or barbarous habits as in other countries. An example of this would be that Egyptians did not carry arms when not involved in warfare. Religion and knowledge were where their aspirations lay, and they had little aspiration for war and conquest. They were essentially domestic, fond of art, and social in their manners.[3]

Dynasty IV pharaohs
Name of King Horus (throne) name Date Pyramid Queen(s)
Sneferu Nebma'at 2613–2589 BC Red Pyramid
Bent Pyramid
Pyramid at Meidum
Queen Hetepheres I
Khufu Medjedu 2589–2566 BC Great Pyramid of Giza Queen Meritites I
Queen Henutsen
Djedefre Kheper 2566–2558 BC ? Pyramid of Djedefre Queen Hetepheres II
Queen Khentetka
Khafre Userib 2558–2532 BC Pyramid of Khafra Queen Meresankh III
Queen Khamerernebty I
Queen Hekenuhedjet
Queen Persenet
Menkaure Kakhet 2532–2503 BC ? Pyramid of Menkaure Queen Khamerernebty II
Shepseskaf ?? 2518–2510 BC ? Pharaoh's Bench at Saqqara Queen Bunefer

Dynasty IV timeline



"Bringer of Beauty", Master of All Justice, Ruler of Lower and Upper Nile; King Sneferu was the first pharaoh of the 4th Dynasty and single-handedly marked the climax of the Old Kingdom.[4][better source needed] He descended from a family in the Middle Kingdom, near the city Hermopolis and most likely ascended to the throne by marrying a royal heiress. There is still debate as to who his father was, the credit being given to Huni, but this cannot be confirmed due to the break in dynasties. His mother, Meresanhk I was either a lesser wife or concubine of Huni which, if it was the latter, would technically not qualify him as royal blood. Egypt in the 3rd Millennium BC was, by all accounts, a land of peace and plenty. Elites commonly ate fattened ducks and geese and wore fine white linens—when they wore clothes at all. Snefru had a very high opinion of himself, proving so when he floated in a boat down the Nile covered only with fishnets. Until his reign, an Egyptian king was thought to a worldly incarnation of Horus, obtaining total deification exclusively in death. Snefru was the first king so proclaim himself to be the embodiment of the Sun of god, Ra. Khufu, pursuing his father's footsteps, took the name of Son of the Sun God. Egypt, in general, was ruled by two schools of thought; legal authority and traditional authority. Legal authority constituted the king governing, not the people directly, but viziers and nomarches, all posted at different positions. Snefru made use of this in the way that he had several posts for trade, military practices, and even slaveholders. Traditional authority was that the gods gave a king divine right to rule as he pleased. At the heart of it, the fourth dynasty Egyptian government was a patriarchy and only a man could obtain traditional authority.

The Bent Pyramid was Sneferu's first attempt at building a perfect structure but it slopes and eventually bends to a lower angle, giving the structure a squished look. His Red Pyramid is widely considered the first true pyramid and earned its name from the reddish tint in the limestone used. The Red Pyramid was considered the first pyramid, approximately 150 years after the structures built by King Djoser.[5] The Red Pyramid was the first to be given a solid foundation so that it was stable enough for taller building. He is also said to be responsible for a series of pyramids built in Seila. He commissioned a total of three pyramids but there are records that point to a fourth. Though he did not construct any of the pyramids at Giza, he is known as the king that moved the most stone and brick out of any king. A lot of Sneferu's political expeditions were to other countries to secure two things: a substantial labor force and access to a large store of materials. He traveled to Nubia and Libya for these things.These incursions in the areas allowed Sneferu to secure a large labor force, so large in fact that is caused huge devastation to the raided countries. He also needed cattle and other food sources to provide to the people building his pyramids. By the end of his military efforts, he managed to capture 11,000 prisoners and 13,100 heads of cattle.

Other Kings in the Age of the Pyramid[edit]

King Khufu[edit]

Khufu, Sneferu's successor—though it is unclear whether he was the biological son of Sneferu—was a widely known king. He is still known very well in present-day media, being featured in movies, novels, and television shows. His fame stems from his pyramid on the North Eastern Plateau at Giza, where he was buried. His mortuary temple was built on the Northern end of the pyramid, which is no longer accessible due to ravages by grave robbers. Only three-dimensional reliefs have been recovered and have lasted into modern day, including many limestone busts and clay figurines. Khufu's activities in and out of Egypt is not well documented (except his architecture work) and is highly romanticized by the Greeks. The Greeks felt that Khufu was a wicked man who offended the gods and forced his subjects into slavery.[6] But, why was this? Khufu, as the son of Snerfru, was believed to be illegitimate and therefore unworthy of the throne. Even if he was Snefru's true son, he did very little to expand the country of Egypt and failed to follow his father's footsteps. There are only a few records that stated he was involved in any political activities. The best guess historians can make is that there is evidence of a harbor on the coast of the Red Sea that was excavated by John Gardner Wilkinson and James Burton in 1823.

King Djedefre[edit]

Djedef is credited by historians with a reign of 8 years. Not much is known of Djedef, including his inconclusive lineage. There is one possibility that he is Khufu's son or that he was Khufu's brother. It is widely suggested that he is the son of a lesser queen who murdered the rightful heir to the throne and Djedef's biological brother, the Crown Prince of Kawab. Djedef chose to build his pyramid several kilometers North of Giza, with speculation that there was a family feud that caused Djedef to want to be far away from Khufu's tomb. A more favorable conclusion was that Djedef chose to be buried closer to Iunu (Heliopolis) the center of the cult of Ra . His pyramid also features a statue of his wife, Hetepheres II, in the form of a Sphinx. It is sometimes suggested that this was the first true Sphinx, though there is debate about the Sphinx at Giza that was credited to Khafre.

King Khafre[edit]

Khafre, son of Khufu, succeeding his supposed brother Djedefre after his short reign. He chose to build his pyramid close to his father, it matching in style and almost as large. At the front of the pyramid's causeway lies the Great Sphinx that is said to bear his features. There is still debate on whether his Sphinx was erected before Djedefre's.[7] Khafre's Sphinx was well-known and closer to his subjects making it harder to determine which was built first due to biased record keeping.

King Menkaure[edit]

Like many kings in this dynasty, his reign is uncertain, being projected for over 63 years but it can certainly be an exaggeration. Menkaure succeeded his father, King Khufu. His pyramid is the third and smallest of those at Giza known as Netjer-er-Menkaure which translates into "Menakure is Divine". There was a sarcophagus found within the pyramid, approximately 8 feet in length and 3 feet in height, made of basalt. Like many of the previous pyramids, Menkaure's was not inscribed, the interior having no record keeping of any kind.

King Shepseskaf[edit]

Shepseskaf is generally accepted as the last king of the Fourth Dynasty, succeeding Menkaure. There is no conclusive evidence of who his mother is, though it is believed that he was the son of a minor queen. It is also unknown who his wife was. Sheseskaf broke the chain of pyramid building by the previous 5 kings. Instead of a triangular pyramid, he chose to construct a rectangular block, commonly known as the Mastabat al-Fir’aun ("Pharaoh's Bench").[8] In like fashion, little script was found inside his tomb and was buried in very simple terms.

Later Kings- Unknown if they are Fourth Dynasty[edit]


The Turin canon has a lacuna between Khafre and Menkaure, indicating that according to the author of this document, a king reigned between these two pharaohs. Unfortunately, the name and reign length of the king in question are completely lost in the lacuna.[9] The Saqqara Tablet also lists a king between Khafre and Menkaure, but here too the name is lost.[10] Some authorities have equated this king with Manetho's Bikheris, which could correspond to the Egyptian name Baka or Bakare. The problem of the existence of this king is not resolved.[11]

Khentkaus I[edit]

Perhaps most intriguing is the status of Khentkaus I, whose tomb was built along the Menkaura causeway.

Menkaura and Khamerernebty II, his sister-wife

Khentykawes was a daughter of Menkaura. She may have ruled as a pharaoh.

Her tomb is a large mastaba tomb, with another off-center mastaba placed above it. The second mastaba could not be centered because of the free, unsupported, space in the rooms below, in her primary mastaba.

On a granite doorway leading into her tomb, Khentkaus is given titles which may be read either as mother of two kings of upper and lower Egypt or as mother of the king of upper and lower Egypt and king of upper and lower Egypt.

Furthermore, her depiction on this doorway also gives her the full trappings of royalty, including the false beard of the pharaoh. This depiction and the title given have led some Egyptologists to suggest that she reigned as pharaoh near the end of the fourth dynasty.

Her tomb was finished in the characteristic niche architecture for which he is known. However, the niches were later filled in with a smooth casing of limestone.

Age of the Pyramid[edit]

The Age of the Pyramid refers to the fact that the Fourth Dynasty was the time when most of the well-known pyramids were built, which include those at Giza. King Sneferu was the first king to express an interest in funerary rites and tombs, which led him to the planning of the largest pyramid at Egypt. His first pyramids were called the Bent Pyramid[12][better source needed] and Red Pyramid.[13][better source needed] The "Age of the Pyramid" was not just about the building of large and easily recognizable structures, but also a change in funerary practices and rituals. This includes the burying of elites in large structures and extensive mummification.

Religious Changes[edit]

The Fourth Dynasty is where we truly see a shift in religious practices where worship of the Sun was commonplace. The Cult of Ra grew in size, going back to the fact that Djedef's tomb was built closer to the center of worship in Heliopolis.[14] God-Kings were completely centralized in the era which centralized the nation's material, organic, and human resources. A king's divinity was unrivaled in this time and kings began carving their names into statues and monuments, which had been previously reserved for gods. This speaks to a type of god complex on part of the kings. Khafre's famous statue, where a falcon was incorporated into his headgear, equated the king to the god Horus. This fact, however, caused controversy. It was pitting Khafre's allegiance to Horus against the growing Cult of Ra, not far away in Helipolis.[15] Kings no longer associated pyramids with the afterlife. The afterlife was once believed to be a divine kingdom that was represented as a type of idealistic heaven where only kings and pure hearts could go. Instead, the Fourth Dynasty represented a change in this idea, formulated the notion that the afterlife was actually a familiar place, taking the semblance of Earth.[16] Religious rituals were notoriously conservative, from what historians know, and there is much to be desired from current known records.

New Tombs and What was Missing[edit]

The Old Kingdom saw a rise in the preservation of the deceased, making the preparation of bodies much more complex. The position of embalmer was created, and their jobs were solely to prepare a corpse in private. There were three ways to mummify a body: 1) Stucco- the body would be wrapped in fine linen and then covered in stucco plaster, the features of the body (including the face) were remodeled in the plaster;[17] 2) Linen- the body would be wrapped in linen, which was sometimes treated with natron (a mixture of multiple sodium carbonates[18]) and the linens would be treated with resin so that the features of the body could be modeled; and 3) Defleshing- removing all flesh and wrapping the bones in linens.[19] Organs were generally removed which were then put into jars that would accompany the body in the tomb, and the inside of the body flushed out.

Tombs in the Fourth Dynasty changed drastically. "Unimpressive" graves did not satisfy the elites, meaning they would settle for smaller structures if the interior was decorated. Hieroglyphic writings were important to elites because, one, it was a lavish display of wealth and, two, it guided their souls to the afterlife. The Fourth Dynasty, however, did not have these writings. Instead, the tomb was deeper and super-structures were larger. After the Giza pyramid complex, later generations of tombs were more reasonably sized. After Middle Kingdom royals abandoned pyramids, they preferred graves that were carved into living rock of the Upper Egyptian mountains.

Old Kingdom Mummy
A replication of an Old Kingdom mummy, as reconstructed by Emory University

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shaw, Ian, ed. (2000). The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press. p. 480. ISBN 0-19-815034-2.
  2. ^ Egypt: Land and Lives of the Pharaohs Revealed, (2005), pp. 80-90, Global Book Publishing: Australia
  3. ^ "EGYPT AND THE EGYPTIAN DYNASTIES: IV — Alexander Wilder". www.theosociety.org.
  4. ^ "Old Kingdom of Egypt". Wikipedia. 29 April 2018.
  5. ^ Levy, Janey (30 December 2005). "The Great Pyramid of Giza: Measuring Length, Area, Volume, and Angles". Rosen Classroom.
  6. ^ Tyldesley, Joyce. "Who was Khufu?". eds.a.ebscohost.com.libproxy.nau.edu. Retrieved 14 April 2018.
  7. ^ Spencer, A. J. (1990). "The Egyptian Pyramids. A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference. By J.P. Lepre. 233 × 156mm. Pp. xviii + 341, many ills. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc.1990. ISBN 0-89950-461-2. £37·50". The Antiquaries Journal. pp. 479–479. doi:10.1017/S0003581500070906. Retrieved 21 April 2018.
  8. ^ Spencer, A. J. (1990). "The Egyptian Pyramids. A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference. By J.P. Lepre. 233 × 156mm. Pp. xviii + 341, many ills. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc.1990. ISBN 0-89950-461-2. £37·50". The Antiquaries Journal. pp. 479–479. doi:10.1017/S0003581500070906. Retrieved 21 April 2018.
  9. ^ Wolfgang Helck: Untersuchungen zu Manetho und den ägyptischen Königslisten, (= Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Altertumskunde Ägyptens, Bd. 18), Leipzig/ Berlin 1956, page 52
  10. ^ Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton: The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt, The American University in Cairo Press, London 2004, ISBN 977-424-878-3, page 61
  11. ^ Peter Jánosi: Giza in der 4. Dynastie. Die Baugeschichte und Belegung einer Nekropole des Alten Reiches. vol. I: Die Mastabas der Kernfriedhöfe und die Felsgräber, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien 2005, ISBN 3-7001-3244-1, page 64–65.
  12. ^ "Bent Pyramid". Wikipedia. 15 April 2018.
  13. ^ "Red Pyramid". Wikipedia. 13 April 2018.
  14. ^ Bolshakov, Andrey O. "The Old Kingdom Representations of Funeral Procession". Göttinger Miszellen 121 (1991), 31–54. Retrieved 14 April 2018.
  15. ^ Baines, John; Lesko, Leonard H.; Silverman, David P. (1991). "Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice". Cornell University Press. Retrieved 21 April 2018.
  16. ^ Roth, Ann Macy (1993). "Social Change in the Fourth Dynasty: The Spatial Organization of Pyramids, Tombs, and Cemeteries". Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt: 33–55. doi:10.2307/40000226. JSTOR 40000226.
  17. ^ "Fragments of stucco from a mummy". Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 12 March 2018.
  18. ^ "3 Ways Egyptians Preserved Mummies". ThoughtCo.
  19. ^ "BBC - History - Ancient History in depth: Mummies Around the World".
Preceded by
Third Dynasty
Dynasty of Egypt
c. 26132498 BC
Succeeded by
Fifth Dynasty