The Old Kingdom

Egyptians were the first to work in stone on a massive scale. These photos trace their development from the first stone "city" at Saqqara to the great pyramids at Giza, which remained the tallest structures in the world until the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889. The structures shown were built during the "Old Kingdom" in the Third through the Fifth Dynasties (c. 2667-2345 BCE).

During this remarkable period of 300 years, the Egyptians learned by trial and error to create the massive structures that remain to this day. For example, at Saqqara, early architects creating stone columns for the first time were uncertain of their strength and so buttressed them for stability. The classic pyramid form that is so familiar today began as a series of "mastabas" – raised platforms – built one atop another in a stair step fashion, eventually leading to the Step Pyramid of the Pharaoh Zoser (Djoser) – the world's first pyramid. The Bent Pyramid was another failed experiment along the path to the final form perfected at last with the Red Pyramid and then taken to a grand scale with the magnificent pyramids on the Giza plateau. Despite these successes, the art of pyramid building (or the will to build such grand structures) was soon lost.

The photos also show the Great Sphinx at Giza, believed to have been built by Chephren (also known as, Khafra; 4th Dynasty 2558-2532 BCE). The sphinx remains one of the most enigmatic sculptures in the world.

Not all of the Old Kingdom's great works were built in stone. Buried next to the great pyramid of Cheops (Khufu; 4th Dynasty; 2589-2566 BCE) at Giza, archeologists found a large, well-preserved wooden boat – dubbed the "solar boat" – that was presumably intended for the pharaoh's use in the afterlife. This remarkable vessel is today preserved in a separate building at Giza and is well worth seeing.

To continue the chronological tour, go to the New Kingdom page.