Fourth dynasty of Egypt

Fourth dynasty of Egypt

The fourth dynasty of Ancient Egypt is characterized as a "golden age" of the Old Kingdom. The fourth dynasty lasted from from ca. 2575 to 2467 BCE. It was a time of peace and prosperity as well as one during which trade with other countries is documented.

The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth dynasties are often combined under the group title, the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, which often is described as the "age of the pyramids". The capital at that time was Memphis.


The pharaohs of the fourth dynasty include rulers who are best known for constructing pyramids, perhaps the hallmark which distinguishes the ancient culture of Egypt. All of the rulers of this dynasty commissioned at least one pyramid to serve as a tomb or cenotaph. A number of them (eg. Sneferu, Djedefra, Khafre) took their own sisters to wife.


Sneferu, the dynasty's founder, was believed to have commissioned three pyramids, and some believe he was responsible for a fourth. Although Khufu, his successor and son by Hetepheres I, erected the Great Pyramid of Giza. Sneferu had more stone and brick moved than any other pharaoh.

Surviving from this era are the earliest-known records of Egyptian contact with her neighbors. They are recorded on the Palermo stone. Information carved on the stone predates and antedates this dynasty. Although some portions of the stone are lost, one remaining portion contains notations about the arrival of forty ships laden with timber from an unnamed foreign land purchased during the reign of Sneferu.

Khufu, Djedefra, Khafra, and Menkaura

The names of Khufu and Djedefra were inscribed in gneiss quarries in the Western Desert 65 km. to the northwest of Abu Simbel; objects dated to the reigns of Khufu, Khafra, and Menkaura have been uncovered at Byblos. Objects dating to the reign of Khafra have been found even farther away, at Ebla, where there is evidence of diplomatic gifts or trade also.

Khufu is the ruler who is known in Greek as "Cheops". His son is, Khafra (Greek "Chephren"), and his grandson, Menkaura (Greek "Mycerinus"). All of these rulers achieved lasting fame in the construction of their pyramids at Giza.

Organizing and feeding the workforce needed to create these pyramids required a centralized government with extensive powers, and Egyptologists believe that at this time the Old Kingdom demonstrated this level of sophistication and the long period of prosperity required to accomplish such projects. In fact, recent excavations outside the "Wall of the Crow" by Dr. Mark Lehner have uncovered a large city which seems to have housed, fed, and supplied the pyramid workers.

Although it was once believed that slaves built these monuments—a bias based on the biblical Exodus story—study of the tombs of the workers who oversaw construction on the pyramids, has shown that they were built by a corvée of peasants drawn from across Egypt. Apparently, they worked during idle periods, while the annual Nile flood covered their fields, along with a very large crew of specialists including stone cutters, painters, mathematicians, and priests. Some records indicate that each household was responsible for providing a worker for civic projects and the wealthy could hire others to take their places. Civic duties were not necessarily building projects, there were duties for the temples, libraries, and festivals as well, and both men and women filled some of the positions.

These pyramids suggest that Egypt enjoyed unparalleled prosperity during the fourth dynasty. The later bias of Herodotus ("Histories", 2.124-133) has helped instill the idea that the pyramids survived as a reminder to the inhabitants of the forced labor that created them, however, although there was a tradition of the negative memory of Khufu presented in "Papyrus Westcar", these kings were not tyrannized. In fact, the very same Papyrus Westcar presents Snefru in a very benevolent light—even though he moved more stone to construct his pyramids than Khufu. This demonstrates that these pharaohs may have been remembered for their own individual reigns and personalities, rather than the sheer size of the monuments they built-monuments which in all probability, were built by a "willing" public.

Khentykawes I

Perhaps most intriguing is the status of Khentykawes I, whose tomb was built along the Menkaura causeway. Khentykawes was the wife and royal queen of Menkaura and may have been the mother of Shepseskaf, first king of the fifth dynasty. She also may have ruled as 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, Khentykawes 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 the 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 by her son, Shepseskaf, in the characteristic niche architecture for which he is known. However, the niches were later filled in with a smooth casing of limestone.

hepseskaf and Djedefptah

The next recorded pharaoh is Shepseskaf, son to Khentykawes I and Menkaura. His reign was short, but he completed the projects of his father and mother and established an architectural style of his own.

Djedefptah is a shadowy figure ascribed a reign of varying years, whose existence is questionable. Shepseskaf is usually considered to be the last pharaoh of the fourth dynasty. The ancient Egyptian historian, Manetho, however, lists a Tamphthis (which may be a corrupted form of Ptah-djedef) in this position, and the Turin Royal Canon, another resource about rulers, has an unnamed pharaoh listed who ruled for about two years after Shepseskaf. This ruler may be Djedefptah.

To date, it is unclear how this dynasty came to an end. Our only clue is that a number of fourth dynasty administrators are attested as remaining in office in the fifth dynasty under Userkaf.

Fourth Dynasty timeline

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DateFormat = yyyyPeriod = from:-2620 till:-2490TimeAxis = orientation:horizontalScaleMajor = unit:year increment:30 start:-2620ScaleMinor = unit:year increment:10 start:-2620

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from: -2613 till: -2589 color:PA text:"Sneferu" from: -2589 till: -2566 color:PA text:"Khufu (Cheops)" from: -2566 till: -2558 color:PA text:"Djedefra (Radjedef)" from: -2558 till: -2532 color:PA text:"Khafra (Chephren)" from: -2532 till: -2503 color:PA text:"Menkaura (Mycerinus, Mykerinos)" from: -2503 till: -2498 color:PA text:"Shepseskaf" from: -2498 till: -2494 color:PA text:"Djedefptah"


ee also

* Egyptian Fourth Dynasty Family Tree

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