Ancient Egypt / Old Kingdom /
Kings of the 4th Dynasty had Memphis as their capital, similar to other kings of the Old Kingdom.
The 4th Dynasty represents the height of Egyptian civilization ever, resulting in the pyramids of Giza, perhaps the most famous buildings in world history. The background for this must be explained with a well-functioning society, both political, technological and economical. The builders of the pyramids were not slaves, as once assumed, but peasants working here part of year. Still, this was not voluntary work, they were called in as forced labour.
While the state controlled unprecedented wealth and power, this dynasty may well have been a period of much hardship for the population. The pyramid building kings would for long time after be remembered as hard tyrants. Especially, Khufu, builder of the largest pyramid, gained a reputation for his brutality. Snefru, on the other hand, would be remembered as a mild king. How much of this is factual, and how much propaganda, is impossible to assess.
From this period, there are many indications of contact and trade with foreign lands, especially up along the coast of the Levant.
The 4 great pyramid builders were of one line of father-sons, starting with Snefru.
To the pyramids, complex funerary temples were always built, in which walls were decorated with fine reliefs, but not of as excellent quality as even with the 5th Dynasty. It was Khafre who commanded the building of the Great Sphinx at the beginning of the processional causeway to his pyramid.
Around the pyramids, a large number of mastabas and tombs for the notables were built. This attests to the elite of the 4th Dynasty being rich, but again, it tells nothing about living conditions for the rest of the population.
Snefru is in reality the king who commanded the first perfect pyramid to be built. If the theory that King Huni, of the 3rd Dynasty, built the pyramid at Meidum is correct, Snefru's first attempt resulted in the Bent Pyramid and then the perfected Red Pyramid. Still, when his son, Khufu, built the largest pyramid ever, the technique had become even more sophisticated. His engineers managed to come close to what appears to be the maximum angle for a pyramid with their 51.7º (Khafre's would be built at 53.1º).
Outside Memphis-Giza area, practically no monuments of any sort can be found. This may well be understood as an indication of regional poverty at the expense of building gigantic funerary complexes.
Central authorities saw to that regional governors could not develop local strongholds and partial indepdence. Therefore, governors were granted numerous smaller estates often in several different nomes (provinces). High officials were in general of the royal family.
There were some advances into foreign territory, especially with the establishment of the fortress at Buhen, allowing the Egyptians control over much of the Nubian lands between the 1st and 2nd cataracts.
In addition to the 6 kings listed here, Manetho mentions Bikheris and Tamphthis. Other sources also indicate two more kings to the dynasty. This may well have been the case, but they had most probably very short reigns. It may have been King Bikheris who begun the Unfinished Pyramid at Zawiyet el-Aryan. This pyramid was set out to be as large as Khafre's.
There is evidence suggesting strife inside the royal family. This relates especially to Redjedef, who established his burial ground further north. At some point, probably after his death, it was destroyed, most likely by the command of Khafre, his brother successor.
The eventual decline of the dynasty is not easy to explain from available material. It appears that the shift into the 5th Dynasty was not very dramatic, since many of the administrators would keep their positions.
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