Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER III

The Middle Kingdom

After the Old Kingdom collapsed in 2181 BC, ancient Egypt fell in the merciless hands of disorder and inundating chaos. This period of turmoil, which is called ‘The First Intermediate Period’ or the ‘Dark Period’, lasted for over one hundred years.

Frontispiece to The Description of Egypt, a book in the public domain for some time and published by the French government from 1809-1823

Very little record exists about the matrix of life in Egypt during this era. But what is confirmed is that this was a period during which ancient Egypt was divided and ruled by two powerful groups. One regime based its power in Lower Egypt at Heracleopolis, whereas the other inhabited Upper Egypt and made Thebes its capital.

Then in 2055 B.C. the Middle Kingdom emerged and marked the end of The First Intermediate Period. The advent of the Middle Kingdom was a defining moment in the history of ancient Egypt. It is believed to be Egypt’s ‘Classical Age’, a time where Egyptian art and culture reached their summit.

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Entrance tomb BH14 Newberry by Percy E. Newberry, George Willoughby Fraser (1893)

The Middle Kingdom is known for uniting Egypt again and placing it under one rule, which is why this epoch is often referred to as ‘The Period of Reunification.’ This empire consisted of two powerful dynasties–The Eleventh Dynasty and The Twelfth Dynasty. According to some historians, however, the first half of the Thirteenth Dynasty was also part of the Middle Kingdom.

The Rise of the Middle Kingdom

Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II was the pharaoh of the Eleventh Dynasty that founded the Middle Kingdom.

At a young age Mentuhotep II inherited the Theban throne from his father Intef  III–King of Upper Egypt. And for fourteen years he ruled the empire, which included the First Cataract in the south to Tjebu and Abydos in the north. These fourteen years were characterized by peace.

But then, right around the conclusion of the First Intermediate Period, the rulers at Herakelopolis wanted power over the entire nation. Eventually, they assembled their army and began their invasion of Upper Egypt. They conquered the Thinite Nome and destroyed whatever they found in their quest, one of which being the ancient Royal Necropolis of Abydos. Often, this era is referred to as the ‘Year of the Crime of Thinis.’

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Montouhotep III - XI dynasty by Neithsabes (2008)

Angered by this campaign against his empire, Mentuhotep II then assembled his army and marshaled them to the north. He launched an attack on Herakleopolois and came out the victor. The king of Lower Egypt was killed during this conflict, which made it quite simple for Mentuhotep to conquer it.

This union of Upper and Lower Egypt in 2055 B.C. marked the emergence of the Middle Kingdom. Mentuhotep II then received high acclamation for accomplishing what seemed impossible for over 100 years–uniting Egypt.

The whole of Egypt then regarded Mentuhotep as a divine being. During his reign he was given quite a lot of names; ‘The son of Hathor, The lady of Dendera, Mentuhotep’, ‘The divine one of the white crown’, ‘The golden Falcon, lofty in plumes’ were but a few.

Mentuhotep continued uniting Egypt, restoring back the provinces that were lost in the course of the First Intermediate Period. One of his greatest accomplishments was the military campaign he launched in the Second Cataract in Nubia. By the end of his 39thregnal year Mentuhotep managed to cement the whole of Egypt under one rule, one Kingdom.

Mentuhotep made Thebes the capital of the Middle Kingdom. He ruled for 51 years, until he died in 2010 B.C. He was buried at Deir el-Bahari.

The Eleventh Dynasty

The Eleventh Dynasty in ancient Egypt ruled the whole of Upper Egypt during the First Intermediate Period. The dynasty was based at Thebes and it consisted of seven kings. In Toto, the reign of Dynasty XI lasted for about 143 years.

It was during the ruling days of this dynasty that Egypt united and the Middle Kingdom emerged, and so the pharaohs of the Eleventh Dynasty are divided in to two groups. The first group —Intef the Elder, son of Iku, the forefather of the dynasty and a self-proclaimed descendant of a nomarch of Thebes; Mentuhotep I, one who was believed to be the first king of the dynasty; Intef I, son of Mentuhotep I; Intef II, brother of Intef I, and Intef III, son of Intef II—belong to the First Intermediate Period. And the second group of pharaohs–Mentuhotep II, founder of The Middle Kingdom; Mentuhotep III, son of Mentuhotep II, and Mentuhotep IV—belong to the Middle Kingdom.

Sankhkare Mentuhotep III

After Mentuhotep II died in 2010 B.C., the throne was passed on to his son Sankhkare Mentuhotep III. But it was after 51 years he acceded to power, and so his ruling days were rather short – just 12 years.

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The tomb of Montouhotep III - XI dynasty by Neithsabes (2008)

Regardless of how ephemeral his reign was, however, Mentuhotep III still managed to accomplish great things in ancient Egypt. He constructed several buildings and temples in Egypt, and forts in the eastern Delta region. And in his military excursion to the land of Punt, where 3000 strong warriors took part in, happens to be one of the many things this pharaoh is known for.

Nebtawyre Mentuhotep IV

Nebtawyre Mentuhotep IV was the Eleventh Dynasty’s last king. He succeeded Mentuhotep III when he died in 1998 B.C. The records on this pharaoh is quite scarce; his name is considerably erased from all ancient Egyptian king lists. The Turin Papyrus (Turin Canon) claims that there had been seven kingless years in Egypt after the death of Mentuhotep III.

According to the recordings of the Wadi Hammamat, however, Mentuhotep IV had journeyed frequently to the coast of the Red Sea, with Amenemhat–who is thought to be the first king of the Twelfth Dynasty—as commander.  There is no record regarding how he died or where he was buried.

The Twelfth Dynasty

The Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt flourished under the ruling of the Twelfth Dynasty, which emerged in 1991 B.C. and ruled until 1803 B.C. The strong and powerful pharaohs of this dynasty brought the empire great riches, strength and harmony. The reign of the Twelfth Dynasty is seen as the Golden Age of the Middle Kingdom.

List of Dynasty XII Pharaohs

1991 BC–1962 B.C.—Amenemhat I

1971 BC–1926 B.C.—Senusret I

1929 BC–1895 B.C.—Amenemhat II

1897 BC–1878 B.C.—Senusret II

1878 BC–1839 B.C.—Senusret III

1860 BC–1814 B.C.—Amenemhat III

1815 BC–1806 B.C.—Amenemhat VI

1806 BC–1802 B.C.—Queen Sobekneferu

Sehetepibre Amenemhat I

Amenemhat I was the founder of the Twelfth Dynasty in the Middle Kingdom. How he claimed the throne is still an arguable subject amongst scholars.

He was not of royal blood and records show that he might have been the vizier that led the expedition to Wadi Hammamat under Mentuhotep IV, the last of the Eleventh Dynasty pharaohs. Based on such facts, many, are inclined to believe that Amenemhat I killed Mentuhotep IV and claimed the throne.

Amenemhat I then moved the capital from Thebes to a new city called Amenemhat-itj-tawy (meaning Amenemhat the Seizer of the two lands) or Itj-tawy.

He conducted successful military campaigns against the Nubians, built the Wall of the Ruler in the East Delta region as a shield against Asiatic invasion, and reestablished diplomatic relations with neighboring states. He was also the first king in Egypt to establish a co-regency with his son Senusret I.

In 1962 B.C. Amenemhat’s reign came to an end, and was soon succeeded by his son Senusret I. According to various sources, Amenemhat I was killed by his own guards in his own palace. The renowned ancient Egyptian literature, Story of Sinuhe, describes the scene as such:

“Year 30, third month of the Inundation season, day 7, the god mounted to his horizon, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Sehetepibre went aloft to heaven and became united with the sun's disk, the limb of the god being merged in him who made him; whilst the Residence was hushed, hearts were in mourning, the Great Gates were closed, the courtiers crouched, head on lap, and the nobles grieved.

Now His Majesty had sent an army to the land of the Tjemeh (Libyans), his eldest son as the captain thereof, the goodly god Senusret. He had been sent to smite the foreign countries, and to take prisoner the dwellers in the Tjehnu-land, and now indeed he was returning and had carried off living prisoners of the Tjehnu and all kinds of cattle limitless. And the Companions of the Palace sent to the western side to acquaint the king's son concerning the position that had arisen in the Royal Apartments, and the messengers found him upon the road, they reached him at time of night. Not a moment did he linger, the falcon flew off with his followers, not letting his army know. But the king's children who accompanied him in this army had been sent for and one of them had been summoned”

Kheperkare Senusret I

Senusret I was a leader that had much semblance to that of his father. He reigned from 1971 B.C. - 1926 B.C.

Senusret I was on a military campaign in Libya when his father, Amenemhat I, got murdered. Hearing of this tragedy and the possibility of a coup, Senusret rushed back to Itj-tawy. He then claimed the throne and managed to restore peace and order in the empire.

This pharaoh is known for strengthening or completing most of the quests his father began. He marshaled his army further into the south of Nubia and managed to annex the region by erecting a border fort at Buhen. He also worked to strengthen Egypt’s commercial relations with neighboring states. And just like his father, in his 43rd regnal year, Senusret I established a co-regency with his son Amenemhat II.

Nubkhaure Amenemhat II

The ruling days of Amenemhat II were rather peaceful. There is little or no record of conflict or military expeditions during his time of rule. There are, however, certain inscriptions on the temple walls at Memphis and Tod that describe several events in which Amenemhet II signed peace treaties with some Syrio-Palestinan cities and campaigned to the south of Nubia to examine Wawat.

In his 33rd regnal year, Amenemhet II followed his family’s legacy and assigned his son, Senusret II coregent.

Khakheperra Senusret II

Much like his father, Senusret II’s ruling days were quite peaceful and uneventful.

His reign lasted only for about nineteen years, from 1897 B.C.–1878 B.C. And during this period, unlike his ancestors who set their hearts on the nation’s external affairs, Senusret II fixated his eyes more on resolving Egypt’s internal issues.

One of his greatest accomplishments was the development of the Faiyum irrigation scheme, which included dykes and canals. He wanted to transfigure the Faiyum oasis in to a fertile land, and because of how devoted he was to this project he situated his pyramid at el-Lahun.

As the incomplete constructions during his time of ruling suggest, Senusret II had plans of building several infrastructures for his empire. But his life came to a sudden end and all was lost.

Khakaure Senusret III

Senusret III was the Twelfth Dynasty’s warrior pharaoh. He is known for his triumphant military crusades in Nubia and Palestine. He’s also well acclaimed for building massive forts throughout the whole of Egypt.

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Painting Djehutihotep daughter by Percy Edward Newberry (1891)

Internally, Senusret III also had a major presence, one he was well acknowledged for. One of his greatest accomplishments was the administrative reforms he activated. He arranged Egypt’s administrative body in to four regions; the northern and southern half of the Nile Valley and the eastern and western Delta region. To each section was assigned a Reporter, a Second Reporter, the Djadjat (or Council), and representatives of minor officials.

He also built a dam at Faiyum for the use of irrigation. Senusret III was the most famous pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty. In Nubia he was deified as a patron God.

Senusret III established co-regency with his son Amenemhat III in his 19th regnal year. The end of this pharaoh’s reign is an arguable matter, but historians mark the date 1839 B.C.

Nimaatre Amenemhat III

Under the ruling of Amenemhat III, the Middle kingdom reached the peak of its economic prosperity.

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Sphinx Amenemhat, by E. A. Wallis Budge (1902)

He was the first king to reap the benefits of Egypt’s natural resources; he built mining camps in Sinai and continued cultivating the Faiyum land, which yielded him and his empire great riches. He also reinforced the defenses in Nubia.

The Middle Kingdom flourished during his ruling days. But it was also the time that helped bring the doom of the dynasty and the Middle Kingdom.

According to various researches, around the end of Amenemhat III’s reign there was a flood that caused drought and crop failure. This occurrence caused the dynasty great insecurities. Amenemhat III ruled for forty-five years and was succeeded by his son Maakherure Amenemhet IV, who ruled only for nearly a decade.

Queen Sobekkare Sobekneferu

Queen Sobekneferu was the first female pharaoh in ancient Egypt and last of the Twelfth Dynasty. She was the daughter of Amenemhat III and the half-sister of her predecessor Amenemhet IV.

According to the Turin Canon, she ruled for three years, ten months and twenty-four days. Not much can be said about her ruling days, except that she was the last pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty and that she didn’t have a successor to claim the throne.

The Fall of the Middle Kingdom

The death of Queen Sobekneferu marked the end of the Middle Kingdom. After her, a series of kings made claim to the throne, but ruled only for an abbreviated time. According to historians, these kings are part of the Thirteenth Dynasty. The names of these kings and their successive order are listed in the Turin Canon.

The Thirteenth Dynasty was then divided, and from this division emerged the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Dynasty. Rulers of Xois founded the Fourteenth Dynasty and the Hyksos, Asiatic rulers of Avaris, founded the Fifteenth Dynasty.

Following the emergence of these two dynasties, Egypt descended into chaos and conflict. Soon after, the Middle Kingdom came to an official end and the Second Intermediary period begun.

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