Cartouche of Senusert


When we look back over the first six dynasties we look across ten centuries of history. It is hard to avoid the symbol of the pyramid, which towers above the desert as the culture of the Pyramid Age towered above the mud huts of prehistoric Egypt. However much we may frown upon autocracy, we cannot see the collapse of a civilization as impressive as that of Egypt under the Old Kingdom without regret—regret not only for the artistic and intellectual enterprises that came to an end, but for the suffering social chaos always brings to the people who live through it.

The land spins around like a potter’s wheel; poor men have become rich and he who could not afford sandals is wealthy; but he who never slept on so much as a plank now owns a bed; he who never wove for himself possesses fine linen.

To the Egyptian, the breakdown of maat, the divine order, would have been bad enough. But the trouble went beyond that.

I show you the son as a foe, the brother as an enemy, and a man killing his own father. The wild beasts of the desert will drink at the rivers of Egypt and be at their ease. Men will seize weapons of warfare, and the land will live in chaos.

These quotations come from two great laments composed by scribes named Ipuwer and Neferti. Like the Old Testament prophets, and in similar language, these men came before the king and cried woe upon the land of Egypt. At least that is the premise of both compositions. It must be borne in mind, however, that these are literary texts, and that their authors had an ax to grind. By contrasting the wretchedness of earlier times with the reestablishment of the cosmic order, the kings responsible for the latter gained in prestige. And, in fact, one of the two compositions ends with a “prophecy” about a king from the south who will restore order and subdue the enemies of Egypt.

Some of the archaeological evidence suggests that things weren’t all that bad for everybody. As the court at Memphis lost power, the local princes gained it, and a strong prince could make life a lot easier for his subjects, providing security and perhaps organizing food distribution. People were still building nice tombs for themselves and furnishing them with a variety of objects.

I personally view with suspicion most attempts to characterize a national “ethos” or spirit—if such a thing can be said to exist at all. Yet the written documents from the First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom differ profoundly from the inscriptions of the stable eras that preceded it. The disillusionment of the prophetic texts is echoed in other documents. One of the most curious texts of the period is a long poem in which a man debates with his soul the problem of suicide. Life has become unbearable; “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” have overwhelmed the poet, and only death seems sweet. At first his soul seeks to dissuade him, pointing out, as does the prince of Denmark, that death may hold terrors greater than any evil of life. But at the end, the arguments of the misanthrope prevail; his soul agrees to accompany him wherever he may go, even into the shadows. Death, then, is one solution to the suffering and disillusionment of the time of troubles. Here, expressed with the concise eloquence of true poetry, is another:

The gods who lived formerly rested in their pyramids; the glorified dead also, buried in their pyramids, and they who built houses, Their places are no more.

I have heard the words of Imhotep and Hordedef, whose sayings are so famous; What of their places now? Their walls are broken apart and their places are no more, As though they had never been.

Therefore make holiday without wearying of it. Lo, no one can take his goods with him. Lo, no one who departs returns again.

See how the terrifying conclusion builds up—the vanity of temporal power is as futile as the vanity of intellectual accomplishment; not even their wisdom can save the famous sages of the past from oblivion. The conclusion? Eat, drink, and be merry, since you can’t take it with you.

The minstrels who entertained the nobleman at his feasts sang this song; some of the listeners inscribed the words upon the walls of their tombs, where they became a statement of belief. Some of the nobles copied another harper’s song, which expresses a different approach to life and death.

I have heard those songs that are in the ancient tombs, and what they tell praising life on earth and belittling the region of the dead. Why do they do so, concerning the land of eternity, the just and the fair, which has no terrors? Wrangling is its abhorrence; no man there girds himself against his fellow. It is a land against which none can rebel. All our kinsfolk rest within it, since the earliest day of time; the offspring of millions are come hither, every one. For none may tarry in the land of Egypt, none there is who has not passed yonder.

The span of earthly things is as a dream; but a fair welcome is given him who has reached the West.

Either of these lovely songs would strike a strange note in a noble’s tomb of the Old Kingdom, which vigorously expressed the material and naive expectations of the life to come. In the Fourth Dynasty the individual boasts of his deeds and his promotions. “I was greatly praised on account of it; never had the like been done by any noble before me.” The biographical inscriptions of the First Intermediate Period still brag about great deeds. “I rescued my city,” says one nobleman pointedly, “from the terrors of the royal house.” (Well, really!—as Khufu might have said.) But there is a new emphasis in the texts of this period, an almost anxious affirmation of other deeds and other accomplishments, which contrasts sharply with the pride in advancement or in wealth.

I gave bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, and clothing to the naked. I buried the aged. I was a father to the orphan, a husband to the widow. I did no wrongdoing against the people; it is what the god hates. I have rendered justice, which the king desired.

This is a composite, from many inscriptions, of claims to virtue that characterize this period. It is superfluous and needlessly cynical to point out that some of the men who made these claims may have been sinners of the deepest dye. What is significant is the fact that the claims were made, and had to be made. The quest for immortality must be almost as old as man himself. Even the ape-faced Neanderthal hunters buried their dead with the tools they would need in another life and with food to supply them on that longest of journeys. As society became more complex and life more pleasant and desirable, the human animal sought ever more means to ensure a continuance of plea sure: elaborate tombs, magical supplies of food and comforts, complex methods of preserving the body, gold and jewels and boasts of high office. But he could never be sure. He could never know for certain that his gold was the proper medium of exchange in Paradise. The upheaval of the First Intermediate Period gave the doubts of the Egyptian greater poignancy. So during this time, along with cynicism and hedonism, we see an attempt to substitute other values for the ones that had proved inadequate—values which, being invisible and intangible, were not susceptible to decay.

There are vague references to a judgment of the dead as early as the Pyramid Texts, but we do not get a clear picture of the concept until after the collapse of the Old Kingdom. The judge is Re, the sun god; and the creature that stands before the bar of justice is the human soul. “Your fault will be expelled and your guilt will be expunged, by the weighing of the scales on the day of reckoning characters; and it will be permitted that you join with those who are in the sun-bark.” The image of the scales of justice requires no commentary. In the balances were weighed the sins and the virtues of the dead man, and only good deeds could insure eternal life.

The questions asked by the men of this troubled age so far in the past are not unique to their times, nor peculiar to their culture. They are the universal questions asked by all men who have ever pondered the tragedy of life and the mystery of death. Never before nor after, perhaps, until the Hebrew prophets began their long debate with God, did men express the questions so clearly nor with such eloquence as did the Egyptians of the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom.

For two generations after the end of the Sixth Dynasty we know very little about actual events. The clouds of dust that arose from the collapse of that mighty edifice, the Old Kingdom, obscure events and people. Manetho lists a Seventh and an Eighth Dynasty, but they could only have lasted for about a quarter of a century, and the ephemeral “kings” have left almost no contemporary records. The names and titles of local princes appear instead, in the tombs and in the quarries.

Around 2160 B.C. the clouds thin out a bit, in one area at least. That area was the Fayum, the great oasis-lake just south of the Delta. Here, in the city of Herakleopolis, a powerful family gained control under a prince named Akhtoy (aka Khety). Akhtoy’s successors retained his name, and the only way we can tell one from another is by means of their alternative appellations. (As I mentioned, kings had several different names.) Manetho gives them two dynasties, the Ninth and Tenth. Of the first dozen or so of these Herakleopolitan kings we know very little, but by the middle of the Tenth Dynasty we are on firmer ground. The third king of this dynasty, Wahkare Akhtoy III, was a good ruler, and he felt himself qualified to give advice to his son, who would succeed him on the throne. Instructions for King Merikare is the title of the text, one of the best known of all Egyptian literary works. It is one of a general type of which the Egyptians were very fond; we call it “wisdom literature,” and it consists of helpful hints to youth from an older, more worldly-wise individual.

Akhtoy was a king, so his precepts are intended for a youth who will hold the responsibilities of the highest office. There are none of the prosaic comments upon manners, which amuse us in some of the other teachings, written for and by commoners. “If you are one of those sitting at the table of one greater than yourself, take what he gives when it is set before you. Speak only after he has addressed you; this will be very pleasing to his heart.”

So runs the advice of Ptahhotep, a Fifth Dynasty vizier. The Merikare text contains no such trivia. Akhtoy begins with some sound precepts as to character: “Be not evil; kindness is good. Be a craftsman in speech, for the tongue is a sword to a man and speech is stronger than fighting.” After some weighty comments on statecraft and the handling of officials, the royal author rises to genuine heights of feeling and expression when he speaks of the judging of the heart in the West, the land of the dead.

The council that judges the deficient—you know that they are not lenient on that day of judging the miserable. A man survives after death, and his deeds are placed beside him as his treasures. Existence yonder is for eternity and he who reaches it without wrongdoing shall exist there like a god, stepping out freely like the Lords of Eternity. More acceptable is the character of one upright of heart than the [sacrificial] ox of the evildoer.

Unfortunately for Merikare, his father was a better poet than he was a politician. The older king does mention the domestic situation, warning his son about the wretched Asiatics of the north and assuring him that “it is well with the Southern Region.” That statement comes into the category of Famous Last Words. We cannot blame the king, because he was unable to predict the future, but he might have remembered the past. Once before there had come a conqueror, stepping with long strides down the Nile to unify the Two Lands. He had come from the south.

This is one of those cases which almost lead us to suspect that history can repeat itself. For three millennia the kingdom of the Nile would exist, its unity broken from time to time by internal strife and by foreign invasion. And from the beginning, even with Menes the Unifier, the force of renewed cohesion would come from the south. Why? We do not know. In fact, if we were trying to predict from which area the conqueror would originate, we would in most cases choose the north. The success of Upper Egypt at the beginning of the dynasties, under Menes, is inexplicable if the north was really more sophisticated, more highly developed. The same is true of the situation after the first great breakdown at the end of the Old Kingdom. Herakleopolis during the Tenth Dynasty was the most effective of all the city-states of the divided country, and she seemed well on the way to leading the reunification. In art and in military power she was ahead of her contemporaries; the literature she produced is of high quality. Yet—once again—the conqueror came from the south.

Four hundred and fifty miles south of Memphis the frowning cliffs retreat from the river edge, leaving a broad and fruitful plain. At the end of the Old Kingdom there were a few small settlements in this plain. The villagers worshiped Montu, a war god—a suggestive choice, in view of what followed. There may also have been a temple—a small and unimpressive one—to a petty local godling, Amon, a form of the fertility god Min. From these scrappy beginnings came a phenomenon: Thebes of the Hundred Gates and her patron god, Amon-Re.

The rise of Thebes (modern-day Luxor) can be traced back to about 2250 B.C., at which time a lady named Ikui in one of the villages of the Theban plain had the happy fortune to be blessed with a son whom she called Intef. He was a prince and a count, and his immediate descendants held the same titles.

A century or so after the birth of Intef, son of Ikui, the insidious air of the southland inflamed the ambitions of one of his descendants. The Theban princes had not been sitting supinely in their local capital while the Herakleopolitans expanded their influence; they had been engaging in a little expansion too, and they eventually extended their control as far south as the First Cataract. Count Intef ’s successor, Mentuhotep I, declared his independence of the kings of Herakleopolis and assumed the royal titles, but it was not until the reign of his younger son that the rivalry flared into bloody conflict. Wahankh Intef II drove the Herakleopolitans north and captured Abydos. A stela describing his prowess, from Wahankh’s tomb at Thebes, is mentioned in a Twentieth-Dynasty papyrus that records the results of an inspection of the royal tombs. Depredations among the tombs had grown increasingly bold, and the investigating committee reported that Intef ’s pyramid, which must have been a small affair of brick, had been “removed”—a pleasantly nonjudgmental verb—but that the stela was still in place, and that “the figure of the king stands on this stela with his hound named Behek between his feet.” Three thousand years after the inspection, in A.D. 1860, Auguste Mariette, then chief inspector of antiquities, found the lower part of the stela still intact. He left it there (one can almost hear Petrie’s remarks on this negligence), and the inevitable happened. When Mariette’s successor, Gaston Maspero, ran across the stela again in 1882, it was in fragments. The pieces were finally collected and brought to the Cairo Museum. The king was a true lover of caninity; he had not one but five of his favorite hounds shown on his stela so that they could enter the western paradise with him.

Truce or stalemate followed the first stage of the war. Then a new man came to the throne of the southern city. His name was also Mentuhotep, and he was the greatest warrior of his warlike line. We give him the number II, though such designations were never used by the Egyptians. (It’s easier to keep track of these fellows by such means than by trying to remember their distinctive throne names, which are often annoyingly similar and which were sometimes changed in midreign.) Within twenty years Mentuhotep II had conquered the rest of Egypt. His opposite number in Herakleopolis was Merikare, who probably found his father’s philosophy small comfort in defeat.

We would certainly like to have a contemporary account of this war, but none has been found. There is indirect evidence of a unique kind bearing on the last great battle, the siege of Herakleopolis. This evidence was discovered by H. E. Winlock, working at Deir el Bahri for the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Deir el Bahri is part of the great west Theban necropolis area, which includes such marvels as the Valley of the Kings, a large group of nobles’ tombs of the New Kingdom, and the huge mortuary temples of the Ramseses. At Deir el Bahri itself is the beautiful temple of Queen Hatshepsut, arguably the finest and most graceful piece of architecture in all of Egypt. There was an earlier temple at the same site, built by the conquering Mentuhotep. Winlock deserves the credit for the excavation of this temple. It was in very poor condition, but it must have been an impressive sight when it was built. A walled avenue of approach led from the green cultivated land to a huge shield-shaped court in front of a pillared temple which was surmounted by a small pyramid, or maybe it was a moundlike mastaba—so little is left of it that Egyptologists don’t agree as to which. The king excavated his tomb under this monument, and he buried his family in other tombs nearby. Winlock found some twenty-odd graves in the temple itself, including the burial place of Mentuhotep’s chief queen.

But the most interesting tomb of all was not that of a courtier or royal lady. Located in a place of honor, near the tomb of the king himself, this grave contained a mass burial of sixty soldiers, with their weapons beside them. They were commoners; we do not even know their names. From the nature of their injuries, Winlock deduced that they had been slain in an attack on a castle or fortified place. Some had died at once. Others, wounded by the defenders on the walls, had been left behind when their comrades retreated before an assault of the besieged garrison. The assault being temporarily successful, the wounded men were “picked up by their bushy hair” and clubbed to death by the defenders. Their bodies lay upon the field long enough to be mutilated by carrion birds; then a final attack on the castle gave victory to their comrades, who took up the battered bodies of the slain and brought them back to Thebes for burial.

It is a grim and surprisingly vivid picture to have been re-created from a group of unidentified mummies. But the most interesting feature is that Mentuhotep honored these Unknown Soldiers by burying them near his own tomb, in a proximity usually reserved for royalty or for high nobles. No less a battle than the final siege of the enemy capital, says Winlock, could have merited such favor. I like his deduction, not only because it is reasonable, but because it is so romantic. However, some scholars believe the men were killed during a battle outside Egypt, for Mentuhotep led campaigns in Nubia and against the Libyans, reestablishing trade routes and expanding Egyptian control. If the Unknown Soldiers did die at Herakleopolis, one can only wonder at the scant numbers—only sixty men lost their lives in the decisive battle of a great war! These men might have been selected from the slain because of unusual bravery, but war was a less efficient killer in ancient times than it is today.

These men went into battle unprotected except for the bushy hair Winlock mentions. The carefully cultivated mop atop their skulls might have been some help against clubs or maces, which were often of no harder substance than wood. Egyptian soldiers of this period also used axes and daggers. The boomerangs which have been found were probably used for hunting rather than war; we have both right-and left-handed models, and one which was tested performed exactly as a boomerang is supposed to perform. The most common weapon was the simple bow, with arrows tipped with flint or ebony; so unsophisticated in the art of war were the pre-Empire Egyptians that they did not usually use even copper arrowheads. The ones they used could kill a man just as dead as a metal point could; one of the slain soldiers had been hit in the back by an arrow that stood out eight inches in front of his body.

We know of the equipment of soldiers of this period from two sources—the burials of the veterans, and the models of soldier bodyguards found in tombs. The most attractive example of the latter comes from Assiut and consists of two companies of some forty men each. The men of one group are painted red-brown, the standard body color for Egyptian men, and they carry tall spears and shields painted with various insignias. The other company is black—Nubian auxiliaries, evidently—and its weapon is the bow, which is carried in one hand, with a fistful of arrows in the other. The individual figures are relatively crude, but the craftsman has caught the martial bearing and determined stride of the fighting man; Count Mesehti of Assiut could have started his journey through the unknown dangers of the Afterworld feeling secure, with such soldiers to protect him. They are lovely warriors, and they are now in the Cairo Museum; if I thought I could burgle that admirable institution with impunity, I would certainly load them onto my truck.

This is the time of tomb models. Americans are fortunate in that they do not have to go to Cairo to see some of the best, which come from the Eleventh Dynasty Theban tomb of the Chancellor Meketre. The Metropolitan Museum, which conducted the excavations, was allowed to keep most of them. They reproduce, in faithful miniature, the estate of a wealthy nobleman. The estate was almost a small village, containing numerous shops or work houses in which various specialized activities were carried on. Life was good, at least for the wealthy. In the Met models one can see the little serfs and craftsmen working away, some in the brewery-bakery (bread and beer went through the same initial process of fermentation), some in the butcher shop, where kicking cattle are given the coup de grâce, others in the stable and the weaver’s shop. A nobleman had to have a regular fleet of boats, so the tomb models included reproductions of several types, including the last bark of all—the barge of the dead upon which, gilded and stiff with resinous bandages, the mummy of the noble lord made pilgrimage to Abydos, the home of Osiris. The journey may have been purely symbolic, but with the model in his tomb the noble could claim that he had performed this useful ritual act.

So skillfully made are these little models that we view them with the delight we would feel for elaborate toys. Of course they were not toys to their owners. The model symbolized the actuality, and the presence of the miniatures in the tomb assured its owner that the real thing would be supplied him in the next world. The models are equivalents of the paintings on the walls of the tomb or the written lists of offerings.

We have a good deal of Eleventh Dynasty tomb material, but the greatest tomb of them all was empty. The alabaster sarcophagus of Mentuhotep was found in his burial chamber under his temple, but the crafty thieves of ancient Thebes had found it long before. Nor was Mentuhotep’s mummy among the royal bodies reburied by the priests of the late period. Presumably it was destroyed by the thieves.

Mentuhotep ruled for some fifty years, and his son was a middle-aged man when he came to the throne. The records of this king are records of peace; the old struggle with Herakleopolis was evidently finished. He was succeeded by another Mentuhotep, number four by modern reckoning. The most interesting fact about this king, who is known to Egyptologists by his Horus name of Nebtawi, is not how he gained the throne, but how he lost it.

The inscriptions of the Wadi el Hammamat quarries begin in the Old Kingdom. The quarries lie along the shortest route from the Nile to the Red Sea; it leaves the river at the great eastward bend just below Thebes, and many of the expeditions that followed the route, on their way to the sea or in search of fine stone, left inscriptions there. King Nebtawi sent an expedition to Hammamat to get stone for his sarcophagus, and the commander of the troop had a long inscription carved on the rock, which told of a marvel that there befell them. A gazelle, great with young, came bounding across the desert and stopped to deliver upon the very stone that had been selected for the lid of the sarcophagus. The gratified gentlemen of the expedition repaid the gazelle by cutting her throat. The inscription does not mention what became of the baby gazelles.

The name of Nebtawi’s commander was Amenemhat. He accomplished his task efficiently, bringing back his force without losing so much as an ass. What intrigues us about the man, though, is not his talent as a servant of the king, but the fact that he did not remain a servant long. Within a few years after his return he finished the job he had begun by putting the king’s body inside the sarcophagus whose construction he had supervised, and then taking the throne of Egypt for himself.

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