Let us admit that there is no evidence that Amenemhat shoved the old king over the threshold of eternity. He was not of royal birth, but he was qualified for kingship by talent if not by blood. He was regarded as the founder of the Twelfth Dynasty, and he sired a long line of Amenemhats and Senuserts, who restored the glory of Egypt under the later Middle Kingdom.
One of the first acts of the new ruler was to move his capital northward. Menes had done the same thing, perhaps for the same reason: it was easier to control the princes of the Delta and northern Egypt from there. The Twelfth Dynasty capital was not at Memphis, although thiscity continued to be important; it was near the road into the Fayum, and was called Ittawi, “Binder of the Two Lands.”
Amenemhat’s first job was restoring proper order in Egypt. The independent princelings needed more than the years of the Eleventh Dynasty to teach them their places. It did not take Amenemhat long to regulate internal affairs to his satisfaction, and then he could turn his mind to other things. One project he began was the official conquest of Nubia. Another was the construction of the “Walls of the Ruler,” a fortress designed to protect the northeast frontier from incursions by Asiatics. He also started a new series of pyramids, which are poor objects indeed compared to the splendors of Giza. They cluster around the capital of Ittawi, at three cemeteries now known as Lisht, Hawara, and Lahun, and at the site of Dahshur, near Snefru’s big pyramids. Amenemhat I’s pyramid was of limestone. His quarries were not in the hills of Cairo, but in the older monuments of Giza and Sakkara. The pyramid is badly ruined, so we can see that the internal blocks include sculptured stones from the valley temples of Khufu and Khafre, among other sources. Some archaeologists have suggested that this pyramid be dismantled; as it stands it is not much to look at, and if we could get at the core blocks, all from Old Kingdom temples and tombs, we might learn a great deal.
Amenemhat had time to finish his pyramid and temples, but he had no time to spare. Perhaps he had a premonition of what was to come, for during his last years of rule he apparently made his son, Senusert I, coregent. This joint kingship was a practical procedure, but it has confused chronology considerably. Each king dated events by his own years of reign, and only rarely, when we have an inscription that gives simultaneous year dates for both kings, can we be sure how long the coregency lasted, or even whether a coregency existed at all. You will not be surprised to hear that “the coregency question” is a popular subject for debate among Egyptologists, not only in the Middle Kingdom but later. Some scholars don’t believe in any coregencies; others see them all over the place.
Thirty years after he had seized power, Amenemhat sent his son off on a campaign to “chastise” (a favorite Egyptian word) the Libyans of the western desert. While the younger king was gone, disaster struck. Possibly it was planned to take advantage of the absence of the younger, more virile ruler; Amenemhat was getting old. It is unlikely that a conspiracy aimed at his life could have been formed without his knowledge during his palmier days. Entering the royal bedchamber in the dead of night, the conspirators fell upon the king as he lay helpless and half-asleep. Although he fought for his life, hand to hand against the grim shadows in the night, he succumbed at last to the daggers of his foes. But treachery had not infested the entire court. Certain loyalists sent swift messengers to Senusert, now sole king of Egypt. He had already accomplished the purpose of the campaign and was on his way home. The news reached him in the evening as he made camp somewhere in the desert. Swearing the messenger to silence, the young king waited until dark had fallen and then set out with all speed for Ittawi. He reached the royal residence so soon and so unexpectedly that he was able to nip the conspiracy in the bud and ascend his throne without further difficulty. Undoubtedly his prompt and decisive action had saved the day for the royal house.
This story is known to us not from historical documents, but from two literary texts. The one that tells of the assassination is called The Teaching of Amenemhat, and purports to be a series of admonitions from the king to his son. There is bitterness in Amenemhat’s words; he gave to the beggar and nourished the orphan, but those whom he trusted rose against him and those to whom he gave his hand came by night to murder him. “Do not fill your heart with a brother,” he concludes. “Know not a friend, nor make intimates for yourself. When you sleep, guard your heart yourself, for a man has no adherents on the day of evil.”
It may seem somewhat startling that this discourse is written in the first person, by the murdered king, and it has led some scholars to believe that Amenemhat was not killed by the conspirators, but lived on to write his admonitions. However, poetic license allows a voice from the tomb even in our own literature. The death of the king by assassination fits in with the second half of the story, for it is unlikely that if Amenemhat had died peacefully in his bed his son would have received the news with such alarm, or hurried away from his army to take possession of the throne unless that throne had been threatened.
The dramatic night march of Senusert is told in one of the most famous of all Egyptian literary works, The Story of Sinuhe. Sir Alan Gardiner, the doyen of Egyptian philology, considered this a tale that should rank as a world classic, and his opinion was shared by Rudyard Kipling, who was himself no slouch at writing good stories.
At the beginning of the tale we find Sinuhe, overseer of the king in the land of the Asiatics, taking his ease near the royal tent as the army made camp on its way back from the war with the Libyans. He saw the messengers from Ittawi arrive, and heard them speak to Senusert. The results were electric. “My heart pounded,” Sinuhe admits. “My arms went limp, trembling fell upon all my limbs.”
Such bodily enfeeblement might be due to shock—very proper when hearing of the death of one’s king. But Sinuhe’s next move makes us wonder: “In leaps and bounds, I sought a hiding place; I put myself between two bushes in order to separate myself from the road.”
Having made a good start, Sinuhe did not stop; he crossed the Nile and kept right on going, through the Walls of the Ruler which marked the eastern boundary of Egypt, and out into the wilderness of Sinai.
The rest of the story is wonderful fun to read, but we will have to pass over it briefly because it has no bearing on political events. Sinuhe rose to great eminence among the “Asiatics”; at last he settled down somewhere in Syria and took himself a wife or two. But although he was honored in his adopted country, his heart increasingly yearned for home. And, with the pleasing harmony found only in fairy tales, the all-knowing king of Egypt got wind of his old servant’s heimweh. He sent messengers to invite Sinuhe back to Egypt.
The king’s letter is marvelously tactful, but it asks a question to which we ourselves would like to know the answer. “What have you done, that action should be taken against you? You have not blasphemed, you have not spoken against the council of nobles….”
What ever their cause, Sinuhe’s apprehensions were removed by the letter. To return to his home was no small thing, but his greatest reason for rejoicing was the prospect of laying his bones within the blessed soil of Egypt. He was so moved when at last he was brought face-to-face with the majesty of the king that he was on the verge of collapsing, and could not speak. The king received him kindly and sought to relieve the tension by summoning the royal children and the queen, whom Sinuhe had once served.
“Here is Sinuhe,” said royalty affably, “returned as an Asiatic, a true son of the Bedouin.” The queen shrieked aloud, and the royal children exclaimed, with one voice: “Is it really he?”
This is a real Egyptian happy ending, but we cannot help wondering what brought it all about. What did Sinuhe overhear at the royal camp to send him scampering for sanctuary, as far from Egypt as his legs could carry him? We may be excused for suspecting that he was involved in the conspiracy himself. There are too many protestations of innocence, from Sinuhe and from the king, for him to be wholly guiltless. If so, the magnanimity of the king is admirable. Even though he had been ruling in peace for many years, he could have no motive except mercy for granting the heart’s desire of an old enemy.
While Sinuhe was swashbuckling around among the Asiatics, his king was carry ing on the traditions established by Amenemhat I. He built his pyramid near that of his father and pushed the borders of Egypt farther south, furthering the process which was to end with Lower Nubia as an Egyptian province. Under him and his successors the country enjoyed peace and prosperity. Another Amenemhat and another Senusert held the throne for fifty years, during which time all was well.
All the kings of this dynasty were competent rulers. But with Senusert number three, the Twelfth Dynasty reached its peak. The first kings of the Twelfth Dynasty had sent troops into Lower Nubia as far as the Second Cataract, but it remained for Senusert III to put the country under organized military occupation. He was, in later times, regarded as the patron saint of the whole region—by the Egyptians. The natives of Nubia may have had another opinion of him.
At this time there lived in the region south of Egypt the aforementioned C peoples. They had entered Lower Nubia during the time of the weakness of Egypt between the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Though primitive by Egyptian standards, they were not barbarians. They made good pottery, raised cattle, and buried their dead in stone tombs circular in shape and with a chapel for offerings on one side.
These were the people whom the kings of the Twelfth Dynasty encountered as they pushed south. The Egyptians were not received with shouts of joy. Before the Aswan dam drowned Lower Nubia travelers heading south along the Nile from Aswan could see the ruins of great buildings located at strategic spots beside the river, all the way to the Third Cataract. They were the remains of the forts built by the Egyptians to hold the river route to the gold lands of the eastern desert. Fourteen of these fortified towns were built during the Middle Kingdom. In the heavy walls and the strategic location of each we see recognition of an enemy of no mean quality; the forts were close enough so that they could reinforce one another in case of an attack.
Fortunately, before the waters of Lake Nasser covered them, the forts were extensively studied by scholars. It does not take too much imagination to reconstruct them, or to imagine the life of an Egyptian outpost garrison two millennia before Christ. The heaviest fortifications were on the land side. The Egyptians held the river, and the forts could be supplied and relieved by water. A low wall and ditch served as the outer ring of defense; then came a forewall with bastions, inside which was a narrow passageway. The innermost wall was very high and thick, built of mud brick strengthened with timber insertions, and supported by towerlike projections at intervals. A narrow street ran around the inside of the wall. Within the defenses was the garrison town itself, with a big house for the commandant and barracks for the soldiers. There were also store houses and a treasury, plus a small temple. Most of the forts up to the Wadi Halfa region of the Second Cataract were built by Senusert III’s predecessors. He built eight more in the fifty miles—as the crow flies—which lie south of Wadi Halfa. Senusert III fixed his boundary by formal decree at the most southerly of these forts, Semna.
After Semna, the Nile runs through a district called the “Belly of the Rocks,” where the difficulties of navigation are immense. Rocks and shoals threaten the boats, and the river runs almost at right angles to the prevailing northwesterly winds. There is an easier stretch after this, and then another series of cataracts—the Third—after which the battered boats come out onto a stretch of river known as the Dongola Reach, which is safe for navigation. At the head of this smooth stretch, just beyond the fanged rocks of the Third Cataract, stands an amazing structure. The modern name for it is the Western Deffufa.
We are now at the site known as Kerma, which Reisner excavated in the early 1920s. It is 150 miles south of the Twelfth Dynasty frontier at Semna—150 miles in a straight line, much farther if one follows the bends of the river. But if Reisner was right, the Egyptians were here during the Middle Kingdom. They built the great mound called the Western Deffufa, which looks less like a man-made structure than a peculiar wind-carved formation in a desert region.
I remember reading about Reisner’s work when I was a student, and I remember too that his conclusions were generally accepted. He thought that Kerma was the provincial capital of an Egyptian governor of the far south. Several generations of such governors controlled the area during the Middle Kingdom, died there, and were buried where they died. If Reisner’s theory is correct, Senusert III was indeed a mighty conqueror.
What are the actual physical remains upon which Reisner based his ideas? It is difficult to know the precise functions of the Western Deffufa. The top part, which contained the buildings or rooms, has been worn away by erosion; the lower section is simply a gigantic brick platform. A group of rooms on a lower level survived, and the litter found in these rooms included scraps of imported Egyptian articles and also local products such as ostrich eggshells, rock crystal, and copper oxide.
East of this mound is another ruin called the Eastern Deffufa, beside which is a large cemetery. The bigger tombs consist of a central chamber, where the body of the deceased was laid upon a bed, and a long corridor running through the mound past the central chamber. In the corridor of each of the largest tombs Reisner found the bodies of several hundred people, most of them women and children. They had been buried alive. Some lay with their faces hidden in their hands or protected by a bent arm; one poor girl had crawled under the bed on which her dead lord lay, thus prolonging the agony of death by suffocation.
In one of these big multiple graves Reisner found an object which was of primary importance for his theory. This was the statue of an Egyptian lady who was the wife of a Twelfth Dynasty prince of Assiut named Hapdjefa. The lower part of a life-size statue of the prince himself was found in the same grave-mound. This, said Reisner, must mean that the chieftain for whom this court of the dead was assembled was none other than Hapdjefa himself. Hence the theory of the Egyptian governors of the south, buried in the land they had ruled, with the bodies of their Nubian harem around them. This was “going native” with a vengeance.
Let’s look at the rest of the evidence that bears on the situation. There is a tomb of this same Hapdjefa at Assiut, in Egypt. Some scholars assert that he was never buried in it, but it is a nice tomb—as tombs go—with a particularly elaborate set of mortuary contracts inscribed on its walls. The titles of Hapdjefa do not include any epithet which would indicate he was a governor of Nubia. Last of all, I should mention Reisner’s statement that the statues of the Egyptian prince and his lady were carved from native Nubian rock; they were not, then, imported objects.
Well, there it is, such as it is—the evidence. What can we do with it?
A. J. Arkell, whose work in the Sudan I have mentioned before, was one of the first to disagree with Reisner. The burial mounds differ from standard Nubian funerary practice only in the magnitude of their size. Since only great chiefs could have squandered so many slaves in death, Kerma must have been the capital of Cush (also spelled Kush), a powerful Nubian kingdom after the Middle Kingdom. Kerma was a trading post during the Middle Kingdom, but the Egyptians did not have political or military control over the region.
The big stumbling block in the way of this interpretation is Reisner’s claim that the significant statues were carved of native stone. But we can get around the difficulty, if we want to, by suggesting that Reisner was mistaken (he was sometimes). The turning-home of the Egyptians as the time of death approached, which we see illustrated in The Story of Sinuhe, is a strong psychological point against the burial of Hapdjefa in Nubia. Equally formidable as an objection to the theory of Egyptian political control so far south is the long, unfortified stretch of river between Kerma and the frontier fort of Semna. It is hard to believe that a strategist of the caliber of Senusert III would build a military establishment so far from potential reinforcements.
The international excavations in Nubia before the completion of the dam contributed a great deal of information about the history of that region, and there is no doubt (in my mind, at least) that earlier theories were influenced by the no-doubt unconscious snobbery of Egyptologists about “inferior” cultures. It now seems clear that Kerma was the capital of an increasingly potent Cushite kingdom, whose rulers, as we shall see, were to pose a continual threat to Egypt. The impressive Deffufa was the base of a Cushite temple or palace, not an Egyptian-run trading post. Other Egyptian articles have been found at Kerma; they could have been acquired in trade, or in Cushite raids into Lower Nubia or Egypt itself.
Senusert III led several military expeditions to the south, so we may presume that the C peoples continued to give him trouble. He “pacified” the region so energetically that there was peace for the rest of the dynasty. But when the inevitable end came in Egypt, it was marked by fire and fury in Nubia. All the forts of the Second Cataract area were burned.
Senusert III’s greatest military exploits were in Nubia, but he led at least one expedition into a part of Palestine. The Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom probably did not have a military empire in Syria, as they did in Nubia, but contacts increased during the Twelfth Dynasty. Excavations in the Syrian cities of antiquity have turned up a goodly number of imported Egyptian objects, so Egypt must have carried on considerable trade with the east.
It is no wonder the Greeks admired Senusert, whom they called Sesostris. He had settled Nubia, ventured into the rich lands of the east, and quenched the ambitions of the noble families of Egypt—their tombs at the provincial capitals disappear during his reign. Toward the end of his life he associated his son with him on the throne, as his ancestors had done, and when he died, after thirty-eight years of unceasing activity, he sought a well-deserved rest in his pyramid at Dahshur.
Senusert’s pyramid was built of mud brick. A casing of fine white limestone hid the deficiencies of the construction for a time, but when the outer stone was removed the brick collapsed into ruin. Shortly before this time the kings had abandoned the traditional northern entrance to their tombs; that was as good as drawing a map for the ubiquitous tomb robbers. The entrance to Senusert III’s pyramid was far to the west of the structure, but as a subterfuge it was not very successful. When the French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan entered the pyramid in 1894, he found that he had been anticipated. The body of the king was no longer in the huge red sarcophagus. But de Morgan proved once again that careful excavation can turn up material which the tomb robbers missed. In a gallery under the northwest corner of the pyramid he found a collection of wonderful jewelry which had belonged to princesses of the royal family. De Morgan seems to have had a sixth sense for gold; it was he who found the second great cache of Middle Kingdom jewels near the pyramid of Amenemhat II, also at Dahshur.
Both collections included collars and bracelets, pectorals, crowns and rings that had belonged to the daughters and wives of the Twelfth Dynasty kings. The pectorals consist of inlaid gold plates cut out into elaborate designs, with cartouches of the kings flanked by hawks and supported by little kneeling gods. The workmanship is superb; sometimes there are as many as three or four hundred separate bits of semiprecious stone in each of these small masterpieces, each bit cut to fit within a space outlined by fine gold wire. The effect is that of cloisonné enamel. The colors are rather bright—red-orange of carnelian, deep lapis blue, turquoise. The pectorals were worn on the breast, suspended from necklaces of large beads.
The prettiest of all the pieces of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry is a crown made of strands of fine gold wire, starred at irregular intervals with tiny five-petaled turquoise flowers with carnelian centers. The wire was caught here and there by cross-shaped pieces of gold, and the effect of the dainty flowers against the shining black hair of the princess must have been lovely.
Most of this jewelry is in the Cairo Museum. However, another such hoard, from the pyramid of Senusert II at Lahun, was found by Petrie in 1914, and this magnificent example of the ancient jeweler’s art is now in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum. Except for the crown I have described, which is a uniquely lovely thing, the Met’s jewelry is the equal of anything in the Cairo collection. It belonged to a lady named Sit-Hathor-Iunet.
When archaeologists find anything as valuable as this jewelry, they like to deal with it personally. But when the news of the find reached Petrie, he was in a quandary; he had strained himself and was physically unable to do the job. This was not a question of going down into the tomb and lifting up a box neatly packed with pieces of jewelry. The box had decayed, as had the thread on which the beads and separate elements were strung, and the resulting mess looked like the burial chamber of Hetepheres on a miniature scale. Petrie’s standards demanded that each individual bead be cleared and recorded on the spot; otherwise, all hope of restringing the necklaces and bracelets in something like their original order would be lost. Petrie’s assistant at that time was Guy Brunton, who, like most of his students, was to become a prominent Egyptologist in his own right. Brunton spent a solid week in that tomb, curled up on the bare floor of the corridor at night to guard against thieves, and digging beads out of petrified mud by day, until the find was cleared and recorded.
Once the jewelry was restored, it was obvious that Petrie had made a superb discovery. The Cairo Museum was a lot more relaxed about releasing objects in those days, and they already had a magnificent collection of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry, thanks to de Morgan. Petrie was allowed to keep what he found. He had been excavating under the auspices of the British School of Archaeology, which was composed of individual members as well as institutions such as museums and universities. Up to this time the discoveries that the Cairo Museum relinquished had been divided among the members in proportion to the amount of their contributions, but it was obvious that the jewelry was too valuable and too important to be included in the usual seasonal division. Petrie decided to offer it to the member who (or which) would pay the most for it, the proceeds, of course, going to the School’s excavation fund. Being a loyal Englishman, he offered it first to British museums but was chagrined to discover that none of them could, or would, take advantage of the proposition. Finally he had to expand the offer overseas, and the rich Americans got into the picture. Thanks to the generosity of private donors and the solvency of its funds, the Metropolitan Museum was able to acquire Sit-Hathor-Iunet’s jewels.
Senusert III’s son was another Amenemhat, the third in number. He too was well known to the Greeks, but his achievements were in the arts of peace rather than war.
The capital of Egypt at this time was, as we have said, Ittawi near the entrance to the Fayum. The Fayum might be called a large oasis; it is a depression in the desert which, in prehistoric times, was filled by the Nile to produce a large lake. In shape the depression is strikingly leaflike; the narrow stem is the connection with the Nile valley, which leads to the river through an opening in the western cliffs. Early in the Middle Kingdom an anonymous genius conceived the idea of controlling this great mass of water for the benefit of the irrigation system, which was always a matter of interest to kings and people alike; the whole internal prosperity of the nation depended on it. The unknown genius need not have been the king, although court fiction credited him with every talent. The king does deserve credit for seeing the value of the suggestion. Great regulators for controlling inflow and outflow were built, and an immense wall was begun inside the Fayum to hold back the lake and reclaim land for cultivation.
Amenemhat III was not the initiator of this great labor, but he did more than any other king before him; his wall was probably about twenty-seven miles long and opened some seventeen thousand acres to cultivation. In a country such as Egypt, where every square foot of irrigated land is worth a fortune, these new acres were a great addition to the country’s agricultural potential. One cannot help comparing this monumental public works system with the Fourth Dynasty undertaking which was its equivalent in extent and in labor, if in nothing else—the Great Pyramid of Giza. Not that the Senuserts and the Amenemhats were altruists. The reclaimed land was not distributed to the humble peasants but was kept by the crown. Hence we may see the Great Pyramid and the dam as examples of ostentation versus practicality, rather than exploitation versus charity.
Many buildings sprang up on the new lands of the Fayum—temples, palaces, towns. They have vanished today into the soil that gave them birth, but we know about one structure in some detail. It was still standing in Greek times, and as a world-famous tourist sight was visited and described by both Strabo and Herodotus. The building was known as the Labyrinth, which gives some indication of its size and complexity. Today only a mass of limestone and granite chips, covering the surface of the ground for hundreds of square yards, shows where this wonder of antiquity once stood. But Strabo tells us that the ceilings of the chambers each consisted of a single stone, and that the passages were walled with monolithic slabs. Herodotus says the Labyrinth contained twelve walled courts and no fewer than three thousand rooms. The historian himself saw the fifteen hundred rooms that were above ground—he says—but he had to take the word of the priests as to the existence of the corresponding fifteen hundred underground chambers, since they were burial places, and sacred.
We know enough to discount about 50 percent of what any Egyptian told Herodotus. He was a marvelously receptive audience for a good story, whether he believed it or not, and the ancestors of the dragomen must have fought over who was to guide the Greek; if they resembled their descendants, they liked appreciation almost as much as they did baksheesh. Yet Herodotus is not a bad source when he is describing things he actually saw. Such a construction was perfectly possible for the Egyptians of this period. They worked massive blocks for the pyramids and carved sarcophagi and even burial chambers out of one gigantic square of stone. So we need not doubt the word of the Greeks—in this case. A modern archaeologist has calculated the size of the Labyrinth as 305 meters long by 244 meters wide—big enough to contain the enormous temples of Luxor and Karnak.
The resources and effort which the Old Kingdom monarchs had put into their tombs the Twelfth Dynasty kings used elsewhere; their pyramids were unimpressive. Amenemhat III’s pyramid was near the Labyrinth, at a site called Hawara. The Labyrinth, then, may have been in part a mortuary temple. The Hawara pyramid is a labyrinth on a small scale. Built of mud brick like that of Senusert III, its interior is fantastic; nowhere during the Middle Kingdom did a royal architect so challenge the ingenuity of the tomb robbers. The entrance was on the south, opening onto a flight of stairs leading down to a vestibule. There was no visible way out of this little chamber; the hidden exit was in the roof, of all places, where one of the slabs slid back to reveal another room. The passage leading from the second room was completely filled by huge blocks of stone. One group of thieves had laboriously chiseled a tunnel through these blocks, thus falling for one of the oldest of all practical jokes. This passage was a blind. The real one led to another chamber, which had all the appearance of a dead end. A hidden sliding door led to a second dead-end chamber; from this a trapdoor opened onto a passage that led not into the burial chamber, but past one side of it. Two false burial shafts descended from the floor of the passage (one can almost work up some pity for the thieves, chipping their way through all the extraneous stone provided for their befuddlement and uttering fulsome curses in ancient Egyptian). The far side of the same passage was filled in with stone, in order to suggest that something important lay beyond. The real entrance to the burial chamber was concealed in the middle of the passage. If a thief actually did get this far, he found himself staring in dismay at a burial chamber which was hollowed out of a single block of stone and was roofed with a gigantic stone slab that weighed forty-five tons. This stone had sealed the chamber after the royal mummy had been placed within.
It is hard to believe, but thieves did penetrate into the burial chamber. They took everything they could carry away and then set fire to the remainder, including the king’s body. Their annoyance is understandable.
When Petrie investigated this pyramid in 1880 he had as much trouble as the robbers. He found the burial chamber by digging right into the pyramid and then realized that he would have to import some expert masons to chisel through the roof block. The masons came, but the tunnel through which they had to pass was dug through sand and kept caving in. Petrie, typically, regarded the possibility of being buried alive as one of those occupational hazards an archaeologist has to put up with, but he was sufficiently aware of the foibles of lesser human beings to know that the masons would have quit on the spot if they had known how dangerous the sand tunnel was. So while the experts from Cairo were employed, Petrie spent his nights in the tunnel, shoring up the worst spots and repairing what had fallen in during the previous twenty-four hours. Finally the masons finished and Petrie wriggled, head down, through the hole. The chamber was full of water; Petrie cleared the floor by pushing chips of stones and small objects onto a hoe with his feet. When the chamber was cleared, the eminent archaeologist found the original entrance by traversing the passages in reverse, from the burial chamber out. They were filled with mud, and there was just room for him to slide, stripped and prostrate, through the traps and complications, in absolute darkness and miasmatic air, and in slime up to his ears. From this perilous and repellent trip Petrie gained nothing except the knowledge of the location of the entrance. He never dreamed of questioning that it was worth it.
We have, from time to time, talked about methods in archaeology. Here, in Petrie’s exploit, is a method that is not for the faint of heart. Let us quickly add that few Egyptologists of today have to undergo discomforts even remotely like those Petrie and his contemporaries had to endure. But the spirit that animated the pioneers is, and must be, an integral part of the archaeologist’s character. He may never have to hang by one hand from the edge of a cliff in order to copy an isolated inscription, or slither through the boggy bowels of a pyramid. But he should be ready to do so if the necessity ever arises; his is the responsibility, and his the expert eye. And if he is willing to relinquish to another the glory of being the first to gaze upon a new page out of the past, he lacks the spirit of adventure that is part of the quest for knowledge.
Amenemhat III built another pyramid at Dahshur, though he was probably buried in the labyrinthian structure at Hawara. Once again we find this strange and as yet unexplained phenomenon of two tombs, which appeared at the very beginning of the dynasties. I doubt we have yet found the complete explanation for such lavishness, but the theories keep coming.
Amenemhat III is the last of the great Twelfth Dynasty kings. The end of the dynasty is lost in obscurity, and the impact of its collapse put an end to stable government for two centuries. A period of upheaval, which we call the Second Intermediate Period, followed the fall of the Middle Kingdom, as the First Intermediate Period followed the Old Kingdom. We may talk glibly about the failure of centralized government as a cause of the anarchy, but the more basic question—what caused the centralized government to fail—is still unanswerable.
Superficially, the broad sequence of events at the end of the Old Kingdom is paralleled by what happened after the fall of the Middle Kingdom. There is even a repetition of that most ominous of all portents, the appearance of a woman on the throne of Horus. The Twelfth Dynasty lady, Sobekneferu, was apparently the last of her line; if there had been an eligible male around, he would probably have married her and taken over the throne. What is surprising is that no ineligible male (speaking from the legitimist point of view) came to carry out this procedure. We might learn a great deal, not only about the rules of inheritance in Egypt, but about the causes of the fall of the Middle Kingdom, if we knew more about this lady. It is assumed she was the sister of the last Amenemhat (number four in our reckoning). Statues (headless, unfortunately) of the lady show her in an unusual combination of male and female clothing. She must be considered a reigning queen, since one object gives her the full royal titulary. Her tomb has disappeared, unless it is one of the two disintegrated pyramids between Dahshur and Lisht, at Mazghuna. Both these pyramids were explored by—guess who? Petrie. But he found no identifying marks. There is never enough money for excavation, and one of the obvious methods of pyramid identification has never been tried at Mazghuna—the excavation of the tombs around the pyramid. It would be illuminating to find the tomb of Queen-King Sobekneferu’s vizier with a long account of his career and hers. It is more likely, however, that these pyramids date from the Thirteenth Dynasty.
What were the accomplishments of the Middle Kingdom, as compared with the Old? In one sense they were not as profound or as dramatic. The men of this second great period may have climbed as high as did their ancestors, but they did not have to start so far down on the ladder. Writing, monumental building, a state religion, a philosophy of kingship and the social order, and many other basic elements of civilization were defined in the Old Kingdom and reused by its successor. But there are changes. One of the most striking is the alteration in the face of kingship, as it appears in the statues. Look at the portrait of Senusert III—the deep lines from nose to mouth, the unsmiling, somber set of the mouth, the heavy furrows in the brow. The face of Khafre, of the Fourth Dynasty, is truly the face of a god; the features show supreme confidence, in himself and in the universe. The faces of the Middle Kingdom rulers show the weight of grave responsibility, if nothing more tragic.
We may see in these faces, and in the contrast between egocentric pyramid and public irrigation works, a sign of a change in the notion of the role of the king. Is he now the shepherd of his people rather than a remote godling; the primus inter pares of a feudal state rather than a being unique in his divinity? That would be imposing modern viewpoints that would have made no sense to the Egyptian of the Middle Kingdom. At best, any conclusion is affected by the old temptation to see the bright side (from our angle) of the people we have selected as the object of ourstudy. Even so, there is some truth in the claim that this period developed a stronger sense of social and moral responsibility than had formerly existed. Nowhere is this claim supported more strongly than in the literary works of the period. Let us examine just one more story, in order to nail down the point.
The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant must have been the special bane of little Egyptian schoolboys. It was copied extensively and used as a school exercise; its style is so confoundedly literary and artificial that a translation cannot be read by a non-Egyptologist without pages of commentary explaining the figures of speech. Some of these, let us add, are not precisely clear even to an Egyptologist.
A peasant of the Fayum is on his way to market with a train of donkeys when he encounters a petty official belonging to the house hold of Rensi, the great steward of the king. This petty official, whose name is Thutinakht, covets the peasant’s property and concocts a dastardly plan; he spreads linen across the path, forcing the peasant to lead his donkeys along the edge of the field. One of the small sad animals succumbs to temptation and snatches a bite of grain, whereupon Thutinakht confiscates the whole caravan and drives the protesting peasant away. After several days of fruitless appeal to the unscrupulous official, the desperate peasant seeks out the grand steward. He addresses this mighty man in a speech so eloquent and so poignant that the steward is loath to relinquish the plea sure of listening to him speak. So he makes no answer to the plea. The peasant, who can certainly count persistence among his character traits, returns again and again to the seemingly indifferent steward and addresses him in no fewer than eight fine speeches. In the meantime the steward has reported the peasant’s plight, and his eloquence, to the king, who orders that a copy be made of each beautiful word. He also orders that the peasant’s family be fed while the orations are being delivered—a nice touch, which we might not have expected from a tyrant. The story has a happy ending and even a touch of poetic justice: the peasant gets his property back and is further enriched by the goods of the greedy official who robbed him.
In the course of his travail, the peasant makes use of every device to sway his impassive audience—threats, pleas, exhortations, flattery. Among his arguments is an appeal to a more solemn matter: justice for the sake of justice. “Righteousness descends with the doer thereof into the tomb, and he is remembered because of it.” The argument of the peasant, and the events of the tale, pronounce the same conclusion—justice is the same for rich and poor alike. It is a conclusion that may startle us, coming at this time and this place; perhaps in no other culture did the monarch enjoy such absolute power as in ancient Egypt, where dogma proclaimed him a veritable god. But we have seen hints of this ideal in other texts and in other areas of life, so we can understand why some scholars venture to use the word democratic about certain aspects of this particular period.
Even Paradise begins to lower its barriers, for the prerogatives of immortality have been usurped by the nonroyal dead. Here a peculiar twist is given to our notion of equality; all men were equal, because every man was a king. The Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom had assured the ruler of life everlasting; the Coffin Texts of Middle Kingdom commoners endow them with a similar privilege. The soul of the dead man must face a judgment, but the judge is no longer Re, as in earlier times. He is now Osiris, ruler of the kingdom of the dead. Since the deceased was also Osiris, imitating the status of the dead king, this presents a picture that may be confusing to modern eyes—Osiris the deceased being judged by Osiris the god. But it did not bother the Egyptians. Very few inconsistencies bothered them.
Of course when we talk about commoners we are really talking about the nobles, petty and otherwise, and about the craftsman and tradesman class. Real commoners—peasants—had no coffins to write texts upon and no tombs to put the coffins in; all they had was a hole in the sand and a few pots containing food. Even so, Paradise was democratized in the sense that any man who could afford to have a coffin painted could be Osiris. The name of the god became a sort of epithet, applied to the deceased—the Osiris Hapdjefa, prince and count, or the Osiris Sanakht, carpenter. The Hereafter was becoming a capitalist society.