Ancient History & Civilisation



VICTOR IN THE CIVIL WAR AND REUNIFIER OF THE TWO LANDS, KING Mentuhotep was fêted by later generations of Egyptians as a great founder figure, on a par with Menes, the mythical first king of the First Dynasty. Yet fate decreed that Mentuhotep’s descendants did not long enjoy his hard-won spoils. After the brief and unspectacular reigns of two more Mentuhoteps, the royal line of the Theban Eleventh Dynasty, of Intef II and Mentuhotep, faltered. In its place, a new family rose to power, to claim the throne and the prize of kingship.

The Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1755) was the most stable line of kings ever to rule over ancient Egypt. For a period of 180 years, eight monarchs, representing seven generations of a single family, governed the Two Lands. Under their firm control, Egypt prospered materially and culturally. It was the golden age of ancient Egyptian literature, when many of the classics were composed. Craftsmanship reached new heights, with craftsmen creating the most exquisite jewelry to survive from the ancient world. Egypt’s reach and influence were extended more widely than ever before, and in new directions, embracing the Aegean, Cyprus, and Anatolia as well as the Red Sea coast and Nubia. And, above all, the Nile Valley and delta themselves were reordered into a unified, well-regulated, and efficient country, a recentralized state to banish the recent divisions of civil war.

This description of the Twelfth Dynasty is factually accurate. Yet it is misleading in one crucial respect—it signally fails to capture the prevailing mood of the period. Literary works focus on uncomfortable themes such as world-weariness (Dispute Between a Man and His Soul), national upheaval (The Admonitions of Ipuwer), and regicide (The Instruction of Amenemhat I for His Son). The glowing picture of Middle Kingdom civilization that finds favor in some histories of ancient Egypt is jarringly at odds both with writings from that time and with the evidence for internal politics and government. From its very inception, the Twelfth Dynasty set out to change the way Egypt was ruled and the way society was organized. Its was a utopian vision—or dystopian, depending on your standpoint—of absolute order, underpinned by a rigid bureaucratic framework and by the suppression of all dissent. In the business of government, the kings of the Twelfth Dynasty displayed a ruthless streak, entirely in keeping with the policies of their Old Kingdom forebears. In their determination to establish rock-solid internal security, they outdid all their predecessors, deploying sophisticated propaganda alongside brute force, subtle persuasion backed up by terror tactics. Beneath the outward show of glittering high culture, darker forces were at work.

The prevailing tone of Twelfth Dynasty rule was established at its outset. Given that the founder of the new royal line was a commoner by birth, it is scarcely surprising that the official record does not document the manner of his accession. But there are enough hints to suggest the likely course of events. The last king of the Eleventh Dynasty, Mentuhotep IV (1948–1938), was the namesake of the great reunifier but seems entirely to have lacked his leadership qualities. He had inherited his forebear’s strongly Theban outlook, but not his wider ambitions. Provincial by nature as well as by background, he left no major monuments. The principal accomplishment of his short reign was to dispatch a quarrying expedition to the Black Mountains of the Wadi Hammamat, to bring back a block of stone for the royal sarcophagus. Details of the expedition were recorded in four inscriptions, cut into the quarry face. Although they pay due reverence to the king as the mission’s sponsor, and wish him (insincerely, one imagines) “millions of jubilees,” they give the credit for the expedition’s success to its actual leader, and the man behind the inscriptions: “the member of the elite, high official, overseer of the city, vizier, overseer of officials, lord of judgment … overseer of everything in this entire land, the vizier Amenemhat.”1 The next time we encounter a man named Amenemhat in high office, he is lord of the Two Lands and son of Ra, the founder of the Twelfth Dynasty. Although the transition from king’s right-hand man to monarch is not explicitly attested, there can be little doubt that Amenemhat I took full advantage of his unrivaled position at court to seize the throne when it fell vacant, or when the opportunity arose.

There are strong indications that the new dynasty came to power in lawless times, by means of a coup d’état rather than by peaceful succession. A remarkable series of inscriptions in another stone quarry, at Hatnub in Middle Egypt, give a vivid account of struggles within Egypt during Amenemhat I’s reign (1938–1908). Written during the tenure of the local governor Nehri, the texts are unusually dated to his years of office, not those of the reigning king. This extraordinary assumption of the kingly prerogative by a mere provincial official suggests all was not well with the age-old model of royal government. The inscriptions themselves tell of rebellion, famine, plunder, invading armies, and civil strife. And at the heart of the unrest was the palace itself: “I rescued my town on the day of fighting from the sickening terror of the royal house.”2 There is no more chilling reference to tyrannical monarchy in all of Egyptian history. Amenemhat I had chosen his Horus name well. “He who pacifies the heart of the Two Lands” had a deliberately aggressive undertone, and the long hand of royal “pacification” reached even beyond the Nile Valley, into the vast expanses of the Sahara. An experienced desert huntsman and overseer of the Western Desert named Kay was called upon to lead a counterinsurgency operation, to seek out and round up fugitives from the new regime. On Kay’s funerary stela are the words, “I reached the western oasis, I investigated all its tracks, I brought [back] the fugitives I found there.”3 Under Twelfth Dynasty rule, there would be no hiding place for rebels.

Yet opposition was not so easily crushed. The king seems to have faced attack from several quarters, including internal dissent along Egypt’s two banks. A funerary stela from the time refers to a naval campaign along the Nile and a dawn raid against a landing stage, while the contemporary inscription of the regional governor Khnumhotep I, in his tomb at Beni Hasan, alludes to the same mission: “I sailed with His Majesty to the south in twenty cedar ships. Then he returned, kissing the earth [for joy], because he had driven him from the Two Banks.”4 The foe is deliberately left unnamed. Inscribing his name in sacred hieroglyphs would have given him the possibility of eternal life, but he was clearly a homegrown rebel, perhaps even the last king of the Eleventh Dynasty or one of his adherents. Moreover, the reliefs in Khnumhotep’s tomb (and the tombs of his immediate successors) show Egyptians attacking fellow Egyptians in full-scale urban warfare—unprecedented scenes in deeply unsettled times.

Eventually, the king’s forces triumphed, and Amenemhat I lost no time in appointing his loyal lieutenants to key posts in the administration. Khnumhotep was appointed mayor of the regional capital of Menat-Khufu; elsewhere in Middle Egypt, nomarchs whose families had served under the Eleventh Dynasty were summarily dismissed, to be replaced by trusted loyalists who owed everything to the current regime. Egypt’s new master was tightening his grip on the levers of government.


BOLSTERED BY HIS SUCCESS IN REPRESSING INTERNAL DISSENT, THE king set about restoring the status of the monarchy. Since time immemorial, the two most important roles of the sovereign had been to uphold order and to satisfy the gods. Having done the first, it was time for the second. Amenemhat I duly ordered construction to begin on a great temple to his patron deity, the Theban god Amun. After all, Amenemhat meant “Amun is at the forefront.” So nothing less than the grandest temple in the land would suffice. Before the Twelfth Dynasty, Egyptian temples had been very modest affairs—small, often irregular constructions of mud brick, with only a sparing use of stone for doorways, thresholds, and the like. The most imposing buildings in Egypt were not the temples of deities but the pyramids of kings. Amenemhat changed all that, inaugurating the tradition of monumental edifices dedicated to the major gods and goddesses. Little remains of the Middle Kingdom temple of Amun at Ipetsut (modern Karnak)—it was unceremoniously swept away by later royal builders—but it must have dominated the adjoining city, making a powerful statement of royal power. The complex measured more than 330 feet long by 214 feet broad and was enclosed by two thick perimeter walls. Inside stood the sanctuary, fronted by a magnificent stone terrace, and surrounded by a maze of corridors and storerooms. By comparison with the trifling provincial temples of the Old Kingdom, it was staggering in its scale. It was also a harbinger of things to come. Amenemhat I and his successors would show an insatiable appetite for state-planned construction, the architectural manifestation of their new order.

A penchant for grand architectural statements was characteristically Egyptian, but Amenemhat took it to new heights, with a project that dwarfed even his temple to Amun. Toward the middle of his reign, the king gave the order to commence construction of nothing less than a new capital city. A narrow focus on Thebes and its hinterland had been a fatal weakness of the Eleventh Dynasty, and Amenemhat was not about to make the same mistake. The only practical solution for governing a vast realm like Egypt was to place the capital at its geographical center, and that is exactly where the new dynastic city would be built. The location was at the very junction of Upper and Lower Egypt, the balance of the Two Lands. But, to signify his iron will, the king chose a starker name for the city: Amenemhat-Itj-Tawy, “Amenemhat seizes the Two Lands.” It was a bald assertion of his modus operandi—the means by which he had gained the throne, and the way in which he intended to govern.

To mark the inauguration of his new capital, the king also adopted a new Horus name. As always, the choice reflected the monarch’s personal agenda. Out went references to “pacifying the heart of the Two Lands”; that had largely been achieved, and Itj-tawy now stood as concrete proof. Instead, the king proclaimed himself the instigator of a thoroughgoing renaissance. Under Amenemhat, Egypt would be reborn, its civilization rejuvenated, and its monarchy reestablished. If the aim was to bring back the cultural zenith of the Pyramid Age, a good way to start was by building an appropriately grand royal tomb. So, for the first time in two centuries, the order went out from the royal palace to the architects, masons, and craftsmen of Egypt. The king required a pyramid. Furthermore, it had to be on the same scale as the pyramids of the late Old Kingdom. Taking its dimensions from the royal monuments of the Sixth Dynasty, Amenemhat I’s pyramid started to rise on the desert plateau close to his new capital city. Nothing like it had been seen for three hundred years. To give it added legitimacy and potency, the king ordered that blocks from the greatest of all such monuments, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, at Giza, be transported to Itj-tawy and incorporated into the core of his own pyramid. Demolishing and cannibalizing the monument of an illustrious predecessor might appear sacrilegious, but it was an essential part of the renaissance plan. His successors of the Twelfth Dynasty would all follow his lead and build their own pyramids. Well might Amenemhat boast, “Kingship has become again what it was in the past!”5

Having quelled internal rebellion, honored the gods, and begun a pyramid, Amenemhat I might have been tempted to think that the rebirth of Egyptian civilization was assured. However, foreign incursions from Palestine and Nubia during the First Intermediate Period had taught Egypt a hard lesson: its neighbors to the north and south had greedy eyes for the Nile Valley’s fertile pastures. Maintaining the country’s prosperity required active defense of its territorial integrity. Alive to the threat, the king directed his zeal toward securing the nation’s borders. His policy would set the scene for the following century and a half. Egypt would be turned into a fortress. The country’s northeastern frontier, along the margins of the delta, presented a particular challenge. The marshy terrain, crisscrossed by river branches and canals, made it difficult, if not impossible, to establish a fixed border, or to maintain watertight control over immigration from the impoverished lands of Palestine beyond. Amenemhat’s response was to order the construction of a series of fortified bases, strung out along the frontier zone, within signaling distance of each other. Regular patrols were dispatched from each garrison to monitor traffic across the border. In this way, these Walls of the Ruler might hope to prevent major incursions and could provide intelligence on any unusual movements. The emphasis on surveillance as a means of control was characteristic of the Twelfth Dynasty’s security policy.

Egypt’s southern flank, its border with Nubia, posed a different threat and required a different solution. Ever since the expeditions of Harkhuf in the Sixth Dynasty, it had been clear that the peoples of Wawat (lower Nubia), closest to the Egyptian border, were reasserting their autonomy and forming states of their own, in direct defiance of Egyptian hegemony. With Egypt wracked by internal strife and civil war following the collapse of the Old Kingdom, this process merely accelerated. The reliance of the Theban army on Nubian mercenaries may have bolstered still further the Nubians’ own sense of nationhood. By the end of the Eleventh Dynasty, the situation could scarcely have been worse for the Egyptian king. Not only had he lost control over most of Wawat, but his very prestige was being openly challenged by local Nubian rulers who were using Egyptian royal titles. One such, styling himself “the Horus Ankhkhnumra, the King Wadjkara, the son of Ra Segerseni,” even referred to the Egyptians as “the enemies,” turning the established rhetoric on its head. Another, with the affrontery to call himself King Intef after the great Theban war leaders of the early Eleventh Dynasty, was confident enough to have a series of fifteen inscriptions cut into rocks at prominent locations throughout his territory. Such blatant insults to the might of Egypt could not be tolerated.

A large number of inscriptions carved in the same region by Egyptian expeditions bear witness to a frenzy of activity from the early years of Amenemhat I’s reign. Even as he was bearing down on his opponents within Egypt, it appears his spies were at work in lower Nubia, carrying out maneuvers and gathering intelligence, in preparation for a full-scale assault. After two decades of preparations, during which order was restored at home, Egyptian forces regained control of the key site of Buhen, at the foot of the second Nile cataract, and started to turn it into a fortified base, to use as a springboard for military campaigns. By Amenemhat I’s twenty-ninth year on the throne, everything was ready. An expeditionary force led by his trusted vizier Intefiqer arrived from Egypt to overthrow Wawat. In his determination to snuff out any vestige of Nubian independence and to impose absolute Egyptian control over the wayward province, the king’s henchman showed no mercy to the local inhabitants, boasting:

Then I killed the Nubians of the entire remainder of Wawat. I sailed upstream in victory, killing the Nubian upon his land; and I sailed downstream, uprooting crops and cutting down the remaining trees. I put their houses to the torch, as is done to a rebel against the king.6

Amenemhat’s scorched-earth policy was designed not merely to punish Wawat but to send a powerful message to any other would-be insurgents. As for the unfortunate Nubians who watched from the riverbank as their land was devastated and their houses went up in flames, their fate was sealed. Before laying waste to Wawat, Intefiqer recorded that he was “busy building this compound.” The enclosure in question was a holding area (the ancient Egyptians might have preferred the modern euphemism “reception center”) for people conscripted for state labor. A life of servitude lay in store for the conquered inhabitants of Wawat. They and their descendants would toil to exploit the resources of their homeland for its new Egyptian masters.


UNEASY LIES THE HEAD THAT WEARS A CROWN—THE MORE SO WHEN that crown has been won by force rather than inherited by lawful succession. Amenemhat I, founder of a new dynasty and self-proclaimed renaissance king, was acutely conscious of his nonroyal origins and of the lingering resentment felt toward his rule in parts of Egypt, never mind in conquered Nubia. Anxious, above all, to consolidate his family’s grip on power and ensure a smooth succession, Amenemhat took the highly unusual, if not unprecedented, step of having his son and heir crowned king while he himself still reigned. Prince Senusret became co-regent at the end of Amenemhat’s second decade on the throne (circa 1918), and the two kings ruled jointly for a further decade. A few monuments bear joint dates, although for the most part Amenemhat seems to have been content for formal inscriptions to be dated to his son’s reign. The institution of co-regency became a feature of royal succession in the Twelfth Dynasty. It served its primary purpose of excluding any rival claimants to the throne until, after a further century and a half, the dynasty itself ran out of steam.

But even this ultimate contingency could not protect Amenemhat I from his regime’s many enemies. He had lived by the sword and he would perish in the same manner. A remarkable and unique text composed after his death has the dead king, like Old Hamlet, recalling the manner of his assassination to his son and successor:

It was after supper and night had fallen. I was taking an hour of rest, lying on my bed, for I was weary. My mind was beginning to drift off, when weapons [meant] for defense were turned against me. I was like a snake of the desert. I awoke at the fighting … and found it was the guard about to strike. If I had seized weapons there and then, I would have made the buggers retreat … but no one is brave in the night, no one can fight alone.7

Thus did the first tyrant of the Twelfth Dynasty meet his fate. But with a co-regent already on the throne, the desperate assassins had made a terrible miscalculation. In place of the father, the son assumed full power and lost no time in continuing the same policies, but with an added twist. Where overt oppression had failed, subtler methods would be deployed to win the battle for hearts and minds.

Commissioning a work of literature on the theme of his father’s regicide was a bold step for Senusret I. It threatened the very ideology of divine kingship and broke a powerful taboo against discussing crises in public. But Senusret and his advisers were playing a clever game. They realized there was more to gain by publicizing the murder than by trying to hush it up. Back in the days of the civil war, provincial leaders such as Ankhtifi had used tales of crisis to emphasize their good deeds and legitimize their power. Now the political thought of the First Intermediate Period provided the foundations for the ruling ideology of the Twelfth Dynasty. By presenting the assassination of Amenemhat I in literary form to the elite of the royal court (the very individuals who posed the greatest threat to the king’s life), Senusret gave himself the perfect excuse for a crackdown. His father acquired the status of martyr, the son the role of devoted disciple. Before the Twelfth Dynasty, the Nile Valley had produced scarcely any literature worthy of the name. Ever practical, Egyptian society had had little time or space for mere wordsmiths. Now, Senusret realized, poets and authors might prove just as potent as army commanders.

The flowering of literature in the Twelfth Dynasty ranks as one of the greatest cultural achievements of the Middle Kingdom. The works composed for the royal court, some of them undoubtedly at the king’s personal behest, are classics, dealing with complex themes and powerful emotions, but all in the service of the royal house. Amenemhat I had explored the possibilities of propagandist literature early in his reign, presenting himself in The Prophecies of Neferti as the savior of Egypt and the champion of cosmic order following a period of distress and calamity:

A king will come from the south

Ameny, the justified, his name …

Then order will return to its [proper] place,

And chaos will be driven out.8

Senusret I’s litterati perfected the art with the composition of the outstanding masterpiece of ancient Egyptian literature, The Tale of Sinuhe. It is a fictional story of a courtier who flees Egypt on hearing of the assassination of Amenemhat I. Sinuhe finds refuge at the court of a Palestinian ruler and achieves both wealth and fame in exile. But as his life draws toward a close, he longs to return to Egypt, to embrace everything it stands for, and to be reconciled with the king, its supreme embodiment:

May the king of Egypt be satisfied with me, that I may live at his pleasure.

May I pay my respects to the mistress of the land who is in his palace,

and hearken to her children’s bidding. Then my limbs will be rejuvenated.9

The popularity of Sinuhe, which was read and reread for centuries after its composition, is due to its literary brilliance, its narrative flair, and its emotional impact. But the underlying theme of loyalty to the monarch is inextricably interwoven, running as a subliminal thread through the story. As a work both of literature and of propaganda, Sinuhe is exemplary.

A rather more blatant example of political literature, The Loyalist Instruction, made loyalty to the king the guiding commandment for righteous living, urging all Egyptians to:

Worship the king within your bodies,

Be well disposed toward His Majesty in your minds.

Cast dread of him daily;

Create jubilation for him every instant.

And, just in case that exhortation fell on deaf ears, there was a chilling reminder of the surveillance state to back it up:

He sees what is in hearts;

His eyes, they search out every body.10

But despite this onslaught of textual injunctions to support the monarchy, the political unrest that had destabilized Egypt during Amenemhat I’s reign flared up again. A further expedition had to be dispatched into the Western Desert “to secure the land of the oasis dwellers,”11 while in the Nile Valley itself, temples at Djerty (modern Tod) and Abu, in the south of the country, were looted and destroyed. These acts of desecration were blamed on the usual suspects (Asiatics and Nubians) but were very probably stoked or supported by homegrown insurgents. The king’s forces succeeded in restoring law and order; the rebels were rounded up and executed by being burned alive as human torches. Senusret I then pointedly showered attention on local temples throughout the seven southernmost provinces of Egypt (the old “head of the south” and heartland of the Eleventh Dynasty). One of the most beautiful of his new buildings was a jubilee pavilion for the temple of Amun at Ipetsut. Its delicate reliefs, in fine white limestone, show the king and god embracing, a visual metaphor for the regime’s avowed legitimacy. Yet, side by side with this lofty imagery, the pavilion also demonstrates the Middle Kingdom obsession with bureaucracy. Along the base, the forty-two provinces of Egypt are enumerated, each with its representative deity, and the geographical extent of each province is given in river units (roughly six and a half miles). In Egyptian hands, a decorative scheme intended to demonstrate the all-embracing nature of the king’s rule could not resist including some purely statistical information of the kind beloved by bureaucrats.

The fortress of Buhen at the second cataract  COURTESY OF THE EGYPT EXPLORATION SOCIETY

The administrative practices honed to perfection in provincial capitals the length and breadth of Egypt came in useful, too, for governing Egyptian-controlled lower Nubia. The campaign to overthrow Wawat, prosecuted nine years into the co-regency of Amenemhat I and Senusret I (circa 1909), paved the way for the formal annexation of Nubia as far south as the second cataract. Egypt demonstrated its hegemony in characteristic fashion, by embarking on massive state building projects, in this case fortresses to consolidate its subjugation of the local population. (The castles built by Edward I of England following his conquest and annexation of Wales are a more recent example of the same phenomenon.) The fortifications, strung out along the river between the first and second cataracts, were designed to withstand both surprise attack and protracted siege warfare—lessons learned, perhaps, during the civil war half a century earlier. Each fortress comprised a massive rectangular mud brick wall, further strengthened with external towers along the sides and at the corners. The landward wall was guarded by a deep ditch, while on the inner side a low parapet with semicircular bastions and downward-pointing loopholes for archers provided a secondary line of defense. All in all, the Nubian forts were marvels of military architecture, and they must have made a deep impression on the indigenous inhabitants, living alongside in their clusters of mud huts. With garrisons now stationed in impregnable bases guarding strategic points along the river (not least the main route to the gold and copper mines of the Eastern Desert), long-term Egyptian control of Wawat was assured. When, in Senusret’s eighteenth year on the throne, his army launched a further campaign as far as the third cataract, the general in charge, Mentuhotep, could boast with some justification of having “pacified the southerners.”


BY THE END OF SENUSRET I’S LONG REIGN OF NEARLY HALF A CENTURY (1918–1875), the troubles surrounding the beginning of the dynasty had been consigned to history. Egypt and lower Nubia were under the firm control of the central government. The gold, copper, and precious stones that poured into the royal workshops from mines in conquered Wawat provided craftsmen with the finest materials, enabling them to create jewelry, statuary, and objets d’art to beautify the royal court, enhance royal prestige, and swell the coffers of the state still further through long-distance trade in high-value luxury goods.

Egypt’s foreign relations were not only confined to trade. Confident at home, Egypt showed a new willingness to engage in military activity abroad to defend its economic interests and secure access to important sources of raw materials. Both facets of foreign policy are illustrated in spectacular fashion during the reign of Senusret I’s successor, a second Amenemhat. In the temple of Djerty, near Thebes, which had been ransacked by rebels and restored during the reign of Senusret I, four copper chests were uncovered, hidden in the foundations. Each was engraved with the name of Amenemhat II, and together they contained a fabulous treasure: beads, seals, and uncut pieces of lapis lazuli; ingots, chains, a model lion, and cups, all of silver; ingots and vessels of pure gold. The hoard remains one of the richest discoveries ever made in the Nile Valley. But it was not just the wealth of the horde that excited attention. The trade networks it represented were equally impressive. The lapis lazuli came from Mesopotamia and the distant mines of Badakhshan, while the silver cups were of Minoan design and must have come from Crete or a Minoan mercantile community in Syria.

A more recent discovery has confirmed this internationalism in Egypt’s outlook during the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty. A block of stone from Memphis contains extracts from the annals of Amenemhat II (1876–1842), a detailed journal of the activities of the royal court during the early years of the king’s reign. Besides the expected religious festivals and dedications of new cult statues, the most surprising entries record expeditions of a military nature against distant lands. One reads, “Dispatching an expedition together with the overseer of infantry troops to hack up Asia,” a raid that yielded a rich booty of silver, gold, cattle, livestock, and Asiatic slaves. A further campaign against Lebanon added similar plunder to the royal treasury, together with valuable coniferous woods and aromatic oils. Perhaps most intriguing, however, is the entry that records the return of the infantry troops “after hacking up Iwa and Iasy,” lands that supplied tribute of bronze and malachite as well as wood and slaves. The otherwise unknown land of Iwa may be Ura, a site on the coast of southeastern Turkey. If so, this Twelfth Dynasty expedition would be the only known occasion on which an Egyptian army raided Asia Minor. Iasy is even more tantalizing. The fact that it supplied two copper-based materials (bronze and malachite), and the writing of the place-name itself, leads to the conclusion that Iasy is probably Cyprus. Under Amenemhat II, Egypt was evidently a major player in the power politics of the eastern Mediterranean, a full 350 years before the establishment of a formal Egyptian empire in the Near East.

According to the annals, the human cargo brought back from these foreign adventures numbered thousands of slaves. Their forcible resettlement in the Nile Valley, to work on crown lands and take part in state building projects, changed profoundly the ethnic balance of Egypt’s population, with long-term, unforeseen consequences. A significant concentration of Asiatic transportees ended up building and servicing the town of Kahun, founded by Amenemhat II’s successor, Senusret II, to house the personnel attached to his nearby pyramid. In its strict grid layout, functional zoning, and demarcation of residential quarters by social class, Kahun represents the zenith of centralized planning and the epitome of the structured view of society so favored by the Twelfth Dynasty. Within the massive rectangular enclosure wall (designed as much, we may suspect, to keep people in as to protect them from unwanted intruders), the town was divided into two unequal sections. In the more spacious area lived the senior bureaucrats in their impressive villas, conveniently located for easy access to the town’s administrative headquarters. On the other side of the divide, in much more cramped conditions, row upon row of small barracklike dwellings, separated by narrow alleyways, housed the town’s workforce . It was a bald architectural reflection of the “them and us” attitude so typical of ancient Egyptian officialdom. And in Kahun, as in occupied Wawat, a compound where people could be held under restraint was an essential element in the infrastructure of state control.

Indeed, the fact that the Twelfth Dynasty kings followed very much the same policy in Egypt as in conquered Nubia speaks volumes about their worldview: resources—human as well as material, native as well as foreign—were there to be exploited for the benefit of the crown. People were merely another commodity, to be shipped from place to place according to need. Just as the industrial processes of baking, brewing, and craft manufacture could best be accommodated in regimented barrack-like workshops, so the workforce could be housed in similar fashion. Wherever Twelfth Dynasty settlements are encountered, whether in the Nile delta or in Upper Egypt, they display the same rigid design. They often seem to have been founded on virgin sites, and so must have involved the forcible relocation of entire populations—all at the whim of the state.


THIS DESPOTIC MODEL OF MONARCHY, OF ORDER WITH AN IRON FIST, culminated in the reign of Senusret III (1836–1818), the most widely attested member of his dynasty. Under his authoritarian rule, all the elements of Twelfth Dynasty control were brought together in one concerted program—propagandist literature, rigid state planning, centralization of power in Egypt, and conquest and military occupation in Nubia—along with a new vehicle for projecting royal power, portrait sculpture.

Beginning with the written and spoken word, Senusret’s poets and scriptwriters outdid themselves in the composition of laudatory texts, extolling the king’s virtues. The most extreme example is the Cycle of Hymns, intended, it seems, for recitation on the occasion of a royal visit, or perhaps in front of a statue of the king:

How Egypt rejoices in your strong arm:

you have safeguarded its traditions.

How the common people rejoice in your counsel:

your power has won increase for them.

How the Two Banks rejoice in your intimidation:

you have enlarged their possessions.

How your young conscripts rejoice:

you have made them flourish.

How your revered elders rejoice:

you have made them young again.12

And so on, and so on, for stanza after stanza. A slightly subtler approach was taken in two monumental works of “pessimistic literature,” The Complaints of Khakheperraseneb and The Admonitions of Ipuwer. Following in the footsteps of the earlier Prophecies of Neferti, an elaborate and vivid picture of utter chaos and social turmoil provided the literary background against which the firm rule of the king could be justified as necessary and even beneficent. These highly refined compositions played on the Egyptian mind-set, which—molded by the precarious balance of existence and the sharp dichotomies of nature in the Nile Valley (flood and drought, day and night, fertile land and arid desert)—saw the world as a constant battle between order and chaos. These works were squarely aimed at the literate elite surrounding the king, who seem to have wilted under such a sustained barrage of propaganda.

Having browbeaten his inner circle into submission, Senusret III turned his attention to the powerful governors, who since the days of the civil war had exercised considerable authority in the provinces of Middle Egypt. In theory, of course, every individual held office at the king’s discretion, and it would have been perfectly possible for Senusret simply to dismiss the nomarchs and refuse to appoint successors. But he was too wily an operator for such a blatant display of force against an influential political class. There was no point in risking a reawakening of the dissent that had marred the early years of the Twelfth Dynasty, not when an alternative course of action presented itself. His chosen policy was ruthless, calculated, and brilliant: he neutered the nomarchs, and their potential heirs, under the guise of promoting them. Lured away from their regional power bases by the offer of prestigious (and lucrative) positions at court, men such as Khnumhotep III of Beni Hasan moved to the royal residence to enjoy the trappings of high office, leaving their provinces to be ruled from the center. Within a generation, nomarchs had disappeared from the Egyptian political scene. And once at court, officials were brought to heel, interred in tombs provided for them by the king, arranged in a neat row in the court cemetery.

This dynastic obsession with rigid planning found outlets in the two most ambitious building projects of Senusret III’s reign. The first was his pyramid town, a settlement for those who worked on his pyramid at the holy site of Abdju. Here, as at Kahun, everything was laid out mathematically, the houses made of uniformly sized mud bricks and organized in blocks one hundred cubits wide, separated by streets five cubits wide. Again, elite residences occupied the prime spot (highest up, farthest from the cultivation, with its humidity and mosquitoes), while the rest of the population had to make do with cramped conditions on the other side of town. The whole settlement was modestly named Wah-sut-Khakaura-maa-kheru-em-Abdju, “enduring are the places of Khakaura [Senusret III’s throne name], the justified, in Abdju.” This proved rather too much for the locals, who shortened its name for everyday purposes to Wah-sut.

The king’s most impressive application of zeal and energy, however, was reserved for Nubia. His motivation was threefold: to consolidate Egyptian hegemony in Wawat and establish a new, permanent border; to control trade between upper Nubia and Egypt, for the benefit of the royal treasury; and to ward off the threat from the powerful kingdom of Kush, with its capital at Kerma, beyond the third cataract. His chosen policy was equally impressive in scope—the construction of a line of substantial fortresses throughout the second cataract region. Although the forts were designed to operate as an integrated system, each individual fort had its own particular role to play. Kor, on an island in the Nile, served as a campaign palace, a headquarters for the king during military maneuvers. Iken (modern Mirgissa) was the main trading post, sited well within Egyptian-controlled territory. Askut, given the bloodcurdling name “destroying the Nubians,” was the most secure of the forts. It was primarily a fortified granary but also served as a center for forced labor throughout the gold-mining region of the second cataract. As befitted an arm of state control in conquered territory, the fort was centrally staffed and supplied from distant Egypt, despite the proximity of thriving native settlements. Shalfak, called “subduing the foreign lands,” was a base for paramilitary patrols, sent into the surrounding desert to monitor the movement of people and goods. Uronarti, or “repelling the tribesmen,” served as a command center for the regional garrisons and provided a further campaign palace for the king’s use. A common feature of all the forts was their inspired use of the local topography to enhance their defensive capability. Curtain walls ran along the line of rocky ridges, steep cliffs were topped with towering battlements, and covered stairs led to the river to ensure access to a water supply in the case of siege.

Beyond Uronarti, the most impressive group of forts—and the focus of the entire policy—guarded the narrow Semna Gorge, a natural border that was easy to defend. On the east bank, overlooking the main river channel and preventing infiltration from the Eastern Desert, stood Kumma, “opposing the bowmen.” Facing it, on the west side of the gorge, was the principal fortress of Semna, “powerful is Khakaura, the justified.” Dominated by large barracks, Semna stood ready to seal the gorge and defend Egyptian interests from attack by Kush. In addition to having a permanent garrison of four hundred to five hundred men, the commander could also quickly summon reinforcements from Uronarti, Iken, and Buhen, farther downstream, via a system of beacons sited at relay stations within sight of each other. In times of peace, the main role of the Semna garrison was to control traffic along this stretch of the Nile. Vessels would moor in the fort’s lower pool while cargoes were off-loaded onto Egyptian ships or overland donkey caravans for the onward journey to Iken. A forward base at Semna South, given the belligerent name “suppressing the Nubians,” provided a holding area for native caravans awaiting permission to continue their journeys, as well as a lookout to monitor people and ships approaching the gorge.

Together, the second cataract forts presented an awesome display of Egyptian military and administrative might: an architectural expression of the king’s power as well as a logistical support for Egyptian interests in the region. No wonder that Senusret III would later be venerated as a god in Wawat, or that Greek historians would dub him “High Sesostris” (“Sesostris” was the Greek rendering of “Senusret”). Just as important as the forts themselves, however, was the system of surveillance they supported. In a remarkable series of documents known as the Semna Dispatches, the patrols that were sent out on a regular basis from Semna South, Semna, Kumma, Uronarti, and Shalfak reported their findings to the local commander. In an atmosphere of nervousness approaching paranoia, the patrols adopted an uncompromising stop-and-search policy. Even small groups of Nubians were intercepted, by force if necessary, and questioned. Those without legitimate business in Egyptian-controlled territory were sent back over the border. A typical dispatch reads: “The patrol who went forth to patrol the desert-edge … have come to report to me, saying, ‘We have found the track of 32 men and 3 asses.…’ ”13 Every patrol leader signed off his dispatch with the same words: “All the affairs of the King’s Domain (life, prosperity, health!) are safe and sound.” One can detect a desperate eagerness to prove that nothing untoward had happened.


The determination of the Egyptian authorities to maintain absolute control was certainly in keeping with the Twelfth Dynasty’s obsession with security, borne of bitter experience. Rather than their actions being an unnecessarily macho response to a relatively low threat level, it now appears that fear of attack by the kingdom of Kush was well placed. Egypt’s rival on the upper Nile was wealthy, powerful, and jealous of its northern neighbor, a dangerous combination. So, as an added incentive to his garrisons to fight the good fight, Senusret III had a monumental stela set up inside the fortress at Semna. Its inscription urged the soldiers to defend the king’s conquests with the words “Valorous it is to attack, vile to retreat.”14 Senusret boasted of his own ruthlessness against the Nubians: “I have carried off their women and brought away their dependants, burst forth to [poison] their wells, driven off their bulls, ripped up their barley, and set fire to it.”15 Total warfare was the Egyptian ideal. Finally, the king had a statue of himself installed in a special shrine at Semna, to inspire his men to loyalty and bravery. The inscription read, “My Majesty has had an image of My Majesty made upon this frontier … so that you will be steadfast for it, so that you will fight for it.”16 It was impossible to resist such a powerful mix of propaganda and coercion, of encouragement and intimidation.

Indeed, one look at a typical statue of Senusret III would have been enough to convince any soldier to do his duty. Never before in the history of ancient Egypt had a king used sculpture so effectively to project so terrifying an image of royal power. Senusret III’s statues—and there are many of them—have a deeply unsettling effect. The torso is always taut, muscular, and virile, presenting the ideal of youthful vigor beloved of Egyptian kings. But it is the face that haunts the viewer: bulging eyes under hooded lids, sunken cheeks, a brooding down-turned mouth. This radical departure from the conventions of royal portraiture is at once mesmerizing and terrifying; his is the true face of tyranny. Adding to the effect are the outsize ears, their message being that Senusret was the all-hearing monarch. Those who spoke out of turn were likely to regret their indiscretion.

The Twelfth Dynasty police state continued under the king’s iron grip for another half century after Senusret III. His successor, Amenemhat III (1818–1770), favored a meaner style of portraiture alongside archaic forms of sculpture, designed to underline the antiquity of kingship. The achievements of his reign were spectacular: massive reclamation and building works in the Fayum; not one but two pyramids (the first having developed cracks just as it neared completion); and an upsurge in mining and quarrying expeditions to bring back precious stones for the royal workshops (four expeditions to the Wadi Hammamat for graywacke, three to the Wadi el-Hudi for amethyst, and no fewer than twenty-three to the Sinai for turquoise). In cultural terms, his reign marks the high point of the Twelfth Dynasty. Fueled by Nubian gold, trade with the Near East prospered, too. The king rewarded his loyal allies, the princes of Kebny, by showering them with gifts. They, in turn, became increasingly Egyptianized in an attempt to emulate their powerful sponsors.

Close ties between the Egyptians and their Asiatic neighbors were also maintained in the Sinai peninsula, where the local Palestinian rulers provided logistical support to the Egyptian mining expeditions. With friendly relations established, the peaceful immigration of Asiatics into Egypt, especially into the northeastern delta, replaced the forcible resettlement of Asiatic slaves that had taken place earlier in the dynasty. Semitic-speaking Asiatics from the Sinai, with their experience in desert travel, made ideal recruits for Egypt’s paramilitary police force patrolling the Western Desert. Interacting with Egyptian military scribes, they developed a hybrid script for writing their own language—the earliest alphabetic script in history. But the steady buildup of an Asiatic population in the Nile Valley and delta would soon make itself felt in other ways as well, with disastrous consequences for Egypt.

At the end of Amenemhat III’s long reign of nearly five decades, the unthinkable happened: the dynasty found itself without a youthful male heir to carry the torch for another generation. As an emergency measure, the old king had an aged relative crowned co-regent. But, whether through lack of personal charisma, faltering political support, or merely old age, Amenemhat IV failed to make an impression during his decade on the throne. He was succeeded in turn by a daughter of Amenemhat III, Sobekneferu (1760–1755). The accession of Egypt’s first female king—there was no word for “queen,” the very notion being anathema to ancient Egyptian ideology—was a sure sign that the Twelfth Dynasty had run out of steam. Desperate to bolster her legitimacy, she emphasized her relationship with her father (virtually ignoring her ineffective predecessor), and concentrated her building activities at Hawara, where Amenemhat III had constructed his second pyramid complex. But after a brief reign of just four years, Sobekneferu, too, was gone.

The dynasty that had begun with a bang ended with a whimper. Without the smack of firm government, the forces of disorder, both inside and outside the country, saw their chance.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!