Ancient History & Civilisation

OUR VIEW OF ANCIENT EGYPT IS PROFOUNDLY SHAPED BY THE surviving monuments. The Old Kingdom with its pyramids and the New Kingdom with its temples and tombs loom large in the popular imagination, while the centuries in between, largely devoid of monumental architecture, are barely acknowledged, a forgotten dark age. Yet the social and political developments that took place during this neglected period had a deep and lasting effect on the trajectory of ancient Egyptian history. The weaknesses of a hereditary monarchy, the threat posed by climate change, the dangers of uncontrolled immigration, and the unforeseen consequences of closer foreign ties—all were brought home to the Egyptians in harsh lessons that would test their civilization to the breaking point.

Amid this chaos, however, Egypt witnessed a second great cultural flowering. The Middle Kingdom was the golden age of literature, when many of the great classics were composed. From the heroic Tale of Sinuhe to the rollicking yarn of The Shipwrecked Sailor, from the overtly propagandist Prophecies of Neferti to the subtle rhetoric of The Eloquent Peasant, and from the metaphysical Dispute Between a Man and His Soul to the burlesque Satire of the Trades, the literary output of the Middle Kingdom reveals ancient Egyptian society at its most complex and sophisticated. Archaeological evidence is prosaic and unsentimental, whereas the surviving writings of the ancient Egyptians allow us to enter into their imaginations, to see the world as they saw it. For this reason the Middle Kingdom seems more immediate, more tangible than many other periods of Egyptian history. For once, we can taste its flavor.

It was also a time of unrivaled craftsmanship in jewelry and statuary, of international trade and conquest. The city of Thebes rose from provincial obscurity to a position of national prominence. Much of Nubia was conquered and annexed. Egypt emerged on the world stage, foreshadowing its later imperial expansion. The end of the Pyramid Age and the collapse of central authority in the First Intermediate Period might have presaged the terminal decline of ancient Egypt. In fact, they brought about a renaissance, albeit one with a harder edge.

Part II traces the extraordinary ups and downs of Egyptian civilization in the six centuries between the end of the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the New Kingdom. For the pharaonic state, court culture, and the lives of ordinary Egyptians it was a roller-coaster ride: from political fragmentation and civil war to the restoration of centralized control and cultural renewal, then foreign invasion and the threat of total extinction. In such turbulent times, the Egyptians’ illusions about their place in the world were rudely shattered. Yet far from undermining pharaonic civilization, this collective loss of confidence in the old certainties proved a fertile breeding ground for new ideas.

So, too, did the rise of the regions and the influence of local traditions. Afterlife beliefs and burial customs, in particular, underwent profound changes in this climate of innovation, with concepts previously reserved for the king being adopted by the wider population, then adapted, elaborated, and codified. In an uncertain world, the promise of an afterlife for all offered a grain of comfort. The result was a set of tenets and practices that would endure for the rest of ancient Egyptian history and influence later religions, including Christianity.

In the political sphere, the shock of civil war and its lingering aftermath prompted a security clampdown and the introduction of repressive measures throughout the Nile Valley. Despotic, autocractic rule was the prevailing zeitgeist of the the Middle Kingdom. More than any other period of pharaonic history, it challenges our rose-tinted view of ancient Egypt.



THE DEATH OF PEPI II IN 2175, AFTER A REIGN OF RECORD LENGTH, provoked a dynastic crisis more serious than anything Egypt had faced since the foundation of the state, nearly a thousand years earlier. Disputes over the succession had flared up periodically during the Old Kingdom, but even in the aftermath of palace coups, the powerful forces of conservatism within the royal court had always managed to reimpose order and restore the status quo. This time it was different. Pepi’s designated successor, his son Nemtyemsaf II, did indeed ascend to the throne, but his reign was short. He must have been a very old man himself by the time his centenarian father died. The next ruler, Neitiqerty Siptah, was of uncertain descent, and we cannot even be certain about gender: the name suggests a man, but later tradition identified Neitiqerty as a reigning queen! It was symptomatic of the confusion that now descended on the royal family, the government, and Egypt as a whole. State building projects ground to a halt, and so did foreign expeditions in search of booty. Preoccupied with troubles at home, the faltering government had no appetite for adventures abroad. At the remote outpost of Ayn Asil, in the Dakhla Oasis, for generations a bulwark against foreign infiltration, arson gutted the governor’s palace and destroyed part of the northern town. The desert outposts were abandoned, and with them Egypt’s forward defenses. The civilization of the pyramid builders had reached a nadir.

After Neitiqerty (who left no monuments or even inscriptions), the throne passed from one weak ruler to another, as almost anyone with a drop of royal blood in their veins—and no doubt several individuals who had none—pressed their claim. In a period of just twenty years, less than a generation after Pepi II’s demise, Egypt saw seventeen kings come and go. Ten of their reigns together spanned a trifling six years. Little wonder that later chroniclers were heartily confused and ended up inventing a wholly spurious Seventh Dynasty. Not that the Eighth—those seventeen ephemeral “monarchs” in succession to Nemtyemsaf II—was really worthy of the title. Five of its kings tried vainly to project an air of legitimacy by adopting the throne name of Pepi II (Neferkara) as their own; one looked back to an even earlier king of the Fifth Dynasty; but all succumbed in short order to the force of rival claimants. Most of the royal inscriptions that have survived from this extraordinary phase of ancient Egyptian history are dated to the first year of a king’s reign. It is as if, knowing that he was unlikely to last long in the post, each new ruler got down to business as quickly as possible, exercising what little authority remained to him before it was stolen away. So we see an otherwise unknown King Iti sponsoring a quarrying expedition to the Wadi Hammamat, to bring back stone for a pyramid that was never built. Another ruler, Iyemhotep, sent expeditions both as crown prince and as king but likewise left no permanent memorial.

The only king of the Eighth Dynasty who managed both to survive more than a year in office—two years, one month, and a day, to be precise—and to leave behind a monument of sorts was Ibi. (From the Fifth Dynasty onward, Egyptian monarchs seem to have had a curious fondness for personal names that sound babyish to our ears, from Izi and Ini to Teti and Pepi, Nebi, Iti, and Ibi. Perhaps this tells us something about the cosseted atmosphere inside the royal apartments.) We can well imagine the feverish activity that gripped the court and what remained of the royal workshops when the newly enthroned king announced his plans for a pyramid at Saqqara, traditional burial place of monarchs since the time of Netjerikhet. Recent experience showed that time was of the essence. In response to the new realities of kingship, Ibi’s architects proposed a monument that might be completed before the wheel of fortune turned once more, bringing yet another ruler to power. The result was hardly a pyramid at all in the expected sense of the word. Although sited in deliberate proximity to the pyramid of Pepi II, it was diminutive by the standards of the Old Kingdom. At 103 feet (60 ancient Egyptian cubits) square at the base, and with a projected height of just 60 feet, it was the same size as the pyramids of Pepi II’s queens—quite a comedown for someone claiming to be the son of Ra. To facilitate the speediest possible construction, the core was built from mud, small stones, and chips of limestone, hardly a recipe for stability or longevity. The descending corridor and underground burial chamber were carved with selections from the Pyramid Texts, and a mud brick chapel was built against the pyramid’s eastern face to serve as a mortuary temple. But the outer casing was never even started; time had caught up with Ibi. He would be the only one of Pepi II’s direct successors even to attempt pyramid building.

In other ways, too, in defiance of its own impotence, the administration carried on in public as if nothing had changed. The most remarkable documents to survive from the Eighth Dynasty are a collection of royal decrees from the temple of Min at Gebtu, on the east bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt. Since prehistoric times, Gebtu had flourished as the gateway to the Eastern Desert and its abundant mineral resources. The local fertility god, Min, had been adopted as a national deity early in Egyptian history, and his cult center received royal patronage from the very beginning of the First Dynasty. Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, Pepi I and Pepi II added to the temple buildings and endowments. Their successors of the late Eighth Dynasty maintained this tradition, but to very different ends. King Neferkaura, for instance, issued three decrees for public display in the temple. Their purpose was not to augment the temple’s estates or safeguard its personnel from government service, but something altogether more practical and political—to announce the promotion of a royal lackey, Shemai, to the governorship of Upper Egypt. Shemai would have responsibility for all twenty-two provinces from the first cataract to the outskirts of Memphis—and to confirm the succession of his son, Idy, as nomarch (provincial governor) of Gebtu. The weak rulers of the Eighth Dynasty needed all the friends they could muster, and were not averse to using royal privilege to honor and reward their supporters in the regions.

This debasement of monarchy was carried even further by Neferkaura’s successor, Neferkauhor. In the space of a single day, probably the very day of his accession to the throne (circa 2155), the king issued no fewer than eight decrees to be displayed in the temple at Gebtu. All eight were again concerned with promoting and honoring Shemai and members of his family. Shemai himself was promoted to the office of vizier, while his son succeeded him as governor of Upper Egypt (albeit with a considerably reduced remit). Another son was appointed to a position on the temple staff, a decision commemorated in three separate decrees, one addressed to each male member of the family. A further edict assigned mortuary priests to Shemai and his wife, a privilege previously reserved only for royalty. In a similar vein, their funerary monuments were made from red granite, a material with strong solar connotations and subject to a royal monopoly. The reason for all these honors was made plain in the first of Neferkauhor’s decrees, in which he stipulated the titles and dignities to be borne by Shemai’s wife, Nebet. For she was none other than the king’s eldest daughter and the king’s sole favorite. As soon as Neferkauhor gained the throne, he clearly decided to use his brief period of power to shower his immediate relatives with awards and royal favors. It was the classic behavior of a tin-pot dictator.

The last of the Gebtu decrees, dated to the reign of Neferkauhor’s successor Neferirkara, forbade anyone to damage the funerary monuments of Shemai and Nebet’s son Idy (now promoted to vizier), or to diminish his offerings. Though issued from the national capital, it was the last gasp of the Memphite monarchy. Its craven favoritism signaled “the almost abject dependence of the Pharaohs at Memphis upon the loyalty of the powerful landed nobility of Upper Egypt.”1 Despite the apparent maintenance of economic stability and the associated prosperity of local cults like that of Min at Gebtu, royal power was waning fast. In the person of Neferirkara—named after an illustrious monarch of the Fifth Dynasty, but in reality a king of shreds and patches—the system of royal government that had served Egypt for a millennium had come to an inglorious end. The political elite and the country at large were totally unprepared for what might follow.


WITH THE COLLAPSE OF CENTRAL AUTHORITY, EGYPT FRAGMENTED along regional lines, returning to the pattern that had existed before the foundation of the state a thousand years earlier. As before, the geography of the Nile Valley—in particular the distribution of irrigation basins—was the main determining factor. The three southernmost provinces formed one natural unit, provinces four and five another, and so on downriver. The political and economic aggrandizement of the provincial governors (nomarchs), a process that had started centuries earlier, reached its logical conclusion as various local potentates declared de facto independence. However, kingship as a model of government was so ingrained in the Egyptian psyche that its replacement by something different was philosophically and theologically impossible. So it was inevitable that one of this new cohort of rulers, even if his authority was strictly limited in extent, would claim royal titles and be acknowledged, grudgingly, as suzerain—or, rather, first among equals—by his fellow leaders.

The strongman who achieved this recognition of sorts came from the town of Herakleopolis (modern Ihnasya el-Medina) in Middle Egypt. Named Kheti, he was said by the later Egyptian historian Manetho to have been more terrible than any previous king, this verdict reflecting, perhaps, a would-be dynast who pursued his claim to the throne by force, browbeating any opposition into submission. The house of Kheti would reign for a century and a half (2125–1975)—reign, but not rule. Even in its own realm the new dynasty was not universally acknowledged or approved. At the heart of Herakleopolitan power, a local potentate with royal pretensions, “King Khui,” built a massive mud brick tomb, equal in size to many Old Kingdom pyramids—and this act of daring lèse-majesté just a stone’s throw from Sauty (modern Asyut), the city most loyal to the Herakleopolitan dynasty. At the nearby alabaster quarries of Hatnub, the nomarchs dated their expeditions by the years of their own tenure, avoiding all reference to a royal reign. In their tomb autobiographies at Beni Hasan and elsewhere, officials rarely if ever mentioned the king, and were conspicuously silent about their own careers, completely out of character for an ancient Egyptian, and a sure sign of wavering loyalties. With such unpopularity in their heartland, Kheti and his descendants were living in a dream world if they imagined their nominal authority would remain unchallenged for long.

What dealt their authority a fatal blow was the dynasty’s inability to carry out the most basic duty of kingship—to feed the people. A series of low Niles had weakened the state economy in the reign of Pepi II. Now, in the absence of an effective national government, the long-term effects of poor inundations started to be felt. Famine stalked the land, challenging the ability of provincial governors to look after their own citizens. Some undoubtedly played up the crisis to further their own careers. By acting the savior in a time of trouble, they won both local support and wider renown. A man named Merer boasted that “I buried the dead and fed the living wherever I went in this famine that happened.”2 A contemporary, Iti, let it be known that he fed his hometown, Imitru, “in the painful years” and “gave Upper Egyptian barley to Iuny and to Hefat, [but only] after feeding Imitru.”3

Ankhtifi, governor of the third Upper Egyptian province, with its capital at Hefat (modern Moalla), went even further, claiming to have sent emergency aid supplies to affected areas from Abdju, in the north, to Abu, in the south. He presented himself as the natural leader of the seven southernmost provinces, the very same region that had been assigned to the governor of Upper Egypt in the dying days of the Eighth Dynasty. If he had proved himself capable of looking after the population when “all of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger,”4 then surely he was qualified to be their political master as well. Indeed, Ankhtifi’s long-term ambitions stretched far beyond his own province. In his tomb at Hefat, cut into the side of a natural hill shaped like a pyramid (the only fitting resting place for a true Egyptian ruler), he inscribed the details of his career, so that all posterity might remember his achievements.

Ankhtifi had shown an early talent for calculated maneuvers. Even before gaining high office, he had invited the council of the overseer of Upper Egypt, based at Tjeni, to carry out a visit of inspection of his province. No doubt this had given him the opportunity to curry favor with the Herakleopolitan government and, at the same time, to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Having weighed the likely opposition, Ankhtifi had begun his steady rise to power as soon as he’d succeeded as nomarch. First, he’d annexed the neighboring province of Djeba, under the pretense of rescuing it from mismanagement (always a convenient excuse for a landgrab). In his own version of events, he displaced the previous governor, Khuu, in accordance with divine providence:

Horus brought me to the province of Djeba for life, prosperity, and health, to set it in order.… I found the house of Khuu … in the grip of tumult, governed by a wretch. I made a man embrace his father’s killer, his brother’s killer, in order to set the province of Djeba in order.… Every form of evil that the people hate has been suppressed.5

Ankhtifi then proceeded to form a strategic alliance (no doubt backed up with the threat of force) with the province of Abu, to give him effective control of the three southernmost provinces. Together, these provinces formed the perfect springboard for his wider territorial ambitions, and all the while Ankhtifi publicly maintained his loyalty to the king in Herakleopolis.

But while Djeba and Abu had proved relatively easy to bring to heel, the fourth and fifth nomes, based at Thebes and Gebtu, were an entirely different proposition, not least because they had formed a defensive alliance against just such an attack. Massing his forces on his northern border, Ankhtifi launched an assault against the province of Thebes. His army destroyed the garrison fortress at Iuny and roamed at will through the desert to the west of Thebes, the city’s back door. The Thebans refused to come out and engage the enemy, biding their time. Ankhtifi took this reticence as a sign of weakness, but he could not have been more wrong. Within a few years, all three of Ankhtifi’s provinces would fall under Theban domination. Thebes, not Hefat, would be the launchpad for a campaign of national reunification.


OSTENSIBLY, THE GOVERNOR OF THE THEBAN PROVINCE, TOO, WAS loyal to the Herakleopolitan overlord. Ankhtifi’s contemporary, Intef the Great of Thebes, publicly professed himself the beloved of the king. He even agreed to Thebes’s being represented at a great conference of nomarchs summoned by the Herakleopolitan authorities, perhaps in response to Ankhtifi’s military aggression. It is significant that Intef did not himself attend, instead sending the overseer of his army. By participating, but not in person, Intef delivered a carefully calculated message to his fellow nomarchs and the Herakleopolitan king: here was a ruler with a substantial private army who had better, and more pressing, things to do with his time than sit around a table with mere provincial governors. Protestations of fealty were easily made. They did not change the fact that Intef was busily engaged in strategic maneuvers to strengthen Thebes and position it as the head of a grand alliance. A strong signal of Intef’s true intentions was his adoption of the title “great overlord of Upper Egypt,” not merely of Thebes. At least one other province, that of Iunet, understood the message and threw its weight behind Intef, recognizing his authority as a regional power broker.

Iunet’s defection was a serious blow to the Herakleopolitan kingdom. Ever since the rise of the house of Kheti, the province of Iunet had been steadfastly loyal to the dynasty. Its governor had ensured the continued allegiance not only of his own province, but of the two neighboring provinces as well. Now, with Theban power in the ascendant, the Herakleopolitans faced the secession of their entire southern domain. Their response was highly political and potentially incendiary: the installation of a loyal governor in the province of Gebtu, sandwiched between Thebes, to the south, and Iunet, to the north. In reality, there were few other options but to keep a tight watch on Theban ambitions. The new appointee, User, recognized the importance of his task and moved his provincial capital from the traditional seat at Gebtu to the town of Iushenshen (modern Khozam), right on the boundary with the Theban province. From here, he could literally look the enemy in the eye.

The province of Gebtu was of great strategic importance. Not only was it the gateway to the Eastern Desert, but its leaders also exercised jurisdiction over the routes through the Western Desert. These led to the Saharan oases, departing the Nile Valley from a point on the west bank directly opposite Iushenshen. User and his royal masters knew very well that Thebes had already established a military presence in the Western Desert, since the Thebans had contributed a desert garrison to the defensive alliance against Ankhtifi. It was vital that they should not be allowed to expand this toehold. If Thebes ever won control of the Western Desert routes, its rulers would be able to bypass any opposition along the Nile Valley and gain direct overland access to the holy city of Abdju, jewel in the Herakleopolitan crown and seat of the governor of Upper Egypt. Such a calamity would surely be the beginning of the end for the house of Kheti.

Responding to the situation, as ever, with a carefully calculated piece of propaganda, Intef of Thebes announced his intentions by adding yet another new title to his growing list of epithets. (He was nothing if not a typical ancient Egyptian.) By calling himself “the confidant of the king in the narrow door of the southern desert,”6 he was directly challenging User’s role as “overseer of the Eastern and Western deserts.” The Thebes-Gebtu alliance, always a marriage of convenience, was formally dissolved. In its place, the two provinces now vied openly for control of the all-important desert routes. Before long, the war of words escalated into outright conflict. Thebes launched a raid across the border, destroying the town of Iushenshen. Gebtu put up stiff resistance, expelling the invaders and capturing some of their soldiers. The chief priest of Gebtu ordered the rebuilding of Iushenshen, but there could be little doubt that this was only the first salvo in what would be a protracted campaign of Theban aggression. The people of Gebtu steeled themselves for the fight they knew must come.

Prominent among the prisoners of war captured during the attack on Iushenshen were people of Medja and Wawat, Nubian mercenaries serving in the Theban army. Ever since Egypt’s campaigns against the sand dwellers in the early Sixth Dynasty, Nubian recruits had played an important role in Egyptian military strategy. Nubian archers, especially, were noted for their bravery and prowess. Many a young Nubian man knew he could achieve far greater wealth and renown by joining a foreign army than by staying in his impoverished homeland. (The role of the Nepalese Gurkhas in the British Army is an instructive modern parallel.) While all factions in the conflicts of the First Intermediate Period may have employed Nubian mercenaries to a greater or lesser extent, only the Thebans made them a central element in their offensive capability. An entire colony of Nubian soldiers was established at Inerty, on the southern edge of the Theban province. While adopting Egyptian burial customs, they nevertheless retained a strong sense of their own cultural identity, an unusual exception to the normal pattern of complete assimilation. Clearly, their status in society as brave warriors was enhanced by the very fact of their Nubian ethnicity. In time of war, old prejudices were dissipating. Egyptian civilization was being transformed from the inside in unexpected ways.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. User’s successor as nomarch of Gebtu, a man named Tjauti, was as determined a leader as his royal masters could have wished for. Tjauti’s exploits in resisting Theban expansion have only recently come to light, inscribed on a remote cliffside in the Western Desert. The inscription tells of his heroic struggle to keep the desert routes open to Herakleopolitan forces, and his implacable opposition to Thebes. Styling himself “the confidant of the king in the door of the Upper Egyptian desert”7—a title deliberately antagonistic to Intef’s own claims—Tjauti threw down a direct challenge to his Theban opponent. Both sides knew that the Western Desert routes across the great Qena bend were the key objective—in Theban hands, Abdju and all of Middle Egypt would be vulnerable to attack; in Herakleopolitan hands, the main population centers of western Thebes would be dangerously exposed. It must have come as a bitter blow to the morale of Gebtu when Intef the Great’s successor as Theban leader, another Intef (the popularity of the name at this time can be decidedly confusing), seized control of an important mountaintop overlooking the main desert road, effectively closing it to traffic. Tjauti’s response was immediate and inspired: he simply constructed another parallel road, a short distance to the north, with its eastern terminus safely within the territory of Gebtu. In his own words: “I have done this in order to cross this hill country that the ruler of another province sealed.”8

But Tjauti’s success was to be short-lived. Ironically, his decisive action in building a new, improved desert road was the cause of his own downfall. Just a few yards away from his commemorative inscription is another, much shorter text. It reads, simply, “the son of Ra, Intef.” It marks the Theban capture of Tjauti’s new road, no doubt in a swift operation launched from one of their desert garrisons. With Gebtu’s control of the Western Desert swept away, nothing now stood between Thebes and Abdju, the administrative capital of Upper Egypt and the ancient burial place of kings. In this context, Intef’s new title, son of Ra, is highly significant. Unlike his predecessors, he was not merely content with the style and dignity of a provincial or even regional governor. He now aspired to kingship. By claiming the ancient moniker of sovereign for himself, “King” Intef had issued a direct challenge to the house of Kheti. The prize was nothing less than the throne of Horus.


CONFIDENT THE THEBANS MIGHT HAVE BEEN, BUT THEIR OPPONENTS were not about to give up the kingship without a fight. The Egyptian civil war, once formally declared, dragged on for more than a century (2080–1970), coloring the lives of four generations. The martial character of the age is powerfully reflected in the monuments of the time: in tombs, scenes of soldiers are common; on stelae (commemorative slabs), many individuals had themselves shown with bow and arrow in hand; and grave goods often included actual weapons. Never before had Egyptian society been so militarized. It is also unusual that a number of commemorative inscriptions from both sides of the conflict allow us to reconstruct the progress of the war, with its victories and setbacks for the Thebans and Herakleopolitans alike.

Winning control of the desert routes across the Qena bend seems to have been the principal achievement of the first King Intef. In any case, his self-styled reign lasted little more than a decade, but he had at least made a decisive strategic breakthrough, providing a platform for further Theban expansion. His son and successor, Intef II, lost no time in picking up the baton and prosecuting the war with a renewed intensity. His evident charisma and leadership qualities inspired fanatical loyalty among his closest lieutenants. One, Heni, boasts of having attended his master day and night. Such devotion made for a close-knit fighting force, and brought swift success.

But before Thebes could be confident in taking on the might of the loyalist forces north of Abdju, it had to secure its southern flank. So the first objective was to consolidate Theban control over the erstwhile power base of Ankhtifi. Either late in the nomarch’s life or shortly after his death the local population saw the writing on the wall and threw in their lot with Thebes. The famine, which may still have been raging, and the general impoverishment suffered by the population may have been contributory factors. The people clearly felt that their future would be more secure (or less insecure) if they were Intef II’s liege men. At the same time, Thebes succeeded in expanding its control northward to encompass the three neighboring provinces of Gebtu, Iunet, and Hut-sekhem. In fulfillment of the claim made by his grandfather, Intef the Great, Intef II was now truly the great overlord of Upper Egypt, and recognized as such throughout the “head of the south,” the seven southernmost provinces from Abu to the outskirts of Abdju.

Hence, by the middle of Intef II’s reign (circa 2045), the northern border of the Theban realm lay close to Abdju. Tawer (the province of Tjeni) became the new front line in the civil war, and the desert routes that gave direct access between Thebes and Abdju finally came into their own. One Theban supporter records a military expedition traveling “in the dust” to attack Tawer,9 while another recounts the ensuing battle and the expulsion of the Herakleopolitans’ loyal governor: “I descended upon Abdju, which was under [the control of] a rebel. I made him go down to his [own] realm from the midst of the town.”10 It is telling that the language of the Thebans has already shifted from rivalry to restoration. The case for Theban hegemony could be made to appear so much more compelling if the Herakleopolitan dynasty (which considered itself the legitimate successor of the Old Kingdom monarchy) were characterized as “the rebel.” Theban expansion could then be cast as the removal of an affront to established order. Representing power as piety was always a favorite trick of ancient Egyptian propagandists.

To reinforce their military victory, the Thebans imposed taxes throughout Tawer and delivered the revenue back to Thebes. Buoyed by this success, Intef II used his control of Abu to strike southward into lower Nubia, reimposing Egyptian authority over the lands beyond the first cataract for the first time in more than a century. The Theban advance seemed unstoppable.

But events have a habit of turning against those who think themselves invincible. At Sauty, in Middle Egypt, a family of nomarchs with particularly close connections to the Herakleopolitan rulers now took up the loyalist banner to fight against the upstart Thebans. Back in the days before the civil war, Sauty had been governed by a man named—in honor of his sovereign—Kheti. He had been brought up in the royal circle as a pupil of the king and had even received swimming lessons with the royal children. On achieving high office, Kheti had devoted himself to improving the lot of his people, commissioning extensive irrigation works throughout his province to alleviate the worst effects of the famine. In his tomb is the inscription, “I let loose the inundation upon the old mounds.… Everyone who thirsted had inundation to his heart’s desire. I gave water to his neighbors so that he was content with them.”11

This Kheti’s successor, Itibi, now found himself confronted by an even greater challenge, Theban aggression, and he was equally determined to triumph over adversity. So he responded to Intef II’s raid on Abdju with a fierce counterattack. This achieved its primary objective of wresting back control of Tawer, but at a dreadful cost: the holy site of Abdju was desecrated during the fighting. Such an act of sacrilege was a grievous stain on the mantle of kingship, a transgression against the gods for which the Herakleopolitan monarch would repent at length. It would come to be seen in later times as the event that finally tipped the balance in favor of Thebes. But the immediate result was a victory for Itibi’s forces. An attempted Theban reprisal was repulsed, and this second success gave Itibi the confidence to issue a direct communiqué to the head of the south, in which he threatened further force unless the rebellious provinces returned to the loyalist fold. Itibi’s own autobiography tells the story of what happened next. The section containing his written challenge to the southern nomes was subsequently plastered over, to hide it from view and thus avoid Theban reprisals against the townspeople of Sauty for harboring such a determined opponent. Whether this tactical rewriting of history was carried out on the orders of Itibi himself or on the orders of his descendants, it suggests that, not long after his famous victories, the pendulum swung back again to Thebes’s advantage.

The reversal of fortune was due, in no small measure, to Intef II’s skill as a military strategist. He soon realized that Tawer was a potential quagmire for his army. Trying to capture and hold on to Abdju could easily pin down his forces for years, allowing the Herakleopolitan forces to strengthen and regroup. A flanking maneuver, bold and dangerous as it might be, was the only way to break the impasse. Once Tawer had been severed from the rest of the Herakleopolitan realm, it would be far easier to pacify. In the last decade of his long fifty-year reign, Intef II put his plan into action. Using his command of desert routes to advance around Tawer, he established a new defensive position two provinces to the north. Cut off from assistance, Tjeni and Abdju proved much easier targets and were swiftly conquered. To mark his victory, Intef sent a letter to his rival in Herakleopolis, accusing King Kheti of having raised a storm over Tawer. The message was clear. By failing to protect the sacred sites of Abdju, Kheti had forfeited his right to the kingship.


By contrast, Intef was determined to show that he was a just king as well as a mighty conqueror. Fierce in battle, magnanimous in victory, he demonstrated his determination to win the battle for hearts and minds by distributing food aid throughout the ten provinces of his new realm. In this way, one of his close associates could claim to be “a great provider for the homeland in a lean year.”12 Naturally, there was a good measure of psychological warfare in such pronouncements. But Intef’s piety seems to have been genuine. His magnificent funerary stela, erected in his rock cut tomb at Thebes, is noteworthy not for its list of battle honors (the events of the civil war are conspicuous by their absence) but for its extraordinary hymn to the sun god Ra and to Hathor, the protector goddess who was believed to reside in the Theban hills. The verse hints at a human frailty and a fear of death lying behind the visage of a great war leader:

Entrust [me] to the evening hours:

May they protect me;

Entrust [me] to early morning:

May it put its protection around me;

I am the nursling of early morning,

I am the nursling of the evening hours.13

The death of a king was always a moment of great anxiety. How much more worrying it must have been for the Thebans when the king departing the throne was a war hero of the caliber of Intef II. And yet, a rare account of the moment of succession, recorded by the king’s treasurer, Tjetji, suggests a calm transition from one reign to the next: “The dual king, son of Ra, Intef, who lives like Ra forever … departed in peace to his horizon. Now when his son had descended in his place … I followed him.”14 In fact, the new king, Intef III, was to enjoy but a brief reign of eight years (2018–2010). Theban overlordship of the deserts brought tribute from “the rulers upon the red land” (the desert chieftains), and the famine that had wracked Upper Egypt for more than fifty years seems to have been brought to an end. But while the economy prospered, the prosecution of the war stalled. An uneasy truce may have settled over the battlefield. Theban dominance in the eight southernmost provinces was absolute; Herakleopolitan rule over Middle and Lower Egypt remained unchallenged. And so it might easily have stayed, but for the fact that a divided nation was anathema to the ancient Egyptian worldview. Any king worthy of the name had to be lord of the Two Lands, not merely a provincial potentate.


THE FINAL CONFRONTATION WAS NOT LONG IN COMING. INTEF III WAS succeeded by a young, dynamic ruler who had inherited his grandfather’s tactical skill and determination. Indeed, the new king, Mentuhotep II, had been named after the Theban god of war, Montu, and was determined to live up to his billing. He chose as his Horus name the phrase Sankh-ib-tawy, “the one who brings life to the heart of the Two Lands.” It clearly signaled his overriding aspiration to reunify Egypt.

Mentuhotep was helped enormously by unrest in the enemy’s heartland. The new nomarch of Sauty, Kheti II, was encountering serious opposition within his own province. Only a show of force by the crown and the personal attendance of the Herakleopolitan king Merikara allowed the governor’s installation to go ahead. The population of Sauty was starting to think the unthinkable, weighing the advantages of defection to the Theban side. Their embattled nomarch sailed southward at the head of a large fleet, partly as a show of force against the Thebans, partly to prove a point to his own restless population.

Then, in Mentuhotep’s fourteenth year as king (circa 1996), Tawer—that persistent thorn in the Theban side—rebelled yet again. It was the final provocation. The Theban army swept northward, crushing Tawer and pushing onward into the Herakleopolitan heartland. Sauty was vanquished and its nomarch deposed. Nothing now stood between the Thebans and their ultimate prize, Herakleopolis itself. When Mentuhotep’s army reached the capital of the house of Kheti, they gave full vent to their wrath, burning and destroying tombs in the city’s cemetery. To drive home the point, the Theban king immediately installed one of his most trusted followers as his personal representative in Herakleopolis, putting him in charge of the city’s most important building—its prison. That was the fate that lay in store for any “rebel” unfortunate enough not to have died in battle.

The ruthless treatment meted out by Mentuhotep to his opponents did not stop at the gates of Herakleopolis. In the heart of troublesome Tawer, he appointed an “overseer of constabulary on water and on land,”15 suggesting a law-and-order crackdown against the inhabitants of this most unruly province. Another of Mentuhotep’s henchmen boasts of taxing “Tawer, Tjeni, and [as far as] the back part of the tenth Upper Egyptian province”16 for his master. This smacks of punitive economic sanctions against formerly hostile territory. Herakleopolitan loyalists who tried to escape retribution by fleeing to the oases were remorselessly hunted down. They had forgotten the Thebans’ mastery of desert routes. The king himself addressed his victorious troops, urging them to pursue troublemakers, and moved to annex the oases and lower Nubia. A garrison installed in the fortress at Abu provided Mentuhotep with a springboard for campaigns against Wawat, while expeditions into the Western Desert were highly effective at disrupting potential enemy supply lines and mopping up any lingering resistance.

His external borders secured, the king could now turn his attention to matters of internal government. Situated on the east bank of the Nile at a place where cross-country routes through the Eastern and Western deserts converged, the town of Thebes had first come to prominence at the end of the Old Kingdom. With excellent communication links, it made a natural capital for the whole of Upper Egypt. The role of its first family in the recent civil war had merely strengthened its claim to preeminent status. The town itself was still rather small and enclosed by a thick mud brick wall. The tightly packed streets of houses, granaries, offices, and workshops clustered in a grid pattern around the small temple of the god Amun-Ra at Ipetsut (modern Karnak). Like any provincial capital, Thebes had its own local administration. At its head was the mayor, assisted by officials responsible for such essential government tasks as land registration, irrigation and flood protection schemes, and taxation. Since Thebes was a commercial center of some importance, the quays along the river thronged with merchants, unloading their goods for purchase by government agents and private customers. Potters, carpenters, weavers, and tanners; butchers, bakers, and brewers—the backstreets of Thebes were filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of craft and food production (much like the backstreets of any Egyptian town today). Most inhabitants were peasant farmers who lived in simple mud brick dwellings and spent every day tilling the fields, as countless generations of their forebears had done, but the city also played host to a rising number of better-off families, a nascent middle class of tradesmen and lower-ranking bureaucrats with larger houses in the smarter neighborhoods. Had Thebes been any other provincial center, the inhabitants’ horizons might have stayed rather limited, but with the city catapulted to national prominence, opportunities for advancement mushroomed. The good times had arrived.

Under Mentuhotep, the dynastic seat was formally established as the new national capital, and prominent Thebans were appointed to all the major offices of state. Administrative reforms were soon followed by theological ones. To mark the final phase in the civil war, the king had changed his Horus name to Netjeri-hedjet, “divine of the white crown,” and he now embarked on a radical program of self-promotion and self-deification, designed to restore and rebuild the ideology of divine kingship that had taken such a battering in the years of internal strife. From Abdju and Iunet to Nekheb and Abu, Mentuhotep commissioned a series of ornate cult buildings, more often than not dedicated to himself as the gods’ chosen one. At Iunet, he adopted the unprecedented epithet of “the living god, foremost of kings.” Deification of the reigning king during his lifetime marked a new departure in royal ideology. Mentuhotep was clearly not a man for half measures.

Casualties of war  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

He also used these monuments to send a stark political message to any remaining would-be rebels in Egypt’s northern provinces. His chapel at Iunet showed him in the age-old pose of smiting an enemy, but the symbolic victim was represented as a pair of intertwined stems of papyrus, symbolizing Lower Egypt. The accompanying inscription emphasized the point, adding “the marshlands” to the traditional list of Egypt’s enemies. A relief from Mentuhotep’s shrine at Inerty, in his Theban heartland, was even more explicit. It showed a line of four kneeling captives, pathetically awaiting their fate of being clubbed to death by the king. First in line—in front of the expected Nubian, Asiatic, and Libyan—was an Egyptian, a representative of the “chiefs of the Two Lands.” For Egypt’s new king, national security began at home. After decades of war and paramilitary activity designed to snuff out all opposition, Mentuhotep felt secure enough to signal his indisputable status as ruler of a reunified Egypt. In typical Egyptian fashion, he did so by adopting a new title, a third version of his Horus name: Sema-tawy, “the one who unites the Two Lands.” The factionalism and internal dissent of the time of distress had been consigned to history. Egypt could once again hold its head high as a unified, peaceable nation, ruled by a god-king. The Middle Kingdom had begun.

Mentuhotep’s lasting memorial epitomizes his determination to reassert the cult of the ruler and project himself as the monarch who restored the tarnished reputation of kingship. In an embayment in the hills of western Thebes—the very same hills that had given his forebears their first military advantage—Mentuhotep ordered work to begin on a lavish funerary monument. As befitted a reunifier, a renaissance king, it amalgamated old and new ideas. The architecture cleverly combined elements from his forebears’ Theban tombs and the Memphite pyramids of the Old Kingdom in a radical and innovative design. The decoration included scenes of battle alongside more traditional images of royalty. Surrounding the royal tomb, burials were prepared for the king’s closest advisers and most loyal lieutenants. In a deliberate echo of the great Fourth Dynasty court cemetery at Giza, the king’s courtiers would surround their monarch in death just as they had in life.

But the most poignant component of the entire mortuary complex was a simple, undecorated pit, cut into the rock within sight of the king’s vast edifice. This was one of the first parts of Mentuhotep’s grand design to be finished, and the pit contained the linen-wrapped bodies of sixty or more men, stacked one on top of another. In life, they had been strong and tall, with an average height of five feet, nine and a half inches, and between thirty and forty years old. Despite their strength, they had all succumbed to the same fate. The injuries on their bodies were mostly arrow wounds and traumas caused by heavy, rough objects falling from a great height. For these men had been soldiers, slain in battle while attacking a fortified town. Scars showed some to have been battle-hardened veterans. Yet what they’d faced in their final test was not hand-to-hand combat but siege warfare. The arrows and missiles raining down on them from the battlements had killed some outright, their tightly curled hair offering scant protection. Other soldiers, wounded but still alive, had been brutally dispatched on the battlefield by having their skulls smashed with clubs. In the heat of battle, bodies had been left for vultures to peck at and tear. Only after the battle had been won, and the town stormed, could the survivors gather up their dead (some already stiff with rigor mortis), strip them of their blood-soaked clothes, scour the bodies clean with sand, and bandage them with linen, making them ready for burial. No attempt had been made to mummify the corpses, and little distinction had been made between different ranks of the dead. The two officers had simply been bandaged rather more thoroughly and placed in simple undecorated coffins. Finally, before burial, the names of the deceased had been written in ink on their linen wrappings—good Theban names such as Ameny, Mentuhotep, and Intefiqer; intimate family names such as Senbebi (“Bebi’s brother”) and Sa-ipu (“Ipu’s son”); and also names such as Sobekhotep, Sobeknakht, and Sehetepibsobek, which suggest an origin far from Thebes, close to the northern cult centers of the crocodile god Sobek. It seems probable that these slain soldiers, given the unique honor of a ceremonial war grave, had been involved in the decisive battle of the civil war, the final attack on Herakleopolis itself. Some of them may have been local men who nonetheless had supported the Theban army against their own rulers, and so had been especially honored.

For King Mentuhotep, conqueror of the Herakleopolitans and reunifier of Egypt, erecting a national cenotaph close to his own tomb was a brilliantly calculated piece of propaganda. It would serve as a powerful reminder to his contemporaries, and to posterity, of the sacrifices that Thebes had made in the conflict. It would cause Mentuhotep to be forever remembered as a great war leader. And in a foretaste of his successors’ mode of rule, it would cement the myth of the king and his band of brothers as the defenders of the nation.

The war grave was a harbinger of something else, too. In the brave new world of the Middle Kingdom, a glorious death would, for many, be a substitute for the joys of life.

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