First Intermediate Period, overview (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

The term "First Intermediate Period" has been employed by scholars to mean either the period of the 7th— 11th Dynasties or that from the 9th to mid-11th Dynasties. The designation is still useful when referring to the period from the 7th Dynasty to preconquest 11th Dynasty in its entirety, when there was political fragmentation of the centralized state of the Old Kingdom. The designations "late Old Kingdom" and "Heracleopolitan period," referring respectively to the 7th—8th Dynasties and the 9th-10th Dynasties, are more specific.

There is still significant disagreement over the length of the First Intermediate Period. Several years ago consensus seemed to have been reached that the length of the period from the end of the 6th Dynasty to the reunification of Egypt by Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II amounted to approximately 140 years. More recently, a number of scholars have argued that the First Intermediate Period lasted approximately 230 years. This position, which accepts the historical reality of the early Heracleopolitan period (9th Dynasty), is adopted here.

As one scholar has observed, the First Intermediate Period "was the consequence of a cumulative loss of wealth and power on the part of the throne extending over a period of 200 years." In the 5th Dynasty and thereafter, a lesser share of the country’s wealth was expended on the king’s tomb than in the 4th Dynasty, and other institutions, including the temples of the gods (especially the official sun cult of Re), benefitted from the growing prosperity.


As additional land was brought under cultivation in the course of the later Old Kingdom, both through internal colonization and as a result of a burgeoning population, the bureaucracy that administered the country also increased in size. The king had of necessity to assign tracts of agricultural land from the royal domain to a variety of institutions and individuals for their support. The produce from what had once been crown lands not only served to maintain the royal and divine cults along with their buildings, but also provided the priests and support staff with an income. Further grants of land made to officials of the central administration compensated the latter for their services. Frequently, the tracts of land remained part and parcel of the mortuary endowment of these officials in order that they might continue serving their sovereign in the next world. In turn, the priests and officials subdivided the former crown lands for the benefit of their families and dependents. This exchange of goods and services permitted the state to function and led to a more equitable distribution of wealth, which is reflected in the increased size and complexity of the tombs of officials in the Memphite cemeteries in the later Old Kingdom. However, the revenue owed the royal treasury was increasingly diminished. Ultimately this led to the impoverishment of the monarchy, which could no longer afford to support the infrastructure of government.

In the meantime, the initiative appears to have shifted to the provinces. Provincial administration had originally been divided into different branches of activity, each centrally administered from the capital. With the growing prosperity of the provinces, however, the business of managing a single nome became more complicated and ultimately the entire administration of a nome was given to a single individual who lived in the nome and became firmly entrenched there. The process is first observable in southern Upper Egypt, but in time the new type of provincial administration was extended to central and northern Upper Egypt. Eventually the office of provincial governor (nomarch) became hereditary. A number of kings attempted to bring these developments under control. Pepi II appears to have made a final attempt to reassert central authority; after his death, however, the temples in many of the provinces also came under the control of the nomarchs, or, vice versa, the chief priests became nomarchs, and the authority and wealth of the provincial governors was greatly enhanced.

The long reign of Pepi II (more than 90 years) ushered in the end of the Old Kingdom. Pepi’s immediate successors were his own sons. Already of advanced age at the death of their father, they each ruled for only a few years. The pyramid of the 8th Dynasty king Kakare Ibi at South Saqqara was not much larger than the subsidiary pyramids belonging to the queens of Pepi II, and its size and the lack of the customary associated structures in stone clearly demonstrate the diminution of the king’s personal prestige.

With the collapse of the central government, foreign trade languished. Pepi II is the last king mentioned in inscriptions at Byblos. Also after Pepi II there is no evidence of expeditions in the Sinai turquoise mines. One text describes a ship’s captain who was engaged at the Gulf of Suez to build a boat for an expedition to Punt, but he and his company of soldiers were killed by local Asiatics, and had to be revenged. Relations with the south also deteriorated. One "caravan leader" was sent out from Aswan with an armed force to punish the tribal chiefs of Lower Nubia. At about the same time there is evidence that Nubians encroached on Egyptian territory, presumably through the desert via Kharga Oasis and then into the Nile Valley. A rock inscription at Khor Dehmit, some 36km south of the First Cataract, records a punitive expedition against local Nubians dispatched by one of the last kings of the 8th Dynasty. In apparent frustration, the kings of the late Old Kingdom or their officials appear to have resorted to magic to destroy their enemies (especially southern ones). Enemies’ names or the names of ethnic/tribal groups were inked on crude clay figurines, which were put in clay jars and ritually buried.

Royal decrees of the late Old Kingdom excavated beneath the ruins of a Roman period mudbrick structure at Quft (ancient Coptos) demonstrate that the Memphite kings of the 8th Dynasty still retained some degree of authority over Upper Egypt, even though this control may have depended to some extent on a dynastic alliance with a prominent Upper Egyptian family from Coptos. Shemai of Coptos married a daughter of one of the kings of the 8th Dynasty and was appointed vizier and overseer of Upper Egypt. At his death, his son Idi became vizier and governor of the 22 nomes of Upper Egypt. The connection between the king at Memphis and Coptos appears to have survived the change of dynasty; Idi himself may have gone on to serve as vizier for the first of a new line of kings from Heracleopolis (9th— 10th Dynasties) in the Fayum. At the beginning of the 9th Dynasty a "king’s eldest son" named User was the nomarch of the province where Coptos was located, and was buried at Khozam on its southern border.

Little evidence survives regarding the transition between the late Memphite and Heracleopolitan periods. We have only the historian Manetho’s statement that the first King Khety was "terrible beyond all before him." Balancing this negative assessment is the fact that the early Heracleopolitan sovereigns were seemingly content to continue the system of provincial administration inherited from their Memphite predecessors. After an initial period of consolidation, however, their successors appear to have made a concerted effort to assert the authority of the crown over the southernmost nomes of Egypt. In a number of places, certainly at Dendera and Naga ed-Deir, the title of nomarch was abolished and the nomes were administered through the local overseers of priests, who were brought under the direct control of an "overseer of Upper Egypt." The resentment caused by such administrative reforms, and the consequent disenfranchisement of the nomarchic families, may help to explain why southern Upper Egypt ultimately rallied to the polity centered at Thebes.


When trouble came, it began in the far south. Here, the narrowness of the cultivated land and a series of disastrously low Nile floods had led to a famine so severe that some resorted to cannibalism, if a local ruler, Ankhtify of Mo’alla, is to be believed. In this desperate time, when refugees fled north and south searching for food, a simple border dispute may have led to open hostilities between Ankhtify and his counterpart in the Theban nome to the north.

Ankhtify was nomarch of Nome III of Upper Egypt, but had previously added Nome II of Upper Egypt to his domain, possibly by force. He also laid claim to the office of "commander of the army of Upper Egypt" from Elephantine to Armant. Armant, however, lay in the Theban nome and when the Thebans, in alliance with the Coptites, besieged the fortress, hostilities began in earnest. Grain became a tool of diplomacy and Ankhtify appears to have used it to purchase the neutrality of the nomes of Dendera and Thinis, and succeeded in isolating Thebes and Coptos politically. Since both sides of the struggle paid lip service to the king in far away Memphis, it is difficult to know what role the latter played in these local squabbles. Ankhtify appears to have prevailed, but soon after his death, the Theban nomarch Intef "the Great" triumphed, bringing the six southernmost nomes under his control as "Great Overlord of Upper Egypt." In the next generation the Theban nomarch Mentuhotep I repudiated the overlordship of Heracleopolis and founded the 11th Dynasty.

From the end of the Old Kingdom, Asiatic pastoralists had been infiltrating the Delta. By the early 10th Dynasty, when the Heracleopolitan rulers were engaged in a struggle with the Thebans for control of Upper Egypt, the Asiatics had occupied much of the Delta and the east bank of the Nile as far south as Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt. Armed bands of Asiatics plunged the entire Delta into chaos, and the Heracleopolitans apparently retained firm control only in the area of Memphis, the Fayum and parts of Middle Egypt. This much is known from the important political testament written by a later Heracleopolitan sovereign for his son and successor, Merikare. While the Heracleopolitans were absorbed with the Asiatic menace, the Theban king (11th Dynasty), Wahankh Intef, seized Nome VIII of Upper Egypt along with the important towns of Abydos, the seat of the Upper Egyptian administration since the Old Kingdom, and Thinis, the provincial capital. In the aftermath of the conquest of Abydos, an uneasy peace prevailed between the two kingdoms. There was at least one attempt by the Heracleopolitans to regain Abydos, but the Thebans successfully fought off the attack.

Meanwhile in the north, a vigorous Heracleopolitan monarch named Khety, like the founder of his line, drove the Asiatics out of Middle Egypt and the Delta, secured Egypt’s boundaries and provided the northern kingdom with a new lease on life. In the fourteenth year of the reign of Wahankh Intef’s grandson, Mentuhotep II, presumably at the instigation of this King Khety, Thinis rebelled and, supported by a Heracleopolitan army under the command of the nomarch Tefibi of Asyut, threw off the Theban yoke. It was perhaps at this point that the Heracleopolitan and Theban kingdoms adopted the policy of peaceful coexistence, which King Khety urged upon his son in the famous literary work, the Instruction for Merikare. Mentuhotep II turned his attention to the oases and Nubia, and the Heracleopolitans were once again able to obtain red granite from the quarries at Aswan.

Both kingdoms, however, were marshaling their resources for the final struggle. The individual stages in that struggle are impossible to document. However, since Mentuhotep II changed his Horus name to Sm3-t3wy ("Uniter of the Two Lands") sometime around his thirty-ninth regnal year, it was probably at about that time that the Theban king subdued his Heracleopolitan adversaries and founded the Middle Kingdom.

Although earlier notions of social upheaval and anarchy aimed at overthrowing the established order of society are probably to be rejected, there is evidence to suggest a leveling of social distinctions and a certain redistribution of wealth in the course of the First Intermediate Period. As provincial courts on the royal pattern coalesced around the nomarchs, an increasing number of individuals joined the official class. High-ranking titles, such as "hereditary prince" and "count," which were originally granted only to the most important officers of the royal administration, gradually became cheapened and were claimed by virtually anyone of the least importance. Quite ordinary people now made funerary monuments, usually in the form of simple rectangular tombstones or stelae. Hundreds of these stelae, carved with a funerary prayer, a portrait of the owner and, not uncommonly, a short autobiographical statement, survive. Ordinary people in the Old Kingdom left few monuments, but the hundreds of stelae from the First Intermediate Period attest to the changed circumstances.

The autobiographies on the stelae reveal that the men of the "new middle class" were independent and self-reliant. They were also acquisitive, inclined to the procurement of land, herds and riches of every kind. Frequently, they claimed to be self-made men. At the same time they were civic-minded, and helped to organize the food supplies of their towns, maintained or extended local irrigation systems, set up ferry services and benefitted their fellow citizens in a variety of other ways. They occasionally extended their largesse to other towns and even to neighboring nomes. The texts of the period also attest to a movement of the population from district to district, perhaps in search of a safe haven from the intermittent warfare that later plagued much of Egypt or relief from the recurrent famines. Certain areas may have been depopulated as a result of a series of low Nile floods, and this internal migration was encouraged by the local princes who found themselves in the position of repopulating abandoned settlements. In some cases the newcomers were enticed by the promise of enhanced social status. At the end of the Heracleopolitan period, however, a reaction set in. Epithets at Asyut, Thebes and elsewhere, such as "a spirit of ancient days" or "a prince of the beginning of time," seemingly reflect an effort on the part of the nomarchs and other high officials to assert themselves and lay claim to hereditary prerogatives.

In recent years, the earlier notion of a "Heracleopolitan intellectual movement" has been questioned. Several literary compositions (including the Eloquent Peasant) formerly ascribed to the this period have been assigned to the early 12th Dynasty. Attempts have even been made to reassign the great classic of Heracleopolitan literature, the Instruction for Merikare, to the later period. According to Gerhart Fecht, the Instruction was composed in the metric system of the Old Kingdom, however, and there are affinities between the idiom of the composition and that of Heracleopolitan period and early 11th Dynasty autobiographical texts. The lengthy autobiographical inscriptions in tombs dating to the Heracleopolitan period, especially those of Idi at Kom el-Kuffar, Ankhtify at Mo’alla, and Tefibi and Khety II at Asyut, and the shorter texts on contemporaneous private stelae, exhibit considerable inventiveness and originality, and attest to the literary creativity of the times. In the realm of art and architecture, the Heracleopolitan dynasties played an important role in preserving the traditions of the Old Kingdom and passing them on intact, albeit reinterpreted, to the Middle Kingdom.

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