Middle Kingdom, overview (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

With his victory over the forces of the northern kingdom of Heracleopolis and the resulting end of the civil war around 2040 BC, the Theban Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II, the fifth king of the 11th Dynasty, became sole ruler of Egypt, taking on the name "Uniter-of-the-Two-Lands." Although he had to wage a few military campaigns against remaining dissidents, he is best remembered for peacetime activities, notably his reorganization of the country and the building of his funerary complex at Deir el-Bahri.

Mentuhotep Il’s funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri shows various stages of decoration, both pre- and post-reunification. The war is commemorated on the monument, in the numerous scenes of soldiers in the throes of battle. The peacetime reliefs show, for example, the king participating in ritual hunting, the royal family and their attendants at the court and the ubiquitous rows of offering bearers. The design of the funerary temple was original and revolutionary, revealing a vigorous palace, eager for a fresh start.

The funerary temple, along with a great number of other buildings erected in Upper Egypt at the time, demonstrates how the crown held a firmer control over the country’s resources. Such building activities presume a confident administration. It was able to support large contingents of craftsmen and workers who were sent to the desert areas in search of the necessary building materials. It also possessed a diligent bureaucracy able to see to the logistical requirements of such expeditions. Mentuhotep II needed able officials to re-establish the central administration. He wisely chose not only from his fellow Thebans, although these naturally formed the bulk of his cabinet, but also from the elite of the now defeated northern realm.


Another change at this time are the inscriptions left in the quarries. Whereas Old Kingdom texts from the mines and quarries—simple excerpts of the royal documents that commissioned the missions—only showed the leaders’ names and titles, along with the name of the king who had sent them, the Middle Kingdom officials included autobiographical statements detailing the success of their missions. Long strings of self-praising epithets now occupied major portions of their texts. These epithets had long been known from the autobiographical statements carved on the walls of the Old Kingdom funerary chapels, but their increased use at this time underscores the self-reliance acquired during the troubled times of the civil war.

The two kings who succeeded Mentuhotep II, Sankhare Mentuhotep III and Newtawyre Mentuhotep IV, achieved some success, erecting buildings and sending out large quarrying and mining expeditions, but their reigns brought the history of the 11th Dynasty to an end. Suddenly a new family—the 12th Dynasty—established itself on the throne of Egypt, led by a king who called himself the "Horus Repeating-Births" (i.e. "Renaissance"), the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, He-who-propitiates-the-heart-of-Re, the son of Re, Amenemhat. Who these upstarts were and where they came from cannot be known, although a literary composition states they were from southern Egypt. It is, however, tempting to equate this Amenemhat with the similarly named vizier under King Mentuhotep IV. The obvious surmise is that he skillfully took over the reigns of office after the demise of Mentuhotep IV.

At the beginning of his reign, Amenemhat I was mostly content to follow the lead of his 11th Dynasty predecessors. The capital city remained at Thebes, and the king presumably established his own court there. Construction began on a temple at Karnak to celebrate the growing importance of the god Amen. Amenemhat I’s funerary temple was also begun on the west bank of Thebes, in a valley just south of Mentuhotep II’s own temple at Deir el-Bahri. Although the complex was never finished, it is clear that Amenemhat I had chosen Thebes as his first burial ground, betraying his own southern origin.

One responsibility the new ruler had to oversee immediately was his relationship with the provincial overlords (known as "nomarchs"). During the civil war, the nomarchs had grown ever more independent from the royal house, and had also encroached upon one another’s territories. If the central government was to have any success dealing with these recalcitrant rulers, the king had to forcefully establish his authority over them at the outset of his rule. He accomplished this by personally touring the country and reestablishing the provinces’ boundaries, ensuring order by using the old records to settle any disputes. The king also reserved the right to confirm a nomarch’s son in place of his father, thus ensuring a properly approved succession of nomarchs devoted to the crown. Furthermore, Amenemhat I installed one of his own representatives in the provinces to ensure the proper accounting of all revenues owed to the crown.

At the same time, Amenemhat I could not simply ignore the nomarchs’ claims to a certain independence. Therefore, the latter were allowed to date texts according to their own tenure instead of the king’s, have their own courts, collect their own revenues, maintain a small militia, and erect buildings in their domains. This careful compromise between control and latitude over the provincial rulers served the 12th Dynasty in good stead for well over a century.

Some time before his twentieth year on the throne, Amenemhat I suffered an unsuccessful assassination attempt. This may have prompted him to introduce one of his most striking innovations, the institution of coregency. In his twentieth regnal year, Amenemhat I installed his son Senusret (I) on the throne alongside him as an equal Horus-king. In practice, the younger partner assumed the more strenuous activities of kingship, while the older ruler remained in the palace, overseeing the affairs of state. This system worked surprisingly well for the 12th Dynasty, as son succeeded father for nearly 200 years.

The assassination attempt may also have prompted another major decision by Amenemhat I. Toward the end of his reign, the royal residence moved from Thebes to a newly founded city named Amenemhat-It-tawy ("Amenemhat-takes-possession-of-the-Two-Lands"). Although its exact location is unknown, the new residence was probably situated just south of Memphis, possibly at modern-day el-Lisht near the pyramids of Amenemhat I and Senusret I. Perhaps Amenemhat I wished to disassociate himself from the memory of the previous dynasty. The move to the Memphite area also associated the 12th Dynasty with the great ruling families of old, a connection that helped establish them as the legitimate monarchs. According to literary tradition, Amenemhat I died in the thirtieth year of his reign. His demise appears to have been sudden, taking his coregent Senusret I by surprise and possibly hinting at foul play, but the sources do not actually indicate this. If Amenemhat I had indeed been the vizier under King Mentuhotep IV, he must have been of a fairly advanced age after thirty years on the throne. By the time of his accession as sole ruler, Senusret I had already served ten years as coregent and was thus ready to take on the affairs of state. He further consolidated his family’s hold on the throne through the skillful use of literature as political propaganda. The so-called Prophecy of Neferty recounted how the 12th Dynasty had been foretold by a sage from the great days of King Seneferu (4th Dynasty). The Story of Sinuhe shrewdly wove into the wonderful adventures of its hero Sinuhe long hymns of praise to Senusret I. The humorous Satire on the Trades, in which various occupations are unfavourably compared to the comfortable and authoritative life of a scribe, was used to furnish a burgeoning bureaucracy with new recruits.

The central administration itself retained much of the same structure it had acquired since the Old Kingdom. The senior administrator was still the vizier; he had his main office at the capital city, of which he was also mayor, and he was involved with a great many administrative and judicial matters. The major ministries were the Treasury, called the "White House," which was the repository of various goods and commodities; the Granary, which was responsible for supervising the harvesting, recording and subsequent storing of the crops; and the Office of Labor, under the Overseer of all Royal Works, which administered and provided the labor force. Other large departments, such as the Offices of the Fields and of Cattle (whose responsibilities were self-evident), are known for this period. Also attested are the armed forces, which included the army, the navy and a police department.

Senusret I undertook a building program that produced a great number of monuments from Elephantine to the Delta. Included among the projects were a vast court and a kiosk at the temple of Amen at Karnak, perhaps initiated during the coregency period when the 12th Dynasty still resided in Thebes. His reign was also a great period of non-royal activity at the pilgrimage site of Abydos, when vast numbers of cenotaphs were built and furnished with commemorative stelae. The growth in the demand for such stelae at this time demonstrates the stability and security that allowed people to travel the length and breadth of the country to place their stelae at Abydos. The texts on these stelae consist mostly of self-glorifying epithets, demonstrating again the individualism of a self-assertive society. These epithets may, in fact, be the blueprint of the "perfect society," where all members, from the high officials to the lesser bureaucrats, fall in line and simply catalog the road to their own success.

Although the 12th Dynasty is not generally known for militaristic policies, Senusret I managed to strengthen his frontiers with well-aimed military campaigns. His relations with regions to the northeast seem to have been mostly defensive, and at least one campaign is attested against Egypt’s Libyan neighbors. In Nubia, Senusret I conducted military campaigns and subsequently built a series of forts between the First and the Second Cataracts, which laid full claim to the area south of Egypt and prepared the way for the eventual full conquest of Lower Nubia later in the 12th Dynasty.

A certain amount of military activity is also demonstrated in the reign of the next king, Amenemhat II, part of whose court annals were recorded on a large stela discovered at Memphis. This document mentions armies sent out "to hack up" parts of Syria, Lebanon and possibly even Cyprus. Although such statements are often interpreted as propaganda, the armies are then described as returning laden with prisoners of war and much booty. In addition, foreigners from southwest Asia and different areas of Nubia are mentioned as coming into Egypt, presenting products from their own countries to the court. Although the Egyptian annals present these offerings as tribute from subject countries, what may have been recorded was the common practice of gift giving between rulers, part of an established ancient Near Eastern tradition wherein rulers acknowledged one another’s suzerainty.

The reign of the following king, Senusret II, is best remembered for his pyramid at Lahun, near the entrance of the Fayum oasis. East of the structure was the pyramid town of Lahun, a new settlement built to house the priests and administrators of the royal mortuary cult. The town shows all the earmarks of a planned settlement, with its grid system of well-laid-out streets and town houses, and its hierarchical arrangement of wealthier and poorer sections. The "wealthy neighborhood" was placed on higher ground, to afford it a better view and, presumably, better air. This heavy governmental hand can also be seen in the 12 th Dynasty’s conscious remodeling of older town sites.

Senusret III, the next king, must be remembered as one of the greatest rulers in Egyptian history. His reign witnessed a major administrative changeover to a highly centralized government and a final conquest of Nubia. Egypt had always coveted the products of Africa to the south and therefore felt a strong need to protect, indeed to control, the trade routes coming from the upper Nile. The conquest itself was accomplished through military campaigns in the King’s eighth, tenth, twelfth, sixteenth and nineteenth regnal years. Senusret III was clearly determined to subjugate the area once and for all. The result was the establishment of Nubia as an Egyptian possession, and the territory was actively occupied by an Egyptian population stationed there. Egypt completely controlled the desert region on both sides of the Nile, as well as all river traffic.

Like his earlier 12th Dynasty predecessors, Senusret III now established a second series of forts along the Second Cataract. As with the town of Lahun, these forts reflect the all-pervasive presence of the central administration. The forts themselves were elaborate constructions, with wide mudbrick walls, towers, bastions and other architectural elements to permit an easy defense of the buildings. The interiors of the fortresses were carefully laid out, with a symmetrical grid of streets flanked by housing of different sizes for the various strata of society garrisoned there. Included were cultic places, workshops areas and the ubiquitous granaries, which in some cases reached surprisingly large proportions.


Although the actual title of the commanders of the forts has not yet been identified, the forts seem to have been governed by both military and civil administrators. In fact, the variety of Egyptian officials in the Nubian colonies is noteworthy. Staff from nearly all facets of the central administration are attested in texts found either in the forts themselves or on graffiti engraved in the area. Included are a wide range of palace officials, agents of nearly all the major ministries: the Treasury, the Granary, the Offices of Provisioning, of the Fields, of Cattle and of Labor, and the Ministry of Justice. A great number of military titles are represented as well. All these officials were sent to oversee and protect the newly acquired crown possessions.

The other major event of Senusret III’s reign is the almost complete disappearance of the great nomarchical families. The surviving evidence, however, is concerned only with the great families of Middle Egypt; very little is known about the rest of the country at this time. Some of those Middle Egypt overlords even left unfinished tombs behind in their provinces, preferring to be buried near the king at the royal burial grounds. How this change was accomplished is not known, but the most likely explanation is that the King simply refused to confirm the sons of nomarchs in their fathers’ positions, and then integrated them into the higher echelons of administration. What has often been interpreted as a fall of the nomarchs may simply have been part of a major administrative change, whereby a loosely knit organization was transformed into a tightly centralized government, focused around the capital city.

The major ministries mentioned above seem to have been little affected by this change, although additional powers may have accrued to them under the new centralization. One new creation was the Office of the Provider of People, which was responsible for registering and assigning the manpower necessary for the various projects at hand. The other major change was the division of the country into three main sectors: the "District of the North," which held sway over the area north of the capital; the "District of the South," which administered Middle Egypt; and the "District of the Head of the South," which was responsible for the nine southernmost nomes. The whole was governed from two major centers: the royal residence in the Memphite area in the north, and Thebes in the south. Each district was administered by a herald, who was in turn assisted by a second herald, under whom were Councils of Functionaries and a large scribal staff. Other officials involved were the kenbet-councillors, who were sent to the provinces on government business. At the lowest level, the towns were under the authority of local mayors.

The new centralization seems to have affected more than the political level. The wealth of the country was now concentrated around the royal residence, as well as a few large cities such as Abydos, Thebes and Elephantine. Resources previously circulating in the provinces were now presumably diverted toward the central treasury and subsequently redistributed to the now expanded civil service. Culturally, this is demonstrated by the disappearance of the large provincial cemeteries, which had become too expensive to maintain, and the increase of so-called "middle class burials." The earlier Middle Kingdom burial equipment, with its elaborate wooden models and extensive use of the so-called Coffin Texts, was now replaced by amulets and magical tools, which had already been used in everyday life. Also during the late Middle Kingdom a vastly increasing number of commemorative stelae were left at Abydos by middle-rank administrators. That these minor officials could now afford to have such stelae made is another testament to the broadening of powers placed in the hands of a burgeoning bureaucracy.

It was then left to the next ruler, Amenemhat III, to reap the rewards of Senusret III’s vigorous policies. His father had left Amenemhat III with what amounted to an Egyptian dependency on his southern border as well as the strongest centralized government since the days of the high Old Kingdom. Amenemhat III was thus able to embark on a full-scale exploitation of mines and quarries. Great numbers of texts are known from the turquoise and copper mines of the Sinai; from the alabaster, limestone and schist quarries of Hatnub, Tura and the Wadi Hammamat, respectively; the granite and diorite quarries of Aswan and Nubia; and the amethyst mines of the Wadi el-Hudi. These activities significantly increased the crown’s revenues, which the King could distribute at will to loyal officers. This new wealth created the kind of dependency a highly centralized government needed to sustain itself.

Amenemhat III also embarked on a building program that saw him erecting, or adding to, structures in most major sites in Egypt. His greatest architectural works, however, were in the Fayum. Although the Fayum is well represented in Old Kingdom sources, it is the 12th Dynasty and Amenemhat III in particular who are forever associated with this oasis southwest of the residence city. In the Middle Kingdom, declining flood levels occasioned a lowering of the level of Lake Moeris in the Fayum, exposing a substantial area of land for cultivation and construction. This may have provided the impetus for renewed activity in the Fayum area, and the 12th Dynasty lost no time in exploiting this newly available land.

Both Amenemhat I and Senusret I added to an existing temple of Sobek of Shedyet. Senusret II built his pyramid there, and a literary tradition places a royal residence or rest-house in the Fayum area. Yet it is Amenemhat III—in the guise of King Lamarres, a reworking of his prenomen Ni-ma’at-Re, or King Moeris—who was remembered in later legends as a great builder and the excavator of the lake that took his name. Amenemhat III left a great number of structures in the Fayum: additions to the temple of Sobek of Shedyet; the shrine dedicated to the goddess Renenutet; the colossi at Biahmu, well-known to the classical authors; and his second pyramid at Hawara (his first pyramid at Dahshur had suffered a structural accident, which forced him to abandon it). To the south of the Hawara pyramid was its funerary temple, called a "labyrinth" by the classical authors.

After a long reign, Amenemhat III was succeeded by his son Amenemhat IV, who reigned only briefly and is chiefly remembered for continuing his father’s policies. Next came Queen Sobekneferu, daughter of Amenemhat III and wife of Amenemhat IV, who reigned a short three years. With her ended the great dynasty of the Amenemhats and the Senusrets. The Middle Kingdom continued with the 13th Dynasty. In spite of the great number of kings in this dynasty, a few powerful rulers did maintain a strong presence on the throne. Royal building activities continued on a large scale, and the Egyptian throne was still respected in Nubia and Syria. As long as the capital city remained at It-tawy, the new centralized government continued to operate in full force, indicating no breakdown in central authority for some time. Although the period of the 13th Dynasty is obscure because of the paucity of historical records, the impression left is that of a secure nation going about its business as usual, unaware of the troubles ahead.

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