c. 2063 BC – c. 1650 BC
I’ve been so very excited to come back to Ancient Egypt, and so I really want to treat this with the attention it deserves because this isn’t just any nation, it’s the second part of the first ancient empire we know large amounts about. And so there’s so much more to cover than most of the other states I’m currently working my way through, and I really don’t want to miss anything out. The Middle Kingdom is shorter than both the Old and the New Kingdom though, and most of the classic, huge ancient Egypt post will be in New Kingdom, so much so that I might even split that one into two. But The Middle Kingdom shouldn’t need that.
Showing much more control over the territory outside the banks of the Nile, the Middle Kingdom was the first time that Egyptian Pharoahs really began to expand. Through the records of their expeditions to Punt further down the Red Sea (see, I had a reason for doing that nation), we know that they had a port on the Red Sea, probably at Quseir as from Thebes/Waset it’s the shortest way to go through the desert from the safety of the Nile. And so I’ve coloured that coast in Egyptian yellow, as opposed to the Old Kingdom where I left the yellow to around the river. Additionally, some of the Middle Kingdom pharoahs had real control down to the Second Cataract, under Senesret I, they pushed into Lower Nubia (Lower means further north and Upper means further south as far as Egypt is concerned because it’s using the northward-flowing Nile as a reference point, this always makes me stop to check so I thought I’d reiterate that) and controlled as far down as Buhen.
Timeline and Rulers
My favourite part, particularly as regnal names really start to show up here. Where we left off at the end of the old kingdom, the seventh through eleventh dynasties were going through a few generations of struggle and instability and couldn’t unify Egypt. It’s the Eleventh Dynasty we must start with, as ultimately, they end up ruling. They started out, under a guy called Intef the Elder, who was not a Pharoah, but a local nomarch, governor, of Thebes. His descendants used the power they got from him to declare themselves a ruling family, ahead of the 10th dynasty ruling from Herakleopolis – the first one we’re sure about, who does use a Pharoah title is Intef I, although we’re pretty sure he wasn’t ruling all of Egypt at the time, his northern neighbours would still have been in command in Lower Egypt, while he could only rule around Thebes. Intef II, maybe the brother of the first Intef, and his son Intef III followed without really changing the situation, so the dynasty decided to change their frontman’s name and see if that worked out for them. It did, and Mentuhotep II (the second as another early 11th Dynasty leader shared the name) became what most people recognise today as the first Pharoah of the Middle Kingdom. We even know the name of his wife-sister, Nefuru and many other wives who were buried with him – this for someone who literally lived 4100 years ago.
It did take nearly four decades of Mentuhotep ruling to break through though, after his predecessors couldn’t. After a peaceful reign of effectively ruling the south of Egypt unchallenged, he started expanding and was at constant war with the north until the ruler of the north, Merikare was killed and he had the opportunity to reunite the kingdom into the true Middle Kingdom – not a quick process but Mentuhotep was rewarded for his patience by the people considering him divine at the end of it. We don’t know the exact date of when in Mentuhotep’s reign this all happened, probably before the 40th year of his reign though. He was experienced in propaganda, one of his Horus names (titles) described him as unifier and we have large statues of him that survive to this day, like this.
He was also a great temple builder, pretty much exactly the sort of successful king that the Egyptians needed after decades of instability at best. It’s at this point that Egyptians started using the term Kush and really started those Nubian expeditions, stationing proper garrisons at Elephantine so they could push south with ease.
Mentuhotep III was next, he suffered from heir-in-waiting-too-long (think Edward VII or Prince Charles) and had a short reign, but he did send a large expedition to Punt. Then there’s no recorded king for seven years, and some people insert a Mentuhotep IV, who’s only known from a couple of inscriptions. It’s probably the case that Four existed, because the name of his vizier (known from the expedition that took place in these years) is suspiciously similar to the name of the first Pharoah of the Twelfth Dynasty, a power grab? Perhaps. It seems like there was civil war at this time, Lloyd, my non-Wiki reference, points to some graffiti from Hatnub that talk about a ‘fear of the royal palace’. Anyway, the new Pharoah was named Amenemhat I, he’d base his court at El-Lisht, near Memphis rather than Thebes, and if he was the vizier, his betrayal of his ruler came back around to him, as Egyptian literary works about him detail that he was assassinated himself, by his own guards. Now if you’ll let me go off on a tangent, this is the Story of Sinuhe, written not long after the fact, a story that, if you’re familiar with the biblical story of Joseph, is like that, but in reverse, Sinuhe is an Egyptian who has to flee because of accidentally implicating himself in the murder of Amenemhat, he goes to Canaan and becomes powerful there, lives a good life, but wishes to return to his homeland, and is granted that. Almost exactly Joseph but in reverse. And the Middle Kingdom and particularly the 12th Dynasty would have been the time at which, if they existed, which is doubtful, the biblical patriarchs would have interacted with the Pharoahs and Genesis has Abraham as well as Joseph doing so. The pharoahs aren’t named but 12th Dynasty is probably the most likely point, just looking at the evidence. I find this sort of thing fascinating so I’m actually going to do my next history post all about the relation between real history and Genesis.
Back to the Pharoahs. Senusret I and his father were very keen on expanding and so the son continued the work of campaigns against Nubia, bringing Egypt’s formal border to that straight line across the brown on the map, the second cataract. He also establishes diplomatic relations with Syria and Canaan, so possibly, and I’m saying this without any research to back me up, he’s a possibility for Abraham’s Pharoah. But then that story is one where Abraham pretends that his wife Sarah is actually his sister so that the Egyptians don’t kill him for his wife, and once he’s found out, Pharoah berates him for lying – but that’s logically flawed as Senusret himself was a sister marrier , another Nefuru, and may not have seen the distinction so that many not have even protected Abraham. And many Pharoahs sister-married, so it’s not just something that’s disproven by me being wrong about this wild theory of mine, I make it because Senusret I ruled for so long, 45 years, a long time for Abraham to stumble into him, and he shared a name with the possible Joseph Pharoah later which might explain the lack of a name in the Bible if the later Hebrew writers of the thing heard oral stories with the same name attached), Genesis plot holes… Genesis plot holes… I should keep my tangents to the next episode.
Amenemhat II was the next, and he had a relatively obscure reign of about 35 years, some of that overlapping with Senusret, we’re not sure exactly when his reign was, it’s the least certain of the Middle Kingdom proper. We’re down to 1900 BC now. He’s followed by Senusret II, who’s largely known for building a farming system and having Egyptologists argue about his reign length, because it’s derived from the Turin Canon, where nearly all of this information originally comes from, by the way, I should have mentioned that before now, but he isn’t named specifically. Too many Pharoahs called Senusret. But the next would be the last of them. Senusret III, considered by most to have been the most powerful pharoah of the Middle Kingdom, in the mid-19th century BC. He ruled over a golden age of Egypt, peace and prosperity for all who lived in the Nile Delta, while he militarily campaigned far and wide. So wide, in fact, that Herodotus, a millennium later, picking up on some oral tradition, made a claim that an ancient Egyptian pharoah had led expeditions all the way to Europe. That’s huge in a world this ancient. It may have just been exaggerations passed down over generations of a moderately successful Pharoah whose legacy got glorified later on, and that’s probably what did happen as we have no solid evidence for it, but it’s cool to think about and he probably did go at least as far as the Levant, we have interactions between cities there for that period. And of course, as with any successful king, he was deified during his lifetime and ruled for 4 decades. He also had several statues of himself at different ages commissioned, and scholars have had a field day trying to figure out why that is and see if we can deduce anything about his personality from that. He definitely did expand into Nubia, making the southern frontier at Buhen safe. And if there was a Pharoah for Joseph and his technicolor dreamcoat opera voice, Senusret III is probably the best candidate. Although we know the names of three Senusret viziers already, maybe Joseph was another, but he wouldn’t have been the Pharoah’s right-hand man, that bit’s definitely fanciful (he says as if the rest of it isn’t too).
Amenamhat III was probably a co-regent for most of his life with Senusret and was mostly a peaceful ruler, although we have lots of statues for him, he’s well known and was powerful, he’s kind of very much in the shadow of Senusret III. Amenamhat IV also was mostly a ruler of continuation, trade with Byblos and others, little evidence of wars. The final Pharoah of the 12th Dynasty is the first confirmed female Pharoah, Sobekneferu, hurrah for woman power. She was probably the sister of Amen Four and only ruled four years. Because a new dynasty was coming, one that was far weaker.
But with a lot more Pharoahs, as the end of the 12th Dynasty already marks, arguably, the end of the Middle Kingdom, although some like to put the beginning of the 13th in there. However this is more likely part of the Second Intermediate Period, we have a lot more turnover between Pharoahs, at least thirty-three, if not more of them in a century and a half. If you’re interested, we get up to Amenamhat VII, and they have a dynastic name of Sobekhotep that is also rather popular, with seven of those. There’s very little known of so many Pharoahs of this dynasty, that I’m only going to cover one in detail, and that is Neferhotep I. He may have shared the throne with his brother, and that might have been why his reign was relatively stable compared to the Pharaohs around him, lasting a lengthy 11 years. But it’s possible he only ruled part of Egypt and was only able to make that part stable. We have tons of objects attributed to him, much more than most of the rest of the thirteenth dynasty, we don’t know as much about his reign’s events as we’d like – and that’s the Pharoah we probably know the most about from this dynasty. Moving on.
Canaaanites had been immigrating to Egypt since the end of the 12th Dynasty, which also gives an anchor for Joseph’s story, again, should he have existed, and they formed a state that could have been independent, but is generally referred to as the Fourteenth Dynasty. The Fourteenth Dynasty was probably a rival to the Thirteenth, and coexisted with them and the Fifteenth. The Fifteenth however, that was something else. Another people from Canaan called the Hyksos took advantage of the weak Egyptian rule at this point and swept in to the north, at the Delta, and ruled from there at Avaris, located on the eastern point of the Delta, ousting the Fourteenth. We also know very few of their ruler names. The Sixteenth Dynasty was probably Egyptians trying to rebel against the rule of the Hyksos, but they were beaten and could have been vassals, or they could have been an independent kingdom from Thebes warring against the Hyksos in the north. They’re succeeded by the Seventeenth Dynasty, who have more success against the Hyksos until Kamose, brother of the first Pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Ahmose, drives the Hyksos out, finally, at the cost of his own life, restoring control to ethnic Egyptians. Ahmose then founds a new dynasty and starts the New Kingdom.
Culture, Religion, Advancements
The position of vizier is first created during the Middle Kingdom, to help keep the realm under control for the Eleventh and Twelfth dynasties. Basically an aide for the running of government, it was clear that the task of administering Egypt was huge. Senusret III added to this by bumping up the numbers of administrators hugely, considering he may have expanded the realm, that’s probably sensible. They would replace the power of the Nomarchs, who’d been running rampant with the country during the First Intermediate Period. Even though the Pharaohs of the Eleventh Dynasty came from that background, can’t risk others doing that, and the nomarchs disappear.
However we see less and less pyramids being constructed during the Middle Kingdom until they just fade away all together, smaller royal tombs would become the norm. Osiris was on his way to becoming the most important deity in Egyptian religion during this time, so it’s not like they lost their obsession with death, the pharoahs. They just became much more conservative about displaying it, probably to conserve money for the stability of the realm. Because as I’ve shown, that was quite the issue if you weren’t a strong Pharaoh.
A form of block statue was made popular during this time, so a different sort of scuplting, essentially. It was a face on a block, and many were made, of men and women, something that the rich and elite of the time likely made of themselves to display around their homes. On the other side of advancements, the Hyksos may have ravaged the north of Egypt and been a thorn in the side of the ~true Egyptians~ but they also introduced many valuable military advancements to the country, before the Hyksos, the Egyptians had no composite bows, and no horses and chariots – one of Ancient Egypt’s most iconic weapons of war. Without all of that, we’d have had a very different picture of Egypt. That would be all saved for the New Kingdom, the part of Egypt that contains everything everyone knows it for except for the pyramids. In contrast, the Middle Kingdom seems like a small island of stability for one dynasty, the Twelfth in the sea of uncertainty that were the intermediate periods between the Old and New Kingdoms. But it’s definitely some centuries where Egypt really starts to become the familiar Ancient Egypt and establishes itself firmly on the world stage against the rising threats on its north-east and south borders that weren’t anywhere near as organised in the Old Kingdom.
See also in History Of A Nation: Egypt
Alan B.Lloyd (ed.) A Companion To Ancient Egypt, (Chichester, 2010)