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8-10-2015, 12:25

The Case of Ankhtifi; Crisis, Care, and Power

Ankhtifi, a nomarch of the 3rd and 2nd Upper Egyptian nomes during the earlier part of the Herakleopolitan period, embodies the new type of local ruler that emerged during the First Intermediate Period. His autobiographical text, inscribed on the pillars of his rock tomb near el-Mo'alla (some 30 km. south of Thebes), is one of the most spectacular examples of its genre to survive from ancient Egypt. It provides the ideal guide to the great issues of the time, and compellingly evokes the political atmosphere of southern Upper Egypt during the First Intermediate Period.

As ‘great overlord of the nomes of Edfu and Hierakonpolis’ and ‘overseer of priests’, Ankhtifi simultaneously held key positions in both the religious and secular wings of the Old Kingdom provincial administration. In fact, this combination of offices was typical for the largely independent local rulers during the First Intermediate Period. The two key events in Ankhtifi’s political career were his intervention in order to pacify and reorganize the nome of Edfu, and his military expedition against the Theban nome, where his opponents, a coalition of the Theban and Koptite nomes, actually refused to give battle. All this was essentially small-scale politics, and, reading between the lines, he was probably not even particularly successful. It is notable, for instance, that there are no known successors to Ankhtifi in his role as semi-independent ruler of the southernmost nomes. Nevertheless, his inscription proclaims his glory without a trace of false modesty;

His Excellency, the overseer of priests, overseer of desert-countries, overseer of mercenaries, great overlord of the nomes of Edfu and Hierakonpolis, Ankhtifi, the brave, he says: T was the beginning and the end (i. e. the climax) of mankind, since nobody like myself existed before nor wiU he exist; nobody like myself was ever bom nor will he be born. 1 surpassed the feats of the ancestors, and coming generations will not be able to equal me in any of my feats within this million of years.

I gave bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked; I anointed those who had no cosmetic oil; I gave sandals to the barefooted; I gave a wife to him who had no wife. I took care of the towns of Hefat [i. e. el-Mo alia] and Hor-mer in every [situation of crisis, when] the sky was clouded and the earth [was parched (?) and when everybody died] of hunger on this sandbank of Apophis. The south came with its people and the north with its children; they brought finest oil in exchange for the barley which was given to them. My barley went upstream until it reached Lower Nubia and downstream until it reached the Abydene nome. All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger and people were eating their children, but I did not allow anybody to die of hunger in this nome... I cared for the house of Elephantine and for the town of lat-negen in these years after Hefat and Hor-mer had been satisfied.... I was like a (sheltering) mountain for Hefat and like a cool shadow for Hor-mer.’ Ankhtifi said: 'The whole country has become like locusts going upstream and downstream (in search of food); but never did I allow anybody in need to go from this nome to another one. I am the hero without equal.’

Economic crisis is one of the great issues in the texts of the time. Local magnates were accustomed to boasting that they managed to feed their own towns while the rest of the country was starving. These accounts have tended to make a considerable impression on modern readers, with the result that famines and economic crisis are often regarded as an essential hallmark of the period. It has even been argued that the dire consequences of repeated failures of the Nile flood, caused by climatic change, were responsible for the end of the Old Kingdom. There can be no doubt that these texts indeed relate to fact. This becomes obvious when references to famine occur in less grandiose contexts. An employee of a Koptite ‘overseer of priests’, for instance, relates; 'I stood in the doorway of his excellency the overseer of priests Djefy handing out grain to (the inhabitants of) this entire town to support it in the painful years of famine.’

It remains to be carefully considered, however, to what extent this situation was really specific to the First Intermediate Period. In fact, independent evidence confirming climatic change during the First Intermediate Period is lacking. Instead, the available data seem to suggest that the ‘Neolithic Wet Phase’ had already ended during the Old Kingdom, bringing drier climatic conditions in the adjacent desert areas in particular, as well as encouraging a general process of adaptation to lower levels of annual Nile flooding. These environmental changes showed no signs of affecting the development of pharaonic civilization at that date, thus calling into question any supposed connections with the First Intermediate Period. Recent archaeological observations from Elephantine even seem to indicate that Egypt was experiencing flood levels slightly above average during the First Intermediate Period.

Considering the long-term regularities and variations of the flood of the Nile, it seems clear that the spectre of famine due to Nile failure in individual years must have haunted the Egyptians to greater or lesser degrees throughout all periods of Egyptian history. To understand the prominence of this issue in the texts of the First Intermediate Period, it is therefore necessary to place it in a wider literary context.

The introductory phrase that forms the basis for Ankhtifi’s account is a very traditional one. It is actually one of the stock phrases of the autobiographical texts of Old Kingdom officials, asserting their moral integrity. During the First Intermediate Period, the principle of caring for the weak was greatly elaborated. At this time the great men were prepared to step in whenever and wherever need might arise in society, through economic problems, political crises, or individual misfortunes. The provincial rulers were not merely sheltering and supporting a few people (as a father might shelter and support the members of his family) but taking responsibility for the whole of society, whether the population of their home town or that of the nome or nomes they ruled. The message is clear: people would be helpless without their rulers. Left on their own, they would simply not be able to face the hazards of life. It goes without saying that this beneficent role of the ruler was indissociable from his right to obeisance and his authority— thus Ankhtifi points out, ‘on whomsoever I laid my hand—no harm could approach him, because my reasoning was so expert and my plans were so excellent. But every ignorant person, every wretch who opposed me—I retaliated against him for his deeds.’

In the First Intermediate Period, crises had evidently become socially significant as contexts in which personal power and social dependence could be legitimized, and this observation probably helps a good deal in explaining why the issue of famine and sustenance was so important to local magnates at that time.