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6-08-2015, 15:45

Egypt Before the Empire

great place to live. Each summer, floodwaters filled the narrow gorge cliff
to cliff. When they receded, the valley remained wet and marshy.
But it was a hunter’s paradise. The Nile was alive with fish. Papyrus
thickets teemed with game birds. Antelopes, gazelles, oryxes, and
wild bulls grazed in lush greenery near the cliffs. Crocodiles and hippos
patrolled river shallows and muddy pools.
From 8000 to 5000 B.C.E., the Nile valley and surrounding deserts
were much cooler and wetter than they are today. But the climate was
changing rapidly, turning hotter and drier. The valley started drying out
more quickly after the annual floods. Soon, some spots on the sandy
plateaus that rose up to the cliffs were dry year-round.
Around 5000 B.C.E., people started living year-round in the Nile
River valley. Great droughts in Asia had set masses of people adrift. These
unwilling wanderers longed to resume the lifestyles they had left: agriculture
(growing grains and other foodstuffs) and animal husbandry (tending
herds of animals for meat, milk, hides, wool, and transportation). To
them, the Nile valley looked very inviting.
Archaeologists have identified several Predynastic Egyptian cultures,
named for modern towns where remains of ancient cultures were
found. The Badarian culture arose about 5000 B.C.E. It was succeeded by
the Amratian culture (also called Naqada I) about 4000 B.C.E. The Early
and Late Gerzean Periods (also called Naqada II) followed around 3500
B.C.E. and 3300 B.C.E.
Because these cultures did not leave written records, it can seem
that Egyptian civilization sprang out of nowhere. But it was just that the
ancient Egyptians had settled down and prospered in the Nile valley long
before they learned to write. Archaeologists have uncovered enough physical
evidence to piece together a general picture of early civilization in
the valley. But over thousands of years, the Nile’s annual flood buried
most evidence of Predynastic Egyptian life. What is known about these
people comes mostly from cemeteries, pottery, tools, weapons, jewelry,
and other metal objects.
Early Nile valley settlers carefully buried their dead in locations
safe from the floodwaters. Archaeologists have discovered many cemeteries
on high ground near the cliffs. Villages were located on “turtle-backs”
(small rises of land) on the valley floor. Evidence of only a few valley
floor settlements has survived, mostly by chance. By studying layers of
mud, archaeologists and geologists have determined that many more settlements
are buried deep beneath millennia of mud.
In the Delta, the Nile has gradually shifted eastward over thousands
of years, wiping out signs of many important early settlements. Other ancient
villages lie buried deep beneath modern towns and cities. Many of
these sites have been continuously inhabited for up to 8,000 years.
Many ancient settlements were dismantled, brick by brick, by the
Egyptians themselves. Most ancient buildings were made of sun-dried
mud-brick. As mud-brick decays, it turns into sebakh—the organic debris
of human occupation; it makes a cheap, handy compost and fertilizer.
Over the centuries, sebakh gatherers have removed all traces of entire
ancient villages and towns.
Predynastic Egyptians lived in small, self-supporting villages on
humps of dry land near the river’s edge, close to hunting and fishing
grounds and to cultivated fields. They tended herds of animals. They wove
baskets and mats from papyrus and reeds. They grew wheat and barley,
storing the grains in pits lined with reed mats. They used milling and
grinding stones and simple cooking equipment.
They protected their eyes from the harsh sun with “eye paint”: minerals
mixed with oils and ground on stone palettes. They pressed cleansing
oils from the wild castor plant. Compared to people in other parts of
the ancient world, they enjoyed a good life. Food, both cultivated and
wild, was usually plentiful.
They believed in an afterlife. They laid a dead person on his left
side, knees touching his chin, wrapped him in a reed mat or animal skin,
or placed him in a basket, and buried him in a shallow oval pit in the
sand, facing west. Graves often included jars of beer and food, pottery,
make-up palettes, weapons, personal ornaments, and small figurines symbolizing
fertility or life. In the hot, dry sand, bodies dried out before they
had a chance to rot, creating natural mummies.
Predynastic religion included animal cults. Animal cemeteries, located
near human graves, included the bodies of dogs, jackals, sheep, and
cows, wrapped in linen or matting and carefully buried.

Coming Together

During the Badarian era, perhaps about 100,000 people lived in what
was to be Egypt. This increased to 250,000 people during the Amratian Period.
With more people to feed, better organization was necessary. Egypt
always faced the danger of a low or high Nile (see page 7). When disaster
struck, it took discipline, cooperation, and strong leadership to quickly
restore food production and distribution.
Villages gradually banded together into confederations under strong
chieftains. These regional alliances became the permanent administrative
districts of dynastic Egypt. Egyptologists call these districts nomes,
and their leaders, nomarchs.
During the late Gerzean era, important people such as nomarchs
were buried in increasingly large, complex, rectangular mud-brick structures.
Ordinary people were still buried in simple pits in the sand.
There is controversy among Egyptologists about what this two-tier
burial system means. Sir Flinders Petrie (1852–1942), father of scientific
archaeology, thought it meant that a “dynastic race” had invaded Egypt
from the Near East or Nubia, taken over, and introduced writing and
other cultural advances. Other scholars believe the social divisions were
a natural part of cultural trends already in motion.
The later Gerzean Period saw increased political activity. The population
continued to grow rapidly. Since there are no written records, little
is known about how the nomes finally joined up, forming two distinct
cultures in Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt: the Delta culture and the
Naqada culture. By 3400 B.C.E. Egypt ended up with two kingdoms.
The Ta-Mehu culture in Lower Egypt’s Delta had its capital at Pe
(later Buto). Its king wore a red crown (known as deshret). Its patroness
was the cobra goddess Edjo (Wadjet) and its symbols were the papyrus and
the bee. While there is no evidence that the ancient Egyptians called this
the Red Land, modern scholars have referred to it that way.
The Ta-Shomu culture in the long, narrow gorge of Upper Egypt
had its capital at Nekhen (later Hierkonpolis). Its king wore a tall,
conical white crown (known as hedjet). Its patroness was the vulture
goddess Nekhbet and its symbols were the lotus and the sedge (a kind
of marsh grass). This culture has come to be known as the White Land.
There were struggles for dominance among factions within each of
the two lands, and between Ta-Mehu and Ta-Shomu. An ambitious local
chieftain arose in Ta-Shomu, and united its districts under his rule. He
then did the same in Ta-Mehu.
To piece together the story of Egypt’s unification, archaeologists
have made many guesses based on a small number of objects: large commemorative
palettes (shield-shaped stones) and ceremonial mace heads
(hammer-like weapons) carved with scenes depicting political events.
The chieftain who united the two lands (in about 3100 to 3150
B.C.E.) is traditionally called Narmer. His triumphs are depicted on the
Palette of Narmer, now in the Cairo Museum. On one side, Narmer wears
the white crown as he slays his foes; on the other side he wears the red
crown. After Narmer, Egyptian kings wore the combined double crown
(known as sekhemty), and adopted names and titles that symbolized their
dominion over the two lands.
No one knows who taught the inhabitants of the Nile valley to
write. It might have been refugees from Mesopotamia. Mesopotamian
cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing, scratched into slabs of damp clay,
bears little relation to Egyptian writing. But the idea of expressing ideas
using symbols could have planted a seed. Hieroglyphics, Egyptian picture-
writing, emerged during the late Predynatsic Period, and hieroglyphs
are found in a tomb that has been dated to 3250 B.C.E.

The Early Dynastic Period

Narmer’s triumph did not put an immediate end to conflict. There were
many periods of localized warfare. Forces from the north and south
clashed. For awhile, the two lands continued to think of themselves as
separate kingdoms.
Narmer, who was from Ta-Shomu, may have married a Ta-Mehu
princess to establish his right to rule the north. Throughout Egyptian history,
many kings chose wives to strengthen their ties to the royal family or
to cement a political or diplomatic relationship. Second Dynasty king
Khasekhemwy also married a northern princess.
This period, known as the Early Dynastic Period, covers 375 years of
what Egyptologists have named Dynasties 0 to 3 (3000 B.C.E.–2625 B.C.E.).
Most information about the Early Dynastic Period comes from royal tombs
at Abydos, and tombs of nobles at Saqqara. The few items missed by tomb
robbers show that arts and crafts were already highly advanced.
Early kings wanted to be assured of plenty of help and companionship
in the afterlife. When they died, servants and family members
were killed and buried with them. First Dynasty king Djer was buried
with more than 300 people. This cruel, wasteful practice was abandoned
by the end of the First Dynasty.
The population was growing rapidly, reaching an estimated 1 million
by the end of the Second Dynasty. One of the king’s most important
roles was to increase food production by extending irrigation systems
and reclaiming land for farming. Land was reclaimed for farms, towns,
and cities using dams and drainage canals. First Dynasty king Hor-Aha
founded the capital city of Memphis on land reclaimed from the Nile.
Memphis (which means “white walls”), at the southern tip of the Nile
Delta, became one of the ancient world’s greatest cities.
Artistic, cultural, religious, and political traditions were established
during the Early Dynastic Period that persisted throughout Egypt’s history.
At Memphis, a highly centralized, bureaucratic government was soon in
place and growing fast. The government employed legions of scribes, tax
collectors, accountants, engineers, and architects. Specialists oversaw
trade, irrigation, and drainage, and the distribution and storage of food.
Scribes, whose job was to write down all important records, quickly
converted from cumbersome hieroglyphics, based on pictures, to speedier
hieratic script (a kind of hieroglyphic shorthand). They wrote on
sheets or rolls of papyrus, made from the fiber of the papyrus plant, which
was already in wide use by Narmer’s time. Accountants and engineers had
all the basic mathematical and surveying skills they needed to determine
property boundaries and calculate crop yields. The 365-day calendar
was in place. A system of weights and measures simplified trade and tax
Artists and craftsmen started using standardized proportion grids for
depicting objects and people. Before beginning to paint or carve, the artist
drew a grid of horizontal and vertical lines of predetermined size and
spacing on his work surface (a tomb wall, for example). Depending upon
the rank and social position of the person being depicted, he or she was
made a specific size in relation to the other figures in the composition.
Also, each figure had to be structured in a specific way—a person was a certain
number of “heads” tall, the legs were a certain length in relation to
the torso, and so on. These very specific relationships were established
early on and artisans seldom deviated from them. These conventions and
proportions had deep religious, magical, cultural, and social significance.
(There is more information about artistic conventions in chapter 6.)
The arts of pottery and stonework were highly advanced. There is
evidence of roof beams, joists, and large doors made of cedar wood, indicating
ongoing trade with Lebanon, which is on the Mediterranean
coast more than 200 miles northeast of Egypt. Articles of ebony and ivory
show that trade with Nubia, in north-central Africa south of Egypt, was
well-established. Trade goods that came through the southerly routes
from Nubia originated in Nubia itself, and from the peoples of the Sudan
and of equatorial and sub-Saharan Africa. Lapis lazuli ornaments show
that Egyptian traders were also benefitting from a long-distance trade
network that brought in gemstones and other luxury goods from as far
as central Asia. The stage was set for a spectacular flowering of culture.
Early Third Dynasty kings faced serious internal political problems
and could not yet afford to concentrate on tomb-building. They granted
large estates, herds, and rich gifts to trusted nobles who promised to keep
the provinces quiet. These nobles enjoyed enormous local power and pres-
tige, setting up a dangerous pattern repeated throughout the dynastic era:
powerful local nobles becoming too wealthy and independent.
Besides putting down internal squabbles, kings were also busy obtaining
reliable supplies of the industrial materials they needed and the luxury
goods they craved. Third Dynasty kings began extensive mining in
the Sinai Peninsula, especially for copper and turquoise. Keeping the
mines open often meant military action against local Bedouin tribes.
Keeping prized gold flowing north from Nubian mines was a problem
faced by kings throughout the dynastic era. Third Dynasty king
Djoser extended the boundary of Upper Egypt to the first cataract at
Aswan to help secure the southern trade routes.
Djoser’s success at managing internal affairs let him turn attention
to his tomb. He wanted to do something different, and had just the man
to do it: his brilliant vizier (chief official), Imhotep. Imhotep designed
the world’s first pyramid, the Step Pyramid, at Saqqara. The Step Pyramid
is a stack of successively smaller mastabas (the Arabic word for “bench”;
it is a small, oblong tomb with sloping sides and a flat roof) piled atop
one another. It measures 467 feet by 393 feet, and is 200 feet tall. It was
the first all-stone building in the world.

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom spans Dynasties 4 through 8, a period of 495 years
from 2625 B.C.E. to 2130 B.C.E. It was the age of the great pyramids. The
rule of the god-king was absolute. He alone was privileged to enjoy eternal
life. As chief priest, he controlled the Nile and the inundation, and
made sure the sun rose every day. As leader of an increasingly prosperous
country, he commanded enormous power and wealth. Old Kingdom kings
poured all of Egypt’s resources into ensuring that their afterlives would be
as luxurious and glorious as possible.
For a few hundred years at the height of the Old Kingdom, all
Egypt’s wealth—stone, gold, and gems, every peasant’s labor, every artisan’s
skill, the central government, and the entire religious establishment—were
harnessed for a single goal: building royal tombs. Advances in architecture,
astronomy, surveying, construction, quarrying, stonework, sculpture, art,
and hieroglyphic writing were focused on designing, building, decorating,
and maintaining the king’s tomb and vast necropolis—a city of the
dead, where tombs were laid out like a well-planned town.
Like Djoser, later kings also wanted pyramids. And now they had
the wealth to build on a large scale. They tried several designs. During
his 40-year reign, Fourth Dynasty king Sneferu built at least two pyramids
of different designs: his Bent pyramid, and the Red Pyramid, both at
Dahshur. The Bent pyramid was an attempt to build a true, smooth-sided
pyramid. But during construction, it almost collapsed. So the builders
had to reduce its almost 54-degree angle of incline to 43 degrees halfway
up, resulting in a curiously asymmetrical profile. The Red Pyramid is a
smooth-sided (not stepped) structure, making it the first true pyramid.
Unlike the Great Pyramid and others in the Giza Plateau, the Red
Pyramid at Dahshur rises at a 43-degree angle of incline.
Sneferu’s son, Khufu, was the biggest builder of all. He spent his entire
25-year reign getting ready for his afterlife. It still holds many mysteries.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu, second king of the Fourth Dynasty, is the
only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world still standing. Khufu
took the art and science of pyramid building to heights it had never
achieved before, and never would again.
Khufu built his pyramid and necropolis at the edge of the desert
on the northwestern corner of the Giza Plateau, southwest of modern
Cairo. No one had built there before. When fully developed, the complex
stretched over four miles long. It included the Great Pyramid (surrounded
by an eight-foot high wall) and a huge mortuary temple for the
king’s funeral. A 2,700-foot-long paved causeway led to the Valley Temple
by the Nile. At least five pits held boats in which Khufu’s spirit could
sail the heavens.
The vast necropolis included hundreds of mastabas for royals, nobles,
priests, and officials. Villages housed construction workers and
priests to tend to the king’s cult after his death. There were three small pyramids
for Khufu’s queens, and a small cult pyramid—a very small pyramid
used in religious/magical rituals and ceremonies during the king’s funeral,
and afterward as a site of rituals for his mortuary cult. It may have
been meant for the king to use in some (unknown) way during his afterlife.
It was excavated only recently, and its precise meaning and use within
the necropolis is still a hot topic of debate among Egyptologists.
Khuit Khufu—Khufu’s Horizon, as the Egyptians called the Great
Pyramid—was the largest, most complex, and best built of all the pyramids.
When first built, it rose 481 feet into the desert sky. (The top 31
feet, including the capstone, are long gone.) The pyramid’s base covers
about 13 acres. Each of the four sides is 755 feet long at the base. Until
1889, when the 1,045-foot Eiffel Tower was built in Paris, it was the tallest
artificial structure on earth. It held this record for more than 4,000 years.
More than 2 million limestone blocks, weighing an average of twoand-
one-half tons each (some weigh up to 15 tons), were stacked, with
amazing accuracy, in 210 ascending rows. The blocks in the lowest row are
five feet tall; the blocks at the summit are 21 inches tall. The outer walls are
slightly concave (bowed inward) to increase stability. The Pyramid was
topped with a gold-covered pyramidion (pyramid-shaped capstone).
No one is sure exactly how the Great Pyramid was built or how
long it took. Egyptian priests told Herodotus it had taken 20 years. He
calculated that the project would have required more than 100,000 workers.
Modern Egyptologists believe it was more like 15,000. The pyramid
builders had mostly stone-age tools. But they also had unlimited
manpower, religious motivation, excellent organization, strong leadership,
and plenty of time.
For measuring, the builders used ropes and sticks, a plumb bob (a
weight at the end of a string), leveling staffs, and a set-square to mark
angles. For cutting limestone, they used flint knives, copper chisels, long
copper saws, and wooden wedges. A stonecutter, recognizing natural
seams in the rock, pounded in wooden wedges, soaked the wedges, and
waited for the heat of the sun to expand the wood. The wood split the
rock at the seams. Harder stone was pounded free with diorite slabs,
using pumice or quartz sand as an abrasive.
Most of the blocks were quarried from limestone outcrops near the
site. The outer casing was fine white limestone from Tura, east of the Nile.
(Most of the casing blocks are long gone, used to build medieval Cairo.) The
pink granite for the burial chamber and sarcophagus (the outer stone coffin)
was floated on barges from quarries near Elephantine.
At the time the Great Pyramid was built, the Egyptians had donkeys
and oxen, but no horses. They did not use pulleys or wheels. The
massive blocks were probably raised using earth and mud-brick ramps. The
design of the ramps is a subject of much controversy. On flat ground and
slight inclines, the blocks were dragged with heavy flax ropes over oiled
rollers made of wood or stone.
The Great Pyramid was not built by slaves. Manual laborers, drafted
from all over Egypt, worked under a core of architects, engineers, master
builders, stonemasons, artisans, and scribes. Draftees were mostly
farmers who had nothing to do while their fields were underwater as a result
of the inundation. They worked for a season, then returned home.
The Pyramid’s interior is a complex maze of chambers, tunnels,
shafts, and corridors. There is much controversy about the purpose and
nature of some of these features, and whether there might be still-undiscovered
features inside, or beneath, the Great Pyramid.
Khufu’s son, Khafre, built his slightly smaller pyramid complex near
his father’s. He added a unique touch: the Great Sphinx. A reclining lion with
a human head and Khafre’s face, this guardian of the necropolis, carved
from a natural outcrop of limestone, is 60 feet tall and 240 feet long.
King Menkaure’s pyramid, the third at Giza, is only half the height
of the Great Pyramid. In fact, the huge pyramids of Sneferu, Khufu, and
Khafre were a departure from the normal scale of the vast majority of
pyramids. Many scholars think that after Khafre the emphasis turned to
temples and their decoration.
As they observed the sun and the other objects in the sky, the astronomer-
priests of the popular sun god Re at Heliopolis made many discoveries.
They documented the movements of celestial bodies, and learned
to calculate the passage of time based on the rising and setting of stars
and constellations. They understood the geometry of angles and were
skilled at surveying land. They guarded their scientific knowledge closely.
Because its priests possessed so much useful knowledge, the solar cult
became wealthy and powerful. The first kings of the Fifth Dynasty finally
realized that building lavish tombs for themselves while ignoring the rest
of the country was not wise. They quickly saw the advantages of being
associated with Re’s powerful cult. Fifth Dynasty king Userkaf built the first
temple to the sun god. His successors built many more.
Fifth Dynasty pyramids were not as well built at their Fourth Dynasty
predecessors: They were constructed with rubble or mud-brick cores covered
with stone casings. When the outer stone was stolen for other buildings
(as always happened, sooner or later), the pyramids crumbled. Since
the pyramids could not be relied on to stand forever, kings started looking
to magic to ensure a comfortable afterlife. The tomb of the last king of
the Fifth Dynasty, Unas, contains the first known example of the Pyramid
Texts, which are hundreds of magic spells to help the dead king navigate
the dangers of the underworld on his way to paradise.
During the Fifth Dynasty, power was somewhat decentralized and
nomarchs and provincial nobles became increasingly wealthy and powerful.
Many local posts became hereditary, with fathers passing power and taxfree
estates to their sons. A feudal system developed, especially in Upper
Egypt. Local rulers controlled mini-kingdoms and paid little attention to dictates
from Memphis. As long as Egypt remained peaceful and taxes rolled
in to the royal treasuries, the kings went along with this arrangement.
But there was rumbling on the borders. Soldiers often had to be
sent to Nubia to protect trade routes and to recruit mercenaries (soldiers
for hire) for the army and police forces. A major fort was established at
Buhen, near the second cataract. Libyan raiders made repeated incursions
from the western desert.
The Fifth Dynasty ended in confusion. The first king of the Sixth
Dynasty, Teti, settled things down. But the power and influence of the
king was severely declining. Local nobles no longer felt it necessary or
even desirable to be buried near the king. They built tombs for themselves
and their families in their own districts.
The last known king of the Old Kingdom, Pepy II, took the throne
when he was a child. (Pepy II was, in fact, a Sixth Dynasty king, and the
Old Kingdom ended in the Eighth Dynasty. However, not much is known
about the kings of Dynasties 7 and 8, and Pepy II is the last king from
this period to have had much influence over the course of events in the Old
Kingdom.) His 94-year reign appears to have been marked by a steady
decline in royal power. As the power of central government decreased, the
power of local rulers increased. Instability and civil disorder followed
Pepy’s death.
A few hundred years of gloriously high culture had been followed
by a severe backlash. Many scholars believe the artistic and architectural
achievements of the Old Kingdom were never equaled. But the Great
Pyramid and similar projects were enormous drains on Egypt’s resources.
The royal pretensions that led to such projects got out of hand. When
powerful and all-too-independent nobles rebelled against the king’s authority
and a series of low Niles brought widespread crop failure and
famine, pyramid-building was the last thing on the king’s mind.

The First Intermediate Period

The god-king no longer enjoyed exalted status. Local rulers and nomarchs
had grabbed much of his authority. When the collapse finally came, it
was sudden and complete.
While general disorder and the independence of local rulers helped
bring about the collapse of the Old Kingdom, many scholars believe that
climate change in Africa and the Near East had at least as much to do
with it. Changes in the patterns of monsoon rains over the Abyssinian
highlands caused widespread drought and a series of low Niles. Food
production abruptly declined. Hot winds blew from the south for weeks
at a time, according to some ancient texts. Sandstorms and dust storms hid
the sun for days. Already dry farms turned to dust. In some places, the
Nile was so shallow that it could be crossed on foot. Drought and famine
in the Near East drove bands of starving, desperate refugees to Egypt’s
borders, putting additional pressure on food and water supplies.
These disastrous events called into serious question the god-king’s
ability to control the river and to ensure agricultural success. The king
quickly lost any reputation he still had for magical powers. Only local
warlords had the power to repel invaders, control distribution of scarce
food, and enforce water conservation. Egypt quickly splintered into numerous
small feudal kingdoms ruled by powerful chieftains. Their only
concerns were keeping their domains secure and keeping invaders out. Art,
tomb building, and everything else had to wait.
This period spans from about 2130 B.C.E. to 1980 B.C.E., Dynasties
9 to 11 (early). But in fact, there is little information and much confusion
about the length of this period (estimates range from 140 to 200 years)
and the number of kings. A rapid succession of kings (sometimes more
than one at a time) claimed the throne. None of these self-proclaimed
rulers had much influence beyond Memphis. By 20 years after Pepy II’s
death, the Delta had been invaded by “Asiatics”—refugees and nomadic
tribes from northeast of Egypt in the Near East, Palestine, and beyond, to
the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Egypt’s government, such as it was, fled south.
One powerful faction ruled the Delta during the ninth and tenth
dynasties, and parts of Middle Egypt from Herakleopolis. They brought a
temporary end to warfare, expelled Asiatic invaders from the Delta, fortified
the eastern borders, improved irrigation systems, and reestablished
Memphis as a regional capital. Another powerful ruling family (the
Eleventh Dynasty) ruled from Thebes. There were frequent border clashes
between the Thebans and Herakleopolitans.

The Middle Kingdom

After years of fighting, the family in Thebes prevailed. They reunited Egypt
under Mentuhotep II, leader of the last phase of the struggle against the
Herakleopolitans. On becoming king, Mentuhotep took the kingly title
“He who gives heart to the two lands.” (This kingly title was called a Horusname,
after Horus, the falcon-headed god who was the traditional protector
of Egyptian kings. The king is the physical embodiment of
Horus-on-earth. To the ancient Egyptians, he was Horus.) In his 14th year
of rule, he crushed a major rebellion in Abydos, securing his control of
Upper Egypt. He changed his Horus-name to “Lord of the white crown.”
It was not until his 39th year
of rule that he reunited Upper and
Lower Egypt. He changed his
Horus-name to “Uniter of the two
lands.” So began the Middle Kingdom,
which lasted 350 years and
encompassed Dynasties 11 (late) to
14 (1980 B.C.E. to 1630 B.C.E.).
With strong central control,
peace and prosperity returned.
Mentuhotep II, ruling from Thebes,
built a temple-tomb for himself at
Deir el-Bahari, west of the city. He
handed on to his son, Mentuhotep
III, a stable, united Egypt.
Mentuhotep II and the kings
who followed faced a new Egypt—
one that had experienced chaos and
misery. For the rest of the dynastic
era, the suffering of the First Intermediate
Period was remembered as
a warning about what happens
when order breaks down.
Faced with a growing population
(perhaps 1.5 million people by
2000 B.C.E.), Middle Kingdom kings
concentrated on expanding trade and
agriculture, promoting the welfare of
the country and keeping the peace.
Unlike the all-powerful god-kings
of the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom
rulers could not harness the
entire wealth of the nation to build
lavish tombs. Pyramid building was
revived during the Middle Kingdom,
but they were not as large as the
ones of the Old Kingdom. Instead
of building lavish tombs, they devoted
their attention and resources to
repairs, land reclamation, irrigation, and harbors. They strengthened border
defenses, dealing quickly and firmly with incursions by Libyans and Bedouins.
They renewed long-neglected diplomatic and trading relationships.
Ambassadors and trade expeditions traveled to the ancient Phoenician city
of Byblos, and other cities in the Near East, as well as Nubia and Punt. A
new middle class of independent professionals, artisans, and tradesmen
arose. Many farmers owned their own land, weakening the old system of
feudal estates.
Secular (non-religious) literature—stories, poetry, songs, satires,
proverbs, and wisdom literature (proverbs, collections of wise sayings,
morality tales, fables, and advice to the young from their elders)—became
popular. Stories called pessimistic literature reminded Egyptians about
the misery of civil war, lest they forget.
With Thebes now the capital, the traditional Theban god Amun
became prominent. He merged with Heliopolis’s sun god Re, becoming
Amun-Re. The Theban kings provided lavish support and rich gifts to
Amun-Re’s priesthood and temples.
Unlike the all-powerful god-kings of the Old Kingdom, Middle
Kingdom rulers could not harness the entire wealth of the nation to build
lavish tombs. Pyramid building was revived during the Middle Kingdom,
but they wree not as large as the ones of the Old Kingdom.
The rapidly-growing cult of Osiris promised even poor peasants a
pleasant afterlife. The Pyramid Texts were updated to apply to the wider
range of spirits now eligible for eternal life. The revised spells, called the
Coffin Texts, were painted or carved on wooden coffins. The new middle
class of artisans started mass-producing grave goods: pottery, ushabtis,
serdab statues (small statues of a dead person, sealed into a niche or
chamber in the tomb), furniture, models, and more.
The Governor of the South and vizier of Mentuhotep IV overthrew
his king to become Amenemhet I, founder of the Twelfth Dynasty. His
29-year reign gave Egypt its first extended period of stability and security
in more than 200 years. His first move was to build and furnish a boat
to cruise the Nile, putting nomarchs in their place and crushing troublesome
Asiatics and Nubians.
To consolidate his power over Upper and Lower Egypt at a more
strategic location, Amenemhet I established a new capital at Itj-tawy,
about 20 miles south of Memphis. He introduced “co-regency” (a king
sharing power with his heir) to strengthen royal succession and eliminate
the instability that often followed a king’s death. Co-regency made
royal transitions much smoother, and was adopted by several later kings.
Amenemhet shared the throne with his son, Senwosret, for 10 years. Senwosret
handled the military and kept the frontiers secure. He established
fortified towns and trading posts as far south as the third cataract.
When Senwosret I took the throne, he continued his military activities,
securing Egypt’s southern border at the second cataract with 13
forts. He sent mining expeditions to Nubia, Syria, and the western oases.
He built a magnificent solar temple at Heliopolis.
The 34-year reign of his son, Amenemhet II, saw great achievements.
The king widened and deepened the canal that fed the Faiyum
from the Nile, expanding hunting, fishing, and agriculture. He sent trade
expeditions to Punt, the Red Sea, Lebanon, and the Levant. He carried on
a thriving trade with the Mediterranean island of Crete.
Senwosret II, son of Amenemhet II, presided over a peaceful, prosperous
Egypt. He expanded cultivation in the Faiyum and established
friendly (perhaps too friendly) relations with the nomarchs. His habit of
giving them tax-free land grants and other rich gifts was one that had
caused trouble before. His son, Senwosret III, decided to nip that problem
in the bud once and for all. He created a new government structure
that greatly minimized the power of the nomarchs. He closed their courts
and revoked their rights and privileges. The new government had three
major departments: North, South, and Elephatine/Nubia. Each was overseen
by a council of senior officials reporting to a department vizier, who
reported directly to the king.
During his 18-year reign, Senwosret III showed remarkable skill
in managing economic affairs and foreign policy. He led a series of military
campaigns to secure Nubian trade routes, protect the southern borders,
secure access to the gold mines, and suppress troublesome Nubians.
He cut a bypass canal around the first cataract, improving on a primitive
Old Kingdom canal. This allowed speedier, safer trade, and rapid movement
of soldiers to trouble spots. Senwosret also built many forts along the
southern frontier.
Senwosret’s relations with Asia were mostly peaceful trading partnerships,
though he did do some plundering. Much of the plunder and trade
wealth that flowed in went to support the temples of Amun-Re at Thebes.
The next king, Amenemhet III, enjoyed 46 years of peace, prosperity,
economic growth, and high artistic achievement. He sent almost
continual expeditions to the turquoise mines of the Sinai to satisfy Egypt’s
endless desire for this prized gemstone.
Amenemhet III built two pyramids for himself. One he abandoned.
The other, where he was buried, is famous for the large number of features
designed to keep tomb robbers out. There were trap doors, false
passages and dead ends. His sarcophagus was carved from a single, massive
block of quartzite. After his burial, it was topped with a 45-ton stone
slab, and all passages and corridors were filled with rock and rubble. His
tomb was looted anyway.
Little is known about the last two Middle Kingdom rulers who are
named and known, Amenemhet IV and Queen Sobeknefru. Climate
change was causing instability in the inundation—the river was always
either too high or too low. The resulting disruption led to Egypt’s second
extended period of disorder, the Second Intermediate Period. Egypt was
about to experience her worst nightmare: rule by foreigners.
Egypt entered a period of internal instability, though not as long
or severe as the First Intermediate Period. The Thirteenth Dynasty, ruling
from Itj-tawy, included many kings with brief reigns. They maintained
some control over both Upper and Lower Egypt, but left few monuments
or records. A competing faction (the Fourteenth Dynasty) ruled from a
power base in the western Delta. It included an unknown number of obscure
kings who came and went quickly. Egyptian control of Nubia collapsed,
but many Egyptians stayed to work for local Nubian rulers.
As the 13th and 14th dynasties struggled with one another, a group
of foreigners of Semitic origin claimed dominion over Egypt from their
eastern Delta power base, Avaris. The Hyksos soon controlled the eastern
Delta and the eastern deserts.
The Hyksos had been clever. They did not invade with fanfare and
drawn swords. Instead, they immigrated into the eastern Delta and settled
in, waiting for the right moment to make their move. Their political influence
was largely confined to the Delta. The five (or six) Hyksos kings
adopted Egyptian titles, dress, and traditions. They worshiped traditional
Egyptian gods and goddesses (they preferred Seth over Osiris), while introducing
several of their own to the religious mix. They built many
temples and sponsored developments in Egyptian arts, crafts, and literature.
They sacked Memphis, but did not cause the widespread terror and
destruction claimed by later writers.

The Second Intermediate Period

The horror of having their throne seized by foreigners caused the Egyptians
to see the Hyksos in the worst possible light. But in many ways, Hyksos
rule was the best thing that could have happened to Egypt. It rescued Egypt
from political turmoil and cultural decline. The Hyksos brought fresh ideas
and new technologies to a land that had become fixed in its outlook.
They introduced Egypt to superior bronze-age technology, already
in wide use elsewhere. They introduced new military strategies, tactics, and
equipment: the chariot and horse, the composite bow, scale armor (armor
with solid, overlapping tabs of metal, rather like metal fish scales), and improved
daggers and swords. Without these innovations, it is doubtful
Egypt could have become an imperial superpower.
The Hyksos also introduced fresh ideas to the arts and everyday
life. The vertical weaving loom, stringed musical instruments (lute and
lyre), the oboe, the tambourine, the olive and pomegranate trees—all came
to Egypt with the Hyksos. This 107-year period (1630 to 1539 B.C.E.)
spans Dynasties 15 to 17.
Egypt had always been strongly inward-looking. Egyptians had not
seen the outside world as threatening, or even as very interesting or important.
It was a handy shopping mall where they could get things they
wanted. Seeing their kingship seized by foreigners finally opened their
eyes. The Hyksos takeover profoundly changed the Egyptians’ view of
the world. They realized they needed to do more than just go shopping in
the world’s mines and bazaars. They needed a strong, even aggressive,
foreign policy to prevent the many up-and-coming nations around the
Mediterranean from coming in and taking whatever they wanted—
including the throne. For the first time, Egypt established a standing army
and a professional military. Because of the Hyksos, Egypt was no longer
isolated from the world.
As the Hyksos consolidated control over the Delta, a family of Theban
princes formed a ruling faction (the Seventeenth Dynasty) at Thebes.
They preserved Middle Kingdom culture, and controlled Upper Egypt
from Elephantine to Abydos, north of Thebes. The Hyksos and the Nubians,
who had formed an alliance, hemmed in the Thebans for almost 100
years. Finally, simmering tensions exploded into open conflict.
The Thebans were determined to drive the hated foreigners off the
throne and out of Egypt. King Seqenenre Tao and his son Kamose mounted
fierce campaigns against the Hyksos. Seqenenre Tao was soon killed.
His mummy shows terrible wounds, probably inflicted in battle. Kamose
resumed the fight, retaking the Nubian border forts and leading a raid to
the outskirts of Avaris. But he reigned only three years.
His son, Ahmose was also determined to drive the invaders out,
but waited for the right moment. About halfway through his 26-year reign,
he led attacks against the Hyksos at their strongholds in Avaris and Memphis.
After a hard-fought campaign, Ahmose prevailed. Not content with
driving the Hyksos out of Egypt, he chased them all the way back to
Palestine and laid siege to their home city, which was in northern Palestine
(what the Bible describes as Caanan).
The Theban ruling family became the Eighteenth Dynasty, and Ahmose
I the first king of the New Kingdom. Egypt’s glorious imperial age
was about to begin.