First Intermediate Period

The First Intermediate Period (around 2180–2040 BCE) began after the collapse of the Old Kingdom.

Several written sources describe it as a time of great political unrest.

The politics and customs of the Memphis monarchy were disseminated to those of traditionally lower status in a time of political turmoil and instability.

It was also a time of mass consumerism and retail capitalism. Goods formerly only available to the rich were now available at a much-reduced price.

The collapse of the central government at Memphis and the rise of individual nomarchs led to a time when the king of Egypt had no power. The priesthood gained power and influenced the local officials, which allowed more people to purchase goods and services.

The Old Kingdom collapsed during the period of change & transition, and the country went through the First Intermediate Period, which was an age of change that was assimilated into the culture.

Although Egypt lacked a strong central government in the First Intermediate Period, the country was not chaotic and lawless.

First Intermediate Period: Characteristics

The Old Kingdom rulers built elaborate mortuary complexes at Giza plateau, Saqqara, and Abusir and delegated responsibility to nomarchs and lesser administrators.

The king of the Old Kingdom decentralized the government and gave more responsibility to nomarchs, but his gifts to them enriched the provincial regions.

The First Intermediate Period is characterized by an increase in the power of provincial administrators of separate regions and a decrease in the power of the central government at Memphis. This shift in power is evident in every aspect of the archaeological and literary evidence.

The culture fell apart in ancient Egypt as the old order of a king, and the central government was replaced by regional governments.

During the First Intermediate Period, the common people of Egypt took center stage in Egyptian history and left behind their own stories, limited in scope.

The cultural picture of the time does not support a chaotic ‘dark age’ but simply a different social and political paradigm.

Uncertainty in Egyptian history

It was a time of great uncertainty in Egyptian history. The pyramids and mortuary complexes preserved the history of this period.

It was also far from harmonious. The king was regarded as a god who maintained harmony among his subjects.

Unlike the Middle Kingdom works, the Ipuwer Papyrus depicts a change in a social structure that the speaker disapproves of, not lawlessness.

Scholars initially viewed the First Intermediate Period as cultural degeneration because of the poor quality of goods at his age. In the Ipuwer Papyrus, the author seems to be complaining about the way things once were.

First Intermediate Period described in the Ipuwer Papyrus comes later. Many scholars accept the Ipuwer Papyrus as an accurate representation of life during the period. It deals with a theme of “order vs. chaos” that was common in Egyptian writing.

The papyrus represents a time past, wishing for ‘the good old days’ and complaining about today.

Division of Rule

In ancient Egypt, turmoil and chaos were asserted because of the division between two kingdoms, Herakleopolis of Lower Egypt and Thebes of Upper Egypt, as well as ignorance of the 7th and 8th Dynasties.

The rulers of Memphis moved the capital to Herakleopolis, but Thebes reacted by moving to fill the power vacuum.

Reunification and the rise of Thebes

A Theban nomarch named Intef rose to power in 2125 BCE and founded the 11th Dynasty of Egypt. He is later called “Intef the Great.”

The second king of the 11th Dynasty, Menuhotep I, declared Thebes the capital of Egypt and began the process of reunification with the neighboring nomes. Wahankh Intef II conquered the city of Abydos and waged war with Herakleopolis.

Wahankh Intef II considered himself a true king of Egypt and treated his family, servants, and subjects well. He created a government that relied on strong bonds of personal loyalty and tight control.

Mentuhotep II defeated Herakleopolis and united Egypt under his rule, beginning the Middle Kingdom. The rulers of the Middle Kingdom and the regional nomarchs would work together for most of the era to create some of the most impressive works of art.

The Ipuwer Papyrus

The Ipuwer Papyrus, often called the Lamentations of Ipuwer, records a decline in international relations and a general impoverishment in Egypt.

A literary piece called the Admonitions of Ipuwer or simply the Ipuwer Papyrus, tells us how hit by famine and disease, the poor rose up against the rulers, and many people lived in fear for their lives.

Because of that, the first intermediate period is sometimes called a “dark period.”

Other sources, however, state that everyday life, art, culture, and administration did not change a lot when this period began, and that famine, poverty, regional turmoil, and tombrobbing occurred in other periods as well.

Building Projects

Various “king lists” tell us that there were many kings who ruled Egypt during this period, but they left no contemporary trace.

The Heracleopolitan kings in the North built very few buildings. Few tombs were built, and the reliefs in their tombs were simpler than those in the Old Kingdom.

It seems that royal monuments such as pyramids were not built at all.

That doesn’t mean there was no building activity; it is just that they had little to do with royal families.

For about one hundred years, two kings from two separate dynasties ruled different parts of Egypt.

One dynasty ruled the North of the country (Lower Egypt) from Heracleopolis, and another – founded by the nomarch of Thebes who named himself King Antef I – was located in Thebes in the South (Upper Egypt).

Eventually, the northern king Montuhotep I managed to unite Egypt under his sole kingship.

The dynasties and pharaohs of the First Intermediate Period

  • The seventh dynasty may not have really existed. The Egyptian historian Manetho mentions 70 pharaohs who ruled for 70 days. However, it is more likely that those pharaohs were actually high officials who had gained considerable power during the sixth dynasty. One way or another, their capital was Memphis.
  • The eighth dynasty kings, such as King Neferkare II and King Ibi, claimed they were the real descendants of the sixth dynasty rulers. They, too, ruled from Memphis.
  • The ninth and tenth dynasties emerged in Heracleopolis in Lower Egypt. Its founder was Akhtoes or Akhtoy, whom Manetho describes as a cruel and even mad ruler, who ended up killed by a crocodile. Another ruler who belonged to either the ninth or tenth dynasty was Wahkare Katy. He was described similarly, as an evil, violent ruler.
  • During the reign of the ninth and tenth dynasty pharaohs in Lower Egypt, this region was also under the great influence of nomarchs in Siut and various warlords, such as Ankhtifi. Antifa was a provincial governor and military commander who tried to capture the city of Thebes but wasn’t able to.
  • The eleventh dynasty arose in Thebes, possibly at the same time when the ninth and tenth dynasty rulers took power in Heracleopolis. These kings were the successors of Intef, the powerful nomarch of Thebes, and the first three rulers in this line were also named Intef. After Intef III, who invaded Middle Egypt and captured Abydos, the next few rulers of the eleventh dynasty were named Mentuhotep.
  • In 2040 BC, Mentuhotep II of the eleventh, Theban dynasty of Egyptian kings, defeated the kings of Heracleopolis and reunited Egypt under his sole rule. This event marks the end of the First Intermediate Period.

What did you learn?

When did the First Intermediate Period begin?
It began around 2181 BCE when the Old Kingdom collapsed.

What was the main characteristic of the First Intermediate Period?
Egypt was not unified and different lines of kings ruled from different cities.

Which cities were the capitals of the dynasties that ruled during the First Intermediate Period?
Those were Memphis, Heracleopolis, and Thebes.

When and how the First Intermediate Period Ended?
It ended when Mentuhotep II conquered Heracleopolis and reunited Egypt, around 2040 BCE.