Ancient Egypt Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom (around 2000-1650 BCE) is among the least known periods of ancient Egyptian history.

The Old Kingdom is known for its pyramids, the New Kingdom for colossal temples, and the golden mask of Tutankhamun.

The Middle Kingdom was one of three golden ages in Egypt and was followed by the Second Intermediate Period, which involved the foreign rule of Lower Egypt by the Hyksos of West Asia.

Middle Kingdom Facts

  • Mentuhotep II ruled Egypt during the Middle Kingdom from 2040-1782 BC.
  • Middle Kingdom pharaohs appointed their sons as coregents
  • Pharaoh Senusret III was one of the Middle Kingdom’s most powerful leaders.
  • It is sometimes called Egypt’s “classical age” or “the period of reunification.”
  • A new capital called Itj Tawy was built during the Twelfth Dynasty.

The First Intermediate Period’s influence

The Middle Kingdom developed out of two kingdoms established in minor provincial cities during the First Intermediate Period.

The rulers of Herakleopolis were defeated by the prince Mentuhotep II, and Thebes became the capital of Egypt.

While the Middle Kingdom rulers attempted to emulate the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the social and political structure of the era differed significantly.

The art and literature of the 12th Dynasty reflect the influence of many different districts.

Art and Literature

After the collapse of the Old Kingdom, there was no strong central government in Egypt because the 4th Dynasty built the great works at Giza, but resources ran out as the Old Kingdom went on.

The Middle Kingdom is known for its art and literature, which were influenced by the First Intermediate Period. The priests of the pyramid complexes gained more wealth and power.

The nomarchs of the First Intermediate Period became kings of their regions, passing and enforcing laws and gaining taxes without consulting the kings in Memphis. Thebes became a rival city to Herakleopolis and eventually became the capital of Egypt.

While monument inscriptions and theological works still predominated in the Middle Kingdom, real literature developed that addressed the lives of common people and the human experience.

The sculptures and paintings depict daily life, while the temples follow the great mortuary complex of Mentuhotep II at Thebes. Mentuhotep II’s temples were reflected in varying degrees in many temples.

The 11th Dynasty

Mentuhotep II united Egypt, but Intef I initiated the process, and his successors made clear the path to that unification. Wahankh Intef II took the city of Abydos and strengthened Thebes’ position, and Mentuhotep II built on that strength to defeat Herakleopolis.

Mentuhotep II’s successor, Mentuhotep III, continued his policies and expanded their scope and was succeeded by Mentuhotep IV, who is known for sending his vizier on an expedition to quarry stones.

The Eleventh Dynasty of Egypt were Kings from Upper Egypt

It was a dynasty that built magnificent temples and built tombs. Several weak kings led to the end of the Eleventh Dynasty.

The 12th Dynasty

Scholars claim that the Middle Kingdom begins with Amenemhat I. His family ruled Egypt for 200 years.

Mentuhotep IV’s vizier Amenemhat recorded many amazing moments with his inscription, including a gazelle giving birth on the stone chosen for the sarcophagus’ lid and an unexpected rainstorm that provided enough water for everyone.

Amenemhat I moved his capital to Iti-tawi, south of Memphis, to distance himself from the previous dynasty and present himself as the unbiased king of the whole nation.

The Middle Kingdom kept well-trained standing armies that were used for defense against invasion or expeditions up the Nile river or across the Sinai.

Middle Kingdom: Classical Age

Amenemhat I improved the infrastructure of Egypt and initiated grand building projects such as the great temple complex at Karnak. Senusret I followed this example and created the first standing army, which increased the power of the king and created a stable central government.

Egypt’s lack of tension between district officials and the crown allowed for great success in building projects, defense, agriculture, and art.

Senusret I began draining the lake at the center of the Fayyum, which made the fertile land available for agriculture and allowed more people to access the water. He also built the White Chapel.

The Height of the Middle Kingdom

The remains from the Middle Kingdom are less impressive because they are different.Our knowledge of this period is shaped by its writers and sculptors.

Literary texts from the Middle Kingdom offer deep meaning, while the sculpture depicts people’s faces and expresses concern and intent.

This period started with the reunification of Egypt under the Theban king Mentuhotep (also known as Nebhepetre) in about 2040 BCE, after more than a hundred years of disunity.

One of the main characteristics of this period was the increased importance of gods and temples.

Temples were made of stone, and many buildings, such as fortresses, were made of bricks.

The most important deity during this period was Osiris – the god of the Afterlife and the underworld.

A recurring theme in literary works, such as the Loyalist Teaching and the Instructions of a Man for his Son, which were created during the Middle Kingdom, was the ideology of ruling a harmonious society.

The cult of the pharaoh is reinforced by stone temples, written word, rewards, and threats. Everyone had to demonstrate loyalty to the pharaoh and to do so actively.

The pharaoh was at the top of ancient Egyptian society. The rest of the population was divided into two sharply separated classes:

  • Nobles (pat) – a nonproductive managerial class that included viziers, the chief treasurer, the local elite, priests, and medium- and low-ranking government officials, such as scribes.
  • Common people (rekhyt) – dependent workers and servants.

However, these classes were not restricted, and common people could advance at the Egyptian court, in the army, or the administration.

Social stratification existed in the afterlife too. Not everyone could be mummified and buy a coffin.

Also, most people did not have sufficient knowledge and could not perform appropriate rites.

The Dynasties and Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom

  • Mentuhotep II of the eleventh dynasty was the founder of the Middle Kingdom. He ascended the Theban throne in 2055 BCE. Some fifteen years later, he crushed the army of the rival tenth dynasty from Heracleopolis and reunified Egypt. He ruled for 51 years. During that time, he brought parts of Nubia and the Sinai region under Egyptian hegemony. Mentuhotep II was depicted as a god during his lifetime.
  • Mentuhotep III continued securing the rule of his dynasty over the whole of Egypt. He built a number of forts to secure the kingdom against threats from the east. This pharaoh also constructed a navy and sent the first naval expedition to Punt.
  • Mentuhotep IV was the last ruler of the eleventh dynasty. His name is often omitted from the “king lists.”His vizier Amenemhet later usurped his throne.
  • Amenemhet I, previously the vizier of Mentuhotep IV, was the founder of the twelfth dynasty. He built many fortifications and established a standing army. However, he never held absolute power, and he was dependent on the nomarchs.
  • Amenemhet I appointed his son Senusret as junior co-regent. After Amenemhet’s death, Senusret appointed his son Amenemhet II as coregent, who later did the same with his son Senusret II – and this practice was then used very often in the Middle and the New Kingdom.
  • Senusret III was the most powerful pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom. He was a warrior-king who gained huge victories in Nubia and Palestine. This pharaoh reorganized the administration and made the central government considerably more powerful compared to the local authorities. He no longer needed the support of nomarchs to raise an army. The time of his reign was a time of great economic prosperity in Egypt – which persisted during the reign of his son, Amenemhat III.
  • Amenemhat III ruled Egypt during the “golden age” of the Middle Kingdom. He contributed to the economic prosperity of the country by expanding the exploitation of natural resources. There were several successful mining expeditions in the Sinai and Wadi Hammamat. He ruled for 45 years and was succeeded by Amenemhet IV.
  • Amenemhet IV’s rule was short, and because he had no hair, he was succeeded by his sister, Sobekneferu, who was childless as well. After her death, the twelfth dynasty ended.
  • The thirteenth dynasty consisted of a large number of pharaohs who were often unrelated and who only ruled for a short time. They were considerably weaker than those of the previous dynasty, and they were unable to control the entire territory of Egypt.This led to the disintegration of the unity of Egypt and the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period.

What did you learn?

Who was the pharaoh who reunified Egypt and established the Middle Kingdom?
It was Mentuhotep II.

Who were the most powerful pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom?
They were Senusret III and his son, Amenemhet III.

What was the title of powerful local governors who sometimes obstructed the power of the pharaohs?
They were nomarchs – the governors of the nomes (regions).

What was the Middle Kingdom culture most famous for?
It is famous for its literature, sculpture, and the cult of Osiris.