Middle Kingdom of Egypt

The Middle Kingdom of Egypt is the period in the history of ancient Egypt stretching from the establishment of the Eleventh Dynasty to the end of the Fourteenth Dynasty, between 2055 BC and 1650 BC, although some writers include the Thirteenth and Fourteenth dynasties in the Second Intermediate Period. During this period, the funerary cult of Osiris rose to dominate Egyptian popular religion.

The period comprises two phases, the 11th Dynasty, which ruled from Thebes and the 12th Dynasty onwards which was centered around el-Lisht. These two dynasties were originally considered to be the full extent of this unified kingdom, but historians now consider the 13th Dynasty to at least partially belong to the Middle Kingdom.

Reunification under the Eleventh Dynasty

After the collapse of the Old Kingdom, Egypt entered a period of weak Pharaonic power and decentralization called the First Intermediate Period. Towards the end of this period, two rival dynasties, known to the ancient Egyptians as the Tenth and Eleventh, fought for power over the entire country. The Theban 11th Dynasty only ruled southern Egypt from the first cataract to the Tenth Nome of Upper Egypt. To the north, Lower Egypt was ruled by the rival 10th Dynasty from Herakleopolis.

The struggle was to be concluded by Mentuhotep II, who ascended the Theban throne in 2055 B.C. During Mentuhotep II's fourteenth regnal year, he took advantage of a revolt in the Thinite Nome to launch an attack on Herakleopolis, which met little resistance. After toppling the last rulers of the 10th Dynasty, Mentuhotep began consolidating his power over all Egypt, a process which he finished by his 39th regnal year. For this reason, Mentuhotep II is regarded as the founder of the Middle Kingdom.

Mentuhotep II commanded military campaigns south as far as the Second Cataract in Nubia, which had gained its independence during the First Intermediate Period. He also restored Egyptian hegemony over the Sinai region, which had been lost to Egypt since the end of the Old Kingdom. To consolidate his authority, he restored the cult of the ruler, depicting himself as a god in his own lifetime, wearing the headdresses of Amun and Min He died after a reign of 51 years, and passed the throne to his son, Mentuhotep III.

Mentuhotep III reigned for only twelve years, during which he continued consolidating Theban rule over the whole of Egypt, building a series of forts in the eastern Delta region to secure Egypt against threats from Asia. He also sent the first expedition to Punt during the Middle Kingdom, by means of ships constructed at the end of Wadi Hammamat, on the Red Sea. Mentuhotep III was succeeded by Mentuhotep IV, whose name significantly is omitted from all ancient Egyptian king lists. The Turin Papyrus claims that after Mentuhotep III come "seven kingless years." Despite this absence, his reign is attested from a few inscriptions in Wadi Hammamat that record expeditions to the Red Sea coast and to quarry stone for the royal monuments. The leader of this expedition was his vizier Amenemhat, who is widely assumed to be the future pharaoh Amenemhet I, the first king of the 12th Dynasty.

Mentuhotep IV's absence from the king lists has prompted the theory that Amenemhet I usurped his throne. While there are no contemporary accounts of this struggle, certain circumstantial evidence may point to the existence of a civil war at the end of the 11th dynasty.

Inscriptions left by one Nehry, the Haty-a of Hermopolis, suggest that he was attacked at a place called Shedyet-sha by the forces of the reigning king, but his forces prevailed. Khnumhotep, an official under Amenemhet I, claims to have participated in a flotilla of 20 ships to pacify Upper Egypt. Donald Redford has suggested these events should be interpreted as evidence of open war between two dynastic claimants. What is certain is that, however he came to power, Amenemhet I was not of royal birth.

Height of the Middle Kingdom

Senusret III was a warrior-king, often taking to the field himself. In his sixth year, he re-dredged an Old Kingdom canal around the first cataract to facilitate travel to upper Nubia. He used this to launch a series of brutal campaigns in Nubia in his sixth, eighth, tenth, and sixteenth years. After his victories, Senusret built a series of massive forts throughout the country to establish the formal boundary between Egyptian conquests and unconquered Nubia at Semna.

The personnel of these forts were charged to send frequent reports to the capital on the movements and activities of the local Medjay natives, some of which survive, revealing how tightly the Egyptians intended to control the southern border. Medjay were not allowed north of the border by ship, nor could they enter by land with their flocks, but they were permitted to travel to local forts in order to trade. After this, Senusret sent one more campaign in his 19th year, but turned back due to abnormally low Nile levels, which endangered his ships. One of Senusret's soldiers also records a campaign against skmm, perhaps Shechem, the only reference to a campaign against a location in Syrio-Palestine from the entirety of Middle Kingdom literature.

Domestically, Senusret has been given credit for an administrative reform which put more power in the hands of appointees of the central government, instead of regional authorities. Egypt was divided into three waret, or administrative divisions: North, South, and Head of the South (perhaps Lower Egypt, most of Upper Egypt, and the nomes of the original Theban kingdom during the war with Herakleopolis, respectively). Each region was administrated by a Reporter, Second Reporter, some kind of council (the Djadjat), and a staff of minor officials and scribes. The power of the Nomarchs seems to drop off permanently during his reign, which has been taken to indicate that the central government had finally suppressed them, though there is no record that Senusret ever took direct action against them.

Senusret III had a lasting legacy as a warrior Pharaoh. His name was Hellenized by later Greek historians as Sesostris, a name which was then given to a conflation of Senusret and several New Kingdom warrior pharaohs. In Nubia, Senusret was worshiped as a patron God by Egyptian settlers. The duration of his reign remains something of an open question. His son Amenemhet III began reigning after Senusret's 19th regnal year, which has been widely considered Senusret's highest attested date. However, a reference to a year 39 on a fragment found in the construction debris of Senusret's mortuary temple has suggested the possibility of a long coregency with his son.

The reign of Amenemhat III was the height of Middle Kingdom economic prosperity. His reign is remarkable for the degree to which Egypt exploited its resources. Mining camps in the Sinai, which had previously been used only by intermittent expeditions, were operated on a semi-permanent basis, as evidenced by the construction of houses, walls, and even local cemeteries. There are 25 separate references to mining expeditions in the Sinai, and four to expeditions in wadi Hammamat, one of which had over 2000 workers. Amenemhet reinforced his father's defenses in Nubia and continued the Faiyum land reclamation system. Amenemhet invited Asiatic settlers to Egypt to labor on Egypt's monuments. It is possible that this influx marked the beginning of the influx of Asiatics which would ultimately lead to the Hyksos takeover of Lower Egypt.

After a reign of 45 years, Amenemhet III was succeeded by Amenemhet IV, whose nine year reign is poorly attested. Clearly by this time, dynastic power began to weaken, for which several explanations have been proposed. Contemporary records of the Nile flood levels indicate that the end of the reign of Amenemhet III was dry, and crop failures may have helped to destabilize the dynasty. Further, Amenemhet III had an inordinately long reign, which tends to create succession problems. The latter argument perhaps explains why Amenemhet IV was succeeded by Sobekneferu, the first historically attested female king of Egypt. Sobekneferu ruled no more than four years, and as she apparently had no heirs, when she died the Twelfth Dynasty came to a sudden end as did the Golden Age of the Middle Kingdom.


When the Eleventh Dynasty reunified Egypt, it had to create a centralized administration such as had not existed in Egypt since the downfall of the Old Kingdom government. To do this, it appointed people to positions which had fallen out of use in the decentralized First Intermediate Period. Highest among these was the Vizier. The vizier was the chief minister for the king, handling all the day to day business of government in the king's place. This was a monumental task, therefore it would often be split into two positions, a vizier of the north, and a vizier of the south. It is uncertain how often this occurred during the Middle Kingdom, but Senusret I clearly had two simultaneously functioning viziers.

Other positions were inherited from the provincial form of government at Thebes used by the Eleventh Dynasty before the reunification of Egypt. The Overseer of Sealed Goods became the country's treasurer, and the Overseer of the Estate became the King's chief steward. These three positions and the Scribe of the Royal Document, probably the king's personal scribe, appear to be the most important posts of the central government, judging by the monument count of those in these positions.

Beside this, many Old Kingdom posts which had lost their original meaning and become mere honorifics were brought back into the central government.[56] Only high ranking officials could claim the title Member of the Elite, which had been applied liberally during the First Intermediate Period.

This basic form of administration continued throughout the Middle Kingdom, though there is some evidence for a major reform of the central government under Senusret III. Records from his reign indicate that Upper and Lower Egypt were divided into separate waret and governed by separate administrators. Administrative documents and private stele indicate a proliferation of new bureaucratic titles around this time, which have been taken as evidence of a larger central government. Governance of the royal residence was moved into a separate division of government. The military was placed under the control of a chief general. However, it is possible that these titles and positions were much older, and simply were not recorded on funerary stele due to religious conventions.

Provincial Government

Decentralization during the First Intermediate Period left the individual Egyptian provinces, or Nomes, under the control of powerful families who held the hereditary title of Great Chief of the Nome, or Nomarch. This position developed during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, when the various powers of Old Kingdom provincial officials began to be exercised by a single individual. At roughly this time, the provincial aristocracy began building elaborate tombs for themselves, which have been taken as evidence of the wealth and power which these rulers had acquired as Nomarchs. By the end of the First Intermediate Period, some nomarchs ruled their nomes as minor potentates, such as the nomarch Nehry of Hermopolis, who dated inscriptions by his own regnal year.

When the Eleventh Dynasty came to power, it was necessary to subdue the power of the Nomarchs if Egypt was to be reunified under a central government. The first major steps towards that end took place under Amenemhet I. Amenemhet made the city, not the nome, the center of administration, and only the haty-a, or mayor, of the larger cities would be permitted to carry the title of Nomarch.

The title of Nomarch continued to be used until the reign of Senusret III, as did the elaborate tombs indicative of their power, after which they suddenly disappear. This has been interpreted several ways. Traditionally, it has been believed that Senusret III took some action to suppress the nomarch families during his reign.

Recently, other interpretations have been proposed. Detlef Franke has argued that Senusret II adopted a policy of educating the sons of nomarchs in the capital and appointing them to government posts. In this way, many provincial families may have been bled dry of scions.

Also, while the title of Great Overlord of the Nome disappeared, other distinctive titles of the nomarchs remained. During the First Intermediate Period, individuals holding the title of Great Overlord also often held the title of Overseer of Priests.

In the late Middle Kingdom, there exist families holding the titles of mayor and overseer of priests as hereditary possessions. Therefore, it has been argued that the great nomarch families were never subdued, but were simply absorbed into the Pharaonic administration of the country. While it is true that the large tombs indicative of nomarchs disappear at the end of the twelfth dynasty, grand royal tombs also disappear soon thereafter due to general instability surrounding the decline of the Middle Kingdom.

Agriculture and Climate

Throughout the history of ancient Egypt, the annual flooding of the Nile River to inundate the fields on its banks was relied upon to feed the population. There is evidence that the collapse of the previous Old Kingdom may have been due in part to low flood levels, resulting in famine. This trend appears to have been reversed during the early years of the Middle Kingdom, with relatively high water levels recorded for much of this era, with an average inundation of 19 meters above its non-flood levels. The years of repeated high inundation levels correspond to the most prosperous period of the Middle Kingdom, which occurred during the reign of Amenemhat III. This seems to be confirmed in some of the literature of the period, such as in the Instructions of Amenemhat, where the king tells his son how agriculture prospered under his reign.


One of the innovations in sculpture that occurred during the Middle Kingdom was the block statue, which would continue to be popular through to the Ptolemaic age almost 2,000 years later. Block statues consist of a man squatting with his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms folded on top his knees. Often, these men are wearing a "wide cloak" that reduces the body of the figure to a simple block-like shape. Most of the detail is reserved for the head of the individual being depicted. In some instances the modeling of the limbs has been retained by the sculptor. There are two basic types of block statues: ones with the feet completely covered by the cloak and ones with the feet uncovered.


Richard B. Parkinson and Ludwig D. Morenz write that ancient Egyptian literature - narrowly defined as belles-lettres ("beautiful writing") - were not recorded in written form until the early Twelfth dynasty of the Middle Kingdom. Old Kingdom texts served mainly to maintain the divine cults, preserve souls in the afterlife, and document accounts for practical uses in daily life. It was not until the Middle Kingdom that texts were written for the purpose of entertainment and intellectual curiosity. Parkinson and Morenz also speculate that written works of the Middle Kingdom were transcriptions of the oral literature of the Old Kingdom. It is known that some oral poetry was preserved in later writing; for example, litter-bearers' songs were preserved as written verses in tomb inscriptions of the Old Kingdom.

It is also thought that the growth of the middle class and a growth in the number of scribes needed for the expanded bureaucracy under Senusret II helped spur the development of Middle Kingdom literature. Later ancient Egyptians considered the literature from this time as "classic".

Stories such as the Tale of the shipwrecked sailor and the Story of Sinuhe were composed during this period, and were popular enough to be widely copied afterwards. Many philosophical works were also created at this time, including the Dispute between a man and his Ba where an unhappy man converses with his soul, the The Satire of the Trades in which the role of the scribe is praised above all other jobs, and the magic tales supposedly told to the Old Kingdom pharaoh Khufu in the Westcar Papyrus.

Pharaohs of the Twelfth through Eighteenth Dynasty are credited with preserving for us some of the most fabulous of Egyptian papyri:

1950 BC - Akhmim Wooden Tablets

1950 BC - Heqanakht Papyri

1800 BC - Berlin Papyrus

1800 BC - Moscow Mathematical Papyrus

1650 BC - Rhind Mathematical Papyrus

1600 BC - Edwin Smith Papyrus

1550 BC - Ebers Papyrus

Decline into the Second Intermediate Period

After the death of Sobeknefru, the throne may have passed to Wegaf, who had previously been the Great Overseer of Troops, though others have suggested Sekhemre Khutawy was next to reign. Beginning with this reign, Egypt was ruled by a series of ephemeral kings for about ten to fifteen years. Ancient Egyptian sources regard these as the first kings of the Thirteenth Dynasty, though the term dynasty is misleading, as most kings of the thirteenth dynasty were not related. The names of these short-lived kings are attested on a few monuments and Graffiti, and their succession order is only known from the Turin Canon, although even this is not fully trusted.

After the initial dynastic chaos, a series of longer reigning, better attested kings ruled for about fifty to eighty years. The strongest king of this period, Neferhotep I, ruled for eleven years and maintained effective control of Upper Egypt, Nubia, and the Delta, with the possible exceptions of Xois and Avaris. Neferhotep I was even recognized as the suzerain of the ruler of Byblos, indicating that the Thirteenth Dynasty was able to retain much of the power of the Twelfth Dynasty, at least up to his reign.

At some point during the 13th dynasty, Xois and Avaris began governing themselves, the rulers of Xois being the Fourteenth Dynasty, and the Asiatic rulers of Avaris being the Hyksos of the Fifteenth Dynasty. According to Manetho, this latter revolt occurred during the reign of Neferhotep's successor, Sobekhotep IV, though there is no archaeological proof.

Sobekhotep IV was succeeded by the short reign of Sobekhotep V, who was followed by Wahibre Ibiau, then Merneferre Ai. Wahibre Ibiau ruled ten years, and Merneferre Ai ruled for twenty three years, the longest of any Thirteenth Dynasty king, but neither of these two kings left as many attestations as either Neferhotep or Sobekhotep IV. Despite this, they both seem to have held at least parts of lower Egypt. After Merneferre Ai, however, no king left his name on any object found outside the south. This begins the final portion of the thirteenth dynasty, when southern kings continue to reign over Upper Egypt, but when the unity of Egypt has fully disintegrated, and the Middle Kingdom gave way to the Second Intermediate Period.