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The Xenophile Historian


A History of Africa


Egypt before 664 B.C.

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

The Gift of the Nile
Most Ancient Egypt
The Archaic or Protodynastic Era
The Pyramid Age
Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt
Egyptian Mathematics and Science
Ancient Nubia
The End of the Old Kingdom

Part II

The First Intermediate Period
The Middle Kingdom
The Second Intermediate Period
The Rise of the New Kingdom
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Part III

Thutmose I
The First Feminist
Imperial Egypt
The Amarna Revolution
The Ramessid Age
The Third Intermediate Period

The First Intermediate Period

After the Old Kingdom came a time of weakness and chaos, which we call the First Intermediate Period. The next two dynasties, the VII and the VIII, appear to have had little control beyond Memphis. For both of them we have a documented total of seventeen kings, who together ruled for a very short time; indeed, the record is so chaotic that Manetho summarized the VII dynasty as "seventy kings, who reigned for seventy days." Only one of them even tried to build a small pyramid, showing that they could not afford to build monuments on the scale of Old Kingdom rulers. The nomes (provinces) still proclaimed their allegiance to whoever was in charge in Memphis, but this was only lip service; in most affairs they were now on their own. The pottery made during this time took on different styles in different parts of the Nile valley, while portraits became more geometrical, less realistic. All this tells us that a single authority no longer governed and set the fashion for the whole land.

The cause of this turmoil was more than just royal weakness. We now know that in the 22nd century B.C., Egypt fell victim to a severe drought, much like the droughts that have afflicted Africa in our own time. For more than one year the summer rains did not fall on the Ethiopian highlands; this meant that the Nile did not flood and Egypt was failed by the natural force which had sustained it for so long. Famine set in as crops failed; mobs of starving vagrants pillaged the countryside, and there is at least one account of cannibalism. Some cities like Abydos built huge granaries to store the harvests they could get, and this made them centers of wealth and power in this troubled time. There also may have an Asian invasion of the eastern Nile delta--Amorite-style pottery has been found there--but we cannot be sure; this is the most poorly documented period in Egyptian history.

The first effect of the famine was that it totally discredited the kings, because they claimed (through Ra) the power to control nature, and insisted on raising taxes in the middle of these hard times. Brute force became a better source of legitimacy than divine right; the nomarchs went from being feudal barons to mini-kings when they assumed the powers and trappings of the Memphis monarchs for themselves. They frequently clashed with each other or formed loose alliances among themselves. The possibility of conflict even extended to the once-tranquil realm of the dead; tombs from this period contain wooden figurines of archers and spearmen, who would presumably serve their master in the next world the same way that real soldiers did in life.

The most powerful nomarchs ruled from Henen-nesut, an Upper Egyptian town fifty-five miles south of Memphis, better known to us as Heracleopolis. One of them, named Akhtoy or Khety, declared himself king; Akhtoy was later described as very cruel, and his successors went down in Manetho's chronicle as the IX and X dynasties. They succeeded in ruling about 60% of Upper Egypt, and the southeastern quarter of the Nile delta; what happened to the rest of Lower Egypt is unknown. In the far south, four nomarchs, those of Thinis (near Abydos), Coptos, Thebes and Hierakonpolis, refused to acknowledge Heracleopolitan authority.

Among the southern cities the newest was Thebes; before the VI dynasty, four villages stood on its site. Thebes began its rise to glory when Inyotef II (Intef) became governor, around 1937 B.C. He and the governor of Hierakonpolis raided each other's lands for a decade, before Inyotef suddenly prevailed. With the conquest of Hierakonpolis, Inyotef pushed the southern Theban frontier all the way to the first cataract; with only the Nubians south of that point, Inyotef and his successors could now concentrate all their attention on the north. Then Inyotef took the titles of kingship for himself, and granted posthumous royalty for his two predecessors. With that move, the Theban nomarchs became the XI dynasty.

After this the XI dynasty seems to have taken Coptos and Thinis without too much fuss, but the next city downstream, Asyut, was strong and had a governor who was loyal to Heracleopolis. Fifty-six years of on-and-off war over Thinis followed; at one point the governor of Asyut, Tefibi, captured Abydos with some help from the X dynasty's strongest ruler, Khety III. Unfortunately, the victors then desecrated the already ancient royal cemetery of Abydos, an act which Egyptians saw as a war crime. Khety also drove the Asiatics out of the Nile delta, before the tide turned in favor of the southern kings. In the 14th year of the reign of Mentuhotep II (1867 B.C.?), Thinis revolted, and Mentuhotep launched a successful campaign that conquered both Thinis and Asyut. The next eight years saw Mentuhotep fight his way down the river, take Heracleopolis by siege, violate the tombs of the Heracleopolitans, crush the X dynasty, and reunite Egypt.

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The Middle Kingdom

Mentuhotep II wasn't idle after reunification; two campaigns to the south let the Nubians know that Egypt was back in business, and he may have also sent the army on raids into Canaan and the eastern desert. At home he built a large funerary temple on the west bank of the Nile, a site across from Thebes called Deir el-Bahri. Surrounded by columns and topped with a small pyramid, this structure served the same purpose as the temples next to the Old Kingdom pyramids -- to make sure the king would never be forgotten. Eventually the temple also became his tomb; he and his wives were buried in underground rooms, in the rear of the temple. Finally, on the grounds outside the temple, he buried sixty warriors who had been killed in the line of duty. Unlike others given an honorable burial in Egypt, the warriors were not mummified, but it did not really matter, because the desert did a good job of drying out their bodies. By giving them graves near his own, Mentuhotep was rewarding his soldiers and giving them the opportunity to serve him in the next world.

Meidum pyramid
The temple of Mentuhotep II, at Deir el-Bahri. This is an artist's conception; only the causeway and first level are still standing.

Mentuhotep II
A statue of Mentuhotep II, from the above temple.

After Mentuhotep II came two more Theban rulers, also named Mentuhotep. The last one had a general and vizier named Amenemhat; some think he ousted the Mentuhoteps in a coup and is the same man as Amenemhet I, the first king of the XII dynasty (1796-1632 B.C.). Or he may have simply taken over when Mentuhotep IV died childless; there was a struggle for the throne after Mentuhotep, anyway. However Amenemhet did it, he did not have royal ancestry; in fact, he may have been the first king who did not come from the Iry-Pat caste (see above). We have a papyrus named the "Prophecies of Neferti," which tells us that Amenemhet had an Upper Egyptian father and a Nubian mother, and it calls him "the son of man," rather than the son of a god--very unusual, when you consider the claims from the rulers who came before him.

Amenemhet was a worried king, who moved his capital to Ittowy, near Memphis, to distance himself from the Thebans and imitate the majesty of Old Kingdom rulers. And whereas the XI dynasty kings put their graves under temples at Thebes, Amenemhet started a new cemetery at Lisht (also in the Memphis neighborhood), and revived the art of pyramid building.(14) Then after ruling for twenty years, he crowned his son, Senusret I, as a co-regent. We don't know if he did this to give Senusret some on-the-job training, or to make sure that his heir would have a firm claim to the throne if he died suddenly. Whatever the reason, Amenemhet set a precedent that worked very well; most of the other XII dynasty kings also had co-regencies. For the rest of Amenemhet's reign, Senusret commanded the army and led it on expeditions into Nubia and Libya, while Amenemhet continued to rule at home. Egyptian religion taught that the king was a living incarnation of the god Horus, so the people seem to have accepted the idea of two Horuses on earth without much fuss. Despite these actions, Amenemhet never succeeded in getting the upper hand against the defiant nomarchs, some of whom still had private armies. Eventually his guards killed him in bed; the story of his assassination comes to us in a tale where his spirit appears to Senusret I:

"It was after supper when night was come, I took an hour of repose, lying upon my bed. I was tired and my heart began to follow sleep. Of a sudden weapons were brandished and there was talk concerning me, whilst I remained like a snake of the desert. I woke up to fighting, recovering consciousness and realizing it was a fighting of the guard. If I had time to take my arms in hand, I could have beaten off the rebels. But there is none strong at night. None can fight alone. There is no successful issue without a protector."

Senusret (Sesostris in Greek) was on a military campaign in the Libyan desert when he heard the news. He rushed back to court and was able to assert his rightful claim to the throne. After that, he began the task of centralizing the country's political structure, by supporting nomarchs who were loyal to him. He kept his enemies even closer than his friends; the nomarchs he did not trust were offered jobs in the capital, which meant good homes, good pay, and the chance to be buried in a classy tomb next to the pyramids--but they were also cut off from their base of support in the provinces. The whole centralization process required caution and more than a lifetime of patience, but over a period of 150 years the kings whittled down the power of the nomarchs until they returned to their previous positions as purely local authorities.

We can see the change in relative wealth and power at the most famous tombs from the Middle Kingdom, at Beni Hasan, a site about 160 miles south of modern Cairo. Here the local nomarchs of the XI and XII dynasties had caves carved into cliffs on the east bank of the Nile, for their resting places. Several tombs are large and richly decorated with paintings; one scene in particular, featuring a merchant caravan from the Middle East, is shown in many textbooks and on websites, because it gives us an idea of the kind of costumes Biblical patriarchs like Isaac and Jacob would have worn, and because we'll be hearing more about Asiatics in Egypt later. However, the last of the elaborate tombs was built in the reign of Senusret II, a hint that in the second half of the XII dynasty, the nomarchs fell on hard times, right when the kings were enjoying their best years.

Because prosperity had returned to Egypt, the XII dynasty rulers could be lavish on building projects. The XI dynasty's favorite god was Mentu (also spelled Montu), a hawk-faced war deity that was not important at any other time in Egyptian history; you can see this in their use of the name Mentuhotep, which means "Mentu is content." Now the Senusrets and Amenemhets gave their favors to another Theban deity: Amen (also spelled Amun). Amen was promoted above the other gods to become the supreme god of Egypt. He was portrayed rather simply, as a human with a feather crown and not much personality, but as time went on he took on the powers and features of the other gods, especially Ra, so eventually he came to be known as the supreme Amen-Ra. Senusret I built a white chapel to Amen in Thebes, and it was steadily enlarged by the New Kingdom pharaohs to become Karnak, the greatest Egyptian temple of all.

Yet at the same time, Egypt's rulers became somewhat more human. Avoiding the excesses of the Old Kingdom, they kept their pyramids small and affordable for most of the XII dynasty (see the previous footnote). Instead of talking about their divinity and uniqueness, the Middle Kingdom rulers stressed their role as watchful shepherds of the people, and promoted the welfare of the downtrodden. One of them claimed, "I gave to the destitute and brought up the orphan. I caused him who was nothing to reach [his goal], like him who was [somebody]."(15) Moreover, a concession that has been called "the democratization of the hereafter" gave the lower classes the right to have their bodies mummified, and thereby enjoy immortality like the kings and the nobility.

Click here for a humorous look at what the Middle Kingdom meant for the ordinary Egyptian (opens in a separate window). From the August 2003 issue of Scientific American.

We see a bit of personality in the royal statues at this date. Pharaonic sculpture up to this time had followed a rigid set of rules; all images were idealized portraits, with no display of emotion whatsoever. The nobles had followed these conventions in their own statues previously, but now some of them displayed a squinting, tired-looking visage. This was done to convey two impressions: that those who squinted took their jobs seriously, and that those who squinted disagreed with the rosy story about the world that came from the royal court. If this marks an opposition party, eventually the king joined it; the two greatest kings of the XII dynasty, Senusret III and Amenemhet III, also showed themselves squinting.

Senusret III

Senusret III, and no, he didn't find a spider in his soup when he posed for this statue!
From WorldArt Web Kiosk.

Senusret III ruled at the peak of Egypt's wealth and power during the Middle Kingdom. For that reason, when he built himself a brick pyramid at Dahshur, he made it 256 feet high -- the largest pyramid anyone had built since the Old Kingdom's most glorious days. He probably chose Dahshur so that Egyptians would associate him with Snefru, who we saw had been a favorite king from the past. However, he wasn't done when he finished the pyramid; Senusret also built a funerary temple and a second tomb in an even older cemetery, at timeworn Abydos. This tomb wasn't a pyramid or mastaba, but a long cave, carved at the foot of a mountain. The archaeologists who have excavated the Abydos tomb since 1994 believe this was Senusret's real burial place; the pyramid was the greatest decoy ever built for grave robbers.

Amenemhet III built another brick pyramid at Dahshur, but it was at an elevation so low that ground water damaged the structure, so he built a second pyramid at Hawara in the Faiyum (see footnote #19). This shows that the Faiyum had become the most important place in Egypt, for reasons explained at the end of this section. The Faiyum pyramid had two sarcophagi in it, one for Amenemhet and one for his daughter Neferuptah. Apparently Amenemhet loved Neferuptah very much, because her name was carved in a cartouche or oval. We saw earlier that this writing custom was reserved for the names of kings, suggesting that Amenemhet made Neferuptah his heir, instead of the son who actually succeeded him, Amenemhet IV. However, Neferuptah died before her father did, so Amenemhet buried her in his own pyramid until he could build one for her. Neferuptah's small pyramid was opened in 1956, and miraculously, it escaped tomb robbers over the ages--but not nature. The rooms and sarcophagus were nearly filled with water, which had long ago dissolved the mummy and its wooden coffin; only some fine jewelry and a few other objects survived.

Like their predecessors in the latter part of the Old Kingdom, the kings of this era eagerly pursued foreign trade. Egyptian ships sailed down the Red Sea to a distant realm called Punt (Pwenet in Egyptian), which was probably modern-day Eritrea.(16) From Punt they brought back frankincense, myrrh, and various trees and animals. The hardest part of the journey was between the Nile and the Red Sea, where caravans had to carry everything across the eastern desert, a journey that could take up to eight days.

Another tempting commercial target was Nubia. Military expeditions under Senusret I conquered the land between the first and second cataracts. They did not administer the lands beyond that point, but a hundred years later Senusret III sent troops onward to establish advance military bases. They got as far as Heh (Semna), a point halfway between the second and third cataracts, and the king's men built a great fortress, bristling with battlements, "in order to prevent any Negro from passing it by water or by land." Next to it a towering statue of Senusret III was erected, to encourage the submission of all who gazed on it. Meanwhile in the Mediterranean, they increased trade with Byblos and established new relations with another seagoing power, the Minoans of Crete. This gave the Egyptians a more steady supply of timber and olive oil in exchange for their surplus of flax, papyrus, salted fish, ox hides, alabaster and gold.

One Egyptian trade route ran due southwest for an uncertain distance. It began at Dakhla, a remote oasis in the western desert, and followed a chain of outposts where food and water might have been left for caravans, until it reached a plateau named Gilf Kebir. Like Tassili-n-Ajer (see Chapter 1), this area contains rock art, so for a while archaeologists assumed the Egyptians stopped here to trade with desert nomads. Then in 2007 an inscription was discovered in the mountains near the spot where the borders of modern Egypt, Libya and Sudan meet; it was dedicated to Mentuhotep II, so presumably the author of the inscription belonged to an expedition that passed there early in the Middle Kingdom. Now it appears that the Dakhla trade route did not stop in the desert but crossed it, going all the way into Chad to end at either the ancient Lake Bodele (see Chapter 1), or Lake Chad itself. What they wanted from Chad isn't clear, but the reader should be reminded that because ancient climates were different, a trans-Sahara crossing would have been somewhat less strenuous than it is today.

Finally, the XII dynasty is when Egypt's greatest literature was written. This was due in part not only to the country's prosperity but also because Egyptian writing and grammar were never better than they were at this time; in fact, today's Egyptology students use Middle Kingdom texts to learn hieroglyphics. The troubled life that followed the collapse of the Old Kingdom was responsible for the highly personal nature of Middle Kingdom literature. It contains protests against the ills of the day, demands for social justice, and praise for the romantic excitements of wine, women, and song as a means of forgetting misery. Much of this literature is appealing even today, as shown by the following lines from a love poem, in which the beloved is called "sister":

"I behold how my sister cometh, and my heart is in gladness.
Mine arms open wide to embrace her; my heart exulteth within me; for my lady has come to me . . .
She kisseth me, she openeth her lips to me: then am I joyful even without beer."(17)

Middle Kingdom scribes also wrote down a number of exciting stories, which Sir Flinders Petrie published in two volumes entitled Egyptian Tales. The best of these is the Tale of Sinuhe, the adventures of a young noble who runs for his life after hearing a state secret; he lives for many years in Israel, as the guest of a Bedouin chief, until the king invites him to come home.

As with all other aspects of Egyptian life, the literature was closely tied to the religion. During the Old Kingdom Egyptian religion had no strong ethical character. Relations between humans and gods were based largely on material considerations, and the gods were thought to reward those who brought them gifts of sacrifice. But widespread suffering during the First Intermediate Period led to a revolution in religious thought. It was now believed that instead of sacrificial offerings the gods were interested in good character and love for one's fellows: "More acceptable [to the gods] is the character of one upright of heart than the ox of the evildoer....Give the love of thyself to the whole world; a good character is a remembrance."(18)

The new emphasis on moral character now became a prerequisite for an attractive afterlife. No amount of preparation of one's tomb would do a soul any good if it was not free of sin as well. Tomb paintings often show a ceremony where Osiris weighs the deceased's heart against the Feather of Truth, while the soul recites "the negative confession," a list of forty-four sins it did not commit in life. If the heart was heavy with sin and outweighed the Feather of Truth, a horrible creature named Amam devoured it, ending the soul's existence. Those who passed the test went on to the fields of the blessed.

The weighing of the heart.

The Weighing of the Heart Ceremony.

Later on in the New Kingdom era, the priesthood of Osiris became corrupt and claimed that it knew clever methods to survive the soul testing, even if a person's heart was heavy with sin. Charms, magical prayers and formulas were sold to the living as insurance policies, guaranteeing them a happy outcome in the judgment before Osiris. Much of this can be found in later editions of the Book of the Dead.

Above all, the XII dynasty rulers were determined to protect the country from future failures of the Nile. This included an ambitious project to irrigate the Faiyum, a natural depression southwest of Memphis.(19) To bring water to the depression they dug a 300-foot-wide canal connecting it with the Nile, and the water formed an artificial lake, Lake Moeris. When the Nile flooded, excess water would be diverted into the lake, which would reduce flood damage downstream and provide a water supply to ration out during the dryer months ahead. It also irrigated 27,000 acres of land around the lake, allowing the country to grow and store more food for times of famine.

Lake Moeris

An artist's conception of how the Faiyum looked in ancient times. Herodotus reported seeing two pyramids in Lake Moeris with giant statues on the peaks, but now we believe he exaggerated; instead of two pyramids, two large pedestals which once supported statues of Amenemhet III have been found in the lake.

The Faiyum project was completed just in time, to help Egypt get through the worst natural disaster of the Middle Kingdom years. At Semna (see above), the Nile passes through a narrow gorge, and here in the late XII dynasty, somebody marked the maximum level of the Nile flood every year. In a normal year the flood level would have averaged twenty-nine feet above the low water level. However, from the 13th to 19th year of Amenemhet III's reign, peak water levels were fifteen feet higher than that. The high floods meant extra silt to make the farms exceptionally fertile, and ample water for everything and everybody. If the "seven good years" Joseph predicted in Genesis 41 took place, this is probably when that period of prosperity happened. But a Nile level any higher than that would cause catastrophe, not bumper crops, and from the 20th year of Amenemhet onward, the Nile went crazy; peak flood levels were twice as high, or thirty feet above normal. This kind of flood would destroy villages, temples and tombs built too close to the riverbanks; many people and animals would drown; finally, the farms would be underwater during the months when plowing and planting should be done, making it impossible to grow crops. Thus, seven years of terrible famine followed seven years of abundance; fortunately, the grain put in storage during the good years was enough to save the day.

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The Second Intermediate Period

Whereas the Old Kingdom saw a gradual deterioration of wealth and royal power, which may have lasted as long as three centuries (counting the years from Khafre to Pepi II), the Middle Kingdom's most important dynasty was cut down suddenly. It appears that the XII dynasty simply ran out of men. Egyptologists suspect that the last male member of the dynasty, Amenemhet IV, was the son of a concubine of Amenemhet III, or even an adopted son, for his mother was never given the title of queen. Whatever the relationship, he ruled for nine years, not as long as his outstanding predecessors, and he was followed by a sister, Sobek-Neferu. Previously we saw a few women hold the throne as regents (e.g., Merneith, Khentkawes I, Ankhesenpepi II), but this time, a woman became ruler in her own right, instead of acting for someone else. However, Sobek-Neferu's reign lasted just under four years, too little time to get much done, and when it ended, so did the mighty XII dynasty.

Statues and royal burials of XIII dynasty kings have been found at Memphis, Abydos, Thebes and Avaris, but the Egyptians left very few accounts of this era, so the time covered by dynasties XIII-XVII, which we call the Second intermediate Period, is almost as mysterious to us as the First Intermediate Period. What evidence we do have shows a long period of weakness and disunity; Manetho claimed 60 kings for the XIII dynasty and 76 for the XIV; a poorly preserved papyrus, the Turin Canon, reported 175 kings for the whole Second Intermediate Period. We also see evidence of relative poverty; most of the royal tombs we have found so far were not pyramids or even mastabas, but simple underground chambers.

Most Egyptologists now believe the XIII dynasty began with a king named Sobekhotep I; some think he was related to his XII dynasty predecessors, because one of his other names was Amenemhet, but we cannot know for sure. None of the kings from the first part of the dynasty ruled for very long; the average reign was less than five years. On the other hand, the vizier at this point had an extraordinary tenure, holding the office for at least fifty years. His name was Ankhu, and though we only have records mentioning his name from the XIII dynasty, it is possible he became vizier before the XII dynasty ended. If that is the case, then a role reversal took place when the Sobekhoteps replaced the Amenemhets. In the past, a successful king could have more than one vizier serving under him; the vizier's term of service depended on his performance and lifespan. However, now a long-lived vizier gained enough power to become a kingmaker, appointing or electing kings and deposing those that weren't competent enough for the job. We say this because the many short-lived kings of this time couldn't have all been related to one another. Some of the XIII and XIV dynasty rulers had Semitic names, like Amenemhet V the Amu (Asiatic), Yakobaam (Jacob?), Ishpi (Joseph?), and Khendjer ("Pig," what a name!), suggesting that they came from the Asiatic community that had settled in the Nile delta at the Middle Kingdom's height. After Ankhu's term as vizier ended, two of his sons, Resseneb and Iymeru, also held the position, thus forming a dynasty of viziers. Most remarkable of all, it appears that Resseneb eventually became king, appearing in the king lists as Renseneb, the successor of Sobekhotep II, but he crowned himself too late in life to rule long; his reign only lasted four months.

Most history texts put the whole XIII dynasty in the Second Intermediate Period, but there is no evidence of a disaster of any kind at the break between dynasties XII and XIII. In fact, the capital of Egypt remained at Ittowy for a while longer, so it would probably be more accurate to consider the Middle Kingdom as continuing for the first part of the XIII dynasty. Then two political events made a break with the past; we do not know which came first, but once both happened, the Second Intermediate Period was clearly underway. One event was a revolt in the delta. The Lower Egyptian community, possibly motivated by the Semites living among them, declared independence from the kings at Ittowy and installed kings of their own, what we call the XIV dynasty. Some fourteen centuries later, Manetho would claim the XIV was based at Xois, a city in the western delta. However, we now know from recent excavations that the main northern Egyptian city at this stage was Avaris, in the eastern delta, so we think it is more likely that Avaris was the dynasty's capital. Still, the large number of rulers claimed for the dynasty suggests periods when more than one ruled at the same time, meaning that the king lists include petty kings that ruled only part of the delta, and Xois could have been a capital for rivals to the kings at Avaris. Only the name of one king, Nehesy, has been found on contemporary artifacts, and he ruled for just one year, telling us that the XIV dynasty kings were just as weak and ephemeral as the early XIII dynasty kings had been.

The other game-changing event was the old Theban nobility making a comeback. We haven't heard from them since the XI dynasty, and when they regained power they moved the capital upstream, from Ittowy to Thebes. Here, starting with Sobekhotep III, the dynasty entered a new phase, stronger than it was during the first phase. They also lasted longer, ruling 7-12 years each. Sobekhotep III's successor, Neferhotep I, did extensive trading with the Phoenicians and Babylonians, and the next king, Sebekhotep IV, recovered lower Nubia with a military expedition that went all the way to the third cataract. Finally, we now believe this was when Egypt engaged in the first act of anti-Semitism, the oppression described in the Book of Exodus; one of the middle-XIII dynasty rulers, most likely Sobekhotep IV, enslaved the Hebrews living in Egypt, to keep them from joining Pharaoh's enemies (the XIV dynasty?).

The last ruler of the XIII dynasty's middle phase was the longest-lived, Merneferre Ay, whose reign may have been as long as 23 years. Several artifacts bearing his name have been found, including a pyramidion, the capstone of a pyramid, which turned up at Avaris. After Merneferre Ay, no more artifacts from the XIII dynasty are found anywhere besides Lower Egypt, suggesting that the kings of the third period no longer had control over the crucial neighborhood of Memphis. Indeed, it looks like the dynasty collapsed in anarchy; aside from a king named Dudimose, historians do not agree on the names and order of the last kings.

To the south, the Nubian kingdom of Kush grew powerful enough to challenge Egypt. Its capital, Kerma, was located beyond the third cataract and more than 150 miles south of Semna, putting it out of reach of Egyptian forces. The Egyptians seem to have been pleased to trade with Yam in the Old Kingdom, but showed fear and scorn for the state that had replaced it. Archaeologists excavating the Middle Kingdom forts found broken clay tablets with the words Kush or Ruler of Kush; these "execration texts" had been smashed in the hope that this would magically weaken or put a curse on the victim who had been named. Then during the Second Intermediate Period, the residents at the forts left a combination of Egyptian and Nubian artifacts, and made crude pictures of the king of Kush, dressed like an Egyptian. This suggests that the Nubians were able to occupy the forts without much resistance, and that the communities in the forts were fully integrated afterwards.

Kerma enjoyed its best years during the Second Intermediate Period, growing to house a population of 2,000 people within a 25-acre walled town. The main structure was a mud-brick building called the Western Defuffa, which still stands 60 feet high; its original purpose is unknown, leading to specuation that it was a temple or trade center. Two miles away, George Andrew Reisner, the archaeologist who excavated Kerma in 1913, found a vast cemetery. Eight of the graves were covered by enormous mounds, the largest the size of a football field. Undoubtedly these were royal tombs; each contained a skeleton of an important person lying on a four-legged bed. However, they didn't leave this world by themselves; like the tombs of the Egypt's I dynasty kings, these graves contained the bodies of men, women and children in side chambers. Reisner counted 322 victims in one tomb, and the contorted positions of the bodies led him to conclude that they had been buried alive.

The XV dynasty was not Egyptian, but an Asiatic group called the Hyksos. They crushed both the XIII and XIV dynasties easily. The most detailed account of them comes from Manetho, but it's not the original manuscript; what we have from him are quotations that have arrived to us second or third hand from three later historians (Josephus, Eusebius, and Africanus), each of which is of questionable authenticity because they contradict each other in matters of dates. Here is the version Josephus gave us:

"There was a king of ours, whose name was Tutimaeus [Dudimose?]. Under him it came to pass, I know not how, that a blast of God smote us, and there came, after a surprising manner, men of ignoble birth out of the eastern parts, and had boldness enough to make an expedition into our country, and with ease subdued it by force, yet without fighting a single battle with us. So when they had gotten those that governed us under their power, they afterwards burnt our cities, and demolished the temples of the gods, and used all the inhabitants after a most barbarous manner; nay, some they slew, and led their children and their wives into slavery. At length they made one of themselves king, whose name was Salatis; he also lived at Memphis, and made both the upper and lower regions pay tribute, and left garrisons in places that were the most proper for them. He chiefly aimed to secure the eastern parts, as foreseeing that the Assyrians, who had then the greatest power, would be desirous of that kingdom and invade them; and as he found in the Saite nome a city very proper for his purpose, and which lay along the Bubastic channel, but with regard to a certain theologic notion was called Avaris, this he rebuilt, and made very strong by the walls he built about it, and by a most numerous garrison of 240,000 armed men whom he put into it to keep it. Thither Salatis came in summer-time, partly to gather his grain, and pay his soldiers their wages, and partly to exercise his armed men, and thereby to terrify foreigners. When this man had reigned 13 years, after him reigned another, whose name was Beon, for 44 years; after him reigned another, called Apachnas, 36 years and 7 months; after him Apophis reigned 61 years, and then Jonias 50 years and 1 month; after all these reigned Assis 49 years and 2 months. And these six were the first rulers among them, who were all along making war with the Egyptians, and were very desirous gradually to destroy them to the very roots. This whole nation was styled HYKSOS, that is, 'Shepherd-kings'; for the first syllable HYK, according to the sacred dialect denotes a 'king', as is SOS, a 'shepherd'--but this according to the ordinary dialect; and of these is compounded HYKSOS: but some say that these people were Arabians."

Manetho was probably incorrect when he defined the word "Hyksos" as "Shepherd Kings"; we now believe that the word comes from Heka Khasu, meaning "chieftain of a foreign hill-country." Thus, the title of the king/chief became the name of an entire people, much like how we refer to the ancient Peruvians as "Incas," when originally only the king of South America's empire was called by that name.

One might think that with the names and lengths of reigns given above it would be easy to put together a chronology of the Hyksos period, but the total amount of time is 253 years and ten months, longer than the 219 years most historians are willing to allow for the entire Second Intermediate Period! The notable exception to this opinion is Sir Flinders Petrie, who thought that the Second Intermediate Period was 1,660 years long, but few scholars accept this extreme length of time because it causes more problems than it solves. A fragment of the Turin Canon states: "Total, chieftains of foreign countries, 6, making 108 years," and this is believed by most to be the correct length of the XV dynasty.

The identity of the Hyksos themselves is also in question. All we know for sure is that they came from Asia. Some believe that they were an Indo-European tribe, perhaps the Mitannians from northern Iraq or the Cimmerians/Scythians of Russia, because they are described in one source as having red hair and white skin, and also because they used horse-drawn chariots. Immanuel Velikovsky believed that the Hyksos were Amalekites, citing Arab traditions of the Amalekites ruling Egypt, and the similarity of the Amalekite name "Agag" with the Hyksos "Apop" or Apophis; both names become an identical set of consonants in Bronze Age Hebrew script. For the most recent theories and discoveries concerning the Hyksos, see Chapter 2 of my Near Eastern history.

Whoever the Hyksos were, the Egyptians would have been in a poor position to resist them even if it had been a better time. Over the centuries, Egypt had fallen behind Asia in weapons technology; with the Sahara desert protecting the eastern and western frontiers of Egypt, all the Egyptians needed for their defense was enough soldiers to over-awe the nearest Bedouins. If the barbarians developed some new weapon or tactic, the Egyptians turned it to their side by enlisting those they captured into the army, rather than learning it themselves. Unlike the militant states of Mesopotamia, the Egyptian armed forces did not enjoy a privileged place in society. Most of them were not full-time, professional soldiers, but common peasants and laborers called up when needed, and when peace returned they went back to the jobs they worked at previously. They fought almost nude, the only armor being a large unwieldy shield; they used javelins, small bows and occasionally daggers, while other weapons were unknown to them. The peoples of the Middle East, on the other hand, had spent more than a thousand years improving their ability to kill people and break things, and for that purpose had invented axes, swords, large composite bows, helmets and scale armor. What revolutionized warfare the most was the horse, an animal that was first domesticated by nomads on the Russian steppes. The combination of horse and chariot was a weapon that the Bronze Age footsoldier found nearly unstoppable. The nation which had nothing but scorn for its neighbors for so long now endured the humilation of foreign rule.

After the Hyksos conquered Egypt, they were content to remain in Avaris and take tribute from the rest of the country, using the terror of their chariots to keep the wealth of the land coming in. However, the Hyksos were beguiled enough by the civilization they had conquered to take on Egyptian customs, despite the iron hand policy. They employed Egyptian scribes and tax collectors, wrote in hieroglyphics, and worshipped Egyptian gods(20). In return they introduced to Egypt an upright loom that improved weaving techniques, the long-necked lute, the lyre, the oboe, the tambourine, and two Middle Eastern fruits, the olive and the pomegranate.

The artifacts we have found in quantity are scarabs, small beetle-shaped seals with the name of a pharaoh or noble carved on the underside. From these we have the names of four Hyksos kings, three named Apopi or Apophis and one named Khayan or Khamudy. These scarabs have been found all over the Holy Land and even in Crete and northern Iraq, showing us that the Hyksos, through conquest or commerce, had influence over quite a large area. The southern frontier of the area they directly ruled was at Qis (Cusae), between Memphis and Thebes. Therefore Egypt and Nubia were divided into three roughly equal parts, with the poorest being the area in the middle that was still under Egyptian rule, cut off from both the wealth of the south and the commerce of the north.

Apophis of the XV dynasty


The most recent excavations at Avaris have revealed palaces: a small one decorated with Minoan-style reliefs (presumably a guest house for important visitors from Crete), and one belonging to the Hyksos king Khayan. The latter included a grisly secret; it contained four pits where severed hands were thrown and buried. Two of the pits were right next to the throne room, telling us that Khayan considered them important. Our guess is that the hands were war trophies, cut off from Egyptians during battles. Later on, during the New Kingdom, Egyptian warriors would keep track of how many enemy soldiers they killed by cutting off their right hands, and piling them up in heaps to count them. Now it appears that the Egyptians learned this practice from the Hyksos, along with the use of their weapons (see below).

Once he is done listing the Hyksos, Manetho gives us a XVIth dynasty that ruled from Thebes. What we know about this dynasty is even less clear than what we know about dynasties XIII-XV. Recently (January 2014), two small royal tombs were discovered at Akhmim, near Abydos; one belonged to a XIII dynasty king named Sobekhotep (Sobekhotep IV?), and the other belonged to Seneb-Kay, a king we had not heard of before. Because we do not know the names of all the XVI dynasty rulers, Seneb-Kay could easily be one of them, but Thebes already had royal burials, so what was he doing here? It has been suggested that a short-lived "Abydos dynasty" ruled that ancient city, alongside the XVI and early XVII dynasties, so Seneb-Kay could have been king of just a city-state. Wherever he came from, his job was not an easy one; eighteen wounds were identified on Seneb-Kay's bones, suggesting that he was killed in battle.

After the XVI dynasty, Thebes came under a stronger native family, what we call the XVII dynasty. The first Theban governors or nomarchs remained in submission to the Hyksos, but by now the Egyptians had adopted the weapons of their hated masters for themselves, so it was only a matter of time before a militant leader came to power among the natives and tried to regain Egypt's independence.

This leader was named Sekenenra Tao II, and the cause of the war is an amusing one; according to one story, Sekenenra went to war because the Hyksos king Apophis complained that the hippopotami in a canal at Thebes were keeping him awake at night!(21) The story doesn't tell us the outcome, but it's safe to say that Sekenenra lost, because we have the physical evidence. His mummy has five fatal skull wounds, and the body was poorly preserved, as if several days went by before it was embalmed. Senkenenra's son Ahmose was only a small child, so the late king's brother, Kamose, took over.

Kamose only appears to have ruled for three years, but was more successful. First he lamented the state of affairs Egypt had fallen into: "Why do I bother to contemplate my victories when there is a chief in Avaris and another in Kush, and I am bound to an Asiatic and a Nubian, each man holding his slice of the Black Land and dividing the country with me?" Then in his third year he marched downstream. After capturing Nefrusy, an Egyptian town on the side of the Hyksos, the Egyptian army intercepted a courier carrying a letter from Apophis to the king of Kush, pleading for assistance. Kamose got all the way to Avaris, and plundered the vineyards right under the walls of the Hyksos capital, but couldn't take the citadel itself, so the northern expedition was really a profitable raid. Next, he marched south to deal with the Nubians, but we never hear from Kamose after this, leading us to believe that like Seneb-Kay and Sekenenra, he came to a violent end.(22)

At this point Ahmose was still just eight years old, so his mother, Ahhotep, now became regent; she successfully managed the country for the next ten years. That involved defending Upper Egypt from intruders. Very few women have gone down in history as military leaders (the most famous exceptions are Boudicca, Zenobia, and Joan of Arc); Ahhotep may be the first one who did. The archaeologist who opened her coffin found a chain with three golden flies on it--ancient Egyptian medals of valor--and golden weapons, a battleaxe and two daggers. And after Ahmose came of age, Ahhotep put down a rebellion south of Thebes, while Ahmose was busy fighting the Hyksos. Ahhotep would eventually outlive four kings, and thus acted as the matriarch of the family until the beginning of the reign of Thutmose I.

The northern campaign of Ahmose led to the ultimate victory. The army captured Memphis, something Kamose had not achieved, but instead of a direct assault on Avaris, they blockaded the citadel; meanwhile, other troops reached the Mediterranean and the border of the Sinai desert. In the end Ahmose allowed the Hyksos to leave under a truce, and then he chased them as far as a place in the Holy Land called Sharuhen, which he besieged for another three years, until the Hyksos fled beyond his reach. All Egypt was liberated at last.

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The Rise of the New Kingdom

For most of its ancient history Egypt cared little about what happened in the rest of the world. Egyptians rarely visited other parts of the Fertile Crescent; those that did were either merchants on government-sponsored expeditions or fugitives like Sinuhe. Military expeditions were even less frequent; the first one recorded was that of Pepi I of the VI dynasty, which got as far as a point of land shaped like "a gazelle's nose" (Mt. Carmel?). The second campaign took place under Senusret III, and involved a battle at Shechem.

That changed when Ahmose liberated the country from the Hyksos. Now they realized that their desert frontiers would no longer keep all invaders out, and that for security's sake they might have to conquer the lands of their enemies. Ahmose started this trend by campaigning in Nubia, after he was done with the Hyksos; he conquered everything up to the second cataract, and possibly advanced as far as the third. Several militant rulers followed Ahmose, and under their leadership Egypt became great in a new way, as an empire. Before they stopped, they claimed control over an area 2,000 miles across: most of Nubia to the south; Israel, Lebanon and Syria to the east; and nearly half of modern-day Libya to the west.

Ahmose thought he could bring back the good old days by building for himself a small pyramid at Abydos, to house his royal remains. However, pyramids were the cause of Egypt's problems in the past (tomb robbing, bankrupcy caused by the cost of their building, etc.), so this was the last royal pyramid built in Egypt. Because the first two sons of Ahmose died before their father, Ahmose was succeeded by his third son, Amenhotep I. This king started out as a minor; he may have been only six years old when the crown passed to him. Fortunately, he enjoyed a more peaceful reign than his predecessor; still, he waged a few campaigns in Nubia and in the Libyan desert. At home he devoted most of his time to repairing and restoring the temples. We have not found his tomb, unless a tomb with his name on the walls (Tomb ANB), in the foothills west of Thebes, next to some royal tombs from the XVII dynasty, was the place. For reasons unclear to us, both Amenhotep and his mother Ahmose-Nefertari were deified, becoming the patron gods of the Theban cemeteries.

Amenhotep I did not leave any sons, and the next king, Thutmose I, was the husband of his cousin. We can clearly trace the Egyptian royal family from the XVII dynasty's Queen Tetisheri to Amenhotep I, but Egyptologists disagree on whether Thutmose I had any royal ancestry. If he didn't, we have a dynastic break here, because Thutmose's claim to the throne was by marriage, not by blood, and in other times and places (e.g., England's King George I), historians have marked such a succession as the beginning of a new dynasty. However, you may remember from footnote #6 that Ahmose is called the first pharaoh of the XVIII dynasty, because the New Kingdom started with him. In the author's opinion, Thutmose I was the real founder of the mighty XVIII dynasty, some forty years after Ahmose, but for more than a century Ahmose has appeared in history books as the dynasty's founder, so it is probably too late to change that now. At best, it gives us a reason to break off the narrative here, and begin the next page with the career of Thutmose I. Egypt had learned much during the years of oppression, and during the next age, Egypt would build its own empire, one that reached all the way to the Euphrates River under its greatest kings.

This is the end of Part II. Click here to go to Part III.


14. Middle Kingdom pyramids were still encased in limestone, but now mud bricks replaced the cut stones in the core, and the passages and burial chambers were usually under the pyramid, not in it. Sometimes the stone was stolen from older pyramids and their causeways. These moves cut the cost and time needed for construction, but the end result was less durable than the all-stone Old Kingdom pyramids. Vandals removed the limestone, and then wind and water erosion caused what was left to melt. The pyramid below is that of Senusret II, at Illahun.

Pyramid of Senusret II.

15. John A. Wilson, The Burden of Egypt, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951, pg. 117.

16. We're not sure where Punt is. Besides Eritrea, the other locations suggested are Somalia, Ethiopia, Mozambique. and Yemen. However, the Elkab inscription (see footnote #22) and a recent examination of mummified baboons, which are said to have come from Punt, leads the author to believe that Eritrea is the best candidate.
The first expedition to Punt that we know anything about was sponsored by Sahure, the second ruler of the V dynasty, and it was such a big deal that he considered it the most important event of his reign; he had relief sculptures of the boats and their crewmen carved on the sides of the causeway leading to his pyramid. After Sahure, the journeys became routine for the rest of the Old Kingdom, and then were interrupted by the First Intermediate Period. Credit for re-establishing the Egypt-Punt trade route goes to an individual named Hannu, who led another expedition in the XI dynasty.

17. George Steindorff and Keith C. Seele, When Egypt Ruled the East, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1942, pg. 125.

18. From "The Instruction of Meri-ka-Re" in The Burden of Egypt, pg. 120.

19. The pharaohs may have taken credit for the Faiyum project, but I think the real builder was a foreign-born vizier, namely the Biblical Joseph. For one thing, the canal was named after him: Bahr Yusef (Joseph's canal). Another part of the project was three large administrative centers/grain storehouses, called Hawara. Herodotus called the one in the Faiyum the "Labyrinth." The other two centers were built at Thebes and in the eastern delta; the one in the delta grew to become a city we'll hear about in the next section, Avaris, and many Asiatic immigrants settled around it, including Jacob and his family.

20. The largest temple built in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period was in Avaris, to accomodate the city's Asiatic population. Originally it was dedicated to the Canaanite gods of lightning and fertility, Baal and Asherah. Later on, presumably after the Hyksos took over, it was decided that Baal and Set were two names for the same god, and likewise, the name of Hathor, a very old Egyptian fertility goddess, was another name for Asherah, so the temple became a place of worship for four gods, two Canaanite gods and their Egyptian equivalents. We noted earlier that Set was the chief villain in Egyptian mythology, but he was still popular in Lower Egypt (remember Peribsen's revolution in the II dynasty). However, the Hyksos also liked Apep, a fiery serpent who was the archenemy of Ra; compared to Apep, even Set looked like a good guy. This is not a good way to win friends and influence people!

21. Thebes and Avaris are about 350 miles apart, so those must have been mighty loud animals!

22. The tomb of Kamose was discovered in 1857, in the desert just west of Thebes. His coffin was recovered, and it contained some jewelry, two leaf-shaped daggers, and a bronze mirror, but the mummy was in such bad shape that it crumbled to dust, so we don't know the fate of this king.
In July 2003 British and Egyptian conservators at Elkab, the cemetery of ancient Hierakonpolis, discovered a previously unknown inscription in the tomb of Sobeknakht II, a governor who lived during the XVI dynasty. Here Sobeknakht claimed that he defeated a major invasion from the lands of Kush and Punt. If this is true, it means that native Egyptian rulers faced a menace from the south as great as the one that threatened them from the north. Unfortunately, Sobeknakht did not tell us who was king at the time.

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