The First Intermediate Period
Dark ages should be as interesting as light ages: the reasons why empires fall are every bit as important, if not more important than the reasons for their rise. And we should consider why, after all the achievements of the Old Kingdom, Egypt split apart and entered what is called the First Intermediate Period.
The name ‘First Intermediate Period’ is a comparatively modern one — it was only invented in the 1920s. But it appears to have been a comparatively short period, only some 150 to 200 years long. If one compares this with the First Intermediate Period in Chinese history between the Han and the Tang dynasties of some four hundred years, or the Dark Age following the fall of Rome, which lasted at least half a millennium before it tailed off into the Middle Ages, then the First Intermediate Period in Egypt was extremely short. And the Middle Kingdom which succeeded it, was very much a continuation of the Old Kingdom.
In the First Intermediate Period, Egypt split into two halves – north and south or lower and upper. In the south, Egypt was ruled by warlords who were essentially the former nomarchs, or provincial governors, who ruled over their province without acknowledging any superior overlord. One of these is particularly well known, Ankhtifi, whose well preserved tomb was discovered in 1928 at Moalla, thirty kilometres south of Luxor.
His tomb consisted of a large rectangular room quarried out of the rock with columns left standing as pillars to support the roof.
However it was highly decorated with a long inscription that forms his autobiography, written in a style of unusual brilliance, which makes it the first really sparkling piece of literature from Egypt, and indeed probably in the world.
He begins in the best bombastic style: ‘Ankhtifi the brave, overseer of priests, foreign minister, overseer of mercenaries, great overlord of the nomes of Edfu and Hierankonpolis, says: I was the beginning and the end of mankind, since nobody like myself existed before, nor will he exist. I surpassed the feats of the ancestors and coming generations will not be able to equal me in any of my feats within this millions of years’
It appears that he began as the ruler of the third nome, based on Hierakonpolis, but then expanded to the south and conquered the second nome, centred on Edfu. However his efforts to expand to the north to conquer the fourth nome, centred on Thebes were less successful. He was summoned to the support of Amant, a town near Thebes: “The general of Armant said to me: ‘Come, oh honest man. Sail with the current down to the fortress of Armant!’ I then went down to the country to the west of Armant and I found that the forces of Thebes and Koptos had attacked the fortress of Armant (…) I reached the west bank of the Theban province (…) Then my courageous crack troops, yes my bold crack troops, ventured to the west and the east of the Theban nome, looking for an open battle. But no one dared to come out from Thebes because they were afraid of my troops.”
Inevitably with our modern scepticism we suspect that in reality he got a bloody nose when he tried to conquer Thebes, but nevertheless he was a powerful warlord. But he also proclaimed how generous he was. He paints a picture of Egypt riven by hunger and famine from which he, the great Ankhtifi, rescued them.
‘I gave bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked; I anointed those who had no cosmetic oil; I gave sandals to the barefooted; I gave a wife to him who had no wife. … The whole of Upper Egypt died of hunger and each individual had reached such a state of hunger that he ate his own children. But I refused to see anyone die of hunger and gave to the north grain of Upper Egypt. And I do not think that anything like this has been done by the provincial governors who came before me….I brought life to the provinces of Hierakonpolis and Edfu, Elephantine and Ombos!”
This economic disaster is much debated by modern commentators. Was it really an economic disaster? Attempts at climate reconstruction suggest that the Neolithic wet phase came to an end in the Old Kingdom and that the slightly dryer climate began in the Old Kingdom and continued through the First Intermediate phase. Thus many suspect that this emphasis on feeding the hungry, of the great overlord acting as a sort of welfare state, is somewhat exaggerated: every pharaoh makes the same claim – compare the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Bible. But from my point of view, this is an interesting example of how gift exchange really works. This is the great ruler proclaiming how he redistributes goods down to his followers, the implication being that the followers in their turn, must be good boys and pay their tythes and corvee labour and other duties to their superior, Ankhtifi.
It is interesting that there is only a single oblique reference to a pharaoh. His authority came direct from the god Horus who was the god who gave the pharaohs their authority in the late Old Kingdom. It seems clear that for all practical purposes Ankhtifi was the ruler and there was no higher power to whom he owed allegiance. His tomb was lavishly decorated, but it is noticeable that there is no reference to towns, or to palaces. Instead it is a world of banquets and hunting, and of a master overseeing his country estates, with industrious craftsmen working on his land.
But if the south fell under the control of various warlords, the north staggered on with the continuation of the old system. Manetho allocates Dynasties 7 and 8 to the rulers of the north, though somewhat in despair he said that there were 70 rulers in 70 days, which appears to indicate a certain amount of instability. However at the end of the 8th dynasty, Memphis is replaced as the capital by a town called Herakleopolis, some hundred miles to the south, at the point where the Nile divides with a lesser branch wandering off into the desert, where it eventually vanishes in the Faiyum depression.
Dynasties 9 & 10 are generally assumed to be Herakleopolitan, but the south was growing in strength and after the death of Ankhtifi it was Thebes that took the lead. In the Old Kingdom, Thebes had been very much a third rate town, the head of a nome but no more. Now it came to the forefront and began to assume the leadership which led to its being the capital of the country throughout the New Kingdom. Under its ruler Intef II, who ruled apparently for fifty years, it grew in strength until eventually it pushed to the north and captured the crucial town of Asyut, after which resistance collapsed, and Herakleopolis was presumably captured: the 11th Dynasty consisted of Theban rulers.
The image of this First Intermediate Period has long been dominated by the negative image presented in some of the earliest examples of Egyptian literature, which are known as the ‘pessimistic texts’ such as The Admonition of an Egyptian Sage, or Teachings for King Merykara who was the last king of the 10th Dynasty. These are set in the time of the First Intermediate Period and paint a picture of gloom and doom. However it is now thought that these are the products of the Middle Kingdom which deliberately paint a pessimistic picture of the earlier times in order to contrast it with the success of the Middle Kingdom.
However modern scholars led by Stephen Siedlmayer have argued that the archaeology tells a different story. The number of cemeteries dated to the end of the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period increases, suggesting that the population also increased. In addition the number of tombs in each cemetery increases and the individual tombs become bigger and with more grave goods. True, if the quantity increases the quality declines as the court culture is replaced by a popular culture; but the local population enjoys conspicuous if modest wealth. Pottery forms change as the elegant ovoid pots of the earlier Old Kingdom, broader at the top than the bottom, are replaced by a more bag shaped pot, wider at the bottom than at the top which are easier to make, but less elegant. Stone vessels become more prominent and amulets made up of gem stones, and crude wooden figures begin to make their appearance. Cartonage masks are invented, masks made of linen and gypsum painted with a face, which are used to cover the face of a mummy.
How then do we summarise the First Intermediate Period? Unlike the post-Roman dark ages when the whole ethos of Roman society was destroyed by Christianity, the ethos of the Old Kingdom stayed on and was continued in the Middle Kingdom. There may have been some reaction to the excesses of the old kingdom: John Romer has wondered whether the destruction of Old Kingdom monuments took place in this period. ‘Most of the Memphite pyramids were opened, the lids of their sarcophagi smashed and slid aside, the royal corpses taken out and stripped’. This organised destruction is often attributed to the Christians, but could it have taken place this early? Certainly it was to a certain extent a ‘Dark Age’, in which there was no great buildings, indeed no buildings of stone: the quarrying of stone seems to have ceased and the statues placed in tombs were made of wood. For the people of Egypt, the building of the pyramids had been a lot of very hard work, and now it was time to relax.
But court culture gave way to popular culture, and the tombs of the people became bigger and more elaborate; in Egypt, alas, we can only guess at the status of the living by the tombs of the dead, but judging by the tombs, the people of Egypt flourished. It was indeed a period of change, when the centre of gravity changed from the north to the south. And eventually, under Theban leadership, Egypt was once again reunited under a single powerful ruler and we enter the stage known as the Middle Kingdom.
(Header photo: the entrance to Ankhtifi’s tomb, which was inserted into a pre-existing hill)