Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom


The New Capital

The Faiyum



The Cultural climax


Sometime around 2050 BC Egypt was once again united to form the Middle Kingdom.  The Middle Kingdom is the most difficult of all the Egyptian periods to understand.  There are no great buildings on the tourist route to attract attention; there is nothing like the great pyramids which form the centre piece of the Old Kingdom, nor anything like the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, or the temples of Luxor which form the centre pieces of the New Kingdom.  Is it a time of great art? Or great bureaucracy?

Part of the trouble is that Middle Kingdom falls into two halves with two different centres.  It begins quite conveniently at Thebes, modern Luxor which forms Dynasty 11, but for Dynasty 12 it moves to a new centre at Itjitawy, 400 miles north of Luxor and only forty miles south of Cairo.  Not only is the name difficult to pronounce, but the actual site is not known:  it is somewhere near the modern village of Lisht where two pyramids are situated.

Even the great virtues of the Middle Kingdom are difficult to comprehend.  This is the high point of Egyptian literature when many of the great stories were written that became the classic stories of the New Kingdom, much studied by school children, rather like Shakespeare is studied today.  Their best art too is small scale. Some of the finest pieces for us are the small wooden models of everyday life which we see in museums and admire briefly and move on: they mostly belong to the Middle Kingdom.  But the few larger sculptures that survive are extremely fine.

The Middle Kingdom too saw the building of many new temples though these again are little known because they were rebuilt in the New Kingdom and incorporated in the great temples that we see today.  Yet it was a period of great prosperity: the boundaries were pushed out both to the north and to the south.  In the south in particular a range of mud brick fortresses was built in Nubia around the area of the second cataract, though this may be partly because the Nubians were expanding and the Egyptians had to erect great fortresses to resist.  Jewellery was frequently made of gold from the south and ornamented with rich stones from the deserts in the north, carnelian and turquoise.

There are three questions to be asked of the Middle Kingdom: how did it revive, how did it work, and why did it fail?  The reason why it revived is simple: by war.  Towards the end of the First Intermediate Period, the warlords at Thebes were growing stronger.  There were several powerful warlords all called Intef.  But it was the second one, Intef II, who ruled for nearly fifty years and who proved to be a great warrior and eventually defeated the effete kings of Herakleopolis and became the ruler of the whole of Egypt.  The Middle Kingdom then begins with the Eleventh Dynasty which consists of three kings all called Mentuhotep, of whom the most important and long lived was Mentuhotep II who ruled from 2055-2004 BC.

This is the heavily restored Temple of Queen Hatchchepsut of the New Kingdom. Beyond it is the smaller monument of King Mentuhotep II, one of the founders of the Middle Kingdom, who established the layout of the tomb, which was imitated by the later grander monument of Hatshepsut.  Photo, Steve Cameron, Wikimedia

He was one of the few pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom onto whom one can pin a great monument: a monument much visited, but little noticed because it is situated at Deir el-Bahri, next door to one of the great monuments of the New Kingdom, the temple of Queen Hatchepsut. When Queen Hatchepsut built her greatly over-restored and therefore much visited temple, instead of building it over the top of that of her predecessor, she put it alongside, so the temple of Mentuhotep is still there, much seen but rarely noticed. But his new temple/tomb was a great innovation which set a pattern for temples which survived throughout the New Kingdom.

In the First Intermediate Period, a new type of tomb had evolved known as a Saff tomb, which consisted of a row of columns with a doorway at the centre which led into the tomb. In front of the Saff tomb was a small courtyard which became a big courtyard; Mentuhotep took it one stage further by having two courtyards in front of an elaborate tomb complex with a broad ramp leading up from the lower courtyard to the higher courtyard.  The layout can be seen best in the tomb that Queen Hatchepsut built 600 years later right beside it, in direct imitation but on an even bigger scale.  The actual tomb itself at the rear was also something of an innovation incorporating the first known example of a hypostyle court (a hall with numerous pillars) and also rows of tamarisk trees, each in a pit cut 10 metres down into the rock and filled in with soil.  It was a major innovation – the kings of the twelfth dynasty reverted to building pyramids, – but Deir el-Bahri set the model for later temples.

One would like to know just how it was used.  Was it used just once, when the pharaoh died?  Was it used several times a year for the great festivals?  Or was it used more regularly?  And how noisy was it?  Was it filled with the cheering populous as they cheered on the ceremonies, or was it a place of awe and silence to which the terrified underlings were occasionally admitted?

One imagines that the great ceremonies were basically built around gift exchange: they were the opium of the masses, designed to make the rendering of dues by the peasantry into a grand ceremony, where gifts were occasionally redistributed by the pharaohs.  Were these courtyards the place where you could show how grateful you were that you could render up the best of your harvest to the pharaoh, and the pharaoh showed how grateful he was to receive it; or was it a more solemn ceremony where a few local bigwigs were terrified by the presence of the pharaoh?


The new capital

But then sometime around 2000 BC, the capital was moved 400 miles to the North to a new site at Itjitawy. This again is one of the problems of the Middle Kingdom – we don’t know where Itjitawy was. It was somewhere near the modern village of Lisht – for that is where the pyramids were and the town should be in the vicinity, but it has never been firmly identified.

The reason for the move is unknown, but two ideas may be postulated. Firstly Thebes still had the feel of a provincial town, somewhat unsophisticated, and all the high culture and the best craftsmen were still in Memphis,  and the new pharaohs wanted to signal that they were the true successors of the glories of the Old Kingdom, and not just provincial strongmen, so that meant moving closer to Memphis. Already in the First Intermediate period the capital of the northern half of the divided country had been at Herakleopolis, 400 miles north of Thebes but only 100 miles south of Memphis, but now they moved 60 miles north of Herakleopolis to a site that was only 40 miles from Memphis.

Model in the British Museum of a servant girl kneading bread

From the point of view of sophistication, the move was probably successful in that those who study Egyptian Art say that the art of the Middle Kingdom is the finest of all Egyptian art, combining the rude simplicity of the South, with the smooth sophistication of the North. Though it must be said that to modern eyes, the most appealing Middle Kingdom art are the wooden scenes that are often accompany the dead in their tombs, showing boats carrying the coffins up the river, or bakers baking bread, or herdsmen bringing cattle to be inspected and enumerated (click here for pictures) .


The Faiyum

This map, from Alberto Siliotti’s book on Egypt shows the Fayum area with Lake Moeris in the centre, fed by a side stream of the Nile coming in from the left which was channelled off in order to increase the cultivated area. The pyramids at Meidum and Hawara were based near the new areas of cultivation

The other reason for the move north many have been a desire to be near the fertile land of the Faiyum oasis. The Faiyum is by far the biggest oasis in Egypt –indeed it is not a real oasis for it is fed by a river that is an offshoot of the Nile known as the Bahr Yussef, a river that divides off from the Nile, some 200 miles to the south and meanders in parallel to it till eventually it peters out in Lake Moeris. Around Lake Moeris there is a wide fertile area, very well watered, and this is known as the Faiyum. A major engineering project was therefore carried out to increase the fertility of the Faiyum.  A dyke was erected to divert part of the water from the Bahr Yussef into a system of canals to irrigate a large area between the lake and the Nile. This became extremely fertile,  and it was an attractive idea to have the most fertile area of Egypt, only a couple of miles to the west of the new city.

This statue of King Amenemhat III (1831 to 1886 BC), now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, is one of the masterpieces of Egyptian statuary. It may just be an actual portrait of the king with a distant otherworldly appearance with his thick lips which just avoid the downturned scowl of earlier Pharaohs

The Pharaoh Amenemhat, who made the move to the new capital, also decided to revive the old and rather forgotten idea of building a pyramid, and he inaugurated a series of pyramids of the Middle Kingdom. However, it must be said that compared to the great pyramids of the Old Kingdom, these are distinctly second rate. Whereas the pyramids in the Old Kingdom were made from solid blocks of stone, right through to the centre, the Middle Kingdom pyramids were all built on the cheap, with a series of walls providing the support for a rubble or even sand interior, and a stone casing only for the exterior, so they looked like a proper pyramid but were in fact rather flimsy. Inevitably the stone casing has been robbed, and the pyramids have simply collapsed into low hills. In their heyday however, they looked as if they were comparable to the great pyramids of the Old Kingdom. It is worth comparing them in size with the smallest of the pyramids of the three great Giza pyramids, that of Menkaure which was 102 metres square:  most of the Middle Kingdom pyramids were of a comparable size, around 100 metres square, though not so tall being built on a shallower angle.

The first two were both built near the modern town of Lisht and were very much modelled on the great pyramids of the Old Kingdom, being set within a square enclosure with a mortuary temple attached, and approached by a causeway.  The earlier, that of Amenemhopis I was only 84 metres in length and 55 metres high, but the fill was a lose mixture of sand, debris and mud brick; some of the uprights were brought from the monuments of the Old Kingdom, inscribed with the names of the original pharaohs to show that they were continuing the old traditions.

Senwosret III (about 1874 – 1855 BC) was the last of the great Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom. This statue from Western Thebes breaks radically with artistic convention. The old idea of timeless youth was replaced by a sombre realism – a mood echoed in contemporary literature. With its aged and earnest features it resembles the classic Roman portraits of the Emperor Vespasian.
Six such statues were erected in the earlier mortuary Temple of Montuhotep II, paying tribute to the King who had founded the Middle Kingdom two centuries earlier, and who continued to be revered.

Amenemhopis’s son and successor, Senwosret I built his pyramid two kilometres to the south, but this was bigger being 105 metres long and 61 metres high.  A firm frame was built of eight walls radiating out from the centre, with cross walls making 32 compartments, which were then filled with rubble and mud brick.  Despite this they were not as fastidious as were the builders of the Giza pyramids about their foundations, and it appears that from the start the building had to be patched up, and today it survives only as a low mound. However it was surrounded by an enclosure wall, and there were no less than nine subsidiary pyramids within the enclosure.

The two pharaohs that followed, father and son Senwosret II and Senwosret III, are often considered to mark the peak of the Middle Kingdom achievement.  In later ages they were rolled together and appear in Herodotus as being the great king Sesostris.  They both built their pyramids ten miles to the south, near the mouth to the Faiyum, overlooking this great irrigation project. The actual pyramid soon collapsed and is today a low hill, marooned in the middle of the town Lahun. He also built a tomb for himself at the traditional site at Abydos, though never used as a tomb.  



However Senwosret II is best known for the town he built for the builders of his pyramid just half a mile away at Kahun.  This was the first ancient town in Egypt to be excavated, and is still one of the most important. Most towns built in the ancient world are unplanned – they are totally chaotic, but Kahun is the first example of a planned town, built on a strict rectangular layout.

The town was discovered by Petrie and excavated by him in two seasons in 1888 – 1889. He called the town Kahun, though the pyramids are called Lahun. He dug fast, some 2,000 rooms in just two seasons, a rate of which even the most commercial of modern commercial units would be proud. But he was still young, at the beginning of his career, and he dug it by going down the streets and then digging the houses one by one and after each house was dug and planned, it was then backfilled with the spoil from the next house. Thus today all we have of it is the plans that he drew —much reproduced — but the actual walls are still, presumably, preserved under the desert sands.

Tthis is Petrie’s plan of the town at Lahun, – it is the only plan as he backfilled the houses immediately after they were dug out and planned.
The town is divided into two parts by the wall that divides off the bottom third.  The lower part consists entirely of rows of small houses packed tightly together, but the upper part contains at least five large mansions. Sadly the right-hand side was nearer the cultivated land and has thus not survived.

But it is the most amazing town — perhaps the best example of a totalitarian town in the history of mankind. It was built on the principles of equality but equality with a difference. There were two classes, the rich and the poor, the upper class and the lower class and there are two types of houses, a standard big house for the rich and a standard small house for the poor. There were 10 big houses for the rich, five of them along the northern wall, and three in the next row with possibly two more.  The houses were built to the same design, right up against each other.




Petrie’s plan of two of the workmen’s houses set back to back. Although small, they follow the layout of the typical Egyptian house, with a number of very small rooms placed around the central courtyard

There is nothing of the spaciousness that one sees in some of the grand houses in Pompeii. There is a long corridor leading from the street through the house to a courtyard at the far side, from which the master bedroom leads off. There was also a second smaller master bedroom with an even smaller courtyard. The rest of the house appears to have been given over to workrooms and store houses. There was one block given over to granaries, which Barry Kemp has calculated could have held enough grain to feed 1000 people for a year.








Barry Kemp’s redrawing of one of the larger mansions. Enter through the doorway marked at A,  down the long passage to the main courtyard at B. On the left-hand side, 1 marks the master bedroom facing on to a small courtyard, while 2 marks the secondary master bedroom. At the top right-hand corner, 3  marks the granaries

The town was rectangular and covered an area of some 12 hectares or 30 acres, slightly smaller than a Roman legionary fortress which accommodated 6,000 soldiers.  It lay on the edge of the cultivated land and thus a third of it has been destroyed. The site is divided by a thick wall into two uneven sectors, a quarter and three quarters. Most of the three quarters is occupied by the grand mansions but the smaller quarter is occupied by rows of back-to-back houses, 11 rows still surviving and probably originally 14 in all. Those parts of the larger section not occupied by the grand mansions are also filled with small houses.  Some 220 of these small houses survive, but originally there were probably more than 300. Originally they were all built to the same pattern, though they were in use for over a century, during which time many of them were substantially altered. But though small, they were all proper houses with seven or eight rooms around a very small courtyard, and they would have been the house for an extended family, parents, children, grandparents, all packed tightly together.

The whole town was occupied for a century or more, but it was abandoned in a hurry, leaving behind a rich haul of small finds, including many scraps of papyri from which something of the social structure of the town can be deduced. One of the grand houses would have been occupied by the Mayor, another by his deputy; there was also an ‘office of the vizier’, an office ‘of the area of the Northern district’ and also the office of the ‘reporter’, in whose house trials could take place.

The small houses were no doubt originally occupied by the builders of the pyramid, but the town continued to be occupied long after the pyramid was built, and the papyri reflect the later occupation. There was indeed a mortuary temple just outside the town, and priests serving the temple occupied some of the houses with their families. The men include domestic servants, field labourers, brewer, cook, tutor and sandal maker.  Most of the women are cloth makers, but there is also a hairdresser and a gardener.  There were also a number of serfs, most of them female: over half were Asiatics; that is foreigners. There were also singers and dancers — of both sexes.

Barry Kemp has made a special study of Kahun, comparing it with the new kingdom town of Amarna which he has spent his life excavating, so the two sites make an interesting comparison: Amarna too has houses both for rich and poor; but they are more spread out, and the houses for the poor, far more chaotic – they are not so hemmed in and jammed together – and therefore ‘free-er’.

Although the pyramid town is the best known of the works of Senwosret III there are many other buildings too.  There was of course the actual pyramid which soon collapsed and is today a low hill, marooned in the middle of the town Lahun.  But he also decided to build a tomb for himself at the traditional site at Abydos, though never used as a tomb.  This too was accompanied by a builders’ town, only partly excavated, though clearly very similar to Petrie’s town at Kahun.

Several other Middle Kingdom towns or parts of towns have been discovered, all of them apparently laid out on a strict rectangular grid. There is Kasr es-Sagha,  a town on the fringes of the Faiyum lake, which is interpreted as being the workmen’s town for the nearby quarries. There is another town at Abydos, again apparently a workman’s town for the workmen building the abortive tomb of Senusret III. And then there is the town, or rather a block of buildings found at Avaris, the town in the Delta, which we will be discussing in the next chapter. Although Avaris flourished in the later period, it began its life in the Middle Kingdom, and it is assumed that this rectangular block was laid out as barracks for the pioneer inhabitants. And most interesting of all, there are the discoveries made under the great Temple at Karnak,  which appear to show that before the Temple was built, there had been a town on the site, which may have been on a grid layout – though this interpretation only depends on the findings of four scattered trenches. But  if the reconstruction is correct, it shows that even an ordinary car was laid out a rectangular grid. It is very different both to the towns of the Old Kingdom and the town’ that would come later in the New Kingdom.



But the biggest building project surviving was the chain of forts established in the deep South, in Nubia, between the first and second cataract.  Nubia was a perpetual source of interest to the pharaohs for this was where gold and other metals could be mined – Egypt itself was conspicuously barren as far as metals were concerned. But the Nubian kings at this time were growing stronger and had a kingdom based at Kerma, near the third cataract.  A number of forts had been established in the early part of the Middle Kingdom mostly on flat ground offering the possibilities of agriculture and trading, but a second phase of building took place around the time of the Senwosrets with smaller, more defensive forts.  Nubia became a quasi province combining trade and war. And the buildings discovered in these forts were all fitted in on a grid basis. 

The last great pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom was Amenemhat III (1871-1786 BC) who had a long and successful reign of forty-five years.  He built not one, but two pyramids.  He began by building a pyramid just to the north of Lisht at Dahshur, near the Bent pyramid of Sneferu eight hundred years earlier.  But the foundations were not very sound and the pyramid soon showed signs of collapse.  (When one sees how many pyramids of the Middle Kingdom collapsed, one realises how clever the builder of the great pyramid was to choose a site at Giza where there was a really firm base, and then spent so much time and effort getting the baseline absolutely level: that is why the Great Pyramid has survived.)

But when Senwosret’s pyramid showed signs of collapse, he buried two queens in it and set out to build a second pyramid at Hawara. This became famous for its very elaborate mortuary enclosure, which survived down into the Greco-Roman period when it became a major site on the tourist route, and was known as the Labyrinth, and was described not only by Herodotus, but also by Strabo and Pliny, though today nothing remains of it.  It appears to have been modelled on the huge enclosure that surrounded the Step pyramid, the first of the great pyramids, built 800 years previously.  It seems somehow ironic that the last of the great pyramids should have been modelled, perhaps deliberately, on the layout of the first pyramid!


The cultural climax

Amenemhat III is often considered to mark the cultural climax of the Middle Kingdom when Egypt reached its greatest extent: to the south the forts in Nubia were strengthened, while to the north the mining activities in the Sinai Desert reached their climax.  Some seventy inscriptions still survive, most of them dating to Amenemhat.  The most important mines were those producing turquoise, the bluish stone that was much admired in Egyptian jewellery, though the copper mines were equally important.

The institutional reforms that had been taking place throughout the reigns of the two distinguished predecessors now reached their climax.  The main intention was to break the power of the nomarchs, the provincial governors, whose rise at the end of the Old Kingdom led to the partial disintegration of Egypt in the First Intermediate Period.  Their power can be traced through the splendour of the tombs they erected: there is a particularly fine set at Beni Hasan which is halfway between Thebes and Lisht, and form a popular attraction for those tourists who succeed in reaching this little known part of modern Egypt.

These rich provincial tombs come to an end in the reign of Amenemhat and it seems that provincial governors ruling over a wide province or nome were replaced by mayors, whose authority only extended to their local town, and who could therefore be moved and shuffled round much more easily than the nomarchs.  It was a major effort of centralization, and for the Egyptians, centralization and the concentration all of the power in one man, the pharaoh, was the essence of good government.

The seat of government is unknown, indeed even the site of the town Itjitawy.  But we know something of the layout of a Middle Kingdom palace thanks to a papyrus known as ‘Bulaq 18’.  At the centre was the  nursery which was the domain of the royal family; then around it was the Wahy, or audience chamber where the great banquets were held. The third range was the khenty, or outer palace where the vizier, or prime minister conducted his business.  Then at the outside was the shena where the rations were given out. In many ways it was similar to the Chinese palaces and the Forbidden City in Beijing, or indeed to the Topkapi palace in Istanbul, where there are successive rings of ever increasing exclusion.

Amenemhat III was followed by Amenemhat IV, possibly his son who ruled only for half a dozen years and was followed by a queen, Sobekneferu who may have been his sister, who had an equally short reign but who marks the end of the Twelfth Dynasty. The Thirteenth Dynasty which followed was chaotic when numerous kings followed one after the other.  Nevertheless prosperity continued, indeed artistically much of the best works appear to have been designed in the Thirteenth Dynasty.  The Fourteenth Dynasty was even more chaotic, but with its collapse somewhere around 1650 BC the Middle Kingdom comes to an end and we move to the Second Intermediate Period.

How do we assess the Middle Kingdom?  Barry Kemp in his extremely influential book Ancient Egypt, anatomy of civilization sees the Middle Kingdom in terms of bureaucracy. He entitles his part II – which covers the Middle Kingdom – as being the ‘Provider state’ with the first chapter on ‘The bureaucratic mind’ and the second chapter on ‘Model communities’.  He gives a fascinating dissection of the town at Kahun with its great regularities and compares  it with other similar towns of the Middle Kingdom, the similar pyramid town at Abydos and the forts in Nubia. He then compares them with the more irregular conglomeration that he has spent his life excavating at the New Kingdom city of Amarna. Kahun, he argues, is an example of the bureaucratic mind that is The key characteristic of the Middle Kingdom,

One must be aware of the allure of Barry Kemp, who like all great historians sets out to challenge us into new ways of thinking.  The more conventional approach is to emphasise the artistic achievements of the Middle Kingdom.  It was a society that never seemed to make its mind up as to whether the centre was around Thebes in the south or further north around Herakleopolis, or around the unknown site at Itjitawy.  But it was also the time when the first great literature was being produced and the finest jewellery, and some of the most alluring sculptures.  Does bureaucracy produce great art?

The Middle Kingdom remains something of a mystery and we must now turn to its decline into the Second Intermediate period.


On to Pictures of the Middle Kingdom,


Wooden models of the Middle Kingdom,


On to the Second Intermediate period


2nd December 2017