Middle Kingdom Egypt refers to a time in Ancient Egyptian history that stretched from approximately 2030 BCE to 1640 BCE. The Middle Kingdom is defined by those who ruled and ranged from the 11th Dynasty to the 14th Dynasty.
This period is often referred to in Egyptian history as the second golden age for the many advancements in politics, art, and technology that developed throughout the 11th and 12th Dynasties’ rule.
Previously Egypt was divided into Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt, with separate ruling classes defining the political hierarchy. During the Egypt Middle Kingdom, Egypt became unified under a single Pharaoh. Reunification of Egypt was initiated by Mentuhotep II in the 11th Dynasty and lasted until the end of the 12th Dynasty.
Redefining Norms in Old Egypt
The essential cultural concepts established at the dawn of ancient Egyptian civilization and defined during the Old Kingdom that lasted from the 3rd to the 6th Dynasty became reinvented throughout the duration of the Middle Kingdom. Royal ideology, society’s organization, religious practices, afterlife beliefs, and interactions with neighboring peoples were all redefined.
Architecture, sculpture, art, jewelry, and ancient Egyptian material culture from this period bear witness to the Middle Kingdom’s transitions. The relics of these artifacts provide us with information about the evolution of Egyptian history during the Middle Kingdom.
What Is the Ancient Egypt Middle Kingdom?
The 11th, 12th, and 13th Dynasties of the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom define this period which lasted from 2030 to 1650 B.C. It is situated between the Old and New Kingdoms in ancient Egyptian history and is determined by the First and Second Intermediate Periods. Comprising fewer than 400 years, the Middle Kingdom is the shortest of the three.
Ancient Egyptian history is divided into 30 dynasties, each led by a pharaoh and dominated by a single family. Manetho, an ancient Egyptian priest, first recorded evidence of these periods. Before the Middle Kingdom, Egypt was divided into Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt and remained in political upheaval.
The unification process that returned to the practice of placing the pharaoh as the supreme head of state, religious leader, and icon defined the Middle Kingdom.
North and South Middle Kingdom Egypt
Northern Egypt was dominated by the 10th Dynasty, while the 11th Dynasty ruled the south. Mentuhotep II became king of southern Egypt around 2000 B.C. He launched an offensive on the north, and Egypt was eventually reunited under his reign.
Those subordinate to the pharaoh retained part of their previous power, which is why the pharaoh’s rule during the Middle Kingdom largely remained unchallenged. Mentuhotep’s rule defines the start of the Middle Kingdom period.
As the first pharaoh during the Middle Kingdom, Mentuhotep II ruled in Lower Nubia; some of the oldest known images of Amon-Re, the dynastic deity of the Middle and New Kingdoms, were found in Mentuhotep’s tomb complex in Thebes.
Mentuhotep II reclaimed Lower Egypt from the Egyptian nomarch or territory named Herakleopolis by the Romans. Mentuhotep II established his influence over the whole Egyptian kingdom unifying Egypt and becoming the first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom, with Thebes as its capital.
A nomarch was a name for a provincial governor in ancient Egypt when the country was split into 42 provinces known as nomes.
The Capital of Ancient Egypt During the Middle Kingdom
Thebes became Egypt’s capital under Mentuhotep II’s 51-year reign. During that period, he restored the pharaoh’s status as Egypt’s god-king.
He restored Egypt’s central government and widened the country’s strongholds in surrounding territories, referred to as the Theban region. Mentuhotep II constructed his tomb and funeral complex near Thebes. Many New Kingdom pharaohs would later be buried nearby in the Valley of the Kings.
Thebes, also known as the Scepter City, was established about 3200 BCE. During the Middle Kingdom, Thebes was the capital of Egypt’s 11th Dynasty and the partial capitals of the 16th, 18th, and 19th Dynasties.
Thebes remained inhabited until 664 BCE when the Assyrian army ravaged it during their conquest of Upper Egypt. The capital of the 12th and 13th Dynasties was Itjtawy, Egypt, and remains to discovered or excavated.
Throughout much of Ancient Egyptian history, the city of Thebes served as a critical religious and political center. Mentuhotep III (1957–45 BCE) and Mentuhotep IV (1945–38 BCE), Mentuhotep II’s successors, both governed from Thebes. The 11th Dynasty was not well received throughout the ancient kingdom of Egypt. It was during the reign of the 12th Dynasty that the Middle Kingdom achieved its apex.
The Boom of Art
The pharaohs of the time developed a large standing army to defend the land and control the government. The most significant period of economic prosperity occurred during the 45-year reign of Pharaoh Amenemhat III (1860-1814 BCE).
During this time, Ancient Egypt’s artistic expression continued to evolve. A new sculptural art form emerged that became a staple for the next 2,000 years. Often, artists used a single piece of rock to construct detailed sculptures or statues.
Writing and literature also progressed. Before the Middle Kingdom, Egyptians used writing to tell stories, keep records, and thank the gods and goddesses.
The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is one of the most famous legends from this period. The plot revolves around a ship’s captain who has come home after a failed trading mission. One of his crew members shares with the captain his own story as the sole survivor of a prior sea journey and shipwreck.
He tells the captain that he should be grateful that he is still alive and will see his wife and children again. The captain, on the other hand, is concerned about meeting the pharaoh after his failed voyage.
The Golden Age of the Middle Kingdom
The Middle Kingdom achieved its apex during the reign of Amenemhet I (1938–08 BCE). Amenemhet I relocated the capital of ancient Egypt to the Memphite area, establishing a residence that translates to mean “he who takes possession of the Two Lands.”
Itjet-towy was most likely located between Memphis and the Amenemhet I and Senusret I pyramids (near present Al-Lisht), with Memphis remaining the population center.
The earliest evidence for a royal residence (not a capital) on the eastern delta dates from later in the Dynasty. The return to Memphite was accompanied by a rebirth of Old Kingdom artistic styles, resuming key traditions that contrasted with the newer ones that arose from the 11th Dynasty.
During the reign of Amenemhet I, important tombs from the first part of the Dynasty are preserved at various locations, including Beni Hasan, Meir, and Qau. Amenemhat I constructed his capital, the new capital of Egypt, at Itjtawy. The ancient capital site has yet to be discovered, though it is assumed to be part of present-day el-Lisht.
Amenemhet I appointed his son Senusret I (1908–1875 BCE) as his regent during the 20th year of his reign, ensuring a successor for a smooth transition and implying to his people that his ambitions for the kingdom would continue to be implemented. The tradition of having co-regents continued throughout ten years of Amenemhet I and Senusret’s shared administration.
Amenemhet I Assassination and Consequences
Amenemhet I was assassinated while Senusret was away on an expedition in Libya. Several theories believe his advisors may have killed him. Senusret was able to keep the throne without great upheaval and built on his father’s triumphs as a ruler.
Senusret I waged battles in Lower Nubia that resulted in the region’s subjugation, including expanding his reach into Libya, which remained under his control for the duration of his 45-year rule over unified Egypt.
One major accomplishment initiated by the pharaoh Senusret I was the irrigation of the Faiyum Oasis located on the west bank of the Nile in what was previously considered the region of Lower Egypt. The Faiyum Oasis was originally a dry and hollow space that became replenished by the flooding of the Nile over time.
Ancient Egyptians aided in the flooding of the lake by widening a canal that formed and flowed into the naturally formed lake. The Faiyum Oasis served as a water source during drought, an irrigation source for agriculture, and assisted in mitigating flooding from the Nile. The pharaohs of the 12th Dynasty, including Amenemhet I, Senusret I, and their successors aided in developing the Faiyum Oasis into a reservoir.
Following the rule of Senusret I were Amenemhet II (1876–42 BCE) and Senusret II (1897–78 BCE), whose legacies are primarily unknown. Though there is evidence in ancient papyri that Amenemhat II strengthened trade relations in Nubia and Senusret II in Palestine.
These monarchs erected their pyramids near the gateway to Al-Fayyum while simultaneously commencing and building upon extensive agricultural and irrigation projects initiated by their forefathers and attempted to improve the kingdom that later provided during the reign of Amenemhet III (1818–1770 BCE).
The Egyptian Expansion
Senusret III (1878–39 BCE), the most famous member of the 12th Dynasty, expanded Egyptian conquests to the southern end of the Second cataract, or waterfall, along the Nile.
Senusret III also led a foray to Palestine and erected a vast line of strongholds along the Nile Delta. Senusret’s status as a warrior king is well preserved, and in addition to fortifying ancient Egypt, he is also credited with constructing a religious temple at Abydos (now lost).
Senusret III was worshiped as a god for bringing peace to Egypt, conquests, and building on irrigation and agricultural expansion. The evidence of his success as a ruler lives on in royal manuscripts, statues, and artifacts resting today in the world’s leading museums. Senusret III’s successor Amenemhet III (1860- 1815 BCE) is regarded as being the last great pharaoh to rule during the Middle Kingdom.
He carried out mining operations that left an incredible artistic legacy in the shape of statues representing the ancient pharaohs as elderly rulers, most likely alluding to a conception reflected in existing literature from the Dynasty that portrayed the rulers as aged, elderly caretakers of their kingdoms.
The End of Egypt Middle Kingdom
Following the death of Amenemhet III, Amenemhet IV (1816-1807 BCE) became ruler of Egypt but died prematurely after serving as ruler for nine years. His sister Sobekneferu (1807-1803 BCE) ruled as Queen of the kingdom for four years and is the first woman known with certainty to have ruled as a Pharaoh of Egypt as her name appears on several ruling lists recorded throughout Egyptian history.
Her death marked the end of the Golden Age and the decline of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt as she did not have an heir to pass her throne onto. A known bust depicting the Queen was held by the Berlin Egyptian Museum but was lost during WWII.
Though historians debate the approximate period the 13th Dynasty came into power in the Middle Kingdom, the period is often regarded as being from approximately 1803-1649 BC.
Though few historical records can confirm what this period looked like, several records indicate that, unlike past dynasties, the throne was not passed hereditarily from father to son or even within the same family but was chosen based on wealth and class.
Burial tombs, religious temples, and sculptures were still being built at this time, but there was no longer an ambition to expand and modernize in the way that defined the Middle Kingdom Egypt’s Golden Age. None of the assumed fifty kings who ruled during the time of the 13th Dynasty possessed the power or influence that the pharaohs of the 12th Dynasty had.
The Start of Middle Kingdom’s Fall
The chaotic ruling of the 13th Dynasty left the kingdom vulnerable. Lower Egypt was invaded during the Middle Kingdom and dominated by the Hyksos, a group of people from Western Asia. Hyksos translates to mean “rulers from a foreign land” in Egyptian.
Their conquest of Lower Egypt is noted as the end of the Middle Kingdom period and the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period. This conquest spanned from the 14th to the 17th Dynasties. During this time, Egypt was once again divided into Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt.
Egyptians were always fearful of being invaded, to the point where they never built walls around their towns. Ancient Egypt long relied on natural barriers: the deserts to the east and west and the Nile’s waterfalls in the south. Armies and navies were unable to invade due to these natural fortifications.
The Hyksos from Western Asia, sweeping in on rapid war chariots, surged through the Sinai Desert to attack Egypt in 1638 BC. and were firmly established by approximately 1720 BC. Crop failure and starvation crippled the region during this time, making it particularly difficult to fight back against the Hyksos, whose battle chariots equipped with horses were a new sight for the Ancient Egyptians, as the region’s dryness was not good for keeping horses.
The Hyksos erected their capital on the east bank of the Nile and named it Avaris. They remained in power there and governed Lower Egypt for about a century but were unable to maintain power in Upper Egypt. The Egyptian kings in Thebes revolted against the Hyksos control in Upper Egypt, eventually driving the Hyksos out of Lower Egypt by 1523 B.C.
During their rule, both the Hyksos and the Egyptians adopted ways of each other’s culture. The Hyksos kings were known as pharaohs and donned the Egyptian double crown, and the Hyksos began to worship Egyptian gods and write in hieroglyphics. A variety of new concepts were introduced into Egyptian society by the Hyksos.
These included common advances such as the tambourine, lute, and advancements in weaving devices such as the vertical loom. The most impactful influence of the Hyksos on ancient Egyptian culture was the introduction of keeping horses and building carriages to be used in warfare.
Art of the Middle Kingdom
The significant transition in the art that happened throughout the Middle Kingdom during the reigns of Senusret II, Senusret III, and Amenemhet III is at the heart of historian’s fascination with art produced during Middle Kingdom Egypt. Archaeological remains and artifacts indicate that profound changes in the development of architecture, burial tombs, decorations, writing methods, and sculptures all reflect profound changes in religion and religious practices.
The remains of the pharaoh’s legacy through these objects from the Middle Kingdom illustrate a changing role of the pharaoh as a political and spiritual leader during this time.
Egyptian statuary quality in the Middle Kingdom reached its peak as artists portrayed realistic depictions of the pharaohs. Statues dating to before the Middle Kingdom often depicted a pharaoh as perpetually young and muscular. However, as is evident in existing figures of Senusret, artists of the Middle Kingdom represented the pharaoh as old, aged with wrinkles, and looking forlorn as if ruling over the nation crippled him.
This depiction was likely used to employ empathy from future generations that would see this depiction and revere his hard work as a ruler.
During the period of the Middle Kingdom, sphinxes arose in pairs, had human faces and the body of a lion. A well-known example is Senusret III’s sphinx, located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
– The Egyptian Sphinx
The sphinx has several interpretive meanings in Egyptian mythology, one being representative of a place on the horizon where the sun was reborn each day. As divine protectors against evil, the sphinx, with a lion’s body and a human’s head, metaphorically linked the lion’s power with the image of the ruling pharaoh.
The upright sphinx was seen as a conqueror by the Egyptians. It was often placed on roadways or by gateways to prominent structures. As mining expanding during the Middle Kingdom, the availability to produce sculptures increased.
With the use of regional materials, a single block of anorthosite derived from the Nubia region was used by artists to sculpt a sphinx depicting the image of Senusret III. The material is likely correlated to Senusret’s efforts in dominating Nubia during his reign and that of the pharaohs before him to unify Egypt.
– Remnants and Artifacts
Artists during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom created several delicate and finely detailed artifacts. As indicated by the burial items found in royal graves, artists gave great attention to developing exquisite designs on toys, amulets, jewelry, architectural elements, and everyday household items.
New artifacts such as the first shabtis emerged at the end of the Middle Kingdom. Shabtis are funeral figures depicting men, women, or children that were placed in the graves of the departed to aid them in their journey to the afterlife.
Most shabtis were small and often made of clay, stone, wood, and other natural materials. Shabtis were inscribed with tasks or purposes meant to assist the person they were interred within the afterlife. The earliest shabtis recovered from archaeological excavations in Egypt date from the Middle Kingdom.
Burial practices changed dramatically during this period. What had once been reserved for those deemed to be worshiped as gods, Egyptians who were not considered royalty were buried in tombs and followed similar burial practices to that of the pharaohs.
Literature in Middle Kingdom Egypt
During Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, literature took on a new role in society, serving as entertainment and intellectual stimulation. The stories mentioned above, The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor, and The Story of Sinuhe, were preserved.
Furthermore, they were later transcribed for generations following the end of the 12th Dynasty. Philosophical and educational works like The Dialogue of a Man with His Soul were written and are some of the world’s earliest examples of literature.
Egypt’s achievements, particularly in the Middle Kingdom, were unsurpassed and continued to progress ancient Egypt’s civilization during the period following the Middle Kingdom. Ancient Egyptian History was redefined during this time and brought harmony within Egypt and ancient Egyptian culture.
Even though enormous temples, pyramid complexes, and tomb superstructures were constructed, none of them were as massive as their Old or New Kingdom predecessors. The artifacts and archaeological remnants uncovered within the temples of the Middle Kingdom pharaohs reveal the impact of the Middle Kingdom on Egyptian History.
We’ve covered a lot of the history of Middle Kingdom Egypt. From reunification to invasion, pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom ushered in several new advancements during this period often referred to as the Golden Age in ancient Egyptian history. Here are five of the biggest cultural impacts that occurred during Middle Kingdom Egypt.
- Once divided into Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt under Mentuhotep II’s rule in 2000 BC, Egypt became unified.
- Advancements in the irrigation of the Nile and the Faiyum Oasis assisted in providing water and promoting agriculture.
- Important works of literature were created and preserved.
- Transitions from pharaohs became hereditary and joint rulers were in place for many years.
- The new sculptural art form that used a single block to produce a sculpture emerged and became a lasting staple for over 2,000 years.
Middle Kingdom Egypt was a transformative time in Egyptian History. What do you think was the most impactful thing to happen during this time? Visit artifacts from the period in the world’s leading museums to better understand how Middle Kingdom Egypt influenced ancient Egypt and our understanding of ancient Egyptian culture today.