Ancient Egypt’s First Intermediate Period: Rise of the Middle Class

During the First Intermediate Period, Egypt was divided between two power bases, leading to increased local leadership, the rise of the middle-class and mass production of unique art.

Sep 21, 2020By Ariadne Argyros, MA Egyptology, BA Anthropology & Classics
detail false door royal sealer neferiu
Detail of False Door of the Royal Sealer Neferiu, 2150-2010 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The First Intermediate Period (ca. 2181-2040 BC), commonly misconstrued as a purely dark and chaotic time in Egyptian history, immediately followed the Old Kingdom and comprised of the 7th through part of the 11th dynasties. This was a time when Egypt’s central government had collapsed and was divided between two competing power bases, one area south of the Faiyum at Herakleopolis in Lower Egypt and the other at Thebes in Upper Egypt. It was believed for a long time that the First Intermediate Period saw massive pillaging, iconoclasm, and destruction. But, recent scholarship has modified this opinion, and the era is now seen as more of a period of transition and change marked by a trickling down of power and customs from the monarchy to the common people.

 

First Intermediate Period: The Mysterious 7th And 8th Dynasties

fragment decree of king neferkauhar
Fragmentary decree of King Neferkauhor, 2103-01 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Dynasties 7 and 8 are seldom discussed because very little is known about the kings of these periods. In fact, the actual existence of the 7th dynasty is debated. The only known historical account of this era comes from Manetho’s Aegyptiaca, a compiled history written in the 3rd century BC. While still the official seat of power, the Memphite kings of these two dynasties only had control over the local population. The 7th dynasty supposedly saw the reign of seventy kings in as many days—this rapid succession of kings has long been interpreted as a metaphor for chaos. The 8th dynasty is equally as short and poorly documented; however, its existence is unrefuted and seen by many as the beginning of the First Intermediate Period. 

 

Dynasties 9 And 10: The Herakleopolitan Period

wall painting tomb herakleopolitan
Wall painting from the tomb of Herakleopolitan nomarch Ankhtifi, 10th dynasty, via The Joukowsky Institute at Brown University, Providence

 

The 9th dynasty was founded at Herakleopolis in Lower Egypt and continued through the 10th dynasty; eventually, these two periods of rule became known as the Herakleopolitan Dynasty. These Herakleopolitan kings supplanted the rulership of the 8th dynasty in Memphis, but archaeological evidence of this transition is virtually non-existent. The existence of these First Intermediate Period dynasties was fairly unstable due to frequent changes in kings, although the majority of the rulers’ names were Khety, especially in the 10th dynasty. This gave rise to the nickname “House of Khety”.

 

While the power and influence of the Herakleopolitan kings never reached that of the Old Kingdom rulers, they did manage to bring some semblance of order and peace in the Delta region. However, the kings also frequently butted heads with the Theban rulers, which resulted in several outbreaks of civil war. In between the two major ruling bodies rose a powerful line of nomarchs at Asyut, an independent province south of Herakleopolis.

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According to the tomb inscriptions that mention their loyalty to the reigning kings as well as naming themselves after the kings, they maintained close ties to the Herakleopolitan rulers. Their wealth came from successfully digging irrigation canals, enabling bountiful harvests, raising cattle, and maintaining an army. Largely due to their location, the Asyut nomarchs also acted as a kind of buffer state between the Upper and Lower Egyptian rulers. Eventually, the Herakleopolitan kings were conquered by the Thebans, thus bringing an end to the 10th dynasty and beginning a movement toward the reunification of Egypt for a second time, otherwise known as the Middle Kingdom.  

 

Dynasty 11: Rise Of The Theban Kings

stela king intef ii wahankh
Stela of King Intef II Wahankh, 2108-2059 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

During the first half of the 11th dynasty, Thebes controlled Upper Egypt only. Around ca. 2125 BC, a Theban nomarch by the name of Intef came into power and challenged Herakleopolitan rulership. Known as the founder of the 11th dynasty, Intef I began the movement that would eventually lead to the reconsolidation of the country. Although little evidence of his reign exists today, his leadership was clearly admired through records of later Egyptians referring to him as Intef “the Great” and monuments constructed in his honor. Mentuhotep I, the successor of Intef I, organized Upper Egypt into one larger independent ruling body by conquering several of the nomes surrounding Thebes in preparation to take on Herakleopolis. 

 

statue mentuhotel jubilee garment
Statue of Mentuhotep II in the Jubilee Garment, 2051-00 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The rulers that followed continued these acts, especially Intef II; his successful conquest of Abydos, an ancient city where some of the earliest kings were buried, allowed him to stake his claim as the rightful successor. He declared himself the true king of Egypt, commissioned the construction of monuments and temples to the gods, looked after his subjects, and began restoring ma’at to the country. Under Intef II, Upper Egypt was united.

 

He was succeeded by Intef III who, in a devastating blow to the Herakleopolitan kings to the north, seized Asyut and increased the reach of Thebes. This undertaking that was the product of generations of kings was finished by Mentuhotep II, who defeated Herakleopolis once and for all and united the whole of Egypt under his rule—the First Intermediate Period had now come to an end. But, the developments of the First Intermediate Period surely influenced the Middle Kingdom period. The kings of this period collaborated with nomarchs to create some truly impressive artworks and among the most stable and prosperous societies that Egypt had ever known. 

 

First Intermediate Period Art And Architecture

stela standing man woman four attendants
Stela of a standing man and woman with four attendants, via the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

 

As mentioned in the paragraph above, while the working class could finally afford to participate in events previously limited to the upper class, it came at the cost of the finished product’s overall quality. Goods were not of as high quality because they were being mass-produced. While the royal court and the elites could afford to buy the products and services of highly skilled and best-trained artisans, the masses had to make do with regional craftsmen, most of whom had limited experience and skill. When compared to the Old Kingdom, the simple and rather crude quality of the arts is one of the reasons why scholars initially believed that the First Intermediate Period was a time of political and cultural deterioration. 

 

false door royal sealer neferiu
False Door of the Royal Sealer Neferiu, 2150-2010 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The commissioned art of the major ruling kingdoms is perhaps more refined. There is not much in the way of the Herakleopolitan art style because there is little documented information about their kings that details their rule on engraved monuments. However, the Theban kings created many local royal workshops so that they could commission a massive number of artworks to establish the legitimacy of their rule; eventually, a distinctive Theban style was formed. 

 

Surviving artwork from the southern region provides evidence that the craftsmen and artisans commenced their own interpretations of traditional scenes. They used a variety of bright colors in their paintings and hieroglyphs and altered the proportions of the human figure. Bodies now had narrow shoulders, more rounded limbs, and men increasingly had no musculature and were instead shown with layers of fat, a style that began in the Old Kingdom as a way of portraying older males. 

 

wooden coffin tjeby
Wooden coffin of the government official Tjeby, 2051-30 BC, via the VMFA, Richmond

 

As for the architecture, tombs were nowhere near as elaborate as their Old Kingdom counterparts both in quantity and size. The tomb carvings and reliefs of offering scenes were also much plainer. Rectangular wooden coffins were still used, but the decorations were much more simplistic, however, these became more elaborate during the Herakleopolitan Period. To the south, Thebes had begun a trend of creating rock-cut saff (row) tombs that had the capacity to permanently hold many family members together. The exterior boasted colonnades and courtyards, but the burial chambers inside were undecorated, possibly due to the lack of skilled artists in Thebes.

 

The Truth About The First Intermediate Period

gold ibis amulet
Gold ibis amulet with suspension loop, 8th– 9th dynasty, via The British Museum, London

 

The First Intermediate Period came about due to a shift in the power dynamic; Old Kingdom rulers no longer held enough power to competently govern Egypt. Provincial governors replaced the weak central rulership and began to rule their own districts. Grandiose monuments like the pyramids were no longer built because there was no powerful central ruler to commission and pay for them, plus there was no one to organize the massive labor force. 

 

However, the assertion that the Egyptian culture experienced a total collapse is rather one-sided. From the viewpoint of an elite member of society, this may be true; the traditional idea of Egyptian government placed the most value upon the king and his achievements as well as the importance of the upper class, but with the decline of centralized power the general populace was able to rise up and leave a mark of their own. It was likely quite devastating for the upper echelon to see that the focus was no longer on the king but on the regional nomarchs and those who inhabited their districts. 

 

stela maaty dedwi
Stela of Maaty and Dedwi, 2170-2008 BC, via The Brooklyn Museum

 

Both archaeological and epigraphic evidence show the existence of a thriving culture among the middle- and working-class citizens. Egyptian society maintained a hierarchical order without the king at its helm, giving lower status individuals opportunities that would never have been possible with a centralized government. Poorer people began to commission the construction of their own tombs—a privilege that was previously granted only to the elites—often hiring local craftsmen with admittedly limited experience and talent to build them. 

 

Many of these tombs were constructed out of mudbrick, which, while far less expensive than stone, also did not withstand the test of time nearly as well. However, many of the commissioned stone stelae that marked the tomb entrances have survived. They tell the stories of the occupants, often mentioning their localities with pride and lauding local rulership. While the First Intermediate Period was classified by later Egyptians as a dark period overrun by chaos, the truth, as we have discovered, is much more complex. 

 

 



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By Ariadne ArgyrosMA Egyptology, BA Anthropology & ClassicsAriadne is a contributing writer who graduated with her MA degree in Egyptology from the University of Chicago in 2020, and holds BAs in Anthropology and Classics from the University of Vermont. She is passionate about ancient Egypt, especially topics of funerary rituals and culture, magic, animals, gender, and modern reception, archaeology, museum work, and public outreach. In her spare time, Ariadne travels the world by participating in both terrestrial and underwater excavations, and volunteers for museum education and outreach programs for children. She also enjoys soccer, watching TV, and spending time with her bearded dragon, Gaius.