Middle Kingdom Egypt: The Period of Transformation

Middle Kingdom Egypt is defined by strong leadership and the production of great works of literary and visual art that influenced Egyptian culture as we know it today.

Jul 23, 2020By Ariadne Argyros, MA Egyptology, BA Anthropology & Classics
11 dyanasty relief mentuhotep hathor
11th dynasty Relief of Mentuhotep II and Hathor, 2010-00 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Middle Kingdom Egypt is the period in history directly following the First Intermediate Period, a period largely characterized by political disunity. It was established with the reunification of Egypt in the 11th dynasty around 2055 BC and its culture produced some of its greatest and most renowned works of art and literature. Egyptologists have still not come to an agreement as to which dynasty marked the official end of the Middle Kingdom—the 12th, 13th, or 14th. However, because the 13th dynasty contained many traces of the policies, trade relationships, and artistic styles from the 12th Dynasty, it has been included here as the last dynasty in the second peak period of the ancient Egyptian civilization.


Reunification During 11th Dynasty Middle Kingdom Egypt 

stela 11th dynasty intef wahankh
11th dynasty Stela of King Intef II Wahankh, 2108-2059 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Towards the end of the First Intermediate Period, two rival dynasties rooted in the northern and southern regions of Egypt battled for control over the entire country. Lower (northern) Egypt was ruled by the 10th dynasty from Herakleopolis, and Theban royalty from the first half of the 11th dynasty controlled Upper Egypt. This dynasty traced its origins to a Theban nomarch of the First Intermediate Period, Intef “the Elder” or “the Great” who first initiated the rebellion against the authority of Herakleopolis. Mentuhotep I, his successor, followed in his footsteps and conquered surrounding districts for Thebes, strengthening the city’s power and prestige. Intef II is known for taking some of the most important steps toward reunification in seizing Abydos, uniting all of the southern nomes, and claiming a divine titulary which translates to “King of Upper and Lower Egypt.”


11th dynasty statue mentuhotep
11th dynasty Statue of Mentuhotep II in the Jubilee Garment, 2051-00 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Mentuhotep II ascended to the throne of Theban Upper Egypt during the First Intermediate Period. Around year 14 of his reign, he sent his army off to seize Lower Egypt from Herakleopolis. After toppling these rulers, he consolidated his power over the entire Egyptian state, successfully reuniting the whole of Egypt shortly before year 39 of his reign and becoming the first king of the Middle Kingdom with Thebes as its capital. He was revered as the second coming of Menes in reference to the first king of Egypt from the Early Dynastic Period who initially unified the country.


During the remainder of his reign as king of a unified Egypt, Mentuhotep resumed campaigns to the south in order to regain lost Nubian territory and restored the king’s cult which allowed the king to be worshipped as a divine being in his lifetime. He died after a reign of 51 years and the crown was passed onto his son, Mentuhotep III. He continued his predecessors’ work of consolidating Egypt, as well as built forts to keep out enemies from the east, and sent trade expeditions to the legendary land of Punt

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19th dynasty abydos king list
19th dynasty Abydos King List sans Mentuhotep IV cartouche in Abydos, via Egyptian Museum


Mentuhotep IV’s reign, though, is somewhat of a mystery. The last king of the 11th dynasty, he is known only through a few inscriptions and is peculiarly absent from both the Abydos and the Turin King Lists. In fact, contemporary sources refer to the time corresponding to his reign as the “seven empty years”. One running theory is that his vizier, Amenemhat, was actually Amenemhat I, the first king of Dynasty 12, and he overthrew (and possibly assassinated) Mentuhotep IV to gain control of the monarchy. It is likely, though, that he continued the policies of his predecessors rather successfully because the country was flourishing when Amenemhat took over the throne


First Intermediate Period Influences

11th dynasty painted wooden figures
11th dynasty Painted Wooden Figures of a male (left) and female servant (right), via The British Museum, London


The rulership of Middle Kingdom Egypt as a whole was an attempt to emulate the Old Kingdom. Although the literature describes the First Intermediate Period as a time of chaos in order to justify the re-imposition of centralized power in the Middle Kingdom, the reality was far more complex—the political and social structure of the period was permanently changed. The First Intermediate Period introduced independent wealth to the Egyptian nomes that never quite existed in the highly centralized Old Kingdom government, and those changes remained upon the installation of Middle Kingdom Egypt. While the king was once more regarded as the supreme head of state, his subordinate officials retained some of their former power which helped ease the transition of the Middle Kingdom into its “Classical Era.”


These changes are most clearly seen in the art and literature styles of the 12th dynasty. The influences from many different nomes can be seen in the architecture, literature, hieroglyphic inscriptions, paintings, and tombs of the later 11th dynasty and throughout the 12th dynasty as well. These clearly indicate that regional artistic expression was more prevalent and dynamic at this time. The works commissioned by the Old Kingdom royal court were unvarying and uniform in appearance and style, while those of the Middle Kingdom were far more diverse. None of these modifications could have occurred without the First Intermediate Period.


The Early 12th Dynasty 

12th dynasty painted wooden guardian
12th dynasty Painted Wooden Guardian Figure, 1919-1885 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Amenemhat’s family would rule the state for nearly 200 years, leading Middle Kingdom Egypt to new heights in military strategy, trade expeditions, and artworks. He reinforced his claim to the throne through works like The Prophecy of Neferti, a literary work set in the 4th dynasty that served to prophesize Amenemhat’s rise to the throne to restore unity and order to the country. He moved Egypt’s new capital at Itjtawy, which translates to “one who seizes the Two Lands”. Its location is as of yet unidentified, but it is assumed to be somewhere near Memphis.


In the 20th year of his reign, Amenemhat I established his son, Senwosret I, as his coregent—a practice commonly carried out mainly in the Middle Kingdom to ensure a smooth succession. Unfortunately, Amenemhat fell victim to a palace assassination conspiracy and Senwosret had to cut short his Libyan campaign and rush back to Itjtawy to prevent a total government coup. During his reign, Senwosret took some of the power away from the priesthood by constructing cult centers throughout the country and campaigned deep into Nubia seizing much of its territory for the Egyptian state. The next few successors to the throne continued the trend of military campaigns, trade expeditions, and domestic building (e.g. pyramid construction) and prosperity. 


Height Of Middle Kingdom Egypt

12th dynasty seated statue senwosret
12th dynasty Seated Statue of Senwosret III, 1836-18 BC, via Brooklyn Museum


Senwosret III is most well known as the preeminent warrior-king. He spearheaded many campaigns into Nubia in order to control the southern border and was known for administrative reforms that continued to place power in the hands of a centralized government instead of regional authorities. During his later years, he brought on his son, Amenemhat III, to serve as his coregent and eventual successor. During Amenemhat III’s reign, Egypt experienced its height of Middle Kingdom economic prosperity.  There was also an unprecedented amount of resource exploitation, such as mining in the Sinai, expeditions to the Wadi Hammamat, and the reinforcement of defenses in Nubia. After a 45-year reign, he passed the crown to his successor, Amenemhat IV.


Amenemhat IV’s 9-year reign is poorly attested, but it is clear that the throne’s power had begun to weaken. Issues regarding succession arose possibly in part because of Amenemhat III’s extra-long reign. After Amenemhat IV came Sobekneferu, the second female ruler of Egypt after Merneith. Her rule was also short and she died without heirs, so the 12th dynasty came to a sudden end and with it so did the Golden Age of Middle Kingdom Egypt. 


13th Dynasty: A Decline Into The Second Intermediate Period

13th dynasty cylinder seal horus amenemhat
13th dynasty Cylinder Seal with the Horus name of Amenemhat VII, 1640-1550 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Dynasty 13 lasted from ca. 1803 BC to ca. 1649 BC and witnessed the rulership of 50 kings in approximately 150 years, although this has come into question because the Hyksos, foreigners of probable Levantine origin, were firmly established as a northern Egyptian power by ca. 1720 BC. Unlike in the previous dynasties, kingship was not unequivocally passed from father to son or even within a single family, but rather shared among the elite families. While this dynasty is traditionally considered to have been weaker than its predecessor, exactly when it began to decline is unclear due to the fragmentary nature of the historical records. 


It appears, though, that the 13th dynasty kings continued the policies of the rulers of Dynasty 12 and kept the country unified. Mortuary complexes, temples, and stelae were still constructed at this time, but the impetus that defined the Golden Age of Middle Kingdom Egypt was no longer there. None of the kings had the strength of the 12th dynasty rulers. Various independent political entities began to spring up in Lower Egypt, including the Hyksos, the chief characters of the Second Intermediate Period, and the government in Itjtawy was not strong enough to stomp them out.


Similar to the transition from the Old Kingdom to the First Intermediate Period, the change from the Middle Kingdom to the Second Intermediate Period is often characterized by chaos. This is not accurate; the 13th dynasty failed to maintain control of the country and a stronger power rose to replace it. Although the Hyksos were foreigners, archaeological evidence indicates that they showed respect toward the religion and culture of Egypt, even going so far as to combine art styles and adopt Egyptian royal titulary. 


Art And Imagery In Middle Kingdom Egypt

12th dynasty colossal statue head
12th dynasty Colossal Statue Head of Senwosret III, 1878-40 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Much of our fascination with Middle Kingdom Egypt lies in the dramatic shift in the art that occurred in the Classical Age, especially during the reigns of Senwosret II, Senwosret III, and Amenemhat III. The archaeological remains left behind underscore these changes in the architecture, tombs, burial goods, decoration, literature, and royal sculpture, all of which must reflect profound alterations in religious beliefs and practices, the king’s role as a political and spiritual leader, and the relationship between the king and his people.


For example, artists began to sculpt more realistic images of the royal kings, whereas it was until this point common practice to depict rulers as young and strong forever. The above picture shows Senwosret as an older king complete with wrinkles and sagging skin, which likely shows the new ideas surrounding kingship. At the same time, new types of royal cult complexes appeared, smaller and differently shaped than their Old Kingdom counterparts. The creation of over life-size statuary and sculpture became rather widespread in order to emphasize kings’ dominion over the Egyptian state. The imagery from Dynasty 13 continued this stylistic trend and altered between idealism and realism, often even combining the two. 


12th dynasty apotropaic rod
12th dynasty Apotropaic rod, 1878-1640, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In contrast to the monumentality of certain royal art forms, Middle Kingdom Egypt also produced many delicate and highly detailed objects. Artists paid special attention to creating exquisite designs on apotropaic pieces such as amulets, jewelry, magic wands, and rods, and faience figures of protective animals also became more popular during this time as evidenced by the burial goods found in royal, elite, and certain non-royal tombs.


Egyptian literature also emerged in its true form during this period, serving the purpose of entertainment and intellectual curiosity. Stories such as The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor and The Story of Sinuhe were composed at this time and were popular enough to have been transcribed for centuries after the fact. Philosophical and didactic literature such as The Teaching of Amenemhat I, The Dialogue of a Man with His Soul, and The Satire of the Trades were also created at this time. Later ancient Egyptians considered these works to be classic examples of Egyptian literature, which, along with Sumerian literature, is among the world’s earliest. The achievements of Middle Kingdom Egypt, especially of the 12th dynasty, were in many ways unrivaled and continued to advance the culture of ancient Egypt for the rest of its history.

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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.