The period between 2500 BC and 1500 BC saw Ancient Egypt go through periods of division and weakness, and of unity and strength.
The last large pyramid of the Old Kingdom was erected for Pepy II, after a 96 year reign (c. 2246-2152 BC). Perhaps partly as a result of his extraordinarily long reign, by his death the king’s authority seems no longer to have been so effective, nor his prestige so great. Provincial governors now had themselves buried locally, not in the royal cemetery at Memphis. They commissioned monumental works in their own name, and took credit for themselves for their policies, rather than giving it to the king.
This marked the beginning of what is known in ancient Egyptian history as the First Intermediate period, when central authority was weak and power became fragmented amongst provincial families, usually descended from Old Kingdom governors. Inevitably, this period of royal impotence ended in civil war.
This started in the south, where the family which ruled the minor city of Thebes began expanding its territories at the expense of its neighbours. Soon Thebes dominated the south, and then, under its ruler Montjuhotep I (c. 2080-2074 BC), succeeded in subduing the entire country. These events inaugurated the period known as the “Middle Kingdom” in Ancient Egypt.
The king once again became the unifying presence in the country. A new royal burial complex was built, to the south of Memphis, to rival that of the Old Kingdom cemetery at Giza. Major reclamation projects were undertaken in the Fayum and Delta regions, bringing much productive land under cultivation. International trade – which was a royal monopoly – was expanded, particularly with the Levant and its major port, Byblos, and on the caravan routes to Palestine, where a string of forts in the Sinai desert were built to bring these more under Egyptian control.
In the south, the kings of the 12th dynasty (c. 1937-1759 BC) systematically brought northern Nubia under Egyptian rule, with forts being built down to the second cataract; and later, under king Senusret II (c. 1842-1836 BC), these were extended further south as far as Semna. To further expand trade with the southern lands, a Red Sea port was established as a base for trade with the land of Punt (a country probably situated on the south-western coast of the Red Sea).
Head of a statue of Senusret II from Karnak
When Montjuhotep reunified the country at the start of the Middle Kingdom, he seems to have left many of the local ruling families in place, and the provinces remained in the hands of what were essentially hereditary princes throughout the Middle Kingdom period.
During the 13th dynasty (c.1759-1641 BC), these gradually asserted themselves against the central authorities, and the power of the kings became diminished again. The weakness of the kings had an immediate effect in the loss of Nubia, which came under the rule of the powerful kingdom of Kush. The Nile Delta region seems to have fallen under the control of a dynasty called the Hyksos. Though the Hyksos were probably of Canaanite origins, they were fully assimilated into Egyptian culture, and they styled themselves as Egyptian kings. They ruled from the city of Avaris.
Much of the Nile valley fell under the sway of rulers again based at Thebes, known to history as the 17th dynasty (c. 1641-1759 BC). An ambitious king of Thebes, Kamose, set about reuniting the “Black Land” in about 1540 BC.
Sarcophagus of Kamoze
Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0
He seems to have taken northern Nubia from the kingdom of Kush with relative ease, but Avaris proved more difficult, and it was left to his son, Ahmose (c. 1539-1514 BC), to complete the reunification.
It took five campaigns to take Avaris, and then Ahmose firmly established Egyptian control over the roads across Sinai, as far as Palestine. He defeated two rebellions against his authority, and was able to pass on a strong and united Egypt to his successors. The period of the New Kingdom, one of the high points in the long history of Ancient Egypt, had begun.
Continue: Part 4: Ancient Egypt 1500 BC – 1000 BC looks at one of the most glorious periods of ancient Egyptian history – but then decline.
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The History of Ancient Egypt
Part 4 – Ancient Egyptian History 1500 BC- 1000 BC: A Strong Monarchy, An Imperial Power, International Trade and Diplomacy, Egyptian Imperialism, Religious Upheavals, The Hittite Challenge, New Threats, Impotence Abroad c.1153-1069 BC, Weakness at Home