A brief history of Ancient Egypt: the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period

Pharaoh Amenemhat III (ca. 1860-1614 BCE; photo: ArchaiOptix, CC BY-SA 4.0).

For Egypt, the Middle Kingdom was a new era of prosperity. Under the pharaohs of the Eleventh Dynasty Thebes (Waset) officially became the royal residence, but the first pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty decided to found a new capital elsewhere in Egypt. Deities that had originally been worshipped in the vicinity of Thebes only, such as Montu and especially Amun, received a promotion and were henceforth venerated in all of Egypt. At the time of the New Kingdom, Amun would even merge with the sun god Re and continue as Amun-Re. The cult of Osiris in Abydos flourished as well, and several pharaohs, mainly from the Thirteenth Dynasty, had symbolic tombs built there. But towards the end of the eighteenth century BCE, it was all over for the Middle Kingdom. Egypt then entered its Second Intermediate Period.

The Heydays: the Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties

Mentuhotep II (ca. 2046-1995 BCE) was a strong and competent pharaoh, but he was not omnipotent. Both he and his two successors from the Eleventh Dynasty – who were incidentally also called Mentuhotep – seem to have been highly dependent on the provincial governors, the nomarchs, to keep their throne secure. In spite of this, the three Mentuhoteps led Egypt towards a new Golden Age. Nubia was annexed up until the third cataract, trade with the mysterious land of Punt was resumed and the mines in the Sinai desert were reopened. Trade with Canaan flourished as well. At some point, however, a vizier called Amenemhat deposed the fourth Mentuhotep. He is probably the same Amenemhat that ruled as pharaoh Amenemhat I (ca. 1991-1962 BCE) and became the founding father of the Twelfth Dynasty. During his reign a new capital was founded close to the Faiyum. Its name was Itj-tawy, ‘conqueror of the two lands’.[1] At Itj-tawy Amenemhat started construction of his pyramid. Unfortunately his architects engaged in extremely unethical behaviour when they stole building materials from the complexes of previous pharaohs at Giza and Saqqara.

White Chapel at Karnak (photo: Markh, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Amenemhat was murdered by his bodyguard and succeeded by his son Senusret I, who is also known under his Greek name Sesostris. In Karnak, above Thebes, he rebuilt the temple complex of Amun in grand style. His White Chapel there is one of the most charming monuments that have been preserved. Senusret furthermore built two great obelisks for the temple of Atum in Heliopolis (one has survived), and at Itj-tawy he had a pyramid erected not far from the pyramid of his father. The pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty – who were all called Amenemhat or Senusret – tried to get the provincial governors back in line and increase the power of the central government. They seem to have achieved their goals, for under Senusret III (ca. 1878-1839 BCE) a practice was established of important families sending their sons to the royal court at Itj-tawy. They could be educated there, and at the same time be used to ensure the loyalty of their father and uncles.

Amenemhat III was the son of Senusret III. Between ca. 1860 and 1814 BCE he likely first served as co-ruler alongside his father and later as sole king. During his reign priority was given to colonisation of the Faiyum oasis. A natural connection between the Nile river and the oasis was converted into a canal, the Great Canal or Mer-Wer, which greatly improved the fertility of the area and ushered in an era of prosperity. Amenemhat had a pyramid built at Hawara (ca. 1820 BCE), but it was the immense complex of chapels and courts that arose alongside it that has truly become famous. The Greek historian Herodotos (ca. 484-425 BCE) paid a personal visit to the complex, near Crocodile City or Krokodilopolis. He was deeply impressed and called the place a labyrinth, apparently because it reminded him of the mythical labyrinth underneath King Minos’ palace in Knossos, Crete.[2] Around the year 200 CE the Roman emperor Septimius Severus would visit the complex as well as part of his tour of Egypt.

Head of a pharaoh, possibly Sobekhotep I (Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon).

Decline, disintegration and the Hyksos

Amenemhat III was succeeded by Amenemhat IV, who likely died without an heir after a relatively short reign. His successor was a woman: his sister Sobekneferu, the last ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty. The transition to the Thirteenth Dynasty was an obscure process. It was presumably one Sobekhotep would founded the new royal line, but its connection with the Twelfth Dynasty is not at all clear. In this context, it is interesting to note that the name Sobekhotep was popular: several pharaohs of the Thirteenth Dynasty had this name, which means ‘Sobek is pleased’. Sobek was an ancient deity with the head of a crocodile who had become ever more popular since the reign of Amenemhat III and his exploits in the Faiyum. Although it would perhaps be somewhat of an exaggeration to call Egypt under the Thirteenth Dynasty a country in chaos, the kingdom was undeniably in decline. This development was closely linked with the arrival of Semitic peoples who had migrated to Egypt from Canaan, roughly present-day Israel, Lebanon and parts of Syria. These peoples would become known as the Heka-Khasut or – in Greek – the Hyksos, the ‘rulers of foreign lands’.

One often finds the claim that the Hyksos were militarily superior to the Egyptians. They made use of horse-drawn chariots, unknown in the land of the Nile at the time, and wielded much better bows, capable of shooting arrows over far greater distances. The Hyksos may also have introduced the scimitar in Egypt. Nevertheless, the notion that Egypt was invaded and crushed by these foreigners needs some correction. Already during the Twelfth Dynasty ‘Asiatics’ had migrated to Egypt in great numbers. Their migration, which started in the early nineteenth century, may have been caused by unrest in Canaan, which forced these people to leave their homes. They ultimately arrived in Egypt and settled in the Nile delta, where the city of Avaris became their centre of power. Wall paintings in the tomb of the governor Khnumhotep II in Beni Hasan (ca. 1880 BCE) give us an impression of what these ‘Asiatics’ looked like. The paintings show men armed with recurve bows, possibly the weapons that gave them a technological advantage over the Egyptians.

Map of Egypt with important settlements (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

At some point the Semites living in Avaris must have declared their independence from the rest of Egypt. Therefore we may conclude that their rise was due to a secession rather than an invasion. Against this background we may place the Fourteenth Dynasty, of which one Nehesi (ca. 1705 BCE) is considered the founder. His name is interesting, as Nehesi means ‘the Nubian’ in Ancient Egyptian. One possibility is that he was the son of a Canaanite ruler and his Nubian wife, which would indicate that there were ties between the secessionists in the Nile delta in the north and the powerful kingdom of Kerma in the south. The pharaohs of the Thirteenth Dynasty may have continued to exercise control over Egypt below the Nile delta – i.e. in Middle and Upper Egypt – but it is nevertheless clear that the country had fallen apart again. At some point the Middle Kingdom was ended and the Second Intermediate Period started. It was at the time of the Fifteenth Dynasty that the Hyksos advanced further south and conquered much territory, but the pharaohs of the native Sixteenth and Seventeenth Dynasties managed to stand their ground in Thebes. It should be noted that relations between the competing dynasties were not always hostile. On the contrary, they often lived in peace and cooperated.

There were of course times of war as well. One of the best-known Hyksos pharaohs of the Fifteenth Dynasty is Apepi, or Apophis in Greek. In the middle of the sixteenth century BCE he fought against pharaoh Seqenenre of the Seventeenth Dynasty. The conflict ended in disaster for the latter, who probably regretted that he had started it himself in an attempt to expel the Hyksos from Egypt. A careful analysis of Seqenenre’s skull shows compelling evidence of a wound inflicted by a battle axe. The pharaoh may have been killed on the battlefield, but he may also have been captured and executed. After Seqenenre’s death, in ca. 1550 BCE, his son and successor Kamose launched an offensive from Thebes against the Hyksos. The Egyptians advanced far north and forced their opponents on the defensive, but the Hyksos managed to hold on to their capital of Avaris and Kamose passed away not long after.

Stele with a harpist, Twelfth Dynasty (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

A few years later Ahmose I (ca. 1549-1524 BCE) succeeded where his brother had failed. He conquered Avaris and razed it to the ground. The pharaoh then drove the Semitic peoples out of Egypt for good. The Hyksos entrenched themselves in the town of Sharuhen in Palestine, but Ahmose I went after them and took their stronghold after a three-year siege. This put a definite end to Hyksos influence in Egypt. The victorious pharaoh was remembered by posterity as the founding father of the Eighteenth Dynasty. It is with his reign that the history of the New Kingdom starts.


  • Abdel Ghaffar Shedid, ‘A House for Eternity – The Tombs of Governors and Officials’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 119-131;
  • Dieter Kessler, ‘The Political History of the Ninth to the Seventeenth Dynasties’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 105-107;
  • Eric H. Cline, 1177 v. Chr. Het Einde van de Beschaving, p. 34-37;
  • Rainer Stadelmann, ‘The Tombs of the Pharaohs – Between Tradition and Innovation’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 109-117;
  • Regine Schulz, ‘Between Heaven and Earth – Temples to the Gods in the Middle Kingdom’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 133-141.


[1] I.e. Upper and Lower Egypt. The conqueror is of course Amenemhat himself.

[2] See Herodotos’ report in Book 2.148 of his Histories.

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