First Intermediate Period Begins in Egypt

During the First Intermediate Period, the Heracleopolitans controlled Egypt, but power shifted to Thebes in the south during the Eleventh Dynasty.

Summary of Event

Administrative reforms during the late Old Kingdom (c. 2687-c. 2125 b.c.e.) saw the expansion of agriculture in Middle Egypt and the southern Nile Delta, with control of the area and its wealth centered in the region of Meir in northern Middle Egypt. Following the end of the Sixth Dynasty, the Old Kingdom declined rapidly in prestige and power, until the rulers of the Eighth Dynasty were followed by a successor administration based at Heracleopolis, between the earlier centers of Meir and Memphis. The First Intermediate Period (c. 2160-c. 2055) was at its peak during the Ninth and Tenth Dynasties. The eight southernmost districts of Egypt, the “Head of the South,” though nominally loyal to the Heracleopolitan state, quarreled among themselves. The First Intermediate Period ended with the coming of the south to political center stage—the reunification during the Eleventh Dynasty was a product of the Thebaïd (southern Upper Egypt, around Thebes).

During the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty (c. 2494-c. 2345 b.c.e.), local administrators, previously centered around the king and the central administration at the royal residence, began to accumulate power. Under the Fifth Dynasty ruler Djedkare (r. c. 2414-2375 b.c.e.), evidence from a number of necropoles indicate that nome (district) administrators were beginning to be entombed in the “middle provinces” of Upper Egypt. These districts—emphasized in nomarchic titularies of the Fifth Dynasty—were perhaps the most agriculturally wealthy Upper Egyptian nomes (those in the far south have been estimated at low capability); the eight southernmost Upper Egyptian nomes were the Head of the South. The rulers of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Dynasties established a number of funerary domains, “new cities,” associated with the royal mortuary cults. Most of these are centered in Middle Egypt (Fourth Dynasty) and in the Delta (increasingly during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties), with almost none in the eight uppermost (southern) districts.

During the Sixth Dynasty (c. 2345-c. 2181 b.c.e.), perhaps as part of an effort to secure more personal pharaonic control in the far south, Pepi I (r. c. 2321-2287 b.c.e.) established close relations with an important family in Abydos. Plantation-rich Middle Egypt came under the control of the governor of the main tax-receiving center of Meir; Thebes appears to have become the tax collection center for the seven southernmost nomes. In this way, the late Old Kingdom saw the establishment of an agriculturally rich Middle Egypt and southern Delta, administratively centered at Meir and Memphis respectively. The uppermost districts, the Head of the South, were trade oriented, with a loyalist north and a more independent far south.

Stone carving of Imhotep.

(Library of Congress)

After the end of the Sixth Dynasty, the ephemeral Seventh and Eighth Dynasties (c. 2180-c. 2160 b.c.e.) increasingly courted Upper Egyptian support through a series of exemption decrees for the temple of Coptos in Upper Egypt. The Sixth Dynasty issued a number of decrees concerning the Temple of Min at Coptos; it was primarily concerned with the temple and cult and, secondarily, with the personnel involved. Under the Eighth Dynasty, this changed, and in particular the family of the vizier Shemai—apparently a native Coptite who married the daughter of an Eighth Dynasty ruler—was personally addressed and given much honor and authority. The importance of Coptos to the waning Old Kingdom corresponds to the significance of Qus (near Coptos) during the Middle Ages—accessible from the Red Sea via the Wadi Hamamat Road. A Delta-based power could potentially have controlled Coptos and the gold imports of the Wadi Hamamat Road even if much of the rest of the south had been lost.

Heracleopolis put an end to the Old Kingdom and began the rule of the feudal Ninth and Tenth Dynasties (c. 2160-c. 2025 b.c.e.), based near the mouth of the Fayum oasis in northern Middle Egypt. The new capital was located between the agricultural (Meir) and administrative (Memphis) centers of northern Middle Egypt and controlled Egypt directly up to the southern border of the Fifth District of Upper Egypt. The four southernmost districts of Upper Egypt, although avowing loyalty to Heracleopolis, began to quarrel among themselves.

During the First Intermediate Period, a governor of an Upper Egyptian nome (the third), Ankhtifi, absorbed the two southernmost districts of the south and warred with the Theban (fourth) and Coptite (fifth) nomes to his north. Texts of the period in the south refer to famines, and Ankhtifi evoked the image of people “dying of hunger on the sand bank of Apophis [the chaos serpent].” Although there is evidence for climatic change at the time, the Upper Egyptian famines appear to result less from the total absence of food and more from the breakdown of a central administration capable of redistributing grain. Ankhtifi even stated that he allowed grain ships to pass through the area of his control, except for those going to Thebes. The warring nome rulers initially averred their loyalty to Heracleopolitan rule.

The Heracleopolitans, in imitation of the Eighth Dynasty rulers at Memphis, appear to have attempted to achieve direct control of the Coptite nome. The final pro-Heracleopolitan rulers of the Coptite nome, User and Tjauti, appear to have been members of the Heracleopolitan royal family. These two rulers moved their centers of administration to the area of modern Khozam, at the southern border of the Fifth District, apparently in anticipation of potential trouble from Thebes, the fourth district of Upper Egypt.

After the defeat of Ankhtifi, Thebes under Intef I (r. c. 2125-2112 b.c.e.) attacked toward the north in open hostility to Heracleopolitan rule. The Thebans captured the Coptite nome by annexing the portion of the Western Desert filling the Qena Bend of the Nile, taking control of the routes passing through that desert, and using one of those routes to outflank the Heracleopolitan forces stationed at the southern border of the Coptite nome. They avoided three Upper Egyptian nomes and gained control over the first eight nomes of Upper Egypt. After desultory fighting around Thinis (in the eighth district of the south) under Intef II (r. c. 2112-2063 b.c.e.), including a Heracleopolitan counterattack in which the cemetery of Thinis was destroyed, Intef II advanced into the tenth Upper Egyptian nome and returned to eliminate remaining resistance to the south. Eventually, Montuhotep II of Thebes was able to put an end to the loosely organized Heracleopolitan kingdom (c. 2055 b.c.e.) and ushered in the initial Theban-centered phase of the Middle Kingdom.

As the end drew near, the Heracleopolitans came to rely closely on the governors of another Upper Egyptian nome in Middle Egypt, based at Asyut, for military support. People of Western Asiatic origin appear also to have infilitrated the Nile Delta at this time, and some may have entered Heracleopolitan service. Of particular importance to the Upper Egyptian armies of the First Intermediate Period were the Medjay people of Lower Nubia (Wawat) and the surrounding deserts. A highly militarized society, they appear to be identical to the Pan-Grave culture. A large contingent of Medjay were established at Gebelein, in the southern Thebaïd, during the First Intermediate Period.


The First Intermediate Period was a time of change and innovation. Pottery shapes change considerably, especially in the south (baglike shapes predominating over high-shouldered, ovoid forms). Cartonnage masks were made for mummies, and small models of workmen and structures were used even in relatively modest burials. The models for much of these new burial goods were the burial equipment of the Old Kingdom elite, so there is a certain “democratization” of the ordered afterlife during the First Intermediate Period. The religious text corpus known as the Coffin Texts (c. 2160-c. 2055 b.c.e.; partial translation as The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, 1973-1978)—many derived from the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts (c. 2350-2100 b.c.e.; English translation, 1924)—appear to originate in the First Intermediate Period. Society itself changed, and the often bombastic and egocentric autobiographies of the period demonstrate a new self-confidence and self-consciousness on the part of even lower level officials.

Much of the intense internal turmoil once attributed to the First Intermediate Period is more accurately ascribed to the early Middle Kingdom. The large numbers of Nubians and Western Asiatics who entered Egyptian military service during the First Intermediate Period became lawless bands of unemployed mercenaries after the collapse of the Theban Eleventh Dynasty.

Further Reading

  • Butzer, K. Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. An important study of irrigation in ancient Egypt; Butzer’s work shows the agricultural wealth of the middle districts of Egypt, home of the Heracleopolitan kingdom, and the relative lack of major agricultural production in southern Upper Egypt (the Thebaïd).
  • Darnell, J. C. “The Message of King Wahankh Antef II to Khety, Ruler of Heracleopolis.” Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 124 (1997): 101-108. A discussion of some events at the end of the First Intermediate Period.
  • Darnell, J. C. The Theban Desert Road Survey in the Egyptian Western Desert I: Gebel Tjauti Rock Inscriptions 1-45, and Wadi el-Hôl Rock Inscriptions 1-45. Oriental Institute Publications 119. Chicago: Oriental Institute Press, 2002. Publication of new inscriptions of the First Intermediate Period from the Theban Western Desert, including an inscription concerning the beginning of the Theban northern expansion during the reigns of Intef I and Intef II. See in particular pages 30-46.
  • Fischer, H. G. “The Nubian Mercenaries of Gebelein During the First Intermediate Period.” Kush 9 (1961): 44-80. Contains a useful discussion of the Nubian soldiers well attested in the southern Thebaïd during the First Intermediate Period.
  • Kanawati, N. Governmental Reforms in Old Kingdom Egypt. Warminster, England: Aris and Philips, 1980. A brief but useful attempt to interpret the changes in late Old Kingdom administration, important for understanding the origins of the divisions so prominent during the First Intermediate Period.
  • Seidlmayer, S. “The First Intermediate Period (c. 2160-2055 b.c.).” In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by I. Shaw. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pages 118-147 provide a good, short, and reasonably up-to-date overview of the period (although unfortunately omitting important information from the Western Desert).

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