Middle Kingdom Period Begins in Egypt

The reunification of Egypt under Montuhotep I of the Eleventh Dynasty ushered in a relatively stable period of increasingly centralized political power during which Egypt flourished in the arts and literature.

Summary of Event

The conquest of all of Egypt by Montuhotep I in the first half of his reign brought the First Intermediate Period to an end and ushered in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-c. 1650 b.c.e.). Montuhotep led armies that defeated independence-minded provincial governors in Upper Egypt and then marched north, uniting the country between 2030 and 2020 b.c.e. One of the most intriguing nonroyal burials at Thebes dates to the militaristic period of his reign, a mass grave of sixty soldiers killed in battle in Nubia and returned to Egypt for burial in an extremely honored location near the funerary temple of their king. Montuhotep I
Amenemhet I
Sesostris I
Sesostris III

Through his reign and those of his Eleventh Dynasty (c. 2055-c. 1985 b.c.e.) successors, Thebes remained the capital of Egypt, but in the time of Amenemhet I, first king of the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1985-c. 1782), the capital was moved to a new site south of Memphis. The city was called Amenemhet-itj-tawy (Amenemhet Seizes the Two Lands), usually shortened to Itj-tawy (now Lisht). The king was probably the same Amenemhet who was vizier of the last Montuhotep, and it is unclear whether the transition from one dynasty to the next was completely peaceful. There are no records of an uprising, but the last king of the Eleventh Dynasty is left off later king lists, an omission that may indicate the revision of events in the history as written by a victorious usurper.

Several literary texts seem to suggest there was at least one attempt on the life of Amenemhet I, but he reigned for a lengthy thirty years, the last ten of which as coruler alongside his son and successor Sesostris I. In the Instruction of Amenemhet I for His Son Sesostris I (no original title; c. 1962 b.c.e.; English translation, 1973), Amenemhet tells of an attack against him by his personal guard, an incident that apparently inspired a bitter recommendation to his son that he trust no one, whether a brother or a subordinate or a friend. It has been suggested that this text should be read as an Egyptian ghost story with Amenemhet narrating through a dream or appearing as a full-fledged ghost. A second literary text, The Story of Sinuhe (no original title; c. 1928 b.c.e.; English translation, 1973), describes the fearful reaction of an assistant to Sesostris I when he hears of the death of the old king. This is usually taken as an indication that Sinuhe either knew of, or even participated in, a conspiracy against Amenemhet, one that was ultimately successful.

Sesostris I followed his father in taking his son as his coruler during the last part of his reign, a practice that continued throughout the Twelfth Dynasty. This means of assuring the succession probably contributed to the Twelfth being one of the longest-ruling dynasties in one of the most stable periods of Egyptian history. The dynasty controlled Egypt for more than two hundred years, with the throne passing smoothly from father to son (all named Amenemhet or Sesostris) until the last ruler of the period.

During the reign of Sesostris III, a series of governmental reforms decreased the power of provincial governors. Just as he consolidated his control at home, Sesostris III followed a more aggressive foreign policy than any other Twelfth Dynasty king. He conducted military campaigns in Nubia and consolidated his conquests by expanding existing fortifications and constructing a new series of forts along the Nile between the First and Second Cataracts.

The last ruler of the dynasty was a woman, Sebeknefru, possibly a wife of Amenemhet IV, who preceded her on the throne. After Sebeknefru, the dynasty changed in what seems to have been a relatively peaceful transition. Kings grouped by ancient historians as members of the Thirteenth Dynasty include several unrelated and short-ruling kings. They had at least some control over all Egypt, and the period seems relatively prosperous. These kings left few monuments, perhaps an indication of the weakness of their centralized rule. Some were buried in poorly built pyramids at Saqqara, but the best-known burial is that of Awibre Hor, who ruled for less than a year around 1760 b.c.e. His poor but intact burial was found within the funerary precinct of Amenemhet III at Dahshur. The most impressive object from this tomb was a beautiful, life-size statue of the king within a wooden shrine, now in the collection of the Egyptian Museum. The Thirteenth Dynasty faded as a political power through the seventeenth century and was replaced in northern Egypt by the Hyksos and in the south by a new Theban Dynasty during the subsequent era, the Second Intermediate Period.


Montuhotep I’s successful reunification of Egypt dramatically elevated the importance of his family and their capital of Thebes. Although there was a well-established local style used by the artists who decorated the tombs of the wives of the king, for his own monument Mentuhotep ordered decoration in a style that deliberately copied the style used in monuments of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty kings at Memphis. It is likely that he transported artists from the north to work at his southern capital. At the same time, however, he did not adopt the Old Kingdom pyramid for his tomb but rather built a temple whose columned porticoes developed from Upper Egyptian First Intermediate Period styles.

The actual site of the Twelfth Dynasty capital city has never been excavated, but the burials of the dynasty’s first two kings at Lisht and others elsewhere in the general area have been identified and explored by archaeologists. The pyramid complexes of Amenemhet I and Sesostris I copy the plans and, in the case of Amenemhet I’s pyramid, actually use inscribed stones taken from monuments of the Fourth through Sixth Dynasties. This use of Old Kingdom prototypes and materials serves much the same purpose as the transport of artists to the south in the reign of Montuhotep; they serve to symbolically connect the kings of the Middle Kingdom with the golden age before the disorder of the First Intermediate Period.

The stability of the Twelfth Dynasty allowed architecture and art to flourish, with royal portraiture from the reign of Sesostris III particularly distinctive. The face of the king does not display the bland, idealized features found earlier in the dynasty, but rather a newly conceived, distinctive appearance. His eyes are deeply set under heavy brows, there are pouches under his eyes, and deep furrows run from the outside edges of the nose to the sides of the down-turned mouth. The portrait changes through the course of his reign, providing an unusual record of the aging king. In addition to the visual arts, literature also flourished during the Middle Kingdom, with some of the most famous ancient Egyptian texts composed during this period.

The name Amenemhet contains the name of the god Amen, indicating his place as the family’s patron deity. Probably Montu, the hawk-headed war god whose name is part of the name of kings of the Eleventh Dynasty, was the original chief god of the Thebes, but with the ascent of the Twelfth Dynasty, he was eclipsed by Amen. Amen (usually identified with the Sun god Ra and known as Amen-Ra) became the protector of the ruling king, and his cult benefitted from its close association with this family. Although little of the Middle Kingdom temple at Karnak still exists because it was overbuilt in the New Kingdom and later, statues and the finely carved White Shrine of Sesostris I show the importance attached to this Theban god, even after the capital moved to the north. The importance of Amen-Ra continued through the rest of Egyptian history, and he was the patron deity of the next family to rule a united Egypt in the New Kingdom.

Further Reading

  • Bourriau, Janine. Pharaohs and Mortals: Egyptian Art in the Middle Kingdom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A catalogue of a museum exhibition, this has examples of a wide variety of objects, largely from tombs, including coffins, statues, and objects of daily life such as pottery, amulets, and other interesting items.
  • Clayton, Peter A. Chronicle of the Pharaohs. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994. Reign by reign summary and chronological account of Egyptian history, including even minor rulers.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. The Old and Middle Kingdoms. Vol. 1 in Ancient Egyptian Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Includes The Story of Sinuhe and the Instruction of Amenemhet I, along with many other classics of Middle Kingdom literature.
  • Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Portions of chapters 5 through 7 present the art of the Middle Kingdom. Bibliography.
  • Thériault, Carolyn A. “The Instruction of Amenemhet as Propaganda.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 30 (1993): 151-60. An intriguing discussion of this important but problematic ancient text. Thériault suggests the Instruction was composed by Amenemhet I himself to stress his legitimacy as a ruler after an attempted assassination. This also includes a review of previous interpretations of the composition.
  • Winlock, Herbert E. The Slain Soldiers of Neb-hep-et-re’ Mentu-hotpe. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1945. A short but fascinating excavation report discussing this very early war cemetery. Illustrations.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

Montuhotep II; Sesostris III. Middle Kingdom (Egypt)