The Middle Kingdom is the period in the history of ancient Egypt stretching from the establishment of the Eleventh Dynasty to the end of the Fourteenth Dynasty, between 2050 BC and 1652 BC.
The period comprises two phases, the Eleventh Dynasty, which ruled from Thebes, and the Twelfth Dynasty onwards, which was centered around el-Lisht.
The Eleventh Dynasty of Ancient Egypt was a group of pharaohs whose earlier members are grouped with the four preceding dynasties to form the First Intermediate Period, while the later members from Mentuhotep II onwards are considered part of the Middle Kingdom. They all ruled from Thebes.
An inscription carved during the reign of Wahankh Intef II, the third pharaoh of the Eleventh Dynasty, says that he was the first of this dynasty to claim to rule over the whole of Egypt, a claim which brought the Thebans into conflict with the rulers of Herakleopolis Magna during the Tenth Dynasty. Intef undertook several campaigns northwards, and captured the important nome (regional governorship) of Abydos.
Warfare continued intermittently between the Thebans and the Herakleopolitans until the fourteenth year of Nebhetepra Mentuhotep II, when the Herakleopolitans were defeated, and the Theban dynasty began to consolidate their rule. Mentuhotep II commanded military campaigns south into Nubia, which had gained its independence during the First Intermediate Period. Some type of military action took place against Palestine, after which the pharaoh reorganized the country and placed a vizier (high government official) at the head of civil administration for the country.
Mentuhotep IV (reign 1998–1991 BC) was the final pharaoh of the Eleventh Dynasty. His reign is recalled in inscriptions at Wadi Hammamat (near Thebes) that record expeditions to the Red Sea coast in search of stone for the royal monuments. The leader of this expedition was Mentuhotep IV's vizier, Amenemhat, who is widely assumed to be the future pharaoh Amenemhet I (reign 1991 BC – 1962 BC), the first king of the Twelfth Dynasty. Amenemhet is believed by some Egyptologists to have either usurped the throne or assumed power after Mentuhotep IV died without an heir. Thus the Eleventh Dynasty gave way to the more illustrious Twelfth Dynasty.
Amenemhet I built a new capital for Egypt known as Itjtawy ("Seizer-of-the-Two-Lands") at a still-unidentified location. Having established his son Senusret I as his junior co-regent in 1971 BC, Amenemhat was murdered in 1962 BC by a royal bodyguard while Senuseret I was far away campaigning against Libyan invaders. Senuseret rushed to Itjtawy to prevent a takeover and assumed the throne (reign 1971–1926 BC), proving the value of the coregency system, in which the ruler and his intended heir govern simultaneously. This practice lasted throughout the Twelfth Dynasty and provided great stability during an eventful, and often turbulent, period in Egyptian history.
Our knowledge of many rulers during the Twelfth Dynasty is sketchy. Senusret's successor Amenemhat II (reign 1929 BC–1895 BC) made the position of the nomarchs hereditary again (thus weakening the centralized government), established trade connections with Nubia and probably waged war somewhere in the Middle East. His successor Senusret II (1897 BC-1878 BC) improved trade connections with Nubia, Palestine and the Levant.
His successor Senusret III (1878 BC–1839 BC) was a true warrior-king, often commanding troops in the field himself. He led his troops deep into Nubia, and built a series of massive forts throughout the region to establish Egypt's formal boundary with the unconquered areas where Nubian resistance continued. On the domestic front, Senusret III built a fine religious temple at Abydos. Though the structure is now destroyed, carved stone reliefs from the temple demonstrate the high quality of the decorations. He ended his rule by making himself senior co-regent and giving his crown to his 20-year-old son Amenemhat III (reign 1860 BC–1815 BC), the last great pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom.
As Egypt's population began to exceed food production levels, Amenemhat III ordered the exploitation of the green fertile region 100 km south of modern-day Cairo known as the Fayyum and increased mining operations in the Sinaï desert. He ended the practice of nomarchs inheriting their nomes as Amenemhat II had permitted a century earlier and conscripted Asians to settle in Egypt to labor on Egypt's monuments. But in ancient times, as today, prosperity by such methods could not continue indefinitely.
Late in his reign, the annual floods began to fail. Amenemhat III's successor Amenemhat IV ruled Egypt for just nine full years (1816 BC–1807 BC) before dying prematurely. His sister, Queen Sobekneferu (1807 BC–1803 BC), ruled briefly and probably died with no heirs. Thus the Twelfth Dynasty and the Golden Age of the Middle Kingdom ended around 1800 BC, and was succeeded by the much weaker Thirteenth Dynasty. (from approximately 1773 BC to sometime after 1650 BC), which ruled from Itjtawy near Memphis and el-Lisht, just south of the apex of the Nile Delta.
Nearly 4,000 years later, the pharaohs of the Twelfth through Eighteenth Dynasties are credited in scholarly circles with preserving mathematical and medical discoveries and evidence of deep philosophical inquiry and learning from this period, preserved on dozens of ancient Egyptian papyri, such as:
The Akhmim Wooden Tablet (2000-1950 BC)
The Heqanakht Papyri (2000-1950 BC)
The Moscow Mathematical Papyrus (1850-1800 BC)
The Berlin Papyrus (1800 BC)
The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus(1650 BC)
The Edwin Smith Papyrus (1600 BC)
The Ebers Papyrus (1550 BC)
...to name but a few.
According to the ancient Greek history of Egypt known as the Aegyptiaca by Manetho (who was an Egyptian priest writing in the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, when Egypt was governed by Greeks), the pharoahs of the Thirteenth Dynasty ruled for approximately 453 years. Several centuries later, scholars recognized this as an error — the actual figure is 153 years — which is explained by that fact that the ancient Greek symbol for digit 4 and 1 are very similar.
The Thirteenth Dynasty is notable for the accession of Khendjer (less than ten-year reign, dates uncertain), the first Semitic king of a native Egyptian dynasty, who is remembered for three things: his pyramid complex at Saqqara, which was perhaps completed as a pyramidion; many inscriptions on objects that bear his unique Semitic name; and the fact that his throne name, Userkare ("The Soul of Re is Powerful") did not enable the king to maintain control over his kingdom.
The splintering of centralized rule that began under Khendjer accelerated after the reign of Sobekhotep IV (ten-year-reign, dates uncertain) when a newly-arrived Semitic tribe known to the Egyptians as the Hyksos (the name is derived from the Egyptian heka khasewet, which means "foreign rulers") made their appearance. Introducing new weapons of war such as the composite bow and horse-drawn chariot to the region, the Hyksos moved into the Nile Delta and seized control of the town of Avaris (present-day Tell ed-Dab'a/Khata'na) around 1720 BC.
The later kings of the Thirteenth Dynasty appear to be only ephemeral monarchs under the control of a powerful line of viziers. who allowed the threat posed by the Hyksos to take firm root on the Delta.
During this period, Egyptian kingship may even have been elected or, more likely, appointed (by powerful viziers who held the pharaoh's purse strings and controlled state administation). One monarch late in the dynasty, Wahibre Ibiau, who ruled for ten or eleven years (dates uncertain), may have even been a former vizier (a self-appointed ruler).
Beginning with the reign of Sobekhotep IV, the power of the Thirteenth Dynasty became so weak that a subsequent king Merneferre Ay (who assumed the throne aroung 1700 BC) appears to have been a mere vassal of the Hyksos princes ruling there.
Unhappy with this state of affairs, a provincial ruling family at Xois, located in the marshes of the western Delta, broke away from the central authority to form the Fourteenth Dynasty, a period in which the traditional Egyptian pharaoh-kings gradually lost their grasp over Egypt.
An accepted early account of the Hyksos' conquest of Egypt, found in the Aegyptiaca of Manetho, says that during the reign of one "Tutimaios" (Dudimose I of the Fourteenth Dynasty) the Hyksos expanded southward from the Delta and overran most Egypt, led by Salitis, the founder of the Fifteenth Dynasty. Salitis was, in turn, succeeded by a group of Hyksos princes and chieftains, who ruled in the eastern Delta. Their names can be found on scarabs inscribed with names of rulers who modern historians usually group together into the Sixteenth Dynasty.
The decline of Egypt that began during the Thirteenth Dynasty, accelerated during the Fourteenth Dynasty, and culminated when the Hyksos seized power and plunged Egypt into a period of disarray during the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Dynasties came to an end around the time that Itjtawy fell to the Hyksos.
Seeing this as the last straw, the native Egyptian ruling house at Thebes declared its independence from the vassal dynasty at Itjtawy and set itself up as the Seventeenth Dynasty. This event later proved to be the salvation of Egypt and would eventually lead the war of liberation that drove the Hyksos out of Egypt.
The two last kings of this dynasty have been traditionally credited with the final defeat of the Hyksos: Seqenenre Tao II the Brave (reign 1560 or 1558 BC, only a few years) (whose mummified head, discovered in 1881, shows that he was killed by a dagger blow to the neck while he was prone, either on the ground in battle or while asleep) and Kamose (reign c. 1555–1550 BC), the last of the native Egyptian kings at Thebes, and brother of Ahmose I, founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty.
With the expulsion of the Hyksos, the Seventeenth Dynasty comes to an end. With the Eighteenth Dynasty, the New Kingdom begins.