Ancient Egypt: The History of the First Intermediate Period

It was the century that shook Egypt’s confidence forever. After more than five hundred years of wealth and power centered in Memphis, and nearly a thousand years of united rule under a divine king, the wealth, power and unity of the royal administration had collapsed. The literary record speaks to a sense of crisis on nearly every level, from famine, brigandage and regional warfare down to individual despair and suicide. At the same time, it was also a period in which local initiative could be exercised without direction from above, and the average Egyptian saw an expansion of his opportunities. Even so, the period would thereafter be remembered with aversion as the period when everything was turned upside down. Before the First Intermediate Period, a total collapse of the divine order in Egypt was considered impossible; after the First Intermediate, such collapse was a disaster to be avoided with all of the effort that the country could muster.

Modern Egyptology is divided on when the First Intermediate Period properly begins. Some sources end the Old Kingdom with the conclusion of the Sixth Dynasty, leaving the Seventh and Eighth to join the Ninth, Tenth and first half of the Eleventh as the First Intermediate Period. Others consider the Seventh and Eighth Dynasties to be last gasp of the Old Kingdom, beginning the First Intermediate Period with the Ninth Dynasty. Both approaches have their merits; the shorter version of the First Intermediate Period has the advantage of associating this period only with the ascendancy of the rulers of Herakleopolis, and keeping the last efforts to govern the country out of Memphis within the confines of the Old Kingdom. To this writer, however, it makes more sense to think of the First Intermediate Period as beginning with the effective loss of central control at the end of the Sixth Dynasty, and ending with its restoration in the middle of the Eleventh Dynasty.

The Old Kingdom ended shortly after the death of the aged king Pepi II. Nominally, he had two successors, a son who took the name of Merenra followed in short order by a woman, best known by the Greek name Nitokris, who may have been his wife or sister or both. Neither of these figures have yet been corroborated by any contemporary evidence, and they may be legendary. What is clear is that Pepi II left behind a country where much of his wealth and power was dispersed among local fiefdoms across the entire length of the kingdom, and after years of ineffectual rule, local governors (or nomarchs) were both able and willing to rule their own fiefs as petty kings. Moreover, the process by which the Sahara finally dried out was complete some time during Pepi’s reign, and the economy was faltering under a series of subsistence crises that resulted from inadequate Nile flooding, possibly exacerbated by the failure of traditional irrigation efforts.

Manetho’s King List suggests a Seventh Dynasty consisting of seventy kings who ruled for only seventy days, but this is surely a metaphor rather than a fact. (The number seven was an important symbolic number for the Egyptians because it combined three, the number of plurality, with four, the number of completeness.) It probably speaks to a period of transition in which no ruler was capable of consolidating any degree of power.

The Eighth Dynasty managed to maintain a pretense to power at Memphis for about two decades. None of these kings ruled for long, and only two of them, Wadjkara and Qakara Iby, left corroborating evidence that has been found by Egyptologists. The latter left a stunted pyramid that graphically demonstrates the decline of Memphis.

Then, around 2160 BC, the nomarch of Herakleopolis took power as Meryibra Khety. He transferred the seat of government to his own city, and he may have exercised nominal control over the entire country. While he and his successors claimed to be the rightful successors of the Memphite tradition, and seem to have carried out the forms of Old Kingdom funerary and material culture on a distinctly smaller scale, the real structure of the state was markedly different. Where the administration of the Old Kingdom had been a strictly hierarchical bureaucracy, that of the Herakleopolitan overlordship was based more on loose alliances and clientism.

It was a system that could not arrest separatist pressures and in some respects accelerated them. Both the negative and positive aspects of the First Intermediate Period reinforced the trend. On the negative side, regional powers functioned more and more like independent, and often mutually antagonistic, states, complete with their own militia forces. Robbers were able to find places of safety from local authorities where they could strike with relative impunity. The general deficiency in the agricultural basis of the economy was exacerbated by a breakdown in the flow of goods on a national level; accordingly, when a given region suffered a greater agricultural failure than usual, famine was more likely to result. It is said that in some places, desperate people even turned to cannibalism.

On the positive side, the rise in local initiative offered opportunities for greater prosperity in areas not suffering from catastrophic agricultural failure. The analysis of graves from the period demonstrates an increase in the value of common burials, suggesting an expansion of everyday luxuries in the population. The economic realities were mirrored in the funerary tradition by the extension of the spells intended to safeguard eternal life from kings to commoners in the form of the Coffin Texts. Cultural expression ceased to be ordered on a national level, with local artisans operating independently. On the downside, quality often declined drastically, as conventions such as the Canon of Proportions were abandoned, but more positively, something like a kind of popular culture emerged. Finally, many of the local rulers made a sincere effort to govern wisely and well, protecting their people from external incursions and leading efforts to forestall potential economic disasters.

Given that the Herakleopolitan government could oppose these trends only with ties of kinship, offers of mutual assistance and other tribal or feudal measures, it is not surprising that it lost control of the south of the country by the time that the Ninth Dynasty gave way to the Tenth. Alongside the Tenth Dynasty, ruling Egypt from Thinis to the Mediterranean from its seat at Herakleopolis, rose a new ruling family at Thebes that secured the rest of the country under its control. This southern kingship, ruled by a series of kings named Intef, constitutes the first half of the Eleventh Dynasty. The Herakleopolitan and Theban kings did not coexist peacefully with each other; Intef I of Thebes needed to win a campaign against Ankhtify of Herakleopolis to secure his southern domain, and warfare would continue on a sporadic basis until the Theban king Montuhotep decisively defeated the northern kings and united the Two Lands. Progress in this war was slow, so the country added protracted warfare to its list of troubles, especially in the center of the country where the fluctuating battle lines remained.

By the time that Montuhotep managed to win control of the whole country, he already had an administration system functioning in the south that was capable of assuming the governance of the whole country. Montuhotep, at last, was able to rule as a traditional king. The period that he ended was certainly one that demonstrated the resilience of Egyptian culture. After nearly a millennium of guidance by royal administration, it was suddenly left without such guidance, and despite the numerous difficulties it survived. In certain respects, the culture was even enriched by the process. At the same time, it must be observed that the culture came away from the experience with an outlook that was distinctly gloomier than previously. Subjectively, at least, the First Intermediate Period was an unprecedented national disaster, and it became the standard by which future reversals would be measured.


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