An Introduction to Pharaonic Egypt | The Rise of Egypt | Rebuilding | From the Depths to the Heights | The Amarna Period | The Long, Slow Decline | Egyptian Mummies | Egyptian Pyramids | Egyptian Legends and Theology | Egyptian Gods
Following the collapse of the Old Kingdom, Egypt was at a low ebb. Power rested more with the regional rulers (nomarchs) than the pharaoh, making military action very difficult. For 150 years, Egypt would struggle for unity at a critical stage in its history. It was thanks to the military brilliance of Mentuhotep II that Egypt regained its pre-eminence for another 300 years.
This entry will trace the rebuilding of this once-great nation as it entered a second period of superiority.
First Intermediate Period (2181 - 2050 BC)
There may have been invasions from the east during this period. It is often unclear which dynasty a pharaoh belonged to, or indeed whether some of these dynasties really existed at all. Those that did exist may have ruled only part of Egypt, perhaps simultaneously with each other. By the very nature of a nation in turmoil, records are fragmentary and often conflicting.
Some sources claim this may have been significantly later, from 2117 BC onwards. Others include the Seventh and Eighth Dynasties as part of the Old Kingdom, and thus date the start of the First Intermediate Period to the end of the Eighth Dynasty in 2160 BC.
Seventh Dynasty (2181 - 2173 BC)
This was clearly a turbulent time for Egypt, when central authority was totally lacking, although Memphis remained the nominal capital. Different lists give different numbers and dates for the pharaohs of this dynasty. One even states there were as many as 70 rulers in 70 days! It is widely accepted that this is a turn of phrase to suggest great instability, rather than the literal truth, and indeed there may not have been a recognisable Seventh Dynasty at all.
Eighth Dynasty (2173 - 2160 BC)
This was another minor dynasty, with an unknown number (possibly six) of kings, notable mostly for the brevity of their reigns. Once again, this indicates court intrigues and power struggles at Memphis. It is often merged with the Seventh Dynasty. There is disagreement over how long this dynasty lasted, with some sources saying it ended with the establishment of the Ninth Dynasty in 2160 BC and other sources saying it continued until 2125 BC.
Ninth (2160 - 2130 BC), Tenth (2130 - 2040 BC) and 11th (2133 - 1991 BC) Dynasties
The Ninth and Tenth Dynasties ruled from Herakliopolis Magna in Lower Egypt; at the same time, the 11th Dynasty had consolidated power in Upper Egypt from its capital at Thebes. The two kingdoms were once again divided, and even within Upper Egypt, Edfu and Thebes were struggling for supremacy.
When it did come, the reversal of this period of decline was sudden. In around 2055 (or 2050) BC, Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II of the 11th Dynasty defeated the Lower Egyptian pharaohs and re-united Egypt, marking the end of this turbulent time and launching Egypt into a remarkable resurgence from what must have seemed like terminal decline.
Despite its importance and impact, dates for the 11th Dynasty are particularly controversial. Suggested dates for its foundation range from 2125 BC through 2133 BC to 2160 BC, and its end from 1985 to 1994 BC. In any event, its reign covered both the end of the chaotic First Intermediate Period and the start of the Middle Kingdom.
Middle Kingdom (2050 - 1781 BC)
The 11th Dynasty now ruled the whole of Egypt, and expanded into Libya, Nubia and Sinai. Mining, trade and the arts all flourished. Mentuhotep III and Mentuhotep IV even ventured as far as Punt1. For over a century, Egypt reached greater heights than it had during the Old Kingdom. When the dynasty died out, the final pharaoh's vizier, Amenemkhat, assumed power and founded the 12th Dynasty.
12th Dynasty (1991 - 1781 BC)
The capital moved to el-Lisht, Nubia was recaptured and Libya subdued. Trade links were established with Palestine and Syria. Pyramids, which had been being built smaller and more elaborate for many centuries, now went out of fashion altogether. The last pyramid to be built in Egypt was that of Amenemhat III2. Queen Sobekneferu died without heirs, coinciding with another major drought, and the dynasty collapsed in around 1781 BC. Egypt was always dependent on the flooding of the Nile, and without clear leadership, this drought was more than the kingdom could stand; it would take 200 years to recover from this blow.