Egypt's First Intermediate Period: Timeline & Pharaohs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Egypt is often remembered for advanced civilization and powerful pharaohs who ruled with absolute power. In this lesson, we'll examine a time when this wasn't quite the case.

Egypt's First Intermediate Period

Sometimes, the rise of civilization can feel like a major sporting event. There's a lot going on, we're making great progress, and then suddenly, it's half time. Everyone takes a break and reconvenes in a hundred years or so. That's sort of what happened in ancient Egypt. Egypt was doing great under a series of dynasties, periods where a single hereditary line is in power, which lasted for centuries. However, this so-called Old Kingdom eventually collapsed, and Egyptian civilization took a time-out. The period in between the powerful and advanced Old and Middle Kingdoms is called the First Intermediate Period. This period, which lasted from roughly 2181-2055 BCE, was characterized by chaos and disorder as the once-centralized kingdom of the pharaohs was split among multiple cities. Historians call this 'the dark age of ancient Egypt'. We'll just call it the intermission of Egyptian civilization.

Artwork from the First Intermediate Period
Artwork from the First Intermediate Period

Fall of the Old Kingdom

Let's start by talking about the Old Kingdom, comprised of four major dynasties of pharaohs reigning from roughly 2700-2181 BCE. Old Kingdom pharaohs had absolute power, and used it to form massive armies, create expansive trade networks, and build monumental structures like the Sphinx and pyramids of Giza. But, things couldn't stay great forever. Pepi II was the last pharaoh of the 6th dynasty. He wasn't a bad ruler, but did have the troublesome gift of longevity. Pepi II lived well into his 90s, meaning that he actually outlived most of his heirs, creating a crisis of succession. As the royal house fell into chaos with various family members claiming the right to rule, provincial governors of the vast Egyptian empire called nomarchs started amassing their own power, building their own armies and constructing their own temples. To make things worse, the Nile failed to flood. The annual flooding of the Nile is what made Egyptian soil fertile, and without this crops failed and famine spread. So, things were terrible and the once-powerful Egyptian kingdom quickly fell apart with the end of the 6th dynasty.

The Old Kingdom knew how to make a monument
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The 7th and 8th Dynasties

So the Old Kingdom is over and Egypt is in a state of disorder. From this, two successive dynasties emerged that tried to consolidate power in the city of Memphis, the former home of the 6th dynasty pharaohs. Unfortunately they weren't too successful and since they left behind so few records we don't know much about them. The 7th dynasty seems to have been comprised of government officials who had served under the Old Kingdom and were trying to restore power. The 8th dynasty pharaohs claimed to be the direct descendants of the 6th dynasty pharaohs, and also ruled from Memphis, although their reigns seem to have been short and frequently disrupted.

The 9th and 10th Dynasties

While the pharaohs in Memphis attempted to consolidate power, another group of would-be-rulers established their own power base in the city of Heracleopolis in Lower Egypt, north of the kings in Memphis. Around 2150 BCE, the Heracleopolitan rulers overwhelmed the pharaohs at Memphis, and Wahkare Kheti I founded the 9th dynasty, based in Heracleopolis. Kheti I was remembered as a tyrant, who incidentally went mad and according to legend was eaten by a crocodile, but his successors weren't as bad. Kheti II and Kheti III managed to restore some stability to Egypt, although they never gained the true power of the pharaohs of old.

Lower Egypt
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