Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt: Definition & Timeline

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the Middle Kingdom period of ancient Egypt. Covering approximately 400 years from 2040 B.C. to about 1640 B.C., the Middle Kingdom period was Egypt reunited for the first time since the Old Kingdom period.

Reunions

Countries seem to splitting apart more and more these days. The southern half of Sudan is now South Sudan, Montenegro finally broke all its ties with Serbia, and other states like Chechnya and Catalonia are still trying. Rarely in modern times does the opposite transition take place.

However, just such a transition took place around 2040 B.C. in ancient Egypt, ushering in one of the more prosperous and peaceful time periods of ancient Egyptian history: the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt.

Reunion and 11th Dynasty (2055-1991 B.C.)

When Mentuhotep II took the Egyptian throne in Thebes in 2055 B.C., the kingdom of Egypt was essentially split in two, with Mentuhotep ruling the south (Upper Egypt) from Thebes, and a rival dynasty ruling the north (Lower Egypt). In 2040, Mentuhotep attacked the northern capital, Herakleopolis, sacking the city and effectively ending any potential threat from the rival, northern dynasty. Mentuhotep did not stop at reunifying Upper and Lower Egypt; he continued consolidating Egyptian power in territories the kingdom had lost during the previous period of strife and weakness, such as in Nubia and the Sinai Peninsula.

12th Dynasty (1991 B.C.-1803 B.C.)

In 1991 B.C., Mentuhotep II's grandson, Mentuhotep IV, was displaced on the throne by Amenemhet I, who began the 12th Dynasty. Although the exact circumstances are still unclear, historians think Amenemhet may have been Mentuhotep IV's vizier, and hence was placed on the throne as part of a palace coup. Regardless, Amenemhet and his successors continued the territorial expansion and consolidation of central power that Mentuhotep II had begun, campaigning far south and even as far west as Palestine.

The 12th Dynasty saw the height of Egyptian centralized power and cultural vibrancy in the Middle Kingdom period. The kingdom was incredibly wealthy, and the Egyptian government could afford to operate many of its mines and improve city infrastructure year round. During the reign of Amenemhet I, the capital was moved north from Thebes to a newly built city, Itj Tawy. The exact location of the ancient city is unknown to modern scholars. The 12th Dynasty's final ruler was also the first female ruler of Egypt, Pharaoh Sobekneferu.

13th Dynasty and Decline (1803 B.C.-1640 B.C.)

Sobekneferu reigned for only four years and died without any heirs. The period that followed saw several unrelated pharaohs and kings reign poorly and for short periods of time. Decay and rebellion largely marked this period, since rulers failed to maintain the centralized power built up by the 11th and 12th dynasties.

Egypt also lost territory as the Nubians in the south and Middle Eastern cultures to the west took back land that Egypt had captured during the height of the Middle Kingdom. Although the details of the final years of the 13th Dynasty are unknown, it appears the Hyksos people slowly grew in power and number in Lower Egypt, and after the death of Pharaoh Merneferre Ay in 1640 B.C., completely severed the connections between Upper and Lower Egypt, ending the period historians consider the Middle Kingdom.

What Makes the Middle Kingdom Special?

Site of Mentuhotep II

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