Ancient Egypt - The Middle Kingdom (2181-1650 BC)

By Professor Emeritus John Baines, University of Oxford

A Golden Age for Literature

In this podcast Professor Emeritus John Baines, University of Oxford, provides an introduction to the First Intermediate Period (c. 2181–1650 BC) which followed the decline of the Old Kingdom, and discusses the history of Egypt's Middle Kingdom. 

The Middle Kingdom lasted from approximately 2040 to 1700 BC, stretching from the reunification of Egypt under the reign of Mentuhotep II in the Eleventh Dynasty to the middle of the Thirteenth Dynasty. The kings of the Eleventh Dynasty ruled from Thebes and the kings of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasties ruled from el-Lisht. 

The First Intermediate Period seems to have been era of decentralisation, where provincials were more prosperous, and life was less unequal, than it had been under the Old Kingdom.

From at least the time of the Pyramid Texts, kings hoped that after their deaths they could emulate Osiris's restoration to life and his rule over the realm of the dead. By the early Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BCE) or perhaps earlier, non-royal Egyptians believed that they, too, could overcome death as Osiris had, by worshipping him and receiving the funerary rites that were partly based on his myth. Osiris thus became Egypt's most important deity for the afterlife. You can watch an animated film depicting the Osiris myth here.

During the Middle Kingdom decentralisation was reversed, central governmental control was expanded, and major administrative reforms took place. Egypt colonised parts of Nubia, and some of the control methods they employed in their colonies may have been brought back and utilised on the domestic population of Egypt.

The Middle Kingdom represented a period of major linguistic and written reforms, producing what would later functioned as the classical Egyptian language, which remained in use for traditional purposes into Roman times. During this period we see the emergence of texts written for the purpose of entertainment and intellectual curiosity, leading to a flourishing of literature including stories such as the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor and the Tale of Sinuhe (a filmed retelling of the latter story can be watched here).

The Middle Kingdom was followed by the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt, another period of division that involved foreign rule of Lower Egypt by the Hyksos, who had originated in Western Asia.

1. Can you describe Egypt during the First Intermediate Period?
2. What leads to the emergence of the Middle Kingdom?
3. What changes and continuities can we see from the Old Kingdom to the Middle Kingdom?
4. How dominant a force was the Middle Kingdom? Who were its major rivals?
5. What was the Middle Kingdom’s ‘Golden age’? What advances do we see in the art and mathematics?
6. Do we start to see major narrative and philosophical works during this period? What do these works tell us about the personality, concerns, and ideas of Middle Kingdom Egyptians?
7. Are there any similarities between the decline of the Middle and Old Kingdoms?

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