Ancient History & Civilisation

4. The Middle Kingdom

The Feudal Age—The Twelfth Dynasty—The Hyksos Domination

Kings were never so plentiful as in Egypt. History lumps them into dynasties—monarchs of one line or family; but even then they burden the memory intolerably.* One of these early Pharaohs, Pepi II, ruled Egypt for ninety-four years (2738-2644 B.C.)—the longest reign in history. When he died anarchy and dissolution ensued, the Pharaohs lost control, and feudal barons ruled the nomes independently: this alternation between centralized and decentralized power is one of the cyclical rhythms of history, as if men tired alternately of immoderate liberty and excessive order. After a Dark Age of four chaotic centuries a strong-willed Charlemagne arose, set things severely in order, changed the capital from Memphis to Thebes, and under the title of Amenemhet I inaugurated that Twelfth Dynasty during which all the arts, excepting perhaps architecture, reached a height of excellence never equaled in known Egypt before or again. Through an old inscription Amenemhet speaks to us:

I was one who cultivated grain and loved the harvest god;

The Nile greeted me and every valley;

None was hungry in my years, none thirsted then;

Men dwelt in peace through that which I wrought, and conversed of me.

His reward was a conspiracy among the Talleyrands and Fouchés whom he had raised to high office. He put it down with a mighty hand, but left for his son, Polonius-like, a scroll of bitter counsel—an admirable formula for despotism, but a heavy price to pay for royalty:

Hearken to that which I say to thee,

That thou mayest be king of the earth, . . .

That thou mayest increase good:

Harden thyself against all subordinates—

The people give heed to him who terrorizes them;

Approach them not alone.

Fill not thy heart with a brother,

Know not a friend; . . .

When thou sleepest, guard for thyself thine own heart;

For a man hath no friend in the day of evil.36

This stern ruler, who seems to us so human across four thousand years, established a system of administration that held for half a millennium. Wealth grew again, and then art; Senusret I built a great canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, repelled Nubian invaders, and erected great temples at Heliopolis, Abydos, and Karnak; ten colossal seated figures of him have cheated time, and litter the Cairo Museum. Another Senusret—the Third—began the subjugation of Palestine, drove back the recurrent Nubians, and raised a stele or slab at the southern frontier, “not from any desire that ye should worship it, but that ye should fight for it.”37 Amenemhet III, a great administrator, builder of canals and irrigation, put an end (perhaps too effectively) to the power of the barons, and replaced them with appointees of the king. Thirteen years after his death Egypt was plunged into disorder by a dispute among rival claimants to the throne, and the Middle Kingdom ended in two centuries of turmoil and disruption. Then the Hyksos, nomads from Asia, invaded disunited Egypt, set fire to the cities, razed the temples, squandered the accumulated wealth, destroyed much of the accumulated art, and for two hundred years subjected the Nile valley to the rule of the “Shepherd Kings.” Ancient civilizations were little isles in a sea of barbarism, prosperous settlements surrounded by hungry, envious and warlike hunters and herders; at any moment the wall of defense might be broken down. So the Kassites raided Babylonia, the Gauls attacked Greece and Rome, the Huns overran Italy, the Mongols came down upon Peking.

Soon, however, the conquerors in their turn grew fat and prosperous, and lost control; the Egyptians rose in a war of liberation, expelled the Hyksos, and established that Eighteenth Dynasty which was to lift Egypt to greater wealth, power and glory than ever before.

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