Tag Archives: Ancient Egypt

Egyptian Kingship in the Middle Kingdom

by Tim Harding

Divine kingship was the most striking feature of both the Middle and the Old Kingdoms (Trigger et al 1983, 71).  The king was thought to have a dual nature, both human and divine and was “a human in the role of a god” (Schneider 1984, 165).

The Egyptians also believed that the world was torn between potential chaos and order.  They thought that disorder is contained by the rule of kings.  In this way, their view of the nature of the world aligned with the structure of political power (Scarre 2008, 118).  In particular, the Middle Kingdom emphasised the indispensability of kingship for the well-being of the state and society (Schneider 1984, 170).

The Middle Kingdom lasted from 2040 to 1650 BCE and has been described as the classic period of Egyptian civilisation, marking a high point in the development of poetry and literature (Scarre 2008, 131-132, 145).  This literature provides information about both the religious and political dimensions of Egyptian kingship; and the relationship between these dimensions.

The king had obligations not only to humans but to the gods as well, including appeasing the gods with divine offerings and acting as a mediator between the gods (Schneider 1984, 169).  Indeed, there was a belief that religious piety and successful rule go together (Trigger et al 1983, 75).  For example, in the ‘Building Inscription of Sesostris I’ the King says:

He (Harakhty)[1] begat me to do what should be done for him,
to accomplish what he commands to do.
He appointed me shepherd of this land,
knowing him who would herd it for him…
He destined me to rule the people,
made me to be before mankind…
I excel by acting for my maker,
pleasing the god with what he gave (Lichtheim 1975, 116-117).

This text also illustrates the importance of the king’s role building enduring monuments, including temples and palaces as well as his own burial site (Schneider 1984, 170; Montet 1964, 46).

‘The Prophecies of Neferti’ (Lichtheim 1975, 139-145) describe the necessity of having a strong king to ensure Maat.[2]  This is done through a literary device[3] in which a picture of anarchy and chaos is depicted, together with calamities of nature including crop failures (Trigger et al 1983, 75).  Then along comes a king (probably Amenemhat I) who reunites the country, drive out foreigners, defend the borders and restores order (Lichtheim 1975, 143-144).

The importance of the king to the protection and unity of the Egyptian nation is also shown in the text entitled ‘A Cycle Of Hymns to King Sesostris III’:

Hail to you, Khakaure, our Horus, Divine of Form!
Land’s protector who widens its borders,
Who smites foreign countries with his crown.
Who holds the Two Lands in his arms’ embrace,
[Who subdues foreign] lands by a motion of his hands (Lichtheim 1975, 198).

The King claims to be the conqueror and owner of the land of all Egypt:

[Mine is the land], its length and breadth,
I was nursed to be a conqueror.
Mine is the land, I am its lord,
my power reaches heaven’s height (Lichtheim 1975, 117).

In other words, the king was the sole owner of the land and all that it produces.  These royal privileges not only gave him an economic monopoly within Egypt, but also the right to do as he pleases with the spoils of military campaigns including the mineral resources of foreign dominions such as the Sinai and Nubia (Schneider 1984, 168).

Notwithstanding the absolute power of the king, one king named Merikare was advised by his father to display justice and mercy in the exercise of his power:

Do not be evil, for patience is good; …Do justice, that you may live long upon the earth. Calm the weeper, do not oppress the widow, do not oust a man from his father’s property, do not degrade magnates from their seats. Beware of punishing wrongly;…(Simpson 1973).[4]

‘The Story of Sinuhe’ (Lichtheim 1975, 223-235) also tells how the kings of Egypt could combine simplicity with grandeur, and sternness with clemency (Montet 1964, 61).  While he was serving with prince Senwosret I in Libya, Sinuhe deserted and fled to Canaan because he overheard a secret about the death of the Egyptian king Amenemhet I.  He remained in exile until he was an old man, when he received an invitation from King Senwosret I to return to Egypt where he was graciously pardoned and provided with the honour of a house and burial tomb.

Merikare was advised to cultivate a powerful elite or entourage to assist in him in the application of his laws (Montet 1964, 35).  The development of a closely regimented and centralised society was later needed for the expansion of agricultural production into new areas such as the Fayyum Oasis near Memphis.  Papyri found during Petrie’s excavations of this area reveal the existence of a mayor, legal offices and a prison (Scarre 2008, 131-132).

However, not all of our knowledge about Egyptian kingship is derived from literary texts.  For example, the frequently depicted images of the king ‘smiting the foes’ and hunting wild animals are key components of the royal propaganda portraying the king as the defender and extender of the nation’s borders against the chaotic external world (Schneider 1984, 168).  These images complement texts such as where King Amenemhet I boasts of subduing lions and capturing crocodiles, together with defeating and humiliating foreigners (Lichtheim 1975, 137).  Other sources of information about the kingship in the Middle Kingdom include the various monuments the kings constructed (Schneider 1984, 170); and objects bearing their inscriptions in foreign places of trading importance such as the Sinai, the Levant, Syria and the Aegean (Scarre 2008, 131).

In conclusion, the literature of the Middle Kingdom provides fragmented glimpses of the behaviours of certain kings – it does not provide a complete overview of kingship as might be expected in a historical narrative like that of Plutarch or Quintus-Curtuis (Montet 1964, 62; Trigger et al 1983, 73).  Furthermore, these glimpses are presented in the form of concisely worded and sometimes cryptic assertions requiring interpretation, rather than as cogently argued treatises (Trigger et al 1983, 71).  Nevertheless, the literature provides us with some important pieces of the ‘jigsaw’ of archaeological evidence; and when read in the context of the other sources of evidence, a coherent picture of Egyptian kingship is emerging.


Ancient Sources

‘A Cycle Of Hymns to King Sesostris’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

‘Building Inscription of Sesostris I’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

‘Instruction Addressed to King Merikare’ in Simpson, W.K (ed.), 1973, The Literature of Ancient Egypt, New Haven and London, pp. 180-192.

‘Instruction of King Amenemhet I for his Son Sesostris I’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

‘The Story of Sinuhe’ in Lichtheim, M., 1975 Ancient Egyptian Literature; a book of readings, Vol 1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley.

Modern Sources

Anon. (2010)  AAH1010 Ancient Civilisations 1: The Bronze Age. Unit Guide, Semester 1, 2010. Monash University School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Clayton.

Montet, P. (1964 )  Eternal Egypt Phoenix Press, London.

Scarre, C and Fagan, B.M. (2008)  Ancient Civilisations, (third edition). Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River

Schneider, T. (1984)  Sacred Kingship in Anon. (2010) AAH1010 Ancient Civilisations 1: The Bronze Age. Unit Guide, Semester 1, 2010. Monash University School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Clayton, 165-171.

Trigger, B.G., Kemp, B.J, O’Connor, D and Lloyd, A.B. (1983 ) Ancient Egypt- A Social History Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[1] As Harakhty (Horakhty), or ‘Horus of the two horizons’, Horus was the god of the rising and setting sun.

[2] Maat was the fundamental concept of the Egyptian world view, signifying the correct structure of life and the world (Schneider 1984, 166).

[3] The ‘prophesies’ were actually written during the king’s reign to glorify the king (Lichtheim 1975, 139).

[4] Translated from the Leningrad Papyrus, written by a scribe called Khamwese during the Middle Kingdom (Simpson 1973)

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