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Ancient Egypt – Dynasties XIII & XIV

An usual thing in the past, the political unity of the two lands of upper and lower Egypt under the rule of one king was a prerequisite for the stability and prosperity of Egyptian society. Without it, there was at least in theory, chaos when this political unity broke down and the country was fractured into smaller competing states. We had what modern Egyptologists refer to as an intermediate period. We saw one such era, the first intermediate period, roughly between 2180 to 2040 BC. During that time there were essentially five royal houses that claimed to be the true rulers of Egypt, though eventually a member of what we refer to as the 11th dynasty from the city of Thebes, defeated its rival claimants and was able to unite enough of the country behind it to, in a practical sense, be the rulers of Egypt.

After the 11th dynasty came the 12th, whose kings are said to have ruled over a golden age. At the time, the economy was booming, the arts flourished and the reach of the state expanded far beyond Egypt’s traditional borders, especially south into Nubia. However, for reasons that are still not completely understood, the 12th dynasty fell apart around 1790 BC, with apparently another family or group of kings replacing it. It was during the reign of this so-called 13th dynasty that another period of political fragmentation would begin and kick off what has come to be known as the second intermediate period?

The second intermediate period is one of the most difficult phases of Egyptian history for Egyptologists to unravel. In short, it consisted of the political breakdown of the Egyptian state into groups of kings that we refer to as dynasties though, as we’ll see, at least one of them may not have constituted a dynasty in the traditional sense. The main sources for the names of the kings of this period are the Manetho’s Aegyptiaca, written in the 3rd century BC, and a king list thought to date to the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II, that we call the Turin Canon. Unfortunately, the incomplete nature of these documents, along with scant archaeological evidence to confirm the existence of these rulers, let alone the order of their reigns, has made our understanding of the political situation during the second intermediate period extremely difficult. However, by piecing together what little is known and generally agreed upon by Egyptologists, we can get an idea of what was going on during this time frame.

Sobekneferu as the Last Governing Female in the 12th Dynasty

The transition between the 12th to the 13th dynasties seems to have taken place without any violence or bloodshed. The real reason for the establishment of this new dynasty isn’t known, but it likely had to do with the last ruler of the 12th dynasty, being a woman named Sobekneferu. As you may know, a queen on the throne of Egypt wasn’t just taboo in the male-dominated, conservative Egyptian society of the day, but more like an abomination. However, it probably was a last resort for the members of the 12th dynasty to keep their hold on power since, as far as we know, the final male ruler of the line, Amenemhat IV, doesn’t seem to have had a suitable male heir to replace him. And so Amenemhat IV was succeeded by the only person from his family at the time who may have had some capability to govern: Sobekneferu, a woman who was likely his half-sister but could also have been his wife or daughter. There’s still debate amongst Egyptologists as to who she was.

When, for whatever reason, Sobekneferu’s reign ended, and again, we still don’t know why, there was probably no one from the immediate family to succeed her and so another, perhaps from a related or different branch of the family, took her place. We’ve seen such transitions of power happen before, so this would help to explain why there may have not been any trouble recorded during the succession process and also the reason that the capital remained at Itjtawy. The stronghold and seat of the Twelfth Dynasty.

All of the evidence uncovered so far indicates that when the first king of the 13th dynasty took over, he was recognized throughout the country. But here’s also where problems begin in our understanding of just what was going on and exactly who was ruling. For Egyptologists, the chronology of the 13th dynasty is extremely confusing. Many books on the history of ancient Egypt barely mention it and simply state that it had between 50 to 70 kings and lasted for about 150 years. A few Egyptologists, though, contend that there were only 10 kings who ruled for a total of 70 years. This in and of itself is a bad sign, because so many kings in so short a period implies major political instability at the top. One theory that’s been proposed is that perhaps the 13th dynasty wasn’t really a dynasty at all, but instead a number of rotating or elected rulers from the various powerful families of the day. Since the most respected leaders in every family were generally also the eldest, it would mean that whoever was chosen to be king would have already been quite old. To begin with, this might explain the short reigns of so many kings. Such a system may also have been devised to prevent another great civil war, like the one that occurred after the demise of the Sixth Dynasty, which also started due to a crisis of succession.

The Order of the 13th Dynasty and Its Kingship

Along with not knowing much about the identities of its rulers, Egyptologists also continue to debate the order of the 13th dynasty’s known kings. Part of the reason for this is that no royal annals from the time have been discovered and existing king lists, such as the Turin Canon, are damaged, incomplete and conflict with other known information, leading Egyptologists to constantly revise and come up with new hypotheses. For example, up until fairly recently, a king named Wadjkare was identified to have been the first king of the Thirteenth Dynasty. Now, as of perhaps only the last two decades, the consensus amongst Egyptologists is that Wadjkare may have been the 18th or 19th ruler of the line and that a king named Sobekhotep was the first ruler of the dynasty.

Unlike with previous dynasties, there are few, if any, records of significance with regard to official state policies or military activities, for example, state-sponsored mining activities in the Wadi Maghara seem to have ceased, and military campaigns in Nubia are no longer mentioned. Yet, despite this, the state seems to have survived intact with little change in Egypt during the new dynasty’s first few decades. The credit for this goes not to any individual ruler, but to the efficient government bureaucracy that had been set up during the reigns of 12th dynasty kings, such as Senusret III. The real power brokers and managers of the kingdom were the capable viziers and Egypt’s top civil servants. The kings were probably just figureheads who were still needed for ideological and religious reasons, but who may not have played any effective role in running the country.

Unfortunately, the government was at Itjtawy and capable administrators didn’t have the divine authority or charisma that a powerful king, such as Senusret or Amenemhat III, would have had to exert their will throughout the entire country. The same was true for the short-lived and likely old kings who, as far as we know, never really left the capital. And so gradually the central government’s power in Itjtawy carried less weight in the provinces, especially along the peripheries of the kingdom. By the reign of a king named Sobekhotep IV, who could have ruled anytime between 1750 to 1650 BC, the Egyptian government’s authority in its far-flung provinces and conquered territories more or less collapsed.

Sobekhotep IV’s Great Fortress Cities in Nubia

While Egyptologists consider Sobekhotep IV to have been one of the more powerful kings of the 13th dynasty, he was not able to avert the loss of sizable chunks of territory that the Egyptians had controlled for nearly two centuries, either during or just shortly after Sobekhotep IV’s reign. The great twelfth dynasty fortress cities in Egyptian controlled Nubia, specifically in Wawat, were relieved of their garrisons and eventually completely abandoned. In some cases, the remaining guards and soldiers simply defected to the ascendant Nubian kingdom of Kush.The irony is that these great fortresses were specifically built for the sole purpose of protecting Egypt from Kushite attacks, so much for that strategy. The second great series of events was that in the north, specifically the eastern delta regions of lower Egypt, a seismic demographic shift had been occurring for generations that had irreversibly altered the cultural and political landscape of the region.

Since at least 2000 bc, groups of people from western Asia had been settling in Egypt, they’re collectively referred to in Egyptian texts as asiatics, though most of them seem to have come from the lands of Canaan and parts of the southern levant. Many had arrived in Egypt as slaves. Most had ventured into the kingdom of the nile willingly in order to find work in the fields and the construction sites of middle kingdom.

One area of the eastern delta that really took off economically was the town of Hw.twar.t. Better known by its greek name, Avaris, the town’s location near both the border with Canaan, as well as the shores of the Mediterranean sea, made it a trade hotspot, and this attracted many people from the nearby countries to settle in a virus and make their fortunes. While there’s evidence of people settling there from as far away as Cyprus, the most populous group by far even outnumbering, the native Egyptians were those of Canaanite and Levantine origin.

By the height of the middle kingdom, around 1800 bc, communities of Egyptianized Canaanites could be found in nearly all of the major cities of Egypt, though they may have started out as manual workers and farm hands over a few generations. Many of them rose to relatively high positions within the local Egyptian government. In fast-growing cities such as Avaris, they also had become extremely wealthy from all of the lucrative trade that came with being at the nexus of Africa, Asia and the eastern Mediterranean world.

The People of Avaris: The Old Egyptian Kingdom in Nubia

While the governor appointed by the crown may have paid lip service to the king, in reality, he had his own independent administration that was making trade deals and raising private armies without the help from any official in Avaris, by the looks of the palaces, temples and lavish Tombs, almost all of them in a style similar to those found in Canaan and the Levant. The people of Avaris were living a life just as good or perhaps even better than some Egyptian elites in cities such as Memphis and Thebes, like in Nubia.

The fortresses in the Sinai and along Egypt’s frontiers with Canaan were also understaffed and eventually their garrisons were either recalled back home or disbanded altogether. This increasingly porous border allowed even more people from the east to enter into Egypt, and so with the presence of the king. All but absent in the eastern delta region, it didn’t take long for the leaders in cities such as Avaris to realize that perhaps the time had come to leave Egypt entirely and form their own state and so, according to most Egyptologists. This is what eventually happened. So the dates aren’t agreed upon most, though believe that it was likely sometime between 1750 and 1700 bc.

This new independent state was ruled by an obscure group of kings that historians, including Manetho, have identified as the 14th dynasty of Egypt believe it or not. It’s even more obscure than the 13th dynasty. According to Manetho, this dynasty consisted of 76 kings, who ruled for a total of 184 years from the city of Zoes in the central delta region. However, based on archaeological evidence, the overwhelming majority of Egyptologists today dispute this and actually believe that the real seat of the 14th dynasty’s power was in Avaris. In contrast to Manetho, the Turin canon mentions only 56 kings, though the list is damaged and may have included another 10 or more names that are now lost to us. Interestingly, many of the known names are of Canaanite or Levantine origin other than this, though, there’s little evidence of their existence and more information may not be forthcoming, since excavating in the marshlands of the Nile delta can at times be next to impossible. The best attested king of the fourteenth dynasty is Nehesy, who Egyptologists believe may have been the first second or sixth king of the group, though his father may have been of Canaanite ancestry. His mother, most likely was a Nubian.

A Review of the First Dynasty in the Delta, Egypt

The new dynasty in the delta was not without problems. Many problems. The archaeological record indicates that there was plenty of civil strife along with drought, famine and even plague affecting the population for several years. In short, the 14th dynasty’s rulers could have used a great deal of help from the government. As for the 13th dynasty, its rulers seemed to have fared no better, along with suffering from the same afflictions as those affecting the people in the delta. Its rulers also had to deal with the great economic blow of losing out on most of the trade, not just from the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, but also from Nubia to the south, by around 1650 bc.

The societies living within the land under the jurisdiction of the 13th and 14th dynasties were suffering and ripe for change, though it had lost several territories, most notably in the eastern delta and the territory of Wawat in Nubia. Most of what had traditionally been upper. Egypt still remained loyal to the 13th dynasty. Despite this, its rulers didn’t seem to have the power nor the will to take back the territory now controlled by the upstart kingdom of the 14th dynasty, the latter itself being too weak militarily to expand in any direction. Thus it and nearly all of lower Egypt became an easy target for a more technologically advanced aggressor who, at least according to traditional Egyptian sources, came from the east. These were a people who possessed the latest bronze age technology and whose soldiers employed horse-drawn chariots to overwhelm and destroy their enemies. They were called by later Egyptians. We today know them by their more common Greek name, the Hyksos more on them in the next chapter of ancient Egypt dynasty by dynasty.

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