By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University
The name of the first king of the Dynasty XII was Amenemhet I, and his name was important. He was a commoner. He was not royalty, but was the vizier of the previous pharaoh. And, he was the creator of his own legend—a perfect propagandist.
Amenemhet I: The creator of His Own Legend
Amenemhet I was the vizier, the equivalent of the prime minister, of the previous pharaoh. Nevertheless, he did something very interesting: he had a papyrus written about himself, although it was supposed to be fiction.
The story took place way back in the good old days. What it told the people was that he was prophesied to be a king. He was going to be a king.
It is an example of how a person’s own literature can be created, and it was like a newspaper that he had printed for himself. Here is what the papyrus says: Now, there was an Intermediate Period and life was terrible before. So, the prophet is saying, in the future, there are going to be terrible times, but then something is going to happen. He says, “Then a king will come from the south. Ameny will be his name.” Ameny is a nickname for Amenemhet, so he is talking about himself.
He says, “He will take the white crown. He will take the red crown.” He is going to wear both crowns. He is going to unify Egypt. So, Amenemhet is writing this papyrus, or having it written for him, to tell people, I’m a legitimate pharaoh—it has been prophesied.
And he says, “He will join the two mighty lands. Rejoice, oh people of this time. The son of man will make his name for all eternity.” Now, when he says “the son of man”, what he is really doing is, he is acknowledging that he is a commoner. The pharaohs were called sa-Re, son of Re, son of the Sun.
So he is saying, look, there is this papyrus that predicts that somebody is going to come, become king of Egypt, and wear the red crown and the white crown. And Ameny’s going to be his name, and people are going to rejoice in his time. So he did, in a sense, create his own legend, by saying—I’m a legitimate king because I’m prophesied.
This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Amenemhet I: Let’s Make Egypt Great Again
Now, as is well known, kings had more than one name. Amenemhet had another name, his Horus name, and that name was ‘repetition of births’. Now, what does ‘repetition of births’ mean? It is almost literally renaissance, a rebirth. What Ameny was saying was that, under him, there was going to be a rebirth of Egypt’s greatness. They were going to make Egypt great again. So his name was important.
He founded a new capital. Though he came from the south, probably around Thebes, he moved the capital. The capital was moved to an area in the Fayoum. The Fayoum is in the north about 30 miles southwest of Cairo, a kind of lush area, rather green.
He called the new capital city Itj-Tawy, ‘Binder of the Two Lands’. In other words, he was going back to this old theme of, hey, we’re unifying Egypt again. We’re going to be together.
Learn more about the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Wealth During the Reign of Amenemhet I
Amenemhet I had a lot of money. This was not the XIth Dynasty when they were just finding their way back to greatness. He had money, and he did big things. One way to tell if a dynasty is doing well is to look at the tombs. Are they big? Are they lavish? And the tombs of his officials, people who ruled during his era, are big.
For example, there are tombs at a place called Beni Hassan. Beni Hassan is Arabic and means ‘the sons of Hassan’. It is a place in the middle of Egypt, a place that is called Middle Egypt.
This is where there are big tombs of guys called the ‘nomarchs’. Egypt was divided into 42 nomes. They were just like states in the United States. The rulers of each state, who would be the governors, were called nomarchs, ‘rulers of nomes’. Their job was basically to collect the taxes for each nome and to send the pharaoh his share in the capital, which was now in the Fayoum.
The tombs of the nomarchs of this dynasty at Beni Hassan, Middle Egypt, are spectacular. They are large and are like caves cut into the rock of a mountain. They are beautifully painted with scenes of daily life.
Learn more about Sneferu, the pyramid builder.
Tomb of Khnumhotep
One of these tombs is of a nomarch named Khnumhotep, which means ‘Khnum is pleased’. Khnum was a ram-headed god who was important. Khnumhotep says on his walls that during his reign they did an entirely new survey of the land. Now, a survey was important.
As the Nile overflowed each year, covering the land on both sides, the boundary markers were erased. A farmer may have had a stone here, a stone there, where his land ended and another guy’s began. So, once the inundation happened, they had to resurvey. When Khnumhotep says, we resurveyed the land, it shows that there was stability again. It shows that they were back to the good old days when people had land, and everybody knew their place.
The inundation also forced the Egyptians into mathematics because they had to do some geometry to do resurveying. It was a kind of a practical thing, though. They never did mathematics for the abstract sense of just doing math. It was always a practical application.
The Pyramid of Amenemhet I
Amenemhet I also built himself a pyramid. Again, he was harkening back to the good old days of the Old Kingdom, like Sneferu, the pyramid builder.
So, it was back to those good old days. He built a pyramid. It was a modest affair, but it was a pyramid. What was particularly important though was that the entrance was on the north side. Now, why was the entrance on the north side? Usually, the entrances to pyramids were about maybe a third of the way up, roughly, a little less, perhaps. There was a passageway going down, and then there were inner passageways.
The pyramid entrance, up until this point, was almost always at the same place. Why? Because it points to the North Star.
The North Star is a star that does not seem to move. Other stars are circumpolar going around it, but it seems fixed. The idea was that the pharaoh was associating himself with a fixed, eternal North Star. The pharaoh was going to be forever immutable. Amenemhet I’s pyramid had the entrance at the right place, on the north. That shows the tradition again, maintaining the order.
Common Questions about Germination of Effective Propaganda: The Egyptian Dynasty XII
Dynasty XII lasted from 1938–1756 B.C.
The three kingdoms of ancient Egypt were the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom.
Amenemhet I consolidated Egyptian unity with the powerful nomarchs or governors after the death of his predecessor, Mentuhotep IV. He used to be the vizier of Mentuhotep IV.
Amenemhet I, the founder of the Dynasty XII, died in 1962 B.C.