By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University
The Eleventh and Twelfth dynasties of ancient Egypt had slowly but surely brought the kingdom out of the doldrums of the First Intermediate Period, and it seemed like Egypt was as strong as ever before. So, what led to another decline and the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period?
The Second Intermediate Period is the second time that Egypt collapses almost totally. Egypt is the only civilization in the world that ever collapsed completely twice and got its act back together again.
This Second Intermediate Period is different from the First Intermediate Period. We’re not sure what happened during the First Intermediate Period. Why did it go downhill? Maybe Pepi II got too old and couldn’t rule the country. Maybe it was that they stopped building pyramids or something. We don’t know for sure.
Learn more about the history of ancient Egypt.
The Pyramids at Dahshur
In a sense, Dynasty XIII is a lost dynasty. We have the names of 10 kings or so, but but not much is known about them. They built some pyramids, which is a sign that everything isn’t falling apart. For example, there are some pyramids at Dahshur. Now, Dahshur is the same place Sneferu built his pyramids, and by building their pyramids at Dahshur the kings of Dynasty XIII are saying, we somehow are still associated with this period of greatness.
One can often wonder what they felt, to see that the pyramids that they built are small, mud-brick affairs, whereas Sneferu’s is a few hundred feet high. We are talking about 150 feet high, made of mud brick. When you’re in the shadow of Sneferu’s pyramid, when you can see Sneferu’s pyramid from miles away, and you’re building these little pyramids. Did they feel sort of an inferiority complex?
One can only guess, though, that one of the reasons they built at Dahshur was for religious-magical purposes. In the Old Kingdom, immortality wasn’t quite yet for everybody. The general feeling we get from reading texts and just looking at monuments is that no question about it, the pharaoh was going to resurrect. He’s a god. He’s related to the gods.
But the only shot one had at it, maybe as a commoner, is if they were maybe a member of the court and were associated with the pharaoh and he would give you a great sort of bonus. He would let you be buried near his pyramid. Then maybe you’d be resurrected.
But eventually, that became a sort of more democratized. Everybody thought they could be immortal, and maybe these pharaohs of the later dynasties who were building their pyramids near Sneferu have a little bit of that: I’m building near Sneferu because he’s going to resurrect for sure. He was a real god. Maybe I’ll go with him. So it’s sacred ground that they’re building on.
Learn more about Sneferu, the pyramid builder.
Ancient Egyptian Wooden Statues
One king of the dynasty, Hor is his name—that’s the Egyptian word for Horus. The Greeks added the u-s ending at the end. So Hor means Horus. They’re saying he’s Horus. King Hor had a short reign but a shaft tomb at Dahshur, and they found a statue at this shaft tomb.
It’s life-sized, made out of wood. Wood was expensive in Egypt. This is a sign that they’re not completely downhill. A life-sized statue out of wood was something because most of the wood was imported. They didn’t have forests for timber. They had some acacia trees.
If you look at ancient Egyptian wooden statues, you’ll see they’re pegged together out of little pieces. Very often they’ll take a little plug and put it in the shoulder. They’ll take something else and put it here. They’re using every little piece they can. But Hor has a life-sized statue. It’s a ka statue. Remember we talked about how the Egyptians believed that there were different parts of the soul, and the ka was kind of like your double, sort of like your ethereal double.
The hieroglyph for ka is two arms kind of upraised. It looks just like in a football game when the referee says, ‘Field goal’ and raises his arms. It looks just like that, and the ka statue of Hor, to us it looks almost comical.
This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, Wondrium.
To make sure that his soul wouldn’t make any mistake, that this is the statue for you, on the top of his head are two large arms that look like he’s saying, ‘Field goal’. Not his arms coming from his shoulders—they’re just mounted on the top of the head, saying, ‘This is the ka statue’. It’s a wonderful work of art. It’s kind of a holdover from the previous dynasty when they can do good art.
Learn more about the Second Intermediate Period.
The Beginning of the Decline of Egypt
So, they’re building pyramids, but then why do we say there’s a decline? During the last 57 years of this dynasty, there’s another dynasty, Dynasty XIV. They’re ruling from the Delta. Let me describe the Delta.
It’s not too far away, so it’s a sign that the kingship is weakening. Remember, the capital was in the Fayoum, and the reason the capital’s in the Fayoum is for military purposes. In case anybody invades from the north, you’re right at the top of Egypt, almost. You can control it.
But these people are ruling, or calling themselves kings, anyway, in the Delta. The Delta is called the Delta, if you’ll remember, because, when the Greeks came into Egypt from the north, they came via the Mediterranean, and they saw this marshy land that was shaped like a triangle, which is the Greek letter delta, so they called it the Delta.
The Delta is very moist. It’s very difficult to excavate in the Delta. You know, when Egyptology started, it was to prove the Bible at the end of the 19th century, and in England, the first exploration society to explore Egypt was called the Delta Exploration Society.
Why would you dig in the Delta when it’s such a hard excavation? The reason is they thought the Israelites went out that way. If they got out of Egypt they went through the Delta, and everybody was looking for proof of the Bible. So it was first the Delta Exploration Society. Soon after, they changed the name to the Egypt Exploration Society and broadened their approach, and that’s what it is today.
Now, the Delta is a very difficult place to excavate because it’s moist. Imagine the Nile, as you know, flows from south to north. At Khartoum, two rivers join, the Blue Nile and the White Nile, forming our Nile going north, but, as it gets toward the Mediterranean, the Nile branches out. If you imagine a hand going toward the Mediterranean with the fingers toward the top, the wrist and the arm is the Nile, but then you get several branches, a half dozen branches of the Nile going to the Mediterranean, and that’s going to give you a lot of moisture in the Delta. That is the Delta. The Delta is the hand part of my metaphor, and you’ve got different branches of the Nile, so you’ve got water everywhere.
When people from the Delta Exploration Fund started excavating, they had a lot of trouble with water, and it’s still hard. What that means for us is that we don’t have many records from the Delta because everything has sunk. Temples that were built are gone under the water. So the Delta is a very hard place to excavate, but somewhere in the Delta you’ve got some Dynasty XIV people claiming that they’re kings.
It’s certainly a sign that Egypt is weakening. When you have two groups – Dynasty XIII and Dynasty XIV – claiming to be the pharaohs, there are problems. The ends are sort of going at the same time.
Common Questions about the Second Intermediate Period
The Second Intermediate Period is the second time that ancient Egypt collapsed, almost totally. However, this Second Intermediate Period is different from the First Intermediate Period. We’re not really sure what happened during the First Intermediate Period. But in the case of the Second Intermediate Period, we know much more.
The Delta is marshy lands to the north. It’s called the Delta because when the Greeks came into Egypt from the north, they came via the Mediterranean, and they saw this marshy land that was shaped like a triangle, which is the Greek letter delta, so they called it the Delta. Dynasty XIV, which overlapped Dynasty XIII to a certain extent, was based in the Delta and made a parallel claim of being the true kings of Egypt.
Dynasty XIII is, in a sense, a lost dynasty. We have the names of ten kings or so, but not much is known about them. They built some pyramids at Dahshur. Dynasty XIII was the period that the Middle Kingdom of Egypt declined and the country entered the Second Intermediate Period.
Egyptian statues were made of many different materials, but the wood was one of the least used materials. Wood was expensive in Egypt. A life-sized statue made out of wood was something because most of the wood was imported. They didn’t have forests for timber, except for some acacia trees. If you look at ancient Egyptian wooden statues, you’ll see they’re pegged together out of little pieces.