Mentuhotep II and the Emergence of the Middle Kingdom
The iconic ancient Egyptians are perhaps the best and grandest example of an ancient civilization that was both technologically advanced and spiritually rich. It was during the Archaic Period that Egypt first began to flourish, after it was founded by the semi-mythical king Menes. The pyramids were built in Egypt’s next phase, the Old Kingdom, when the third and fourth dynasties ushered in the Egyptian Golden Age of peace, prosperity, and stability. Like every other nation to ever exist, however, Egypt occasionally fell apart. This was the case at the end of the First Intermediate Period, which marked Egypt’s earliest extended bout of unrest. Into this void stepped Mentuhotep II, whose timely intervention saved Egypt and facilitated its transition into the Middle Kingdom era.
Existential Threats: The First Intermediate Period
The First Intermediate Period of Egyptian history, between 2160 and 2055 BC, was characterized by war, division, and instability after the death of the Old Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch, Pepe II. When he died, well into his nineties, the government lost central control, and Egypt was plunged into civil strife by its regional chiefs, who ruled over nomarchies or provinces.
This Egyptian Dark Age was likely caused by the disruption to the annual flooding of the Nile, which caused widespread famine. With the state ceasing to function, and unable to cope with the effects of environmental change, new independent statelets started to emerge across Egypt. It was from among these upstarts that the Herakleopolis Dynasty first appeared, a distinguished family who held sway over territories reaching as far south as Abydos and Dendera. Hardly anything is known about this mysterious lineage of royals, except that it ruled for 185 years and was founded by a man called Khety.
Herakleopolis had a close connection with the nearby kingdom of Asyut, who were faithful allies. A surviving fragment from a member of the Asyut clan, which states that he used to take swimming lessons with the royal children of Herakleopolis, illustrates the close bonds of kinship which existed between the two noble houses.
They faced direct competition from the Theban Dynasty. During the First Intermediate Period, these future elites had risen to greatness from their humble origins as local governors of a forgettable provincial town in Upper Egypt, thanks to the ambitions of its patriarch, Intef. Sometime during the short administration of Intef III, which lasted from 2069 to 2061 BC, a major conflict erupted between the two rivals.
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Head of Pharaoh Mentuhotep III, red quartzite (Tolo / Adobe Stock)
Defeating the Herakleopolis Dynasty
Mentuhotep II was born into the 11th Theban Dynasty, and his name meant ‘The God Montu is Content’ after a Theban god of war. He was the successor to Intef III, inheriting his dominions as well as his war with Herakleopolis in a 51-year stint as pharaoh that lasted from 2060 to 2009 BC. The first 14 years of Mentuhotep’s reign were relatively calm. The war against Herakleopolis had likely entered a lull at this time, as both powers prepared themselves for further engagements after an initial wave of clashes.
Fourteen years later, Mentuhotep started a campaign to annihilate Herakleopolis. Hardly any evidence remains about this conflict, apart from a collection of bodies found at the Tomb of the Warriors of Deir el-Bahri. It was here that archaeologists found the cadavers of 60 soldiers slain in battle. The fortuitous way in which they were laid to rest encouraged a process of dehydration, making them the best-preserved Middle Kingdom mummies ever found.
The respectful circumstances of their burial, in which they were placed in graves that faced the royal cemetery, suggests they died in a particularly violent struggle, which many have linked to the Theban-Herakleopolis civil war. In addition, the appearance of more weapons and armor in Middle Kingdom-era tombs reveals that fighting became a normalized part of everyday life for Theban citizens.
It was the Thebans who eventually came out on top to claim Egypt as their prize. The Herakleopolis leader, Merykara, died before Mentuhotep could even reach his capital. Following the death of their commander, Herakleopolis struggled on for a few months under Merykara’s successor before completely collapsing. The Herakleopolis people attempted to fight back against their assailants, with one inscription attesting to a successful counterattack on the southern nomes. Another proclaimed that the father of King Merykara took back the city of Abydos.
However, their efforts failed. An inscription mentioning “the terror which was spread by the (Theban) king’s house” showed the Thebans were incredibly brutal as they mopped up the remnants of Herakleopolis. Funerary monuments excavated at Ihnasya el-Medina, near the Herakleopolis center, were even shown to have been broken and smashed to pieces at some time during the Middle Kingdom. As punishment, Mentuhotep executed the Asyat nomarchy, who had remained loyal to Herakleopolis. At the same time, and proving himself a grateful friend in equal measure, he rewarded the governors of Beni Hassan, Hermopolis, Nag-el-Deir, Akhmim, and Deir-el-Gebrawi for maintaining their allegiance.
Colossal Statues from Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom (CC BY-SA 4.0)
It was after this that Mentuhotep II began to unite Egypt. A number of scattered references indicate the triumphant pharaoh next pursued an ambitious land grab of the surrounding areas. One of Mentuhotep’s first moves was to take back the Kingdom of Nubia, which had reverted back to native rule during the last phase of the Old Kingdom. Old etchings belonging to his reign tell of his campaigns in Wawat, in Lower Nubia, and the establishment of a garrison of troops at the fortress at Elephantine. It was from this base that his armies were sent southwards to skirmish with the Nubians, who would eventually be delivered back into Theban domains.
As Mentuhotep consolidated his kingdom, he was able to reassert his influence in the civilizations bordering ancient Egypt. For example, one of his officials, Khety, led patrols in the neighboring Sinai area and completed tasks for his lord in Aswan to the south. Another, named Henenu, who was the chief steward, undertook an expedition as far east as Lebanon to acquire cedar wood, no doubt to be used in one of Mentuhotep’s many building projects.
From his fortress at Thebes, Mentuhotep astutely governed the regional polities, or nomarchies, that made up his empire. Mentuhotep filled the ranks of his administration with loyal and trustworthy men who undertook a range of important responsibilities. His vizier, Khety, for example, led his annexations of Nubia, and his chancellor, Meru, managed his possessions in the Eastern Desert and the oases.
Mentuhotep also introduced a new position, ‘Governor of Lower Egypt’, to compliment the pre-existing ‘Governor of Upper Egypt’ in an effort to bind his realm closer together. Mentuhotep’s moves to centralize the government reinforced the control he exerted over his officials, and at the same time weakened the power of the nomarchy, who were monitored meticulously with regular check-ups by agents of the Egyptian crown.
Becoming a God
Another way Mentuhotep II was able to bolster his overlordship was through a program of self-deification. He is described by fragments excavated at Gebelein as the ‘Son of Hathor’, who was the Egyptian goddess of love, beauty, music, dancing, fertility, and pleasure. He also shared one of the names of the Egyptian sky spirit Horus, Netjeryhedjet, which means ‘the divine one of the white crown’. Mentuhotep would change this title regularly following watershed moments of his rule. He was last known as Sematawy, ‘the one who unites the two lands’, after he had stabilized Egypt.
At Dendera and Aswan, Mentuhotep is depicted wearing the headgear of Amun, the divinity of air, and Min, a deity of fertility and the harvest who was revered as the personification of masculinity. Elsewhere, he is pictured wearing a red crown with two feathers, associated with one of the oldest members of the Egyptian pantheon, Andjety. A statue discovered by chance in a secret underground bunker in the vicinity of the great Deir-el-Bahri portrays the Egyptian monarch with black skin and crossed arms, underpinning his connection to Osiris who was the guardian of death, fertility, and resurrection.
At Mentuhotep’s great temple at Deir-el-Bahri, evidence suggests that he had intentions to be revered as a living god in his House of Millions of Years sanctuary. In fact, he was the first pharaoh ever to present himself as a living god, which was a practice more heavily ascribed to rulers of the New Kingdom.
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Artist reconstruction of the Temple of Mentuhotep II (Public Domain)
The Trailblazing Tomb of Mentuhotep II
Many temples and shrines, mostly situated in his political center in Upper Egypt, survive from Mentuhotep’s era. The most famous site is his mortuary at Deir-el-Bahri, which remains a stand-out example of ancient Egyptian architecture and where Mentuhotep himself was buried, alongside his trusted advisors Akhtoy, Dagi, Ipi, and Henenu. Mentuhotep chose not to continue the architectural traditions of his predecessors, instead opting for a design that marked an important artistic transition between the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
Mentuhotep’s complex was the first of its kind to incorporate Osiris worship as one of the main themes. Structural innovations included new features, such as terraces and verandahs, which were complimented by groves of sycamore and tamarisk trees, which grew outside the temple planted in deep ditches.
Space was also made for the resting places of Mentuhotep’s many wives, who were each given their own burial chambers behind the central edifice and along the walls of his sepulcher. The earliest evidence for models depicting the deceased and their coffins, called shanti figures, were discovered here, outdating their widespread popularity in Egyptian funerary culture by several hundreds of years. Entombed alongside his senior spouse were a plethora of lesser wives, the oldest being a concubine called Ashaiyet, aged 22. These youthful noblewomen were either the daughters of powerful aristocrats the pharaoh wanted to keep in check, or they were priestesses of Hathor. This has led some to speculate the shrine also served as a cult center for Hathor devotees.
The inside of the tomb is embellished with artistic depictions of courtly life and several regional scenes. The etched human figures are characterized by thick lips, large eyes, and thin bodies in a representation of the beauty standards of the time. Exquisite carvings can be viewed in the mausoleum of the younger wives recounting the biographies of some of the craftsmen, who hailed from all parts of the land. Again, Mentuhotep was ahead of his time, pioneering the Memphis style of art that caught on only in later dynasties.
The Second Founder of Ancient Egypt
Although not many records survive from the time of Mentuhotep II, an inescapable sense of his greatness still permeates the sparse records that mention him. Mentuhotep’s accomplishments were so impressive that he was even named alongside the mythical creator of ancient Egypt, Menes, as the second founder of ancient Egypt by contemporary sources.
Mentuhotep’s triumph over the Herakleopolis Dynasty would be the first of many spectacular military exploits that would help patch Egypt together again. After his Nubian conquests, Mentuhotep would have the foresight to diligently maintain his supremacy, surrounding himself with trusted advisors and centralizing his government, to ensure his authority was never undermined. Even in death, Mentuhotep made certain his presence would linger for a long time afterwards. The self-deification process he initiated, the first of its kind, would become a common policy of later rulers who were intent on establishing an everlasting legacy, and the uniqueness of his tomb would set the standards of Egyptian art for a millennium more.
Top image: Relief of Mentuhotep II and the Goddess Hathor, circa 2010-2000 BC Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
Ancient Egypt. History. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/ancient-egypt
First Intermediate Period (2150-2040). Ancient Egypt. Available at: http://www.ancient-egypt.org/history/1st-intermediate-period/index.html
Shaw, I. 2003. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press
Statue of Mentuhotep. Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Available at: https://egymonuments.gov.eg/collections/statue-of-mentuhotep-4/