If you’ve been to Luxor to see the ancient sites, then you have almost certainly been to see Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. While there you may not’ve paid much attention to the ruins of a temple just to the south – certainly I didn’t the first time I visited, and I don’t think tourists are allowed to go and walk round it. But that temple was one of the reasons Hatshepsut put her temple where she did, and that temple’s terraced design formed the inspiration for her own more elaborate version. This was a deliberate association of herself with the great king Montuhotep II who reunified Egypt and was venerated alongside Narmer and Ahmose I as one of the three founders of the state.

Montuhotep II was born around 4000 years ago at the end of what we nowadays call the First Intermediate Period, and the Egyptians themselves saw as an era of disorder and disunity. Following the reign of Pepi II at the end of the Old Kingdom the central government of Egypt began to disintegrate and the country splintered with each region operating autonomously. Although at first these local rulers paid lip service to the idea that they were ruled by an overall king by the time Montuhotep was born this was not even nominally the case, and new powers were jockeying for the title. In Lower Egypt the House of Khety had taken control, governing from their home base of Herakleopolis. In Upper Egypt Montuhotep’s predecessors, three generations of rulers called Intef, had done the same from their home base of Thebes.

Ruined columns of the temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri.
Mortuary Temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri

The local war god worshipped at Thebes was called Montu, and Montuhotep means “Montu is satisfied” – and our king certainly did his best to live up to that name. Given the length of his reign (50 or so years) he must’ve taken the throne in his teens or early 20s, and all seems to’ve been quiet for the first 14 years. In Year 14 of his reign he took advantage of the rebellion of a province to his north (called This, which includes the town of Abydos) to make his move. Having crushed the rebellion he then swept north with his armies and eventually defeated the House of Khety at Herakleopolis itself. The timeline other than the turning point of Year 14 isn’t entirely clear. There’s evidence of unrest rumbling on for a while, so it wasn’t a single campaign and done. Certainly by Year 39 he feels he has completed the job – at some point before this (probably when he celebrated his jubilee) he changed part of his royal titulary to reflect that. His Horus name is changed to Sematawy which means “the one who unites the two lands”.

Montuhotep II’s reunification of the land ushered in a new golden age of high culture in Egypt. During the fragmentation of the country art styles in the regions had diverged from each other, and early reliefs from Montuhotep II’s time (including some of the decoration of his mortuary temple) are in a local Theban style. The Old Kingdom style of art had survived in the Memphite region, where the capital had been in that period. As part of asserting his legitimacy as a continuation of the Old Kingdom Montuhotep II employed artisans from Memphis on his own building projects and over his reign both styles merge with the Memphite style coming to dominate. As well as a return to a sophisticated and unified art style there is also a increase in historical documentation surviving from his reign and an increase in building projects throughout the country.

A fair amount is known about Montuhotep II’s family, mostly from burials within his mortuary temple complex although also from other sources. We know that he was the son of Intef III* and Iah, and we know the names of several wives although only one child. His chief wife was his sister Neferu who appears to’ve died early in his reign. The other senior wife was called Tem, and she had the title of “Mother of the Dual King” – this means that Montuhotep II’s successor (Montuhotep III) must’ve been her son. There are also six other female burials in Montuhotep II’s mortuary complex. Three of these women were definitely wives: Ashayet, Henhenet (who died in childbirth) and Sadhe. One was definitely not: a child of 5 or 6 years old called Mayet. And two who might also have been wives or concubines: Kawit and Kemsit. Montuhotep III is the only known child of Montuhotep II – which is one of those cases where one needs to remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Records of royal children are often patchy, particularly of sons until they are adults. And we only have evidence of Montuhotep III because he rules after his father, not during his childhood.

*Although Gae Callendar, writing in “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw, is less sure of this – she feels he makes too much fuss about his father being Intef III for it to’ve been that straightforward.

As well as Montu other gods were also important to Montuhotep II. The women buried in his mortuary complex all have titles that call them Priestess or Prophetess of Hathor, as did Montuhotep II’s mother. And Hathor was behind his choice of site for his mortuary complex – she was thought to dwell as a cow in the Western Mountain at Thebes. So Montuhotep II’s tomb and temple were situated so that he would spend eternity in the embrace of Hathor. The temple also faces towards Karnak across the Nile – the temple of Amun. I think the evidence for his support of the cult of Amun is circumstantial but it is known that this is the period when the cult begins to rise.

Another god that was important to Montuhotep II was … himself. There’s evidence Montuhotep II was, unusually, deified in his own lifetime – the only one of the three founder kings who achieved that. It may be that this was a key part of reasserting central control over the newly reunified kingdom. During the First Intermediate Period local rulers had begun justifying their authority as having been handed to them by this god or that god rather than from the king. So by setting himself up as a god Montuhotep II fit neatly into this new narrative for propaganda purposes. He was also to be worshipped after his death as a god – which doesn’t seem so unusual to us because that became the standard situation in the New Kingdom several hundred years later. But he took it further than had been the previous norm. And his self-deification appears to’ve stuck, despite his relative lack of name recognition in the modern day. There is evidence that later Middle Kingdom rulers venerated him, erecting statues of themselves in his temple precinct or dedicating objects to him. Hatshepsut clearly felt the association with him would enhance her status. Even into the 20th Dynasty there are private tombs which have inscriptions celebrating him as a founder of Egypt.

In many ways Montuhotep II is the archetypal Pharaoh – great war leader; bringer of peace, prosperity and order from chaos; a god to his people. Montu must indeed have been satisfied with this monarch.


Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Ancient Egyptian Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold and Kei Yamamoto
“A History of Ancient Egypt Volume II: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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