The Middle Kingdom was regarded by later Egyptians as a cultural high point, a classical period to look back on. For such a key period in Egyptian history I’ve got a pretty hazy grasp of the Middle Kingdom: the 12th Dynasty is the one with all the Senwosrets and Amenemhats in the middle. Before them came the Montuhoteps and the reunification of Egypt, and afterwards the 13th Dynasty with a revolving door of kingship as the country slipped back into disunity and the Second Intermediate Period. And I must confess I can get a little lost amongst the Amenemhats and Senwosrets – I don’t have strong associations with any of them so can’t keep them straight (or even give any sort of summary of any of them off the top of my head). So I have looked up Amenemhat III in my books – picked because I’ve visited one of his pyramids (at Hawara) and seen the other one (at Dahshur) in the distance, and really I should know a bit a more about him.
He fits into the overall sweep of the 12th Dynasty near the end – a long reign of peace & prosperity before the dynasty and the whole of the Middle Kingdom started to unravel. He was co-regent with his father Senwosret III for perhaps as many as 20 years. The length of this co-regency is unusual, but the fact that he was co-regent at all was business as usual for the 12th Dynasty who seem to’ve gone out of their way to ensure an orderly transition of power. The usual caveat applies here – not all scholars agree that these co-regencies occurred. The evidence tends to be stelae with a date in each king’s reign which can be interpreted as having two dates or as having the same date written two different ways.
Amenemhat III inherited an enlarged and prosperous country from his predecessors. Egyptian power ran down into Nubia in the south securing access to the gold mines there. And in the north-east the caravan routes to the Levant and the Middle East were protected by the Egyptian state along a corridor of forts known as the Ways of Horus. Amenemhat III had good relations with the rulers in the Levant – he showered gifts on the princes of Kebny (Byblos) and the Palestinian rulers in Sinai were close allies who helped with logistical support for Amenemhat III’s many quarrying expeditions there. Across the country Amenemhat III’s reign saw an increase in quarrying and mining activity – gold from Nubia as I already mentioned, granite from Aswan, limestone from Tura, greywacke from Wadi el-Hammamat, amethyst from Wadi el-Hudi and around two dozen expeditions to the Sinai for turquoise.
This quarrying supported an increased building programme – focused on the Faiyum region which rose in prominence in the later 12th Dynasty. This is an area to the south-west of Cairo with a lake fed by a branch of the Nile. Even now the lake is impressively large, but in the Middle Kingdom it was even larger and the region all around it was flooded when the inundation came and so fertile land. The reign of Amenemhat III saw the completion of an irrigation system in the region. Well, that’s how most of the books refer to it but John Romer in volume 2 of his “A History of Ancient Egypt” thinks it may’ve been intended to control the river rather than irrigate the Faiyum. He says that the floods in the earlier part of Amenemhat III’s reign were particularly high and violent, and siphoning off more of the water into the Faiyum would mean that the river was less destructive when it reached Memphis and the other regions downstream. I suspect one should embrace the power of “and” here: pacification of the river by increasing the fertility of the Faiyum is a win-win situation.
I’ve spoken so far of the Middle Kingdom as consisting of three parts – the rise (late 11th Dynasty), the high point (the 12th Dynasty) and the fall (the 13th Dynasty). But the statuary and other material culture of Amenemhat III’s period fit into a different narrative which divides the Middle Kingdom into two periods. The rather fuzzy line is drawn somewhere around the reign of Senwosret II (Amenemhat III’s predecessor’s predecessor). Before this royal statuary shows the king with a very idealised, youthful appearance. But the statuary that survives from Senwosret III and Amenemhat III depicts a king with a more mature and human looking face (the body is still idealised & youthful). This is almost certainly not a switch to a realistic, life-like representation of the king – Egyptian art doesn’t ever seem to go in for portraiture as we would think of it even though each king had a distinctive “look” for his statues. Instead it presumably reflects changing ideas about kingship in Egyptian culture. No longer does the king want to be represented as an un-ageing divinity, instead he wishes to be seen as a mature man capable of the job of Pharaoh.
As part of his building works Amenemhat III did not neglect his afterlife. His first pyramid complex was built at Dahshur but it appears to’ve run into the same problems as his ancient predecessor Sneferu did with the Bent Pyramid – the foundations were not strong enough to bear the weight of the structure and cracks began to appear before the complex was finished. Despite this the pyramid was finished off, and two queens of Amenemhat III were buried in the complex. As with most Middle Kingdom pyramids it was constructed with a mudbrick core covered by a limestone casing – so now all that remains is the core (referred to as the Black Pyramid) because the casing was stolen for reuse in ancient times. Amenemhat III himself wasn’t buried there, he had time in his long reign to finish a second pyramid complex, this time at a new site in the Faiyum – Hawara. This pyramid was also not entirely ideal. It was too close to the water table and has flooded – Joann Fletcher says in “The Story of Egypt” that bits of bone were found floating in Amenemhat III’s sarcophagus, so the body of the king presumably remained even though the tomb was robbed but the water has destroyed the mummy.
Not that much solid is known about Amenemhat III’s family. His parentage is uncertain – but he was probably a son of Senwosret III. Even though Senwosret III had three known wives it’s not clear if any of them is Amenemhat III’s mother. Amenemhat III himself had two definite wives – both buried in his pyramid complex at Dahshur. We only know the name of one of them – she was called Aat and used the titles King’s Wife, United with the White Crown. Another possible wife is a woman called Hetepti – this is more tenuous, as what is known for sure is that she was the mother of Amenemhat IV. Amenemhat IV does refer to Amenemhat III as “father” in inscriptions, but in this context it might mean he was his actual Dad or it might mean he was his predecessor as king. And Hetepti has several titles listed on the relief where she appears, but none of those titles are King’s Wife. Instead she is: King’s Mother, Mistress of the Two Lands, United with the White Crown. So suggestive, but not definitive evidence for her being Amenemhat III’s wife.
There are no definitively known sons of Amenemhat III – the only candidate is Amenemhat IV and as discussed above it’s not known for sure if he was a son. In terms of daughters we are on rather firmer ground for two women, and there are another four potential daughters. These last four are only known from fragmentary evidence found at Amenemhat III’s pyramid complex at Dahshur. So there’s a good chance they were his daughters but it’s also possible they were later burials during the 13th Dynasty and not connected to him. The known for sure daughter is a woman called Neferuptah, who uses the titles Great of Sceptre and King’s Daughter of His Body. She’s also the second woman known to have her name written in a cartouche (which was reserved for kings alone until the 12th Dynasty, and rare outside the king even then). Aidan Dodson speculates that this might indicate she was designated heir to the throne, and then predeceased her father. There is a sarcophagus for her in Amenemhat III’s pyramid at Hawara, but she was actually buried in her own pyramid a few kilometres away. Either her mummy was moved & reburied, or she didn’t actually predecease her father and so she couldn’t be buried with him in the now sealed pyramid. Sadly her pyramid too was both robbed & flooded so no more remains of her than does of her father.
The last probable daughter was also the last ruler of the 12th Dynasty. Sobekneferu ruled after the short reign of Amenemhat IV, but made a real point of associating herself with Amenemhat III and so was probably his daughter. Manetho, the Egyptian historian who wrote in the 3rd Century BCE, believed that she was Amenemhat IV’s sister, but there’s no corroborating evidence for that. She the first absolutely definite female ruler of Egypt – there may’ve been women before her who ruled in their own right but there’s not enough evidence to be sure whereas for her there is. One of the books I looked at said that a woman taking the throne was a sign of desperation from the family who’d formed the 12th Dynasty – whether or not that was the case she didn’t rule for long and the dynasty fizzled out with her.
So that is Amenemhat III. The brief summary (the tl;dr as the kids these days would say) is that he built peace and prosperity on top of the military successes of his predecessors and so presided over a golden age. After him, the fall – his offspring too old or too female to hold on to power for long.
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt” Bill Manley
“Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed. Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold and Kei Yamamoto
“A History of Ancient Egypt: Volume 2 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
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson