I Gave Bread to the Hungry

“I gave bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked;
I anointed those who had no cosmetic oil;
I gave sandals to the barefooted;
I gave a wife to him who had no wife.”

If you looked at that and thought it didn’t look quite right then that’s more than likely because you were expecting part of the Gospel of Matthew but this is part of the autobiography of Ankhtifi, as carved into his tomb walls. Ankhtifi was a regional ruler of part of southern Upper Egypt during the First Intermediate Period, which falls between the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom c. 2100 BCE. Central authority had broken down at the end of the Old Kingdom and men like Ankhtifi rose to fill the power vacuum in their own region.

Ankhtifi’s tomb is at Mo’alla, which is about 25km south of Luxor on the east bank of the Nile opposite Gebelein. It is cut into the rock of a hillside as is common, but Ankhtifi chose his hillside with grand thoughts in mind. It is not part of a continuous cliff face, instead the hill is shaped like a pyramid thus giving Ankhtifi’s resting place a royal flavour. And he didn’t stop there with his usurpation of kingly attributes. In front of the tomb is a courtyard laid out like a temple, and there are signs of a causeway leading towards the Nile and of a valley building. All very reminiscent of an Old Kingdom pyramid complex. Despite the royal pretensions in the layout of the tomb it was not made by someone with the resources of royalty. The tomb chapel is not a regular shape, instead the craftsmen appear to’ve made use of the fractures in the limestone to create their walls. This suggests that their tools (and perhaps skills) were not up to the tougher job of carving out a symmetrical room through more intact rock.

Exterior of the Tomb of Ankhtifi at Mo’alla

The tomb chapel ceiling collapsed at some point during the Pharaonic period (presumably due to the poor quality of the limestone) and this preserved the tomb and its contents until modern times. John Romer suggests that it was only discovered & robbed in the last few years before archaeologists found the tomb in the 1920s – there was a surge of tomb furniture of the right period on the antiquities market at that time, which was thought to come from somewhere at Mo’alla. One of those tantalising might-have-beens, if only the archaeologists had got there first!

There’s not much information to be gleaned about Ankhtifi the man (as opposed to the ruler) from his tomb – he had a wife called Nebi who appears to’ve predeceased him, some daughters (one of whom also predeceased him) and four sons. The eldest of these sons was called Idy, but neither he nor his brothers appear to’ve inherited Ankhtifi’s rulership of the local area. What the tomb inscriptions do, in grandiose style and at length, is tell you what a fantastic ruler and man he was! No-one before him was this awesome, and no-one to come can possibly live up to the awesomeness that was Ankhtifi. I paraphrase, but I don’t exaggerate. As well as describing himself in terms such as “I am a hero without peer” it describes key events from his reign – his takeover of a second region which had been neglected by its overlord, his conflict with the Theban controlled regions to the north, his conscientious and effective administration that fed his people whilst all around them starved.

Well, I say “describes key events” but it’s important not to be over literal in interpreting the text. This inscription is an example of a literary genre of tomb autobiographies, it has clear poetic elements and features common tropes that show up throughout the history of Egyptian literature and beyond. The poetic elements come through even in translation – there are repeated elements, such as the phrase “I am a hero without peer” which is a regular refrain in the text and it makes extensive use of metaphor. In short, think Beowulf and other heroic poetry rather than a sober and accurate recounting of a life.

One reason I opened with the piece about feeding the hungry and the reminder of the resonance with the Gospel of Matthew is that this illustrates one of the common tropes of the autobiographical genre. From the Old Kingdom (when tomb autobiographies begin) onward and percolating out into modern Western culture via Christianity is a narrative that a virtuous wealthy individual is one who uses some of that wealth to help those in need. Perhaps it’s universal, I don’t know enough about anthropology to know. So when Ankhtifi tells us that he fed the hungry, and that no-one under his protection starved despite widespread famine, he might be talking about specific events – after all famines were not unusual at the time. But he’s at least as likely, if not more so, to be telling us he was a wealthy and virtuous man and exaggerating both the desperation of the times and the efficacy of his response.

The conflict with the Theban region that Ankhtifi also boasts of is open to an awful lot of interpretation. On the one hand you have Toby Wilkinson’s interpretation – armies marching north, fortresses sacked, a strategic refusal to engage in pitched battle on the part of the Thebans so that they could later sweep south and crush all before the might of their armies (obviously Ankhtifi doesn’t mention that last bit, it comes after his death and even if it didn’t it wasn’t glorious enough). And at the other extreme John Romer thinks it was some minor police action by a small militia group dealing with civic disturbances rather than anything approaching a war or armed conflict between regions. I’m inclined to think the truth lies somewhere between these extremes. I just can’t find it in me to buy into Romer’s peaceful interpretation – this is clearly a society that values military might, that’s why Ankhtifi is evoking the image of himself as a great war leader. But the image Wilkinson conjures up is rather large scale, and feels like he’s taking Ankhtifi’s rhetoric at face value rather than with a large pinch of salt. In Jan Assmann’s translation* of the relevant section of the text Ankhtifi refers to his “trusty young squad”. So rather than armies massing at borders are we really talking about raids by relatively small groups designed to cause mayhem, acquire wealth and intimidate the locals into switching allegiance to Ankhtifi so that he raids elsewhere for a change.

*Andrew Jenkin’s English translation of Assmann’s German translation, that is.

As well as giving us a very murky glimpse of the events of his life the autobiography does illustrate the way that Egyptian society is changing during this period. We’re on rather firmer footing once we zoom out to this meta-level too! There’s a clearly a complete breakdown in central authority. In the Old Kingdom period tombs of people of Ankhtifi’s rank are full of references to the king commanding this or rewarding the deceased for that. In Ankhtifi’s tomb the nominal king is mentioned once, and more as an ally than as an overlord – all the rest is Ankhtifi acting on his own initiative and the gods who are pleased with his behaviour and the source of authority. You can also see the evolution of later kingly rhetoric – the way Ankhtifi describes conditions before he arrived in the second region he took over is similar to how the Middle Kingdom kings referred to conditions during the First Intermediate Period. And the positioning of the king as steward for the gods also traces its roots to the rhetoric of men like Ankhtifi (rather than the Old Kingdom image of the king as an incarnation of a god).

Ankhtifi may or may not have been a successful regional ruler, and he certainly wasn’t successful in the long term as it was his Theban rivals who re-unified the Egyptian state. But nonetheless his tomb autobiography gives us a glimpse into the time in which he lived – not necessarily the specific events but the flavour and psychology of the society.

Resources used:

“The Mind of Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. Andrew Jenkins)
“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“Egypt’s So-Called First Intermediate Period and the Tomb of Ankhtifi” Glenn Godenho (talk given to the Essex Egyptology group, see my write up on my other blog)
“Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol. I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms” Miriam Lichtheim
“A History of Ancient Egypt Vol. 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” Ian Shaw
“Decrees, Papyri and Biographies in the Age of the Pyramids” Nigel Strudwick (talk given to the Essex Egyptology group, see my write up on my other blog)
“Lives of Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson