Change Under the Cover of Restoration

Egyptian history is traditionally divided up following the scheme of dynasties that a 3rd Century BCE historian called Manetho used, and over the top of that modern Egyptologists have grouped those dynasties into Kingdoms and intermediate periods. This is a pretty useful thing to do – it makes it easier to talk and think about the 3,000 and more years of history. But it’s also a little dangerous – it leads one to ignore other ways to divide up the history of Egypt. I’ve talked about Khasekhemwy before – we put him as the last king of the Second Dynasty and yet there are indications that he may’ve been a re-unifier of Egypt, which to my mind might make him better thought of as the beginning of the Old Kingdom rather than the end of the Early Dynastic Period. And today I thought I’d talk about another of these inflection points in Egyptian history that aren’t reflected in the traditional divisions: the reign of Senwosret III.

Senwosret III was the fifth ruler of the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom – essentially slap bang in the middle of this period, neither at the beginning nor the end his dynasty let alone his Kingdom. He ruled for around four decades in the 19th Century BCE and he was the successor to Senwosret II, and was succeeded in his turn by Amenemhat III. You might see his birth name spelt in several different ways in books: Senwosret (which I’m using as it’s the one I’m most familiar with), Senusret or Sesostris (this last is considered rather old-fashioned now). His throne name, which the Egyptians would’ve used to refer to him was Khakaura. The remaining names of his five-fold titulary are his Horus name nṯr-ḫprw “Horus, divine of form”, his nebty name nṯri-mswt, “The Two Ladies, divine of birth” and his Golden Horus name ḫpr, “The Golden Horus has been created”.

We know the names of several members of Senwosret III’s family, mostly the women and mostly from their burials. Well, I say “know” but of course this is really one of those logic puzzles – there’s a list of women who have particular titles relating them to “the King” and a list of burial places, and we use those to make educated guesses about which king they were daughter of etc. And the men are pretty much entirely missing – not necessarily because they didn’t exist, but more because in this period royal sons were not often represented in art or in texts unless they had some other reason (like being a priest of a relevant temple) to be mentioned.

Senwosret III’s parents can be reasonably confidently assigned as Senwosret II and his wife (Khnemetneferhedjet) Weret I (the I is used to distinguish her from her daughter-in-law of the same name). You’ll notice I put the first bit of her name in brackets – it’s an interesting name and a rather confusing one. Khnemetneferhedjet literally translates as “united with the white crown”, it was a personal name in the 12th Dynasty and was also a title that was held by queens from the 12th Dynasty to the early 18th Dynasty. It’s not clear how one can tell if it’s a name or a title – not just to me as a reader of the secondary literature, but also to Egyptologists reading the inscriptions and texts themselves. In fact the books I read disagreed as to whether this particular woman was called Khnemetneferhedjet Weret or just Weret, so I’ve put it in brackets!

There are several known wives of Senwosret III – again mostly known from their place of burial (his pyramid complex, with a couple of exceptions), and their titles. When I was writing about Amenemhat III I said Senwosret III had three wives – but actually there are 5 (one of whom we have no name for). Two were his sisters: daughters of Senwosret II who had both the title King’s Daughter and King’s Wife – these were Sithathoriunet and the unnamed woman. There is also (Khnemetneferhedjet) Weret II (not to be confused with her mother-in-law), whose titles are King’s Wife and Great of Sceptre (which is another queenly title of the period). Another had the United with the White Crown title that I discussed above (she was called Neferhenut). And last, and very very definitely not least, was Mertseger. She is the first recorded queen to hold the title King’s Great Wife, and the first to have her name written in a cartouche – whilst these honorifics would become commonplace in the New Kingdom their use here is a departure from the previous norm and an indication of her status.

We can also list the names (or partial names) of several daughters (or potential daughters) of Senwosret III (tho not, I think, assign mothers to them) all of whom were buried in his pyramid complex: Khnmet[…], Menet, Mereret B, Senebsenbetes, Sit[…] A, and Sithathor A. Sons are elusive – none are directly attested (as I discussed above this was not unusual). And as I mentioned when writing about his probable son Amenemhat III even this relationship is only assumed due to the succession and the long co-regency which carries with it an assumption of a completely normal (i.e. father to son) succession.

As I said at the outset of this article, change is my theme for this look at the reign of Senwosret III – I’ve already mentioned the new title and cartouche for one of his queens, which surely indicates some shift in the status or ideas about royal women during this period. This is only one of a wide range of changes – during his reign and those to either side of him the material culture of Egypt undergoes notable changes in many ways. There are no texts that explain these changes (the Egyptians didn’t generally write down such meta-information) but it seems reasonable to assume that the change of material culture reflects an underlying alteration in the beliefs and practices of the Egyptian people.

Senwosret III

A striking example of these changes is in the art style. I had already talked about this a bit in the Amenemhat III post, where I put the fuzzy line of this change in Senwosret II’s reign, but I think on further reading it should be seen as part of Senwosret III’s reign. In statuary from earlier in the Middle Kingdom it’s a very idealised (and youthful) face that we’re shown, but Senwosret III’s statuary has more naturalistic and more mature facial features (whilst still having a very idealised and youthful body) and this style continues into his son’s reign and beyond. There have been a few suggestions for what this change means or represents. Some authors suggest that this is a new “realistic” style and that the statues represent the actual true-to-life features of the king. Other authors interpret it as bearing a message – that the features do not represent the real face of the king but are chosen to convey specific concepts e.g. the prominent eyes of Senwosret III signify vigilance. Overlapping with this is the idea that the faces are carved to represent the “inner man” – the king’s character not the king’s appearance. Yet other authors, like Dorothea Arnold, mix these ideas together – she sees the statues of this period as being recognisable images of the king in question which were also constructed to fit the ideology of the time. I’m inclined to follow this last idea. Just having it be straight realism feels too much like back-porting our own ideas about what art “should be” onto the Egyptians. And having it be solely conceptual messaging feels too abstract (but having said that, I also don’t believe Akhenaten looked like his statuary, so I’m clearly open to that idea in other cases!). But whatever the specific messaging or interpretation we see in these statues, it’s clear that ideas about how to represent a king change in middle of the Middle Kingdom and thus presumably their underlying idea of kingship itself.

This is not the only change that happens in the art and artifacts produced in the mid-12th Dynasty, tho it’s the only one I intend to go into in depth. I’ve previously discussed how tomb models fall out of use during Senwosret III’s reign, and along with this the jewellery buried with royal women changes in style and type. There also seems to be an interesting conceptual change in the way that the burial chambers under a pyramid were thought of – in the earlier Middle Kingdom they seem to’ve been thought of as pockets in solid bedrock (with the filling up of the passageways after burial returning them to solidity). But from Senwosret II onward there’s a change and the chambers are organised as spaces that one can move through and between. Also in the funerary context there’s an increase in the number of stelae and statues placed near sacred sites and processional ways such as those at Abydos and Elephantine.

Along with these changes in funerary goods and ideas the tombs of the provincial governors, the Nomarchs, start to disappear from the provinces and the elite are more often buried in close proximity to the king. This is one indication of a great change in the bureaucratic organisation of the Egyptian state during the reign of Senwosret III. Prior to Senwosret III the regions of Egypt were governed by powerful Nomarchs each of whom ruled over a Nome or district. During the late Old Kingdom more and more power had devolved to these regional governors, and this destabilised the central authority of the kings of Egypt. This wasn’t the entire reason that the Old Kingdom collapsed, but it was one of the factors – and you see it reflected in the tombs of First Intermediate Period rulers like Ankhtifi. But during the reign of Senwosret III this changes – the power of the provincial elite is reduced. Instead power was concentrated in a small handful of officials – headed by three viziers who reported directly to the king. These viziers each had a large region under their supervision – one administered Lower Egypt, one Upper Egypt and the last looked after Elephantine and Lower Nubia. Some authors see this as a conscious decision by Senwosret III to break the power of the Nomarchs, but most interpretations are that it was a side-effect of a process of centralisation that had been begun earlier in the 12th Dynasty during the reign of Senwosret I. Instead of a removal of power from any individual it’s more that by the reign of Senwosret III the titles are vanishing as Nomarchs died and their sons did not inherit.

Changes in bureaucracy inevitably lead to other changes in society as the centres of power shift. One such change may’ve lead to the flowering of craftsmanship that is seen in this period – the centralisation of power meant that the elite were then all in one place, and so the craftsmen who made elite items and the traders who brought them from outside Egypt also moved to this centre of power. And once all in one place the opportunities for collaboration and competition would be much greater. Also probably connected with the power shift from the provinces to the court was an organisational shift in the military of Egypt. In the First Intermediate Period and the early Middle Kingdom the army was primarily built up from the militia of each Nome, but as bureaucratic authority became centralised so did military authority. In the later Middle Kingdom from the reign of Senwosret III onward the army developed into a larger and national standing army.

And Senwosret III put this army to use serving his new expansionist policy – he undertook campaigns in Nubia in Year 8, Year 10 and Year 16 and reversed the northward movement of the southern border of Egypt that had taken place in the previous two reigns. He established his border at Semna (south of the Second Cataract), established and/or renovated a series of forts between Buhen and Semna in order to control this territory. He also enlarged a canal built by Pepi I which ran from Elephantine to the south, bypassing the first cataract) and improving communication and movement between core Egyptian territory and the newly conquered regions of Lower Nubia.

His boundary stela at Semna makes it clear that he regarded this land as completely under his authority. It states that no Nubians must cross this boundary by water or by land, whether in a ship or with their herds unless they are coming to one of his fortresses to trade. Of course the lands to the south of Egypt had been exploited by Egyptian rulers for a long time, but the Middle Kingdom was the first time they had been incorporated properly into the lands over which the king ruled. The fortresses that lined the river projected this power to the inhabitants, much like Norman castles in newly conquered Anglo-Saxon England. They did serve a practical purpose as well as this symbolic one – and not just the obvious military one of providing barracks for troops to control the river. They also provided storage space for trade goods, and places for the authorised trade between Nubians and Egypt to take place. So perhaps rather than an analogy to Norman castles we’d do better to think of Hadrian’s Wall – not a barrier but a place where trade and movement was controlled.

It wasn’t just Nubia that Senwosret III projected his power towards – he also flexed his muscles at the lands to the north east. Execration texts found in the fortress of Mirgissa in Nubia (and other places) dating to Senwosret III’s reign make it clear that Egyptian xenophobia was alive and well in this period – and directed at all outsiders. Among the cities and peoples named as abomination are several of the Nubian peoples, and also cities in the Levant such as Sekmem, Ashkelon, Byblos and Jerusalem. But there’s less evidence for campaigns into that part of the world, and no evidence of any long term control. Really we just have evidence of one campaign into Palestine in Senwosret III’s whole reign – personally led by the king himself it succeeded in capturing the town of Sekmem (identified with Shechem in the Mount Ephraim region).

Unsurprisingly, given the campaigns I’ve just discussed, one of the buildings we know that Senwosret III built was a temple to the Theban war god Montu at Medamud. This is also an example of continuity between Senwosret III and the earlier kings of the Middle Kingdom, which is a counterpoint to the picture we’ve been building up of his reign being a time of change.

After his death Senwosret III was one of those kings whose cult lasted for centuries, like Menkaure, Montuhotep II or Ahmose I. His pyramid complex at Dahshur shows signs of having been maintained through the Second Intermediate Period and we can tell from graffiti at the complex that some parts were still visited until at least the reign of Ramesses II. His funerary monument at Abydos also shows signs of his cult persisting for a couple of hundred years. He also gradually became regarded as the archetypal Egyptian king and was referred to as “High Sesostris”, with many stories about him by the time of Herodotus. But this was not entirely on his own merits – instead it was down to increasing conflation of his reign and deeds with those of other kings. Fairly early on he got confused with Senwosret I and Senwosret II, and by the Classical Period he was possibly also confused with Ramesses II to some degree.

Whilst his later reputation wasn’t entirely his own his reign was still a pivotal moment in the Middle Kingdom, and I’ve discussed some examples of the things that changed during his time on the throne. But change for change’s sake isn’t really an Egyptian thing to do – they were more apt to stress continuity and maintenance of the established order of the universe. And Senwosret III seems to’ve been a typical Egyptian monarch in this regard. There are several architectural and design choices in his pyramid complex at Dahshur that look back to older kings – not his immediate Middle Kingdom predecessors but the architecture of the Step Pyramid or other Old Kingdom pyramids. And his other funerary monument is at Abydos, near the Early Dynastic cemeteries there and the first royal monument since those days. So he seems to’ve been positioning himself as the heir to these illustrious ancestors. And some of the other aspects of his reign fit into that narrative too – he’s centralising administrative power in the king as it was in the old days, he’s projecting the power of Egypt out into the world and returning her neighbours to their proper subservient role. Perhaps this is an indication that the power of the king had been faltering, and Senwosret III was re-asserting his power and constructing an image of a resurgent & rejuvenated kingship. And under the cover of restoration, changes are made.

Resources Used:

Arnold, Dieter. 2002. The Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III at Dahshur: Architectural Studies. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Arnold, Dorothea. 2015. “Pharaoh: Power and Performance.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Dodson, Aidan. 2020. “Sethy I – King of Egypt.” Talk given to the EEG on June 7 2020, see my write-up.
Dodson, Aidan, and Dyan Hilton. 2004. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder.
Grajetzki, Wolfram. 2003. Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor. Duckworth Egyptology.
———. 2015. “Middle Kingdom History: An Overview.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kamrin, Janice. 2015. “The Decoration of Elite Tombs: Connecting the Living and the Dead.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lehner, Mark. 2008. The Complete Pyramids. Thames and Hudson.
Lundström, Peter. “Names of the Pharaohs.” Accessed November 25, 2020.
Oppenheim, Adela. 2015. “Introduction: What Was the Middle Kingdom?” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Oppenheim, Adela, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto, eds. 2015. Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Quirke, Stephen. 2015. “Understanding Death: A Journey Between Worlds.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
Verner, Miroslav. 2003. The Pyramids: Their Archaeology and History. Translated by Steven Rendall. Atlantic Books.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.


Menkaure is an odd combination of obscure and well known. He’s the builder of the third of the pyramids on the Giza plateau so we have a big monument to him and I’d imagine most people who know a little about Ancient Egypt know his name because of this. He was the penultimate king of the Fourth Dynasty in the Old Kingdom so he’s successor to Khafre (probably) and predecessor to Shepseskaf, reigning for two or three decades around about 2500 BCE – but really most “facts” about him turn out to be pretty nebulous once you start reading up on him.

Menkaure was perhaps the son of Khafre, and thus the grandson of Khufu – hence related to the builders of the other two pyramids at Giza. I say “perhaps” because nowhere is the relationship actually written down, the assumption hinges on his inheriting the throne when there were definitely sons of Khafre around who were in positions of power. And would be in a position to object if he was not a legitimate heir. We also assume it because the Egyptians went out of their way to present their kings as an unbroken line of father to son inheritance (despite all the evidence to the contrary in their long history) – so it’s a good default if you don’t have direct evidence otherwise, but it is an assumption. In fact some of the evidence to the contrary comes within the 4th Dynasty itself right around the time of Menkaure’s accession. There is an ephemeral king called Baka who was the son of Djedefre (who was a brother of Khafre who ruled before him) – he definitely seems to’ve ruled for a short time, but it’s not clear if he inherits from his father and thus precedes his uncle Khafre or if he rules briefly between Khafre and Menkaure.

Menkaure’s mother was probably a woman called Khamerernebty who is thought to be one of Khafre’s wives, backing up our assumptions about Menkaure being the son of Khafre. The evidence is fairly slim here, but she has an appropriate collection of titles: King’s Daughter of His Body, Great of Sceptre*, King’s Wife, King’s Mother. A flint knife was found in Menkaure’s mortuary temple which has the partial inscription on it of “King’s Mother K[…]” – which does rather suggest that she was his mother, and thus probably Khafre’s wife as I said and Khufu’s daughter.

*Great of Sceptre is a queenly title used in the Old Kingdom.

As you can see we have more genealogical data available for the 4th Dynasty that preceding ones (look at the paucity of information I could find for Hetepheres, for instance) but still not enough to bring clarity to the situation. It continues into Menkaure’s own family – he had two or three wives, none of whom are known for absolutely certain. But there can be some degree of confidence that one of his wives was a woman with the same name as his mother: Khamerernebty (she’s given the numeral II by Egyptologists whereas his mother is number I). The evidence here is not just a rather fine dyad statue of the two of them together but the rather more certain evidence of a son of Khamerernebty II called Khuenre who is titled Eldest King’s Son of His Body, and is buried in a cemetery associated with Menkaure’s pyramid – so this seems as close to certain as we’re going to get without a time machine or the sudden discovery of a cache of documents (i.e. not very certain).

Khuenre is interesting in another way – that title Eldest King’s Son of His Body is suggestive. And his mother seems a good candidate for a senior wife – her titles are like Khamerernebty I’s (only without King’s Mother) and the only colossal statue of a queen found from Old Kingdom Egypt is of her, as well as the dyad statue with Menkaure. So was Khuenre actually Menkaure’s heir? Certainly Miroslav Verner makes that speculation in his book “The Pyramids”, and goes on to suggest that Khuenre pre-deceasing Menkaure may’ve led to a succession crisis. And what we now call the 4th Dynasty doesn’t seem to last another decade after Menkaure’s death (although as always, it’s a bad idea to assume that the change of dynasty was at all noticeable to the people living through it). But Menkaure does seem to’ve been succeeded by a son – a man called Shepseskaf, whose mother we don’t know (only it doesn’t seem to’ve been Kharmerenebty II).

The transition from Shepseskaf to the beginning of the 5th Dynasty (Userkaf) is rather murky but may’ve involved more of Menkaure’s offspring – perhaps, it’s always perhaps in this story. Userkaf himself may be another son of Menkaure, although he may also be a descendent of another branch of the family. And a woman called Khentkawes is important in the transition as the mother of king(s) and perhaps a king herself and she may have been a daughter of Menkaure. The books I read were really split on this – one theory is that she’s Menkaure’s daughter & Shepseskaf’s sister/wife, another is that she was a wife of Menkaure, and Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton make no mention of any relationship between Khentkawes & Menkaure. Given how thoroughly their book “The Complete Royal Families” goes into every tiny piece of evidence in the jigsaw puzzle that is the Egyptian royal family this silence makes me inclined to doubt her relationship to Menkaure. But given her importance she must surely be a part of the extended royal clan at the least – this is a royal culture where power was kept in the family, after all!

Summing up – the family of Menkaure looks a bit like this: He is probably the son of Khafre and Khamerernebty I, and has several brothers who hold positions of power. He has two or three wives, one of whom was probably Khamerernebty II. The number of his children isn’t clear but it seems there were at least two sons, and perhaps a daughter or two. One of his son’s pre-deceases him but nonetheless he is succeeded by a son, and even though we change the dynasty number after that it seems plausible that the “new” dynasty were the same family as Menkaure.

Hathor, Menkaure, and a Nome Deity

So that’s his family … perhaps! Do we actually know anything at all about the man himself? Well, not really – there don’t seem to be any significant events from his reign for which records have survived through the millennia. We do have his pyramid complex, as a monumental record that once he was the most powerful man in Egypt. And we have an idea of how he wanted to be portrayed – the photo I’ve used to illustrate this article is one of the four surviving triad statues that were found in his Valley Temple (the fragments also found indicate there were more but how many more is unclear). Each of the statues shows Menkaure flanked by two deities – on his right standing shoulder to shoulder with him is Hathor and on his left is the somewhat smaller figure of a Nome* deity. Menkaure is confident and at ease with his divine company, with his muscular idealised body demonstrating his perfection as a man and a ruler.

*Ancient Egypt was divided into administrative regions called Nomes.

There are a couple of stories in Herodotus, but I don’t think we can even begin to think of these as actual events. Not only is it the case that Herodotus was more interested in telling a good story than recounting history, but he was also writing some 2000 years after Menkaure died so no-one he spoke to was doing more than telling fanciful tales. However they might give a bit of a flavour of how the man had been mythologised over the millennia (providing his Egyptian informants weren’t just telling the nosey foreigner random nonsense). Herodotus refers to him twice as a good king – pious and just. But the first time he goes on to tell a story about Menkaure’s only child, a daughter, dying perhaps by suicide after her father raped her – which doesn’t sound terribly good to me! The second time is as an explanation of why he died young – apparently an Oracle told Menkaure the Egyptians were fated to have 150 years of hardship which Khufu and Khafre had been providing but Menkaure was being too nice to his subjects so would die in 6 years time as punishment. But Menkaure figured out how to cheat the Oracle – he ordered torches burnt all night every night so that he could stay up (partying) and effectively double his life span! As I said, these are obvious fiction – and quite vivid in Herodotus’s text with elaborate details about the golden cow the daughter is buried in etc. However, they do give a flavour of a memory of Menkaure as a good king, not like the mythologising around Khufu the tyrant. Whether that’s true or not, we’ll likely never know.

This is part of the fascination of ancient history for me. That we can get so close to knowing about a real individual person who lived so very long ago – we can piece together these little pieces of information like a logic puzzle or a jigsaw puzzle. But we don’t have all the pieces and so we can only catch a glimpse of the outline – so near and yet so far from knowing this man from the deep past.

Resources Used:

David, Rosalie. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books, 2002.
Dodson, Aidan, and Dyan Hilton. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Fletcher, Joann. The Story of Egypt. Hodder, 2016.
Herodotus. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Edited by Robert B Strassler. Translated by Andrea L. Purvis. Quercus, 2008.
Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. Thames and Hudson, 2008.
Malek, Jaromir. ‘The Old Kingdom’. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw, New ed. Oxford University Press, 2003.
Romer, John. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin, 2016.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and Expanded ed. British Museum, 2008.
Verner, Miroslav. The Pyramids: Their Archaeology and History. Translated by Steven Rendall, Atlantic Books, 2003.

Pepi II

The Dual King Neferkare, the Son of Re Pepi (aka Pepi II) was the fifth king of the 6th Dynasty in the Old Kingdom, and he reigned for a very long time around about the 23rd Century BCE. Manetho (a 3rd Century BCE historian in Egypt) credits him with 94 years on the throne, a king list dating to around the 13th Century BCE (or perhaps later) now in the Turin Egyptian Museum agrees with more than 90 years. I think modern scholars are fairly sure that he reigned for over 62 years but after that there are no attested dates (so far?). Unsurprisingly he took the throne as a young boy, somewhere between ages 6 & 10 (with most books I read following Manetho and making him 6 years old on accession). His immediate predecessor was Merenre Nemtyemsaf, and before that there was Meryre Pepi (aka Pepi I).

Pepi II seated on Queen Ankhenespepi II’s Lap

Who his father was is not entirely clear, so let’s start with his mother. She was a woman called Ankhenespepi or sometimes Ankhenesmeryre, one of three or four of that name living around that time. The name means “Pepi/Meryre lives for her”, and was taken by her on her marriage to Pepi I – in modern literature she is known as Ankhenespepi II to distinguish her from Ankhenespepi I (also married to Pepi I) and Ankhenespepi III & IV who were both married to Pepi II. As well as the identical names for multiple people this family is also one of those terribly convoluted Egyptian royal families where everyone seems to have at least two different relationships with every other person. Ankhenespepi I and Ankhenespepi II were sisters, and were both married to Pepi I. Both were the mothers of kings: Ankhenespepi I was the mother of Merenre Nemtyemsaf, and Ankhenespepi II was the mother of Pepi II. A relatively recently discovered inscription (within the last 25 years) tells us that Ankhenespepi II was also the wife of Merenre Nemtyemsaf (her step-son/nephew) after Pepi I’s death. And so you see where the uncertainty about Pepi II’s father comes in – it’s definitely one of his two immediate predecessors, but which one it is depends on how long you think Merenre Nemtyemsaf reigned for. More than a decade, and Pepi II must be his son, significantly less and he can’t be. I think the current consensus is that Pepi II is the son of Merenre Nemtyemsaf and the grandson of Pepi I, and the son & great-nephew of Ankhenespepi II and the grandson & nephew of Ankhenespepi I.

As he was so young when he took the throne Pepi II had regents who acted on his behalf – these were his mother, Ankhenespepi II, and her brother, Djau, who had held high office in the reign of Pepi I. It’s from this early part of his reign that we have one of the few glimpses into an Egyptian king’s personality as recorded by the Egyptians of the time. It’s rather a charming anecdote, a combination of childish joy and absolute power. We know the story from a letter written by Pepi II to a courtier called Harkhuf – who was so proud of the fact that he had personal correspondence from the king that he had the letter copied out onto the walls of his tomb to be remembered for eternity. Over his life Harkhuf had been sent on four expeditions to lands south of Egypt – the last of which was in Year 2 of Pepi II’s reign. As he returned he wrote to his king to tell him about the riches he was bringing back – including a dancing pygmy from the land called Yam. And Pepi II was so taken with the idea of this pygmy that he wrote quite a long letter back to Harkhuf, most of which is enthusing about this pygmy. It’s too long to quote the whole thing, so I shall excerpt a few bits of it (following Miriam Lichtheim’s translation):

“[…] You have said in this dispatch of yours that you have brought a pygmy of the god’s dances from the lands of the horizon-dwellers […] Truly you know how to do what your lord loves and praises. Truly you spend day and night planning to do what your lord loves, praises, and commands […] Come north to the residence at once! Hurry and bring with you this pygmy whom you brought from the land of the horizon-dwellers live, hale and healthy, for the dances of the god, to gladden the heart, to delight the heart of King Neferkare who lives forever! When he goes down with you into the ship, get worthy men to be around him on deck, lest he fall into the water! When he lies down at night, get worthy men to lie around him in his tent. Inspect ten times at night! My majesty desires to see this pygmy more than the gifts of the mine-land [Sinai] and of Punt! When you arrive at the residence with and this pygmy is with you live, hale, and healthy, my majesty will do great things for you […]”

It’s formal, and full of repetition (as I think is standard for Ancient Egyptian letters) – but even with the stylised prose we clearly hear the voice of a gleeful little boy who’s just been promised the Best. Present. Ever!

This little humanising anecdote, charming as it is, does cause a few problems for my mental image of the king – it’s easy to remember the excited little boy, but obviously that’s one brief part of a long life and probably something he rarely thought about once the novelty wore off. Information about Pepi II as an adult seems rather scarcer. He had at least five wives, some of whom were his sisters or aunts – Neith, Iput, Ankhenespepi III and Ankhenespepi IV were all King’s Daughters. Another wife was Wedjebten, whose relationship is less clear. And of course he had children, though I’m not sure if it’s known how many or who predeceased him and who survived.

His long reign was relatively peaceful, in fact none of the books had very much to say about it. Outside Egypt the political landscape was changing – the lands to the south were coming together in a coalition of states and Egypt’s influence wasn’t as strong as it had been. But that doesn’t seem to’ve led to any particular problems during his reign. However there are other indications that Egypt was no longer in as healthy a state as it had been. Pepi II built a pyramid complex for his tomb, as his predecessors had done – but despite having at least 62 years to do this in it’s just a standard 6th Dynasty pyramid. No signs of embellishment or additions or new ideas. Perhaps just that there was now “a standard” so he didn’t deviate from the proper way to do things. But he also copied the decoration scheme for the pyramid temple pretty much entirely from the 5th Dynasty king Sahure’s pyramid temple. Again, there could be positive reasons that he did this that we just don’t know – but it’s not really an indication of a vibrant and creative culture. And there are signs of an economic downturn as well. There may’ve been a period of prolonged low floods, leading to reduced tax revenue and the population not thriving – and no sign of a robust response from the king. Perhaps there was no way Pepi II’s administration could’ve responded effectively, perhaps the devolution of power to local governors had left the central authority too weak, perhaps we just don’t have the evidence.

Whether or not Egyptian culture had become stagnant and the government ineffective during Pepi II’s reign, it is clear that things don’t go terribly well immediately afterwards. Just like for planets there is a Goldilocks zone for the length of reign of a monarch. Too few years, and the changes at the top lead to instability. Too many, and chances are the king outlived his heirs. But a small handful of decades – that’s just right, neither too long nor too short. Sadly for Old Kingdom Egypt the reign of the Dual King Neferkare, the Son of Re Pepi fell outside this zone and into the range where your average Egyptian might believe that his divine ruler was in fact immortal. Ten viziers had come and gone while he ruled, countless courtiers must’ve lived their entire lives while he ruled. He did still have a living son to inherit, but Nemtyemsaf II didn’t long outlive his father – and his successor was also fairly ephemeral (so much so that for millennia he was thought to be a woman, but is now thought to’ve been a man, a fairly basic detail to be unclear on). And after that we’re into the revolving door of the next dynasty none of whom lasted long on the throne.

The Egyptians themselves did not remember Pepi II fondly – the other anecdote from his life is posthumous, much less charming and much less likely to be true. In it Pepi II is portrayed as a man distracted from the business of kingship by a torrid affair with one of his generals. He’s described as sneaking out of the palace at night to climb up a ladder into this general’s bedroom, then once he had “done what he desired” with him he sneaks back to the palace in the hopes that no-one would notice. This is unlikely to mean that Pepi II is history’s first recorded gay ruler – it has the flavour of a story to explain “what went wrong” at the end of the dynasty. It reminds me of the way that all Chinese imperial dynasties are traditionally said to start with a wise, brave, honourable ruler and end with a cruel, out-of-touch, perverted tyrant. Not necessarily true but it’s the narrative they use to explain historical events.

As always with figures from the deep past like this we have tantalisingly few facts to build our own narrative on top of. And so Pepi II is probably always going to be that over-excited boy anticipating the arrival of his pygmy in my head, despite how unrepresentative that must’ve been.

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
“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” ed. Ian Shaw
“Texts from the Pyramid Age” Nigel C. Strudwick
“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

Ahmose II

Despite its own rhetoric Egypt has never existed in splendid isolation untouched by the outside world. There’s evidence of trade and cultural contact with the Middle East, for instance, way back before there was even really an Egypt. But it is possible to talk about the life of a lot of kings without really mentioning the outside world much – other than a brief nod to trade with here, or a conquest of there, or a letter to the king of somewhere else. By the Late Period, however, this really doesn’t hold true, the outside world can’t be ignored or glossed over. Take Ahmose II whose reign is shaped by the wider politics of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and even a lot of our information on him and his reign comes not from an Egyptian source but from Herodotus.

Ahmose II reigned from 570 BCE to 526 BCE and is the penultimate king of the 26th Dynasty, although we might as well call him the last one as his son only manages about 6 months on the throne. The boundaries of this dynasty are defined politically rather than by all the kings being the same family – Ahmose II is a usurper and in no way related to the previous kings. His mother is named on a statue of herself (pictured) and another inscription as Tashereniset. His father may have been called Taperu, but this is more shaky as it depends on a libation bowl inscribed for an Ahmose-sineith-Wahibre who may or may not be the same Ahmose as eventually takes the throne.

The King’s Mother Tashereniset

The first time our Ahmose definitely appears in the historical record is in the act of usurping the throne. It’s possible there’s an earlier reference to him in a graffito at Abu Simbel, which names an Ahmose as being in command of the Egyptian soldiers of an army sent to Nubia by Psamtik II in 592 BCE. If this is our Ahmose then he must surely have been in at least his late teens or early 20s when he was commanding troops in 592 BCE, and thus in his 80s when he died. Not outwith the bounds of possibility for sure and our Ahmose was definitely a military man, but there’s no hint of “living to a great age” in the books I read and I’d’ve thought that would be noteworthy.

So possibly a commander in 592 BCE, but definitely a general in 570 BCE. At this time Ahmose II’s predecessor (Apries) had sent his army on campaign against the Greek city of Cyrene in Libya where they suffered a disastrous defeat. This was the final straw for the Egyptian soldiers in the army, who were already unhappy with perceived privileges for the Greek mercenaries they fought alongside. Ahmose II was sent to quash the rebellion but instead joined it and was proclaimed Pharaoh. He defeated Apries in battle in 570 BCE, then again in 567 BCE when Apries returned at the head of a Babylonian army. This second time was final – Apries was either killed in battle or captured and then later killed, it’s not clear which. So you can see how right from the beginning outside forces drive events: Ahmose II takes advantage of Apries’s foreign policy stumbles, and sees off the subsequent foreign invasion as he consolidates his power.

Ahmose II reigned for 44 years, and Herodotus’s remark is: “in all of which time nothing very unusual had happened”. But he also takes the time to tell us stories of Ahmose II the heavy drinker and country bumpkin. In actuality the evidence suggests that Ahmose II was a rather good Pharaoh, and that Herodotus’s stories are probably the result of Greek annoyance with his taxation of their traders and a helping of snobbishness about his non-royal origin. Domestically this was a time of prosperity, and Ahmose II undertook an extensive building programme – including one of the early buildings dedicated to Isis on Philae. He also boosted the country’s economy by confining Greek trade to single city (Naukratis) where he could tax it more effectively – presenting it to the Greeks as giving them a city of their own as a base, and to the Egyptians as keeping the Greeks out of everyone’s way.

But in many ways this domestic prosperity didn’t matter much for Ahmose II’s legacy – it was the successes of other kings that shaped the second half of Ahmose II’s reign. Ahmose II cultivated close ties with the Greeks, initially as allies against the Babylonians who had form for military expeditions against Egypt (witness the Babylonian army that came with Apries). But the Babylonians themselves were soon more concerned with matters to their east as Cyrus the Great’s Persian Empire began to steamroll its way across the Middle East. Egypt then entered into an alliance with the Babylonians and the Lydians against this new threat, but when they were conquered Egypt still had her Greek friends to fall back on. Ahmose II did succeed in keeping the wolf from his gates for the rest of his life, but only just.

In terms of dynastic stability, if it had only been Egypt’s internal affairs that mattered then Ahmose II had done a pretty good job with that too – especially for a usurper. He had at least two wives: Nakhtubasterau (whose grave has been found) and Tentkheta (the mother of his heir, Psamtik III). And Herodotus also reports a wife of Greek origin from the city of Cyrene (although she’s mostly the subject of one of Herodotus’s colourful stories so I’m not clear if she really existed). He had an heir (Psamtik) plus a couple of spares (Ahmose, Pasenenkhonsu). He also probably had a couple of daughters – definitely Nitokris and possibly Tashereniset. The first of these was destined to fill the other major power role of Egypt of the time – she was the designated heir to the God’s Wife of Amun in Thebes.

Sadly once again Egypt’s internal affairs were not the most important events, and Ahmose II’s best-laid plans went agley (as Robert Burns would put it). Ahmose II died in 525 BCE, about 5 years after Cyrus the Great, and was buried as planned in his prepared tomb in the court of the temple of Neith in his capital at Sais. This tomb was still visible in the time of Herodotus, but nowadays it is completely destroyed and there is a small lake where the temple once was. Psamtik III took the throne, as planned, but at this point the Persians invaded – Cyrus the Great’s successor Cambyses II had had 5 years to get himself sorted out and ready to take the first opportunity to continue what his father had started. A transition of leadership was just what he was looking for, and the less experienced Psamtik III barely lasted 6 months on the throne. As part of digesting Egypt and fitting it into the Persian Empire Cambyses II abolished the role of God’s Wife of Amun, and so Niktokris didn’t go on to fulfil her intended destiny either. And Herodotus would have us believe that Ahmose II didn’t get the afterlife he was hoping for – he tells a story of Cambyses II having Ahmose II’s mummy exhumed, tortured(!) and burnt.

In another era Ahmose II might’ve ushered in a new golden age for Egypt, and a couple of the books I read did refer to this period as a final “renaissance” for the Egyptian state. But equally, in another era Ahmose II probably wouldn’t’ve managed to take the throne. He came to power via the failure of his predecessor to balance domestic and foreign policies, he kept the economy strong and the country independent through his trade and alliances with foreign powers, and after his death his dynasty and country fell to the enemy from the East that he’d kept at bay for so long.

Resources used:

“The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories” trans. Andrea L. Purvis, ed. Robert B. Strassler
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson

A Well Connected Man?

The Amarna Period and its immediate aftermath is a tantalising period of Egyptian history – it feels like we’ve got so much information that we must know what really happened, and yet we really don’t. On the one hand there is quite a lot of documentation for the upheaval of these years and the players who took part in the drama. We know that Akhenaten succeeded his father Amenthotep III on the throne of Egypt towards the end of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom, and that he and his queen Nefertiti had 6 daughters. We know he changed the state religion of Egypt during his reign and moved the capital city of the country to a new virgin site in Middle Egypt (modern Amarna, hence the name of the period of history). After his death it gets very murky for a bit, but then we know Tutankhamun takes the throne as a child and his regime moves back to Thebes and begins restoration of the cult of Amun. Following him we have Ay, and then Horemheb, who complete the restoration of the old ways and set the stage for the 19th Dynasty including Ramesses II.

On the other hand there are still so many gaps in what we know for sure that you can construct several wildly different narratives that are all interpretations of the same pieces of evidence but are mutually incompatible. Take the Pharaoh Ay as an example. You can tell a story of a scheming courtier who possibly even murders his young king and usurps the throne from the rightful heir. Or you can tell a story of a loyal servant bound by blood to the young king who takes the throne in the aftermath of his unexpected death to avert a succession crisis. And really, we just don’t know.

Before I get into the personal side of Ay’s life we should start with the politics. In common with other important members of Akhenaten’s court he began construction of a tomb at Amarna and from this we know his titles during Akhenaten’s reign: Fan Bearer on the Right Hand of the King; Overseer of all the Horses of His Person; Real Royal Scribe, His Beloved; God’s Father. The Fan Bearer and Scribe titles indicate that he’s a close associate of the king, while the Horses one is taken to mean that he was the head of the chariotry wing of the Egyptian army. God’s Father is very unusual and there’s a lot of debate about what it actually means – but I’ll come back to that later as it ties in with speculations about Ay’s family relationships. Scenes in this tomb also show him and his wife receiving gifts of gold from the king personally (and then depict Ay going back to his own household to show off about it!). So clearly he was a mover & a shaker in the court of Akhenaten. And he doesn’t fall out of favour through the ensuing changes of leadership and religion – in Toby Wilkinson’s “Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” he subtitled his biography of Ay as “The Great Survivor” which seems apt. While the cult of Aten was riding high, Ay publicly showed his allegiance to it & to Akhenaten; but when the times changed he was there helping with (perhaps even instigating) the return to the old religion and the old capital. In the court of Tutankhamun Ay is one of the powers behind the throne. The other one, Horemheb, gets more titles but in reliefs from Tutankhamun’s time Ay is often shown standing behind the king and on the same scale as him – unusual prominence for a courtier. He may’ve been Vizier – there’s a piece of gold foil from a chariot that gives him this title but the books I read ranged from thinking this meant he was Vizier to thinking that it was an indication of his high status but he didn’t actually do the job of Vizier.

And then Tutankhamun dies. I was a bit disingenuous in my opening to this article – I don’t think anyone seriously believes Tutankhamun was murdered anymore, the “evidence” around which those theories were based has turned out to be misinterpretation of relatively poor quality X-rays of his mummy that were done in the 1960s. However he died, and there are many theories, it seems to’ve been unexpected. His tomb was unfinished, seemingly so much so that wasn’t possible to get it ready in time and so he was interred in a much smaller tomb (probably originally intended for Ay). And Ay becomes the next Pharaoh. It’s not clear how smooth the transition was, and certainly Ay goes out of the way to emphasise his legitimacy in a way he wouldn’t feel the need to do if it wasn’t questioned. It’s possible that Tutankhamun’s widow Ankhesenamun tried to arrange herself a marriage to a Hittite prince so that she didn’t have to marry a commoner – certainly there’s correspondence between a widowed Egyptian queen and the Hittites at this time organising such a marriage on this basis (but the prince is murdered before he reaches the Egyptian court) and many people believe the widowed queen to be Ankhesenamun (rather than, say, Nefertiti). Ay is sometimes cast as instigating the correspondence, sometimes as arranging the ambush & murder of the prince, and sometimes both in a Machiavellian scheme to weaken the Hittites. There is also the question of Horemheb – his titles suggest he was intended to be heir, but then Ay takes the throne. A lot of the speculation around this hinges on how power was transferred from king to king – the new king had to be the one to bury his predecessor, and there was a set time frame that this must happen in. And it’s quite possible that Horemheb was away from the court involved in the ongoing conflict with the Hittites. So sometimes this is seen as Ay scrambling to bury Tutankhamun quickly and make it a done deed before his rival returns to claim his inheritance, sometimes as a planned arrangement where the elderly Ay gets his brief time on the throne before inevitably handing it over to his younger colleague, sometimes as just necessitated by timing. Whatever happened Ay was keen to depict his participation in the proper rites for eternity – he’s shown on the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. This is unique – even when there are other examples of scenes of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony they don’t have a named person performing it, they’re more a general depiction of the ritual whereas this is a piece of propaganda.

Replica of a Relief from Tutankhamun’s Tomb showing Ay (far right) Performing the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony for Tutankhamun

Another part of ensuring he looked legitimate might’ve involved marrying Tutankhamun’s widow. The only piece of evidence for this is a ring which has the cartouches of both Ay and Ankhesenamun. As a piece of politics/propaganda it certainly makes sense, but you’d think that in that case she would also be prominent in the rest of Ay’s reign – and be his Great Wife. But instead she vanishes from the historical record after this, and Ay’s wife Tey is the one who is depicted in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings as his Great Wife. Perhaps Ankhesenamun died shortly after? Perhaps it wasn’t a marriage but instead indication of an alliance in some other sense?

Ay’s reign was not to last long. He was almost certainly elderly when he took the throne, based on how long he’d been an important courtier, and so it can’t’ve been a great surprise that he died only three years after Tutankhamun. There’s no speculation of foul play here, all the books seem pretty convinced it was a natural death. Ay had named a man called Nakhtmin (possibly his son) as his heir, but it’s not clear if he had predeceased Ay or if Horemheb just pushed him aside. During Horemheb’s reign he tried to erase all record of the Amarna period, and this includes Ay. His tomb was reopened and the contents removed, and his name removed from monuments and replaced with Horemheb’s.

And this glittering political career is one of the reasons that there is so much speculation around who Ay was related to: he’s a prominent official from the time of Akhenaten onward who eventually becomes Pharaoh and our understanding of Egyptian society is that this must mean that he was Somebody, rather than some lower class man who got an education and rose through the ranks.

Ay’s origins are unknown. He seems to’ve had a connection with the region of Akhmim, judging by later building work and inscriptions there. His name may also provide a clue to his origins – it looks a bit odd amongst other Egyptian names one sees, it’s short and doesn’t look like a phrase in Egyptian. There are other prominent people at this time from Akhmim who have similar looking names (which get even more similar when written in Egyptian) – these include Yuya and Tuya (the parents of Amenhotep III’s queen) and Tiye (that queen). It’s therefore suggested by several people that Ay was a part of this family, and given when he’s attested it would seem to make most sense that he was a son of Yuya & Tuya and thus brother-in-law to Amenhotep III. The problem with all this is that there’s nothing (surviving) that mentions him as a their child – and both Tiye and a brother of hers called Anen are named on objects in their parents’ tomb. Surely Ay would be too, if he was their son?

We do know for sure that Ay had a wife called Tey – she’s named as his wife in the tomb Ay started to build in Amarna and in his eventual resting place in the Valley of the Kings she is named as his Great Wife. So that’s a definite fact, and I think the only one we have for Ay’s family relationships. Possibly she’s a cousin of Ay’s, based once again on the similarity of names. They have no known children, although there is some speculation which I’ll come back to later in the article (as it’s on a higher level of the house of cards that we’re building here).

Did he have other wives and children by them? One chain of thought involves the man who was named as Ay’s heir: Nakhtmin. There is a statue of him that has a broken inscription where one of his titles is given as “King’s Son of…”, the broken bit could be filled in with “Kush” which would make him Viceroy of Kush but there are already known Viceroys of Kush covering the period in question so that seems implausible. And so it’s generally reconstructed as “King’s Son of His Body”, i.e. the literal son of the king. But which king? Nakhtmin gives shabtis to the burial of Tutankhamun, and these name him but do not use the King’s Son of His Body title – given its high status he would do if he had it. So that implies he didn’t get the title until Ay became King – hence he must be a son of Ay’s. Another inscription names Nakhtmin’s mother as a woman called Iuy. Given Nakhtmin is an adult in Tutankhamun’s reign Iuy must therefore be an earlier wife of Ay’s, who presumably dies before Tey marries Ay.

Another chain of thought revolves around Ay’s title of God’s Father. This is an unusual title which has meant at least three things over the millennia of Egyptian civilisation. In the Old Kingdom it seems to mean father-in-law of the king, but in the Middle Kingdom it’s given to non-royal fathers of kings (for instance the first Montuhotep who was never a king but his son Intef I was). By the 19th Dynasty neither of these interpretations seems possible as Merenptah (son and eventual successor to Ramesses II) holds this title during his father’s reign, so there must surely be a third meaning. In the 18th Dynasty there are few people who hold this title – Yuya and Ay are the most prominent. And Yuya was the father-in-law of Amenhotep III, so it’s possible that the title had returned to this meaning from the Old Kingdom. So from here we can speculate that Ay was also father-in-law of a king, with Akhenaten the obvious king, making Nefertiti Ay’s daughter. And that would certainly make him Somebody! And linked by blood to the royal line twice over if you believe Tutankhamun to be the child of Nefertiti and Akhenaten (which Aidan Dodson does), and if you believe Ay to be the brother of Tiye. So a justification for being next in line to the throne after Tutankhamun (even if all his linkages are on the female side of the family). There’s some other possible evidence to back up a relationship of this sort with Tutankhamun – an inscription where Ay (as Pharaoh) refers to Tutankhamun as his son. Now this could be rhetoric: the king is always supposed to be son of his predecessor even when he’s not, and inverting the relationship would seem to make sense in this case because the elderly Ay would be unbelievable even metaphorically as a teenager’s son. Or it could be read as referring to a grandfather/grandson relationship between the two.

There is other indirect evidence to link Ay to Nefertiti. Ay’s wife Tey has titles that tell us that she was Nefertiti’s nurse and brought her up. Notably she doesn’t have titles that indicate she was Nefertiti’s mother, and if we compare with Tuya (mother of Tiye) then that is significant. So from here you can go one of two ways – you can posit that Tey was Nefertiti’s wet-nurse or tutor (or both) and thus Ay would’ve been a significant figure in Nefertiti’s early life but not a relation. Or you can take this in combination with the speculation around the God’s Father title and suggest that Nefertiti was Ay’s daughter by an earlier marriage and Tey was her step-mother. Which would make Nakhtmin and Nefertiti brother & sister.

While there is no evidence corroborating a link between Nefertiti and Nakhtmin there is a known sibling of Nefertiti – a woman with the title “Sister of the King’s Great Wife”. She’s younger than Nefertiti, and thus Aidan Dodson suggests that she’s the daughter of Ay and Tey but I think there’s no evidence other than the presumed date of her birth. Her name is either Mutnodjmet or Mutbenret – the difference between the two when written in hieroglyphs is a single sign and it’s not clear which form was originally written. If she was Mutnodjmet then that was potentially very significant – Horemheb marries a woman with that name and if he was the son-in-law of Ay and the uncle (by marriage) of Tutankhamun that would go some way to explaining why he was a possible successor to Ay. We’re quite far up the house of cards here though, and that’s a very shaky assertion.

That’s quite a narrative we’ve constructed for Ay and his family relationships: he’s the brother-in-law of Amenhotep III who has a first marriage to a woman called Iuy which results in two children, Nakhtmin and Nefertiti. Iuy vanishes from the scene (quite likely dying in childbirth) and Ay marries a cousin of his called Tey who brings up the future queen of Egypt. They have a child, Mutnodjmet, who also goes on to be a queen after her marriage to her father’s successor, Horemheb. Very well connected, certainly Somebody, and it neatly explains his prominence in the various courts of the time. But very very very little actual concrete evidence for any of it – a house of cards that might only need a breath of new evidence to knock it over.

So what do I think? Well, first I think I’ve only read secondary literature mostly aimed at a general audience, and what I’ve read is biased towards Dodson-authored or Dodson-influenced works so I’m not sure I have enough of the opposing viewpoints in this summary. Also my educational/academic background is in protein biochemistry, and this is the sort of thing we’d rather dismissively have referred to as “telling Just So stories” – building up a convincing narrative without enough evidence to support it. Rather an unfair thought when Egyptology is a different field, you can’t exactly go out and repeat the experiment another half a dozen times to make sure it comes out the same every time, you have to work with what you have. Which is two long-winded ways of saying I don’t think I know enough to have a valid opinion. I did enjoy the logic puzzle-esque nature of the (re)construction of the family relationships, and it certainly seems plausible that Ay was a well connected member of the elite given that’s how their society worked. But it’s all rather neat & tidy (particularly once you get to tying Horemheb into the network) and I’m suspicious of neat & tidy.

Resources used:

“The Rage of Horemheb: Hurried End of Akhenaten, Aye and Atenism – Part I” Anand Balaji
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Amarna Sunrise” Aidan Dodson
“Amarna Sunset” Aidan Dodson
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson
“The Unknown Tutankhamun” Marianne Eaton-Krauss
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Commoner King Kheperkheperure: Divine Father Aye” Daniel C. Forbes in KMT Vol 30, No. 2, Summer 2019
“The Complete Tutankhamun” Nicholas Reeves
“The Complete Valley of the Kings” Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

Amenemhat III

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.

Amenemhat III

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.

Resources used:

“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


The queens of the late 17th and early 18th Dynasty appear through the mists of time to’ve been formidable women, involved in the running of the kingdom that their husbands were re-unifying. They were also much longer lived than their male counterparts and so provided the continuity necessary to keep the family in power. Ahmose-Nefertari’s 70 or so years meant that she saw the reigns of at least 5 different kings, and was an active participant in at least two of them.

She was born in the early 16th Century BCE around 1570 BCE, possibly in the brief reign of her grandfather Senakhtenre Ahmose. He was a king of the 17th Dynasty (in the Second Intermediate Period) and really only ruled in Thebes. His son, Seqenenre Tao, began the process of reunifying Egypt which was taken up after his death by his son (or brother) Kamose, his wife Ahhotep and finally the job was finished in the reign of his son Ahmose I who is considered the first king of the 18th Dynasty. Ahmose-Nefertari was married to Ahmose I and she outlived not just him but their son Amenhotep I – she didn’t die until early in the reign of her son-in-law Thutmose I in around 1505 BCE.

During these fairly turbulent times the ruling clan believed firmly in keeping power in the family – Ahmose-Nefertari’s parents were both children of Senakhtenre Ahmose and his Great Wife Tetisheri. Ahmose-Nefertari herself was a full sister of her husband Ahmose I, and it seems likely that their son Amenhotep I was also married to one of his sisters. As well as simplifying the power structure at court this would’ve had theological justifications – it mirrors the relationships between the gods from whom all kings are supposed to be descended. A new pantheon for a rebirth of the Egyptian state.

Ahmose-Nefertari’s brother-husband came to the throne around the age of 10 after the deaths of both his father and brother (or uncle) during the wars against the Hyksos rulers of Lower Egypt. Their mother Ahhotep was regent for him at the beginning of his reign and kept the momentum going in the fight against the Hyksos. This is not a situation like that of Hatshepsut and her stepson – when Ahmose I becomes an adult he rules in his own right – but Ahhotep is still the preeminent woman in the court and it’s not until after her death that Ahmose-Nefertari becomes more visible.

Statuette of Ahmose-Nefertari

Along with the titles that define her by her relationships to the men of her family (King’s Daughter, King’s Sister, King’s Great Wife, King’s Mother) Ahmose-Nefertari holds significant religious and political titles of her own. She is, like her mother before her, Mistress of Upper & Lower Egypt – a mirroring of one of the king’s titles. She also holds multiple titles in the priesthood of the cult of Amun, which gave the royal family some control of and presence in this politically significant cult. The three titles she held were Divine Adoratrice, 2nd Prophet of Amun (deputy high priest, in effect) and God’s Wife of Amun. It’s not clear from what I read whether Ahmose I created this last title for her or whether she inherited it from her mother (who would then have been the first). It is clear that she regarded this as one of her most important titles: she used it more than any of her other titles, including King’s Great Wife. The role of the God’s Wife of Amun was as a female counterpart to the high priest – in rituals she would play the part of the god’s consort. The title was passed down from queen to queen during this period and reinforced the mythology of the 18th Dynasty which depicted each king as the son of Amun (who was supposed to impregnate each queen by impersonating her husband). Later in Egyptian history it acquired a different significance – in the Late Period each God’s Wife of Amun was a virgin daughter of a king instead of his wife.

Ahmose-Nefertari and Ahmose I had at least 5 children – 3 daughters and two sons. The eldest of their sons, Ahmose-ankh, was named crown prince but sadly predeceased his father. This meant that when Ahmose I died in his thirties his heir, Amenhotep I, was young and so Ahmose-Nefertari followed in her mother’s footsteps by being regent for the new king. And she transitions from this to acting in place of his consort for the rest of his reign – it seems his sister/wife died young and even though there may’ve been another wife she was not family or Great Wife.

Amenhotep I died both young (like his father) and childless (unlike his father). Which does rather make one wonder about what recessive genetic traits were coming to light because of these full sibling marriages! One of the books I looked at tried to argue that the fact that Pharaohs married other women who weren’t their sisters as well meant that “the line was not enfeebled”, but given that the heirs were the product of the incestuous relationships that doesn’t really hold water. And even though the Egyptians would have no conception of the dangers of inbreeding the royal family was nonetheless forced to bring in some new blood at this point due to the lack of a male heir. Thutmose I appears to’ve been an outsider, who was then married to a sister of Amenhotep I to provide legitimacy for his reign. Ahmose-Nefertari remained matriarch through this transition too, presumably still providing continuity and stability despite her advancing age.

When Ahmose-Nefertari finally died she is thought to’ve been buried with her son Amenhotep I. They had a joint mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri which has almost entirely vanished now – a few remnants and stamped mudbricks have been found but nothing substantial. It’s unclear where their tomb originally was – there’s a case to be made for a tomb at Dra Abu el-Naga, and a case to be made for KV39 in the Valley of the Kings. Either way their bodies were moved along with many other royal mummies during a period of state-sanctioned tomb robbery – the kings & queens were re-wrapped and re-buried at TT320 at Deir el Bahri where they were found in modern times. An enormous coffin labelled as Ahmose-Nefertari’s was found there – it is 3m in height even without the detachable pair of plumes that are its headdress! Inside were two mummies – one of these still enclosed in a cartonnage outer layer was assumed at first to be the woman herself, but turned out to be Ramesses III. The other has no identifying labels but is assumed to be Ahmose-Nefertari. If so, she was in her 70s when she died and was a fairly small woman by modern standards (being about 5′ 2″ in height). The mummy appears to still have quite a lot of hair – but this is mostly false, braids added by the embalmers so she has a full head of hair in the afterlife. Rather gruesomely when unwrapped in 1885 her body appeared to putrefy before the eyes of the horrified onlookers and she was reburied briefly in the grounds of Cairo Museum! This cured the “putrefaction” which was more likely a consequence of remaining natron paste on the mummy being exposed to damp air than anything happening to the body itself.

Ahmose-Nefertari had another, rather less gruesome, afterlife as well. She was one of the few Egyptian queens who was deified after death, and she was worshipped along with her son Amenhotep I as the patron deity of Western Thebes for several centuries. She and her son are credited with founding the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina and so were particularly favoured deities there – perhaps the most important ones for this community. There is no hard evidence that they did found the village – it certainly seems possible, but the earliest inscribed mudbricks date to Thutmose I’s reign. As a goddess she’s often depicted with a black face – this is almost certainly symbolic rather than literal (particularly if the mummy in her coffin is hers, as that woman shows no sign of Nubian origins). Black is a colour the Egyptians associated with fertility – the colour of the soil left behind after the Nile flood had renewed the land. And Ahmose-Nefertari (as a goddess of the necropolis and those who worked in it) was associated with resurrection.

As so often in ancient history this is more of a skeleton of a biography than a fully fleshed out picture, there must be so much she saw and did that we’ll never know.

Resources used:

“An Ancient Egyptian Case Book: Intriguing Evidence that Undermined Incredible Headlines” Dylan Bickerstaffe
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“The Complete Valley of the Kings” Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt” Steven Snape
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

She Who Must Be Obeyed

In a twist on the usual “donkey leg in a hole” mythology of tomb discovery the most intact elite burial of the 4th Dynasty was discovered when the leg of a photographer’s tripod broke through the seal at the top of the shaft. The photographer in question was Mohammedani Ibrahimi, who was working for George Reisner at Giza in 1925, and the tomb was that of Hetepheres, a queen of the early 4th Dynasty dating to around 2500 BCE. The tomb is a type of tomb known as a shaft tomb – a descriptive name meaning the entrance is a vertical shaft and the chambers are at the bottom (or off the sides) of this. In this case the shaft was completely full of limestone blocks for its entire 27 meter length. Partway down they discovered a small sealed side chamber with an ox head and some beer jars. Many tombs have reliefs with ox heads and beer jars as part of their offering scenes, and texts that refer to offerings of “bread, beer, oxen, birds, alabaster, clothing, and every good and pure thing upon which a god lives.”. This chamber was a literal manifestation of the same wish for Hetepheres to have all that she needed in the afterlife.

When the excavators reached the bottom of the shaft they could see that the south wall was made of limestone blocks rather than bedrock and behind this was a short corridor. At the end of the corridor another wall of limestone blocks. Just as Howard Carter had done at Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, they removed a block and peered through into a room that glistened with gold! And then promptly sealed it back up and Reisner spent 10 months planning the excavation that was to follow. Sadly the contents of the tomb weren’t in nearly as good condition as Tutankhamun’s were. Not only because the objects were some 1000 years older, but also there had been a water leak into the chamber which had hastened the deterioration of the wooden and other organic elements. As a result the gold leaf that had covered much of Hetepheres’s furniture was in fragments and no longer attached to what was left of its supports. It took Reisner and his team two years to meticulously clear this relatively small chamber (about 17 feet by 9 feet) to the point where they could reach the large alabaster sarcophagus that they could see from the very beginning.

The sarcophagus was intact and in an undisturbed tomb so expectations were high when it came time to open it. The reality was rather more … confusing. Inside there was nothing at all! But her organs were discovered sealed in an alabaster canopic chest tucked into a sealed niche in the tomb wall, so clearly her body had been mummified. Reisner came up with an explanation for the missing body, which John Romer rather delightfully refers to as an “Ali Baba-ry” of a tale. In this story Hetepheres is initially buried at Dahshur near her husband, but then her son decides she should be reburied at Giza. When his officials go to organise the moving of the tomb contents they discover the tomb has been looted and the body destroyed; no-one can quite bring themselves to tell the king that his mother is no longer in her tomb, so they reseal the sarcophagus and bury the empty box with full honours! More recently Mark Lehner has proposed a more sober explanation, with some similarities but a bit less farce. The idea again is that Hetepheres’s place of burial was upgraded some time after her death, but in this version she is initially buried in the tomb that Reisner excavated. She is then exhumed and reburied in one of the small pyramids near the Great Pyramid with fresh & more elaborate funerary goods. These are subsequently looted in antiquity and so all we have are the discarded original set.

Carrying chair of Hetepheres, original gold foil on modern wood.

So who was Hetepheres? Prior to the discovery of this tomb her name was completely unknown in the modern world. But from the inscriptions on objects in her tomb we can now glimpse her rather indistinctly through the fog of time. One part of her funerary assemblage, a frame for a large canopy, has the cartouches of the 4th Dynasty founder, Sneferu. Another part, a carrying chair, has the name of Sneferu’s successor who built the Great Pyramid at Giza – Khufu. Khufu’s name is also on the sealings of items found in the tomb, so Khufu’s bureaucracy was involved in the provisioning of Hetepheres’s tomb. This gives us a good idea of when she lived and a good idea of her status, both of which are backed up by the proximity of this tomb to the Great Pyramid and by the high quality precious items discovered inside.

The titles she bore give us some more clues. One of these was “Mother of the Dual King”. Of the two kings named in her funerary assemblage it seems most plausible that she was Khufu’s mother – she died during his reign and this tomb is found in close proximity to his tomb. The other title that gives us relationship information is “God’s Daughter of His Body” – the god in question is the king, and “of his body” indicates a biological rather than honorific relationship. Her father is rather unlikely to be the other named king in her tomb – that would require an extra generation between Sneferu and Khufu that there’s no other evidence of. So it’s most plausible that Sneferu was her husband and his predecessor Huni was her father.

Hetepheres had other titles which reflect her high status in Egyptian society like “guide of the ruler” and “favourite lady whose every word is done for her”. I’m using John Romer’s translations here – none of the books went for what I thought was the obvious joke/reference: “She Who Must Be Obeyed”! If you take these literally it implies that Khufu did what his mother told him to do, but I’m inclined to go with those who see them as an indication of status and power but not necessarily literally able to order the king about.

Her funerary goods also give some indication of what that high status meant in terms of material wealth in her society. She was buried with the usual assortment of provisions for the afterlife. As well as jars and boxes she had some large items of furniture including a bed and a frame for a canopy to surround it. These were painstakingly restored from the pieces of gold leaf and wood remnants by Hag Ahmed Youssef Mustafa (who later restored one of Khufu’s solar boats) and are now in the Cairo Museum. Even if these specific items were ceremonial & funerary rather than her everyday furniture they give us an impression of a magnificent and opulent court – being able to bury that much gold is a sign of great wealth, after all. The design is lightweight and portable – the bed and canopy can be disassembled and reassembled easily. This fits with other evidence that indicates that the Egyptian court was peripatetic: more like a medieval English king than the fixed seats of government that we have today.

As so often in ancient history we have this tension between feeling like we know about someone but not really knowing anything for sure. Hetepheres’s tomb reinforces our view of Old Kingdom Egypt as a culture with a conspicuously wealthy elite moving around the country looking practically god-like in comparison to the average person. And it gives us a flavour of a society where a woman could hold high status and perhaps wield great power but was nonetheless defined primarily by her relationships to men. But we still know nothing certain about the woman herself beyond the fact of her existence.

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life and Death for Rich and Poor” Wolfram Grajetzki
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
“A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Egypt: How a Lost Civilisation was Rediscovered” Joyce Tyldesley
“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

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


Who gets remembered from history and what they are remembered for doesn’t always have a lot to do with what that person or their peers would expect. Look at Tutankhamun, now the most famous Pharaoh but relatively minor in his own time and altogether missed out of later king lists because he was too contaminated by Akhenaten’s religious changes. Or how about Taharqo? Who isn’t really a household name any more, but in the Victorian era he was interesting and exciting because he is mentioned in the Bible. And if you could go and tell Taharqo this I imagine he’d be rather startled and perhaps a bit annoyed – the incident in question is relatively minor albeit full of foreshadowing, happened before he was Pharaoh, and didn’t go well for him (or Judah). Probably he’d be even more nonplussed by the idea that his importance to modern Egyptology is that his accession to the throne is the earliest definite date in Egyptian history!

So who actually was Taharqo? He was the fourth Pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty, who are either the last rulers of the Third Intermediate Period or the first rulers of the Late Period depending on where you like to draw your boundaries. His family line originated in Nubia to the south of Egypt, and their history follows a pattern common to (re-)unifiers of Egypt – first they consolidate power in their local area before sweeping north to conquer the whole of Egypt. There are two significant differences to the pattern, however – firstly they weren’t Egyptian, they were Nubian, and thus outsiders conquering the country rather than insiders unifying it. This might not’ve mattered in the long run as they were very keen to assimilate and be more Egyptian than the Egyptians. Perhaps more critically they also did not really impose a centralised government across Egypt. In particular their control of Lower Egypt was more in the nature of an overlord to whom the local rulers deferred rather than a directly ruling king.

Taharqo Sheltered by the God Amun in the Form of a Ram

Taharqo’s relationship to his predecessors and their relationships to each other are a bit murky, and there’s even some controversy over the order of the kings. It’s pretty clear that Piye was the first of the dynasty to claim Egypt as well as Nubia, although it was his successor who finished off the job of conquering Lower Egypt. Inheritance of the throne does not appear to’ve followed a straightforward patrilineal scheme, and there are some indications that matrilineal descent may’ve been important in deciding who ruled (but that’s neither clear nor generally accepted amongst Egyptologists). Between Piye and Taharqo were two other Pharaohs – Shabaqo and Shabitqo. Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton reconstruct the family as follows: Shabaqo is the brother and son-in-law of Piye, Shabitqo might be the son of Shabaqo and is the son-in-law of Piye, Taharqo is the son of Piye, and Taharqo’s successor Tanutamani is the son of Shabaqo. Clear as mud, right? And other schemes are available! For a long time the accepted order of succession was Piye, then Shabaqo, then Shabitqo, then Taharqo and finally Tanutamani. But an inscription discovered relatively recently has thrown the ordering of Shabaqo & Shabitqo into doubt – although I went to a talk by Robert Morkot and he was pretty scathing about the idea that one might want to re-write anything on the basis of one inscription. Particularly as the names of the two kings are so similar (especially when written in cuneiform as this inscription is) that it could just be the carver’s version of a typo.

The books I looked at don’t talk much about Taharqo’s life before he took the throne, but one incident does come up because it’s the one that’s mentioned in the Bible. The two great powers facing off across the Levant at this point were Egypt and Assyria – both on the rise again after a period of decline. At first contact between the two was relatively cordial, but as Assyria’s might continued to grow relations soured and Egypt felt her interests were best served by propping up Levantine polities as Assyria flexed her muscles in the region. So when Hezekiah of Judah asked for Egyptian aid against Assyria the 20 year old Prince Taharqo was dispatched with an army to help. It didn’t work out well, and Taharqo was soundly defeated (sadly for him, not for the last time!). Taharqo’s aid to Judah is memorialised in 2 Kings 19:8-13 and Isaiah 37, and as I said above I suspect Taharqo would rather they’d not written that little piece of humiliation down.

Taharqo took the throne in 690 BCE at the age of 32. This date is the first fixed point in Egyptian history which is pretty late considering how far back that history extends. The Egyptians themselves dated events to regnal years for each monarch, and the vagaries of survival of records & inscriptions means that we often only have a lower limit for the length of a king’s reign and errors quite quickly build up. I don’t know the details of how the date of Taharqo’s accession was worked out, but the essence is that it’s from working backwards from Greek & Roman dates and sideways from other cultures (like the Assyrians, I assume).

Despite the ominously unsuccessful little skirmish with the Assyrians some ten years earlier Taharqo’s reign was the peak of the 25th Dynasty. And it is for the first 20 or so years that I think Taharqo would prefer to be remembered. He built widely across his country, both in Egypt and in Nubia – in fact I was a little disingenuous with my opening paragraph, as these building works are also part of what we remember about Taharqo. If you’ve been to the Karnak temple complex you will’ve seen some – the First Pylon was built by Taharqo, as well as other structures within the complex (not all of which survive). Taharqo was the first to adorn the pinnacle of the sacred mountain at Gebel Barkal (thought by the Nubians to be the birthplace of the god Amun) – he had an inscription carved high up on the cliff face and covered with gold so that it would gleam in the sun. The art style during Taharqo’s reign (and that of the rest of the 25th Dynasty) was strongly influenced by earlier art, in particular that of the Old Kingdom. But this wasn’t slavish copying, features from different eras of Egyptian art and from Nubian art were combined to generate a new aesthetic. Taharqo’s tomb at Nuri (in Nubia) illustrates this quite well. As with other members of his Dynasty he was buried beneath a pyramid, but this pyramid was proportioned differently to those of the Old & Middle Kingdoms – a smaller base & steeper sides for the Nubian ones. The burial chamber was underground, and based on the Osireion at Abydos, a New Kingdom structure. There was also a chapel decorated in an Egyptian style for Egyptian rituals. However, despite the Egyptian styling details of the layout of structures also hark back to the tummuli tombs of his ancestors before they started building pyramids.

Sadly this new golden age of Egypt was shortly to unravel, as I’ve been foreshadowing throughout the article. The Assyrians continued to expand, and to look westward. Under their king Esarhaddon an invasion of Egypt was launched in 674 BCE, and Taharqo managed to fight off this initial force. He hadn’t been resting on his laurels during the first part of his reign – military prowess was a key feature of 25th Dynasty ideas of kingship, and Taharqo did not neglect this aspect. There is a stela that records a training exercise for his army involving running from Memphis to the Faiyum and back – a round trip of about 60 miles, which they apparently covered in 9 hours plus a 2 hour break in the middle. Which sounds … not implausible? Still likely to be an exaggeration but I know people who could run that sort of distance in that sort of time (though perhaps not in the heat of the desert wearing army gear, even overnight, but you never know). The stela even says that Taharqo joined them for an hour of running. I imagine this was some sort of unusual exercise, because it was worth recording on a stela. Nonetheless it shows that Taharqo regarded the army and the fitness of his army as important concerns.

Military training and readiness didn’t help Taharqo much. The Assyrians came back only 3 years later, this time with Esarhaddon leading them in person. This time they got as far as Memphis, sacking the city – forcing Taharqo to flee, leaving his wife & son (and heir) to be captured and taken back to Assyria as booty. There’s a fair amount of back & forth and Taharqo and then Tanutamani do manage to regain control of Egypt at various points. But in the end Esarhaddon’s successor Ashurbanipal definitively crushes the Egyptians and drives the 25th Dynasty rulers out of Egypt and back to their Nubian homeland. Taharqo didn’t live to see the coup de grace, but as he died during one of the upswings for the Assyrians it must’ve been clear to him that the writing was on the wall. Taharqo died in 664 BCE in Nubia, and was buried under his pyramid at Nuri having ruled the Egyptian and Nubian kingdoms for 26 years.

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile” ed. Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Kings from Kush: Egypt’s 25th Dynasty” Robert Morkot (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“The Rise & Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson