Egypt’s Never Changing Attitude and the Prophecies of Neferti

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

There were many examples of Lamentations used to interpret both the incidents that resulted in the decline of the Old Kingdom and the predictions of the First Intermediate Period. One such example was the ‘Prophecies of Neferti’. Despite having those records, why was the First Intermediate Period so difficult to study?

Painting which has lamenting women on the wall in the tomb of Ramses in Thebes.
The Lamentation had a lot of information that pointed toward the incidents of changed situations and the decline of the Old Kingdom. (Image: Maciek67/Shutterstock)

Some Things Never Change

The man who lamented had a lot of interesting information. He said, “Lo, those who are entombed are cast on high ground.” What he meant was that people were robbing the tombs, taking the bodies out, and casting them up.

The ancient Egyptian word for ‘cemetery’ was, ‘the city of the dead’, and there is one even today, in Cairo, which is acknowledged by the government and where they have run in electricity for those people. So they just live in the tombs because some things never change.

The man went on and talked about the inversion of wealth. He said, “Wearers of fine linen are beaten with sticks,” and continued, “Ladies suffer like maidservants.” The idea was that maidservants were supposed to suffer which was their place in life.

Learn more about what happened when a pharaoh died without issue?

Prophecies of Neferti

Another example of lamentations was called the ‘Prophecies of Neferti’, which was supposed to have taken place in the time of Sneferu. Sneferu was the one who showed Egypt how to build the pyramids and was also the person all looked back to as the great days. These were prophecies that took place in the time of Sneferu, and the First Intermediate Period was predicted. Written during the Middle Kingdom, it was not a real prophecy but had some important things.

He said, “Lo, the great no longer rule the land. What was made has been unmade.” They had a tradition. ‘What has been unmade’ meant the pyramids were robbed. During the First Intermediate Period, there were no bodyguards, no police state, instead, it was anarchy. So the pyramids were big, hulking targets, and that was when they were robbed. That was why no body was ever found in the pyramids during the First Intermediate Period. The man lamented, “Lo, the great no longer rule the land.” This meant people like Sneferu.

Learn more about the first pharaoh of Dynasty XIX.

Things Against Egypt

It was deeper than the political problems they felt when the gods were angry. He said, “Dry is the river of Egypt. One crosses it on foot.” This was something very elemental. Things had turned against Egypt, even nature, and they did not know why? He continued, “The land is bowed down in distress owing to Asiatics, who roam the land.” Again, there was something wrong as foreigners were entering into Egypt. Sneferu was the one who called himself the smiter of barbarians and went into Sinai. Things were bad.

Furthermore, he said, “Desert flocks will drink at the river of Egypt.” The answer was that the desert flocks were the Bedouins, people of the desert. It was a common misconception that the Egyptians were desert people, riding on camels. Whereas, the Egyptians hated and feared the desert. They didn’t have camels until the Romans introduced them. Everybody in Egypt lived along the Nile near the water. So he said, “Desert flocks will drink at the river of Egypt, take their ease on the shores for lack of one to fear.” In other words, in the good old days, those Bedouins were afraid to come near the river. They had to look for wells and stay away. But now they came and took their ease. Things were really bad.

Learn more about Ramses who was considered one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs.

Attitude Toward Foreigners

Egyptians didn’t really like foreigners in the beginning as Egypt was the place they wanted to be. It was the place where they had to be buried. It was the best place on earth. When an Egyptian went to a foreign country and it rained, they would say the foreigners had their Nile in the sky and viewed it as really unfortunate, because sometimes there was a drought, and sometimes it rained too much. But the Nile at least was always there for them. So Egypt was the best place on earth, and during the First Intermediate Period, it had ceased to be the best place on earth.

Systematic Tax System

‘Lamentations’ gave an insight into what those people felt about the land. The man lamented, “The land is ruined, its fate decreed”, meaning decreed by the gods, deprived of produce, and crops. Everything was gone. He continued, “The land is shrunk. Its rulers are many. It is bare, but taxes are great.” Meaning, people were not producing, the Nile was perhaps dry and they were still being taxed. Something was really wrong because taxes were almost a symbol of Egypt.

Ancient Egypt was probably the first country that taxed its people systematically. Egypt was the largest bureaucracy in the history of the world. With a strong central government, they had to pay the army they had. Egypt did not have any currency but did barter. The way they paid the army, priests, and the people who didn’t contribute to the society was by taxing the peasants.

Tax by the Nilometers

The peasants were taxed by how high the Nile rose. There were ‘nilometers’, measurements of the Nile carved on boulders in the river, and depending on how high the Nile rose that’s how they were taxed.

Picture of a ceiling of the Egyptian nilometer.
How high the Nile rose was also a measure to tax the peasant in Egypt. (Image: Michal Huniewicz/CC BY-SA/4.0/Public domain)

If the Nile rose, for example, up to 22 feet, they were taxed that amount. They were supposed to grow that amount of crops. If they had a bad year, they still had to pay that amount.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Upset Divine Order

He continued, “One salutes he who was saluted.” In other words, they were saluting the wrong people. They were saluting the man who should be saluting them. At the end, he said, “Men will live in a graveyard. A beggar will gain riches. The slave will be exalted.” Things were terrible because the divine order was upset.

Insufficient Records

The literature could not be taken perfectly literally, but it is an insight into what was going on in the First Intermediate Period for 200 years. Why would one go to such texts? Simply, because there were no official records. Another reason was that Manetho, the good source, was inadequate and the kings’ lists didn’t help much either. But the other reason was that, at the beginning of the First Intermediate Period, the capital was Memphis in the north, a lost city. The water table was higher in Memphis, which meant that buildings sank and the papyrus on which records were written rotted in the moisture.

The Lost City of Memphis

Picture of Statue of Rameses II, in Memphis.
Memphis was a lost city, due to which it was difficult to find records to study the First Intermediate Period. (Image: Jean Pascal Sebah/Public domain)

Excavating at Memphis was very difficult. The area was excavated by Flinders Petrie in the 19th century. With most of Memphis under mud, he went around with an iron rod poking in to feel where the stones were under the mud, trying to get the mud out, and digging up the stones.

It was a lost city. The history of Egypt from the south, where it was always dry, had more records. So another reason why the First Intermediate Period was so difficult to study was that the capital of Memphis was gone. For nearly 200 years, Egypt was in the period of anarchy and rose again, coming out of the mire.

Common Questions about Ancient Egypt

Q: Is there a ‘city of the dead’ in Egypt?

The ancient Egyptian word for ‘cemetery’ was often ‘the city of the dead‘. There is a ‘City of the Dead,’ even today, a modern cemetery in Cairo, acknowledged by the government, where they have run in electricity for those people.

Q: Did the Egyptians have taxes?

Ancient Egypt was the first country that taxed its people systematically. Egypt was the largest bureaucracy in the history of the world. With a strong central government, they needed to pay the army they had. Egypt didn’t have any currency but did barter. The way they paid the army, the priests, and the people who didn’t contribute to the society was by taxing the peasants.

Q: What is the nilometer used for?

Nilometers were used for measurement of the Nile carved on boulders in the river. They were also used to tax the peasants on the basis of how high the Nile rose. If the Nile rose, for example, up to 22 feet, they were taxed that amount. They were supposed to grow that amount of crops. If they had a bad year, they still had to pay that amount.

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