How the First Intermediate Period Came to Be in Egypt

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

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

In Egypt, there were changes at the end of the Old Kingdom. This led to a decline and, ultimately, to the First Intermediate Period. What were the changes, and in which areas could they be seen?

Image of Stela of Maati, the gatekeeper in the First Intermediate Period.
Many unpleasant changes toward the end of the Old Kingdom finally resulted in the First Intermediate Period. (Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art/CC0/Public domain)

Changes in Old Kingdom

There were all kinds of changes at the end of the Old Kingdom, for example, the last king of Dynasty IV, Shepseskaf, built the Mastaba el-Faraoun in the desert instead of building a pyramid. The Fifth Dynasty kings changed their names to have ‘ra’ at the end. They built solar temples rather than big pyramids. The last king of Dynasty V started putting the Pyramid Texts on the walls. Dynasty VI, the last dynasty of the Old Kingdom, ended with Pepi II, the longest-reigning monarch in the history of the world, who ruled for 94 years. It is reasoned that, due to his old age, he couldn’t lead the army in battle or control the government, so Egypt just declined.

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Theory of Kurt Mendelssohn

Kurt Mendelssohn proposed another theory about why Egypt took a nosedive. He was not an Egyptologist but a physicist and had a theory about the pyramids and pyramid building in his book, The Riddle of the Pyramids. He didn’t get it right, but he was an intelligent man thinking things through. His theory proposed that the decline of the government was because there were no longer any big pyramids being built.

According to Mendelssohn’s theory, there were 90,000 workers working on a pyramid, and it could be that the priests convinced the pharaohs not to build big pyramids anymore, resulting in unemployed laborers who revolted and caused problems. This could be a reason for the decline. But that was not right. Instead, most of the laborers were farmers who were free during inundation, and who went back to their farms.

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First Intermediate Period

Image of Stela of Tjetji, Ancient Egypt 11th Dynasty, the First Intermediate Period.
The First Intermediate Period lasted for 200 years but there was no record as such to tell us about the period. (Image: British Museum/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

The Old Kingdom ended with a lot of changes and a decline. Then came the First Intermediate Period, about which hardly anything was known. It lasted for nearly 200 years but reconstructing history was difficult when there were no records. This was a problem because it was the government that kept the records in ancient Egypt. Private people didn’t keep records as most of them couldn’t write.

One of the sources, Manetho, an Egyptian priest, gave an account of what happened, and how Egyptologists brought together a picture of the period no one knew much about. Manetho was alive in the third century B.C. at the time of the Ptolemies, who were the Greeks ruling Egypt at the very end of the civilization. He wrote a history of Egypt called Aegyptiaka, ‘About Egypt’.

Manetho’s History of Egypt

Manetho’s virtue was that he was an Egyptian priest. As an insider, he had access to temple records, could read the hieroglyphs, and wrote a history of Egypt, called Aegyptiaka which was in Greek. Egypt was controlled by Greeks so the reason to write in Greek was that the pharaoh, Ptolemy II, the Greek king, could read about the glorious history of Egypt.

The original text of Manetho was lost, but he was quoted by later historians, like Eusebius and Africanus. According to those quotes, Manetho says, of the First Intermediate Period, “There were 70 kings in 70 days.”

What he probably meant was that there were many pharaohs who didn’t reign for very long, the kings who didn’t last. Almost always in Egyptian civilization, kings with short reigns, coming one after the other, was a sign that there was something wrong. Stability was when a king reigned for more than ten years.

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Simultaneous Kings

Another possibility was that there might have been simultaneous kings. For example, the capital was Memphis in the north, and there were people in the north claiming to be kings, as well as rulers in the south saying they were kings. So they would have simultaneous kings.

Herakles’s City

During the First Intermediate Period, the capital was changed. Dynasties VII and VIII were in the First Intermediate Period and the capital was Memphis, but after this, the capital moved south to a place called Herakleopolis.

Herakleopolis was the name that the Greeks had given the capital city. They associated it with their god Herakles, so it was ‘Herakles’s City’. As the capital moved from Memphis to the south, Herakleopolis, this might suggest that either the kings couldn’t rule anymore in Memphis, or there was a takeover, or that the gods were more important according to the priests. It would have been a big deal to move the capital as the records and the scribes were in Memphis.

Source of the Kings’ Lists

Some of the primary sources to figure out which kings ruled when, are the kings’ lists. The pharaohs were very proud of their continued lineage and loved to trace their heritage.

The kings’ lists were carved on temple walls or stones, sometimes written on papyrus, listing all the previous kings. As soon as someone became king, they started writing, ‘I’m now, and before me was so and so,’ and the line was traced back as much as they could.

One of those kings’ lists was the Palermo Stone. Though in fragments and pieces, it was a long, dark stone carved with the pharaohs’ names and things that happened during their reign. But the problem with the Palermo Stone was that the First Intermediate Period begins with Dynasty VII, and the list only goes up to Dynasty V. Another kings’ list, the Karnak List, was once carved on Karnak Temple, in Thebes, south, having 61 kings up to the time of the Pharaoh Tuthmose III, also telling us nothing about the First Intermediate Period.

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

The Abydos Kings’ List

One of the best sources for studying the kings was the Abydos kings’ list. Abydos was the sacred city where Osiris was buried, and where the early kings had their burials. A later pharaoh, Seti I, built his temple at Abydos. On the wall, inside one of the rooms, he created the ‘Hall of the Ancients’. It was his genealogy table listing the kings from Narmer to Seti I, used in a ritual.

Image depicting the temple of Osiris at Abydos.
In the temple of Osiris, the pharaoh came once a year to say prayers by reading the names in the list of kings. (Image: Steve F-E-Cameron/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Once a year, the pharaoh would come into that Hall of the Ancients, look at the list of kings’ names, and read them. The kings’ names were a prayer, which said, ‘May the king grant a wish to Anubis.’ It was also a funerary prayer, saying, ‘May the god give bread and beer, food, cattle, geese and oxen, all things good and pure upon which the god lives, may he give all those things to these kings.’ By reading the names of those kings, they were going to get everything needed in the next world.

The kings’ lists were important, although they may not help us with reconstructing the First Intermediate Period.

Common Questions about the History of Egypt

Q: What caused the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt?

There were various theories for the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt. Most prominent among them was Kurt Mendelssohn, First Intermediate Period, and Manetho but no real records as such were available.

Q: What happened in the First Intermediate Period of ancient Egypt?

The First Intermediate Period, a period about which hardly anything was known, lasted for nearly 200 years but reconstructing history was difficult with no records. The problem was that the government kept records in ancient Egypt but private people did not as most of them could not write.

Q: Who is Herakles?

Herakles is a Greek god. Herakleopolis was the name that the Greeks had given to an Egyptian city. They associated it with their god Herakles, so it was ‘Herakles’s City’.

Q: What is Abydos known for?

Abydos was the sacred city where Osiris was buried, along with the early kings who also had their burials. A later pharaoh, Seti I, built his temple at Abydos. On the wall, inside one of the rooms, he created, the ‘Hall of the Ancients’.

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