Tuesday 29 September 2020

Chapter 5 - Intermediate Periods

Egypt seems to offer the visitor so many monuments that it is often hard to remember that for long periods only fragmentary inscriptions or scraps of papyrus have come down to us.  These are the dark ages that punctuated the more glorious years, when the unified nation of Egypt fell apart, and when foreign invaders ruled in its palaces.

The First Intermediate Period - as these troubled times are known - occurred fairly soon after the magnificent achievement of the pyramids.  Power had become increasingly decentralised as the benefits of a strong and stable society began to flow downwards from the king to the nobles who became more and more independent.  The final trigger for the collapse of the carefully ordered state seems to have been a series of catastrophically bad harvests, themselves apparently due to a series of low Niles - the result of large-scale climatic changes during this period.

As a consequence, the king's authority as the god who controlled the life-giving Nile was irrevocably undermined.  In the rapid turnover of pharaohs there are dark hints of kings being deposed - perhaps even killed - for failing to work their ancient magic.  Marauding bands of starving villagers and incursions by foreigners in the north of the country soon led to near-anarchy.

For a several hundred years, Egypt's hard-won unity was lost.  It was only under Mentuhotpe II - who took the additional name 'Sehertowy' - 'He-who-unites-the-Two-Lands' - that Egypt became a single state again.  Although this period of stability was short-lived - about 300 years - it did see two important developments.

The first was the rise of a secular literature.  Hitherto texts had been almost exclusively religious, particularly concerned with the passage to the next world.  Now there appeared didactic literature for the instruction of rulers; there were grand public inscriptions glorifying the king who set them up; and, perhaps most interestingly, for the first time we find detailed autobiographies in tombs, describing their occupants - priests, viziers and soldiers.  From this time too dates the first conscious fiction - travellers' tales of journeys to distant lands, some quite factual, others more fabulous.

The second change was related to this secularisation of literature, until then the preserve of the king and his ministering priests and scribes.  Partly as a result of the pharaohs' failure to control the Nile or stem the tide of invasions, the king was no longer regarded as certain to achieve immortality.  He too would be judged on the basis of his actions, by the increasingly important god Osiris, now ruler of the underworld, 'Foremost-of-the-Westerners'.  A corollary of this was that ordinary mortals might also gain eternal life on the basis of their past deeds.  The kingdom of heaven, as well as of earth, was becoming democratised with the aid of the right spells, now known as the Coffin Texts.

The Second Intermediate Period was also brought about by invasion, this time of an Asiatic group now known as the Hyksos - a corruption of a phrase meaning 'lords of the deserts' - who succeeded in founding a dynasty which ruled part of Egypt for two hundred years.  Although the later Egyptians looked back on this time as one of woe and shame, the Hyksos brought with them a number of innovations from Asia that were to prove crucial in the rise of Egyptian Empire a few centuries later.

Chief among these were new weapons: the horse-drawn chariot, scale armour, the composite bow, daggers, swords and scimitars.  Not all their legacy was so sanguinary: they also introduced spinning and weaving, and a host of musical instruments including the lyre, lute, oboe and tambourine.

The war of liberation from the Hyksos was begun by Kamose, the Prince of Thebes, present-day Luxor, which was emerging as the new centre of Egypt.  The re-conquest was completed by his successor, Amosis, who extended the southern boundary of the country into Nubia.  The dynasty that he founded went on to enlarge the Egyptian Empire to its greatest extent, and to enrich it with the astonishing series of temples and tombs, mostly centred around Thebes, that have survived to this day, and which are matched in grandeur only by the Great Pyramids themselves.

The process of conquest which Amosis began also ushered in a new era for the concept of kinghood.  The pharaoh had already lost much of his aura as a god, but the achievements of Amosis gave rise to the idea of king as national hero, the great conqueror and smiter of nations.  This self-image became increasingly important in the next three centuries, and culminated in the campaigns and battles of Ramses II, and in their glorification as temples, reliefs and inscriptions.  It is these which today are the splendour of Luxor. 

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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