Feuds within royal families and problems involving the succession of kings led to the demise of many Egyptian dynasties. When the eighth dynasty collapsed, around 2130 BCE, nobles took control over what had been units of the king's army stationed in their area, and these nobles began to rule on their own. Kings remained, at least in name, but for two centuries no pharaoh ruled over the whole of Egypt, and common people suffered under the control of local nobles. This happened during a period of unusual dryness in Africa and low flooding of the Nile. Famine appeared. Common Egyptians became violent, and anarchy swept north and south along the Nile. Peasants seized property. Servants overpowered their masters and made their masters servants. It was written that the high born were full of lamentations and the poor full of joy. And taking advantage of the anarchy, people from Nubia (called Cush by the Egyptians) came north and settled in Egypt, as did mercenaries from elsewhere.
Rebellions in different areas failed to unite with each other, and eventually nobles with armies suppressed the uprisings. Amid the warring, the same tendency that brought unity to Egypt a thousand years before brought unity to Egypt again. One ruler (from Thebes ) spread his power over the whole of Egypt. Shortly thereafter, around 1900 BCE, someone usurped power at Thebes. This was Amenemhet I, who began a new dynasty – the twelfth. And his rule was to be different from that of the pharaohs of previous dynasties.
The new king had learned from the past. He believed that it was his duty to promote justice – as embodied in the goddess Ma'at. The worship of Ma'at now included a belief that during the social upheavals the gods had abandoned Egypt and that it had been prophesied that a king would come and end the injustice. And it was believed that the prophecy had been fulfilled. The king was aware that poor people and nobles expected their king to be more concerned with their welfare than had kings centuries before, that they expected a system of justice that redressed mistreatment. The king and his ministers were more concerned than were previous kings about protecting common people from exploitation. The king opened positions in government to people of ability from outside his family.
Nobles were allowed to retain some of their powers, and they received recognition by being given a place in the afterlife that they had wanted. Commoners were also recognized as having an afterlife, and it was now believed that commoners would meet Osiris when they died, and that Osiris, working with Ma'at, would judge people entering the underworld. The Egyptians now believed that before one entered the underworld, his or her sins were put onto scales of justice. An ostrich feather represented Ma'at, and if an individual's sins outweighed the ostrich feather he was rejected. Commoners saw their sins as weighing little, for most of them expected an eternal afterlife of paradise in pleasant labor, maintaining their earthly status amid kindly gods.
Peace and stability had returned to Egypt. The trade that had fallen away during the upheavals returned, and the kings of the Twelfth Dynasty, from around 1900 to 1750 BCE, helped Egypt's trade and economy rise to new heights. But not all Egyptians were content. Hopes had been raised, and some Egyptians expressed disappointment. More than a thousand years before the prophets of the Old Testament, an Egyptian priest wrote a denunciation of the rich for what he saw as their injustice to the poor. He wrote that the poor still had no power to save themselves from the abuse of those who were younger and stronger than they. Another Egyptian, Amenemope, wrote a book of thirty chapters that objected to how society was structured. He wrote that people should earn their bread by their own labors, that they should be content with little, should tolerate the weaknesses of others, should forgive others their transgressions and should rely on their gods for serenity.
Copyright © 1998-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.