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Succession Problems to the 12th Dynasty

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 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 their armies suppressed the uprisings. The same tendency that brought unity to Egypt a thousand years before brought unity to Egypt again. A ruler from Thebes spread his power over the whole of Egypt. Shortly thereafter, around 1900 BCE, there was a usurpation of power in Thebes. The usuper became known as Amenemhet I, who began a new dynasty – the twelfth.

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 was now to include 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. Ideological change common to other religions was now in the making in Egypt, accompanied by some political changes. 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, and the king and his ministers made a show of his concern. The king and his ministers displayed concern about protecting common people from exploitation, and the king opened positions in government to people of ability from outside his family.

Nobles were allowed to retain some of their powers, and nobles were given a place in the afterlife that they had wanted. Commoners now were also recognized as having an afterlife. 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 it was said that if an individual's sins outweighed the ostrich feather he would be rejected. Commoners saw their sins as weighing little as most of them expected an eternal afterlife of paradise in pleasant labor, maintaining their earthly status amid kindly gods.

Amenemhet I reigned to 1962 BCE. 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 what he saw as injustice for 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.


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