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Second Intermediate Period

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt

Stephen G. J. Quirke

Second Intermediate Period. 

In Egyptian history, the term “Intermediate” denotes periods between those of political unity, a criterion affecting control of material and human resources. An aspect of mass human relations, unity may be perceived and expressed variously by individuals or groups, or by later commentators, according to context. This fluidity qualifies precise borders in time and space.

The Second Intermediate Period may be summarized as follows—from the end of the Middle Kingdom to the start of the New Kingdom. There were three centers: Itjtawy, the residence founded by Amenemhet I south of Memphis; Tell ed-Dabʿa, the largest settlement excavated in the eastern Nile Delta; and Thebes, the focus of Upper Egypt. Groups of kings are identified with “dynasties” in the king lists of the third-century bce historian Manetho and with groups of kings in the sole surviving cursive pharaonic king list, the Ramessid-era's Turin Canon. The Second Intermediate Period is omitted in the two surviving hieroglyphic Ramessid-era king lists from Abydos.

During the last phase of the Middle Kingdom, all Egypt was ruled by a series of short-reigning kings (thirteenth dynasty) based at Itjtawy, of unknown relation to the family of Amenemhet I (twelfth dynasty) and, in nearly all cases, to each other. Tell ed-Dabʿa was then a large site with a substantial Levantine population. Thebes was the administrative center for Upper Egypt and occupied Nubia, as in the twelfth dynasty. The Second Intermediate Period may be divided into three phases.

In phase 1, the thirteenth dynasty ruled from Itjtawy, with Thebes as their southern administrative center. Eastern Delta sources include kingly titles for at least two of a series of rulers, probably based at Tell ed-Dabʿa (fourteenth dynasty). These two local “kings” indicate an end to unity, at least in some aspects.

In phase 2, Itjtawy is no longer attested as a capital; the series of kings with Egyptian names continued, but only in southern Upper Egypt and based at Thebes (seventeenth dynasty). A series of foreign kings (the “Hyksos”) dominated Egypt, probably based at Tell ed-Dabʿa (fifteenth dynasty). Contemporary sources attest to no separate group or groups of rulers in either Upper or Lower Egypt; “Dynasty 16” in Manetho may reflect later interpretations of royal names.

Phase 3 was characterized by warfare between the fifteenth and seventeenth dynasties, attested only for the reign of the Hyksos king Apophis against the Theban rulers Sekenenre Taʿo, his immediate successor Kamose, and his son and second successor Ahmose. The last expelled the Hyksos, reuniting Egypt; his reign thus straddles the Second Intermediate Period and the start of the New Kingdom. The seventeenth dynasty royal palace, settlement, and fort at Deir el-Ballas, south of Dendera, are exactly coeval with this period and perhaps served as strategic headquarters for the Theban military operations.

The break in the record leaves historians to rely on the later king lists in attempts to reconstruct the sequences of rulers. At present there is no clear sequence, or even total number, of kings for any dynasty, although for the first half of the thirteenth dynasty the sequence seems well preserved in the Turin Canon. Surviving seventeenth dynasty burial equipment and the description of a series of tombs in the twentieth dynasty Tomb Robbery Papyri provide, if not a possible sequence, one (perhaps incomplete) group of kings.

Historians disagree on the point within the thirteenth dynasty when unity ended at the secession of the eastern Delta. Foreign sculpture appears in early thirteenth dynasty archaeological levels at Tell ed-Dabʿa, indicating a non-Egyptian elite expressing different traditions in monumental form soon after the end of the twelfth dynasty. Yet the thirteenth dynasty brother kings Neferhotpe I and Sobekhotpe IV are attested in the eastern Delta and, significantly, at Byblos in Lebanon. The pyramidion of king Merneferre Aya is the latest thirteenth dynasty monument found in the Delta, and his reign also seems last in a group of kings attested from distinctive royal scarabs. Byblos may have provided a model for thirteenth dynasty relations with Tell ed-Dabʿa, with a foreign governor in control of a local population but acknowledging his nonroyal status before the Egyptian king. On available evidence, Nehesy was the first Delta ruler to claim kingship, marking a visible end to the unity of the Middle Kingdom. The relation of these early Delta kings (fourteenth dynasty) to the Hyksos (fifteenth dynasty) is unclear, as is the manner in which the first Hyksos became king. Likewise, the transformation of the thirteenth dynasty at Itjtawy into the seventeenth at Thebes is not documented. There is no contemporary evidence for or against later tales of foreign invasions and military election of the first Hyksos; New Kingdom and Hellenistic accounts may unite elements from a wide variety of sources, from displaced references to other periods or kings, to literary tales originally without historical reference. During the last phase of the Middle Kingdom and phase 1 of the Second Intermediate Period, eastern Delta sites became Near Eastern in material culture. Precise dating and causes of the population overspill from the Levant are uncertain, but already in the mid-twelfth dynasty, an inscription of Amenemhet II records among booty from the sack of two foreign places 1,554 Near Eastern captives. Influx by war might have been compounded by economic migration, with establishment of foreign trading emporia in the eastern Delta in the early thirteenth dynasty. Salable (“slave”) status of Near Easterners in late Middle Kingdom legal documents may reflect origins as war captives, in which case it would not necessarily extend to all Near Easterners. At least thirty-six funerary monuments, in addition to documentary papyri, attest to Near Eastern estate workers in Egypt. In papyri, Near Eastern names may be used for identification, with Egyptian second names. On funerary monuments, Egyptian names generally replace Near Eastern and often refer to the owner of the deceased, such as Senebhenutes “may her mistress be well”; sometimes name forms stress alien identity, such as Iunertaer (“we come to our land”) and Tepnefer (“good start [to a campaign]”). Owners of such slaves ranged from viziers to middle-ranking officials, and their attested professions are food and textile producers, house servants, and temple doorkeepers. For thirteenth dynasty Thebes, Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446 records an estate dominated by Near Eastern textile workers, but this seems to belong to a vizier, and so may not be typical of their proportion in Upper Egyptian households. Abydos stelae may also record the personnel of estates around the royal residence, rather than in Upper Egypt. Therefore, geographical distribution of such workers is difficult to assess from the texts, in contrast to the large-scale eastern Delta influx attested in settlement and burial sites.

In material culture, phase 1 of the Second Intermediate Period continues the late Middle Kingdom pattern; even the notable increase in foreign pottery within Egypt may have begun under Amenemhet III of the twelfth dynasty. Titles in the administration follow the model of precision evident since the reign of Senwosret III; and there continued to be occupation of Lower Nubia and some presence at Byblos and Gebel Zeit, if not at Sinai. By phase 3, however, every area of life had been affected by major changes. These may be ascribed to the Hyksos directly, as rulers of foreign origin, or indirectly as a result of the new position for Egypt in eastern Mediterranean and Levantine trading contacts.

A new content in trade can be deduced from the appearance of small closed forms of export pottery, called “Tell el-Yahudiyya ware”; in the late Middle Kingdom, examples of this Levantine invention (“Lisht juglets”) were already common on Egyptian sites. The small-scale closed Levantine vessels contrast with earlier forms and imply a trade in such precious liquids as scented oils, prefiguring the Late Bronze Age distribution of the Mycenaean stirrup jar. Like the latter, Levantine juglets fostered local imitations on a large scale in Egypt and elsewhere. The distribution of Late Middle Kindom and Second Intermediate Period phase 1 Tell el-Yahudiyya ware indicates strong Egyptian-Syrian contact, whereas production and distribution in phase 2 suggests greater focus on the southern Levant. This coincides with the development of massive fortified urban centers in that area, and the history of Egypt under the Hyksos must be seen against this background in trade and neighboring settlement patterns. Substantial platforms in the eastern Delta have been ascribed to the Hyksos, though their date and function are as yet uncertain.

In warfare, texts relating to the Second Intermediate Period's campaigns during phase 3 attest to the introduction of horses and chariotry. Also related to war, tin-copper alloys of bronze generally replace arsenical copper alloys by the New Kingdom, ushering in the Late Bronze Age. These and other advances in technology, such as the vertical loom, are generally ascribed to the Near East, and foreign kings within Egypt might have accelerated their import. Still, some northern Levantine/Mesopotamian techniques might have been blocked rather than helped by the strength of the Hyksos and the southern Levant, particularly as regards luxury court products. For example, glassy faience scarabs are attested in the late Middle Kingdom, but core-molded glass vessels first appear in Egypt only under Thutmose III in the expansionist phase of the early New Kingdom. Most imports of technology have yet to be dated with precision from laboratory analyses, and several features ascribed to Hyksos rule may not have arrived in Egypt until the early New Kingdom (vertical loom, certain weapon types, spread in use of tin-copper alloys of bronze). Minoan-style frescoes uncovered at Tell ed-Dabʿa derive from rubble, and their original context remains debated; they may belong to an eighteenth rather than fifteenth dynasty structure. In either event, they help to account more concretely for Aegean elements in the Ahhotep treasure at Thebes (the Aegean sphinx and the gallop pose).

For phase 3 of the Second Intermediate Period, the frescoes confirm a Mediterraenan circuit that included the Aegean civilizations, with shipping and the corresponding importance of the storm in religion. The principal deity of the fourteenth and fifteenth dynasties was Seth, associated with foreign lands and ungovernable weather; a Ramessid-era stela marks the four hundred years of his dominance in the eastern Delta, as if mythologizing a continuity from the time of Avaris to the time of its successor Piramesse, the Delta residence of the Ramessid kings. Late Middle Bronze Age Syrian cylinder seals celebrate a storm god of the sea allied with the motif of the bull; the Minoan fresco technique has also been discovered at Levantine sites. The international web of storm god, bull-leaping, and fresco-painted rooms reflects, on the religious plane, a new economic and political world common to the Hyksos and the reunifying Theban kings. It did not remove from Tell ed-Dabʿa traditional motifs of royal titulary and the devotion of kings to established Egyptian deities; the Hyksos kings styled themselves “Son of Re” and included the name of the sun god in their throne names.

Evidence for literacy among the Hyksos is ambiguous. The greatest surviving mathematical manual from Egypt, the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, opens with a formula identifying the copyist as a subject of the Hyksos king Apophis as Son of Re and ruler of Egypt. The palette of the scribe Itju from the Faiyum explicitly assigns to King Apophis mastery of the divine script under the aegis of the divinities Thoth and Seshat. Yet in script and monumental production, the Hyksos generated little more than their fourteenth dynasty predecessors and less than their seventeenth dynasty rivals. This is a question of quality as well as of scale, since the better preservation of evidence in Upper Egypt distorts the record. Fifteenth dynasty hieroglyphic inscriptions are almost entirely confined to their names on old sculpture, including one granite altar, and there is no evidence for original Hyksos sculpture or quarrying. The dedication by Apophis inscribed on a granite block found at Bubastis displays shallow and irregular carving. In this, the Hyksos remained alien to the Egyptian tradition of kingship. Near Eastern features at Tell ed-Dabʿa include religious mud-brick architecture and equine burials. Royal names and titles incised on unglazed steatite scarabs and scaraboids constitute the bulk of text from their rule; here the Hyksos use Egyptian script and language, drawing both on late Middle Kingdom tradition around the residence and on the first Levantine output of steatite scarabs. By contrast, there seems to be virtually no production of seal-amulets in the Theban area, and there are no certain royal name scarabs for the seventeenth dynasty before crude examples for Kamose. Only under Ahmose, perhaps following the reconquest of the Memphits and Delta areas, does Egyptian glazed steatite scarab production return to equal the highest quality of the Middle Kingdom.

Less monumental forms of communication and inscription are poorly attested in both parts of Egypt; there are no letters or administrative papyri surviving for the fifteenth or seventeenth dynasties. The most extensive literary manuscript of the period, the Westcar Papyrus, was probably drawn up and buried at Thebes under the seventeenth dynasty; its Hieratic handwriting continues a late Middle Kingdom development toward rounder, but now more precisely defined, signs and groups. The manuscript preserves an otherwise unattested series of tales of wonder set in the Old Kingdom's fourth dynasty court; its reference to the births of three future kings may draw from king-list data on the fifth dynasty, but it suggests the historical coincidence of three royal brothers in the mid-thirteenth dynasty as a possible date of composition. This leaves the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus as the principal Hieratic document associated with the Hyksos, dated by its copyist to Apophis as king of Egypt. The Second Kamose Stela reports interception on the Oasis Road of a letter in clay from the Hyksos king Apophis to a new ruler of Kush; this appears to imply another writing tradition, either an oasis custom or, more obviously to us, that of Mesopotamian cuneiform. In Upper Egypt, Hieratic ostraca from buildings near the palace at Deir el-Ballas record name lists for supplies or deliveries, including one with reference to pigs. This indicates that any alternative methods of communication in the Northern kingdom were not adopted in the South.

Developments in the South of Egypt, under the seventeenth dynasty, were conditioned by both the Hyksos occupation in the Delta and the growth in the power of Kush to the south. When Egyptian Middle Kingdom fortresses in Nubia were abandoned is not certain or whether the withdrawal was gradual, sudden, or dictated primarily by cost or by force. Current consensus places their gradual abandonment in the second half of the thirteenth dynasty. The garrison commanders in some instances transferred allegiance to the ruler of Kush, as attested at Buhen. They were reconquered under Kamose and Ahmose. Relations with the southern peoples may not have been as one-dimensional as the political history of war suggests. At Deir el-Ballas there were cooking pots of the type found at the Kushite capital, Kerma; this indicates a Kushite element at the seventeenth dynasty residence at exactly the time of the Egyptian reconquest of Lower Nubia, though one might posit war captives to explain the alien presence. Such southeastern desert nomads seem to have been known collectively in Egyptian texts as “Medjay.” These appeared as security guards in the Egyptian Nile Valley from the late twelfth dynasty, when one Medjay was guard at the Illahun pyramid complex of Senwosret II. During the Second Intermediate Period, a Nubian-related strain becomes discernible in Egyptian cemeteries from a different burial shape (shallow and circular), goods, and pottery. These “Pan-Grave” people may be the Medjay of the texts. By the end of the Second Intermediate Period, their burial customs are no longer distinctive, indicating gradual Egyptianization of the group. The texts continue to distinguish them well into the late New Kingdom, when royal necropolis guards were still titled “Medjay.”

In Egypt's Southern kingdom, administration at first continued the late Middle Kingdom pattern, with highly precise titles for officials. A key source is the Juridical Stela from Karnak, recording transfer of the office of mayor of Elkab under a seventeenth dynasty king Nebiryerau. This records inheritance of public office, within the constraints of royal approval, in a leading family of the day, where relatives and ancestors include viziers and princesses. Late Middle Kingdom titles persist in the surviving Elkab tombs, with a notable proportion of military officials, such as the “Commander of the Ruler's Crew.” The use of “King's Son” as a military title becomes evident, anticipating the New Kingdom title “Viceroy (literally “king's son”) of Kush.” In phase 3 of the Second Intermediate Period, administrative titles seem to have been swept away, and the latest Second Intermediate Period and earliest New Kingdom stelae either omit titles altogether before a personal name or give a simplified term such as “scribe.” There is also a marked change in the cutting technique of stelae; crudely incised relief predominates in seventeenth dynasty stelae from Edfu, Thebes, and Abydos, often with a spiked lotus motif and awkward limb joins, whereas those from the period around reunification return to elegantly proportioned figures in raised relief. At a higher level, sculptors worked in limestone in both two and three dimensions throughout the period; the two sphinxes of Sankhenre Montuhotep from Edfu demonstrate the talents available, and competent temple reliefs are attested at various sites, notably for Nebkhepperre Intef. It is not clear that any seventeenth dynasty king commissioned work in hard stone. [For difficulties in dating Sekhemrawadjkhau Sobekemsaf, see the article Thirteenth Dynasty.]

As far as is known, all seventeenth dynasty kings were buried at Thebes, on the foothill facing Karnak across the river (Dra Abul Naga). Portions of their burials survive. Royal tombs outside the Valley of the Kings were vulnerable in the major breakdown in civil order under Ramesses IX in the twentieth dynasty; upon restoration of order, a royal commission inspected the tombs, as recorded in the Tomb Robbery Papyri. The burial of one king, Sobekemsaf, was found to have been looted; it is possible that the tombs outside the Valley of the Kings were already emptied under Ramesses IX, well before the caching of the royal mummies from the Valley of the Kings was begun at the end of the reign of Ramesses XI.

In the 1820s, royal coffins and other burial equipment were found, bearing the names of kings mentioned in the Tomb Robbery Papyri. The site was explored again in the 1859–1860 season, and these two early clearances indicate that the royal tomb was cut in the rock, and it had a frontal court, stone pyramidion, and small obelisks. In 1881, the body of King Sekenenre Taʿo, from phase 3 of the Second Intermediate Period was found with that of his son Ahmose and several royal women contemporary to his period in the cache of New Kingdom pharaohs. Burials may have been treated differently according to kinship, status, location, and date of the caching operation; the burial of Queen Ahhotep was discovered separately in 1859. Seventeenth dynasty royal burials contained a mummiform coffin of variable quality, with feathered decoration and royal headcloth. Canopic equipment was of painted wood. Burial goods included limited precious materials, notably the silver diadem said to have been found in the gilt coffin of King Intef, and a green jasper heart scarab set in gold, naming King Sobekemsaf and deriving in form from thirteenth dynasty human-faced heart scarabs. Funerary texts on these objects are sparse, but they also survive in fragments of a shroud in the gilt Intef coffin. The now-lost coffin of Queen Montuhotep contained the earliest full series of what became, in the New Kingdom, the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead). There is no directly comparable late thirteenth dynasty royal material; the edition of funerary texts from the Coffin Texts into the Book of Going Forth by Day might have been occasioned by the move of the royal court to Thebes, depriving access to ancient centers of learning at Heliopolis, Memphis, and Hermopolis.

The Ahhotep burial and mention of the Hyksos king's sisters anticipate the prominence of royal women in the early eighteenth dynasty (notably Ahmose Nefertari). Exceptional titles of Ahhotep, wife of Sekenenre and mother of Ahmose, perhaps reflect circumstances of royal succession and war, but they may have been composed after reunification. Retrospective elevation to special status is attested for Tetisheri, grandmother of Ahmose, in his stela establishing an ancestor cult for her.

The final phase of war is attested in detail for restricted episodes. Hostilities may have begun under Sekenenre Taʿo, whom a New Kingdom tale set in conflict with Apophis; his skull bears the imprint of a Near Eastern—style blade. The campaign of his successor Kamose is recounted on his two Karnak stelae and one contemporary Hieratic copy; the relation of Kamose to both predecessor and successor is unknown, as is the date of the conquest of Avaris (the Hyksos capital at Tell ed-Dabʿa) by Ahmose. Sporadic detail on the expulsion of the Hyksos from the Delta and expansion into the Levant comes from the autobiography of Ahmose, son of Abana, in his tomb-chapel at Elkab. On the ground at Tell ed-Dabʿa there is a gap in settlement after Ahmose. Possible references to reunification are obscure journal excerpts on the back of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, noting unusual climatic conditions that are interpreted by some historians as a byproduct of the Thera eruption. The nature of the departure of the Hyksos is unknown.

See also Dabʿa, Tell ed-; Fifteenth Dynasty; Hyksos; Kamose; Papyrus Westcar; Seventeenth Dynasty; Thirteenth Dynasty; and Yahudiyya, Tell el-.


Berlev, Oleg D. Trudovoe naselenie Egipta v epokhu Srednego Tsarstva [The working population of Egypt in the Middle Kingdom]. Moscow, 1972. Although not translated into English, this includes in chapter 4 (pp. 74–95) the only full study of Near Easterners in late Middle Kingdom funerary monuments and papyri, with the data cited above. Students of Egyptology will be able to consult the lists of conventionally transliterated names and titles of Near Eastern estate workers (pp. 89–93) and their masters (pp. 93–94).Find this resource:

    Bietak, Manfred. Avaris and Piramesse: Archaeological Exploration in the Eastern Nile Delta. London, 1986. Revision of a 1981 monograph first published in 1979 in Proceedings of the British Academy 65 (1979), 225–289. Preliminary account by the excavator of the key Hyksos site Tell ed-Dabʿa.Find this resource:

      Bietak, Manfred. Connections between Egypt and the Minoan World. In Egypt, the Aegean and the Levant, edited by W. V. Davies and L. Schofield, pp. 19–28. London, 1995. Includes examples of the Minoan fresco fragments unearthed at Tell ed-Dabʿa.Find this resource:

        Bourriau, Janine. Nubians in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period: An Interpretation Based on the Egyptian Ceramic Evidence. In Studien zur altägyptischen Keramik, edited by Dorothea Arnold, pp. 25–41. Mainz am Rhein, 1981. A cogent example of archaeological correction of textual evidence.Find this resource:

          Habachi, Labib. The Second Stela of Kamose. Abhandlungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Kairo, 8. Glückstadt, 1972. The first edition of the most important royal text on the war against the Hyksos.Find this resource:

            Hayes, W. C. A Papyrus of the Late Middle Kingdom in the Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn 35.1446). Brooklyn, 1955. The first edition, with historical interpretations different from those in Quirke (1990).Find this resource:

              Kemp, Barry J. Old, Middle and Second Intermediate Period c.2686–1552 bc. In The Cambridge History of Africa, edited by J. Desmond Clark, pp. 658–769. Cambridge, 1982. Represents the prevailing consensus on the history of the period. Ryholt (1997) has recently sought to redefine in particular the fourteenth and sixteenth dynasties; this contributor has retained the Kemp version.Find this resource:

                Oren, Eliezer, ed., The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives. Philadelphia, 1997.Find this resource:

                  Quirke, Stephen. The Administration of Egypt in the Late Middle Kingdom: The Hieratic Documents. New Malden, 1990. Discussion differs on some points from that of the first editor, Hayes (1955).Find this resource:

                    Redford, Donald B., The Hyksos Invasion in History and Tradition. Orientation 39 (1970), 1–51.Find this resource:

                      Redford, Donald B. Pharaonic King-lists, Annals and Day-Books. Mississauga, Ont., 1986. The remarks on the Turin Canon should be read in conjunction with the recent reappraisal by Ryholt (1997).Find this resource:

                        Ryholt, Kim S. B. The Political Situation in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period c.1800–1550 b.c. Carsten Niebuhr Institute Publications, 20. Copenhagen, 1997. A wide-ranging reevaluation of the archaeological and textual sources, with comprehensive bibliography and list of sources for kings. Note that definitions of dynasties differ from those in Kemp (1982), and archaeologists have yet to review several conclusions based on specific contexts. Still, the reappraisal includes invaluable discussions of key data such as royal scarabs and the Turin Canon.Find this resource:

                          Winlock, Herbert E. The Rise and Fall of the Middle Kingdom in Thebes. New York, 1947. This includes the principal discussion of the burial equipment of Theban kings of the Second Intermediate Period, with revisions of several points in his previous article on the subject, in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 10 (1924), 217–277.Find this resource:

                            Stephen G. J. Quirke