The Pyramids of the Middle Kingdom

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The Pyramids of the Middle Kingdom

Revival of Old Kingdom Traditions.

Amenemhet I (c. 1938–1909 b.c.e.) and Senwosret I (c. 1919–1875 b.c.e.), the first two kings of the Twelfth Dynasty, built pyramid complexes in the area near Memphis which revived the traditions of pyramid building practiced in Dynasties Four to Six (2625–2170 b.c.e.) and signaled a return to the Old Kingdom capital in the north. Yet it is clear that kings devoted fewer resources to pyramid building at the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 b.c.e.) than had been allocated for the projects built in the Old Kingdom. Little remains of these relatively poorly built complexes. Innovative building techniques used for these structures appear to be attempts to substitute sand fill or mud brick for solid masonry construction. As a result of these new, cheaper techniques, little remains of the Twelfth-dynasty royal pyramid complexes. The pyramids built by the later kings of the Twelfth Dynasty—Amenemhet II (1876–1842 b.c.e.), Senwosret II (1844–1837 b.c.e.), Senwosret III (c. 1836–1818 b.c.e.), and Amenemhet III (1818–1772 b.c.e.)—reflect attempts to introduce new elements to the pyramid complex imported from Theban traditions. They also revived traditions of pyramid building from the time of Djoser (2675–2625 b.c.e.). These changes suggest that both Senwosret III and Amenemhet III had reconceived their roles as kings in a way that recalled traditions preceding the dominance of the sun cults of the Fourth through Sixth Dynasties. The details of these changes are unfortunately lost because these buildings are also very poorly preserved.

Amenemhet I' s Pyramid at Lisht.

When Amenemhet I (1938–1909 b.c.e.) moved the Egyptian capital back to the Memphis area from Thebes, he established a new town called Itj-tawy ("Seizer of the Two Lands"). No one has yet discovered the location of Itjtawy, though it likely was close to Lisht, the site of Amenemhet I's pyramid. Though Amenemhet I used the form of Old Kingdom pyramids, his building techniques differed greatly. The core of his pyramid included limestone blocks, mud brick, sand, debris, and relief sculpture that had been removed from Khufu's temples at Giza. Some Egyptologists believe that Khufu's relief was included to provide a spiritual connection to the earlier king. The pyramid complex of Amenemhet I resembled the standard Old Kingdom pyramid complex. Though poorly preserved today, it included a pyramid temple, causeway, and valley temple. Though the lack of preservation hinders extensive architectural commentary, some Theban features are noteworthy. The causeway was open to the sky, more similar to Nebhepetre Mentuhotep's causeway at Deir el Bahri than to Khufu's roofed causeway in Giza. In addition, the architect placed the pyramid temple on a terrace slightly below the pyramid, not unlike the terraced plan of contemporary Theban tombs such as Nebhepetre Mentuhotep's funeral temple. It is possible that Amenemhet I thought of these features as customary since he also originated in the Theban area.

The Pyramid of Senwosret I at Lisht.

Today the pyramid of Senwosret I (1919–1875 b.c.e.) is a 23-meter (75-foot) high mound of mud brick. Originally the pyramid was 105 meters (344 feet) square at the base and 61.26 meters (201 feet) high. The Great Pyramid was more than twice as high and twice as wide at the base than Senwosret's pyramid, but the smaller size is similar to the pyramids built in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. The construction of Senwosret's pyramid was innovative, but represents a wrong turn in construction techniques. Senwosret's builders constructed an internal skeleton made from limestone walls to form a pyramid. They filled the skeleton with roughly shaped stones. They then faced the pyramid with fine limestone blocks that were joined with wooden cramps, similar to clamps that held two stones together. These cramps probably weakened the overall structure rather than strengthened it since the wood buckled under the weight of the stone. The interior burial chamber of the pyramid is under the water table and has not been explored in modern times. The entrance was from the north, similar to traditional pyramid complexes built in the Old Kingdom. The major elements of an Old Kingdom pyramid complex were present in this Middle Kingdom complex, including a subsidiary pyramid located at the southeast corner of the main pyramid, a pyramid temple on the east side of the pyramid (though little of it remains today except for piles of mud brick), and a closed causeway leading to a valley temple which has not yet been discovered. The causeway contained at least eight complete statues of Senwosret I dressed as Osiris, the divine king of the dead. The statues on the south side of the causeway wore the White Crown of Upper Egypt (southern Egypt) while the statues on the north side wore the Red Crown of Lower Egypt (northern Egypt). The complex also included nine queen's pyramids. Queen Neferu, Senwosret's wife, occupied the first. A second was the burial place of Princess Itayket, the king's daughter.

The Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III.

Senwosret III (1836–1818 b.c.e.) built his pyramid complex at Dahshur, the site first occupied by King Sneferu at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty (2626–2585 b.c.e.). Yet Senwosret III did not imitate Sneferu's plan that led to the Fourth-dynasty type pyramid complex. Instead Senwosret III began the revival of Djoser's Third-dynasty type funeral monument with a dominating north/south axis. He built a "true" pyramid 105 meters (345 feet) square and 78 meters (256 feet) high that contrasts with Djoser's step pyramid. Yet, the arrangement of the parts of the complex follow Djoser's pattern while incorporating some of the Twelfth-dynasty features of pyramid complexes. The entrance passage on the west side is a marked change from previous pyramid entrances, which were located on the north side. A chapel located on the north side of the pyramid perhaps reflects the older tradition, as does a small temple located on the east side of the pyramid. Seven queen's pyramids remind the viewer of the nine queen's pyramids built by Senwosret I at his pyramid complex at Lisht. These more traditional structures were built early in the reign. Sometime later in the reign, Senwosret III added the south temple and a paneled enclosure wall with an entrance at the southeast corner. Though the large south temple was destroyed, perhaps sometime in the New Kingdom, enough decoration remains to suggest that it was the location of the Jubilee Festival (sed). Again, these elements recall Djoser's complex at Saqqara.

Senwosret III's Abydos Tomb.

Not only did Senwosret III revive architectural elements of Djoser's Third-dynasty pyramid complex, he also revived First- and Second-dynasty practice by building a tomb in Abydos, the traditional cult center for the god Osiris. The German archaeologist Dorthea Arnold suggested that his actual burial took place in the now-destroyed temple the king built in the south. If true, it would demonstrate that kings of the Twelfth Dynasty were ultimately more comfortable with older, Upper Egyptian customs than they were with the customs of the Old Kingdom kings who ruled in the Fourth through Sixth Dynasties. Senwosret III and his son Amenemhet III, in fact, bridge very ancient traditions with the future customs which return royal burials to Upper (southern) Egypt during the New Kingdom.



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Amenemhet III's Two Pyramid Complexes.

Amenemhet III (1818–1772 b.c.e.) built a traditional, Old Kingdom pyramid complex at Dahshur in the first part of his 46-year reign. In the second part of his reign he built a second pyramid complex at Hawara, near the entrance to the Faiyum basin. This second pyramid complex followed the predominately north/south orientation first used by Djoser in the Third Dynasty. As the American archaeologist Mark Lehner observed, Amenemhet III was the last great pyramid builder, but he followed the design of Djoser, the first great pyramid builder, bringing the history of pyramid complexes in Egypt full circle. The pyramid that Amenemhet III built at Dahshur resembles only a tower of mud brick today. Originally, each side measured 105 meters (344 feet) with a height of 75 meters (246 feet). Thus it resembled the pyramid of Senwosret I but slightly shorter. The pyramid had a mud brick core faced with Tura limestone. Two entrances—one from the east, one from the west—led into a complicated series of chambers and tunnels. The interior of this pyramid recalls Djoser's step pyramid more than any of the simple Old Kingdom interior structures. This pyramid has a ka-chapel, six other small chapels, and burial chambers for two queens. By the fifteenth year of the king's reign (1803 b.c.e.) some of the interior rooms began to collapse. According to Lehner, the foundation of the pyramid was too close to the groundwater, making the earth too soft to support the weight of the building. Also there were too many rooms inside the pyramid with unsupported roofs. It is likely that when the builders realized their mistake they quickly finished the rooms in mud brick. A new pyramid complex at Hawara eventually held Amenemhet III's burial. Amenemhet III's pyramid at Hawara was nearly the same size as his pyramid at Dahshur. Again the pyramid was 105 meters (344 feet) on each side. This pyramid was 58 meters (190 feet) tall, a full seventeen meters (56 feet) shorter than the Dahshur pyramid. Clearly the builders at Hawara reduced the angle of the pyramid—resulting in a lower height—in order to avoid the problems they had faced with the Dahshur pyramid. They also greatly reduced the number of interior chambers and tunnels. The burial chamber had only a single entrance from the south, with the southern entrance recalling the general north/south orientation of the building, as was the design of Djoser's pyramid complex at Saqqara. In general Amenemhet III followed the pattern of Djoser's pyramid complex when he built at Hawara. The Hawara complex was 385 by 158 meters (1,263 by 518 feet) with the length oriented north/south. The pyramid temple was south of the pyramid, completely unlike the eastern pyramid temples found during the Old Kingdom. The entrance to the walled complex was at the southeast corner, again mirroring Djoser's choice at Saqqara. The pyramid temple was so vast that ancient Greek and Roman tourists called it the Labyrinth, comparing it to the legendary Labyrinth of Minos in Crete. Today Amenemhet III's building has almost entirely disappeared, the result of quarrying in later times. Only the descriptions left by the Greek and Roman authors Herodotus (484–430 b.c.e.), Manetho (third century b.c.e.), Diodorus Siculus (first century b.c.e.), Strabo (64 b.c.e.–19 c.e.), Pliny (23–79 c.e.), and Pomponius Mela (first century c.e.) allow modern scholars to analyze its meaning. Herodotus thought the Labyrinth surpassed the pyramids in the wonder it inspired. Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and Pliny all disagree on the number of rooms and courts in the building, but they all imply that each of the administrative districts of Egypt (nomes) and/or each of the regional gods had a courtyard and room within the Labyrinth. German archaeologist Dieter Arnold recognized that these authors were describing a very large version of Djoser's Jubilee Festival (sed) courtyard. Here too, each of the nome gods of Egypt was represented with its own small temple or chapel. Clearly Amenemhet III's pyramid temple represented this very ancient tradition of providing a Jubilee Festival courtyard where the king could celebrate in the next world.

Drawing on Tradition.

The kings of the Twelfth Dynasty drew on all of the previous traditions of pyramid building for their new structures. They were clearly aware of Djoser's pyramid complex in Saqqara, the standard Old Kingdom pyramid complex; Nebhepetre Mentuhotep's funerary temple; and even the most ancient royal burials at Abydos. Yet they seem to be unaware of the construction techniques practiced by their predecessors. Twelfth-dynasty builders continued to experiment, but never successfully built buildings as sturdy as those built in the Old Kingdom. Moreover, it is never entirely clear what they hoped to accomplish by imitating one ancient tradition after another. Without supporting textual evidence, it might never be possible to do more than recognize the references that each Twelfth-dynasty king made to the past.


Howard Carter, "Report on the Tomb of Mentuhotep I," Annales du Service d'Antiquités Egyptien 2 (1901): 201–205.

Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997).

Rainer Stadelmann, Die Ägyptischen Pyramiden: vom Ziegelbau zum Weltwunder (Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern, 1985).

Miroslav Verner, Die Pyramiden (Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt Verlag, 1998).

see also Visual Arts: The Middle Kingdom

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