the modern name for a region of the Nile Valley. It comprises an area from the Eastern Mountains of Gebel Abu Foda, north of Asyut, to the entrance of the Faiyum Depression. Its main features are the Nile River, which flows through the east of the region, and a broad stretch of cultivated land to the west of the Nile. The relief of the prehistoric landscape was carved out by Pleistocene epoch branches of the Nile. Deep trenches and sandy alluvial deposits were created, especially in what became the center of the cultivated land and on the Western Desert's border. Today, these trenches and deposits are covered with earth that has been deposited since that time by the annual Nile floods. From approximately 3000 BCE onward, these floods provided ideal conditions for agricultural settlements. The riverbed of the Bahr Yusuf follows the original path of one of these ancient arms of the Nile on the periphery of the Western Desert. Originally it branched off from the Nile north of Asyut; now it is fed from a man-made canal at Dairut, south of Malawi. In the New Kingdom, the Egyptian name for the Bahr Yusuf was Temet; the later Greek name was Tomis Potamos. The river flowed into the Faiyum Depression and was probably deep enough for boats in ancient times, at least in the lower reaches. After the New Kingdom, there were large swamps west of the Bahr Yusuf, especially in the Faiyum estuary. The overflow from the Nile floods and from the Bahr Yusuf collected in these swamps. The Nile runs parallel to the Eastern Mountains (the Minia formation consists of a brittle fossiliferous limestone) that cross through Middle Egypt. In front of and behind the rocky formations to the west of the Nile, intermittent alluvial deposits create temporary islands. On the eastern bank, between the steep sometimes terraced grades of the Eastern Mountains, there are coves, some of which widen into bays in the Amarna valley, near Shekh Abade or south of Minia. The eastern coves are in a floodwater-free gravel base from the Pleistocene, on the fanned-out alluvial deposits in wadi beds, or in the shelter of a high plateau before the steep escarpment of the Eastern Mountains. West of the Nile Valley, the limestone mountains are completely eroded in many places, so there is a gradual transition to the desert. In these locations, modern farmland now covers the ancient desert, although a strong northwest wind frequently deposits sand on the rocky desert ground as shifting sand dunes.

Since the seventeenth century, travelers have visited such Middle Egypt tourist destinations as el-Minia, Beni Hasan, el-Bersheh, Tell el-Amarna, Hermopolis, and Tuna el-Gebel. The first scientific study of the area was attempted by the scholars of Napoleon Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt in 1798–1799; their survey maps, published in the atlas of the Description de l'Égypte, show many hills of ruins that are no longer there. Volume 4 of the Description (edited by M. Jomard) contains a discussion of Middle Egypt's landscape. The layers of cultivated soil were superficially studied by the Egyptian Antiquities Department prior to twentieth-century land development, but the desert borders were explored in the late nineteenth century, with support from the British Egypt Exploration Fund. A systematic survey of the desert borders was carried out in the 1950s by Werner Kaiser (1961) and Karl Butzer (1961). Only since that time has the cultivated land from Malawi south of the Faiyum estuary been surveyed for traces of settlements and cemeteries. A great number of present-day villages in the cultivated region are located on mounds or hills that were sites dating to Roman or more ancient times. The many mounds and hills, now eroded, can be verified by fragments of pottery found in the surrounding fields.

Prehistoric data are surprisingly rare for Middle Egypt, from Asyut to just outside of Herakleopolis. On the western side of the Nile, near Tuna el-Gebel, tools from the Middle Paleolithic were found, and Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic stone tools were discovered on the limestone terrace near Sawada, opposite el-Minia. There is no specific evidence of settlements. Cemeteries from the Neolithic period of Naqada II were found beneath the stone pyramid of Zawiet el-Maietin/Kom el-Ahmar and beneath the Ramessid-era temple of Shech Abade at Antinoöpolis.

Middle Egypt comprises the nomes (provinces) of ancient Egypt that developed from the end of the second dynasty—the thirteenth to twentieth nomes. From the Old Kingdom onward, the nomes of Egypt were recorded, and for each, the capital, the deity, the territory specifications, the hinterland data, the canal connections, and the sacred lake were listed. After the third dynasty, Middle Egyptian nomes were inscribed on the tombs and temple walls. Some nomes developed into major provincial centers.

Many village names are recorded from the period of Ramesses V in the Wilbour Papyrus. Some present-day villages, especially those at the flood-protected center of the cultivated land, have therefore been settled continuously since the New Kingdom, possibly even longer. Among the ancient villages whose locations are verifiable—by comparing Arabic, Coptic, and Greek names—are Ashruba (called Sharope) in the New Kingdom, Aba el-Waqf (ancient Opet), Shulqam (ancient “barn of the qemau plants”), and Shusha (ancient Kasha). The name of present-day el-Fashn on the Nile is probably derived from an ancient word for “fortress.” The Wilbour Papyrus also contains notes on the landscape of northern Middle Egypt during the New Kingdom. It describes small forests at the center of the cultivated land, with sycomore figs, tamarisks, and other trees. There were meadows, shrubbery, and also isolated swamps and ponds. Between these natural areas were found different types of arable land: “new” land (land recovered after Nile floods) with high-quality sediments; then farther from the Nile were the “highland fields,” which required the heavy physical labor of lifting and carrying water for irrigation. Smaller farmsteads and country houses surrounded the densely built villages and hill (tell) settlements. The settlement patterns in the southern part of Middle Egypt are assumed to be similar to those in the North. Only for some villages, especially those at the center, does the etymology of their names indicate a continuity, at the very least, from the New Kingdom onward. The population numbers in these villages were only fractions of today's. The Wilbour Papyrus probably provides an incomplete list of settlements and farmsteads, so it is difficult to estimate the population density of that period. Efforts at establishing the animal and game populations of Middle Egypt's desert borders, based on Old and Middle Kingdom tomb scenes, were not successful. The majority of the population were most certainly farmers. Among those listed as field owners were soldiers, grooms, a police officer, and, in some cases overseers, a physician, a “carrier of the branding mark,” a coppersmith, and an embalmer.

Raised causeways linked the settlements that were usually located at the flood-protected center of the cultivated land and connected settlements to Nile ports. The dikes had to be repaired after each annual flood, a task carried out by conscripted farmers. The east–west causeways that cut across the Nile Valley and the drainage ditches next to them can be traced right into modern times. The Wilbour Papyrus contains a list of dikes for the New Kingdom. If today's settlements in the cultivated land are shown to be of ancient origin, then the system of dikes, causeways, and roads can be assumed to have similar continuity. As early as the New Kingdom, the entire irrigation system in Middle Egypt was probably based on these ancient Egyptian causeways. From Ptolemaic times onward, the swamps near the entrance to the Faiyum were regulated with dams and then brick walls.

The traditional nomes of Egypt, immortalized in religious and cult standards of deities, were gradually superseded by new organizational structures during the Old Kingdom. The districts and their administrations were not always of equal stature; some were mere subdivisions of a greater administrative unit. Changes in these units arose naturally from constant changes in the course of the Nile. Villages on the western bank of the Nile—such as Hardai/Kynopolis and its port near el-Qeis—could be categorized as once belonging to an eastern district. In the fifth dynasty in northern Middle Egypt, south of Herakleopolis, there was an autonomous “goat” district, with a “goat” city as the district center. It is known solely from the tombs of the “goat” district administrators, near Dishashe, southwest of Herakleopolis. During the fourth and fifth dynasties, “Land Overseers” were sent from the palace to control individual districts in Middle Egypt on the pharaoh's behalf. Others, given the title “Head of Commissions,” could be dispatched to various districts. A list in a necropolis south of Tehna el-Gebel mentions the Faiyum oasis as one of the administrative regions. An administrator was once mentioned for the “districts in the middle,” although the districts do not comprise the whole of Middle Egypt. In the sixth dynasty, administrators were usually titled “Great District Chief.” Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, there were a number of administrative reforms. For a time, Cusae seems to have been the seat of the “Overseer of Upper Egypt,” who was directly subordinate to the king. Some of the district boundaries were changed after the Old Kingdom. Neferusi, a city on the southern border of the sixteenth district, replaced Hebenu to the north as district center, and Sako and Hardai—originally two separate but nearby centers for different districts—were amalgamated into one large administrative center at an important Nile port at the mouth to Gebel et-Teir. A radical administrative reform was introduced by Sesostris I, creating new territories and subdivisions. From the Middle Kingdom onward, the governor (referred to by Alan H. Gardiner and others as “mayor”) of an administrative center with surrounding lands (referred to by Farouk Goma'a and others as “county”) fulfilled the role of administrator, even though the title “Great District Chief” continued to be handed down. Thus the entire eastern desert region was the domain of the newly appointed “Head of the Eastern Desert” with a seat near Beni Hasan; the “spine of the Nile” formed the administration boundary. The administrator of the Eastern Desert had to oversee the extraction of all products—mainly minerals, ores, and stone—from the Eastern Desert and their transport to the pharaoh in el-Lisht. This does not mean that the eastern and western sections of the sixteenth district were administered independently. The western was home to the administrator's “older relative”—by definition, an official of higher rank. In addition, there were legally independent military installations in Middle Egypt (called “gubernatorial fortresses” by Goma'a and others) and also the pharaoh's harbors, managed by a civil servant or a general with the title “Governor.”

The pyramid districts on the Faiyum estuary presented a unique case of economic independence during the Middle Kingdom. In the late Middle Kingdom, the future Middle Egypt vassal of the Delta-based Hyksos ruler in Avaris gained a dominant position in Neferusi. During this period, too, the region of Hermopolis was probably integrated into the larger domain called the “Region of Neferusi”; its southern border seems to have been far south of Cusae and it stretched to Tihna el-Gebel in the north. After the Delta-dwelling Hyksos and their Middle Egyptian allies were overthrown by Thebes, the “Region of Neferusi” remained intact, although Hermopolis gradually returned to the status of administrative center. To the north of Neferusi lay the Hardai territory, which had previously been described as “district of Input” or “district of Sako.” Next came the territory of Herakleopolis. The area farther north—the old twenty-first and twenty-second nomes—were already part of the “district of Memphis.” The area near Mer-Tem (present-day Meidum), a governor's seat, was most likely a subdivision or subdistrict. During the Ramessid era, the “district of Aphroditopolis/Atfih” to the northeast was probably still independent of Memphis. Each region had its own fortresses and ports. All were, however, under the direct control of the king.

After the New Kingdom, Hardai's northern section was added to this region as an autonomous administrative territory, forming the “district of Per-medjed/Oxyrhynchos.” Its administrator took on the old religious title of the nineteenth Upper Egyptian nome. To the south, the old description “district of Neferusi” had been replaced with “tosh-district of Hermopolis.” From this developed the Greek nomos names of Hermopolite, Kynopolite, Oxyrhynchite, Herakleopolite, and Aphroditopolite with their subcategories, the toparchies. Thus the Cussite, the region around the old fourteenth district center, became a mere toparchy of Hermopolite. From the Third Intermediate Period onward, Middle Egypt—up to just outside of Herakleopolis—was ruled and administrated by Thebes; the Greeks, too, considered the districts of Middle Egypt to be part of the Upper Egypt of Thebes. The area of Antinoöpolis, founded by the Roman emperor Hadrian, became an autonomous nome, and the former harbor city of Hermopolis took on the significance formerly held by the category called metropolis. From Diocletian onward, the toparchical structure changed when a new subcategory based on the Latin pagus district was introduced. New Roman administration centers emerged (e.g., Theodosioupolis north of Hermopolis).

Middle Egypt played an important role in ancient history. Its agrarian resources and quarries supplied the royal court with materials, ships, and human labor. Middle Egyptian fortresses and harbors on either side of the dangerous Nile cataracts controlled traffic on the river and later on the Bahr Yusuf. Although Middle Egypt is barely mentioned in the Old Kingdom accounts of the struggle between the Herakleopolitan regime, which had allied itself with Asyut, and Thebes, the governors in Middle Egypt and the Thebans must have reached some kind of agreement that made the attack on the North possible in the first place. Their independence—which is manifest, for example, in the autonomous calendar and in the inscriptions on their ornate rock tombs—reached a peak immediately after the unification under Montuhotep I of the eleventh dynasty. The district governor Neheri of Hermopolis was among those who then joined in the civil strife that erupted at the close of the eleventh dynasty. Neferusi must have been an important fortress even then, second only to Asyut. King Kamose needed to defeat the master of Neferusi before he could move against the Hyksos ruler to the north. The Thoth temple at Hermopolis was the most important Egyptian religious center, at all times, and there each governor would also act as religious leader. Akhenaten's choice of Middle Egypt as the site of his New Kingdom palace, to the south of Hermopolis, was influenced by the good harbor—so important for his capital. New Kingdom officers were buried in the necropolis of Tihna el-Gebel. From the Ramessid era onward, mostly foreign soldiers were buried in this region.

During the Third Intermediate Period, the authorities at Thebes created a series of fortresses on the rocky cliffs along the Nile, to fend off attacks from the north. Along the Bahr Yusuf, other fortresses were enlarged and even the Hermopolis town center was surrounded by a wall. By the end of the twenty-third dynasty, the independent Libyan kings of Hermopolis and of Herakleopolis were embroiled in a bitter feud. Although defeated by King Piya, the king of Hermopolis was able to maintain his position until the Saite reunification and remained territorially autonomous. From the Saite period onward, troops of foreign soldiers were deployed at these fortresses. Aramaic-speaking groups were stationed at Hermopolis, with Arabian Hagraeans nearby. Several village names indicate that there were also Syrian settlements. Evidence exists for Persian descendants of the First and Second Persian Occupations, as well as increasingly, a Greek population in Ptolemaic times.



  • Butzer, Karl W. “Archäologische Fundstellen Ober-und Mittelágyptens in ihrer geologischen Landschaft.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Cairo 17 (1961) 54–68. Survey of desert borders in Middle Egypt.
  • Butzer, Karl W. Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt. Chicago, 1976. For information on landscape, settlement reconstruction and flood dike systems in Middle Egypt.
  • Description de l'Égypte. Several volumes and atlas. Paris, 1809–1828. First major land survey.
  • Gardiner, Alan H. Ancient Egyptian Onomastica. London, 1947. A collection of the traditional lists of sites and deities, which also appear on the temple walls.
  • Gardiner, Alan H. The Wilbour Papyrus. London, 1948. 4 vols. Commentary and information on the Wilbour Papyrus, especially in vol. 2.
  • Gomaà, Farouk. Mittelägypten zwischen Samalut und dem Gebel Abū Ṣir. Wiesbaden, 1991.
  • Helck, Wolfgang. Die altägyptischen Gaue. Wiesbaden, 1981. For general information of the districts of Ancient Egypt.
  • Kaiser, Werner. “Bericht über eine archälogische-geologische Felduntersuchung in Ober-und Mittelägypten.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Cairo 17 (1961), 1–53. Survey of desert borders in Middle Egypt.
  • Kessler, Dieter. Historische Topographie der Region zwischen Mallawi und Samalut. Wiesbaden, 1981. Information on cultivated land.
  • Sauneron, Serge, and Jean Yoyotte. “Traces d'établissements asiatiques en Moyenne Egypte ous Ramsès II.” Revue de Egyptologie 7 (1950), 70–76. For information on foreigners in Middle Egypt.

Dieter Kessler; Translated from German by Elizabeth Schwaiger and Martha Imber-Goldstein