A period of slightly over two hundred years, was ruled by a single royal family in the Middle Kingdom. A sound administration was developed and foreign involvement was increased, so this dynasty represents a high point in social structure and the governance of the nomes (provinces), as well as in art, architecture, and literature. In the Turin Canon, a list of the pharoahs, this dynasty's rulers are designated as “[kings] of the Residence of Itj-tawy,” followed by a summation as “kings of the Residence [of Itj-tawy] 8, amounting to 213 years, 1 month, and 17 days.”

These achievements had ensued through a series of positive circumstances. The eleventh dynasty had benefited from the success of the previous Herakleopolitan dynasties' reconquest and consolidation of the Nile Delta, thus preventing foreign incursions. The rulers of the twelfth dynasty thereby profited from this situation and from the activities of the eleventh dynasty's rulers, the Montuhoteps of Thebes, who opened the quarries in the Eastern and Western Deserts, forged the route to the Red Sea through the Wadi Hammamat, and renewed control of Nubia, to the south.

The documentation for the twelfth dynasty is impressive and diverse, including autobiographies of the local governors in their rock-cut tombs, numerous stelae and royal stelae, letters, accounting ledgers, annals for part of one reign, and the propagandizing tendencies in the extensive literature developed during the dynasty.

The chronology of the dynasty has been in revision on the basis of several investigations. For many years, the accepted range was 1991–1786 BCE, but today three considerations have become pertinent: (1) the reevaluation of the existence or nonexistence of several coregencies; (2) the length of the reigns of Senwosret II and III; and (3) the validity of the astronomical reckoning of the heliacal rising of Sirius, in the seventh year of a ruler assumed to be Senwosret III, as observed in the North at Heliopolis-Memphis (a higher date) or in the South at Elephantine-Aswan (a lower date).

Evidence for the foundation of the twelfth dynasty rests on various sources of different nature and authority. In order of importance, they are dated contemporary documents, king lists, and literary compositions. The Turin Canon records a period of seven years after the end of the eleventh dynasty as a lacuna in its records. According to the Egyptian priest and historian, Manetho, an Amenemhet (I ?) is placed after the end of the eleventh dynasty and before the twelfth. Most scholars believe that the compilation in the Turin Canon reflects a gap in the source, which would be unusual. Rather, the lacuna may reflect a period of disturbance, anarchy, and lack of a recognized kingship. In those seven years of the Turin list, it is logical to fit the two-year reign of Montuhotep III, perhaps the last of his line, or else this last Montuhotep may have filled out the seven years. He is attested in inscriptions that record an expedition to the Wadi Hammamat to find a sarcophagus and lid for his burial—and the official in charge of this force of 10,000 men was his vizier, Amenemhet, whom scholars recognize as the founder of the twelfth dynasty, ruling as Amenemhet I. [See AMENEMHET I.]

After assuming the kingship, Amenemhet recognized the necessity of ruling from the North, instead of from Thebes, and founded a new city in the vicinity of Memphis, named with due modesty, “Amenemhet takes possession of the two lands (Itj-tawy).” This capital has yet to be located, but it is assumed to lie in the neighborhood of the pyramids of the first rulers of the dynasty at el-Lisht, just south of Memphis. The name may in fact derive from the Itj of Itj-tawy. Of Amenemhet's ancestry, little is known, but a literary text, the Prophecy of Neferti, indicates that he was from the South and that his mother was from Ta-Seti (the First Cataract region). Curiously, few dated monuments (of officials or the kingship) have been attested for his reign. His twenty-ninth regnal year is known from Nubia and his death in his thirtieth is known from the Story of Sinuhe. He is known from his pyramid at el-Lisht and a few texts, reliefs, and statuary. Based in plan on the pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom, and utilizing stone borrowed from their monuments, his pyramid has presented more problems than solutions. He and his successor are represented in the same scene on foundations blocks in his destroyed mortuary temple—a possible argument for their coregency. Surrounding his pyramid were the chapels and burials of his queens and officials, among which is the mastaba tomb of his well-attested vizier Intef-oker—who continued in office in the reign of his successor Senwosret I—and his steward Rohuerdjersen.

That a new era was at hand is clear from several sources. The literary composition known as the Prophecy of Neferti was set in the court of Sneferu, the founder of the fourth dynasty. It predicts a time of troubles, the Delta overrun by Asiatic infiltrators, the land governed by several rulers, the land subjected to anarchy and natural disasters but finally rescued by a savior king from the South, “Ameny,” in whom we recognize Amenemhet I, evidently a usurper and not of the Montuhotep family. Later in his reign, he altered his titulary to include the name, “Repeater of Births (Manifestations),” perhaps thereby proclaiming a kind of Renaissance. [See NEFERTI.]

The circumstances surrounding the king's death in his thirtieth year were reflected in tradition through several literary texts. In the posthumous literary Instructions to his son, details were given of his assassination or attempted assassination. The king boasts of his regime but bewails the lack of appreciation of his followers and his harem, which resulted in the attack on his life. In the Story of Sinuhe, the protagonist flees in panic on overhearing the reporting of the king's death to his son and successor. Sinuhe flees, ends up in Palestine, is befriended by a local chief, given land and the hand of the chief's daughter, fights a local bully (a prototype of the David—Goliath battle), and returns to Egypt to be honored by Senwosret I. The depiction of the Egyptian royal court and the entourage of the queen and her children who remember Sinuhe and his desire to be buried properly at home and not abroad are rare details of life at that time. [See SINUHE.]

On the basis of the text of the Instructions and the citation in Manetho of an assassination of a King Amenemhet, it is possible that an unsuccessful assassination attempt resulted in Amenemhet's decision to associate his son Senwosret with him, as joint king, in a coregency that spanned the latter part of Amenemhet's reign but not necessarily the traditional ten-year coregency that was, until recently, assumed by Egyptologists. Alternatively, the assassination may have been successful, inspiring Sinuhe's precipitous flight on hearing the news, a situation that argues against a coregency. The nature of these circumstances has been colored by the three literary, essentially nonhistorical texts: the Prophecy of Neferti, the Instructions of Amenemhet, and the Story of Sinuhe.

Amenemhet managed to control the infiltration of Asiatics into the eastern region of the Nile Delta by building of a line of forts, “the walls of the prince,” to maintain a watch along the border. In the South, there is evidence of his campaigns in Nubia and control of the southern borders.

The second ruler of the dynasty was Senwosret I, in whose forty-five-year reign an extraordinary amount of building took place throughout the land, with major construction at many of the great temple sites. Particularly notable is the “white chapel,” now in the open-air museum at Karnak, a peripteral barque-shrine of fine limestone, built on the occasion of his sed-festival; it has been reassembled from its blocks that were reused by a later ruler in one of the great pylons. The workmanship of the scenes and texts in relief is outstanding, with fine internal detail in the hieroglyphs. Around the base is a list of the nomes (provinces), with their local deities, and a record of the length of each nome of Upper Egypt along the Nile. The temple of Karnak was also rebuilt in his reign. According to a recent interpretation, it was founded on 21 December (Gregorian) in 1946 BCE, on the azimuth (a measurement of a heavenly body) of the sunrise. The deity Amun of Thebes was the southern counterpart of the Heliopolitan deity Re-Atum. [See SENWOSRET I.]

In both royal and nonroyal texts, mention was made of the refurbishing of temples after a period of neglect and destruction. Athough such statements were conventional, in the case of the twelfth dynasty, a period of destruction may well have occurred during the years just before its advent. At Elephantine, part of the temple has recently been restored, with its exceptional reliefs. The temple at Coptos has reliefs that show the king celebrating his sed-festival, which occurred in his thirty-first year. An important inscription from the temple at Tod also deserves mention.

At el-Lisht, the royal pyramid north of that of Senwosret I's father's was modeled on those of the sixth dynasty. Twelve life-size seated statues were originally placed around its court. The tomb of Senwosret I's important seal-bearer, Montuhotep, was built adjacent to the pyramid. Montuhotep had commissioned several statues of himself in the temple of Karnak, as well as a memorial chapel at Abydos, having a large stela with a lengthy text. He was the likely administrator of the vast temple and royal building projects carried out during the reign, supervising the construction, architecture, and art. Several rolls of papyri probably dating to this reign, found on a coffin in a tomb at a cemetery on the eastern bank of the Nile, opposite Abydos, preserve the accounting of the construction crews with their rations. The lists are arranged with the name of the foreman, followed by the names of the workmen. The men seem to be part of a permanent construction gang that was sent as far away as Coptos to carry out building projects. Some of the officials cited in this archive built memorial chapels west of the river at Abydos and are known from their stelae.

The thirty-five-year reign of Amenemhet II is the least known of the twelfth dynasty, with few datable sources. An exception is a large fragment of annals recorded on two blocks of granite at Memphis; the largest block was reused as the base for a statue of Ramesses II and was first noted in 1956 (but only fully published in 1991). It records a mixture of cult and political matters—religious events, festival celebrations, accounts of offerings, the sending of troops abroad, the mention of two previously unknown Near Eastern states, the tribute brought by Nubian princes, the gifts sent by Near Eastern princes, a bird-catching expedition of the king, some rewards to his officials, and other subjects. From his reign, a deposit of silver vessels and other precious objects of Aegean workmanship was discovered at the temple at Tod.

The following reign of Senwosret II has several dates in his sixth regnal year and a probable eighth year faintly inscribed on a stela from Nubia. So it is difficult to ascribe more than ten years to his reign. However, a diverse series of documents on papyrus comprises a vast amount of material from his pyramid temple and the pyramid townsite at Illahun, which extended into the following reigns and well into the thirteenth dynasty. These include conveyances of property, lists of goods, enumerations of households, pages from temple registers, lists of temple furniture, letters and model letters, mathematical exercises, accounts of laborers, a series of hymns to Senwosret III, medical texts on midwifery, and even a veterinary manual.

Senwosret II was succeeded by his son Senwosret III, whose last clearly recorded regnal year was his nineteenth. A recent hypothesis suggests that he may have lived into his fortieth regnal year; having been deified in his lifetime, he deserted his prepared pyramid site at Dahshur, created a vast burial (?) and funerary temple site at Abydos, and handed over the reins of administration to his son Amenemhet III as the active partner in a twenty-year-long coregency, with the years recorded in terms of the reign of the latter. One argument for this coregency is the attested forty-six-year-long reign of Amenemhet III, who built two pyramid complexes, one at Dahshur and one at Hawara. Senwosret III is particularly associated with Nubia, where he was depicted as a god in the temple reliefs of the New Kingdom. A boundary marker at the fortress of Semna records his boast that he extended his borders farther south than any of predecessors. In the text, he characterized the Nubians as base cowards, indicating that he captured their women and adherents, seized their cattle, and cut down and set fire to their grain. In a well-known passage at the end of the text, he indicated that any son of his who maintained this boundary is a real son, but any son who failed to fight for it was not his son: “he was not born to me.” He also campaigned in Palestine, during the course of which one of his officers, named Khuwy-Sobek, cited a battle at Sekmem, possibly the biblical Shechem.

Among the papyri found at Illahun, mentioned above, was a cycle of songs or hymns to Senwosret III, which defined the nature of the kingship. The king is addressed as one:

"protecting the land, extending your borders,"

overwhelming the foreign lands with your crown,…The tongue of your Majesty restrains Nubia,and your words rout the Near Easterners.…letting men sleep until daybreak.How joyful are [your gods], for you have reestablished their offerings.How joyful are your [people], for you have fixed their boundaries.…How joyful are the Egyptians because of your might, for you have protected [their] traditions.

These selected phrases from the text vaunt the ruler as a warrior who extended the borders, to dominate the Nubians and Near Easterners, as well as a benevolent, concerned protector of his own people, a shepherd of the citizens.

Many of the sites away from the main cities and temple areas are noted for the rock-cut tombs of the governors of the nomes (the provinces) of Upper Egypt. They essentially replaced the mastaba chapels and tombs of the Old Kingdom that were centered around the pyramid sites of the rulers of the fourth to the sixth dynasty at Giza and at Saqqara. The construction of these tombs entailed large expanses of wall painting or carved relief with many of the themes repeating the same subjects of the Old Kingdom tombs: the owner seated in front of offering breads, with other food and drink; daily life on his estate; viewing the census of cattle; scribes recording his income; the provision of food, drink, clothing, and oils; the ploughing and sowing of barley and emmer wheat; the threshing, winnowing, and delivery of the grain; the breeding and raising of cattle; milking; butchering; fowling and fishing; the raising of domesticated fowl; hunting in the desert and bringing the desert animals to the owner (oryx, antelope, hyena, etc.); food preparation—baking, brewing, cooking, and the activities of the kitchen; workshops with carpenters hewing timbers to construct boats, beds, chairs, and a variety of furniture; jewelers stringing necklaces and leatherworkers preparing their hides. The main sites for these rock-cut tombs were Elephantine-Aswan (in the first Upper Egyptian nome), Beni Hasan (in the sixteenth Upper Egyptian nome), Bersheh (in the fifteenth Upper Egyptian nome), Meir (in the fourteenth Upper Egyptian nome), and Asyut (in the thirteenth Upper Egyptian nome), as well as several other nomes.

In a tomb at Beni Hasan, dated in the sixth regnal year of Senwosret II, there is a scene of bedouin bringing products from the Eastern Desert, including galena (lead ore). They are shown in their colorful un-Egyptian dress, and a young member of the group is near a donkey laden with a bellows. The leader's name, Abi-Shar, is Semitic, and he is designated as a “chief of the desert lands,” a term that was later represented by the designation Hyksos.

At Bersheh, there is a unique scene in the tomb chapel of Djehutyhotep of twenty-one pairs of men, with supervisors (more than fifty men), dragging a large statue of the tomb owner (or, less probably, the king) on a sledge, possibly from the travertine quarry to the local temple or to the man's tomb. The statue is estimated to be 7 meters (22 feet) high and 18 tons, and it may have been barged across the Nile. Even larger statues were known to have been barged in later times.

The twelfth dynasty came to an end with the short reigns of Amenemhet IV (nine years) and a ruling queen, Sobekneferu (four years). The Turin Canon then indicates a break. Amenemhet IV, having had a short coregency with his father, probably attained the throne at an advanced age. As in his father's reign, trade was continued with Byblos, on the coast of Lebanon, with the exchange of royal gifts to the local governors. The last ruler of this dynasty, Queen Sobekneferu, was recognized in the king lists and, like Nitokerty, the ruling queen at the end of the sixth dynasty, brought the twelfth dynasty to an end.

These rulers of the Middle Kingdom built pyramids in the style of their predecessors of the Old Kingdom, and their queens and officials built their tombs in the vicinity of the pyramids of the kings. The great pyramid sites of the Old Kingdom at Giza and Saqqara, but not Dahshur, were neglected in favor of burial sites at el-Lisht (Amenemhet I, Senwosret I), Dahshur (Amenemhet II, Senwosret III, Amenemhet III), Illahun (Senwosret II), and Hawara (a second site for Amenemhet III). The burials of the queens and princesses have yielded outstanding jewelry.

Abydos, in the eighth Upper Egyptian nome, was the sacred precinct of the god Osiris—and the original burial site of the rulers of the first two dynasties. In the twelfth dynasty, Abydos became a pilgrimage site. Officials from throughout the land set up memorial chapels on the processional route to the graves of the early kings. These chapels included inscribed stelae, offering tables, and statuary. Thousands of these elements were somewhat unsystematically removed at the end of the nineteenth century and are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, as well as in museums in Europe and America. The text of one of the major stelae indicates that an official of Senwosret III, named Ikhernofret, was sent by the king to Abydos to fashion the ritual equipment and to conduct the great procession and the enactment of the “mysteries” of the worship of Osiris. The stelae of these officials attest to their loyalty to Osiris and to their hope for eternal favor in his following, the perpetual viewing of the rites, and the receiving of offerings and the inhaling of the incense. [See IKHERNOFRET.]

In the Old Kingdom, from the last king of the fifth dynasty onwards, a series of spells was inscribed in the underground chambers of the rulers. Known as the Pyramid Texts, they were composed to facilitate the king's ascent to the celestial regions and to join the gods. In the Middle Kingdom, these spells were revised, extended, and reinterpreted to benefit ordinary nonroyal mortals, and they were inscribed on the interior of the wooden coffins, hence their designation, the Coffin Texts. One of the more interesting set of spells is known as the Book of the Two Ways—it is essentially a map of the afterworld inscribed on the inside of the coffin, below the mummy. [See COFFIN TEXTS and PYRAMID TEXTS.]

The twelfth dynasty was characterized by accomplishments on several levels: the rise of a successful bureaucracy with professional administrators, including the viziers and army commanders; the development of the Faiyum basin for agriculture; the increased exploitation of quarries in the Sinai for turquoise and quarries in the Eastern Desert for the hard stone used in statuary and building and the gem-quality precious stones, such as amethyst, for jewelry; the control of trade with Nubia with the creation of a series of fortresses along the Nile in upper Nubia; and the establishment of Egyptian relations with the city-states of Palestine and Syria, during which the name of Jerusalem first appeared in documents.

It was the golden age of literature. Major compositions were Sinuhe, The Man Who Was Weary of Life, the Satire on the Trades, the Book of Kemit, and several compositions set in earlier times but now established as authored in the twelfth dynasty: The Instructions for Merikare, The Eloquent Peasant, as well as The Story of King Cheops and the Magicians. The Instructions of Ptahhotep is probably to be assigned to the dynasty.

It was also a golden age of art and architecture, both on the royal level—with the outstanding series of royal statues, pyramids, and temple components—and on the private level—with the painted tombs of the nomarchs in the provinces, the stelae and statuary of the officials of the bureaucracy, and the statuary in the sanctuary of the deified Heqaib at Elephantine.



  • Altenmüller Hartwig, and Ahmed Moussa, “Die Inschrift Amenemhets II. aus dem Ptah-Tempel von Memphis. Vorbericht,” Studienzur Altägyptischen Kultur 18 (1991), 1–48, with folding plate. Important annals of an early year of the king.
  • Arnold, Dorothea. “Amenemhat I and the Early Twelfth Dynasty at Thebes,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Journal 26 (1991), 5–48. Considers the activity in building at Thebes before the move north to Itj-tawy; dates the Hekanahkte archive to the time of Senwosret I, not to the Eleventh Dynasty.
  • Clère, J.-J. “Histoire des XIe et XIIe Dynasties égyptiennes,” Cahiers d'Histoire Mondiale I (1954), 643–668.
  • Franke, Detlef. Das Heiligtum des Heqaib im Elephantine: Geschichte eines Provinzheiligtums im Mittleren Reich. Heidelberg, Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens 9, 1994. Has translations of texts important for the study of the dynasty.
  • Gasse, Annie. “Amény, un porte-parole sous le règne de Sésostris Ier,” Bulletin de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale 88 (1988), 83–94. Studies the career of this official based on a text from the Wadi Hammamat.
  • Hayes, William C. “The Middle Kingdom in Egypt: Internal History from the Rise of the Herakleopolitans to the Death of Ammenemes III,” in: I.E.S. Edwards and others (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History, 3d ed. vol. I, Part 2: Early History of the Middle East, 1971, pp. 464–531; “Egypt: From the Death of Ammenemes III to Seqenenre II,” The Cambridge Ancient History, 3d ed., vol. II, Part 1, History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region c. 1800–1380 B.C. 1973, pp. 42–76. Still the most reliable and extensive treatment of the subject (and brought up to date by Vandersleyen in 1995).
  • Hirsch, Eileen. “Die Kultpolitik Amenemhets I. im Thebanischen Gau,” in: Rolf Gundlach and Matthias Rochholz (eds.), Ägyptische Tempel-Struktur, Funktion und Programm (HÄB 37) Hildesheim (1994), 137–142.
  • Matzker, Ingo. Die letzten Könige der 12. Dynastie, Frankfurt am Main, 1986.
  • Obsomer, Claude. Sésostris Ier: Étude Chronologique et Historique du Règne, Brussels, 1995. Rejects the coregency of Amenemhet I and Senwosret I.
  • Parkinson, Richard. Voices from Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Middle Kingdom Writings. London, 1991.
  • Quirke, Stephen. The Administration of Egypt in the Late Middle Kingdom: The Hieratic Documents, New Malden, Surrey, 1990.
  • Simpson, William K. “Mentuhotep, Vizier of Sesostris I, Patron of Art and Architecture,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 47 (1991), 331–340.
  • Simpson, William K. The Terrace of the Great God at Abydos: The Offering Chapels of Dynasties 12 and 13, Publications of the Pennsylvania—Yale Expedition to Egypt 5, New Haven, 1974.
  • Straußs-Seber, Christine. “Zu Bildprogramm und Funktion der Weißen Kapelle in Karnak,” in: Rolf Gundlach and Matthias Rochholz (eds.), Ägyptische Tempel-Struktur, Funktion und Programm (HÄB 37) Hildesheim (1994), 287–318. Thorough analysis of the “kiosk” of Senwosret I at Karnak.
  • Vandersleyen, Claude. L'Egypte et la Vallée du Nil, Tome 2: De la fin de l'Ancien Empire à la fin du Nouvel Empire. Paris: La Nouvelle Clio, Presses Universitaires de France, 1995, 43–122. Up-to-date and thorough analysis of the dynasty, based on the 1971 and 1973 works of Hayes.
  • Wegner, Josef. “The Nature and Chronology of the Senwosret III-Amenemhat III Regnal Succession: Some Considerations Based on New Evidence from the Mortuary Temple of Senwosret III at Abydos,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 55 (1996), 249–279. A detailed study in which a long (twenty-year) coregency between these rulers is proposed, probably beginning after the nineteenth regnal year of Senwosret III.

William Kelly Simpson