Middle Kingdom

By Carl Graves

MK1Figure 1: The fortress of Buhen as drawn by Prof. W. B. Emery.

The Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC) of Ancient Egypt represents a period of strengthened centralised rule, often thought of as the ‘classical’ period of Egyptian history in both art and literature.

MK3Figure 2: Some examples of local Nubian pottery types discovered at Buhen, possibly C-group. These illustrations, along with many others, are preserved in the EES Lucy Gura Archive.

The ‘Two Lands’ of Egypt were reunified, following the provincial control of the First Intermediate Period (2160-2055BC), by Montuhotep II. Under his leadership the Theban princes were able to extend their rule into Lower Nubia, styling themselves as warrior kings commanding a large and expansive empire. Fortresses were established along the Lower Nubian stretch of the River Nile to defend Egypt’s position and to facilitate trade with local populations and exploitation of their local populations and resources (see figure 2). The largest of the fortresses was Buhen (see figure 1); initially excavated from 1909-1910 by The University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Randall-Maciver and Leonard Woolley, although it was never fully explored or documented. Further, more intensive, excavation happened between 1957 and 1961 under Walter Bryan Emery under the auspices of The Egypt Exploration Society’s involvement in the UNESCO Nubian Salvage Campaign. The challenge given was to excavate and record the fortresses and relocate its 18th Dynasty stone temple before the waters of Lake Nasser rose and destroyed the site completely (see figure 3). The precious archive of photographs and documentation arising from this campaign are now housed in the EES Lucy Gura Archive.

MK2Figure 3: Prof. W. B. Emery overseeing work at Buhen during the dismantling of the 18th Dynasty temple and transport to Khartoum where it was subsequently re-erected in the grounds of the National Museum of Sudan.

The Day Books kept by Emery during his time in Buhen record in minute detail the development of work throughout the campaign. This includes the restoration of the original University of Pennsylvania dig-house in 1957 and the local workers that were employed to rebuild the accommodation (see figure 4). The archive also retains records of how many people were working at the site and where the staff had come from – in some cases employing over 150 local men to help clear the sand from the enormous ramparts of the fortress. 

MK4Figure 4: The dig-house at Buhen. Left, before restoration in 1957 and as it was found by Emery.Right, fully restored and inhabited by the EES dig team.

The fortress itself was almost entirely built of mudbrick and betrays many of the features utilised during the Middle Kingdom when constructing state-planned settlements. Although the fortress was initially founded to house transient Egyptian military garrisons, the findings make clear that this was later supplanted by settled families, traders and in some cases Nubian populations themselves. As Egyptian control of Nubia became further established the initial defensive nature of the fortresses gave way to a more collaborative trading network supplying goods between Egyptians and Nubians. Towards the end of the Middle Kingdom and the steady decentralisation of the Egyptian state in the Thirteenth Dynasty (c.1773-1650 BC), military control of Nubia ceased to be effective. This resulted in increasing interaction between Egyptian and Nubian populations within the fortresses erected along the Lower Nubian Nile. Without these interrelations further expansion of Egyptian rulers into Nubia in the New Kingdom could not have been so successfully established.

Further reading

Caminos, R. 1974. The New Kingdom Temples of Buhen (2 vols). London: The Egypt Exploration Society.

Smith, H.S. 1976. The Fortress of Buhen: The Inscriptions. London: The Egypt Exploration Society.

Emery, W. B. Smith, H.S. and Millard, A. 1979. The Fortress of Buhen: The Archaeological Report. London: The Egypt Exploration Society.

First Intermediate Period          Home          Second Intermediate Period