The Structure of Egyptian History: And the Third Intermediate Period

The Structure of Egyptian History
And the Third Intermediate Period

by Jimmy Dunn

The Solid Silver Coffin of Psusennes from the 21st Dynasty The history of Egypt provided to us today by scholars is really a mixture of historic tradition and modern discoveries, sometimes almost forced into the framework of historic tradition. In other words, we divide up this ancient history of Egypt into segments which were devised long ago, such as specific dynasties which are then divided into larger segments which consist of the Predynastic Period, the Early or Archaic Period, The Old Kingdom, The First Intermediate Period, The Middle Kingdom, The Second Intermediate Period, The New Kingdom, The Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period (followed by the Ptolomic or Greek Period).

The formula which was used to divide up the various dynasties is sometimes difficult to understand. Sometimes, it would seem to be based on families, while at other times it is more based on the location from which Egypt was ruled. What is ultimately clear is that modern research has frequently made a mockery of this system. If the traditional dynastic divisions were absent, modern scholars would probably divide up Egypt's history very differently, at least in detail, and probably in substance. Very frequently, research has proven that rulers in the midst of a dynasty bore no relationship to their predecessors, while at other times, the last ruler of a Gold and Lapis Lazuli Osiris, Isis and Horus bearing the name of Osorkon II from the 22nd Dynasty dynasty almost certainly was related to the founder of the next. At other times, we find weakness within major periods which might result in other "intermediate periods".

All of this is because the original framework of Egyptian history was devised by a Late Period Egyptian priest named Manetho. While his work has been very useful to scholars, his history covers thousands of years, and while he had perhaps some documentation to assist him that is not available to us today, he lacked the capability of scientific archaeological examination and the accumulated data we have today. Nevertheless, his system is so entrenched that we today continue to try to "fit" our modern understanding of Egyptian history into his framework.

It should be noted that there are some subtle attempts to "nudge" some of the traditional boundaries. For example, while most reference material and tradition places the end of the Old Kingdom at the 6th Dynasty, the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt places it at the end of the 8th Dynasty. This is because, through the 8th Dynasty, the Egyptian kings continued to rule from Memphis, and though the 7th and 8th Dynasties are very obscure, the kings appear to have ruled over a relatively undivided Egypt. In fact, the 7th and 8th Dynasties were most likely a The gold face mask of Psusennes discovered at Tanis transition period between the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period, when regional rulers were gaining in strength. After the 8th Dynasty, Egypt was effectively broken down into a number of regional states.

An example of the flaws within this framework of Egyptian history comes at the end of the New Kingdom, which is also frequently referred to as the Empire period. This is because, at the beginning of this period which starts with the 18th Dynasty, Egypt indeed built an empire, with holdings south into Nubia and east into Asia. However, this period traditionally ends with the 20th Dynasty, which by its termination, Egypt was even then no longer much of an empire. In fact, one could easily argue that the Third Intermediate Period began prior to the end of the 20th Dynasty. On the other hand, one could also argue that there was virtually no Third Intermediate Period, depending on the definition we use for an intermediate period.

Intermediate periods in Egyptian history are generally characterized by divided rule of Egypt, though this could take several forms, and each intermediate period had distinct attributes. Ultimately, we think of intermediate periods as being inferior times when the state was divided and the wealth of Egypt waned, though this latter effect certainly occurred during more normal times. During the First Intermediate Period, Egypt was broken up into numerous small divisions by local rulers, and there followed considerable strife amongst these small regional powers, actually terminating during the 11th Dynasty when a ruler, Mentuhotep II, finally rose to control all of Egypt.

In fact, each intermediate periods never begins on a specific date. Each one involves a transition period, though the end of each was terminated by more decisive action. For at least the first two intermediate periods, the transition period involves a somewhat gradual breakdown in central power resulting in the rise of various regional rulers. Though the Second Intermediate Period is often referred to as the Hyksos Period, no real invasion occurred. The Hyksos who took control of some of Lower Egypt from their Capital at Avaris, had probably lived in Egypt for some The cartonnage coffin of Sheshonq I from Tanis in the form of a falcon, together with his silver coffin period of time, and had even somewhat assimilated into the Egyptian culture. The Hyksos control of Egypt appears to have grown during this period. The main rivals of the Hyksos were the Egyptians at Thebes, but during this period there were probably some very local, independently ruled sections of Egypt. Again, the Second Intermediate Period ended rather abruptly, when Kamose, the last ruler of the 17th Dynasty, began the process of unification that Ahmose, the first king of the 18th Dynasty finished. Again, this period is also characterized, as is the First Intermediate Period, by continuing hostilities between the major regional powers.

The Third Intermediate Period was really very different from the earlier two intermediate periods, at least in the beginning. In fact, so different are the first several Dynasties that these should probably be separated from the remainder of the Third Intermediate Period, which takes on much more of the attributes we normally associate with such times. Also, this first phase of the Third Intermediate Period really begins prior to the 21st Dynasty, with the reign of Ramesses XI, though like always, various conditions led up to this point.

In fact, one might go so far as to say that Egyptian control was not fragmented during the 21st and 22nd Dynasties. Though the country was divided administratively between the north and south during much of this time, these rulers evidently considered the god Amun himself as king of a united Egypt. Even to outsiders, Egypt appeared to be ruled by only one king, and this situation actually began during the reign of Ramesses XI.

The main players at the beginning of this era consisted of Ramesses XI and Smendes in the north, and Herihor in the south. It is extremely likely that all of these individuals were connected through some sort of family relationship, though that remains very unclear. Nevertheless, The Northern King Osorkon II from Egypt's 22nd DynastyHerihor, a general and High-Priest at Thebes appears to have taken effective control of southern Egypt some years prior to the death of Ramesses XI, and even during Ramesses XI's life, Smendes in the north seems to have held considerable power.

The rise of Herihor ushered in a period known as the "Renaissance", a term previously used by the founders of new dynasties, wehem meswt (he who repeats births), alluding to what was supposed to be a new era of Egyptian strength. When considering that this led directly into the Third Intermediate Period, one might see this posturing as almost humorous, but in fact, during certain parts of the 21st and 22nd Dynasties, Egypt seems to have regained some of its power that was lost during the later part of the New Kingdom. Herihor died about five years before Ramesses XI, and was replaced by Piankh, who may have been his son-in-law. However, both Piankh and Ramesses XI seem to have died at about the same time, ushering in the traditional 21st Dynasty, when Smendes gained the throne in the north, and Pinedjem I, the son of Piankh, became High-Priest of Amun in the south at Thebes. It should be mentioned that mostly throughout this period, the High-Priests at Amun, while firmly in control of the south, nominally deferred to the northern king, allowing him to rule, at least in name, the whole of Egypt.

In fact, upon Smendes' death, and after the short reign of Amenemnisu in the north, one of Pinedjem I's sons, Psusennes I, became the northern King, while several other sons successively became the High-Priests of Amun at Thebes, a situation not at all like that in previous intermediate periods. There seems to have been considerable cooperation between the two leaders, and a relatively productive period set in. This period ended with the death of Psusennes II in the north, after which Sheshonq I came to power in the north apparently by marrying the daughter of Psusennes II.

Now, Sheshonq I brought the divided factions of Thebes and Tanis together. He appointed his own son, Iuput, as Governor of Upper Egypt and at the same time, both High-Priest of Amun and commander-in-chief of the armies. Hence, though history continues to refer to this as an intermediate period, the country by this time was undivided. Furthermore, Sheshonq I, Shishak of the Bible, went on to defeat the sons of Solomon in 925 BC in a highly successful campaign, the likes of which had not been seen since the days of Ramesses III early in the 20th Dynasty.

With only minor difficulties, Egypt remained united for some period of time and only later was once again divided between brothers. Only at the end of the 22nd Dynasty do we really see a breakdown in power under the long reign of Sheshonq III, which might be said to have signaled the real Third Intermediate Period.

All together, the 21st and 22nd Dynasties appear to have been more successful, and even somewhat more lucrative than the latter years of the New Kingdom. Though men divided the administration of Egypt, they saw not a divided Egypt so much as one ruled by a kingly god, Amun.

Thus, we see the problems with our current, and very anciently devised framework of Egyptian history. In a very generalized manner, this framework may still work, but more and more, we simply fit the actual facts into what is often a fictional outline.

See also:






Reference Number

Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt)

Clayton, Peter A.


Thames and Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05074-0

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas



None Stated

Monarchs of the Nile

Dodson, Aidan


Rubicon Press

ISBN 0-948695-20-x

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Seventy Great Mysteries of Ancient Egypt, The

Manley, Bill (Editor)


Thames & Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05123-2