Ancient Egyptian language begins with Middle Egyptian, accepted by later Egyptians as the classical period of language, literature, and culture. The Middle Kingdom dated from approximately 2055 to 1650 b.c.e.
It comprised the second half of the Eleventh Dynasty, the Twelfth Dynasty that spanned 212 years (1985–1773 b.c.e.), and the Thirteenth Dynasty, at the end of which the central administration was once again weakening, leading into the Second Intermediate Period.
The pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty had remarkably long reigns: two, Senusret I and Amenemhat III, reigned for some 45 years. The First Intermediate Period was one of decentralization, but local rulers, religious institutions, and customs developed and flourished.
By the end of the First Intermediate Period power had concentrated in two centers, Herakleopolis, near the Faiyum in Middle Egypt, and Thebes. From the latter city the first three kings of the Eleventh Dynasty, all three named Intef, ruled Upper Egypt and gradually pushed the boundary of their rules further north. Around 2055 b.c.e. Mentuhotep II managed to reunify Egypt and reigned for 50 years, ushering in a period of peace and stability.
His two successors reigned a further 18 years, and Mentuhotep III was likely succeeded by his vizier, Amenemhat, as the first pharaoh of that name and of the Twelfth Dynasty.
His name, compounded with Amun, signaled the demotion of the local Theban patron god, Montu, and Amun’s steady rise to unrivaled prominence and wealth. In his 30-year reign Amenemhat I conducted campaigns in the eastern Delta and south in Nubia to secure Egypt’s access to gold.
He also sailed the Nile dealing severely with any signs of rebellion from local rulers. Amenemhat moved the capital to a site about 20 miles south of the old capital, Memphis. This was named Itjtawy, or "Seizer-of-the-Two-Lands". Amenemhat I was murdered as the result of a palace coup.
Though Senusret I was campaigning in Libya when his father Amenemhat I died, he returned, quelled any rebellion, and ruled on his own for 34 years—having reigned approximately 10 years with his father. He extended Egypt’s borders as far as Buhen at the Second Cataract in Nubia and led expeditions into Syria.
Like his father, he was a great builder and rebuilt the temple of Re-Atum at Heliopolis. Amenemhat II succeeded around 1928 b.c.e. His reign saw an expansion of trading contacts with Syria and the Aegean.
Egyptian artifacts from his reign have been found at Byblos in Lebanon and Knossos in Crete. A treasure trove from his reign was found in the temple of Montu at el-Tod, immediately south of Luxor, with silver goblets from Canaan and the Aegean, along with seals and jewelry from Mesopotamia.
His son, Senusret II, continued his father’s interest in the Faiyum by beginning to irrigate the area. His statues display a realistic appearance of the royal subject, which would continue into the succeeding reigns.
This was a break from the traditional representation of the pharaoh, especially in the Old Kingdom, as a remote, godlike being. This trend, copied among the nobility, makes the portraiture of this period unique and vivid.
The last two major pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty were Senusret III and Amenemhat III. Senusret III was apparently a commanding figure. He conducted several campaigns in Nubia, noted for their brutality.
He extended the southern boundary of Egypt well into Nubia, building a fortress at Semna beyond the Second Cataract. Even into the Thirteenth Dynasty military dispatches show how stringently the Egyptians controlled the natives and exploited resources.
Much of the wealth that poured in from Nubia was given to the gods. The shrine of Osiris at Abydos was gifted with precious metals and stones, and funds for priestly maintenance were given to the temple of Amun at Thebes.
The last of the long-reigning and powerful pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty was Amenemhat III (1831–1796 b.c.e.). His reign was long and peaceful, and the Middle Kingdom reached its cultural and economic peak. He expanded the use of the turquoise and copper mines in Sinai and quarried at Aswan and Tura and in Nubia, all recorded on inscriptions.
There are two statues that seem to show him in youth and maturity, displaying the strong features of his ancestors. The Twelfth Dynasty slid peaceably into the Thirteenth with the short reigns of Amenemhat IV and his sister-queen, Sobekneferu.
The Middle Kingdom saw the emergence of a comfortable "middle" class, the increase in endowments of mid-level temple priests, and a mercantile class who traded independently of royal interests. There was a more confident appropriation and expression of a blessed afterlife that relied less on proximity to the deceased pharaoh and more on the preparations of the individual.
As noted, the Middle Kingdom produced a great number of literary works, many of which became "classics" of genre, language, and style. In sum, it was an age that encouraged the rise of the individual and became aware of the world beyond Egypt.