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Climate and the History of Egypt: The Middle Kingdom

Barbara Bell
American Journal of Archaeology
Vol. 79, No. 3 (Jul., 1975), pp. 223-269
DOI: 10.2307/503481
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/503481
Page Count: 47
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Climate and the History of Egypt: The Middle Kingdom
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Abstract

The first major section of this paper (p. 226f) surveys evidence bearing on the level of the Nile during the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period, 1991 to ca. 1570 B.C. With the exception of the analysis of the range of a "good flood" in the reign of Senwosret I, most of the evidence comes from excavations stimulated by the building of the High Dam at Aswan, from nowflooded sites in Nubia, and from the inscriptions on the cliffs at the Semna region of the Second Cataract, long-known and troublesome because commemorating flood levels 8 to 11 m. above the modern from some 27 years in the reigns of King Amenemhet III and his immediate successors. Previous hypotheses are discussed and rejected, and the inscriptions are interpreted literally as indicating actual great floods; the peak volume, in those years for which records exist at Semna, is estimated to have been 3 to 4 times that of the larger floods recorded at Aswan since A.D. 1870. These floods are interpreted as reflecting a climate fluctuation of only a few decades' duration and are not seen as typical of the Middle Kingdom, which appears otherwise to have had floods similar to those of modern times. Review of textual and architectural evidence bearing on rainfall suggests that the Middle Kingdom had conditions similar to those of the A.D. 1800s, with heavy rainfalls somewhat less rare than in the present century. The second major section (p. 249f) presents evidence bearing on the level of Lake Moeris. It is concluded that the lake was in free connection with the Nile from Neolithic to Ptolemaic times when the level was artificially reduced. It appears that more than seasonal fluctuations in the lake level occurred from time to time (especially during the Neolithic), with possible interruptions in the free connection, as during the very low Niles and drought of the First Dark Age. If the connection then was restored with human aid, it appears most likely this was done early in the XIIth Dynasty under Amenemhet I. The third principal section (p. 251f) discusses possible cultural and historical influences of the great floods recorded at Semna in the last reigns of Dynasty XII and early in Dynasty XIII, both while they were occurring and upon their cessation. There is no evidence that the decline in material prosperity and strength of the central government under Dynasty XIII was associated with any such severe failure of the floods and famine as brought on the First Dark Age. The few known famine inscriptions, from El Kab ca. 1750 B.C., do not suggest the most dire conditions of earlier inscriptions. However it is postulated that the cessation of the great floods, after the Egyptians had become accustomed to them, required a readjustment of the irrigation system in a period of political weakness and uncertainty about the proper order of royal succession, thus creating a sort of vicious circle which made the period "darker" than it need have been from either of these factors occurring alone and, under the Egyptian dogma of divine Kingship with the Pharaoh as "rain maker," or more exactly "flood maker," accounts in some degree for the very numerous and short reigns characterizing Dynasty XIII.

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