How Did Senusret III Influence Ancient Egyptian History?

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Statue of Senusret III in the Louvre Museum, Paris

Ancient Egypt produced many powerful and able kings who built many great monuments, commissioned enduring works of literature, and expanded Egypt’s borders through numerous military campaigns. Djoser, Snefru, and Khufu are remembered as great pyramid builders and for having not only the best built and most enduring pyramids, but also for producing the first examples in the world of monumental architecture made in stone. Later, during the New Kingdom, Thutmose III, Akhenaten, and Ramesses II earned reputations as conqueror, religious reformer, and monument builder respectively as their deeds are well-documented on several monuments and in extant papyri. Situated between the better known Old and New Kingdoms was Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (ca. 1975-1640 BC), which produced one of pharaonic Egypt’s most important but lesser known kings – Senusret III (ruled ca. 1837-1818 BC).

The Middle Kingdom was the period in Egyptian history where the entire country was once more united under a single ruler after the tumultuous First Intermediate Period. Not only was Egypt unified once more during the Middle Kingdom, but it was also a period of tremendous cultural growth and achievement: the kings began building pyramids again as tombs, the southern border was expanded into Nubia for the first time, and language and literature reached its zenith. Egypt’s incredible growth during the Middle Kingdom was spurred by a series of vigorous and able kings, notably Senusret III, who led the conquest of Nubia, campaigned in the Levant, and initiated several ambitious public works projects. Senusret III left a profound influence on Egypt that resonated for several centuries, not just in physical ways throughout the Nile Valley, but also in the minds of its people and even in the historiography of the ancient Greeks.

The Middle Kingdom

Egypt’s Old Kingdom declined for a number of reasons, foremost of which was the rise of regional potentates. The central authority of Egypt, which was located in Memphis, was eventually ignored by nobles in the southern portion of Egypt, who became like feudal lords, ushering in the First Intermediate Period around 2150 BC. After the breakdown of central authority was complete, two major power centers emerged – one was based in the Lower/northern Egyptian city of Heracleopolis while the other was in the Upper/southern Egyptian city of Thebes. [1]

As the struggle between the two cities continued, Thebes gradually increased its influence in Upper Egypt under the kings of the dynasty scholars now know as the Eleventh Dynasty. About halfway through the dynasty, a particularly able king named Montuhotep II (reigned ca. 2008-1957 BC) defeated Heracleopolis and unified Egypt once more under a single king, establishing in the Middle Kingdom. In later Egyptian sources, Montuhoteop II is remembered as one of Egypt’s greatest kings on par with Menes/Narmer, who was the first king to unify Egypt, and Ahmose, who expelled the Hyksos and unified Egypt again, which began the New Kingdom. [2]

Senusret III Comes to Power

Modern Depiction of the Egyptian Fort at Semna, Nubia

Egyptian culture and power continued to grow until it reached its Middle Kingdom zenith during the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty. When Senusret III came to power, he was the beneficiary of several successful kingships that provided him with a template upon which he based his rule. Despite following the examples of his predecessors, Senusret III eventually eclipsed what they had done, especially in regards to military endeavors.

The military campaigns of Senusret III – referred to by the Greeks as “Sesostris” or “Sesoosis” – are well-documented in both Egyptian and Greek texts and can be further corroborated by archeological evidence. According to the Egyptian sources, Senusret III led four campaigns into Nubia during his sixth, eighth, tenth, and sixteenth years of rule. [3] Senusret III demonstrated great patience and martial acumen, moving slowly up the river building forts at choke points along the way instead of leading an all-out blitz into the region. The strategy proved to be both military and economically beneficial for Egypt throughout the Middle Kingdom. The greatest of all the Middle Kingdom Nubian forts was at Semna, which is where many of the inscriptions commemorating the campaigns were discovered in the modern period. The Semna inscriptions paint a picture of a complex relationship between the Egyptians and Nubians – for example, Nubians were explicitly forbidden from entering Egypt, but trade and social interaction was allowed and even encouraged to some extent at the forts. [4] Although Senusret III was probably motivated by economic reasons to colonize Nubia, the king was clear that he was willing to destroy most of the Nubian population in order to rule their land. An inscription documenting Senusret III’s year sixteen campaign demonstrates just how brutal things were:

“Year 16, third month of the second season, (occurred) his majesty’s making the southern boundary as far as Heh. I have made my boundary beyond (that) of my fathers; I have increased that which was bequeathed to me. I am a king who speaks and executes. . . I captured their women, I carried off their subjects, went forth to their wells, smote their bulls; I reaped their grain, and set fire thereto. (I swear) as my father lives for me, I speak in truth, without a lie therein, coming out of my mouth.” [5]

Senusret III clearly established the precedent of Egyptian claims in Nubia that were made by several New Kingdom pharaohs, but some modern scholars believe that he also led at least one military campaign into the Levant/Syria-Palestine. [6] The Greeks historians mention Asian campaigns by Sesostris, but unfortunately there are a lack of Egyptian sources to corroborate the classical claims.

Senusret III’s Building Projects

The Ruins of Senusret III’s Pyramid near Dashur

Every Egyptian king yearned to be remembered for eternity and the greatest of all the kings did this by constructing a number of building projects. The Old Kingdom pharaohs are remembered for the pyramids and those of the New Kingdom have the many temples of Upper Egypt as a testament to their greatness and although the monuments of the Middle Kingdom have not withstood the test of time as well as their predecessors and successors did, Senusret III certainly did his part. In particular, Senusret III is remembered for constructing numerous canals throughout Egypt that connected Egypt to its Nubian colonies and eventually the Red Sea. The king’s priority was building a canal that bypassed the first cataract just south of Abu/Elephantine (modern Aswan), which marked the traditional boundary between Egypt and Nubia. The cataracts are so named because they are narrow, rocky sections of the Nile River that are impassable by boats, which meant that in ancient times a military or trade expedition would have to disembark, portage the cataract, and then reembark and continue up river. Since the first cataract canal had such high military and economic importance, Senusret III made sure that it was regularly maintained. A year eight inscription details some of the maintenance work done on the canal as well as its name and size:

“Year 8 under the majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Kekure, living forever. His majesty commanded to make the canal anew, the name of this canal being: ‘Beautiful-Are-the-Ways-of-Khekure-[Living]-Forever,’ when his majesty proceeded up-river to overthrow Kush, the wretched. Length of this canal, 150 cubits; width, 20; depth, 15.” [7]

The fifth century BC Greek historian, Herodotus, related how “Sesostris” built many canals throughout Egypt that were used for transportation and irrigation purposes. It is believed that the first canal that linked the Red and Mediterranean seas was built during Senusret III’s reign and Herodotus also mentions that the king made improvements to the Temple of Ptah in Memphis. [8] Perhaps, though, Senusret III’s most overlooked building project was the construction of his pyramid complex.

Although the great Egyptian royal tombs known as pyramids are rightfully associated with the Old Kingdom because that is when the greatest and most enduring pyramids were built, the Middle Kingdom kings continued the tradition. For the most part, the Middle Kingdom pyramids were inferior when compared to their Old Kingdom ancestors because the later pyramids used a mud-brick instead of a stone core. The Middle Kingdom kings also decided to build their royal necropolis close to their new capital near the modern city of Lisht in the Fayum region of Middle Egypt.

Senusret III continued the tradition of pyramid building, but he eschewed the new practice of building at Lisht and instead decided to follow the original tradition by constructing his pyramid near the Old Kingdom kings’ tombs near the Lower Egyptian village of Dashur. Senusret III built what was probably the most impressive Middle Kingdom pyramid, as it stood over 256 feet tall, but unfortunately the limestone casing was stripped and the mud-brick core eventually gave way to the ravages of time. The Middle Kingdom king active nature in the realms of military conquest and building certainly made him the most important king of his period and arguably one of the most important in all of ancient Egypt, but his true influence can also be gauged by what later people wrote about him. [9]

The Historical Memory of Senusret III

Centuries after Senusret III had died, but still during ancient times, various people viewed the king in a legendary manner. He was viewed by the Egyptians as a just, benevolent ruler, which the later Greek historians transferred into their writings as the Egyptian priests were the main source of the material. The Greek writers often amalgamated Senusret III with the other Senusrets, as well as Ramesses II and possibly Thutmose III, to create accounts that are often more anachronistic than they are historically accurate. Still, the fact that the Greek writers used the Egyptian priests as their source material proves that even centuries later the Egyptians continued to revere the memory of Senusret III. [10] A passage from the first century BC Greek historian Diodorus demonstrates this idea:

“Sesoösis, they say, who became king seven generations later, performed more renowned and greater deeds than did any of his predecessors. . . He therefore showed kindnesses to everyone by all means at his disposal, winning over some by presents of money, others by gifts of land, and others by remission of penalties, and the entire people he attached to himself by his friendly intercourse and kindly ways; for he set free unharmed everyone who was held for some crime against the king and cancelled the obligations of those who were in prison for debt, there being a great multitude in the gaols. And dividing the entire land into thirty-six parts which the Egyptian call nomes, he set over each a nomarch, who should superintend the collection of the royal revenues and administer all the affairs of his division.” [11]

It will be nearly impossible to determine how much of what the Greek writers attributed to “Sesostris” and “Sesoosis” were actually done by Senusret III, but the salient point is that ancient peoples, both Egyptians and Greeks, believed that he was one of the greatest Egyptian kings.

Conclusion

Senusret III was perhaps the greatest king of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and rightfully deserves to be considered along with some of the other more well-known pharaohs. Senusret III was the first Egyptian king to make Egypt into a true empire by colonizing Nubia, which provided incredible economic benefits that he was then able to use for his many ambitious building projects. Because of his deeds of conquest and construction, Senusret III was immortalized in the writings of several Greek historians, ensuring that he would never be forgotten.

References

  1. Grajetzki, Wolfram. The Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. (London: Duckworth, 2009), p. 8
  2. Grajetzki, p. 18
  3. Callender, Gae. “The Middle Kingdom Renaissance (c. 2055-1650 BC). In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Ian Shaw. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 166
  4. Breasted, Henry, ed. and trans. Ancient Records of Egypt. Volume 1, The First to the Seventeenth Dynasties (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), pgs. 293-4
  5. Breasted, pgs. 295-9
  6. Callender, p. 166
  7. Breasted, p. 292
  8. Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. (London: Penguin Books, 2003), Book II, 108
  9. Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries (London: Thames and Hudson, 2001), p. 34
  10. Krebsbach, Jared. “Herodotus, Diodorus, and Manetho: An Examination of the Influence of Egyptian Historiography on the Classical Historians.” New England Classical Journal. 41 (2014) pgs. 98-99
  11. Diodorus. The Library of History. Translated by C.H. Oldfather. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), Book I, 53-54, 4
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