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Monday, 1 August 2022

The Nomarchs of the Middle Kingdom

The blog post for this week is written by Linda Kimmel, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the United States. When she retired from full-time work as a data research manager in late 2020, she began studying the ancient world, and serving as a docent at the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Linda had never heard of the Egypt Centre before the COVID-19 Pandemic but has taken every course offered since she first noticed a tweet about the museum in the fall of 2020 and hopes to visit Swansea in 2023.

Many people can name at least one Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. But the Pharaohs could not rule Egypt alone. In a time before planes, trains, automobiles, and modern forms of communication, and in a land spanning hundreds of miles, other officials were needed. If the Pharaoh was to rule efficiently and have control over the entire country, he needed representatives permanently placed throughout the country, and the nomarchs helped serve this purpose (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Statue of Ukhhotep II and his family (MFA 1973.87)

In the final session in the latest Egypt Centre course—Middle Kingdom Studies—our instructor Ken Griffin focused on lower-level officials, with most of our time devoted to the nomarchs. Egypt was divided into nomes, or administrative regions, to enhance control of the entire country by the Pharaoh. Each nome was governed by a nomarch, a regional governor or ruler, although sometimes one nomarch would govern two nomes. The number of nomes fluctuated over time, but for the Middle Kingdom there were 42 nomes, with 22 in Upper Egypt and 20 in Lower Egypt. The nomes served as religious and economic centers for the surrounding countryside and villages.  


Duties of the Nomarchs

In return for royal favors, the nomarchs were expected to help with the defense of the country, to enhance its economy, and to act as the Pharaoh’s deputies. Depending on the location of the nome, some nomarchs had strategic importance for defending the frontier, serving as a staging point for the defense of the country from foreign countries. Nomarchs also played critical roles with Egypt’s economy, being charged with collecting taxes from their nomes. Nomarchs were responsible for maintaining facilities in their nome related to agricultural production such as irrigation and the canals. The relative power, and independence of the nomarchs fluctuated throughout the period, and seems to have declined precipitously under the reign of Senwosret III.  

Sources about the Nomarchs

As a political scientist who has focused on American politics and political behavior, if I wanted to know what the responsibilities and duties are of local governors or mayors, I would consult such official documents as state constitutions and city charters. If I wanted to learn about specific past local officials, I might consult their autobiographies or biographies (if the person was prominent enough). Our sources for the nomarchs are quite different. Much of what we know comes from their tombs, with a few having extensive biographies on their tomb walls.

Fig. 2: The tomb of Khnumhotep II (

The tombs of the nomarchs reached their peak during the Middle Kingdom. Most of the tombs were rock cut, constructed at sites with striking natural features in the cliffs along the Nile. They were highly decorated, with painting typically used rather than relief carving. Themes of nature and landscape were common, as well as scenes of agriculture, cattle breeding, and trades such as boat building, pottery, and weaving.

In our class we covered the major centers of importance for the nomarchs: Beni Hasan, Meir, el-Bersheh, Elephantine, and Thebes, and within those centers, the key nomarchs. I found all of them interesting, but will focus here on my favorites, Khnumhotep II and Amenemhat, both nomarchs at Beni Hasan, the capital of the 16th nome of Upper Egypt.

Fig. 3: Khnumhotep II fowling

Khnumhotep II

The Khnumhoteps were a primary family of nomarchs from Beni Hasan, with Khnumhotep II the most well-known. Khnumhotep II served as nomarch in the Twelfth Dynasty, during the reigns of Amenemhat II and Senwosret II. The extensive autobiographical inscriptions in his tomb (Tomb 3 at Beni Hasan) provide much of what is known about the nomarchs, including such information as what they did, how they performed their duties, and the transmission of the Khnumhotep family’s positions and properties. The text runs below this scene of Khnumhotep II (fig. 2). A closeup of the scene on the left shows clearly how much larger Khnumhotep II is in scale than anyone else in the scene; he is presenting himself in the same over-sized way as the Pharaohs (fig. 3). We learned in class that such fishing and fowling scenes represent order over chaos, and by this depiction, Khnumhotep II showed that he could control nature. In addition to the autobiographical inscriptions, the tomb is perhaps most known for what is often termed the “Beni Hasan painting,” featuring a group of representatives, often labeled Hyksos (fig. 4). Without getting into any controversies about interpreting the meaning of the people in the scene (see Cohen 2016), I wonder what is being said about Khnumhotep II by including this scene in his tomb. Is the scene meant to indicate that Khnumhotep II was respected, or had authority over, people from other countries? Or did it mean he was somehow involved in foreign trade?

Fig. 4: Leaders of the "Hyksos" ((


In contrast to Khnumhotep II, little is known about Amenemhat, who served as nomarch during the reign of Senwosret I at the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty. His father is unattested, and his relationship with other nomarchs is unknown. Texts in his tomb indicate he participated in a military expedition to Nubia (see Favry 2016). So why would this somewhat mysterious nomarch be one of my favorites from the class? In addition to the more typical hunting scenes, Amenemhat’s tomb [Tomb 2 at Beni Hasan] features a wall of “wrestlers” (fig. 5). I have been thinking about this scene, and looking for more information about it since the class ended last week. Ken noted that some of the wrestlers are carrying shields. Is the scene meant to show soldiers practicing for battle? And if so, what was their relationship to Amenemhat? Is the scene meant to relate to the military expedition to Nubia?

Fig. 5: "Wrestlers" in the tomb of Amenemhat

As always, I already am looking forward to our next class, which will start most likely sometime in October. In the meantime, I have barely started tucking into all of the wonderful materials Ken has shared with us about the Middle Kingdom, so anticipate learning much more about the Middle Kingdom before the next class! 


Callender, Gae 2000. The Middle Kingdom R

enaissance. In Ian Shaw (Ed.) The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, 148–184. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, Susan 2016. The Beni Hasan tomb painting and scholarship of the Southern Levant. The Ancient Near East Today VI. [Accessed July 28, 2022]

Favry, Nathalie 2016. The transmission of offices in the Middle Kingdom. In Gianluca Miniaci, Wolfram Grajetzki (Eds.) The World of Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000–1550 BC): Contributions on Archaeology, Art, Religion, and Written Sources Middle Kingdom Studies 2, 117–131. London: Golden House Publications.

Grajetzki, Wolfram 2006. The Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt: history, archaeology and society. Duckworth Egyptology. London: Duckworth.

Grajetzki, Wolfram 2009. Court officials of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. Duckworth Egyptology. London: Duckworth.

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