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The Second Intermediate Period

Dynasties 15 - 17 (1650 - 1550 BCE)

There is a great degree of uncertainty about the onset of the Second Intermediate Period. The pharaohs of the Thirteenth Dynasty were still based at Itj-tawy and the earlier kings have inscriptions in locations from Elephantine to the Delta, however, these pharaohs become increasingly more obscure. At an indeterminate point, the Middle Kingdom crumbled and control in the Delta broke apart into many smaller units centred on towns while another dynasty sprung up once more in Thebes. Perhaps as a result of the fragmentation of political power, the Thirteenth Dynasty lost control over Nubia and there is evidence to show that even Buhen was deserted at this point. By the end of the Second Intermdiate Period, the individual units of Nubian territories had formed up under the rule of the Kingdom of Kush, whose king resided at Kerma. During Egypt’s period of division, Kush became the dominant state of the Nile valley.

At the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty, the Seventeenth Dynasty began in Thebes, whose domain ranged from the south in Elephantine to the northern border of Thinis. The tradition of royal burial in pyramid tombs ended in the Middle Kingdom, but the Theban rulers of this time are evidenced within rock-cut tombs within the Theban necropolis. Also at this time the shadowy kings of the Fourteenth Dynasty were apparently ruling in the Eastern Delta in the area of the Faiyum, although there is so little contemporary evidence for them. Indeed, for nearly all of the kings listed for this period by Manetho, there are no contemporary inscriptions. There is also very little evidence to show of the workings of many of the major cities of the north (Itj-tawy among them) from the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty until the inception of the New Kingdom. It seems certain that the Delta at this time was fragmented into many smaller kingdoms, which accounts for the sheer number of Second Intermediate Period rulers in Manetho’s writings; evidence for such rulers is scarce, however, a greater emphasis now on archaeological excavations in the Delta will perhaps shed light on this area.

It is with the Fifteenth Dynasty, which emerged in the Delta based at Avaris that Egypt had its first dynasty of ‘foreign rulers’. The Greeks gave modern scholars the term ‘Hyksos’ for this line of rulers, although the Egyptians at the time referred to them as the ‘Heqau Khasut’ or ‘Rulers of Foreign Lands’. It seems unlikely, however, that a race invaded Egypt and imposed their own rule on Lower Egypt. The first use of the title ‘Heqau Khasut’ was for caravan leaders travelling across the Delta and Sinai regions in the Middle Kingdom and does not refer to a specific race. It is true that certain areas of the Delta (notably Avaris) have a material culture which demonstrates a variant of the Palestinian Middle Bronze Age, mixed with native Egyptian culture. Indeed, there is evidence for Hyksos trade with the Levantine area and also the Kingdom of Kush. However, the political control of the individual towns certainly remained under native Egyptian rule, and the ‘Hyksos’ dynasty ruled following Egyptian traditions. The burials of this dynasty have not been found.

The last rules of the Seventeenth Dynasty at Thebes began a campaign against the northern Hyksos rulers. King Seqenenre Tao’s bodily remains have been found with a fatal wounding to the head, which may have been suffered during a battle against them. The following rulers were Kamose and Ahmose, who continued the battle against the Kingdom of Avaris. Ahmose I finally ended the Hyksos rule and as the instrument of the reunification of Egypt, he is credited wsith the founding of the Eighteenth Dynasty and thus the New Kingdom.

While some of the traditions of the Middle Kingdom continued through this period, particularly with the rulers of the Fourteenth Dynasty and those in the Nile Delta, one of the most notable developments of this time was the innovation of the ‘rishi’ (from the Arabic, meaning ‘feather’) anthropoid coffin, decorated with protective wings. In addition, important literature of the Second Intermediate Period comprised includes the Rhind mathematical papyrus among others, literary tales (the period has yielded the tales of the Westcar Papyrus, which was potentially composed in the Middle Kingdom) and a new form of funerary literature, including the ‘Book of the Dead’.

-S. Cook


  • Oren E. D. 1997. (Ed.). The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives. Philadelphia. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

  • Ryholt. K.S.B. 1997. The Political Situation in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, c. 1800-1550 B.C., Carsten Niebuhr Institute Publications 20. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.


Rhind Mathematical Papyrus - A profile of this text from the British Museum

The Intermediate Period - Time Period Review (PDF) from the British Museum

A Rishi Coffin from Giza and the Development of This Type of Mummy Case - An article (PDF) by P. Lacovara.


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