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Yet the First Intermediate Period (2181-2055 BC), a time when the Nile valley was divided among petty warring principalities, bore witness to many border settlements falling prey to outsiders. The upshot of this political disunity and instability was, of course, the increasing militarization of Egyptian society, a process reflected in funerary art where the peaceful domestic or agricultural scenes of Old Kingdom art are replaced by portrayals of warlords surrounded by their armed retainers. And so the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC), though determined to keep Egypt in isolation, were obliged to pay more attention to military affairs and to frontiers than did their predecessors. A sizeable standing army, which included foreign auxiliaries, was maintained, and the two narrow points of entry into the Nile valley, north and south, were firmly plugged. In its Old Kingdom phase Egypt had pursued little political contact with the outside world. The pharaohs had occasionally dispatched expeditions to the Sinai, Libya or Nubia in search of precious metals and stones, the exotic such as ebony and ivory, and the mundane such as livestock and slaves. At the same time Egyptian merchants had kept up a lively trade with the coastal town of Byblos to import olive oil and cedar wood. Since there was no apparent need for a permanent standing army, apart from a royal retinue, armies of young men were periodically conscripted on a relatively ad hoc basis for a variety of labour-intensive purposes, from quarrying and trading expeditions, to military campaigns and the policing of civil disturbances. Everything was to change when Egypt was drawn into the international arena and had to defend its own gates. That the Middle Kingdom heralded a huge development of military organization and hierarchy is clearly reflected in the emergence of such specific titles as 'chief of the leaders of the town militia', 'soldier of the town militia', 'crew of the ruler', 'chief of the leaders of the dog patrols' and 'scribe of the army'. The last was a duty of great importance. In an age where literacy levels were extremely low - the extent of literacy has been tentatively estimated at less than 1 per cent of the population - reports and orders could be passed in writing and only be accessible to those senior officials who could either read or had access to their own scribes. Remaining textual sources, such as the so-called Semna Dispatches, also indicate that the Middle Kingdom army had a sizeable 'tail', an administrative infrastructure manned by state bureaucrats (scribal and managerial) who could handle all of the routine chores of military housekeeping with competence. By the time of Senusret III (r. 1874-1855 BC), with the centralization of power and the creation of fortresses with their permanent garrisons, the army, supported by its administrative body, was a bottomless pit of expenditure, consuming the surplus production that had earlier fuelled the peaceful building programme of the pyramids.

Model (Paris, musee du Louvre, E 3023) of a seated scribe, Dynasty V. Some of the hieratic texts used in the education of scribes consisted of descriptions of the comfort and prestige enjoyed by scribes, in contrast to the rigours and hazards of army life. (Esther Carre)

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Osprey warrior 121 soldier of the pharaoh