Homepage Timeline Maps A-Z index Learning

The Teaching of King Amenemhat I
Commentary to the translation. General issues

The historical background: the regicide question (1)

Does the Teaching of king Amenemhat I refer to the murder of the king?

There are two conflicting views, each based upon the content of the Teaching.

the wording of the night episode and the appearance of the old king in a 'revelation of truth' have been taken to indicate that Amenemhat I did not survive the attack. The Ramesside ascription of the composition to a man named Khety, writing for Senusret I, would seem to provide circumstantial evidence in support

the wording of section 8 seems unambiguous - this is the clearest Egyptian phrasing for the institution of coregency, stating that the coregency had not yet started at the time of the attack
I argue below that both views may in fact be correct: note though that there is no direct evidence or explicit ancient statement on the subject.

Complicating the issue, recent decades have seen a debate over whether there ever was a co-regency between Amenemhat I and Senusret I. This seems to be settled by the following points:

The hieratic marks on building blocks at the pyramids of Amenemhat I and Senusret I at Lisht give some hint of the political historical developments in their reigns. They indicate not only that Senusret I did not begin his own pyramid until his tenth year of reign, which would be the first year of his sole rule after a ten-year coregency (as on the Abydos stela), but also that work began on the pyramid of Amenemhat I only in his year 20. The pyramids at Lisht are positioned on the borderline between Upper and Lower Egypt, and the modern name of the site is generally taken to derive from the name of the Residence founded by Amenemhat I, Itjtawyamenemhat 'Amenemhat takes up the Two Lands' (usually abbreviated to Itjtawy).

Taken together the data suggest that year 20 of Amenemhat I saw three momentous changes:

These could be interpreted as the political response to an unrecorded threat, and one plausible motivation would be an assassination attempt against the king. In this case, the Teaching would refer directly to the atempt to kill the king before (and prompting) the coregency, in accordance with the evidence of section 8 of the content. However, from the wording of sections 1 and 6-7, the Teaching does seem to be posthumous, and its impact would have been strongest if the king had indeed fallen victim to assassination. Here the date of the king's death becomes important: year 30. This would have been the year in which the country prepared for the rites of the sed festival, in which the powers of the king were renewed for the benefit of all creation. This seems to have been an intensified version of the New Year rites, when the king saw the cosmos through the perilous five marginal days at the end of the year. In the New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC), surviving papyrus documents testify to the use of wax figures and incantations as part of a plot to overcome the bodyguard and kill king Ramesses III: the sed festival was a moment of great potential for renewal, but it was also a moment of danger, the point when the established order stood weakest at the end of a long period.

Perhaps then, year 30 brought the threat of the night before the sed festival to Amenemhat I: his bodyguard was turned against him, and he failed to survive.

Perhaps this fatal episode only became possible subject-matter for literary treatment precisely because there had been an earlier failed attempt: the composer could not refer to the most heinous crime directly, but could work his words around the two assassination bids, the one that failed in year 20, and, concealed beneath this, the one that killed the king in year 30.

These are speculative reflections: the core evidence is on the one side literary, and on the other side circumstantial, from the monuments. However, such a background, even as a speculative possibility, may provide a modern reader with an 'emotive context' within which to stimulate appreciation of the content, attaining the same fear that filled at least one Egyptian at the death of Amenemhat I, in another literary composition, the Life of Sanehat (Sinuhe).


Copyright © 2000 University College London. All rights reserved.