The ancient Egyptians left behind a wealth of artifacts and texts that continue to fascinate scholars and lay people alike, but few are as intriguing as the Prophecy of Neferti. This text, which is one of the few surviving literary works from Ancient Egypt, tells the story of a sage named Neferti who is summoned to the court of King Snefru and proceeds to prophesy the downfall of Egypt by civil war and the eventual rise of a great king, Ameny, who will redeem the chaos and set things right.
But what makes the Prophecy of Neferti particularly interesting is its potential use as political propaganda during the Twelfth Dynasty. This theory is supported by the fact that the text describes Ameny as a king who will come from the south, and whose mother is a Nubian woman from the Land of the Bow. This means that in ancient Egypt, the ideal pharaoh and savior was, by definition, a Nubian. This revelation challenges the conventional narrative of ancient Egypt as a civilization dominated by a ruling class of light-skinned, foreign invaders, suggesting instead that the ancient Egyptian elite had its roots in the Nubian cultures of Upper Egypt, and that these cultures played a central role in the formation and development of ancient Egypt.
The text also offers a unique insight into the ancient Egyptians’ understanding of their own history and identity. The fact that numerous records show that it was taught in schools and to foreigners who wanted to learn the language throughout subsequent dynasties also indicates that it was considered a fundamental text and an efficient method of ensuring that everyone was aware of the country’s natural order. This is particularly important to consider in light of the fact that there were numerous invasions from the Near East happening at the time, posing a threat to the crown.
These threats started during the Twelfth Dynasty, whose monarchs are now known for their focus on internal security and border defenses, taking considerable steps to fortify the frontier along the northeastern delta. However, despite their efforts, migration into the delta by Semitic-speaking peoples from the Near East not only continued but accelerated during the course of the dynasty. Some of the settlers may have been prisoners of war, while others were legal migrants employed by the Egyptian state. By the late Twelfth Dynasty, these “miserable Asiatics” formed a significant element in the population and even rose through the ranks of Egyptian society, holding government positions.
One site in particular, the town of Hutwaret, became a focal point for this sustained influx of immigrants. Established as a small border settlement by the Herakleopolitan dynasty and refounded by Amenemhat I as part of his frontier defenses, the town saw a breakdown in surveillance under the weak rule of Amenemhat IV and Sobekneferu, allowing a steady stream of immigrants to cross the border and settle in the area. These immigrants built houses in their own tradition and maintained their own way of life, posing a significant threat to the stability of the region. It is in this context that the Prophecy of Neferti, with its prediction of a savior king from the south who would redeem the chaos and set things right, becomes particularly intriguing.
This increase in population of Asiatic origin in ancient Egypt was a significant change in the country’s history, as evidenced by the lamentations of Ipuwer. Indigenous Egyptians complained about a considerable increase in the presence of mysterious foreigners in their country. However, most scholars never really explain who these foreigners were or simply ignore this topic. Based on historical records, we know that they were people from the Middle East, who were not commonly found in Kemet. This shift can be observed in the art of the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, where the change is striking.
The literary techniques used in the prophecy of Neferti’s text, such as imagery and symbolism, also further solidify its potential use as political propaganda. For example, the depiction of Ameny as a savior king coming from the south, the land of Upper Egypt and the son of a Nubian woman could symbolize the idea of a ruler from the south unifying and stabilizing the country. But also a desire for the Upper Egyptian elites to maintain the natural order, knowing the increasing flow of foreigners coming from Asia at that time.
The interpretation of the Prophecy of Neferti is a topic of much debate among scholars. One of the most widely accepted theories is that it was produced as propagandistic literature for the newly established Twelfth Dynasty under the rule of King Amenemhat I, an interpretation that has been proposed by several scholars. However, other interpretations have been proposed by respected scholars like Hans Goedicke, who argues in his book “The Protocol of Neferty” that the text does not contain a prophecy of future events but is an elaboration of existing conditions in the Eastern border region and potential dangers resulting therefrom. Ludwig Morenz, in his book “Literature as a construction of the past in the Middle Kingdom”, believes that the only reason historical royal names appear in the text is to give the text a flavor of historicity and as being proto-mythical. Jose Perez-Accino has a different theory, he argues that the literature text unarguably laments the decline of Egypt as a country with the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty.
What is known about this time period is that, after the Twelfth Dynasty, Egypt slowly entered into its second intermediate period marked by the influx of Asiatic tribes settling in the North and the arrival of the infamous Hyksos. The prophecy seemed to have come true as foreigners took control and occupied the country for a century, forever changing the nature of this ancient African civilization. The prophecy of Neferti can also be viewed as a plea for help and a reflection of the anxiety felt by local elites in Upper Egypt and Nubia, who felt threatened by the rising power and influence of foreigners in the Delta region. It is also a story of a subtle, yet impactful, invasion of foreigners and the changes they brought to the society and culture of ancient Egypt.
It is important to understand that at that point, from its origins, Ancient Egypt had been exclusively ruled by individuals from the southern regions of Upper Egypt and Nubia. They were the creators of that civilization or those we can call the “true ancient Egyptians.” In other words people indigenous to the regions under the Naqada culture, from which pharaoh Narmer emerged, or people with strong ties to Nubia. This focus on southern regions is often overlooked in modern perceptions of Egypt, which tend to be centered around Alexandria and Cairo, cities located in the North that were historically dominated by foreign invaders such as the Greeks and Arabs. This tradition of southern rulers began with the first pharaohs, prior to Narmer, and continued with many significant pharaohs who unified and saved Egypt from invaders. These pharaohs, including Narmer, Montuhotep II, Ahmose, and Piye, all came from the south. The belief that salvation came from deeper Africa was deeply ingrained in the ancient Egyptian tradition. It remained until the Greco-Roman period.
The Prophecy of Neferti is a complex text that has been the subject of much debate among scholars, with various interpretations and theories about its origins and purpose. However, by analyzing the text in the context of its historical and political background, as well as its literary techniques, we can gain a deeper understanding of its potential use as political propaganda and its significance in shaping the ancient Egyptians’ understanding of their own history and identity. It challenges us to rethink our assumptions about the origins and evolution of one of the world’s most enduring civilizations.
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- Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt – Toby Wilkinson