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Amenemhet I took the throne after Mentuhotep IV -- in fact, he may have been a co-regent for a while with the old king. Either that, or he usurped the throne from the regining king (but remember that this kind of theory is hardly supported by contemporary sources). Even if it was a usurpation, it was apparently a peaceful coup.
He was the son of a priest named Senusret and a woman called Nefret. He had no real relationship to the royal line except as vizier and general for the previous pharaoh, Mentuhotep IV. It is assumed that these two are the same man -- vizier and pharaoh -- and might explain how a non-royal man was able to gain the throne of Egypt. The obvious break with the royal family of the Theban kings in the 11th Dynasty explains why Amenemhet is considered the first king of the new dynasty.
His name alludes to a a previously unknown god, Amun, who was established in Thebes during the 11th Dynasty.
Even though Egypt was prosperous and united under the previous dynasty, Amenemhet I reorganized the country administration. In some cases he divided the nomes into different townships and reallocated power to those to those nomarchs (governors) who supported him. During most of the First Intermediate Period, the local rulers of the nomes had risen to almost absolute power, with little respect (or even attention) to the central government in Thebes.
It was for this reason that he founded a new administrative center on the border of Upper and Lower Egypt. He named this new capital Itjtawyamenemhet ("Amenemhet is seizer of the two lands"), probably located near Lisht, where he built his pyramid. It is interesting to note that he didn't move back to Memphis, the home of previous dynasties, is interpreted as a shrewd political move to distance himself from the previous government and force the nobles to abandon their own territories to retain power.
Like nearly every pharaoh before him, Amenemhet continued to war against the Libyans and Asiatics. In the Sinai, he erected the "Wall of the Prince" to guard the eastern borders of Egypt. Other than that, though, his military exploits were fairly uneventful.
Politically, he re-established diplomatic contacts with Byblos in Lebanon, and returned conscription to the armed forces. In addition, he re-established control over Nubia late in his reign, despite strongly controlling Elephantine.
While his military exploits followed the same pattern as the pharaohs of the 11th dynasty, the rule of Amenemhet I opened a golden age for Egypt. One of the legacies he left to Egypt was the Testament of Amenemhet (which is included in a number of papyri) which defined the royal obligations of the pharaoh and the needs of the people. Outlining the perils of being pharaoh, it describes the kind of man a pharaoh should be and the kind of life he should lead-- that loneliness and personal sacrifice are the hallmarks of a good king.
Near the end of his reign, Amenemhet I made his son, Senusret I, co-regent (in about 1971 BCE). A military campaign against the Libyans was led by Senusret. While he was away, Amenemhet was assassinated in a plot that originated in his harem of wives and consorts. He was attacked while sleeping and while later stories tell how he bravely defended himself, he was eventually slain by his own bodyguards.
It is quite possible that the assassination of Amenemhet I while his co-ruler and son was away may have been an attempt to disrupt the power of the 12th Dynasty and regain the throne by the remnants of the nobility and regional kings.
Amenemhet left remarkably few monuments, building only a pyramid complex at Lisht that includes five mastabas for his family and retainers, 22 burial shafts and his own burial chamber. A partially complete tomb in Thebes was abandoned for this new location, again probably a political move.
The pyramid, named "Amenemhet is high and pleasant", is meant to recall the glory of the fourth dynasty pyramid builders and the Pyramid age of theOld Kingdom. However, Egypt was not as prosperous and powerful during Amenemhet's rule as his predecessor and his pyramid is less imposing. The core of the pyramid is rough-cut stone and mud brick, and the casing of smooth limestone is mostly gone, only a pile of rubble remains today.
It is located between Saqqara and Maidum, and can be seen from the main road to Cairo. Initially excavated by Maspero in 1882, it was initially noted that the blocks used in the pyramid were salvaged (or stolen) from other monuments. Stones with the names of Khufu, Khafre, Unas, and Pepi have been found on the site! It is common enough to reuse stone -- the old monuments were an easy source of already-smoothed stone -- and most of the ancient monuments have been used as convenient quarries.