History

History Of A Nation: Ancient Egypt (Part 3 – The New Kingdom)

c. 1550 BC – c. 1077 BC

This is a big one. In fact it may take a few days to properly write so note to self, Izzy, don’t try and rush this out and take care – in fact, by the time this comes out I’ll probably have not posted anything for a few days which is quite unusual for me. I’ve noticed lots of my posts lately, history and otherwise have felt a bit rushed and I just want to slow down a bit and put out quality stuff because at this blog level, it needs to be quality. Actually, at any blog level it needs to be quality but that’s by the by, I’ve just not felt as inspired to write lately and I put it down partly to the ‘need’ to have been writing so long for a while and also because the last few months have been a good time in my personal life to have been writing so much and it can’t stay like that forever.

But anyway, this needs to be good because the New Kingdom of Egypt is definitely the most powerful force of a state I’ve covered so far and is also the one most well known in the modern world, most people’s preconceptions about the Ancient Egyptians come from here. It covers three of the most famous Egyptian royal dynasties, the 18th, the 19th and 20th.

Location

(slightly different to my usual maps, I copied the base of this one off of ancient.eu, thank you guys, coloured in Egypt in its usual yellow, their map has marks around the coast and the Nile to show where the actual habitation was, and coloured in all the other states I’ve been playing with up to this point)

We are staying in Egypt for obvious reasons, although the kings of Egypt controlled/conquered most of the Levant at some point, only backing off towards the end of this period. The power of the Pharoahs was strong at this point, reaching well beyond the confines of the Nile and they spent some of their power being a leading force in the most complicated diplomatic web known to history yet, as they clashed with the Hittites and the Mitanni and exchanged pleasantries with the likes of Assyria and the Kassites – exceptions granted of course. By this point they had large control over the Nile all the way down to Kush, probably bordering Punt but even that was probably heavily Egyptian influenced. In fact their power was so vast that they heavily influenced the stories of the nearby Canaanites and one of these Pharoahs could well have been the Pharoah of the Exodus, or in historical terms, a Pharoah who died suddenly, perhaps in battle with the Hebrews, perhaps they were slaves. We’ll get to that when I get to the most likely candidate in the lineup of Pharoahs.

Timeline

Let’s go back to the beginning of the New Kingdom, to the 18th Dynasty, and the turbulent period that was the Second Intermediate Period. According to the chronology that we have, put together by Egyptologists who have worked a lot harder than me on it, the first Pharoah of the New Kingdom was Ahmose I, a king who expelled the Hyksos foreigners in the north from Egypt, and subsequently began making Egypt great again. After he won he began campaigning out in Syria and down south in Nubia, expanding Egyptian power further than it had ever been before. A lot of ancient writers considered Ahmose to be the pharoah of the Exodus which I guess if he did conquer people from outside Egypt, it could make sense but while he died comparatively early, at thirty-five (according to examination of his mummy), I think the turbulence of the period preceding him feels at odds with the Egypt depicted in Exodus, and there’s a much better candidate coming up. You may wonder why I’m spending so much time on the Exodus when the consensus among scholars is that the Exodus story is legendary rather than historical (and has basis in other Mesopotamian and Egyptian myths for its story notes, Moses’ birth being akin to Sargon of Akkad for example), but the truth is it’s something I have in my mind when I think of ancient Egypt so I just like proposing theories on it – and it’s something to say over just reciting what they did.

Amenhotep I was the next Pharoah, ruling for about 20 years following Ahmose’s 25. He was not expected to inherit the throne but got lucky with two older heirs dying before Ahmose, I suspect Game Of Thrones shenanigans even though Amenhotep was rather young, so maybe his mother. His mother is missing her right hand in her tomb so I’m suspecting this is an old war wound of court intrigue. Or I’m just completely making things up. It seems he intended to do conquest but there are uncertainties and disagreements about what exactly he conquered or sent military campaigns too. However during his reign it appears the first water clock was invented, although we don’t have any surviving ones from any before the reign of his third namesake.

Then we get to the Thutmoses and the 18th dynasty is sometimes called the Thutmosid dynasty for the amount of pharoahs with that name. Thutmose I campaigned further into Syria and Nubia, the latter of which spent his reign rebelling, but only had a thirteen year reign, though he was old by the time he died. He commissioned Ineni, a famous architect of the time, to build the Temple of Karnak, a huge fascinating temple complex. He was also the first king who definitely got buried in the Valley Of The Kings, where so many of the succeeding Pharoahs were found with their worldly treasures that typefies the archaeological boom of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I’ll just namedrop Indiana Jones and let your imagination run wild.

Thutmose II had a brief reign, he was a lesser son of Thutmose I, was probably a child when he took the throne based on other people leading his campaigns abroad, probably had another power behind the throne. He didn’t live very long as well. For this reason, with many people arguing that he had a very short reign due to the lack of monuments and inscriptions about him, if there was an Exodus candidate, he would be it, he suddenly dies at probably a young age with no heir and his mummy suggests evidence of him having a disease… or a plague. Now of course I’m not suggesting that he drowned in the sea after an old guy with a staff struck the ground and let waters fall in, that would be… ahem… not historical. It’s just possible that one event of his reign was ordering a number of ethnic Hebrew people to leave Egypt after it was suggested that they were responsible for a plague sweeping Egypt at the time, and shortly afterwards he died of the plague, racial eviction having not worked. And then facts got embellished and it became an origin myth for the people group who later founded the Kingdom Of Israel.

Either way, when I said he died with no heir, that’s not strictly true. He had a son, Thutmose III, only he was definitely only a toddler when his father died. So for twenty years, the real power in the throne (and it’s argued that it was the case for Thutmose II too) was possibly the most famous female Pharoah who was actually Egyptian and not some Greek whore… we’ll get to her another day… but today, it’s all about Hatshepsut. She was a half-sister of Thutmose, that was a common thing for Egyptians back then, and she was probably better at him than ruling, hence why she survived and ruled the most powerful nation on Earth effectively for twenty years. Women were pretty equal in Ancient Egypt but even so, it was a rare occasion for one to become ruler. Most Egyptologists agree that she actually took the position of Pharoah rather than just ruling in her (step)son’s name, she must have had some strength in the court to hold off pretenders. She was successful in her wars, she initiated so many building projects, building up Karnak even further, building mortuary temples, building everything. There were attempts to remove her from the record after her death (mostly by Amenhotep II) but even so, she’s still considered one of the most successful Pharoahs of the New Kingdom and while some statues do depict her in a masculine fashion, just as many emphasise her feminine beauty – she got the best of both worlds. She also ushered in a long period of peace and prosperity for Egypt, for her and her stepson Thutmose III, who technically ruled 54 years, the first twenty with her and the remaining on his own. He was an excellent ruler too, learning from his great stepmother, but he conducted campaigns far and wide, bringing Egyptian power to new lands like never before. He’s even sometimes called the Napoleon of Egypt for the conquests he did, striking deep into the land of Mitanni, conquering Syria, even, as he was getting on in years and feeble, went for one last campaign down into Nubia, seemingly just because he hadn’t gone down that way yet.

Once Thutmose was old and frail, his heir, Amenhotep II stepped in. He fought a lot less and drew up a ceasefire with Mitanni. With both potentially being the pharoah who tried to remove Hatshepsut from the record and stele indicating he was xenophobic to non-Egyptians, it sounds like he might not have been a very nice man. Although I don’t judge at History Of A Nation, I’m kind of judging him.

One more Thutmose and Thutmose IV had a fairly uneventful reign of 10 years. We’re now in 1391. Good grief. I’m currently questioning whether I should have done this all in one. We’re not even at the Ramesses yet. Amenhotep III, of 38 years, ruled over another really prosperous period for Egypt, lots of art and continuing international power was achieved during his reign. He has the largest number of surviving statues of any Egyptian Pharoah.

Akhenaten, called Amenhotep IV before he changed his name, was notable for trying to change Egyptian religion, trying to make it monotheistic rather than polytheistic. Without many people from history so far to look to to realise this was a bad idea, he was unsuccessful in getting it accepted and was almost completely removed from the historical record, we did not know about him until very recently. Later kings referred to him as the criminal. He’s probably more known for being the husband of Nefertiti, the other famous ethnic Egyptian queen, who went along with his religious revolution and has a very famous and iconic bust that is probably what you think of when you think of an Egyptian queen. She might have even ruled in her own right before the accession of Akhenaten’s successor.. Tutankhamun. Yes, that one.

He is obviously mainly famous for having a nearly intact tomb and like his father’s wife, is famous for his image – which is probably the symbol of Ancient Egypt in general, you see this face, Ancient Egypt comes to mind, all the way down into the New Kingdom. When people excavated his tomb, some of them succumbed to the urban myth of ‘the curse of the Pharoahs’, which takes the coincidence of some of them dying in mysterious ways after opening it. Tutankhamun ascended the throne at a very young age and died at merely 18, meaning his reign was probably mostly dominated by advisors. He was sickly, had no heirs, and his death ended the Thutmosid line – were it not for his famous tomb he would be quite the historical footnote – though he did try and reverse his father’s controversial religious reforms he was not very successful at doing so before he died. The 18th dynasty continued for two more Pharoahs, Ay and Horemheb, restabilising the country from the instability caused by Akhenaten’s attempted religious reforms (known as the Amarna period), but they could not carry on the dynasty and Horemheb chose his friend Ramesses to succeed him.

And here begins the 19th dynasty. Ramesses I was not that significant, he only ruled for two years after the death of Horemheb, and his son Seti I, while having a decent reign length of 11 years, was not overly notable bar a few more Syrian campaigns (and appearing as the Pharoah who adopts Moses in popular films like The Prince Of Egypt and The Ten Commandments – although historically, if the Exodus happened, this was probably far too late for it and they just use Seti for his son’s recognition value), it was the third pharoah of the 19th dynasty who would go down in history.

Ramesses II was venerated for generations after his reign as the greatest king who ever lived. He was probably the most powerful Egyptian pharoah, or at least that’s what those who wrote about him were led to believe. From comparing him to other successful pharoahs, he undertook some more campaigns as well as reigned an incredibly long sixty-six years, and unlike earlier made-up claims, this was probably real, meaning that many Egyptians under him in the latter part of his reign would just know him as ‘The King’ – you can see a similar phenomenon now with Queen Elizabeth II in my own country. I bet after the old dear finally lets go of this mortal coil her legend of being a lovely woman will just grow and grow in death. And the same was true of Ramesses II. He founded a new city, commissioned hundreds of building projects, fought battles with chariots and vast armies personally, including the battle of Kadesh that I went into such detail about in the Hittite post, and was an all-round incredible pharoah from all accounts.

Reigning for so long obviously meant that many of his heirs were of advanced age and it was actually Ramesses’ thirteenth son who had to take the throne after he outlived so many of the others. And he, Merneptah, was still in his 60s or perhaps even 70s, so it’s quite incredible that he managed a reign as long as 10 years. This started off a time of Egyptian power where there was a lot of intrigue and short reigns, after Ramesses was so great, none of his successors could quite live up to that, and Seti II had to deal with a rival king, Siptah was a child king who could only “rule” for six years, and Twosret, a woman, after her charge Siptah died, could only hold onto power for two more years. The 19th dynasty of Egypt had one of its greatest kings, but the majority of the other ones had short and uneventful reigns.

However the legacy of Ramesses continued as all but one of the kings of the 20th dynasty named themselves after ‘The Great Ancestor’. The first was that one, and he, Setnakhte, emerges from nowhere to take the throne, so he may have been a court usurper, but seemed to respect Ramesses II if not his family and named his children for it, starting with Ramesses III

Yet, Ramesses III is considered the last great New Kingdom king, he ruled over the last of Egypt at its height, but invasions from the mysterious Sea Peoples (another post I want to do at some point), economic and political turmoil, constant war and eventual assassination (through a conspiracy that apparently the entire royal court was in on) in 1155 BC meant his reign was far from perfect. And he was considered comparatively stable.

Ramesses IV was Three’s fifth son (keep up with the numbers here), the others having died in either the turmoil or disease. He tried to initiate a building project to emulate the Great Ancestor but died merely six years into his reign. His son, Ramesses V, would only rule for four years before also dying to unknown circumstances (totally not murder) and was replaced by Ramesses VI, another son of Ramesses III, (seriously, keep up). He ruled for eight more years of decline before Ramesses VII (at this point you’re just ruining his name), the son of Ramesses VI, ruled for seven more years of turmoil. Then Ramesses VIII, yet another son of Ramesses III, took over (there’s a pattern here, I just can’t quite sense it), and ruled for less than a year at most. Ramesses IX, a grandson of Ramesses III took over and finally had a reign of a decent amount of years, and his reign is best known for the trial of people who had been tomb robbing his large and extensive family – or earlier pharoahs, there were many by this point. Ramesses X had merely 4 years, but unusually, going against type, Ramesses XI had up to as many as thirty years on the throne. We have several papyri concerning government actions during this period but not that much on specific events or monuments attributed to his reign. Nevertheless, this was the end of the New Kingdom and the start of the Third Intermediate Period and later, Late Period, which will have to be another post.

In conclusion: a lot of Ramesses, a lot of Thutmoses, a lot of military campaigns and lots of mummies, the New Kingdom was Egypt at its true height but with Egyptian culture already codified, emphasis was placed on the kings ruling, some truly made themselves great, others succumbed to court intrigue or outside invasions. Those Sea Peoples were really quite the turbulent troublemakers.

Next will be a look at Troy.

See also in History Of A Nation: Egypt

The Old KingdomThe Middle Kingdom

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