Imperial Egypt The New Kingdom
The 350 years of Dynasties 18 and 19 were the world’s first great empire. A series of brilliant military pharaohs extended Egypt’s domain from the fourth cataract deep in Nubia in the south, to the Eu- phrates River in the Near East. Egypt’s empire was much smaller than the later Persian and Roman empires, was built up gradually, and took shape not entirely by design. Egypt’s greatest general-kings appeared when much of the rest of the Mediterranean world was unstable and weak. Still, Egypt was the world’s first superpower.
The imperial age brought vast wealth and a new, cosmopolitan outlook to Egypt. Previously isolated in their narrow valley, Egyptians now subdued a multitude of nations, adopted their gods and goddesses, and im- ported their fashions and technologies. Sons of the leaders of conquered territories in Nubia and Asia were compelled to live in Egypt, study in temple schools, and learn Egyptian ways. Foreign princesses joined the royal harem—the king’s group of wives. Harems could be quite large, with hundreds of wives. Although these foreigners lived in luxury, their marriages were strictly diplomatic their presence kept the tribute and gifts flowing, and discouraged revolt. Trade, always important, became more varied and extensive. Fine- ly made products weapons, furniture, faience (glazed earthenware), linen, jewelry from the workshops of Egypt’s skilled artisans were in demand everywhere.
Goods and materials Egyptians had always craved poured in from abroad. From Nubia and further south came gold, ebony, ivory, amethysts, carnelian, jasper, diorite (a hard, grayish-green stone used for statues), leopard skins and other exotic animal pelts, incense, oils, ostrich eggs and feathers, and monkeys. From the mountainous deserts to the east came carnelian, garnets, jasper, rock crystal, obsidian, green and multi-hued feldspar, alabaster, copper, and rare emeralds. The copper and turquoise mines of Sinai were in constant production. Silver and lapis lazuli came from the far reaches of the Near East. With Ahmose’s triumph over the Hyksos (see page 35), the The- bans reigned supreme.
In a series of military campaigns, Ahmose secured Egypt’s borders. To build support for his central government, he gave the nomarchs and provincial nobles a great deal of authority and responsibility backed up with land grants and rich gifts. He also started major temple-building projects all over the country. His son, Amenhotep I, ruled for 21 years, continuing his father’s military campaigns in Nubia and Syria, and founding the great temple of Karnak, near Thebes. The next king, Thutmose I, was a non-royal general who gained the throne by marrying a princess. During his 11-year reign, the priests of Amun-Re at Thebes became fabulously wealthy and powerful. Thutmose II was the son of a royal harem woman. He found it pru- dent to strengthen his claim to the throne by marrying his half-sister. Like Thutmose I, he conducted successful military campaigns in Nubia and Syria. Thutmose III was also the son of a minor harem wife. He became king as a small child.
His aunt Hatshepsut, ruling as his regent, seized the throne within two years. A talented and ambitious woman, Hatshepsut became one of Egypt’s most powerful female pharaohs. She built and restored many temples, and built a splendid mortuary temple of unique design for herself at Deir el-Bahari near Thebes. With her lavish royal support, the Amun-Re priesthood became even richer. Hatshepsut was not much concerned with military matters, but she was very interested in trade. She sent almost continuous expeditions to the turquoise mines of Sinai, and to Punt, down the African coast. Meanwhile, Thutmose III was in the army, studying military strategy and planning his comeback. There is much historical evidence that Thutmose III disliked his aunt Hatshepsut. As soon as she died (some scholars speculate that Thutmose actually had a hand in her death), he destroyed many of her monuments and those of her supporters. He scratched her name off inscriptions and made sure she was left off the official king lists.
His revenge complete, he proceeded to earn his modern title, “The Napoleon of Egypt.” Building a Superpower The first king to use ships for major troop movements, Thutmose III launched campaigns against Syria each summer for 18 years. In his most brilliant victory, he marched to Gaza in 10 days and took the city. He proceeded to Meggido and drove off the enemy after a daring- ly clever surprise attack. Unfortunately, his soldiers could not resist the temptation to do some looting. This gave the enemy time to build up their defenses in Meggido. (A seven-month siege finally dislodged them.) Thutmose III conquered more than 350 cities in the Near East, from the northeast border of Egypt to the Euphrates River. The temples of Amun-Re got most of the spoils, as well as large shares of the tribute that flowed in from conquered provinces.
Thutmose I had already pret- ty much conquered Nubia, enabling Thutmose III to concentrate on Asia. His primary opponent was the Mittani Empire in northern Syria, which eventually fell to Egypt. The court of Thutmose III was luxurious beyond anything we can imagine today. During his 54 year reign, nothing was too good for his hundreds of wives (including many foreign princesses) and military generals. Tombs and grave goods from his era are remarkable for their high quality and abundance. The death of Thutmose III provoked widespread revolts around his empire. Because Egypt had never been known for military or imperial ambitions, the conquered peoples could be forgiven for hoping that when Thutmose III died, they would be able to regain their independence. But his son, Amenhotep II, quickly set them straight. A vigorous man, famous as a sportsman and athlete, the new king subdued every revolt.
He moved swiftly into Nubia, killing seven captive Nubian princes. He hung one from the walls of the Nubian capital, as a warning. A decisive campaign in Palestine confirmed that Amenhotep meant to hold on to his empire. For the rest of his 26-year reign, peace ruled the empire. Tribute flowed into Egypt as reliably as the Nile floods. The next king, Thutmose IV, also enjoyed a peaceful, prosperous reign. Thutmose IV and the powerful Mittani kingdom of the Near East reached a peace accord, and Thutmose married at least one Mittani princess. From then on, all that was required to keep the empire in line were a few “police actions” in Nubia and Syria. The next king, Amenhotep III presided over a prosperous, stable empire. There was little need for military action during his 37-year reign, because the empire was secure. Egypt was the world’s undisputed superpower. The king built grand temples, enhanced his reputation as a sportsman, and enjoyed luxury and high living at his fabulous court, along with more than 1,000 wives. His era is known for magnificent artwork and statuary.
Egypt’s wealth during this prosperous era did not come from war booty, but from vast international trade and tribute from conquered provinces. Gold poured in from the empire’s mines. The king built a spec- tacular mortuary temple at Thebes that included two 60-foot-tall statues of himself, known as the colossi of Memnon. It was lucky for Egypt that the next king reigned only 17 years. Fo- cused on promoting his new religion, Amenhotep IV badly neglected the empire. Only quick, decisive work by the kings who followed him kept Egypt’s empire together. Tutankhamun was a young boy, and his power was controlled and manipulated by older, experienced officials. During his 10-year reign, extensive building was carried out at the temples of Karnak and Luxor. There were military campaigns in Nubia and Syria, although Tutankhamun probably did not personally participate. He left no heir. He may have been murdered, but this idea is very controversial.
Akhenaten’s reign had destabilized the empire at a time when the neighboring Hittites were becoming a major force. Renewed military efforts would have been needed, but Tutankhamun had been too young and inexperienced to lead effective military campaigns. After Tu- tankhamun’s premature death, his young wife, Ankhesenamun, wrote to the Hittite king and asked him to send one of his sons. She would marry the son, she said, and he would become king of Egypt. This sounded too good to be true. The Hittite king suspected a trap, and sent a team of diplomats to investigate. Assured that Ankhesenamun’s story was true and her offer sincere, the Hittite sent his son who was ambushed at the border and murdered. The next three generations saw sporadic war between Egypt and the Hittites.
Tutankhamun’s successor, Ay, was an elderly official who had served under several kings. Ay ruled only four years. He was followed by Horemheb, an experienced, war-hardened general whom scholars consider the chief suspect in the murder of the unfortunate Hittite prince. Horemheb was a career officer who had served ably under three kings. Supremely ambitious, he seized the throne upon Ay’s death, and married a sister of Nefertiti to establish a link to the royal family. There is little evidence that Horemheb undertook any major mili- tary campaigns. His 27-year reign was focused on restoration, consolidation, internal reforms, and rewriting history. He immediately repaired and reopened temples closed by Akhenaten.
He restored the wealth and prestige of the Amun-Re temples with lavish royal support but took the precaution of appointing army officers loyal to him as chief priests. He did everything possible to erase all records of the kings between Amenhotep III and himself. After Horemheb’s death, his vizier became king. Ramesses I, first king of the Nineteenth Dynasty, was a career military officer who reigned only two years. His son, Sety I, presided over a rebirth of art and culture. A major builder and patron of Amun-Re, Sety I started the splendid Great Hypostyle Hall at the temple of Karnak, and built many other temples. He also resumed military campaigns to Nubia and Syria. His tomb is the largest and finest in the Valley of the Kings. But his greatest achievement might have been fathering Ramesses II Ramesses the Great. Ramesses II did everything on the grandest possible scale. No other pharaoh built so many temples, fathered so many children (more than 100 sons, daughters not counted), or erected so many colossal statues and obelisks.
He presided over the peak of Egypt’s imperial age. As a young prince, Ramesses II participated in many military campaigns against the Hittites. Soon after taking the throne, he led 20,000 soldiers against the Hittites in a great battle at Kadesh in Syria. The bat- tle ended in a stalemate, but Ramesses II returned home and proclaimed victory. Further campaigns had similar outcomes. This started getting expensive, and embarrassing, for both sides. According to Egyptian records, it was the Hittite king who proposed a peace treaty. Hittite records say it was Ramesses. In any case, flowery diplomatic letters, rich royal gifts, and Ramesses’s marriage to a Hittite princess sealed the peace pact. Ramesses II was one of Egypt’s biggest builders. He completed Sety’s mortuary temple at Thebes, another for himself at Abydos, and the huge mortuary temple called the Ramesseum.
He added to the temple complexes Karnak and Luxor, and built major temples all over Egypt. His Great Temple at Abu Simbel, cut into the rocky cliffs near Elephantine, was dedicated to the gods Re-Herakhte, Ptah, and Amon-Re—but with its four 60-foot-tall statues of himself, it was clearly meant to proclaim his own magnificence. Nearby, he built a smaller temple to honor his favorite wife, Nefertari, and the goddess Hathor. He built a new city, Piramesse (“Domain of Ramesses”) in the Delta. A total of 14 jubilee festivals were held in ancient Egypt by various kings. Also called heb-sed festivals, these weeks-long national parties were held to reaffirm the king’s vigor and fitness to rule. The heb sed in cluded many religious ceremonies and a ritual “marathon run” in which the king ran a course around the temple precincts to show that he was in excellent shape.
Kings held heb-seds at different intervals, and some held many more than others. They were generally 10 to 15 years apart during the 64 year reign of Ramesses II. The king was more than 90 years old when he died. Ramesses II is believed by many scholars to be “Pharaoh” mentioned in the Bible in the book of Exodus, which describes how Moses freed the Israelite people from Egyptian slavery. However, there are no surviving records in Egypt of this event during the reign of any pharaoh. The Beginning of the End When Merneptah, 13th son of Ramesses II, took the throne, revolt was in the air. Merneptah repelled waves of Libyan invaders, subdued rebellion in Nubia, and turned back hordes of refugees from Mesopotamia, who were suffering from extreme droughts. (He did send grain to the faminestricken Hittites.) Times were equally difficult for the rulers who followed him through the end of the Nineteenth Dynasty, including Twosret, Egypt’s fourth reigning queen.
Within 25 years of the death of Ramesses the Great, Egypt was beset by invaders, and disorder mounted. The Nineteenth Dy- nasty ended in confusion. The Twentieth Dynasty saw the beginning of the end of Egypt’s empire. Ramesses III was the last great imperial pharaoh. When he took the throne in 1279 B.C.E., the world was in turmoil. The Trojan War and the fall of Mycenae in what is today Greece, and several years of drought, poor harvests, and famine in lands around the Mediterranean sent hordes of refugees on the move. A confederation of refugees collectively called the Sea Peoples tried again to invade Egypt. They had first appeared during the reign of Merneptah, but had been turned back. This was not an army.
These were entire nations men, women, children, animals, household goods on the move, desperate for a place to live. They had their eyes on the fertile Nile River Delta. Their attempts to invade overland were met with fierce resistance, resulting in heavy loss of life. When their ships approached close to Egypt’s northern shore, ranks of archers drove them off with wave after wave of deadly arrows. The remnants of the Sea Peoples were finally chased back to the Near East. This gave Egypt only a short break from trouble. Invasions of the Delta and several waves of Libyan invaders required the king’s attention. Ramesses III crushed them all. His reign was prosperous, but troubled. He was even beset by problems in his own palace. A “harem conspiracy,” led by a minor queen who wanted to promote her son’s fortunes (and her own) plotted to kill the king. The plot was discovered just in time.
Most of the conspirators were allowed to commit suicide (considered a great boon) in lieu of execution. A few other chose to kill themselves rather than face lesser punishments, such as having their ears and noses chopped off. Ramesses III was followed by a long series of kings, also named Ramesses (IV through XI). They are called the Ramessides. The kings from Ramesses IV onward had no family connection with Ramesses the Great. And borrowing his name did them little good. Little is known about these kings. During the 81 years of their reigns, internal instability increased. Trade dropped sharply. Egypt was plagued by civil wars, strikes, widespread lawlessness, and huge price increases.
The empire was swiftly receding, which meant less tribute and gifts coming in (the Egyptian economy and the lifestyles of the rich and royal had become quite dependent upon all this tribute, which they did not have to work to earn). Troubles around the Mediterranean curtailed trade, meaning even less income. The pie was shrinking and the elites were elbowing one another to get their share before it all disappeared. The growing prevalence of infighting was not good for social stability. Nubia, and its important gold resources, was finally lost. Under Ramesses VI, the eastern frontier was pulled back to the eastern Delta. The turquoise mines in the Sinai were abandoned.
Some building still went on in Egypt, but as less tribute flowed in from the weakening empire, funds dried up. The powerful priests of Amun-Re at Thebes rebelled openly against the throne. Civil war raged in Thebes. Finally, Herihor, a high priest of Amun-Re who had risen through the military ranks and had been southern vizier and viceroy of Nubia, declared himself king. His reign overlapped the last six years of the reign of Ramesses XI, who continued to rule from Piramesse in the Delta. The two kings acknowledged each others’ separate spheres of influence. There was not much Ramesses XI could do about it.