NEW KINGDOM 1550-1070
The Egyptian Empire, Dynasties XVIII- XX, is considered by many to be the high point of Egyptian civilization. A renaissance, based on Middle Kingdom canons, erupted with a flourish of sculpture and temples, and beautiful elaborate tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Queens on the west bank at Thebes.
Dynasty XVIII – (1550-1307) Amose I conquered the last Hyksos stronghold in Egypt, Avaris, then pursued the Hyksos to their base in southern Palestine and destroyed them. Egypt became a military power in the ancient world. Amenhotep I and Tutmose I completed this process, creating the vast Empire stretching from the swamps of Mesopotamia to the Horns of Africa, the mountains of Ethiopia. Monuments, temples and tombs at Thebes, Edfu and El Kab. Tutmose I was the first king to build his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, which would become the royal necropolis of the New Kingdom Pharaohs. Tutmose II, married to the daughter of Tutmose I and his half-brother, died young. His son Tutmose III was superceded by his step-mother, Hatshepsut, who ruled in her own right for about twenty years. Temples at Karnak and tomb complex at Deir el-Bahari. In the twenty first year of his reign, Tutmose III regained control and embarked on a great campaign of conquest that put the Empire on a firm political basis. This prosperity led to a dramatic increase in artistic activity and temple renovation and building; Karnak, Luxor, many west bank sites including tombs in Valley of Kings. Succeeded by Amenhotep II, who solidified the conquests of the empire, and under Tutmose IV, whose stele at the Sphinx tells of the growing influence of Heliopolis, the Empire reached its zenith. Amenhotep III inherited a vast and wealthy empire at peace, both internally and externally. He used this prosperity to accomplish an amazing building program at Karnak and Luxor. Thebes became “The City” the wonder of the ancient world, and the west bank necropolis rivaled Giza and Sakkara. Amenhotep IV, (Akhenaton) moved the capital down river to the new city, “The Horizon of the Aton,” at Tell el Amarna. Tombs of both the royal family and key nobles were built in that locality as well as the west bank at Thebes. Smenkare, Amenhotep IV’s son or younger brother, ruled briefly, as did Tutankhamen, before the capital was moved back to Thebes. Tutankamen was buried in the Valley of the Kings. The last two kings of the XVIIIth dynasty, were the aged statesman Ay, and the General Horemheb, who built his tomb at Sakkara. Horemheb restored order in the empire, which had degenerated during Amenhotep IV’s mystical preoccupations, but the dynasty had collapsed.
Dynasty XIX – (1307-1196) Horemheb, who was not a member of the royal family of the XVIIIth Dynasty, groomed the prince of a powerful Delta family to be the next king. Rameses I ruled for a short time, and his son Seti I completed the restoration of Egypt’s authority; much construction was done at Karnak, on the west bank of Thebes and at Abydos. Rameses II, called “The Great,” succeeded Seti I in 1290 BC to begin a 66 year reign. The early years of this reign were spent settling external affairs and rebuilding the Empire. Finished Seti I’s temple at Abydos, Luxor Temple, started by Amenhotep III, the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak and the rock temples of Abu Simbel, as well as temples on west bank at Thebes and tombs in the Valley of Kings and Valley of Queens. Built or re-built temples in all the ancient sacred centers and moved capital to Pi-Rameses in the Delta; Thebes remained religious and administrative center.
Rameses II was succeeded by one of his many sons, Menerptah, who assumed the throne at an advanced age. Menerptah fought off an invasion from Libya, but his son, Seti II, another aged ruler, accomplished little. The latter part of the XIXth dynasty is confused; the reigns of Amonmesse, Si-Ptah and Queen Twosert overlap in a tangle of intrigue and treachery, leaving mostly tombs and scattered monuments to tell the story.
Dynasty XX – (1196-1070) Around 1196, the confusion ended with the assumption of power by the non-royal adventurer Setnakht, founding the XXth Dynasty. After a short reign, he was succeeded by his son, the last great king of Imperial Egypt, Rameses III. In his reign, the Empire re-gained some of its glory and part of its territory. After three early victories against both Libyans and “Sea Peoples,” Rameses III concentrated on trade and building projects at Karnak, tombs in the Valley of Kings and his vast mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, which became the administrative center of the whole Theban necropolis in the latter part of the XXth Dynasty. Rameses III ruled for 31 years, and died a grisly death by black magic and treachery. The next eight Kings, all Rameses of one kind or another, are a dreary collection of failures. The empire shrank and decayed, the tombs of the west bank were looted and little new building or major repairs were undertaken. During the last years of Rameses XI, power was divided between Heruhor, High Priest of Amon at Thebes, and Smendes, vizier of Lower Egypt at Tanis in the Delta.
The New Kingdom is known with an intimacy that is missing from much of the rest of Egyptian history. The fact that we have the mummies of most of the kings is extraordinary enough. Moderns cannot gaze upon the dead face of Alexander or Caesar, but Thutmose III, Ramesses II, and the others lie under glass in their room of the Cairo Museum. But we have still incomplete accounts. No positively identified mummies of female “kings” or knowledge of their fate, has survived.
The nature of Hatshepsut’s frustration can be seen in the included genealogical chart. Through her ran the blood line of Kamose and Ahmose I and Amenhotep I. Yet most of the dignity of office went to her half-brother, Thutmose II. Then, with his death, the succession went to a mere boy, her nephew, Thutmose III, the son of a concubine.
However, in pushing the young Thutmose aside, and preparing for her daughter’s future by marrying her to him, Hatshepsut nevertheless honored her father, Thutmose I, rather than her maternal ancestors of the old Theban Dynasty.
The New Kingdom is often called the “Empire” of Egyptian history, as Ahmose I and Thutmose I began raiding into Palestine and Syria, with the latter even reaching the Euphrates. Thutmose III later returned to Syria, and to the Euphrates, with every intention of establishing a more permanent presence. This seems to have been accomplished, however, more through the device of client states than of actual Egyptian garrisons.
By the time of Amenhotep III, indeed, Egypt had gained such respect that expeditions were no long even necessary. The principal organized opposition during this period had been from the Mitanni, with whom amicable relations were established.
When the young Amenhotep IV- pharaoh of Egypt from about 1350 to 1334 BC – found his One God Aton and became Akhenaton the Founder of Monotheism, it unfortunately coincided with the revival and new aggressiveness of the Hittites. Mitanni was crushed by Suppiluliumus, and Egyptian clients in Syria began falling like dominoes. Egypt thus retreats for some years into internal concerns, and the Hittites are unopposed.
The most intimate evidence of an Egyptian king is found in the largely intact tomb of Tutankhamon. But we have the tomb, the man, and all his stuff and are not be really certain who his father even was, or even how he died!
After the long Amarnan hiatus and its aftermath, Ramesses returned to Syria with an Egyptian army. This incursion provocated a vigorous response from Muwatillis, who caught Ramesses in some disarray at Qadesh on the Orontes River. Reading between the lines of his boastful accounts, it looks like the king faced a humiliating and possibly crushing defeat, until the the arrival of a lagging division which saved the day. We may credit Ramesses, however, with bravely standing his ground and rallying the troops until help arrived. While Ramesses always fondly remembered his moment of martial danger and triumph, the cost of the battle seems to have sobered both sides, and the inconclusive war eventually was in fact concluded with a treaty, roughly dividing Syria between the two kingdoms.
The most charming royal tomb of the period is that of Nefertari. The detail and perfection of the art of her tomb is clearly the best that the times and love of Ramesses could offer, though we do not get any details of their personal relationship.
Private tombs, where the mummies are usually long gone, give us the most vivid details of daily life, but this is a kind of information also available for the Middle and even the Old Kingdom. Unique to the New Kingdom is an entire village, the lives of many of whose inhabitants are rather well documented over a period of more than 200 years. Their own high level of literacy, and their preferred writing material, ostraca, have given them a voice after three thousand years that few people anywhere have had until modern times. They used a flake of limestone from the tomb construction – papyrus was used for documents, not for everyday use. The great virtue of the ostraca is that they do not decay like papyrus.
Ramesses III is the last last Egyptian king who maintained Egypt as a Great Power of its age – an age where the world is noticeably changing, with old powers like the Hittites simply swept away and new ranks of nations emerging, soon to dominate the events of the 1st millennium BC. Ramesses did not have to go to Syria to fight, as the new enemies came to him, by land and by sea. His victories were then much more decisive than Qadesh. The mortuary temple and palace that the king built is the best preserved from the whole series. Only the foundations of the mudbrick palace survive, though this is enough to identify even the bathrooms, but the temple itself largely retains what no other temple at Thebes does, a roof.
Amenhotep IV / Akhenaton