The New Kingdom and the Amarna Period
Ahmose I initiated what is known as the period of the New Kingdom (1570â€“1069 BCE) which again saw great prosperity in the land under a strong central government. The title of pharaoh for the ruler of Egypt comes from the period of the New Kingdom; earlier monarchs were simply known as kings. Many of the Egyptian sovereigns best known today ruled during this period and the majority of the great structures of antiquity such as the Ramesseum, Abu Simbel, the temples of Karnak and Luxor, and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens come from this time. Between 1504-1492 BCE the pharaoh Tuthmosis I consolidated his power and expanded the boundaries of Egypt to the Euphrates River in the north, Syria and Palestine to the west, and Nubia to the south. His reign was followed by Queen Hatshepsut (1479â€“1458 BCE). (23)
Hatshepsut (1479â€“1458 BCE) was the first female ruler of ancient Egypt to reign as a male with the full authority of pharaoh. Her name means “Foremost of Noble Women” or “She is First Among Noble Women”. She began her reign as regent to her stepson Thuthmose III (1458â€“1425 BCE) who would succeed her and, initially, ruled as a woman as depicted in statuary. In around the seventh year of her reign, however, she chose to be depicted as a male pharaoh in statuary and reliefs though still referring to herself as female in her inscriptions.
Her temple at Deir el-Bahri remains one of the most impressive and often visited in Egypt. The lower terrace was lined with columns and a ramp led up to a second terrace which was equally impressive. The temple was decorated with statuary, reliefs, and inscriptions with her burial chamber carved out of the cliffs which form the back of the building. Hatshepsut’s temple was so admired by the pharaohs who came after her that they increasingly chose to be buried nearby and this necropolis came to eventually be known as the Valley of the Kings. (35)
Her successor, Tuthmosis III, carried on her policies (although he tried to eradicate all memory of her as, it is thought, he did not want her to serve as a role model for other women since only males were considered worthy to rule) and, by the time of his death in 1425 BCE, Egypt was a great and powerful nation. The prosperity led to, among other things, an increase in the brewing of beer in many different varieties and more leisure time for sports. Advances in medicine led to improvements in health. (23)
Amenhotep III (c. 1386â€“1353 BCE) was the ninth king of the 18 th dynasty of Egypt. Amenhotep’s father, Tuthmosis IV, left his son an empire of immense size, wealth, and power. He was only twelve years old when he came to the throne and married Tiye in a royal ceremony. It is a significant aspect of Amenhotep’s relationship with his wife that, immediately after their marriage, she was elevated to the rank of Great Royal Wife, an honor which Amenhotep’s mother, Mutemwiya, was never accorded and which effectively meant that Tiye outranked the king’s mother in courtly matters.
Amenhotep III’s vision was of an Egypt so splendid that it would leave one in awe, and the over 250 buildings, temples, statuary, and stele he ordered constructed attest to his success in this. The statues which Durant mentions are today known as the Colossi of Memnon and are the only pieces left of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple. Their immense size and intricacy of detail, however, suggest that the temple itself â€“ and his other building projects no longer extant â€“ were equally or even more impressive.
There was another power in Egypt which had been growing long before Amenhotep III came to the throne: the cult of Amun. Land ownership meant wealth in Egypt and, by Amenhotep III’s time, the priests of Amun owned almost as much land as the king. In accordance with traditional religious practice, Amenhotep III did nothing to interfere with the work of the priests, but it is thought that their immense wealth, and threat to the power of the throne, had a profound effect on his son. The god Aten was only one of many gods worshipped in ancient Egypt but, for the royal family, he had a special significance which would later become manifest in the religious edicts of Akhenaten. The cult of Amun continued to grow and amass wealth and, in doing so, continued to pose a threat to the royal family and the authority of the throne. (36)
Akhenaten (r. 1353â€“1336 BCE) was a pharaoh of Egypt of the 18 th Dynasty. His reign as Amenhotep IV lasted five years during which he followed the policies of his father and the religious traditions of Egypt. However, in the fifth year, he underwent a dramatic religious transformation, changed his devotion from the cult of Amun to that of Aten. He then moved his seat of power from the traditional palace at Thebes to one he built at the city he founded, Akhetaten, changed his name to Akhenaten, and continued the religious reforms which resulted in his being despised as `the heretic king’ by some later writers while admired as a champion of monotheism by others. His religious reforms were not without controversy at the time.
To be sure, the polytheism of the ancient Egyptians encouraged a world view where peace and balance were emphasized and religious tolerance was not considered an issue; there is not even a word directly corresponding to the concept of `religious tolerance’ in the ancient Egyptian texts. A hallmark of any monotheistic belief system, however, is that it encourages the belief that, in order for it to be right, other systems must necessarily be wrong; and this insistence on being the sole administrator of ultimate truth leads to intolerance of other beliefs and their suppression; this is precisely what happened in Egypt. The names of the god Amun and the other gods were chiseled from monuments throughout Egypt, the temples were closed, and the old practices outlawed.
The Amarna Letters, (correspondence found in the city of Amarna between the kings of Egypt and those of foreign nations) which provide evidence of Akhenaten’s negligence, also show him to have a keen sense of foreign policy when the situation interested him. He strongly rebuked Abdiashirta for his actions against Ribaddi and for his friendship with the Hittites who were then Egypt’s enemy. While there are, then, examples of Akhenaten looking after state affairs, there are more which substantiate the claim of his disregard for anything other than his religious reforms and life in the palace.
Unlike the images from other dynasties of Egyptian history, the art from the Amarna Period depicts the royal family with elongated necks and arms and spindly legs. Scholars have theorized that perhaps the king “suffered from a genetic disorder called Marfan’s syndrome” (Hawass, 36) which would account for these depictions of him and his family as so lean and seemingly oddly-proportioned. A much more likely reason for this style of art, however, is the king’s religious beliefs. The Aten was seen as the one true god who presided over all and infused all living things. It was envisioned as a sun disk whose rays ended in hands touching and caressing those on earth.
Perhaps, then, the elongation of the figures in these images was meant to show human transformation when touched by the power of the Aten. The famous Stele of Akhenaten, depicting the royal family, shows the rays of the Aten touching them all and each of them, even Nefertiti, depicted with the same elongation as the king. To consider these images as realistic depictions of the royal family, afflicted with some disorder, seems to be a mistake in that there would be no reason for Nefertiti to share in the king’s supposed disorder. The depiction, then, could illustrate Akhenaten and Nefertiti as those who had been transformed to god-like status by their devotion to the Aten to such an extent that their faith is seen even in their children. (37)
Akhenaten’s reign was followed by his son, the most recognizable Egyptian ruler in the modern day, Tutankhamun, who reigned from 1336â€“1327 BCE. He was originally named `Tutankhaten’ to reflect the religious beliefs of his father. Upon assuming the throne, he deemed it was necessary to restore harmony in ancient Egypt by reinstating the traditional beliefs and practices. Thus, he changed his name to `Tutankhamun’ to honor the ancient god Amun. He restored the ancient temples, removed all references to his father’s single deity, and returned the capital to Thebes.
King Tutankhamun’s reign was mysteriously cut short by an early death. His fame today rests mainly on the magnificent artifacts found in his tomb and the sensational discovery (which was headline news worldwide) on 4 November 1922 CE. The `Mummy’s Curse’, or `Curse of Tutankhamun’, has only amplified his celebrity. (38)
The greatest ruler of the New Kingdom, however, was Ramesses II (also known as Ramesses the Great, 1279â€“1213 BCE). Ramesses was the son of Seti I and Queen Tuya and accompanied his father on military campaigns in Libya and Palestine at the age of 14. By the age of 22 Ramesses was leading his own campaigns in Nubia with his own sons and was named co-ruler with Seti. After the death of Seti I in 1290 BCE, Ramesses assumed the throne and at once began military campaigns to restore the borders of Egypt, ensure trade routes, and take back from the Hittites what he felt rightfully belonged to him.
In the second year of his reign, Ramesses defeated the Sea Peoples off the coast of the Nile Delta. Ramesses next launched a military campaign into Canaan which had been a Hittite vassal state since the reign of the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I. This campaign was successful and Ramesses returned home with plunder and Canaanite (and probably Hittite) royalty as prisoners. In late 1275 BCE, Ramesses prepared his army to march on Kadesh and waited only for the omens to be auspicious and word from his spies in Syria as to the enemy’s strength and position. In 1274 BCE, when all seemed in his favor, he led some twenty thousand men into battle. According to his own reports, it was only owing to his own personal courage and calm in battle (and the goodwill of the gods) that he was able to turn the tide against the Hittites.
After the Battle of Kadesh, Ramesses devoted himself to improving Egypt’s infrastructure, strengthening its borders, and commissioning vast building projects commemorating his victory of 1274 and his other accomplishments. One of those building projects was that of the Abu Simble temple complex. (39)
The Great Temple stands 98 feet high and 115 feet long with four seated colossi flanking the entrance, two to each side, depicting Ramesses II on his throne; each one 65 feet tall. Beneath these giant figures are smaller statues (still larger than life-sized) depicting Ramesses’ conquered enemies, the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites. Further statues represent his family members and various protecting gods and symbols of power. Passing between the colossi, through the central entrance, the interior of the temple is decorated with engravings showing Ramesses and Nefertari paying homage to the gods. Ramesses’ great victory at Kadesh (considered by modern scholars to be more of a draw than an Egyptian triumph) is also depicted in detail across the north wall of the Hypostyle Hall. The Small Temple stands nearby at a height of 40 feet and 92 feet long. This temple is also adorned by colossi across the front facade, three on either side of the doorway, depicting Ramesses and his queen Nefertari (four statues of the king and two of the queen) at a height of 32 feet. (40)
Although Ramesses has been popularly associated with the pharaoh of the biblical Book of Exodus, there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim. Extensive archaeological excavations at Giza and elsewhere throughout Egypt have unearthed ample evidence that the building projects completed under the reign of Ramesses II (and every other king of Egypt) used skilled and unskilled Egyptian laborers who were either paid for their time or who volunteered as part of their civic duty. The custom of Egyptian citizens volunteering their time to work on the king’s building projects is well documented and it was even thought that, in the afterlife, souls would be called upon to work for Osiris, Lord of the Dead, on the building projects he would want. (39)
The Decline of Egypt and the Rise of Alexander the Great
His successor, Ramesses III, followed his policies but, by this time, Egypt’s great wealth had attracted the attention of the Sea Peoples who began to make regular incursions along the coast. The Sea Peoples, like the Hyksos, are of unknown origin but are thought to have come from the southern Aegean area. Between 1276–1178 BCE the Sea Peoples were a threat to Egyptian security (Ramesses II had defeated them in a naval battle early in his reign). After his death, however, they increased their efforts, sacking Kadesh, which was then under Egyptian control, and ravaging the coast. Between 1180–1178 BCE Ramesses III fought them off, finally defeating them at the Battle of Xois in 1178 BCE.
Following the reign of Ramesses III, his successors attempted to maintain his policies but increasingly met with resistance from the people of Egypt, those in the conquered territories, and, especially, the priestly class. In the years after Tutankhamun had restored the old religion of Amun, and especially during the great time of prosperity under Ramesses II, the priests of Amun had acquired large tracts of land and amassed great wealth which now threatened the central government and disrupted the unity of Egypt. By the time of Ramesses XI (1107–1077 BCE), the end of the 20 th Dynasty, the government had become so weakened by the power and corruption of the clergy that the country again fractured and central administration collapsed, initiating the so-called Third Intermediate Period of 1069–525 BCE. (23)