World History 1 54 - 4.2.2 The Pharaohs of the New Kingdom

The New Kingdom period (c. 1550–1069 BCE) represents the pinnacle of Egyptian power and influence in the Near East. During this time, Egypt not only reconquered the territory it had lost following the collapse of the Middle Kingdom, but it also extended its reach deep into the Libyan Desert, far south into Nubia, and eventually east as far as northern Syria. This expansion made Egypt the Mediterranean superpower of its day. So it is not surprising that the pharaohs of this period are some of the best known. They include the conqueror Amenhotep I, the indomitable Queen Hatshepsut, “the magnificent” Amenhotep III, the transformative Akhenaten, and the highly celebrated Ramesses II, also known as Ramesses the Great. Many came to power at a young age and ruled for an extended period of time that allowed for many accomplishments. They also commanded massive and highly trained armies and had at their disposal a seemingly endless supply of wealth, with which they constructed some of the most impressive architectural treasures of the entire Near East.

The New Kingdom began with the reign of Ahmose, the pharaoh who recovered not only Lower Egypt but also Nubia and Palestine. When he died in 1525 BCE, his oldest surviving son, Amenhotep I, assumed control. Amenhotep then married one of his sisters, Meritamun, as was common in this period and as the gods of Egyptian myth were believed to have done.

The rise of the early New Kingdom pharaohs coincided with the elevation of a previously minor deity, the Thebans’ patron god Amun. Respect for him merged with regard for Re, the patron of the monarchy, and he became known as Amun-Re. Amenhotep I and his successors built temples and other major public works in his honor, particularly the great Temple of Amun at Karnak. Thebes also had special importance for the New Kingdom pharaohs as the state’s religious capital and the favored royal burial place, commonly called the Valley of the Kings.

Dying without an heir, Amenhotep I was succeeded by Thutmose I, a general who may have been a distant relative. Thutmose I and his son Thutmose II both campaigned in Nubia and Syria. The father marched his armies all the way to the Euphrates River in Syria, likely as a show of force against emerging powers in the region. The son married his sister Hatshepsut, who gave birth to a daughter but not a son. So when Thutmose II died in 1479 BCE, his two-year-old son conceived by a concubine assumed the throne as Thutmose III.

Acting as regent for the infant pharaoh, Hatshepsut inaugurated a very unusual period in Egyptian history. Rather than merely rule in the background as a typical regent would, she proclaimed herself co-regent with her stepson and soon assumed the title of pharaoh. Statues of her from this period depict her wearing the pharaonic headdress and ceremonial beard and give her the broad torso more typical of a male (Figure 4.20). Such masculine features were not an attempt to obscure her femininity but rather a recognition that all the symbolic representations of Egyptian pharaohs were male. Inscriptions clearly indicated that she was a woman. She was called the “Daughter of Re,” and feminine word endings appear in some inscriptions, such as “His Majesty, Herself.”

A marbled brown and black stone carving of the bust of a figure is shown. The figure wears a wide headdress with a projection at the front, has a beard and large eyes. Broad shoulders and a wide chest are depicted as well as a serious expression on the face. A crack in statue is shown across the neck and through the beard.
Figure 4.20 This granite statue of a kneeling Pharaoh Hatshepsut, carved in the fifteenth century BCE and originally painted, measures just over twenty-seven inches high. As this detail shows, the work depicts her with male features including a flat chest and a beard. (credit: “Kneeling statue of Hatshepsut” by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1923/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

As Egyptian pharaohs had done for many centuries, Hatshepsut also claimed divinity. While the reasons for this long-standing belief remain unclear and may never be fully understood, this is one of the features of Egyptian culture that made it very different from that of Mesopotamian contemporaries, who usually held kings to be only viceroys of the gods, not gods themselves. Unlike earlier pharaonic claims of divinity, however, Hatshepsut’s included a detailed account of her heavenly origins in the form of a poem she had inscribed on the walls of her mortuary temple for all to see. In the poem, Amun-Re himself assumes the form of Thutmose I and, after conceiving Hatshepsut with her mother, predicts that his child will rule all Egypt and elevate it to unsurpassed glory. The poem then describes how a council of Egyptian gods proclaimed Hatshepsut’s earthly authority, and how Thutmose I recognized her divinity and named her his rightful successor.

As both a woman and a regent, Hatshepsut was prudent to thus legitimate her rule. And by all accounts, the heavenly prophecies about her reign proved accurate. For twenty-one years she ruled over a prosperous and dominant Egypt, even conducting military campaigns into Nubia and possibly southern Palestine. At one point, she sent a large fleet south into a mysterious land the Egyptians called Punt, likely coastal East Africa near modern Somalia, where her ships collected and brought back a cargo of exotic plants, animals, precious metals, and spices.

Construction of Hatshepsut’s three-tiered mortuary temple began shortly after she took the throne and likely lasted many years. The temple was built into the side of a cliff and included a series of ramps that took visitors through garden courtyards, past large obelisks and statues, and toward a shrine to Amun at the top (Figure 4.21). In the years after her death, elaborate rituals including libations, food offerings to the gods, purification rituals, recitations, and singing were performed by the priests who managed the enormous complex.

A photograph of a sand colored building is shown in front of a large sandy cliff. A long bricked walkway is shown in front of a striped ramp that leads to the roof of the first tier of the building which then leads to another ramp to the second tier. The three floors of the building show large, plain, rectangular openings. The background of the building is large, tall cliffs that are the same color as the building. A large, sandy colored statue of an animal lying with its paws in front is shown to the right of the walkway. The forefront shows a sandy and rocky landscape.
Figure 4.21 Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is located at Deir el-Bahri, beneath cliffs near the Valley of the Kings. Its large ramps and tiers were designed to blend neatly into the cliff behind it. (credit: modification of work “Temple of Hatshepsut” by Hesham Ebaid/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

When Hatshepsut died in 1458 BCE, her stepson Thutmose III took control as sole ruler in Egypt for the first time. He was about thirty years old by then and had extensive military training. This preparation served him well, for soon he faced a Hittite and northern Mesopotamian threat to Egypt’s control in Syria and Palestine. Leading his armies himself, he was able to neutralize the threats, launch a major raid across the Euphrates River, and take numerous Canaanite princes hostage so as to deter any uprisings from his vassals.

It was only late in his reign that Thutmose III began to eliminate his predecessor from history. He had Hatshepsut’s statues toppled and smashed, her name removed from monuments, and references to her scrubbed from the official king lists. The evidence suggests that he harbored no ill will toward his stepmother. Instead, her erasure from the record was probably part of Thutmose’s process of paving the way for his son to rule in his own right in the future, without a dominant female like his stepmother to assert control.

Amenhotep II, son of Thutmose III, continued the successful military campaigns against both Hittite and Mesopotamian threats to Egyptian influence in Palestine and Syria. His rule was followed by the short reign of Thutmose IV, likely a younger son, and the long and especially prosperous rule of Amenhotep III, known as “the Magnificent.”

Amenhotep III’s nearly forty-year reign in the fourteenth century BCE was a time of extended peace during which numerous monuments to Egyptian greatness were constructed. These included the sumptuous palace at Thebes, the Serapeum—a temple of the god Serapis—at Saqqara, many temples for other gods, Amenhotep’s own large mortuary temple, and a great many statues of himself. His reign was also marked by an increased emphasis on the Egyptian sun god Aton, one of many manifestations of Re. Amenhotep’s palace at Thebes and the large royal barge upon which he and his queen glided along the Nile for important religious events were named for Aton. Toward the end of Amenhotep III’s reign, he officially proclaimed himself the personification of Aton, and his servants greeted him as such.

Under Amenhotep III’s heir Amenhotep IV, the emphasis on Aton reached its fullest extent. Amenhotep IV built a new city downriver from Thebes that he called Amarna, “the place where the solar orb is transformed.” It was also known as Akhetaton. The following year, he changed his own name to Akhenaten, meaning “the transfigured spirit of the solar orb,” and moved himself and his entire family to the new city. Akhenaten later closed the temples of the other major Egyptian gods and ordered representations of them destroyed and their names chiseled off monuments. The pharaoh and his wife Queen Nefertiti now became the chief priests of a new cult built around Aton (Figure 4.22).

A picture of a colorful bust is shown on a brown background. The bust shows a woman wearing a tall, oval, blue headdress with a gold strip in front and an orange, gold, green and blue decorated stripe running all around the headdress across the middle and behind her right ear. There is a cross-like gold object at the front of the headdress. Her skin is caramel and one eye is black while the other eye is white without a pupil. She has dark eyebrows and maroon full lips. Her right ear is broken off at the top and white shows underneath. She wears a highly colorful necklace in the same colors as her headdress in various shapes and rows. The bottom edges of the bust are chipped and worn.
Figure 4.22 One of the most recognizable New Kingdom artifacts is a nineteen-inch limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti that was made in about 1345 BCE and discovered at Amarna, Egypt, in 1912. (credit: “Nefertiti Statue photo from Rosicrucian Museum, replica from the original at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin” by E. Michael Smith “Chiefio”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In the emerging new religion, people were instructed to worship the pharaoh. This made Akhenaten and Nefertiti intermediaries between the people and their god, eliminating the need for powerful priests like those of Amun (Figure 4.23). Many theories have been proposed to explain Akhenaten’s motive for founding a new monotheistic religion, including sincere belief, but most have been discarded. It is possible he was merely attempting to revert to an older model of religious practice in which the king was the primary state deity.

A picture of a brown stone carving is shown with a broken corner at the top left. The carving shows an orb in the middle at the top with rays coming out and symbols at the end of the rays. Hieroglyphics are carved across the top of the stone and below the rays from the orb as well as along the right side of the carving. On the left side of the carving a man sits on a padded stool with his bare feet on a padded footrest. He wears a tall detailed headdress and has a cloth around his waist. He holds a small person in his arms and is kissing them. In the right half of the carving a woman is seated on a padded stool with her bare feet on a smaller padded footrest. She wears a decorated headdress and long cloths on her body. She holds a small person on her lap and another is on her shoulder. Obscure designs run along the bottom left of the stone and the edges of the carving have decorative lines all around.
Figure 4.23 This small stone engraving made during his lifetime shows Pharaoh Akhenaten at left, sitting beneath the Aton (the solar orb) with his queen, Nefertiti. Akhenaten cradles one of their three daughters, while Nefertiti holds the other two on her lap and her shoulder. (credit: “Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and three daughters beneath the Aten” by Richard Mortel/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Dueling Voices

The Many Strange Faces of Akhenaten

Mystery and debate have surrounded the pharaoh Akhenaten ever since archaeologists first uncovered the lost city of Akhetaton in the 1880s. He has been called a heretic, a revolutionary, a lunatic, and more. Some of the fascination comes from the theory that he gave birth to modern monotheism. Others have seen in him a way to reject monotheism entirely.

In 1910, the British Egyptologist Arthur Weigall published a biography called The Life and Times of Akhnaton in which he argued that the Egyptian pharaoh had experienced a “pre-Christian revelation.” The book was a bestseller in Europe, drawing Christian readers eager to learn about a possible connection between their religion and Ancient Egypt.

In 1939, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, developed his own interpretation of Akhenaten’s significance in his biography of Moses, Moses and Monotheism, arguing that Moses was in fact a priest of Akhenaten’s new religion. When Akhenaten died and his religion was washed away, Moses was forced to flee Egypt. His religious ideas, according to Freud, passed to the people of Canaan and led to the monotheistic religion of Judaism.

In the 1930s and 1940s, some followers of the Nazi movement in Germany became fascinated with the life of Akhenaten. Eager to reject Christianity because of its connections of Judaism, they supported a revival of pre-Christian paganism rooted in nature worship, which they felt was more authentically German. Reading about Akhenaten and seeing his artifacts on display in the Berlin Museum, they could not help but see similarities between his religion and the pagan sun-worshipping religion they were trying to advance in Germany. Their ideas led to a number of books, like Savitri Devi’s 1939 A Perfect Man: Akhnaton, King of Egypt and Josef Magnus Wehner’s 1944 novel Akhenaten and Nefertiti: A Tale from Ancient Egypt.

Devi actually wrote several books about Akhenaten and his religion. Few today find her analysis worth considering, but they are a reminder of the way Akhenaten’s religious movement has fascinated and influenced people thousands of years after his death.

  • Try developing your own interpretation of Akhenaten’s religious motivation. Consider what you learned about the actual Akhenaten as well as any other elements you want to imagine.
  • Why do you think early twentieth-century writers saw what they wanted to see in the life and religion of Akhenaten? Can you think of any examples of this phenomenon today?

One reason many questions about him remain is that after Akhenaten died in about 1336 BCE, Egyptians reverted to their older religious traditions and attempted to erase this period from their history. The process was begun by his successor Smenkhkare and accelerated under the pharaoh who followed, Tutankhamun. These two young and short-lived pharaohs ushered Egypt back to the old faith, abandoning the city of Akhetaton, returning to Memphis, and beginning repairs on the temples desecrated under the previous regime. Tutankhamun also sent his armies into Nubia and Canaan to put down revolts and challenge the threat posed by the Hittites. He may have been leading one of these armies when he was killed, at the age of only eighteen or nineteen. The next pharaohs continued restoring the old religions, even scratching out references to the Aton and destroying what remained of Akhetaton.

Link to Learning

In November 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter became the first person to enter the interior chambers of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in thousands of years. The discovery of the tomb caused excitement and fascination around the world and began a years-long excavation and cataloging of its many treasures. Take a look at these colorized images of photos taken during the excavation process to see why. (Note that the excavation techniques you see in the photos were often destructive and would never be used today.)

When Horemheb, the final pharaoh of this first dynasty of the New Kingdom, died childless, a military commander named Ramesses I took control and began a new dynasty. His heirs, sometimes called the Ramesside kings, worked hard to restore Egypt to greatness through impressive military and building campaigns. The greatest pharaoh of this period, and the last great pharaoh of the New Kingdom, was Ramesses II, who ruled Egypt for more than sixty-five years from 1279 to 1213 BCE.

During his long reign, Ramesses II fought several wars with the Hittites in Syria and launched additional wars against the Libyans to the west of Egypt. The threat from the Hittites was especially pronounced in this period. In an attempt to push them back and restore Egyptian influence in Syria, Ramesses II led an army of twenty thousand into Syria to retake the important city of Qadesh. During the fighting, Ramesses himself led several chariots straight into the Hittite lines. It was only by a combination of luck and Hittite negligence that he and his forces survived and were able to ultimately beat back the enemy (Figure 4.24). While the attempt to recapture Qadesh failed, once he was safely home, Ramesses II claimed the campaign was a success.

A black and white image of an irregularly sized engraving is shown. A white break in the drawing is seen at the right, about two thirds of the way from the left. A battle is depicted in the drawing in four rows. Along the top two thin rows chariots with riders being pulled by horses are seen going in both directions. The horses have their front legs in the air and their back legs on the ground. At the right side in the second row there is a dark background and some people are shown standing by the horses in a chariot. The third row is large and shows hieroglyphics along the top left and a large drawing of a soldier holding a bow and arrow and riding in a chariot pulled by a horse wearing a high decorative headdress and cloths below. The rest of the row shows figures, horses, and chariots in all directions riding, falling, laying on the ground, and standing. The right end of the row has a dark background and continues with the various poses and then ends with rows and rows of small figures drawn all standing in neat and orderly rows. The last row repeats the chariots, horses, and figures from the first two rows, but they are all facing left. The row ends on the right with a dark background. The bottom of the drawing is striped lines and dark lines as decoration.
Figure 4.24 This sketch of an engraving on a wall of the mortuary temple of Pharaoh Ramesses II depicts him (on the left) as a larger-than-life charioteer firing arrows into the Hittite army at the Battle of Qadesh. The Egyptian records of the battle note that the pharaoh demonstrated great bravery as he led a small group of chariots into the fray. (credit: modification of work “Battle scene from the Great Kadesh reliefs of Ramses II on the Walls of the Ramesseum” by A History Of Egypt From The Earliest Times To The Persian Conquest by James Henry Breasted/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The failed attempt to retake Qadesh helped convince Ramesses to agree to a peace treaty with the Hittites in approximately 1258 BCE. The threat they continued to pose also motivated him to build a new capital in the Nile delta, much closer to Canaan. Called Pi-Ramesse (“House of Ramesses”), it included a great number of impressive monuments, some with reliefs showing the pharaoh defeating the Hittites. Beyond the building campaigns in Pi-Ramesse, Ramesses II also enlarged and beautified several additional temples in Thebes and other locations. However, the greatest monuments to his rule were the two temples he built at Abu Simbel, far to the south in Nubia. The more impressive of the two is called the Great Temple at Abu Simbel. It was carved into the side of a mountain and includes four massive seated statues of Ramesses II himself. A passageway between the two center statues leads to chambers that stretch hundreds of feet into the sandstone (Figure 4.25). The engineers who designed the temple constructed it such that twice a year, the rays of the sun would enter the building at dawn and bathe the gods placed there in light.

A picture of sand colored statues against a hill are shown. Four figures are shown in a row, two on each side, sitting on thrones with footrests. The pieces of the upper half of the second figure are seen on the ground in pieces in front of the feet of the statue. The other three figures wear tall headdresses with wide sides that extend down to their shoulders and chests. They are shown with long beards, decorative arm braces and both hands resting in their laps. All four are barefoot. A small statue is shown carved into the wall between the heads of the large statues. Two female figures are seen outlined simply on either side of the inset statue. Below the inset statue is an opening. Along the footrests of the large statues are hieroglyphics carved into the stone. Bird statues are seen in the forefront around the statues. The top of the carving has symbols and script carved into the stone as well as figures above that. The sides are the rocky hill.
Figure 4.25 In 1968, Ramesses II’s thirteenth-century BCE temple at Abu Simbel was relocated because the creation of a large dam on the Nile was going to flood the original site. This photograph shows the structure as it looks today. (credit: “Abu Simbel Temple of Ramesses II” by “Than217”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax