Lecture 6 - Ancient Egypt c. 3100-1069 BC

Neolithic Egypt

Developments in the Nile Valley of Egypt pursued a different path than those in Mesopotamia. During the final stages of the Pleistocene era (the Younger Dryas, 16000-11000 BC), the region now occupied by the Sahara Desert furnished a lush rain forest capable of sustaining dispersed human settlement. With gradual global warming the desert came into being. Widespread desiccation around 10000 BC compelled inhabitants of the Sahara as well as neighboring regions such as the Sinai and Palestine to follow their food sources to the North African coast, most particularly to the long slender valley of the Nile. Evidence suggests that these inhabitants adapted to animal husbandry by 8000 BC and to agriculture by 5000. However, they did not acquire bronze technology until 2000 BC. By 4000 BC several Neolithic cultures emerged along the river basin, most notably Omari culture near the mouth of the river (Lower Egypt) and Naqada culture in the highlands to the south (Upper Egypt). In the Nile delta finds of Sumerian cylinder seals indicate that Egyptian inhabitants probably imported emerging technologies such as agriculture. Up stream in the Naqada horizon archaeologists have revealed an increasingly homogenous pattern of small but disparate fortified communities with rectangular mud brick houses. These settlements gradually grew to become small principalities or kingdoms corresponding to those of the later nomes or administrative districts of the Egyptian unified kingdom. By the Pre-Dynastic Era (3100-2700 BC) there were some twenty-two nomes in Upper Egypt and twenty in Lower Egypt (the Nile Delta), each governed by a ruler later known as a nomarch. During three sustained periods of Egyptian unification, all nomes were absorbed into a centralized state governed by a king with absolute authority. These eras of “united kingdom” eventually collapsed again to the lesser threshold of nomarchic principalities. In anthropological terms the capacity of Egyptian civilization to reconstruct itself from decentralized nomes into unified kingdoms qualifies it as a nearly decomposable state. The concept of Egypt as a land of two kingdoms, Upper and Lower Egypt, united by one king who controlled Egypt from the delta in the north to the first cataract in the south formed a fundamental truth of the Egyptian world view. Otherwise, early civilization in Egypt remained isolated for a thousand years. The vast, lifeless desert of the Sahara closed the inhabitants of the river valley off from the west, similarly barren mountains from the east, the narrow gorges, desert reaches, and complicated watersheds of the Nile itself from the south, and the deep waters of the Mediterranean Sea to the north. The formidable nature of these barriers kept the Egyptian population secure from external threats, yet, technologically backward and slow to change. By and large, topography and environment worked to the advantage of a central hierarchy.



The Nile Environment

The Nile river basin forms one of the most unique ecological niches of the world. Originating from highland lakes in south central Africa and fed by the same equatorial storms that send hurricanes across the Atlantic, the waters of the Nile converge from a vast watershed representing approximately 10% of the African land mass. In North Africa the converging arms of the river cut a narrow valley through the largely sandstone bedrock of Sudan, forming cataracts when confronted by resistant types of stone. The cataracts stir the waters and prevent flowing silt from settling until it reaches Egypt proper. North of the second cataract, the Nile widens somewhat (ca. 20 km wide) as it works its way some 960 km through the desert to the broad (190 km wide), marshy region of the delta on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. In Egypt the river would rise in July and attain peak flood stage in August and September. Finally in October the waters would subside. The flood waters would inundate the entire length of the Nile basin, depositing a nutrient-rich layer of alluvium about 500m to either side of the river bed. The contrast between the flood zone and the barren earth was palpable to the naked eye. Egyptians referred to the area of deposited soil as the Black Earth; the unaffected regions as the Red Earth, with the line so distinct that one could literally stand with one foot in either terrain. Beyond this narrow band the region of barren earth ascended to a range of hills or low mountains to either side of the river valley. Beyond the hills lay the desert, the Sahara to the west and the eastern desert opposite.  Over time alluvial deposition in the flood plain created natural levies much like those in Mesopotamia. Low lying basins behind the riverbanks (known as wadis) and similar lowlands in the delta tended to retain water as marshes and swamps. These supported wildlife such as waterfowl, crocodiles, and hippopotami. Dense areas of reed plants such as papyrus also thrived in the marshes proving useful to the manufacture of mats and paper.


As early as 5000 BC the height of the flooding along the entire length of the Nile valley was recognized as an important indicator of potential crop yields. Step-like cuttings known today as “nilometers” were carved into the ledges of the first and second cataracts to measure the level of the flood waters at critical stages. Pillars with inscribed measuring gauges were likewise erected at various temple sanctuaries in the flood plain. Inundation below certain markings tended to presage insufficient deposition and diminished crop yields; floods that surpassed the high water marks tended to breach the natural levies of the valley causing damage to reclaimed land in the wadis. The rhythm of the Nile floods, thus, determined the agricultural cycle in Egypt.  Farmers typically divided their year into three seasons: the Inundation (July through October), the Planting (November through February), and the Drought (March through June). Careful adaptation to this predictable cycle enabled the Egyptians to generate the highest agricultural yields recorded anywhere in the Ancient Near East. According to the fifth century BC Greek historian, Herodotus, when the floods subsided the inhabitants returned to the river valley from its desert banks and reconfigured the land into agricultural plots. Farmers would then walk barefoot through the mud bearing bags of seed which they would scatter by hand. They would then have their animals trod the seed into the soil, resulting in rich harvests of wheat and barley. Despite the undoubted exaggeration of this description, few places in the ancient world furnished an easier environment for food production. By organizing irrigation systems and expanding agricultural production into dried out wadis, particularly the large basin of the Fayoum, ancient inhabitants of Egypt produced grain surpluses sufficient not only to sustain their own population but to export to populations overseas. To facilitate this commerce, Egyptians appear to have been the first to design sea-going cargo vessels (by 2500 BC). Relying on the natural currents and winds of the Mediterranean Sea, the Egyptians and their neighbors were able to transport heavy staple goods such as grain, stone, timber, textiles, wine, and oil at volumes inconceivable by land. During the Roman era (first to sixth centuries AD) the farmers of the Nile produced sufficient foodstuffs to feed an estimated 7.5 million inhabitants in Egypt proper and another 1-2 million overseas, not least of which the burgeoning population at Rome.


The natural advantages of Egypt were hardly limited to agriculture. The hills along the river and eastern mountains furnished a variety of stone (granite, marble, and limestone) for building projects, statuary, sarcophagi, and house wares. The Egyptians were the first civilization to master the technique of stone masonry and to construct complex stone edifices. Papyrus reed generated another important product, namely, paper. The reed would be harvested, mashed on stone platforms, left to dry, and then cut into rectangular sheets to be rolled on spindles. Egyptian papyrus quickly became the principal writing medium of the entire Mediterranean world and remained so until well in to Roman times. In addition, the Nile valley offered the one significant communications link between Mediterranean populations and those of sub-Saharan Africa. A string of oases in the Libyan Desert west of Egypt (Dakhla, Kharga, Bahriya, and Farafra) formed an alternate route to Nubia. When dominated by the armies and bureaucrats of the pharaohs, these natural highways furnished Egypt with African prisoners, exotic animals, precious metals, aromatic plants, ivory, and ebony. Last to be noted are the climate and topography of Egypt. The arid climate (ca. 80 mm of annual rainfall) meant that the Egyptians lived beneath a nearly constant sky of brilliant sunshine. The sun rose and set over the desert horizons in the same predictable pattern as the current of the Nile River. The rhythmical movement of the water, the perennial sunshine, and the security furnished by natural barriers all tended to buttress the Egyptian belief in the uniqueness of their environment and the timeless quality of their existence. Unlike Mesopotamia, the Egyptian world view was quite positive; the inhabitants believed that they were protected by their gods both on earth and in the cosmos.


Hieroglyphic Script

Decipherment of the language system was made possible by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's cavalry during that general’s campaign in Egypt 1799 AD. The inscribed stele dates to the Ptolemaic era, c. 196 BC, and records a tax dispensation conferred on presiding priests of an Egyptian temple by King Ptolemy V. It was inscribed in hieroglyphic, demotic, and ancient Greek. Later captured by the British and brought to the British Museum, it was deciphered by the French linguist, Champollion, in 1822. Due to their reliance on stone construction techniques, the Egyptians created an abundance of “dressed” building surfaces suitable for record keeping. Walls, doorways, even rounded columns that survive in the great temple complexes along the Nile are decorated with hieroglyphic records. In addition, the climate of Egypt is so arid that highly fragile papyrus scrolls can survive the elements and are discovered almost annually by excavators. By and large, Egyptian records provide the few “hard dates” we have for the international events of the Late Bronze Age (1500-1100 BC).


Egyptian history remains the most thoroughly recorded of any Bronze Age civilization due to its extensive use of a pictographic writing system known as hieroglyphics or as the Egyptians themselves refereed to it, the language of divine words (medu netjer). These characters were phonetically based but relied heavily on the principles of rebus script. In rebus script words or phrases are constructed from a combination of letters, numbers, symbols, and pictures to sound out meanings. For example, in rebus script the English word belief can be written with the images of a bee and a leaf. By 3100 BC Egyptian scribes devised a combination of ideograms, bi-consonantal and tri-consonantal phonetic signs, and determinatives to clarify the meaning of their inscribed texts. Determinatives, such as a straight vertical line drawn below a symbol, informed the reader whether the character was meant to be taken for its meaning (ideogram) or its sound; the drawing of a seated man following a symbol would indicate that the word in question was masculine in form; small running legs placed behind a verb would indicate motion, and so forth. The associated symbols were set in box-like panels with rounded edges known as cartouches. Although the hieroglyphic script ultimately devised some 24 signs to represent individual consonants and to this degree verged on a true alphabet, it continued to employ a combination of ideograms, phonetic signs, and determinatives until the end of the Roman era. For greater efficiency Egyptian scribes invented a shorthand version of hieroglyphic symbols known as hieratic and a later version known as demotic for everyday communication. Since the scripts lacked phonetic symbols for vowels, the pronunciation of ancient Egyptian words remains problematic. This explains the variant spellings of the names of Egyptian kings and queens in modern texts.  Due to their reliance on stone construction techniques, the Egyptians created an abundance of dressed building surfaces suitable for record keeping. Walls, doorways, even rounded column drums that survive in the great temple complexes along the Nile were decorated with the cartouches of hieroglyphic records. In addition, the climate of Egypt is so arid that highly fragile papyrus scrolls withstand the elements and are discovered almost annually by excavators. By and large, Egyptian records provide the few hard dates that exist for the international events of the Late Bronze Age (1600-1100 BC). 


Egyptian Chronology

After Egypt was conquered by the Macedonian King Alexander the Great in 331 BC, it was ruled by a dynasty descended from one of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy I (367-283 BC). Educated Egyptians were naturally anxious about the new rulers’ lack of appreciation for the cultural heritage of their homeland and sought to enlighten them. One in particular, a priest named Manetho (early 3rd century BC), relied on remarkably well preserved records to write a history of ancient Egypt organized according to the tradition of its thirty-one dynasties extending back to prehistoric times. Manetho’s treatise presented Egyptian history as three periods of centralized authority, stability and order, when the kingdom of the Nile was unified under a centralized monarchy. These are known as the Old Kingdom (2700-2200 BC), the Middle Kingdom (2040-1720), and the New Kingdom (1550-1069). These periods of unified kingdom were sustained for incomparable spans of time (500 years in the case of the Old Kingdom, more than 300 each for the Middle and New Kingdom). Eventually each of these kingdoms collapsed, however, and power devolved back to the local level of the nomitic principalities and their nomarchs. These shorter periods are known as the First, Second, and Third Intermediate Periods.



·       Pre-Dynastic Egypt - 3100-2700 (Narmer Palette, formation of the Egyptian state)

·       Old Kingdom - 2700-2200 BC (dynasties 4-6; era of pyramids; and the godlike Pharaoh)

·       First Intermediate Period - 2200 –2040 (collapse of unified kingdom, anarchy, return to nomic levels of hierarchy)

·       Middle Kingdom - 2040-1720 (dynasty 12; the classic era of Egyptian scribal culture)

·       Second Intermediate Period – 1720-1550 (the period of Hyksos Invasions and the likely time of Hebrew infiltration of Egypt, as recorded in the Old Testament)

·       New Kingdom -1550-1069 (dynasties 18-20; era of external empire, expansion into Canaan and Mesopotamia, mercenary armies and imported wealth from conquest and tribute)

·       Collapse of Bronze Age Mediterranean Societies – ca. 1200-1000 BC (abandonment of external empire; invasion of Sea Peoples; dismemberment of Egyptian Empire and united kingdom)


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Palette of King Narmer (back and front), from Hierakonpolis, Egypt; Predynastic, ca. 3000-2920 BC; Slate, 2’ 1” tall; Egyptian Museum, Cairo


Manetho’s chronology has in large part been confirmed by contemporary source materials

such as the Narmer Palette, the records inscribed on surviving Egyptian monuments, and by other records such as tomb dedications and limited finds of royal archives. The Narmer Palette (ca. 3100 BC) was used possibly to grind cosmetics for religious rituals. Reliefs on the palette (63 cm tall and remarkably well preserved) indicate that the Pre-Dynastic king Narmer forcibly conquered his neighbors. On one side he wears the papyrus crown of Lower Egypt; on the reverse he wears the hedjet or white crown of Upper Egypt, thus demonstrating his claim to suzerainty throughout the length of the Nile. Below and beside him are his vanquished foes, some beheaded, others in flight, and one being grasped by the hair and about to be cudgeled by Narmer himself. Conflicts such as these may well have originated with disputes over food production. Since survival in this barren environment depended on the mastery and control of the force of the river, the Egyptian kings, or pharaohs, of the Pre-Dynastic Era (3100-2700 BC) assumed political ascendancy by demonstrating their success at organizing the irrigation systems and storage facilities of the agricultural landscape. Control of these enabled them to sustain their subject populations through periods of agricultural shortfall. Regional differences were gradually replaced by a homogenous culture. During the early dynasties (1 and 2) the royal capital remained located in the highlands to the south at sites such as Hierakonpolis. Memphis gradually emerged as an important administrative center in the delta. By the time of the Fourth Dynasty (ca. 2700 BC) one king, one dynasty, and one central hierarchy was able to consolidate authority along the entire length of the river. This became known as the Old Kingdom (2700-2200 BC).


The Religious Ideology of the Old Kingdom

As noted above, to achieve supremacy the early Pharaohs had to conquer and absorb nomitic populations of the Nile through a gradual process of consolidation. They attempted to win the hearts and minds of their subjects by syncretizing the religious world view of each distinct culture into a comprehensive belief system. These efforts led to an elaborate and richly textured cosmology. Since much of this focused on the ruler cult of the Egyptian Pharaohs themselves, the latter functions as a suitable facsimile of the larger world view. Egyptian cosmology was highly polytheistic and intently focused on notions of magic. The Egyptians revered a multitude of deities that combined aspects of animals, humans, and natural phenomena; many of these were rooted to the cults of specific nomes and communities. The Egyptians infused their world view with notions of sympathetic transference, or the belief that through spells and rituals one could magically transform a representation of a god or divine entity into the very essence it represented. Although these concepts were hardly unique to the Egyptians, the degree to which this population incorporated such notions into its world view was pronounced. To construct an effective ideology, one that would successfully unify all subjects of the realm, Egyptian authorities wove together strands of competing and even contradictory religious dogma to construct an argument for unquestioned royal authority. The end result was the nationalization of local religious traditions to formulate an ideology for the Egyptian ruler cult. Once established, the ideology could then be transformed, reinterpreted, or reinvented by succeeding dynasties, invariably to their own advantage. Godheads could be renamed and / or merged; centers of worship could be relocated, renovated, redefined, opened, and closed. Implicit in this dogma was the notion that the chief job of the king was to maintain Ma’at, that is, the balance and harmony that prevailed in the universe. He was also expected to renew the rhythmic cycle of the creation deities, Amon (Thebes) and Ptah (Memphis), and to furnish protection to Egypt in the afterlife as the son of other gods, including the sun god Re. Originally the chief deity of Heliopolis, Re was later merged with Amon of Thebes to form Amon-Re) and Horus the son of Osiris (Hierakonpolis). Since these three spheres (the balance of Ma’at, the Creation cycle, and the afterworld) furnished the religious basis to pharaonic authority, we need to consider each of these in turn.


Ma’at represented the balance of the forces of the universe which necessarily must be maintained if harmony, order, stability, and justice were to prevail. Ma’at was typically personified as a goddess, the daughter of the sun god Re; in iconography she would appear as a woman bearing a feather in a headband or simply as the feather itself. Ma’at was the state in which everything existed in its right place in accordance with the wishes of the gods. Although the balance of the universe was viewed multi-dimensionally, in at least one respect it was expressed as the balance of the river and the land, the phases of the Nile flooding, and the ability of the pharaoh to control this. To the Egyptians the pharaoh represented the bond between nature and humankind. Since the pharaoh alone could secure the benefits of Ma’at, all cult in Egypt was essentially royal cult. The pharaoh preserved Ma’at by offering the gods the fruits of the earth; in exchange he obtained for the Egyptian people the blessings of heaven. The pharaoh’s adherence to Ma’at, thus, furnished an implicit moral code. Failure to provide moral leadership could undermine the stability of the kingdom and with it the pharaoh’s legitimacy. On occasion the Egyptian hierarchy blamed the unorthodox behavior of a deceased pharaoh for circumstances that turned out badly, such as a plague or a military disaster. In other words, natural phenomena indicative of a lack of divine favor was widely interpreted as a failure on the part of the regime.


Unlike neighboring peoples the Egyptians did not create law codes; as a god king the pharaoh’s word was law. This status did not permit him unrestrained license, however. In accordance with Ma’at the pharaoh’s legal decisions were expected to adhere to traditional mores and to preserve the status quo. Since his office, if not his actual person, was divine, the pharaoh’s role as king placed him in direct harmony with Ma’at.  At the same time, he and his administrators remained subject to Ma’at and were duty bound to rule in accordance with it. This becomes evident from tomb autobiographies recorded by members of the pharaonic administration. Furnishing one of the most important sources for the Old Kingdom, these autobiographies were inscribed in the tombs of deceased bureaucrats and arise mainly from the great necropoleis near Memphis (Giza and Saqqara). Along with a request for prayers and offerings to be furnished after death, an autobiography typically listed the ranks and privileges accorded to the deceased during the course of his career. By tracing the various honors he acquired, the tomb occupant composed his life story. These accounts furnish unrivaled insight into structure of Egyptian officialdom, as well as life on the great estates, and the organization and management of state work projects. The ideals established for promotion and advancement within the pharaonic administration, as documented by these autobiographies, underline the pragmatic morality that sustained the political ideology of the ruler cult. In principle no office was hereditary; an Egyptian administrator attained an office due to his distinguished record as a servant of the king and people, and thus as a servant of Ma’at. Successful careers were expressed in terms of one’s role in the maintenance of the cults of the gods, services performed in the interests of the state, dedication to the requirements of one’s office, and fair and equitable treatment of ordinary Egyptians. The moral requirements imposed by Ma’at, thus, infused the rhetoric of these obituaries with a uniquely philanthropic tone. Belief in Ma’at imposed a moral order, an ethos developed and promulgated by the central authority to legitimize the sanctity of the pharaoh's rule.


Creation myths added a second important dimension to the pharaonic ideology particularly in later eras. Although these myths varied widely, the main one concerned the Atum of Heliopolis, or the primeval island from which all matter had come into being (also known as the Benben). According to this tradition, in the beginning there was nothing but the sea, then a mound of earth (the Atum) emerged above the water to furnish the origins of life. Much like the Black Earth rising from the receding waters of the Nile, all life ultimately arose from this mound. Other traditions co-existed with this principal version of creation. In a second tradition two gods of opposite sex mated to produce the sky and the earth which in turned generated all other elements of life. A third myth, known as the Memphite theology, explained that Ptah, the heart and tongue of all the gods, generated the gods Atum, Re, and Horus (who in turn created all living things). Still other myths explained that Min, the fertility god of Coptos, or Amon, the creator god of Thebes, were the sources for creation. Despite so many strands of myth, the Heliopolitan myth of Atum became dominant. Its power was expressed by the design of the Egyptian temple. Each temple exhibited one or more fortress like gateways (pylons), followed by an open courtyard and a roofed hall supported by rows of columns (known as a hypostyle hall). After passing through these portals, a visitor proceeded through a succession of rooms diminishing sequentially in size and sunlight until one arrived at the sacred chapel. Here, the shrine of the deity was kept secluded in primordial darkness. The floor of each temple, meanwhile, was deliberately constructed to rise in stages from the entrance ways to the inner sanctum, with the high court symbolically representing the Atum or mound of creation. The papyrus, palm, and lotus columns of the entrance hall likewise represented the flora that first emerged from the primordial marsh. They also supported a roof that was decorated to represent the sky. Through sympathetic attributes such as these, therefore, each temple functioned as an architectural mechanism intended to recreate the creation cycle and to reignite the origins of the cosmos. The high ground beneath the inner sanctum not only symbolized the Atum, in other words, it became the creation mound itself, with all the power and energy of the original.


With Ma’at and the energy force of creation thus established, the third component to the tripartite ideology of the pharaoh was the divine status of the monarch himself. The origins of this notion are detectable already in the Narmer Palette where the king is portrayed in stature larger than that of his foes. By the time of the Old Kingdom the monarch possessed five separate names that associated him with divine ancestors (son of Horus, son of Re, son of Ptah, etc.). The most salient among these was his status as the direct descendant of Horus and the living embodiment of the river god Osiris. According to this tradition Osiris was the Egyptian river god who annually replenished the earth by bearing down the nutrient-rich seed of the flood waters to impregnate the earth, personified by his wife, Isis. Osiris’ jealous brother, Seth (the crocodile god), made repeated attempts to destroy him, however, and ultimately prevailed. But Isis carefully employed her life-giving powers to restore Osiris to vigor as a god, enabling him to ascend into the heavens to defend the Egyptian people in the afterlife. Their son Horus, who was portrayed as the falcon god, defeated Seth (who was at the same time his uncle and his brother), after losing one eye. He then assumed Osiris’ place as the earthly protector of Egypt and the direct ancestor of all Egyptian kings. By claiming descent from Horus, in other words, Old Kingdom pharaohs posed as gods walking on the earth. Each king labored on earth to maintain Ma’at and to restore the creation cycle; yet, each king after death would rise into the heavens to protect the Egyptian people from the dark forces of the afterworld. Pharaonic ideology and Egyptian beliefs about afterlife in general insisted on a need to preserve the pharaohs' remains after death in order to bind their spirits and hence their divine power to the land of Egypt. This requirement gave rise to the Old Kingdom’s Cult of the Dead Pharaohs. An ever growing portion of the Egyptian economy became committed to the maintenance of this cult. This will be discussed in greater detail below.


Like so many other aspects of Egyptian religion, the concept of pharaonic divinity was complex. The Egyptians clearly realized that their kings were mortal: they saw that the pharaohs could not perform miracles and that they grew old and died like everybody else. At its most sophisticated level proponents of this ideology rationalized that the office of the pharaoh embodied the eternal life force, spirit, or Ka of Horus and that whosoever assumed the throne became divine. Representing one of five elements of the Egyptian soul, the Ka was perceived as a person’s vital essence, that which distinguished between being alive and being dead, with death occurring when the Ka left the body. Although all mortals were believed to possess a Ka, the Ka of Horus resided only within the pharaoh and made him exclusively divine. Through the principle of sympathetic transference, once again, the Ka of Horus was regenerated in each new monarch during the royal coronation ceremony. Since the throne of Egypt was perceived as embodying the essence of Isis, once the pharaoh physically took his seat on the throne he became Horus, the divine son of Isis and Osiris. Although his divine status was not viewed in the same respect as that of other gods, his person nonetheless became sacrosanct and was believed to be dangerously potent. These divine powers were renewed each year during the Opet or New Year festival as well as during the jubilee festival (the Heb Sed) that was celebrated during the thirtieth year of a pharaoh’s reign. When he died, the pharaoh’s remains would be carefully preserved in order to nurture the continued work of his spiritual Ka in defense of the Egyptian people. Each successive monarch underwent rituals of sympathetic transference, therefore, intended to renew the various facets of the origin of the ruler cult: the revival of the creation act (by virtue of the king’s ascension to the throne of Egypt), the renewal of Ma’at through the incarnation of a new Horus, the reaffirmation of the dynasty’s descent from Ptah, Min, Ra, Horus, and Osiris, and the reunification of the primordial kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. This unique status of the pharaoh and the multifaceted and richly textured layers of religious dogma that it entailed formed the basis to the religious world view of Old Kingdom Egypt. Nowhere is this better revealed than by the attention devoted to the cult of the Old Kingdom pharaoh in the afterlife.


Afterlife in the Old Kingdom

Pharaonic ideology insisted on the need to preserve the Pharaoh’s physical remains after death in order to bind his spirits and hence his divine power to the people of Egypt. The process entailed the successful conversion of the Pharaoh’s spiritual elements, his Ka and Ba to form an Akh, or a “glorified being of light.” According to Egyptian belief the Pharaoh's spirit (Ka) depended on the physical remains of his body to survive and would return to earth periodically to visit them; it also needed food and drink for nourishment. After death and with the aid of the proper rituals, the pharaoh’s Ka would combine with his Ba, or his unique individual soul, to form the Akh, and climb a stairway to the sun to combat forces of evil and to protect the Egyptians from harm. The Ka and Ba represented two components of the multifaceted Egyptian concept of the soul and were regarded as the touchstones of his afterlife, along with his heart (the Ib), his shadow (Sheut), and his name (Ren). On death the Ba was believed to escape from the mouth of the deceased and to move freely about the world visiting its favorite places, only to return to the tomb every night. Represented in iconography as a human-headed bird, the Ba, like the Ka, could not survive without daily connection to its physical remains. For the Pharaoh to achieve his place in the heavens, his Ba and Ka had to be united after death to reanimate the Pharaoh’s eternal life force or Akh. The Egyptians believed that the reanimation of the Akh was achieved through the performance of necessary funeral rites and sustained through constant offerings thereafter. As an Akh, or a glorified being of light and immortal companion of the sun god Re, the Pharaoh’s spirit traveled across the sky to the western horizon or Akhet where it underwent a shadowy metamorphosis to traverse the darkness of the underworld. On arrival at the eastern Akhet or the dawn, the pharaoh’s spirit was again restored to an Akh. This perpetual trajectory enabled the Ka of the pharaoh to join those of the other gods and to participate in their eternal activities. Important elements of the cult of the dead pharaoh included mummification to preserve the physical remains of the king, daily sacrifices to nourish the components of his soul, and tombs known as mastabas where the pharaoh’s remains as well as those of members of the Egyptian royal family and hierarchy were interred.  Evidence for mummification and mastaba tombs has been unearthed at a Naqada II cemetery at Hierakonpolis, thus, demonstrating the existence of this belief system in late Neolithic times. The process of mummification entailed the removal of vital organs (deposited in canopic jars) to eliminate moisture and to slow deterioration, and a thorough cleansing of the body’s interior cavities with liniments such as natron, a natural salt found near Cairo. This dried and preserved surviving membrane. The entire process required seventy days to achieve, but with the benefit of Egypt’s remarkable climate and careful interment of the body - wrapped in linen dressings and enclosed within a stone sarcophagus, a mummified corpse could last indefinitely.



Originally Mastaba tombs were rectangular structures with paneled facades intended to imitate the design of Egyptian royal palaces. A shaft inside the tomb led to a burial chamber below. Each mastaba had several rooms for the preservation of burial objects and was conceived as a house for eternity. At the beginning of the Old Kingdom, kings such as the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser (2650–2600 BC) sought to create more distinctive monuments to commemorate their status as gods. Djozer’s vizier, Imhotep, a polymath of exceptional ability, adapted the design of the mastaba to invent the Stepped Pyramid, a raised monument of five step-like platforms some 60 m tall and 120 m at the base. Resembling a Sumerian ziggurat but otherwise constructed entirely of stone, the Stepped Pyramid was purposely located to rise above the necropolis at Saqqara and to be visible from the streets of Memphis. Around the monument Imhotep constructed an array of artificial structures with false doors to resemble the royal palace complex (and perhaps to fool ever-present grave robbers). The entire complex was enclosed within a massive barrier wall some 10 m tall. With its pyramid visible from Memphis, the scale and size of this complex testified to the growing resources and laboring capacity of the Old Kingdom. The new complex with its monumental pyramid was essentially a grandiose version of a mastaba tomb, now translated into stone. Gradual modifications and technological breakthroughs in stone cutting, drafting, measurement, and architectural design culminated in the construction of the celebrated Great Pyramid of the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu (2589 - 2566 BC) at Giza, a few kilometers north of Saqqara. Until modern times the tallest man-made structure in the world, the Great Pyramid of Khufu stood 230 m at the base and 147 m tall. Capped with sloping walls of finely drafted limestone, the monument required use of some 2.3 million stone blocks weighing an average of 2.5 tons. Experts calculate that the pyramid required some 20,000 laborers twenty years to complete.  In addition to the artificial palace and temple complex on the hill above the river, the mastaba complex of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza was connected by a monumental dromos, or a pylon-constructed causeway to a valley temple at the edge of the flood zone. In this vicinity excavators uncovered two pits containing full-size, dismantled wooden boats, quite possibly the very boats used to convey Khufu’s body and funerary objects from Memphis at time of his interment. The newly designed mastaba complex of the pharaoh thus extended from the banks of the Nile to the pyramid complex on the heights overlooking the valley.


Much like the spirituality of the Egyptian ruler cult itself, the pyramid incorporated complex symbolism in its monumental achievement. The design possibly originated with the Benben stone of Heliopolis, a cone-shaped object sacred to the sun god that was erected at a height to receive the first rays of the dawn. Religious spells inscribed in the mastaba complex of Khufu at Giza expressly record the pyramid’s intended function as dead king’s path to the sky. The pointed capstone and smooth sides of the pyramids represented -- and by sympathetic transference was believed to create -- a ramp furnished by the rays of the sun to enable the pharaoh’s ascent. In addition, each true pyramid contained within it a stepped pyramid simultaneously functioning as a heavenly stairway. Moreover, by its very design and its placement on the heights above the city of Memphis, the pyramid furnished a perpetual reminder of the mound of creation. Finally, the priestly staff of the temple complex performed the necessary rituals to enable the pharaoh to achieve his divine status and to preserve his spiritual connection with his physical remains. Khufu’s pyramid was actually called the akhet khufu, that is, the location or horizon where Khufu’s Ka and Ba combined to form his eternal Akh. The combination and layering of these relationships rendered each pyramid a source of great spiritual power for the Egyptians. By their very permanence and stature they enabled the magical experience of the deceased pharaoh to occur eternally before their eyes. The cult of the dead pharaoh thus furnishes the best example of the various ways that the Egyptian civilization combined and reformulated various strands of religious tradition to articulate a comprehensive, multi-faceted world view.


Besides the pyramid the tomb complexes of the Old Kingdom incorporated shrines and sanctuaries for the conduct of sacred rites, domestic quarters for priests and servants, a riverside quay connecting the temple complex to barge traffic on the Nile, and perhaps most importantly a significant hinterland of villages and farms to sustain the laboring population necessary to build and maintain the complex and to feed the entire community. Mastaba complexes essentially were small cities devoted to the cult of dead pharaohs, constructed one after another in succession for nearly two centuries. On the one hand, this process of mastaba construction created a built landscape along the banks of the Nile so remarkable that its remains continued to inspire foreign visitors thousands of years after their disuse. On the other hand, the continual dedication of manpower, building material, agricultural terrain, and food stuffs to the cults of long dead pharaohs must inevitably have diminished the authority of the pharaonic regime. By the Fifth Dynasty the size of pyramids diminished, suggesting that resources had become increasingly limited. The central importance of the cult of the dead pharaohs appears to have declined. Instead of planning their burials in the mastaba complexes of the pharaohs, for example, Egyptian bureaucrats constructed separate tombs for themselves in their nomitic places of origin. One scenario suggests that a “tipping point” arrived toward the end of the Old Kingdom from which the hierarchy could not right itself, precipitating societal collapse. More recently scholars have suggested, however, that the royal hierarchy merely shifted its attention to the construction of other necessary complexes such as temple sanctuaries, particularly that of the sun god Re at Heliopolis. With a sustained duration of 500 years, it is hazardous to pin the collapse of the Old Kingdom on any one causal factor.


State and Society in Old Kingdom Egypt

To rule the unified realm of the Old Kingdom, the pharaohs employed an elaborate bureaucratic hierarchy, including a vizier (or prime minister, e.g., Imhotep, the vizier to the Pharaoh Djozer) and a bureaucracy organized according to five separate ministries – agriculture, justice, labor, treasury, and trade. The vizier controlled all the ministries and answered directly and exclusively to the king. Beneath him stood a second echelon of high ranking officials, including the state granary official, the state treasurer, and the overseer of the great courts. The significance of further offices, such as the king’s son, or the royal sandal bearer, remains lost on us despite their evident importance. Below this echelon came the relatives of the vizier, the provincial governors, the priests of the major temples, minor officials within the bureaucracy, and the priests of local deities. The offices of all these administrators were staffed by an educated hierarchy of scribes. To stimulate the proper attitude and behavior within the bureaucracy, the pharaonic regime employed a cognitive system of rewards and privileges. In principle no office was hereditary; they were awarded on the basis of demonstrated instances of duty and devotion to the king himself and to the Egyptian people. Instead of aristocratic genealogies or noble descent, the tomb autobiographies of Egyptian officials, noted above, recount the numerous services performed for the regime. Titles served to designate an individual’s rank and position within the state hierarchy and his right to various privileges. In their autobiographies successful bureaucrats defined their careers according to the number of titles they accumulated (48 in one instance). If the pharaoh chose, he could advance capable individuals of modest means to high positions, gifts of landed estates, and other perquisites. He could likewise remove persons from office and withdraw their benefits. Aristocratic elements within the hierarchy appear to have worked the system to their advantage, nonetheless. Most officials appear to have originated from wealthy landholding families of the Pre-Dynastic Era, and activities such as influence peddling and the use of family connections to advance one’s career were commonplace. Offices gradually became hereditary, and lands granted to officials by the king increasingly came to be treated as private property. Scenes depicted in tomb paintings at the necropolis at Saqqara indicate that most Egyptian bureaucrats lived comfortably in large households staffed with slaves. By the last phase of the Old Kingdom many nobles had grown powerful in their own right and governed their respective spheres independent of the king. As noted above, Egyptian officials increasingly opted out of burial at the pharaoh’s mastaba complex in favor of tombs constructed in their home districts. By the 6th Dynasty Egyptian nobles no longer believed that their immortality depended on the proximity of their remains to those of the pharaoh. 


Beneath the bureaucracy stood a population of farmers whose lives were minutely controlled by the hierarchy. The primary focus of the Egyptian economy was the production of stored food surpluses, and the pharaohs used the extensive reach of their bureaucracy to harness the full laboring potential of the inhabitants of the Nile Valley. Although the Nile current flowed from south to north, the prevailing winds blew in the opposite direction, rendering the entire inhabited zone accessible by navigation. No farming village stood more than a few kilometers from the water’s edge. Scribal authorities could thus disembark, enter a community, and scrutinize every aspect of its agricultural production. After monitoring local production they reported back to their respective ministries. Each of the ministries engaged in volumes of record keeping. As an example, we are told by one surviving document that a laborer working at a royal tomb at Luxor had to obtain several signed forms (the Egyptian equivalent of “forms in triplicate”) merely to obtain candles to conduct his work at the tomb’s interior. Egyptian authorities relied extensively on forced labor, the corvée system, to complete public works projects such as pyramid construction. Hard work was expected in short bursts during peak laboring periods. During the flood season, for example, laborers were drafted for non-agricultural tasks, such as monument construction. Completion of one task would merely lead to the assignment of another. Rebellious subjects, assuming there were any, were faced with an imponderable predicament – how to escape? The inhabitable region was so restricted and the desert expanses on the periphery so vast and lifeless that flight was hardly an option. By and large, the farming population remained restricted to an isolated, highly localized existence of sustained menial labor. Yet, even in this oppressive environment government authorities were unable to dominate the population unremittingly. Confronted by the prospect of habitual work, laborers maintained a slow pace of life while delighting in sideline conveniences. Small town markets arose along the river bank furnishing places of commerce and recreation. Clusters of shops offered amenities such as hairdressing and refreshments such as wine and emmer beer to crowds assembling from surrounding villages. Oftentimes the need to obtain a desirable promotion compelled a bureaucrat to incentivize arrangements with foremen and laborers to meet some deadline, production quota, or urgent delivery of materials. The evidence suggests, therefore, that beneath the appearance of a highly regimented society, at a personal level daily life in Egypt required a process of give and take regardless of rank. Despite its vast production the Egyptian population remained relatively small and rural. Apart from Memphis few of the urban centers qualified as genuine cities. These factors render the architectural achievements of the Old Kingdom all the more spectacular.


INSERT TABLE 4: Egyptian Population Estimates Through Time

·       Before 3100 BC, less than 1/2 million

·       3000 - 1 million

·       2500 - 1.5 million

·       New Kingdom - 3 million

·       100 AD - 7.5 million

·       1882 AD - 7 million

·       Today - 90 million


Such achievements would not have been possible without the benefit of intellectual achievements attained by the scribal schools. The Egyptians excelled in mathematics and geometry, they devised a decimal-based numerical system, they mastered the ability to calculate areas and volumes of spaces and voids, and through astrological research they determined the direction of true North and the precise movements of the constellations. The daily practice of mummification made Egyptian doctors masters of human anatomy and remarkably skilled with surgical procedures. Egyptian knowledge tended to be applied rather than theoretical, however. Egyptian bureaucrats needed to solve practical problems such as determining the amount of men and material necessary to build a large ramp or a pyramid of a specific size or to calculate the amount of food and supplies necessary to equip a work crew. Numerous accomplishments achieved under the security and stability of the Old Kingdom regime remain visible to this day.


Transitions in Political and Social Organization (First Intermediate Periods and the Middle Kingdom)

As noted above, by the end of the Old Kingdom the pharaonic regime lost its grip on Egyptian society. In one respect power shifted from the royal household to the priestly hierarchies that dominated sanctuaries such as the temple of Re at Heliopolis. The pharaonic ideology was adapted slightly to accommodate this shift: the cult of Horus, the cornerstone of the pharaonic ruler cult, increasingly became identified with that of Re; Horus was even renamed Re-Horakhty, or Re the Horus of the horizon. By the 5th Dynasty many sanctuaries became financially independent of the crown, having benefited from repeated gifts of land, labor forces, and resources. The ministers and lower echelons of the bureaucracy likewise grew independent; in tomb autobiographies fewer ministers demonstrated blood ties to the king, and ministerial positions became increasingly hereditary. As noted in the previous chapter, a brief fluctuation in regional climate possibly occurred around 2200-2100 BC, provoking extreme aridness and famine. Egyptian records record that the Nile flooding fell to dangerously low levels. Declining crop yields possibly undermined the credibility and with it the legitimacy of the pharaonic regime, leading the Egyptian population to believe that the pharaoh was no longer capable of maintaining Ma’at. The long and inattentive reign of the last pharaoh, Pepi II (2278-2184 BC), initiated an era of societal collapse, anarchy, and instability along the entire length of the Nile. By the time of the 7th and 8th Dynasties, power devolved back to the local level of the nomarchs. These declared themselves kings and warred incessantly among themselves. According to the baleful descriptions of life during the First Intermediate Period (2200-2050 BC), foreign trade collapsed, standards of living declined, and famine and disease became widespread. Since many of these texts were recorded later to justify the emergence of a stable regime during the Middle Kingdom (2050-1730 BC), they conceivably portrayed conditions during the Intermediate Period in the worst possible light. The complaints they raise do appear to be supported, however, by a number of contemporary indicators, including the absence of royal building projects, the lack of mining, quarrying, or trading expeditions, and a dearth of royal inscriptions.


Order was finally restored by the 11th Dynasty pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom (2120-1780 BC). The Pharaoh Mentuhotep II changed his Horus name to “Unifier of the Two Lands” to celebrate the restoration of Egyptian unity. Having reasserted the Egyptian frontier in Nubia, Mentuhotep II initiated necessary reforms and put an end to the autonomy of the nomarchs. A prison register listing Egyptians who were assigned to government farms and labor camps for refusing to comply with the demands of the new regime testifies to its renewed vigor. Although the pharaonic ideology of the Old Kingdom was revived, subtle changes became detectable. For the most part, the symbolism of the new regime followed on the traditions developed during the Old Kingdom at Memphis and Heliopolis in the north; however, the new pharaohs accentuated the fact of their origin at Thebes in Upper Egypt, both ideologically and materially. Originally a minor local deity of Thebes, Amon now assumed prominence as the chief deity of the Egyptian pantheon. He absorbed the nature and identity of the god Min of Coptos and gradually became reformulated as Amon-Re, thus, merging the local cult of Thebes with the traditional cult of Heliopolis to the north. In its emerging temple complex at Karnak on the outskirts of Thebes, Amon-Re rapidly acquired preeminence. Thebes became significant in other ways as well. Although the pharaoh and his court assumed residence at a newly constructed palace complex outside Memphis, there were regular royal visits to Thebes. The largest building programs, oftentimes combining the best of Lower and Upper Egyptian burial traditions, were conducted almost exclusively in Upper Egypt. These include a new palace complex at Thebes, the temple complex of Amon-Re on the outskirts of the city of Karnak, and the mortuary temple and tomb of Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahri. In addition, Theban nobles assumed leadership positions throughout the bureaucracy. For the remainder of the Bronze Age the leadership of this formerly insignificant nomitic capital would form the main spring to Egyptian imperial authority. Although the flowchart of the vizier and his echelon of ministers remained largely intact, the need to communicate more effectively with authorities along the Nile led to the reorganization of the kingdom into three provinces:  the North (lower Egypt), the South (Upper Egypt) and the head of the South (Elephantine and Lower Nubia). Each of these provinces was administered by a senior official assisted by a council of advisers and a necessary complement of scribes.


Extensive reuse of building materials during the New Kingdom essentially denuded the remains of Middle Kingdom building complexes, leaving us with a limited impression of its grandeur. However, the remains of large and impressive fortresses in Nubia testify to the construction enterprises of the regime as well as to its determination to control relations with peoples beyond the second cataract. Communications with the Mediterranean world were likewise improved during the Middle Kingdom, particularly with coastal communities in Canaan and Phoenicia. Preserved records indicate that the Egyptians dispatched large cargoes of papyrus and prestige goods to ports such as Byblos in exchange for timber from the Lebanese Mts. Much like the Middle Bronze Age experience in Mesopotamia, therefore, the Egyptian Middle Kingdom represented an era of investment and reorganization that would lay the foundation for greater things to come.


Subtle changes are also detectable in the foundations of Egyptian religious belief. During the Middle Kingdom pharaohs were no longer viewed as divine entities walking on the earth. Instead, the pharaohs presented themselves as paternalistic, task-worn administrators who bore the burden of rule for the benefit of Egypt. Instructional texts of the era openly acknowledged the king’s fallibility and humanity, though the need to act in accordance with Ma’at remained implicit in all dealings. The exclusivity of the pharaoh’s role in the afterlife likewise deteriorated during the independent days of the First Intermediate Period. Although the conceptualization of the after world remained largely intact, afterlife was now viewed as something attainable by the wider population of the Middle Kingdom. Revised notions of afterlife rationalized that despite the ever present chaos and anarchy of the mortal realm, the gods would ultimately restore the balance of Ma’at in the eternal realm. All citizens high and low needed to prepare themselves to face a final judgment. A council of gods, convened by Re but presided over by Osiris, who now assumed responsibility as the God of the Dead, would judge each person’s deeds. As the accompanying illustration from the Egyptian Book of the Dead indicates, the gods weighed the heart of the deceased against that of a feather, the symbol of Ma’at. The heart had to be so free from sin that it weighed less than the scale bearing the feather. To attain heavenly bliss one had to live one’s life righteously in accordance with Ma’at; those who failed to do so would not survive their corporeal existence. This development was already visible during the First Intermediate Period when Egyptian nobles not only usurped the pharaoh’s power and titles but also his ability to combine his Ba and Ka to form an Akh. Magical texts formerly reserved for the kings and their relatives began to appear on the coffins of Egyptian nobles (what are known as coffin texts). The demand for coffin texts was so great that they were gradually compiled in papyrus form to create the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Apart from this literature widespread use of scarabs - large elaborately carved stone images of dung beetles with human faces - likewise confirm the widespread acceptance of afterlife beliefs at this time. So great was the fear of the final judgment that the relatives of the deceased would place a scarab on the chest of the interred corpse to prevent the heart (as one of the five essential components of the Egyptian soul) from testifying about the person’s failings during the final judgment. As a further precaution the scarabs were frequently inscribed with declarations of innocence and negative confessions. Anyone who could afford the costs of mummification, a mastaba tomb, the sustained practice of the necessary rites -- and, of course, the conviction of a blameless life -- could expect to become god in the after world. Obviously, only a small portion of the Egyptian population could afford these requirements; nonetheless, the popularization of afterlife lore represented a significant departure from the previous era.


Due to the nature of the surviving literature, the Middle Kingdom is often described as the classic age of the Egyptian scribal hierarchy. Scribes imposed minute control over every aspect of agricultural production. Instructional handbooks offered Egyptian bureaucrats advice for dealing with the people. One such instruction recommended that when meeting with an assembly of disgruntled peasants, a scribe should pretend to listen earnestly to their complaints and otherwise feign sympathy and understanding. This eliminated the need of actually having to do anything. As another prescript noted, scribes exist to drive the ignorant man like a pack animal. Much like conditions in Middle Bronze Age Mesopotamia, the pace of developments in Middle Kingdom Egypt eventually appear to have eclipsed the ability of the pharaonic regime to sustain authority. Heightened contact with Nubia and urban settlements in the eastern Mediterranean created new opportunities for trade and development. The agents responsible for this trade appear increasingly to have evaded the control of the Egyptian bureaucracy. At the same time the expansion of Egyptian interests abroad only served to advertize its wealth and prosperity to unwelcome neighbors. Ultimately it became a target for migrating nomads. By the 13th dynasty Egypt once again descended into an era of confusion, dissension, and political disintegration.


The Second Intermediate Period (1720-1550 BC)

The Second Intermediate Period endured considerably longer than the first. In this instance chaos was induced primarily by the invasion and conquest of a large part of northern Egypt by a foreign element referred to the Egyptians as the Hyksos (“the foreign rulers,” 15th Dynasty). Egyptian sources of the New Kingdom era were decidedly hostile to these invaders, rendering it difficult to arrive at an objective appraisal. Manetho described them as men of base origin who marched boldly against the land and overran it while encountering no resistance. Having seized Egyptian leaders as prisoners, they savagely burned the cities and demolished the shrines of the gods. They treated all the inhabitants with scorn, slaughtering some and reducing the women and children of others into slavery. The evidence suggests not so much a path of destruction, however, as one of technological superiority and political accommodation. The invaders employed advanced weaponry -- horse chariots, bronze helmets, scaled armor (bronze metal being previously unknown to the Egyptians), and compound bows – to overwhelm the natives. As with the Middle Bronze Age in Mesopotamia, the introduction of chariot warfare revolutionized Egyptian military science in the coming era. The infiltrating population settled first in the delta region of the Nile and then quickly assumed control over key transportation nodes along the river valley. Excavations at the site of the Hyksos capital of Avaris, modern Tell el-Dab’a at the eastern end of the delta, indicate the presence of large numbers of Semitic speaking immigrants already by the late Middle Kingdom. The collapse of the Egyptian central government after 1720 BC appears to have opened the way to a second and even larger influx of immigrants from across the Sinai. Similarities in defensive architecture and the finds of numerous Canaanite jars at Avaris demonstrate a very close relationship between the Hyksos of the delta and the communities of that region.Those who accept the Old Testament tradition of the Book of Genesis argue that the migration of the Hebrews into Egypt logically occurred with that of the Hyksos. By ca.1650 BC Hyksos rulers extended their authority beyond the delta to the middle valley of the Nile, compelling the nomarchs of these regions to become their vassals. Even the kings of Thebes were compelled to pay tribute for a time, though the Hyksos’ hold on distant nomes such as Thebes remained short lived. The startling discovery of Minoan frescoes in the palace complex at Avaris in 1992 as well as of Hyksos artifacts in Crete demonstrates that the invaders enjoyed trade and political relationships as far removed as the south Aegean.


With the collapse of central authority along the Nile, other neighbors such as the Nubians to the south overthrew the Middle Kingdom’s garrisons to organize the principality of Kush. The presence of Minoan and Hyksos artifacts beyond the 3rd cataract at Kerma, the capital of Kush, demonstrates that the Hyksos controlled the prestige trade from sub-Saharan Africa as well. They probably bypassed Theban control of the Upper Nile Valley by utilizing the caravan routes that passed through a network of oases west of the Nile. The Hyksos thus appear to have successfully isolated the former hierarchy at Thebes and to have hijacked the trade routes of the Nile. When Khamose, the founder of the Theban New Kingdom, assaulted Avaris around 1550 BC, he reportedly found some 300 cargo ships moored at anchor, all laden with imported wealth - lapis lazuli, silver, turquoise, bronze axes, incense, and timber. Although the Hyksos kings bore Semitic names such as Sakir-han and Khan, they otherwise adopted the standard titles of the Egyptian kings and employed native Egyptians as high ranking officials at their court. When Khamose (1554-1549) and his brother, Ahmose I (1550-1525), conquered the Hyksos in the 1500s BC, they encountered as much resistance from native Egyptian elements in the Nile delta as they did from the Hyksos themselves. Led by these warrior kings the Theban hierarchy nonetheless reasserted control along the length of the Nile. The experience of the Hyksos interlude appears to have compelled the Theban hierarchy to adapt to the new realities of the wider Near East as well as to the quickening pace of international affairs during the Late Bronze Age. The result was a more aggressive policy of overseas intervention and imperial hegemony.


The Egyptian New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC)

Through repeated military campaigns the Theban pharaohs Khamose (1554-1549) and Ahmose I (1550-1525) extended unified authority along the Nile Valley from the 3rd cataract in Nubia to the Hyksos-dominated delta. The military campaigns against the Hyksos were particularly ferocious and ultimately cost Khamose his life. To suppress Hyksos resistance altogether, Ahmose had to extend military operations beyond the delta to Hyksos bastions in Canaan, setting the stage not only for Egyptian imperialism but also for the rise of an Egyptian military hierarchy. In what is unquestionably the best recorded era of Egyptian history, the remnants of an historical narrative for Late Bronze Age developments begins to emerge. Royal correspondence for the 18th dynasty was recovered from a deposit of clay tablets at Tel el Amarna. These illuminate a pattern of communications with neighboring powers of the day. Royal inscriptions have likewise been recorded in Nubia and Abu Simbel, and extensive archaeological remains have been published at sites such as Deir el Medina, the Valley of the Kings, Karnak, Luxor, Pi-Ramses, and Amarna. Egyptian pharaohs conducted repeated razzias into Canaan and coastal Syria, culminating in the crossing of the Euphrates River by King Thutmose I (1506–1493 BC). The same pharaoh also marched to the 3rd cataract in Nubia and constructed a canal there to suppress native resistance more effectively. In less than a century the early kings of the New Kingdom acquired a vast empire extending nearly 2500 km north-south and established themselves as the undisputed superpower of the Late Bronze Age. They compelled dozens of petty kings at maritime city states in Canaan, Cyprus, and Cilicia to accept Egyptian suzerainty and in many instances they imposed permanent military garrisons. They amassed hauls of booty from their military campaigns as well as tribute collected annually from subject states. They established themselves as the political and military rivals of empires as far removed as the Hittites in Anatolia, the Mycenaeans and Arzawans in the Aegean, and the Marians, Assyrians, and Babylonians in Mesopotamia. The Egyptian pharaohs of the New Kingdom became the standard by which all other regional kings measured their worth. To be recognized by a New Kingdom pharaoh as a brother or to forge a marriage alliance with him was to establish a neighboring king as a member of the world’s great powers. The international relations of the era will be discussed in greater detail in the subsequent chapter; for now it is essential to focus on the impact these developments had in Egypt.


The aggressive militarism of the New Kingdom had a profound effect on Egyptian domestic affairs. Unlike previous eras where military leaders rarely appeared in bureaucratic records, military professionals now occupied significant and high ranking positions. In many ways Egyptian civilization adapted to a permanent war footing. As the examples of Khamose and Ahmose make clear, the pharaohs themselves assumed status as the New Kingdom’s leading warriors. They were frequently portrayed fighting from their chariots, firing arrows and clubbing adversaries with maces. King Thutmose III (1479-1425) became the epitome of the warrior pharaoh, conducting 17 military campaigns during a 30-year reign. According to his res gestae inscribed on the walls of the Temple of Amon-Re at Karnak, Thutmose III captured 350 cities and extended the territory of the New Kingdom from the Orontes and Euphrates Rivers in northern Syria to the 4th cataract of the Nile. His son, Amonhotep II (1427–1401 BC), was equally successful. After one memorable campaign in Palestine, he reportedly returned to Egypt with more than 2200 prisoners, 820 captured horses, 730 captured chariots, and ship loads of booty.


To manage the business of warfare, the New Kingdom pharaohs established a permanent military administration, typically directed by the crown prince who himself regularly served as a military commander. Standing garrisons were organized in Egypt and abroad, and the army was sustained by a continuous process of military recruitment and training. Recruiting officers toured villages along the Nile to press inhabitants into service, often times resorting to a perfunctory selection of one male out of every ten within the population. Scholars estimate that every Egyptian family had at least one relative in the army. Soldiers trained from youth at military camps and learned to fight with an array of weapons, including bows, spears, battle axes, sickle swords, and body armor, all manufactured and furnished by the state. Mercenaries were likewise recruited from nearby Bedouin populations of the Libyan Desert as well as from distant Mycenaean settlements in the Aegean. Mercenaries possibly accounted for as many as half the Egyptian forces under arms. The Egyptian army grew accordingly. Khamose and Ahmose combatted the Hyksos with one division of 5000 warriors each; by the time of Ramses II (ca, 1303–1213 BC), there were four divisions or 20,000 infantry. Additional forces included logistical and reconnaissance detachments, and most important of all dozens of squadrons of highly prized chariot warriors. These large, fast, mobile units demonstrated the capacity to outmaneuver infantry forces in the field, to inspire panic and confusion, and to pursue fleeing adversaries with devastating effect. Since the cost of acquiring war horses and chariots was beyond the reach of most Near Eastern principalities, these weapons furnished the great empires of the Egyptians and the Hittites with a distinct military advantage. The chariot corps quickly assumed status as an elite force from which leadership cadres were recruited, so much so that the Hurrian name for chariot warrior, maryannu, became universally recognized as a status designation, essentially the “top guns” of their day. To pursue their careers, young Egyptian nobles were likewise expected to train in chariot warfare from an early age, and to learn how to balance themselves while in motion, fire weapons while simultaneously driving the horses, and maneuver the vehicle at high speeds while hunting, fighting, or racing. Egyptian nobles were expected to volunteer to serve alongside the king’s own chariot and to form his bodyguard during battle. As with the infantry the size of this force continually expanded. The greatest warrior pharaoh, Tutmosis III, marched to the Euphrates with a corps of twenty squadrons, or 1000 chariots; by the time of Ramses II’s campaign at Kadesh (1274 BC) the number of Egyptian war chariots surpassed 3500. In addition, the Egyptian hierarchy developed a sizeable navy to transport, supply, and sustain the army in distant theaters of war. In the campaign of Thutmose III’s on the Euphrates, the army was actually transported by sea to Byblos in northern Syria. Sailors and marines then carried some of the smaller ships by ox-cart across the Lebanese mountains to the Euphrates River. They simultaneously logged timber in the mountains and conveyed this to the Euphrates to construct additional galleys and barges. This enabled the pharaoh to penetrate across the river and deep into Hittite territory with devastating effect. Sailing triumphally along the river, Thutmose III then erected a pillar to record his exploits directly beside the one erected decades earlier by his father, Thutmose II. In short, the era of the Egyptian New Kingdom was consumed by military conflict and overseas conquest.  For two centuries the forces of the New Kingdom clashed with those of the Hittites of Anatolia to determine who would dominate the marcher regions of Syria and Canaan. The experience of the Second Intermediate Period, particularly the impact of the invasion of the Hyksos from Canaan, convinced the Theban hierarchy that the world had become a small and dangerous place. The only way to insure the security of the unified kingdom was to restrict all likelihood of military confrontation to regions beyond the valley of the Nile.


Several additional aspects of bureaucratic reorganization were necessary to accommodate the needs of the New Kingdom Empire. Close proximity to military theaters in Syria and Canaan induced the hierarchy in Thebes to relocate to Memphis where a new royal palace and military headquarters were constructed. The vast territories of the empire now demanded the appointment of two viziers, one for the north and one for the south. These officials and their interior ministries remained responsible for civic order, for the assessment and collection of taxes, for the maintenance of royal archives and their documentary output, for the appointment and supervision of subordinate officials, and for the adjudication of land privileges and property rights. One of their chief responsibilities was to harness the capacity of their agencies to generate reliable data. The New Kingdom bureaucracy generated abundant reports about local governors and their activities, weather conditions and their likely impact on agricultural production, and repeatedly up-dated reports about the levels of the floods. Agricultural production remained pivotal to the maintenance of the empire. The evidence suggests that population density grew considerably during the New Kingdom, doubling that of the previous era, possibly due to the influx of warriors and the need to accommodate mercenaries and veterans with land. This put agricultural terrain at a premium and led to the expansion of farming into dried up wadis along the perimeter of the Nile. The shaduf, a levering device used to lift and raise water from river and canal basins, was possibly invented at this time as a way to expand irrigation to new regions of production. However, slave labor amassed during foreign military campaigns also played an important role. The Pharaoh Amenhotep II boasted, for example, of having hauled to Egypt 89,600 prisoners during one particular campaign in Canaan around 1420 BC.


Still another significant reorganization occurred within the administration of state supported temple complexes. Although not as impressive architecturally as the pyramids of the Old Kingdom, the construction of temples and burial monuments expanded at a bewildering rate during the New Kingdom, siphoning off an enormous percentage of Egyptian wealth. Many of the most famous surviving monuments of modern Egypt were constructed at this time, including the Temples of Amon-Re at Karnak and Luxor near Thebes, the burial memorials of Hatshepsut at Dier el-Bahri, of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, and the massive palace complexes and military installations at Thebes, Memphis, Akhetaton, and Pi-Ramses. Thebes in particular became the kingdom’s religious capital and was embellished with massive temple complexes dedicated to Amon-Re at Karnak and Luxor. The pharaohs of the early 18th dynasty regarded this god as their patron and protector and promoted his cult with lavish building projects and massive gifts of land and wealth. The construction and maintenance of each of these sanctuaries required a sizeable commitment of labor power and material. The pharaohs encouraged these developments by extending to their priestly hierarchies tax and labor exemptions and by assigning them slave- and tenant-farmers throughout the Nile. Since the temple administrators were selected from within the hierarchy, the sanctuaries and their property essentially remained property of the realm, adding to the luster of the regime. It seems certain, nonetheless, that the authority of priests and other high ranking bureaucrats became inordinate and with the passing of time hereditary. As an example of their economic prowess, one can point to the holdings of the Temple of Amon Re at Luxor. According to the Harris papyrus, the sanctuary drew on the resources of 169 towns, 500 gardens, vineyards, and orchards, 88 cargo ships, 500,000 head of cattle. Its wealth incorporated approximately one-fifth the available population and one-third the arable land of all Egypt. The warrior pharaohs of the New Kingdom appear to have delegated these responsibilities to the administrators of these temple complexes and to have employed them as surrogates for the expansion of agricultural terrain. The flow chart of the New Kingdom hierarchy accordingly grew in complexity.


Flow Chart of the New Kingdom Egyptian Hierarchy




















Examples of the lavishness of royal life have emerged from the imperial cemeteries in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. Beginning with the 18th dynasty in Thebes, pharaohs elected to disguise their tombs in the barren canyons opposite Thebes, probably because of the abundant evidence of tomb robbing during previous eras. The priceless artifacts recovered from the tomb of King Tutankhamen furnish an ample indication of the richness of Egypt’s trade in exotic goods - fine woods from sub-Saharan Africa, precious metals from the desert mountains, lapis lazuli from Central Asia – as well as proof of the existence of highly skilled labor necessary to manufacture the inlaid chairs, beds, sarcophagi, and gilded head dresses preserved within this tomb. These finds indicate the vigor of Egypt’s commercial reach across continents and seas, with Egypt’s own productive capacity furnishing the engine of the world system. Egypt’s apparent monopoly of the gold trade originating from southern Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa put it at a distinct advantage vis-a-vis its neighbors. At a more mundane level one can point to the widespread distribution patterns of transport jars or amphoras, used to convey staple goods such as wine, olive oil, honey, and wax across the Mediterranean Sea. An important designator of tribute payments and trade, the Canaanite jar has been found in regions as distant as the Mycenaean Aegean and Nubia. Mycenaean Stirrup Jars (smaller in form and possibly used to convey perfumed oils) exhibit an even wider distribution pattern, having been identified in places such as Syria, Canaan, the Nile Delta, Italy, and Cornwall in Britain.


With so much international trade and political authority, it is not surprising that the status of the Egyptian pharaoh and the ideology of the Egyptian ruler cult underwent significant reinvention at this time, particularly during the 18th dynasty. Although the evidence for this is fragmentary, the pharaohs of the 18th dynasty worked to redefine their place in the Egyptian ideology by calling more immediate attention to themselves. Several, including Hatshepsut and Amonhotep IV (Akhnaton), appear to have innovated with cult practices to redefine themselves as living deities. This effort appears to have been greeted with general opprobrium throughout Egypt. Coinciding as their reigns did with the climax of the New Kingdom Empire itself, these innovations and the energy expended on them appeared to have played causal roles in the collapse of the Egyptian New Kingdom.


The most novel departure for the Egyptian ruling cult was intiated by the female pharaoh, Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BC). Hatshepsut was the daughter of King Thutmose I, who when he died was succeeded by his son, Hatshepsut’s half brother, Thutmose II. Thutmose II married Hatshepsut and recognized her as his chief wife and the divine wife of Amon. When Thutmose II died shortly thereafter, Hatshepsut decided to assume the throne herself. Presumably her initial purpose was to act as regent to the infant prince, Thutmose III, her late brother’s son by a lesser wife. The vulnerability of an infant prince and the fact that the line of Thutmose itself had arisen from a cadet branch of the royal family probably raised questions about its legitimacy. Regardless, Hatshepsut proved unwilling to relinquish the throne when Thutmose III came of age. She assumed status as the king of Egypt and reigned ultimately for 21 years. As noted earlier, in her iconography she portrayed herself decidedly as a man. As the monarch she successfully maintained the New Kingdom’s imperial status abroad, organizing raids into Nubia and Palestine and trading expeditions to Punt (Eritrea). On her demise she had inscribed on the wall of her mortuary temple at Dier el-Bahri a remarkable account of her birth. According to this document she was conceived by the god Amon, who disguised himself as Hatsheptsut’s father, Thutmose I, and impregnated her mother. In other words, Hatshepsut claimed to be the immediate progeny of the god Amon and divinely entitled, therefore, to her position as pharaoh. She additionally claimed – quite falsely -- that her father had declared her his co-regent and that he had publically designated her as his successor. The question is legitimately raised, therefore, as to whether this represented an attempt to reinvent the ideology of the ruler cult or merely an effort to mask her irregular ascent to the throne with divine justification. Later evidence suggests that her arguments failed to convince her intended audience. Despite the fact that her eventual successor, Tutmosis III (1479-1425), shared her authority as co-regent for more than twenty years, he was compelled decades later to remove her name from inscribed monuments throughout the land (damnatio memoriae). Egyptians apparently interpreted her assumption of power, not to mention her outlandish claim of divine descent, as an affront to the balance and order of Ma’at.


Hatshepsut’s innovation was later revisited by the Pharaoh Amonhotep IV (1353-1336 BC), who appears to have pursued a deliberate program of personal deification. Unlike Hatshepsut Amonhotep, or as he came to be known after changing his name, Akhenaton, did not wait until the end of his career to announce his divine status. From the outset of his reign, he promoted the cult of a new deity—the Aton, or the dazzling sun disk. Evidence demonstrates that this cult was already cultivated by his father, Amonhotep III (Amonhotep the Magnificent, 1391-1353 BC), who constructed a lavish royal barge for his state festivals that he named the Aton. Amonhotep IV went further by initiating a program of exclusive devotion to this god at the expense of those to all other Egyptian deities. As noted, he changed his name from Amonhotep to Akhnaton (meaning effective for Aton) and refashioned all five of his official names to refer to the Aton in one manner or another. By the sixth year of his reign he decided to relocate the palace hierarchy from Thebes to a newly established capital named Akhetaton (Tel el Amarna). Located equidistant from the traditional centers of power, Thebes and Memphis, the site appears to have been deliberately selected as an alternative capital where Akhenaton could implement the Aton cult in relative seclusion.


To pay for the construction, he diverted the revenues from the Temples of Amon-Re at Karnak and Luxor to his new cult centers for the Aton. Once denied funding the first mentioned sanctuaries were effectively closed. Along with the change in his own name, Akhenaton attempted to suppress the name of Amon altogether. He ordered its removal from inscribed monuments throughout Egypt including the elimination of cartouches that recorded his father, Amonhotep III. Agents were set to the task of hacking the names of Amon and other proscribed deities from monuments and were simultaneously instructed to destroy the sacred images of Egyptian gods. By this action Akhenaton essentially deprived the Egyptian public of their cherished cults, public and private, in the interest of a new cult to be mediated byhimself.


The ideology of the Aton cult has intrigued scholars for decades. By assuming his new name, Akhenaton proclaimed himself as the transfigured earthly representative of the solar orb. In Akhenaton’s surviving religious composition, the Hymn of Aton, he professed exclusive veneration for the life-giving energy of the sun, the blessings of family, peace, and the fecundity of nature. His wife Nefertiti was similarly recognized as a divine intermediary, completing a divine triad of the Aton, Akhenaton, and his wife. The new cult emphasized the bonds of family and child nurturing.  A sunken relief on an altar stele recovered in Thebes displays the king attending to his family: the king and queen are shown fondling one another lovingly or playing dotingly with their daughters. In the relief illustrated in the accompanying image the rays of the Aton are visibly touching the nostrils of the two monarchs - as though they were breathing in its divine essence, as well as touching the inscribed cartouches that bear the name their daughters. In marked contrast with the virile portraits of previous New Kingdom pharaohs, Akhenaton is portrayed with decidedly unflattering features:  a flowing rounded outline, a protruding belly, narrow sloping shoulders, effeminate breasts, fleshy hips and thighs, and spindly lower legs. His head appears particularly deformed, with its pronounced chin, fleshy lips, sloping forehead, and a long skinny neck. Some have argued that the portrayals of the king were deliberately calculated to present the pharaoh as transgendered, ethereal, and other worldly. In this manner he sought to convey the notion that he was simultaneously a divine being and the androgynous parent figure of the state of Egypt. Even the name of the new capital, Akhetaton, literally the horizon of Aton, implied not merely the place where the sky met the earth, but also the home of light and the sole location where a deceased Egyptian could expect to become an Akh, or glorified spirit. All aspects of the new ideology thus focused on the emerging relationship between the Aton, his domain at Akhetaton, and his two intermediaries in the royal family.


Akhenaton’s ruler cult focused particularly on this last mentioned component, the bond between the Aton and the royal family. The divine triad of the Aton, Akhenaton, and Nefertiti, now assumed responsibility for the well being of all Egypt. Public attention was directed exclusively toward the god king through whom the Aton’s blessings were mediated. All other gods were excluded. In tomb inscriptions recorded by members of the hierarchy at Akhetaton, afterlife was expressed as a gift of the king. Courtiers prayed for the Aton to lavish blessings on the royal family as a preliminary to praying for themselves. In other words, life after death was now obtained exclusively from the king acting as the intermediary of the Aton. Only those in direct and reverent contact with the royal family could hope to obtain it. As if to emphasize the exclusive aura of his religious authority, Akhenaton arranged for giant reliefs of himself to be carved into the cliffs at the frontiers of Akhetaton, therby informing travelers that they were entering the divine abode of the Aton triad. Members of the Egyptian hierarchy had little choice but to relocate to Akhetaton with their king and to comply with his every wish. In tomb reliefs at Amarna, New Kingdom officials of the highest lineage are shown abasing themselves before the king and his royal family. Reluctantly or otherwise, the New Kingdom hierarchy acquiesced to the pharaoh’s megalomaniacal ambition.


Ultimately, Akhenaton appears to have pushed his agenda to the limit, thereby, jeopardizing the good will of the Egyptian populace. Reports of disturbing calamities that befell the royal household further heightened public alarm. Before the end of Akhenaton’s reign, Nefertiti and several other relatives died (including at least three of their daughters, one of Akhenaton’s lesser wives, and his mother). Although Akhenaton worked to maintain the appearance of normalcy, his efforts only added to the confusion. At first he elevated his eldest daughter Meritaton to his wife’s former position as consort. Then he thought better of the idea and replaced her with one of his sons, Smenkhkare. Changing his mind a third time, he married off his latest two consorts, Smenkhkare and Meritaton, and took his second oldest daughter, Ankhesenpaaton, as his wife. Despite the fact that Ankhesenpaaton was only 10 years old, she bore him a daughter prior to his death. With the passing of Akhenaton in 1335 BC, the Egyptian people concluded that the Amarna episode was a failure and had incurred the wrath of the true Egyptian gods. The young king Smenkhkare (1335-1334 BC) quickly attempted to restore popular favor by reopening the Temples of Luxor and Karnak, but he died suddenly as well. The throne then passed quickly to a queen named Neferneferuaten (1334-1332  BC) and finally to another adolescent member of the dynasty, King Tutankhamon (1334-1325), who took as his chief wife Akhnaton’s widow and daughter, Ankhesenpaaton. Tutankhamen continued Smenkhkare’s policy of reconciliation with traditional beliefs. The young king and queen changed their names back to the Amon root and abandoned the palace at Akhetaton in favor of Memphis. In addition, Tutankhamen embarked on a widespread initiative to repair temples damaged by Akhenaton. He reappointed nobles to the traditional priesthoods, refurbished several temples, and restored the resources that had been redirected to the Aton cult by Akhenaton. With Akhetaton a ghost town, the Aton heresy rapidly receded into the past.


Hittite advances in Syria and a mounting rebellion in Nubia eventually demanded Tutankhamon’s attention elsewhere. Since the skull of his mummy exhibits injuries commensurate with a blow to the head, it is likely that he died during one of the military expeditions depicted on the walls of his celebrated tomb in the Valley of the Kings, discovered in 1922. As if conditions were not already sufficiently unstable, Akhenaton’s daughter, Ankhesepaaton, attempted yet another unprecedented initiative. With the dynasty depleted of male heirs, Ankhesepaaton’s grandfather, Ay, imposed himself as regent. Ay had faithfully served the family for decades as general and vizier, and in a bid for the throne he made clear his intention to marry his granddaughter. The aged bureaucrat suddenly passed away, however, and another general, Horemheb, assumed his place and likewise approached the princess. At this point if not earlier, the widowed young queen took the bold step of contacting the Hittite king, Supiluliumas I, to see whether she could secure a marriage with the son (any son) of the New Kingdom’s most formidable rival. My husband died, she wrote in a text recovered at Boğazkoy, and I have no son. People say you have many sons. If you were to send me one of your sons, he might become my husband, for I am loath to accept a servant of mine as my husband. Such a proposal if successful would have placed a foreigner on the Egyptian throne of Isis. As fate would have it, Supiluliumas’ son, Zannzannza, met with calamity while crossing the Sinai, and Ankhesepaaton disappeared shortly thereafter. Horemheb seized the throne (ca. 1319 BC to late 1292 BC) to establish the 19th Dynasty. Instead of Ankhesepaaton he married Ay’s daughter, Nefertiti’s sister, Mutnedjmet. To restore public confidence he undertook a deliberate campaign to eradicate all vestiges of the Aton cult. He ordered the destruction of all monuments constructed by Akhenaton (including the Aton temple at Thebes), and he razed the former capital of Akhetaton to the ground. Any and all inscribed references to the Aton or Akhenaton were eliminated along with the tombs of the dynasty itself. In his official records he dated his reign from the death of Amonhotep III (1353 BC), thus expunging the official memory of the Amarna pharaohs. In the one text he specifically referred to Akhenaton as the enemy from Akhetaton.


In hindsight, one can argue that the religious experiment of Akhenaton was misguided and costly. The Egyptian people apparently concluded that his actions were an affront to Ma’at and a direct challenge to the gods. Although the military hierarchy of New Kingdom Egypt managed to intervene politically and to avert a more serious crisis, in the long run the Akhenaton’s innovations amounted to a distraction that the New Kingdom could ill afford.


The Decline of the New Kingdom, 1293-1050 BC

Although the New Kingdom Empire persisted for another two centuries, there is a tendency to see the demise of the 18th dynasty as its turning point. From here until the emergence of the Sea Peoples in 1186 BC, Egypt repeatedly lost ground against its rivals, the Hittites and the Assyrians, amid reports of growing instability throughout the region. In hindsight, it is easy to assume that the empire embarked on a downward spiral. The royal hierarchy appears to have weathered most of its challenges, nonetheless. Horemheb was able to restore significant credibility to the regime. He addressed widespread complaints of bureaucratic corruption (another likely consequence of Akhenaton’s distraction) by establishing tribunals throughout all the major towns. He replenished the chief positions in the hierarchy, both religious and civil, with military officers loyal to himself. He divided legal authority between two viziers stationed at Memphis and Thebes and reorganized the military into armies of the north and the south. After twenty-five years as pharaoh, however, Horemheb failed to produce a male heir. Fearing likely disorder, he elevated to the throne a vizier with significant military experience, Ramses I (ca. 1292-1290, 19th dynasty). This pharaoh survived for less than two years, and appointed his son Seti I (ca. 1290-1279 BC) as his successor.  Seti managed to advance Egypt’s position in Syria, but the legitimacy of the new 20th dynasty continued to be questioned. These concerns were allayed by the succession of Seti I’s son, Ramses II (1279-1213 BC). Ramses II proved an extremely competent general and one of the greatest pharaohs in Egyptian history. Despite his reputation as one of the greatest builders in world history, however, even Ramses II’s successes were viewed as seeming setbacks.


The new pharaoh was immediately confronted by an array of threats to the New Kingdom– including marauding pirates from the Aegean, the expanding influence of the Hittites and Assyrians in Syria, Bedouin invaders from neighboring deserts, and rebellions in Nubia. During his second year he successfully warded off a naval assault of the Sherden and Lukka pirates, forerunners of the later Sea Peoples. By his fourth year he campaigned against the Hittites who were expanding their hegemony southward in Syria. As a preliminary he constructed a new forward capital at Pi-Ramesses, partly on the site of ancient Avaris, at the eastern end of the Nile Delta. This furnished him with an effective staging ground and weapons depot for his army. The following year he commanded the largest army Egypt had ever assembled, perhaps as many as 30000 infantry and 3500-5000 chariots, in a pitched battle with the Hittite King Muwatallis at the Battle of Kadesh (1274 BC). Although his army suffered heavy losses, he was able to avoid a rout and to proclaim victory despite the appearance of a tactical retreat. In view of his reduced circumstances, Ramses II secured a negotiated peace with his rival that culminated in the celebrated Treaty of Kadesh in 1259 BC. Texts of this document were preserved in the royal archives both at Amarna and Boğazkoy. The cessation of hostilities with the Hittites enabled the pharaoh to concentrate his energies elsewhere. Several of his most significant accomplishments concerned his building enterprises. Generally recognized as one of the three greatest builders of antiquity (alongside Pericles and Augustus), Ramses II erected a palace, several temples, and other structures at Pi Ramesses. He also completed the hypostyle hall at the Temple of Karnak, the magnificent double temple of the Ramesseum near Qurna, and the renowned double temple at Abu Simbel in Nubia.


Following the death of Ramses II in 1213 BC, a steady drumbeat of conflicts and incursions engulfed not only the Egyptian New Kingdom but the entire eastern Mediterranean basin. Examples such as the Fall of Troy (c. 1250-1220 BC), the destruction of Mycenaean palaces (1100 BC) in Greece, the collapse of the Hittite Empire (1160 BC), the movements of the Sea Peoples (1180 BC), and the conflagration of numerous coastal cities in Syria and Canaan, all point to an episode of Late Bronze Age societal collapse. The nature of this crisis will be discussed in the following chapter. Egyptian society managed to survive these catastrophes, but it became increasingly isolated in the process and vulnerable to invasions from without. Following the assaults of the Sea Peoples (1204-1086 BC), Libyan nomads invaded the Nile basin from the neighboring desert (c. 945-720 BC). The last of their incursions was accompanied by Kushites from Sudan (c. 727 BC). The land was later conquered by the Assyrians (c. 700 BC), by the Persians (c. 525 BC), and by Alexander the Great (332 BC). It was then ruled by the descendants of one of Alexander's generals, Ptolemy I. The last Ptolemy, Queen Cleopatra, perished in 30 BC, leaving Egypt to become absorbed into the patrimony of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty of Rome. This string of setbacks obscures the fact that Egypt remained one of the critical junctures for food production and trade throughout the Classical Era. Despite its relatively small population, the Egyptian civilization achieved remarkable heights due to the unique qualities and resources of its riverine environment. Egyptian skills in architecture, stone cutting, agriculture, mathematics, medicine, and other disciplines catapulted them to the forefront of Bronze Age societal achievement. The world view of the Egyptians remained distinctly optimistic. Egyptians seemed genuinely imbued by a belief in the rewards of afterlife. However, the inherent tendencies toward superstition and magic were simultaneously manipulated by the Egyptian hierarchy for its own purposes and culminated in what was possibly the most autocratic regime of the ancient world experience. The obsession of the New Kingdom Egyptian pharaohs with their godhead appears at times to have threatened the stability of their civilization. These issues remain debatable; what seems certain is that the inhabitants of the Valley of the Nile complained infrequently. The historical record of the civilization, albeit one inordinately focused on the dynastic experience of its hierarchy, suggests that the Egyptian population acquiesced to the order and stability that was furnished by its hierarchy and its ruler cult.