Egypt’s New Kingdom: A Time of Great Pharaohs, Power, and Expansion

As the most illustrious period of Egyptian history, New Kingdom Egypt reached its height of power and imperial expansion under some of the most famous pharaohs remembered today.

The Great Temple of Ramesses II, 19th dynasty, Abu Simbel, via Getty Images

New Kingdom Egypt immediately followed the chaotic period known as the Second Intermediate Period. The New Kingdom comprises dynasties 18 through 20 and dates roughly between 1550 BC and 1070 BC. It marks the zenith of the country’s power and influence, extending its boundaries far beyond its former borders to create a true empire. Read on to learn more about the most popular era in Egyptian history!

Dynasty 18: The Beginning Of New Kingdom EgyptDynasty 18 ushered in the New Kingdom with the overthrowing of the Hyksos under Ahmose I. Much like Mentuhotep II, founder of Middle Kingdom Egypt, Ahmose finished that which was started by his predecessors—he successfully expelled the Hyksos and reunited the Two Lands under Egyptian control. The kings of this period, the Thutmosid Dynasty, ruled for approximately 250 years (ca. 1550-1298 BC). Many of them were buried in the Valley of the Kings, a Theban necropolis guarded by the cobra goddess Meretseger. This dynasty is also known as the Thutmosid Dynasty for the four kings named Thutmose that ruled during this period. Several of the most famous Egyptian rulers come from this dynasty in New Kingdom Egypt.

Hatshepsut

Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, 18th dynasty, Deir el-Bahri, via The University of Memphis

Hatshepsut was the fifth ruler of Dynasty 18. She came to the throne officially as co-regent with her stepson Thutmose III, although he was a toddler at this point. She was the great royal wife and half-sister of Thutmose II, Thutmose III’s father, and is generally regarded by Egyptologists as one of the most successful kings as shown by her lengthy reign.

Although many Egyptologists have claimed that Hatshepsut’s reign was peaceful, she authorized several raids to Byblos and the Sinai and led military campaigns against Nubia. She also re-established trade routes that had been lost during the Second Intermediate Period and successfully built the wealth of her country. Hatshepsut also oversaw several expeditions to the Land of Punt that brought back rare and exotic myrrh trees and resins like frankincense. This resin in particular was ground up and used as the famous kohl eyeliner that the Egyptians were known for! The female king was also one of the most prolific builders in ancient Egypt, producing temples and buildings that were far grander than anything seen in the Middle Kingdom. Her most famous construction is her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri.

Thutmose III

Upper part of a statue of Thutmose III, 18th dynasty, Deir el-Bahri, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Thutmose III was the son of Thutmose II and his second wife, Iset. He claimed the throne as Egypt’s sole ruler by way of a divine election in which a statue “nodded” at him to elect him as the next king. This election was not without issue, as most elections are; there was a competition for the royal seat between two members of the same family, but Thutmose III won and reigned for almost 54 years in total as a great and powerful pharaoh of New Kingdom Egypt.

While we use the words king and pharaoh interchangeably regarding ancient Egyptian rulers, the term “pharaoh” was not invented until the 18th dynasty. Pharaoh is not even an Egyptian word! The Greeks based this word on the Egyptian word per-aa, translating to ‘great house,’ which refers to the royal palace. Before the appearance of this official title, kings were referred to as ‘king’ and ‘king of Upper and Lower Egypt’ respectively. So, the next time that you’re having a casual conversation with someone about Egyptian pharaohs, you can bring up this fun fact!

Thutmose III smiting his enemies, 18th dynasty, Karnak, via Brown University, Providence

As mentioned above, for the first 22 years of his reign Thutmose was coregent with Hatshepsut. It was around his 22nd year that he was appointed head of Hatshepsut’s royal army and he led his first campaign against the prince of Kadesh and Megiddo in order to widen the boundaries of Egypt for his divine father, Amun-Re. This series of acts defined the rest of Thutmose’s reign; he is often regarded as the greatest military pharaoh ever. He conducted a huge amount of campaigns into Syria and Nubia, creating the largest empire Egypt had ever seen.

Thutmose III also authorized many artistic projects such as building at Karnak, advanced sculpture and glasswork, and elaborate tomb decoration which gave Egyptologists the first complete text of the Amduat funerary text. In addition to commissioning artistic developments, for a long time, it was thought that the military king also defaced many of Hatshepsut’s monuments. Recently, this theory has been questioned because it is unlikely that Hatshepsut would have allowed a resentful heir to head her armies. Also, a reexamination of the erasures has shown that these acts had begun to occur only late into Thutmose III’s reign.

Akhenaten And The Amarna Period

Relief of Akhenaten as a Sphinx, 18th dynasty, Amarna, via The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of the most infamous rulers in the history of New Kingdom Egypt is Amenhotep IV or, as he preferred to be known, Akhenaten. The tenth ruler of Dynasty 18, he is known predominantly for abandoning Egypt’s traditional polytheistic religion in favor of worship centered on Aten, even going so far as to change his name to Akhenaten, meaning ‘effective for Aten’.

There is a debate going on as to whether Akhenaten’s religion can be characterized as absolute monotheism, or whether it was monolatry (the belief in many gods but with the emphasis on the worship of one), syncretism (the blending of two religious systems into a new system), or henotheism (the worship of one god while not denying the existence of other gods). The king decreed that Aten was the god to worship during his reign. It was the duty of Akhenaten and his wife, Nefertiti, to worship the sun god and everyone else had to worship the family as intermediaries. However, there is evidence that Amarna high priests did worship Akhenaten as a god in his heb-sed robe, which would provide proof that his religion was not purely monotheistic.

In any case, the almost exclusive worship of Aten resulted in the closing down of temples, which deprived priests of their livelihood. This also destroyed the economy because the temples processed and distributed taxes. As a result, Akhenaten became unpopular, so he moved the capital from Thebes to the unpopulated and rather desolate territory of Amarna where no resident population existed to oppose him.

Stele of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their three daughters, 18th dynasty, Amarna, via The Egyptian Museum Berlin

There was also a change in artistic style and iconography during his reign. Representations of the royal family were no longer idealistic or realistic in typical Egyptian form. Reliefs and paintings showed its subjects with pointed chins, tiny chests, long necks, oblong heads, and flabby stomachs. There were also intimate scenes of the royal parents cuddling their children and a display of scenes of Akhenaten and Nefertiti kissing in a chariot. These depictions were a severe departure from the more traditional strong and intimidating representations of Egypt’s rulers.

Tutankhamun

Tutankhamun’s Gold Mask, 18th dynasty, tomb KV62 in the Valley of the Kings, via The Global Egyptian Museum

Following his father’s death, Tutankhamun claimed the throne at the age of nine and ruled New Kingdom Egypt for ten years. He was married to his teenage sister, Ankhsenamun. During his reign, he moved the capital from Amarna back to Thebes; unfortunately, the boy-king did not live long enough to make many more significant decisions beyond this one, and his tomb provides some evidence to indicate that Tut left this world as a relatively unimportant king.

The tomb is extremely small for a king to spend an eternity in, his burial goods were shoved haphazardly into the space, and the painted walls were not given enough time to dry before the tomb was closed, which caused the walls to mold. Given that kings were supposed to be the linchpin of the Egyptian state and the country’s religion headed by the ruler heavily emphasized preparation for a luxurious afterlife, Tutankhamun’s tomb clearly does not measure up to this standard. It is believed that one reason that Tut’s tomb was intact upon discovery is that people were grateful for the transition back to the old religion and did not care enough about him to destroy his tomb.

The two pharaohs that came after him ruled for a combined eighteen years and continued to follow Tutankhamun’s path of the restoration of the old religion and destruction of Amarna and iconoclasm of the works produced at that time.

The 19th Dynasty Of Egypt

Statue of Ramesses II, 19th dynasty, Thebes, via The British Museum, London

Towards the end of the 18th dynasty, Egypt’s foreign relations had begun to change quite drastically. Exacerbated by Akhenaten’s extreme uninterest in international affairs, the Hittites, the Libyans, and the Sea Peoples were steadily gaining power and influence and were becoming larger sources of power in the Near Eastern region. The pharaohs starting in the 19th dynasty had to contend with these powers.

Dynasty 19 was founded by Ramesses I, the successor of the last pharaoh of Dynasty 18. New Kingdom Egypt reached the height of its power under Seti I and Ramesses II (‘The Great’), who campaigned against the Hittites and the Libyans. The Hittite city of Kadesh was first seized by Seti I, but he ended up agreeing to an informal peace treaty with king Muwatalli I. After Ramesses II rose to the throne, he sought to reclaim the territory that Egypt had during the previous dynasty and attempted to recapture Kadesh by launching an attack in 1274 BC.

Ramesses II and chariot at the Battle of Kadesh, 19th dynasty, Karnak, via The University of Memphis

Unfortunately, Ramesses fell into a trap. Caught in the first recorded military ambush, Ramesses’ troop was able to hold their own at their encampment until they were rescued by delayed ally reinforcements who had come by sea. After a series of back and forths between the Egyptian and Hittite Empires, Ramesses realized that the military and monetary cost of continuing campaigns against these rivals were too high, and in his 21st regnal year he signed the earliest recorded peace treaty with Hattusili III. From there, Egypt-Hittite relations improved significantly, and the Hittites even sent Ramesses two princesses for him to marry.

During his 66-year reign, Ramesses was a hugely successful pharaoh not only militarily but also in the construction of building projects like Abu Simbel and the Ramesseum. He built more cities, temples, and monuments than any other pharaoh. He died in his early nineties and was buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. His body was later moved to a royal cache where it was discovered in 1881 and is now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Dynasty 20: The Ramesside Period

Group Statue of Ramesses III with Horus and Seth, 20th dynasty, Medinet Habu, via The Global Egyptian Museum

The last “great” pharaoh from New Kingdom Egypt is considered to be Ramesses III, the second king of the 20th dynasty who ruled several decades after Ramesses II. His entire reign was modeled after Ramesses II’s and he was also described as a strategic warrior king as shown by his defeat of the Sea Peoples and the Hittites. Also similar to his inspiration, though, his long reign saw the decline of Egyptian political and economic power.

Despite his maintenance of a strong centralized government, secure borders, and flourishing of the Egyptian state, the office of the pharaoh commanded less respect than it had previously, the reason being the strengthening of the priests of Amun in fulfilling the role of an intermediary with the gods, just as it came to be during the Old Kingdom. Additionally, the military campaigns began to weigh heavily on Egypt’s treasury evidenced by the first labor strike in recorded history that occurred in year 29 of Ramesses III’s reign because food rations could not be provided to the elite tomb-builders and artisans at the Deir el-Medina workmen’s village.

Decline Of New Kingdom Egypt Into The Third Intermediate Period

Mold with Cartouche of Birth Name of Ramesses XI, 20th dynasty, provenance unknown, via LACMA

The Ramesside kings that followed tried their best to emulate the great kings and pharaohs of the past through building projects, but their reigns were generally short and all the while the Egyptian empire was shrinking. Ramesses VI is best known by scholars for his tomb. If you guessed the reason to be vast piles of gold treasures locked within, you would be incorrect! The renovations on this tomb caused the inadvertent burial of the earlier tomb of Tutankhamun, which kept it safe from grave robbers until it was opened by the Carter-Carnarvon party in 1922.

During the reign of the last king of New Kingdom Egypt, Ramesses XI, tomb robberies were more abundant than ever. His power weakened so much that in the south the high priest of Amun captained by a man named Herihor took control of Thebes and became the effective de facto rulers of Upper Egypt. Smendes, a governor of Lower Egypt during Ramesses XI’s reign, rose to power and ended up controlling Lower Egypt even before the pharaoh’s death. Ramesses XI controlled only the few miles of land around Pi-Ramesses, the new capital built by Ramesses II in the previous dynasty.

The 20th dynasty ended with the death of Ramesses XI and his burial by his successor, Smendes I, and so marked the end of New Kingdom Egypt. Smendes founded Dynasty 21 at Tanis and thus began the era known as the Third Intermediate Period.

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