A brief history of Ancient Egypt: the New Kingdom (part 1)

Funerary temple of Hatshepsut at Luxor (photo: Andrea Piroddi, CC BY-SA 3.0).

The history of the New Kingdom of Egypt starts with the first pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Ahmose I (ca. 1549-1524 BCE). During his reign and that of his son Amenhotep I (ca. 1525-1506 BCE) a process of standardisation was launched for the recently reunited country. Legislation, administration, the calendar and religious affairs were harmonised all over Egypt. Amun, who had previously been worshipped as a local Theban god, now became a national god and was merged with the sun god Re to become Amun-Re. In this era, Thebes (Waset) served as the royal residence and Egypt’s most important religious centre. The existing temples at Karnak, north of Thebes, were restored and enlarged, creating an enormous temple city with a central position for the cult of Amun-Re. On the other side of the Nile was the Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs found their final resting places.

The Eighteenth Dynasty was almost nipped in the bud when Amenhotep I died without a male heir. His successor Thutmose I – ‘born from Thoth’ – was only related to the family by marriage. His wife queen Ahmose may very well have been a royal, but we do not know for certain whose daughter she was. It does not matter much. Thutmose I (ca. 1506-1493 BCE) was the first pharaoh bearing this illustrious name to ascend the throne of Egypt. Three more would follow him.

Expansion under the New Kingdom

During the New Kingdom Egypt reached its greatest size. Its influence stretched from around the fifth cataract of the Nile in the south to present-day Syria in the north. The military successes of the pharaohs and their generals were made possible by important army reforms. The pharaohs of the Old Kingdom had had no standing army. Soldiers were recruited among the citizenry, and these citizens returned to their farms or businesses after each campaign. During the First Intermediate Period the Egyptians frequently employed mercenaries, for instance troops levied in Nubia or Libya. During the Eleventh Dynasty there lived a governor named Mesehti, whose tomb gives us an idea of the composition of Egyptian armies in those days. A unit of forty wooden miniature soldiers has been preserved, as has a unit of Nubian archers of the same size. The Egyptians nor the Nubians wear any armour. The soldiers are armed with bronze-tipped spears and only carry wooden shields for protection.

Relief featuring an Egyptian chariot, 14th century BCE (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

Egypt and the Middle East during the Eighteenth Dynasty. All major powers are mentioned. E = Egypt; H = Hatti (i.e. the Hittites); M = Mitanni; A = Assyria; B = Babylonia. Source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0.

Horse-drawn chariots were at the time still an unknown phenomenon in Egypt. It was the Canaanite Hyksos who introduced them in Egypt around 1700 BCE. They may have been responsible for the introduction of the scimitar as well, on which the Egyptian khopesh was subsequently based. Eventually the pharaohs started breeding horses themselves and made improvements to the design of the chariot. Hyksos chariots were heavy and usually carried four to five men. Egyptian models on the other hand, were much lighter and only carried a driver and a soldier, often an archer armed with a powerful recurve bow. These chariots were much faster much more agile. We frequently see them on wall reliefs (see above). Foot soldiers also received better weapons and especially armour. The men now wore leather or bronze-studded jerkins and were moreover provided with helmets. Aided by units of Nubian archers and Libyan light troops the Egyptian armies would conquer large swathes of territory. During the New Kingdom, Egypt became a superpower.

As early as the reign of Thutmose I Egypt started expanding her sphere of influence. Thutmose campaigned in Canaan, reached the river Euphrates and got into conflict with the ruler of the kingdom of Mitanni, which the Egyptians called Naharin. Administration of the conquered territories was left to local princes, who were assisted by Egyptian advisers. The advisers were the eyes and ears of the pharaohs, but in practice the formally subjugated princes acted fairly autonomously. On the other hand, in order to ensure their loyalty they were required to send their sons to the Egyptian court. This obligation could, however, not entirely prevent rebellions and the annexed territories were therefore never fully pacified. Thutmose also fought against the kingdom of Kerma in the south. As the rulers of Kerma were former allies of the Hyksos, the pharaoh had a score to settle. Around 1500 BCE the city of Kerma was taken and the kingdom was destroyed. A viceroy was appointed to govern the newly conquered area in the pharaoh’s name. Sons of local Nubian rulers were sent to the court.

Hatshepsut and Thutmose III

Thutmose III (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

After a successful reign Thutmose I was succeeded by his son Thutmose II. The second Thutmose was married to Hatshepsut, a woman who was his half-sister. She was a daughter of Thutmose I and queen Ahmose, while Thutmose II’s mother, Mutneferet, was just a secondary wife of Thutmose I. Family relations were complicated as they were, and they became even more complicated when Thutmose II and Hatshepsut – half-brother and half-sister – were only blessed with a daughter. Thutmose did have a son with a concubine, and the boy was named Thutmose. Although Thutmose III was set to succeed his father, Thutmose II died at such a tender age that Hatshepsut decided to take the reins herself. She acted as a regent for her stepson, now about eight years old, and even started to wear the fake ceremonial pharaoh’s beard. Hatshepsut did not think of herself as a queen, but as every inch a male pharaoh. Her reign was, however, not unique. Queen Merneith had acted as a regent as early as the First Dynasty, and the last ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty had been a women too: Sobekneferu.[1]

Between ca. 1479 and 1458 BCE two rulers shared the throne of Egypt, Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. Especially during the early years the former must have dominated the latter completely. In search of timber, the queen launched trade missions to the Lebanon and initiated the reopening of the copper and turquoise mines in the Sinai desert. Moreover, she sent a trade mission to the mysterious land of Punt, which was presumably somewhere in present-day Somalia or Eritrea. Among other things, the mission brought back to Egypt myrrh and incense. Hatshepsut had queen Eti or Ati of Punt immortalised on a relief in her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari, opposite Thebes on the other side of the Nile (see the first image of this post). The way Eti is depicted is hardly flattering. She has a crooked back, broad hips and an enormous backside. An image of her can be found here. Although Hatshepsut’s trade activities were of a peaceful nature, it would be wrong to see her as a pacifist. During the roughly two decades that she sat on the throne she was also engaged in warfare. There was unrest in Nubia and a military intervention there was necessary. There is evidence that in at least one instance Hatshepsut personally led the army.[2]

Thutmose III smites his enemies (photo: Markh, Wikimedia Commons).

In about 1458 BCE Hatshepsut passed away. The cause of her death is unknown, but her mummy – if it is in fact hers – shows clear signs of obesity, cancer and dental problems. At the time of her death her stepson had been with the army in Memphis. Thutmose was now finally free from his stepmother’s yoke. His festering hate caused him to end Hatshepsut’s cult at Deir el-Bahari and attempt to completely erase all memory of her in the kingdom. Monuments were desecrated, statues destroyed and inscriptions chiselled away. Thutmose III did not fully succeed in his mission of vengeance. Although a lot has undoubtedly been destroyed, Hatshepsut’s name has not been lost and she is now in fact one of the most famous women in the history of Ancient Egypt.

Now that he had become sole ruler, Thutmose felt the time was ripe for earning his spurs on the battlefield. Only a year after his stepmother’s death, in 1457 BCE, the now 30-year-old pharaoh launched an offensive against a Canaanite coalition led by the prince of Kadesh. At the town of Megiddo in present-day Israel the two sides clashed in what is generally seen as the oldest documented battle in history. The pharaoh managed to surprise and defeat the prince of Kadesh and his allies, but then his troops wasted precious time on pillaging the enemy camps. This gave Megiddo just enough time to close her gates and prepare for a siege. Canaanite warriors who had survived the fighting were hoisted into the town using pieces of clothing that had been tied together. They were then added to the garrison. The ensuing siege would take seven months, but ultimately the pharaoh succeeded in capturing Megiddo, which broke Canaanite resistance. Thutmose had his campaign and successes immortalised in the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak (see the image above). A relief that has largely been preserved shows the pharaoh following the Egyptian custom of smiting captured enemies. The relief is likely symbolic, for we know that Megiddo was spared.

Stele featuring Thutmose III and his son and successor Amenhotep II (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

The campaign that led to the Battle of Megiddo was just one of seventeen military expeditions launched by Thutmose III. Like his grandfather before him he got into conflict with the kingdom of Mitanni. This kingdom was inhabited by Hurrites who were ruled by an aristocracy of Indo-European stock. Its capital of Washukanni has never been located, but it must have been situated somewhere between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Mitanni was known for its horses and chariots and was a formidable opponent. Around the year 1446 BCE Thutmose had his fleet sail up the Euphrates and led a combined water and land assault on the kingdom, which was a complete success. The king of Mitanni was defeated, and to commemorate his victory, the pharaoh had a stele erected near Carchemish. Mitanni had been beaten, but it had not suffered a knockout. A mere 15 to 20 years later king Shaushtatar of Mitanni captured the city of Assur, the capital of Assyria. Among the loot he brought back was a door made of silver and gold which the king installed in the palace in his capital.

Thutmose III was in all respects a successful pharaoh, who sat on the throne for 54 years. He won many victories on the battlefield and had a large amount of monuments constructed. His reliefs at Karnak have already been mentioned. He was also active at Avaris, the old capital of the Hyksos. The city had been destroyed by Ahmose I, but it had subsequently been rebuilt and was now flourishing again. Avaris had been renamed Peru-nefer. Thutmose built a new palace here, which he had decorated with frescoes that are commonly attributed to Minoan artists. Even if they were not made by ethnic Cretans, the frescoes demonstrate that Egypt had close ties with the island of Crete (Keftiu). For the last monument erected by Thutmose III we have to travel to Rome, not Egypt. In the square in front of the cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano stands a large obelisk made by order of Thutmose. The colossus was originally part of the temple complex of Amu-Re at Karnak, but in 357 the Roman emperor Constantius II (337-361) had the obelisk taken to Rome by ship and erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus. It has been in its current position since 1588.

Obelisk of Thutmose III in Rome.

Sources

  • Dieter Kessler, ‘The Political History of the Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 143-146;
  • Eric H. Cline, 1177 v. Chr. Het Einde van de Beschaving, p. 47-54;
  • Manfred Gutgesell, ‘The Military’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 365-367.

Notes

[1] The female pharaoh Nitokris (Neit-Ikeret), mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotos, is unlikely to have been a woman. ‘She’ was probably Netjerkare, the last male pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty.

[2] See Cline, p. 236, note 72.

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