A brief history of Ancient Egypt: the New Kingdom (part 2)

The Memnon colossi, actually statues of pharaoh Amenhotep III (photo: Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0 license).

During his long reign (ca. 1479-1425 BCE) pharaoh Thutmose III had turned Egypt into a superpower. Egypt was a rich kingdom thanks to its control of the goldmines of Nubia. The kingdom was able to enforce its authority from around the fifth cataract of the Nile in the south to the river Euphrates in the north. Thutmose’s son, Amenhotep II (ca. 1427-1401 BCE), and his grandson Thutmose IV (ca. 1401-1391 BCE) greatly benefitted from the achievements of their father and grandfather. Amenhotep II shared the throne with his father for two years and was subsequently sole ruler for another 24. He led the Egyptian army on successful campaigns in Canaan and against Mitanni, although he probably did not expand the Egyptian territories any further. As Mitanni was under mounting pressure from the Hittites in present-day Turkey, its king Artatama I was eager to make peace with Egypt. Artatama and Thutmose IV reached an agreement, which possibly led to the latter marrying one of the former’s daughters. In this context, it should be noted that Thutmose IV already had at least two and perhaps three Egyptian wives.

The international contacts of Amenhotep III

Thutmose IV was succeeded by his son Amenhotep III (ca. 1391-1353 BCE). His mother Mutemwiya may have been the aforementioned daughter of king Artatama I of Mitanni, although direct evidence for this hypothesis is lacking. The new pharaoh had a relatively easy start to his reign. The territories that Egypt had annexed in Nubia and Canaan were at peace most of the time, although sporadic unrest in the former region necessitated a couple of military operations. The relative peace in the kingdom allowed the pharaoh to start constructing monuments, of which the two ‘colossi of Memnon’ (ca. 1360 BCE) in the Theban necropolis are perhaps the most famous (see the image above). The Roman emperor Septimius Severus visited the two colossi around the year 200 and he was just one of many tourists in Antiquity. The pharaoh furthermore spent a lot of his time on diplomacy. The diplomatic language of the time was Akkadian, a language that had its roots in Mesopotamia. In 1887 an ancient archive was discovered at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt (see below). It held almost 400 clay tablets of diplomatic correspondence containing a wealth of information.

‘Cattle hide god’, protector of the copper of Cyprus (Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam).

Amenhotep III had diplomatic contacts with Cyprus (Alashiya), the Hittites, Mitanni, Babylon, Assyria and Arzawa, a small kingdom in the southwest of modern Turkey that was usually an enemy of the Hittites. Contacts with Cyprus were important because of the rich copper resources that the island was famous for and from which its name may derive. Amenhotep’s diplomatic ties were strengthened by several marriages, but his first and foremost queen was always Tiye, the daughter of a high-ranking Egyptian court official named Yuya, whose family was from Akhmim in Upper Egypt. The Egyptian Museum in Berlin possesses a magnificent wooden head of Tiye with an even more beautiful headdress (ca. 1350 BCE). As primary queen, Tiye had great influence on her husband, although she had to tolerate that he had other, secondary wives as well. Amenhotep III was also married to two princesses from Mitanni, Kilu-Hepa and Tadukhipa, who were respectively the sister and daughter of king Tushratta. This made Tushratta both the pharaoh’s brother-in-law and his father-in-law. Amenhotep III furthermore married daughters of two Babylonian kings (Kurigalzu I and Kadasman-enlil I), a daughter of the ruler of Arzawa and a woman from present-day Syria. It goes without saying that such marriages were always based on diplomatic interests rather than love.

Amenhotep’s diplomatic contacts extended to the Greek mainland, which was called Tanaja in Egyptian. In Greece, Mycene had become the most powerful city state. The Myceneans now also controlled the island of Crete, which the Egyptians called Keftiu and with which they had established trade relations long ago. The presence of Myceneans on Crete may have been a reason for Amenhotep and his predecessor to send diplomatic embassies to the Greek mainland as well. Diplomatic ties between Mycene and Egypt are well attested by archaeological evidence, which includes a vase of Amenhotep III that was found in Mycene. The Myceneans also established contacts with the Hittites. In about 1430 BCE, the Hittite king Tudhaliya I/II[1] had crushed the so-called Assuwa rebellion, a revolt by a coalition of 22 states in the northwest of modern Turkey. Among these states were Wilusiya (presumably Troy) and Taruisa (Troas, the area surrounding Troy). In 1991 a Mycenean sword was discovered in the vicinity of the former Hittite capital of Hattusa. It has been hypothesised that the king ritually sacrificed the sword after he had put down the rebellion.

Amenhotep III as a god (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

Egypt’s close ties with Mitanni are demonstrated by the pharaoh’s marriages to both Kilu-Hepa and Tadukhipa. The country’s equally close ties with Babylonia follow from his two marriages with Babylonian princesses from the Kassite dynasty. Both Mitanni and Babylon were, however, under severe pressure from a new and rising power in the Middle East. In 1431-1426 BCE Mitanni had been at the height of its power when king Shaushtatar had managed to capture Assur, the capital of Assyria. Some 60-70 years later, the roles had been reversed and the quarry had become the hunter. The Assyrians freed themselves from the Mitanni yoke and went on the offensive. In ca. 1360 BCE the Assyrian king Assur-uballit I (ca. 1365-1330 BCE) defeated his opponent king Shuttarna of Mitanni. Assur-uballit then greatly expanded the power of Assyria, among other things by forcing the Babylonian king Burna-Buriash II to marry his daughter. In about 1333 BCE, Assur-uballit took Babylon, using the murder of his grandson as a pretext. The Assyrian king subsequently put a puppet ruler on the Babylonian throne. Although this Kurigalzu II quickly renounced his loyalty, Assyria had become a power to be reckoned with and Egyptian pharaohs had to take their Assyrian counterparts extremely seriously. This was a job entrusted to the new pharaoh Amenhotep IV (ca. 1353-1336 BCE). But the fourth Amenhotep had other priorities.

The religious revolution of Amenhotep IV

The new pharaoh was married to one of the most famous women of Ancient Egypt: queen Nefertiti. Her bust made of painted limestone – to be found in Berlin, much to Egypt’s chagrin – can be counted among the best-known pieces of art in the world. The bust has been copied many times and one such copy can be admired in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. The original bust is attributed to the sculptor (not the pharaoh) Thutmose. Like his father, Amenhotep IV had other wives as well. In fact, when his father died he took one of his wives as his own. Unfortunately we do not know whether this Tadukhipa, the aforementioned Mitanni princess, was happy with her new husband (or even her old one). Another one of Amenhotep IV’s wives was a daughter of the Babylonian king Burna-Buriash II, who has also been mentioned above.

Nefertiti, 1932 plaster copy (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

Amenhotep IV is famous ánd notorious for launching sweeping religious reforms. The cults of Amun-Re and all the other Egyptian deities were abolished and replaced by a new state cult of the sun disk Aten, for whom the pharaoh built a new temple complex at Karnak. This complex arose next to the complex of Amun-Re, which was abandoned and of which the treasures were confiscated. Nefertiti and her daughter Meritaten – ‘beloved to Aten’ – were given important religious positions in the new complex. Only the pharaoh himself was allowed to worship Aten; this was prohibited for ordinary Egyptians. On the other hand, they were allowed to worship the pharaoh, who thus in effect became the second god of the kingdom whose cult had been approved. The reforms broke the power of the priests, which even before Amenhotep IV had ascended the throne had reached great heights. The alarming rise of the priestly caste may certainly have been one of the motives behind the whole operation.

In the fifth year of his reign Amenhotep IV decided to found a new capital. It was named Akhetaten (‘horizon of Aten’) and is nowadays known as Tell el-Amarna. The latter name explains why this period of the Eighteenth Dynasty is called the Amarna period by scholars, and why Amenhotep’s religious reforms are called the Amarna revolution. To complete these reforms the pharaoh changed his name to Echnaton or Akhenaten, which means something along the lines of ‘servant to Aten’. Until about 1340 BCE Echnaton was able to almost exclusively occupy himself with his new cult, but then the diplomatic situation required his attention. The prince of Kadesh was in a rebellious mood and the power of the Hittites in Canaan was gradually growing. The region had been in the Egyptian sphere of influence for at least a century and so the pharaoh could not ignore the developments there.

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.

At the time, the Hittites were ruled by king Suppiluliuma I, a very competent administrator and general who had come to power in about 1350 BCE. Suppiluliuma was not even supposed to be on the throne, for his brother Tudhaliya the Younger had been the designated heir. However, Tudhaliya had been murdered and Suppiluliuma may very well have been involved in the crime. Under their new king, the Hittites expanded their power and influence to the west and east. In the east they fought several wars against Mitanni, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Mitanni capital, the as yet unlocated city of Washukanni. Mitanni was subsequently reduced to a Hittite client state. The conflict with Egypt over territories in Canaan more or less ended with a whimper. Suppiluliuma probably confined himself to stirring up the local princes, and there does not seem to have been any direct military confrontation with Egypt. However, things would be very different under one of Echnaton’s successors.

Chaos in Egypt

When Echnaton died in about 1336 BCE, his reforms were reversed within a few years. The Amarna revolution had lasted less than two decades. Amun-Re was reinstated as supreme deity of Egypt and the cults of the other gods were restarted as well. The capital of Akhetaten was abandoned and Echnaton was subjected to a damnatio memoriae: an attempt was made to completely erase all memory of him. And yet it would be wrong to conclude that Egypt returned to normalcy. On the contrary, the country was in chaos. The two people who succeeded Echnaton together ruled for three years at most and we do not even know whether they were male or female. It is possible that Nefertiti and Meritaten had brief reigns as female pharaohs, but this is far from certain. In the end the aging general Ay from Akhmim worked out a solution. At his instigation Ankhesenamun, another daughter of Echnaton and Nefertiti, married Tutankhamen, a son of Echnaton and – presumably – one of his sisters. Tutankhamen was just eight years old at the time. The boy had a clubfoot, possibly the result of incestuous relations within the royal family.

Death mask of Tutankhamen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (photo: Roland Unger, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Tutankhamen is perhaps the best-known pharaoh in Egyptian history, but his reign was fairly short: about ten years (ca. 1332-1323 BC). Shortly after turning eighteen, the pharaoh broke a leg. The circumstances of the accident are unknown, but there is speculation that he fell from a chariot. The fracture caused an infection, which proved fatal to the young pharaoh. Tutankhamen’s health had been weak anyway, for we know he suffered from malaria. His marriage to Ankhesenamun had produced two daughters, who had died shortly after birth. And so the only thing Tutankhamen left to the world was his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, which was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter. Nearly 5.400 grave goods were found in the tomb, including the pharaoh’s famous golden death mask. Tutankhamen had died without an heir, and so another battle for the throne of Egypt erupted. His widow may have played a role in the struggle. It was presumably Ankhesenamun – although Nefertiti is mentioned as well[2] – who sent a letter to Suppiluliuma I with a request to send her a husband. This man could then become the new pharaoh of Egypt.

Initially, Suppiluliuma did not know how to respond. When he had finally been convinced that the request was not some bad joke, he consented to a marriage between the nameless widow and his fourth son Zannanza. Zannanza subsequently left for Egypt, but was ambushed and killed on the way. The identity of the murderers was never established, but the grieving father blamed Egypt. Suppiluliuma may have had a point, considering the fact that the aforementioned general Ay now married Ankhesenamun himself. He was probably old enough to be her grandfather, but he became the new pharaoh of Egypt. In about 1322 BCE Suppiluliuma had his revenge by invading the Egyptian-held territories in Canaan.

Maya, keeper of the treasury of Tutankhamen (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

This time there was a direct confrontation with the Egyptian troops and their allies. The Hittite king was victorious and took many prisoners, who were taken to Hittite territory. The prisoners may have carried a disease, which rapidly spread through the Hittite kingdom and caused many fatalities. One of the victims was king Suppiluliuma himself. The disease rid Ay of his principal rival, but his throne was never secure. The Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt would soon come to an end.

Sources

  • Dieter Kessler, ‘The Political History of the Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 146-150;
  • Eric H. Cline, 1177 v. Chr. Het Einde van de Beschaving, p. 54-61 and 68-102.

Notes

[1] We do not know whether he was the first or second king bearing this name.

[2] The so-called Deeds of Suppiluliuma do not mention the name of the widow. This work, written by the king’s son, only uses the term Dahamunzu, which is Hittite for ‘wife of the king’.

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