A brief history of Ancient Egypt: the New Kingdom (part 3)

Horemheb and Horus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

Pharaoh Ay must have been quite old when he ascended the throne in about 1323 BCE. After his death a certain Horemheb seized power. He was both a high-ranking general and a commoner, and it was his control of the army that made his coup possible. Horemheb was also the last pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, which ended around 1292 BCE. Since he had no son, he appointed his lieutenant and vizier Ramesses as his successor. Ramesses, who was born into a military family, henceforth became the founder of the Nineteenth Dynasty. His own reign was fairly brief (ca. 1292-1290 BCE), but he did pave the way for his son Seti I (ca. 1290-1279 BCE) and grandson Ramesses II (ca. 1279-1213 BCE). After years of chaos following the death of pharaoh Amenhotep IV or Echnaton, it had been Horemheb and Ramesses who had stabilised the country. Subsequently, under Seti I and Ramesses II, the New Kingdom became a superpower again. Egypt was at the height of its power during the exceptionally long reign of Ramesses II, who sat on the throne for 66 years and died when he was well past 90. Analysis of his mummy has yielded very interesting results: Ramesses II had a pale skin and red hair!

Ramesses the Great

For strategic reasons, the new dynasty had decided to move the capital of the kingdom to Pi-Ramesses in the Nile delta, not far from the ancient Hyksos capital of Avaris. Pi-Ramesses and Pithom are mentioned as ‘store cities’ in the Bible[1], although one may have doubts about the claim that these cities were built by Israelite slaves. The cities were used as staging points for military operations in Canaan. This area, which included present-day Israel, Lebanon and parts of Syria, was still formally under Egyptian rule, but it had been threatened by the Hittites for almost half a century, and the Hittites had now reached the zenith of their power. The ever rebellious prince of Kadesh had become their ally. As early as Seti’s reign, the Egyptian army had intervened in Canaan, and judging by the reliefs that this pharaoh left in the temple of Amun-Re in Karnak (ca. 1285 BCE), the operation was a success. However, it certainly did not end the Hittite threat, and in 1274 BCE the Egyptian army of Ramesses II and that of the Hittites led by their king Muwatalli II fought a great battle at Kadesh. The latter was trying to move the borders of his empire further south while the former was trying to prevent just that at all costs.

Horemheb presented with gold necklaces, relief from his (unused) tomb at Saqqara, Memphis (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.

Ramesses’ army was composed of four divisions, which were named after the gods Amun, Re, Seth and Ptah. With this army, the pharaoh advanced on Kadesh, sending a second army by sea. This army was much smaller and possibly comprised Canaanite auxiliaries or mercenaries. The goal of the two armies was clearly to trap the Hittites in a pincer movement. Ramesses did not advance in a single column; his divisions marched in four separate columns, with about ten kilometres between each of them. The pharaoh was subsequently deceived by two captured Bedouins, which later turned out to be Hittite spies. They told the Egyptians that Muwatalli was still far north of Kadesh, which was fake news of the highest category. Ramesses was right at the front with the Amun division and had already crossed the river Orontes. Completely ignorant of the enemy’s presence he had made camp north of Kadesh. The Re division had also crossed the river, but the two other divisions were still on the other side. Then Muwatalli decided to strike. He had deployed his troops northeast of Kadesh and ordered some 1,000 chariots, manned by between 4,000 and 5,000 warriors, to charge the isolated Re division. The Egyptians were taken completely by surprise and quickly routed. The survivors fled north, to Ramesses’ camp.

The pharaoh was now faced with a huge problem. His other divisions were at least 20 kilometres away and on the other side of the Orontes, and there was still no sign of the second army travelling by sea. As a consequence, Ramsesses and just a single division had to take on the whole Hittite army, which the pharaoh claims comprised 3,500 chariots and 37,000 infantry. The pharaoh was hard-pressed, but thanks to his personal valour and that of his bodyguard he managed to repulse the Hittite attack. Ultimately the two other divisions and the second army arrived on the battlefield in the nick of time to save the pharaoh’s skin. The Hittites were driven from the battlefield, but the battle of the Kadesh should not be regarded as an Egyptian victory. Kadesh itself was not taken and Ramesses had lost almost an entire division. Realising the stalemate, Ramesses hastily returned to Egypt, where he immortalised his ‘victory’ in five different places: in his own funerary temple, the Ramesseum, and in temples at Karnak, Luxor, Abydos and Abu Simbel. The temples of Abu Simbel, in Nubia close to the border with present-day Sudan, have become world-famous.

Ramesses II sacrificing to himself (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

In the end, neither Egypt nor the Hittite Empire gained any advantages from the battle of Kadesh. In 1259 BCE the two nations signed a peace treaty. Muwatalli II had died shortly after the battle and had been succeeded by his son Mursili III, who had subsequently been deposed by his uncle Hattusili III, one of Muwatalli’s brothers. It was Hattusili who, in the aforementioned year, concluded the peace treaty with Ramesses, also known as the ‘Silver Treaty’, after the material on which its provisions were written down. In fact there were two treaty versions: a Hittite and an Egyptian one. The Hittite version had been written in Akkadian on a silver tablet. Translated into Egyptian and written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, we find parts of this version in the Ramesseum and in Karnak. The Egyptian version took the opposite direction. The translation into Akkadian, written in the cuneiform script, was found when the Hittite capital of Hattusa was excavated. In 1246 BCE Ramesses married Hattusili’s oldest daughter. Of course this was merely a marriage of convenience, based on diplomatic considerations. Ramesses married many times during his long life, but his primary queen was always Nefertari, although she predeceased him by many decades.

It is not impossible that during Ramesses’ reign the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt took place, an event which is commemorated annually at the feast of Pesach.[2] Biblical chronology suggests the Exodus was around 1450 BCE, so during Thutmose III’s reign, but there is serious doubt whether this chronology is correct. Of course this doubt cannot be construed as evidence that the Exodus must therefore have taken place during the reign of Ramesses. It seems in any case impossible that 600,000 Israelites, excluding the women and children, left Egypt, a claim found in the Bible.[3] The stories about the Ten Plagues of Egypt[4] and the destruction of the pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea can also be safely put aside. On the other hand, it is certainly not inconceivable that the Biblical Israelites were among the Semitic peoples who, starting in the nineteenth century BCE, migrated from Canaan to Egypt. This migration eventually led to Egypt being controlled by the Heka-Khasut or Hyksos, the ‘rulers of foreign lands’. Although the Hyksos were ultimately expelled again, it cannot be ruled out that certain groups of Semites stayed behind in Egypt. This makes it possible that a group of Semites migrated from Egypt to Canaan during the reign of Ramesses, and settled there after being on the move for several decades. Perhaps these migrants were the Hapiru (‘nomads’, ‘rebels’) that are mentioned in Egyptian sources. The theory that, because of etymological similarities, these Hapiru were the Hebrews is tempting[5], but we should be careful not to accept it too eagerly.

The ‘Sea Peoples’

Drawing of the Sherden by James Henry Breasted (1865-1935) (Wikimedia Commons).

Early in his reign Ramesses II had been faced with pirates attacking Egyptian merchant vessels. Since the second half of the nineteenth century these pirates have been called ‘Sea Peoples’.[6] In this specific case the Sherden or Shardana were involved, a people that may have been from the Aegean region, although their name suggests a link with the island of Sardinia. Of course this does not prove that they were indeed from this island. It is also possible that they migrated to the island at a later stage and gave it their name. Wherever the Sherden were from, Ramesses managed to beat them. Apparently he then reached an agreement with the pirates, for some years later there were Sherden fighting in the Egyptian army that battled the Hittites at Kadesh (see above). As allies these warlike soldiers were much more useful to Ramses than as enemies. The pharaoh did have forts constructed along the coast to prevent potential new attacks.

In 1207 BCE, during the reign of Ramesses’ son Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE), Egypt was again attacked by the Sea Peoples. These had joined forces with a Libyan ruler, who may have been in charge of the whole expedition. In an Egyptian inscription from Heliopolis he is called ‘the despicable chieftain of Libya’. Of the Sea Peoples that fought side by side with the Libyan, this inscription only mentions the Shekelesh by name. There may be a connection between these Shekelesh and the island of Sicily. From an inscription from Karnak we subsequently learn which other Sea Peoples participated in the invasion: the Shardana, the Ekwesh, the Lukka and the Teresh. The Shardana have already been mentioned. The Ekwesh are sometimes identified as the Achaeans (i.e. Myceneans), the Lukka must have a link with Lycia in Asia Minor and according to Eric H. Cline the Teresh have a potential connection with the Italian Etruscans.[7] All in all, it was a motley crew of unknown origin that invaded the Nile delta, but Merneptah managed to defeat the attackers and took several hundreds of prisoners. The pharaoh had a hand cut off from each of the slain enemies so that he could prove how many he had slaughtered.

Merneptah also fought wars in other places. He is famous for erecting a stele in 1207 BCE in honour of his victories. The stele mentions the name ‘Israel’ for the first time in history. The relevant passage reads:

“Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yano’am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.”

Moses crossing the Red Sea, wall mosaic in the Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

These lines are about a campaign in Canaan. Ashkelon and Gezer can be identified with ease, while there is still speculation about Yano’am. In the same region we should situate a people or a state named Israel. This is unlikely to have been the kingdom of Israel mentioned in the Bible, i.e. the kingdom of which Saul was said to have been the first king. If it ever existed, this kingdom must be dated later, to the late eleventh century BCE. If we follow Biblical chronology, we may conclude that during Merneptah’s reign the Israelites had settled in Canaan under Joshua and were perhaps already governed by ‘judges’ such as Deborah, Gideon and Samson.

Merneptah was already an old man when he ascended the throne. After his death, a civil war broke out in Egypt. The pharaoh was succeeded by his son Seti II (1203-1197 BCE), but Seti was opposed by a rival named Amenmesse, who took control of Upper Egypt and Nubia. In the end, Seti managed to defeat him, but Egypt was still in chaos. The pharaoh was succeeded by Siptah, whose father remains unknown (he mother is known of course, mater semper certa est). This Siptah ruled for six years (1197-1191 BCE) and – probably because of his age and doubts about his lineage – had to tolerate a regent at his side, a woman named Twosret. When Siptah died, Twosret took control of the state. She reigned for another two years and then disappeared from the stage under mysterious circumstances. It is possible that she was deposed by Setnakhte, who became the founder of the Twentieth Dynasty, restored order in Egypt and had a brief reign himself (ca. 1189-1186 BCE). All his successors bore the name Ramesses, a clear attempt to create a link between the new dynasty and the previous one. We should not rule out the possibility that they were in fact (distant) relatives of Ramesses II. After all, this great pharaoh had dozens of children.

Ramesses II defeats the Sea Peoples, relief from Medinet Habu (Wikimedia Commons).

Under Ramesses III (ca. 1186-1155 BCE) Egypt was against faced with an attack by the Sea Peoples. Inscriptions inform us that this time the coalition comprised six peoples. The Shekelesh and Shardana were present again. The Danuna may perhaps be equated to the Danaans, i.e. the Mycenean Greeks and so possibly the Ekwesh who had fought against Merneptah thirty years previously. And then there were the Peleset, who have generally been identified as the Philistines, and finally the Tjeker and Weshesh. Around the year 1177 BCE there was a naval battle somewhere in the Nile delta between the fleets of Ramesses III and the Sea Peoples. In the end, the pharaoh was victorious. He immortalised his triumph on the walls of his funerary temple at Medinet Habu. These reliefs feature chaotic scenes on the water and captured enemies that are smitten in the traditional Egyptian way. The results of a later campaign against the Libyans, who had also been causing trouble again, are summarised by the rather macabre image of a pile of hands that have been chopped off to count the number of slain enemies. We have already seen the custom of cutting off hands mentioned in Merneptah’s report above. If one looks closely, one may also notice a far more lurid method for counting dead enemies at Medinet Habu: amputated foreskins.[8] The scenes may remind us of the Biblical story of David and Michal, a daughter of King Saul. David can have her at the price of 100 foreskins of Philistines.[9]

The end of the Twentieth Dynasty

Ramesses IV (British Museum, London).

Although Ramesses had managed to repulse the attacks of the Sea Peoples, he was not able to prevent the Peleset from settling in Canaan as Philistines and giving their name to the region: Palestine. We can be certain that the so-called Late Bronze Age collapse, i.e. the decline of the international world at the end of the Bronze Age, cannot solely be attributed to the actions of the Sea Peoples. Multiple factors were involved in this process. Nevertheless, the Hittite Empire disappeared altogether and the power of Egypt dwindled after Ramesses III’s long reign. The kingdom lost control of Canaan and ceased being a superpower. The power of the pharaohs decreased as well, while the priests became ever more powerful. This was a process that had been going on for a while during the New Kingdom, and it may have been one of the reasons for Amenhotep IV or Echnaton (1353-1336 BCE), whose reign was discussed in a previous post, to abolish the traditional cults, thus sidelining the priests and exercising all religious powers himself. Unfortunately for him, his Amarna revolution was hardly a raging success. As a result, at the time of the Twentieth Dynasty the pharaoh again had to compete with powerful clerics such as the high priest of Ptah in Memphis and especially the high priest of Amun-Re in Thebes. It is important to keep in mind that the keepers of the temples did not just control access to the temple treasures. These temples had vast estates which were worked by tens of thousands of Egyptians. The temple of Amun-Re has been called a kind of state within the state for a reason.[10]

In 1155 BCE, Ramesses III was murdered in a harem conspiracy. Among his successors were two and perhaps three of his sons (i.e. Ramesses IV, VI and possibly VIII as well). Because of the developments discussed above, these successors had a hard time and were faced with both internal and external threats. It was the eleventh and last Ramesses who, during his reign between 1107 and 1077 BCE, tried to turn the tide. The Egyptian viceroy of Nubia, an office created in ca. 1500 BCE to govern the annexed kingdom of Kerma, got into conflict with the high priest of Thebes. The backgrounds of the conflict are obscure and Ramesses XI’s involvement cannot be proven, but viceroy Pinehesy was ultimately successful in deposing the high priest Amenhotep. Ramesses then launched his Whm Mswt or Renaissance, but when the pharaoh died in 1077 BCE under mysterious circumstances his reforms quickly petered out. His successor Smendes founded the Twenty-first Dynasty. He ruled from Tanis in the Nile delta, but the new high priest Herihor firmly controlled Upper Egypt from Thebes. And so a divided Egypt entered the Third Intermediate Period.


  • Dieter Kessler, ‘The Political History of the Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 150-151;
  • Chr.L. van der Vliet, Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 89-90;
  • Eric H. Cline, 1177 v. Chr. Het Einde van de Beschaving, p. 17-30, 111-115 and 122-129;
  • Manfred Gutgesell, ‘The Military’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 368-369.


[1] Exodus 1:11 and Numbers 33:3.

[2] See Cline, p. 122-129, the most important source for this paragraph.

[3] Exodus 12:37.

[4] Water of the Nile changed to blood, a plague of frogs, a plague of lice or mosquitoes, a plague of flies, a plague on livestock, festering boils, a destructive hailstorm, a plague of locusts, three days of total darkness and the killing of all the firstborn children (see Exodus 7-11). As the Israelites had marked their door posts with the blood of a lamb or little goat, God knew where they lived and passed over them (the Hebrew verb is ‘pasach’, hence Pesach, and Passover in English). See Exodus 12.

[5] Cf. Kessler, p. 150.

[6] The term was coined by Emmanuel de Rougé.

[7] Cline, p. 24-26. The Etruscan connection is a little odd, for usually the start of the Etruscan culture is dated three centuries later. The argument is perhaps that the name ‘Teresh’ can be related to the Tyrrhenians on etymological grounds. ‘Tyrrhenians’ was the Greek word for Etruscans. The Teresh may have been representatives of the Villanova culture which preceded the Etruscans.

[8] Merneptah’s inscription at Karnak explicitly mentions that the Sherden, Shekelesh and Ekwesh had no foreskins. In other words, they were circumcised.

[9] 1 Samuel 18:25.

[10] Van der Vliet, p. 89.

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