The New Kingdom
The New Kingdom marks the height of the achievements of the Egyptian civilisation. The Old Kingdom may indeed have produced the pyramids, but it is the New Kingdom that produced the greatest number of other monuments – the marvellous temples, a fascinating palace/town, and some wonderful burial places best known from the tomb of Tutankhamen, whose tomb was discovered almost intact and produced a wonderful display of the achievements of the royal craftsmen.
The New Kingdom marks a great step forward in prosperity. Stone quarries were re-opened, gold was imported from Nubia to the south, the mines for turquoise, the wonderful blue-green material that makes Egyptian jewellery so distinctive were opened in deserts to the north east and suddenly — let us judge the success of a society by the abundance of its baubles — Egypt becomes rich. There was a massive building programme and once again the tombs were adorned with extravagant gold funerary objects. A special workman’s village was opened up at Deir el-Medina in the hills behind the Valley of the Kings, where the workmen who built the tombs lived, and who, being literate, left behind numerous writings on pot sherds, mostly bills and other accounting materials that provide a fascinating insight in how the economy actually worked.
Barry Kemp in his magisterial survey of Ancient Egypt calls this period ‘The mature state’, when society opened up and became more pluralist. The state had three great servants: ministers, soldiers and priests. And each of these grew into separate institutions; there had always been ministers under the prime minister who was called a Vizier, but these multiplied. Soldiers too became more professional: many of the greatest pharaohs were themselves warriors, but others preferred to lead their regiments from behind and allowed their generals to conduct their wars. The priesthood too became more distinctive and more powerful. The pharaoh of course remained the chief priest, though he was essentially a god, but the temples, though originally founded as mortuary temples became independent organisations with their own sources of funds, often owning extensive tracts of land which enabled them to form a counterbalance, perhaps even a challenge to royal power. And there was a certain amount of what Barry Kemp calls economic emancipation: the pot sherds from the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina reveal the stirrings of new economy which went halfway to becoming a market economy and emancipating the workmen from the total control of their rulers. Barry Kemp calls this ‘the birth of economic man’: I do not altogether agree with him but we must examine just how far this emancipation went at Deir el-Medina.
This is the age of the great ancient empires: of the Babylonians, of the Assyrians, and of the Minoans too, but it is Egypt that provides the more coherent story with the greatest number of written sources and the superbly preserved material from the dry desert climate. So here in Egypt in the New Kingdom we can best see how these ancient empires really worked.
The New Kingdom is generally dated around 1550 – 1069 BC and consisted of three dynasties: Dynasties 18, 19 and 20. It falls into three parts: the early part is peopled by some wonderful kings, most of them named either Amenhotep or Thutmose, and also one extraordinary Queen — Hatshepsut – the first great female ruler in history.
Then in the middle comes the extraordinary reign of Akhenaten who tried to change everything. He decided that instead of many gods there should be just one god, a belief that endears him to the Christians. He changed the capital too and founded a new city at Amana, with new palaces on a new site half way between Thebes in the south and Memphis in the north, uprooting the population from Thebes and transferring them to the new city, 200 miles to the north. The move was not altogether successful and on his death everyone moved back to Thebes and Amarna was abandoned leaving it as a treasure trove for archaeologists – the Pompeii of Ancient Egypt. He changed his name too from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten, though his name too was abandoned after his death and an attempt was made to remove it from the monuments: fortunately for us not altogether successfully.
After his death there was a second outburst of building under a new dynasty of monarchs mostly called Rameses, of whom the most important was Rameses II who reigned for 60 years from 1279 to 1213 BC. And it is during this Ramesside period that many of the greatest temples were completed, and received the form that has survived down to the present day.
Who was who in the New Kingdom
The New Kingdom — and the 18th dynasty — begins officially with the reunification of Egypt. Unification came from the south, from Thebes, which meant that the centre of power shifted: whereas in the Old Kingdom the centre of power was in the north, at Memphis, where the pyramids were built on the other side of the Nile at Saqqara, in the New Kingdom the capital may have remained nominally at Memphis, but the action all took place in the south at Thebes, modern Luxor, where the greatest temples were built, and where the burials were made no longer in pyramids, but in passage graves cut into the side of the Valley of the Kings.
Reunification came from two brothers: Kamose who is usually considered to be last pharaoh of the 17th dynasty, and his brother Ahmose (1550 – 1525) who is the first pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who finally completed the conquest of the rulers in the north and thus inaugurated the ‘New’ Kingdom. (He is sometimes considered to be the ‘Pharaoh of the Exodus’- with no evidence – though film-makers tend prefer Ramesses II who was rather more glamorous).
He was succeeded by his son Amenhotep I who was the great consolidator. He was the first to separate off the idea of the mortuary temple from the actual tomb. Hitherto there was always a mortuary temple attached to every pyramid or to every tomb, but he established a separate mortuary chapel. Indeed, by now a new form of burial had been established. Pyramids were long out of date and instead burials were made in passage tombs cut into the steep sides of the Valley of the Kings on the western side of the Nile at Thebes.
He also began major buildings at Karnak, all of which were swept away later, though some of the stones that have been recovered have been used to form a small rebuilt chapel. He also appears to have established the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina for the workmen building the tombs in the Valley of the Tombs –at least in later periods he became the patron deity of the village.
The rising of Sirius
However he is best known for something that had nothing at all to do with him: for in the ninth year of his reign, the heliacal rising of the star Sirius was observed, and this is the calendar event on which the whole dating of Egyptian history hangs. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, but it can only be seen for half the year, being hidden for the other half of the year. And the heliacal rising of Sirius, that is the moment when it first appeared at daybreak above the horizon, marked the beginning of the Egyptian New Year which should be July 19th. This very conveniently for Egyptians also marked the normal onset of the annual flooding of the Nile.
However although the Egyptians successfully calculated the length of the year to be 365 days, they did not know about leap years, so every four years the date of their New Year dropped back a year until eventually after 1,460 years (which is 365 x 4) the New Year actually coincided with the rising of Sirius and this took place in the ninth year of Amenhotep’s reign. This year can be calculated by astronomers, but here too there is a further problem – where was the reading taken from? Was it taken from the old capital Memphis, modern Cairo in the north? Or was it taken from the new capital Thebes, 400 miles to the south? The difference is one of twenty years, so a wonderful dispute has arisen between the high Chronology and the low Chronology. If the reading was taken in Thebes then the rising took place in 1517 so his accession was in 1526, but if the reading was taken in Memphis then the rising took place in 1537, so his succession was 1546. The majority view goes for the earlier date of 1517.
This dating has become terribly important, for all the dates of the great empires of Mesopotamia and the New East depend on it, as does the chronology of the whole of Bronze Age Europe. However there is a problem, based on the date of the explosion of the volcanic island of Thera, (Santorini). Volcanologists, tree ring experts and those who study the ice cores in Greenland date this more-or-less precisely to around 1628 BC – see my account on all this in my chapter on the Minoans. But there are links between the Minoans and Egypt, notably at Avaris where Minoan workmen were brought in to decorate the palace erected early in the New Kingdom. This would suggest that Egyptian chronology should be put back about 100 years. Something is wrong. Now I am not saying that the scientists are wrong, but I am a coward and take the line of least resistance, and base my dates here on the rising of Sirius.
Amenhotep I was followed by a warrior, Thutmose I. Thutmose expanded the boundary of the Egyptian empire both to the north and to the south. He began by fighting the Nubians to the south, where according to an account given by one of his generals, he killed the king of the Nubians in person and fastened his dead body to the prow of his ship when he sailed back down the Nile in triumph. In the north he was equally successful, conquering Palestine and reaching up as far north as the River Euphrates. The Euphrates greatly puzzled the Egyptians because they were used to the River Nile which flowed from the south to the north, so they thought all rivers should flow from the south to the north. But the Euphrates which was every bit as big as the Nile flowed from the north to the south so they called it the ‘inverted river’.
He was followed by Thutmose II who was a rather insignificant pharaoh who may only have reigned for three years – another big academic argument here.
But he was followed by the big scandal in New Kingdom Egypt when a woman took over, and even pretended that she was the pharaoh. Her name was Hatshepsut (generally remembered as being the name of a tailor who gave you a hat and a cheap suit — Hatshepsut). The proper (male) successor to Thutmose II was his son, Thutmose III, who went on to become one of the most successful of all the pharaohs, but he was only three at the time of his accession, so his mother-in-law took over as regent, and indeed proclaimed herself as pharaoh in her official portraits by wearing a false beard.
The beginning of the New Kingdom was an age of powerful women, though they often exercised their power by being the mother or a sister or the wife of a pharaoh, and often known as King’s daughter or King sister or Great Royal Wife, or even God’s Wife. They often seem to marry their close relatives without apparently the genetic problems which we in the 21st century firmly believe will befall those who marry close relatives.
Hatshepsut followed in this tradition. She was the daughter of Thutmose I by his first and therefore principal wife, but he then took another minor wife and produced a son who was Thutmose II, who then married his half sister Hatshepsut –which meant that Hatshepsut had in a way a better claim to royalty because she was the daughter of the pharaoh by his principal wife, whereas Thutmose II was only the son of a secondary wife. Thutmose II then married another wife, who produced a son, who was to be Thutmose III. However he was only 3 when his father died, and he thus became the titular pharaoh: however Hatchepsut, his step-mother stepped in to become his regent and made herself the de facto king.
Hatshepsut was a remarkable woman, indeed the great American Egyptologist James Breasted called her the first woman in history of whom we are well informed. She is best known today for the mortuary temple that she built on the west bank of the Nile at Deir el-Bahri which is the finest surviving (and most highly restored) of all the mortuary temples. It was set next door to the earlier Middle Kingdom temple of Mentuhotep, but bigger and even better.
The fine row of columns at the front became known as the Sublime of Sublimes and today has even been compared to the columns on the Parthenon.
She was also well known for having sponsored a trading expedition to Punt, which was for Egyptians a magical land that may have corresponded to modern Eritrea. The expedition went by sea in five ships, 21 metres long, bringing back a rich haul of frankincense and myrrh, including a dozen myrrh trees so she could grow her own. But the real importance is that she was a very good business woman and under her rule, Egypt grew rich, and because Egypt grew rich she could erect a lot of buildings. The most impressive features to have survived are the two obelisks that she erected in the temple at Karnak, one of which is still standing and is still the tallest obelisk known.
Thutmoses III – the great warrior
Hatshepsut was succeeded by her stepson Tuthmoses III for whom she had been the regent. He had only been two or three when his father died but he is now a mature man. As a result, Thutmose III reigned for 54 years if his stepmother’s regency is included, or for 32 years as the sole and undisputed pharaoh. Somehow one would think that if you spend the first twenty years of your life being dominated by a very powerful stepmother, you will inevitably be a weakling. But no, the reverse happened, and when Tuthmoses III became sole ruler he became one of the most warlike and most glorious pharaohs of all.
Part of the glory is due to the fact that he was also the world’s first historian. He had a scribe called Thanuny who on campaign kept a daily journal, and twenty years later these were written up and were inscribed on the walls of the temple at Karnak. Tuthmoses III is therefore the first person in the world whose exploits we can follow in detail and inevitably the record is one of victory after victory after victory. But even if we exercise proper scholarly scepticism about the bias of our source, it does seem that he must actually have been pretty successful as a warrior.
He campaigned mainly to the north in Palestine and Syria. The main enemies were the Mitanni, who were between the Hittites to the north and the Assyrians in Mesopotamia to the south east. But both the big boys were temporarily weak, so the Mitanni sprang up between them.
The big battle was the Battle of Megiddo, which blocked the main route between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Tuthmoses had to attack. There were three routes through the mountains – two easy, one difficult. He decided — contrary to the advice of his generals — to go through the difficult route which proved to be undefended, so the army went through and won a glorious victory, which resulted in the capture of 894 chariots,200 suits of armour, 200 horses and over 25,000 animals. He also captured 30 sons of the local kings and sent them back to Egypt to be educated, so that when their fathers died, they could be sent home to become enthusiastic supporters of Egyptian rule. He had to spend a further 9 months besieging Megiddo itself, but when it finally fell, the routes to the north were finally opened.
He carried out further campaigns, fourteen or possibly seventeen in all – victory after victory and on his death the empire of Egypt had reached its furthest extent, from Syria in the north down to the fourth cataract to the south. Tuthmoses III was one of the great emperors.
Indeed he was more than just a warrior; he also had a ‘Botanical garden’ inscribed in the Karnak temple showing his interest in flora and fauna, with plants from the Eastern Mediterranean. And he was a great historian who recorded his own exploits – indeed military historians regularly include the Battle of Megiddo as being the first of the world’s great battles because it is the first battle in the world to be recorded in such detail.
He was succeeded by Amenhotep II and then Tuthmoses IV: both it seems successful, but not particularly notable as pharaohs. It has been noted that at this time the emphasis of the administration shifted. Generals now take a back seat, and the administration, the civil service became more important.. The most important civil servant was the prime minister who by tradition is always called the ‘vizier’- the title of the chief minister in the Ottoman Empire. But now the post was divided between a northern vizier and a southern vizier, there was also a governor of the northern lands and a governor of the southern lands. There were mayors of both Memphis and Thebes, as well as of the main towns of each of the ‘nomes’, the provinces into which Egypt was divided. The all important task of collecting the taxes was under the charge of the Overseer of Cattle, and the Overseer of Grain in both north and south. Egypt flourished.
Then came the greatest pharaoh of all: Amenhotep III. He is sometimes called ‘le Roi Soleil’: the great builder, the great enhancer and the great organiser of processions. Indeed at this point I will bring this narrative to an end and open up a new chapter to take a look at Egypt in the reign of Amenhotep III and see how the temples, the palaces and the processions all came together to provide an insight into the glue that held the Egyptian state together, and how that society was rudely challenged by Amenhotep’s son and successor, the heretic emperor Akhenaten.
Or, onto Akhenaten direct