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The New Kingdom: c.1540-c.1080 BC

The New Kingdom, also sometimes known as the New Empire, lasts half a millennium and provides the bulk of the art, artefacts and architecture (apart from the pyramids) for which ancient Egypt is famous. Pharaohs of the New Kingdom create at Thebes the great temples of Karnak and Luxor and are buried, on the other side of the Nile, in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings.

The kingdom spans three dynasties but it is the first two, the 18th and 19th, which provide its greatest glories in temples of Amen-Re (though there is an interim period in the 18th dynasty, under Akhenaten, when this time-honoured god of the pharaohs is forcefully rejected).

Descendants of Thutmose: c.1525-c.1379 BC

The first powerful ruler of the New Kingdom is Thutmose I. Son of the pharaoh by a concubine, he secures the succession by marrying his fully royal half-sister. Succeeding to the throne in about 1525 BC, Thutmose vigorously extends Egypt's empire. He conquers south into Nubia as far as the fourth cataract of the Nile. In the north he reaches Syria and the Euphrates.

Marriage to a half-sister is common practice in Egypt's dynasties, and it occurs again (and for the same purpose) among Thutmose's children. His heir, also Thutmose, is the son of a lesser wife. So he is married to his royal half-sister Hatshepsut, a daughter of the queen.

Thutmose II succeeds his father some time around 1500 BC but dies a few years later. His heir, Thutmose III, son of a concubine, is an infant when he inherits. Hatshepsut takes power - first as regent for her stepson but then, perhaps in about 1490, as pharaoh in her own right.

Hatshepsut is a rare exception in ruling a native Egyptian dynasty as pharaoh. She appears on her monuments in male attire (even wearing the false beard which is a special attribute of the pharaoh) and she rules as forcefully as any man, though she devotes herself to the arts of peace rather than war. Trade and architecture are her main concerns.

Hatshepsut sends a famous trading mission to Punt (an area probably on the Red Sea coast of modern Somalia), which results in a new supply of gold, ebony and myrrh. She continues her father's building programme at Karnak. And her name lives today in the great funerary temple which she builds on the other side of the river in commemoration of herself and her father.

Hatshepsut dies in about 1470 and is succeeded by her stepson Thutmose III (the rightful heir to the throne which she has usurped). He inherits at a time when the vassal states in Palestine and Syria, subdued by Thutmose I, are reasserting their independence. It is a challenge which Thutmose III proves well suited to meet.

In the first of many campaigns to the north (in about 1469) Thutmose wins a spectacular victory near Megiddo, the details of which he records in an inscription in the temple at Karnak. He soon recovers control over all the regions conquered by his grandfather, but he adopts a more statesmanlike attitude to empire than his predecessor.

Young princes from the conquered territories are brought back to Thebes to be educated in the Egyptian way of life. Thus indoctrinated, and with personal contacts at the centre of power, they return home to rule their vassal states in a frame of mind more inclined to cooperation than rebellion. Thutmose sets an early pattern for a wise imperial policy.

Like his predecessors, Thutmose III is a passionate builder, adding greatly to the splendours of Karnak. His great grandson Amenhotep III continues the tradition, diverting attention to the southern part of Thebes, at Luxor, where he begins the great temple to Amen-Re.

During a century and a half Thutmose I and his descendants have done great honour to this traditional god of the pharaohs, the blend of Amen (the local god of Thebes) and the earlier sun god Re. But the status of the Theban god is violently challenged during the reign of Amenhotep IV, son of Amenhotep III, who succeeds his father in about 1353 BC.

The challenge from Aten: c.1353-c.1336 BC

For one brief period Amen is shifted from his central position in the Egyptian pantheon. Soon after Amenhotep IV comes to the throne, in about 1353 BC, he changes his name from Amenhotep ('Amen is satisfied') to Akhenaten ('beneficial to Aten'), signifying that the new state deity is to be Aten, the disk of the sun. Six years later Akhenaten moves the court from Thebes to an entirely new capital city, some 300 miles down the Nile at a site now known as Tell el Amarna. A great temple to Aten is its central feature.

At the same time Akhenaten attempts to have the name of Amen erased from all inscriptions. Aten is to be the only god.

The insistence that there is no other god but Aten represents a first step towards monotheism, and for this reason much attention has been paid to Akhenaten by western historians. In the Egyptian perspective he seems less significant. Within a few years of his death, in about 1336 BC, the old religion is restored, the court moves back to Thebes, and Tell el Amarna is destroyed.

Again the change is symbolized in a change of name. Akhenaten is succeeded by two boys, each married to one of his daughters to give them legitimacy. The second of the two is called Tutankhaten. In the resurgence of the cult of Amen, the new pharaoh's name is changed to Tutankhamen.

Tutankhamen, famous in modern times for the remarkable contents of his tomb (see Tomb of Tutankhamen), inherits the throne in about 1333 BC at the age of nine and lives only another nine years. He would not feature largely in history on his own account.

With no heir to the throne on Tutankhamen's death, his elderly vizier (a man by the name of Ay, whose wife was nurse to Queen Nefertiti) becomes pharaoh. But Ay dies within four years, again without an heir. This time the throne is taken by a more forceful character - Horemheb, commander of the army. He rules for a quarter of a century, energetically removing all traces of the heretical Aten. Then, having no heir, he bequeaths the throne to Ramses - his vizier and army commander, and now founder of the 19th dynasty

Pharaohs called Ramses: 13th-11th century BC

Ramses is the name most commonly associated in the west with the pharaohs - partly because Ramses II commissions one of the best known images of pharaonic power (the colossal seated statues of himself at Abu Simbel), but also because in the declining years of the indigenous Egyptian dynasties eight rulers in succession are given this name.

The first Ramses lives only two years, to 1290 BC, after being given the throne as an elderly general. He is followed by his son Seti, already a seasoned campaigner when he mounts the throne. Seti does much to stabilize the empire during an eleven-year rule, overseeing the restoration of the defaced inscriptions to Amen. But the high point of the new dynasty comes in the long reign of Seti's son, Ramses II.

Ramses inherits the throne young (though he already has experience of war, through accompanying his father on campaigns) and he rules for the huge span of sixty-six years (1279-1213 BC). His reign is marked by a peaceful resolution of Egypt's struggle against the Hittites in Syria, and by major building projects.

Ramses completes the great hall of columns at Karnak, planned by his grandfather and started by his father. And he creates spectacular monuments at a new site, Abu Simbel. In addition to the great temple for which Abu Simbel is famous, there is a smaller one dedicated to Ramses' wife, Nefertari. Colossal statues of the royal couple accompanied by their children decorate the facade of this family shrine.

In Egyptian tradition Ramses II comes to be considered the ideal pharaoh. This is due to many factors - the length of his reign, the size of his harem and family (at least 100 children), the prosperity and calm of Egypt at the time, and a flair for publicity revealed in the vast number of monuments and inscriptions commemorating his achievements (an inconclusive battle against the Hittites at Kadesh, where the pharaoh himself played a central and courageous part on the battlefield, is invariably described as a great victory).

As a result of Ramses' resounding fame, members of the subsequent 20th dynasty all take his name - in an unbroken line from Ramses III to Ramses XI.

These later Ramses, ruling from 1187 to c.1075 BC, are not in fact descended from the great man. Their ancestor, Setnakht, is a commoner who seizes the throne in 1190 after a period of chaos. Setnakht's son, Ramses III, restores a degree of order, but the situation soon deteriorates again.

The problem facing him is gradual loss of control in the three regions into which Egypt has expanded from the narrow valley of the upper Nile - north into Palestine and Syria, west into Libya, south into Nubia. From the north the threat now comes not from the Hittites, with whom a lasting peace was established by Ramses II, but from a group to whom the Hittites themselves fall prey - the mysterious Sea Peoples.

The Sea People most directly threatening Egypt are described in the documents as the Peleset. Pressing south from the coast of Palestine, they are eventually held in this region by Ramses III. They are almost certainly the same people as The Philistines.

Meanwhile loss of control in Libya and Nubia means a great reduction in the revenue of the empire. Amid mounting anarchy, the pillaging of tombs for their immense treasures becomes common practice. When Ramses XI dies, in about 1075 BC, the governor of the northern town of Tanis sets up an independent kingdom in the Nile delta. His act brings to an end the 20th dynasty and the New Kingdom.

Libyans and others: 11th-8th century BC

The 21st dynasty, based in Tanis, never controls the whole of Egypt. Thebes, under the influence of powerful high priests, remains for the most part friendly but independent.

The Theban priests are more resentful of the next dynasty (the 22nd, beginning in about 950 BC). This is a dynasty of Libyans, military men who for a while win control of all Egypt through their garrisons. Their manners and beliefs are fully Egyptian, for they and their ancestors have served in Egyptian armies (they probably descend from Libyan captives brought into Egypt by Ramses III).

The Libyans prove unable to hold Egypt together. Local commanders become increasingly independent. At one time there are as many as six proclaiming themselves kings of their regions, while in about 800 BC a separate dynasty (the 23rd) is proclaimed in Thebes. In the 8th century yet another (the 24th) is established in the Nile delta.

During this chaos there is only one calm region within the old Egyptian empire. Cush, in the far south, has recently gone its own way, operating as a stable and independent kingdom in a traditional Egyptian style. By the mid-8th century the Cushite king is Kashta. He directs his attention to the rich but now chaotic land further down the Nile.

The Cushite Dynasty: from c.730 BC

The first incursion of the kings of Cush into Egypt occurs in about 750 BC, when Kashta conquers upper Egypt (the region north of the first cataract and Abu Simbel). But it is his son Piye, also known as Piankhi, who from about 730 BC captures cities the entire length of the Nile as far north as Memphis and receives the submission of the local rulers of the delta region.

After this achievement Piye retires to his capital at Napata, where be builds a great temple to Amen-Re. But it is impossible to remain in control of Egypt from as far south as Napata. The final establishment of the Cushite or 25th dynasty is therefore the work of Piye's brother, Shabaka, who succeeds him in about 719 BC.

Shabaka renews the campaign to the north, defeating Bochoris (a descendant of the previous Egyptian dynasty, whom Shabaka is said to have burnt alive) and installing himself securely in Thebes and Memphis.

Here he and and his descendants might well have ruled peacefully for some time, since they are widely welcomed for their pious safeguarding of the cult of Amen-Re. But it is their misfortune to coincide with the greatest external threat yet to confront the Nile civilization. The new power in the middle east is the formidable state of Assyria, now brutally subduing the many small states and cities of Palestine and Phoenicia.

From about 705 BC, when Assyria has a new king (Sennacherib), there is a widespread rebellion in the middle east against Assyrian rule. In support of the rebels the pharaoh (now Shabaka's nephew Shebitku) marches north from Memphis with an Egyptian army. He is heavily defeated. Egypt becomes the next Assyrian target.

In 663 the Assyrian king (Esarhaddon, son of Sennacherib) captures Memphis, seizes the royal treasure and harem and claims the title 'king of Egypt'. When the Assyrian army withdraws, leaving Egypt under the control of vassal rulers, the Cushites briefly recover Memphis. But another Assyrian expedition, in 663, settles the issue. This time Thebes is reached and plundered.

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