Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations


Steve Muhlberger
In two previous lectures we talked about the early stages of the Egyptian monarchy.   I emphasized the conservatism of ancient Egypt, which was closely connected to the geographical uniqueness and resulting institutional  stability of the country.   This conservatism went beyond politics and religion, extending to technology and intellectual life:   The Egyptians were content with addition and subtraction, and never went on to multiplication.

Starting about 1640 B.C., a century after Hammurabi, 1500 years after Dynasty I in Egypt, things changed somewhat.   Egypt was shaken up by a successful invasion, and was never quite so isolated again.   This lecture is about the succeeding period, called the New Kingdom, roughly 1550 to 1070 B.C., with particular attention to one of the most eccentric monarchs of ancient times, Akhenaten.

The period is one that we non-experts know quite a bit about:  it is the period of Nefertiti and Tutankhamen, the period when the phrase "Pharoah" was invented, a period from which many documents and mummies survive (including those of some of the most famous monarchs).

The New Kingdom is separated in time from the preceding Middle Kingdom by the Second Intermediary Period (1640-1550).  Foreign rulers, called the Hyksos ("shepherd kings"?) by later Egyptians, took over the Delta and part of the Nile valley just to the south.   They were likely originally a mercenary group used on the Sinai or Palestinian frontier, who moved in at a moment of weakness.

This new ruling class tried to fit in, and act the part of Egyptian royalty in the old style and their art and proclamations reflect this.  Yet they unleashed what looks like a flood of innovations.  Some scholars credit the Hyksos period with introducing many things to Egypt that were unknown there but common elsewhere:  the use of tin-bronze, improved potter's wheels, the vertical loom, new fruits, vegetables and cattle, new weapons (horse and chariot, composite bows, swords of new shapes), and maybe new musical instruments and dances.

The Hyksos were always opposed by a rival royal line from the city of Thebes in the south, which thought of itself as championing the native tradition of Egypt against evil foreigners, under the patronage of the great sun-god of Thebes, Amon-Ra (Amen-Re).  About 1550, the Thebans took over the whole country and established the 18th dynasty.

The 18th dynasty did not take Egypt back into isolationism (was this even possible?), but inaugurated an era of imperial expansion south into Nubia (rich in gold and other metals) and northeast into Palestine and Egypt.   This latter expansion was described by the Egyptians as vengeance on the hated Hyksos, a line repeated for generations.

Vengeance and defense may have been part motives for this expansion, but it also provided wealth to support the Egyptian establishment.   Egyptian monarchs did their best to extract tribute from the many monarchs of Syria.   Successfully:  Tuthmose I, around 1500 B.C., took his forces all the way to the Euphrates.

This unprecedented wealth and power may have contributed to increased political turmoil (or maybe our sources are better).

An example of this turmoil is the reign of Queen Hapshepsut, who like other queens of Egypt owed her opportunity to rule to the early death of Tuthmose II (1479) and the young age of his heir, Tuthmose III (H's stepson).  While Tuthmose III grew up, Hapshepsut acted the part of ruler, including the preparation of a massive tomb in true kingly style.

Hapshepsut as a woman seems to have been unable to take a military role, and her efforts to maintain herself in a state committed to imperialism are reflected in her tomb art.   Eventually she took the step that has made her famous to later generations, depicting herself as a man down to the ceremonial kingly beard.   When Tuthmose III assumed sole rule on H's death, he demonstrated his dislike for her by having many of her monuments destroyed.   Then he returned to the successful imperialism of his ancestors.  So did his descendants until we get to Amonophis IV, better known to us as Akhenaten (the one and only).

Akhenaten is well known because among Egyptian monarchs is unique.   However he is a variation on a common type in history, the eccentric unmilitary heir of a military family (Nero).   No traces of eccentricity show up in his youth or first few years on the throne.    His name meant "Amon is content" and he continued to honor the divine patron of his dynasty and build the usual monuments.

Then, in about the 6th year of his reign (c. 1348), he began to change everything.   He discarded his ministers, left Thebes, and started to look for a new site for his capital.   Motivation?   He had been converted to the worship of a new god, Aten.

"Aten" was an Egyptian word meaning "the visible disk of the sun."   It was not a divine name for the sun, which had several semi-human forms and names in the Egyptian religion.   Amonophis had come to the conclusion that these and all the other anthropomorphic deities of Egypt were fraudulent.   There was only one god, the creator and sustainer of everything, the completely unhuman Aten.

He renamed himself after the Aten and spent his life trying to establish the idea (not completely unfamiliar before) that all the gods were one, in a very uncompromising form.

Why did he do this?   A transcendental experience of some sort? Quite possibly.   Once he had adopted his monotheistic ideas, though, they had political implications.  The worship of the Aten and only the Aten was the rejection of the political structure as it existed, in which a key place was held by property-owning temples, especially those of Amon-Ra.

The royal religion of Aten not only delegitimized the temples, they gave Akhenaten a very special place as the one and only priest of truth.

Akhenaten reminds me of another sun-king, Louis XIV.   Like Louis, he excluded many established powers from his entourage, created a new capital away from established interests (Versailles for King Louis, Akhetaten (modern Amarna) on a barren stretch of the Nile for King Akhenaten), and saw himself as an absolute ruler with a special relation to heaven.   Akhenaten worshipped the Aten; everyone else was supposed to worship him.

This policy was not popular.   It may have been restricted for some years to the new royal capital, where Akhenaten and his favorites worshipped Aten in new, distinctively unroofed temples.

It is here that a new style of official art quite different from what had gone before.   It appears to us to be naturalistic in its portrayal of the king,  his wife Nefertiti, and his daughters.  Instead of being depicted as a muscular hero as usual, Akhenaten had himself portrayed as sunken-chested, heavy-hipped, and with a peculiar elongated head.  Did he really look like this?   And why show this off?   Perhaps he was showing that he and his family were so lofty they could break all the symbolic rules.

Eventually Akhenaten sent his servants out from Amarna to purge the realm of blasphemy -- we know the names of the "false gods" were hacked out of buildings and perhaps temples were closed.
One can imagine the political turbulence.   The turbulence was reflected in the royal capital, where inscriptions give a confused idea of relations between Akhenaten, Nefertiti and another king named Smenkhkare (a half-brother?  even Nefertiti with a male name?).

Akhenaten died after eleven years of religious revolution, and his heirs, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamen, and others, found it impossible to maintain the worship of Aten.  When the dynasty came to an abrupt end, Akhenaten's monuments and even his entire capital city were destroyed by the priests of Amon-Ra.

It is the destruction of Amarna, interestingly enough, that preserved much of the evidence of Akhenaten's reign to modern times, and enabled him to become a symbol of monotheistic progress and even (rather peculiarly) religious liberality.

Sir Alan Gardiner believed that the religious revolution and reaction led to a break in cultural continuity in Egypt.   He pointed to the carelessness with which ancient texts were recopied, as if they weren't well understood by the scribes.   The reaction to this situation by the next dynasty, the 19th dynasty, was to build bigger and better temples and monuments.

The most famous 19th dynasty monarch was Ramses II, who had so many statues made of himself that he is the most recognizable Egyptian monarch today.   Even the determined and mighty Ramses (despite his claims to incredible victories) had a hard time maintaining Egyptian power in Asia.   His dynasty and the next also had to deal with the Sea Peoples, whose migrations and invasions around 1200 B.C. are associated with the fall of Mycenae and the destruction of Troy.   Neighbors of Egypt, like the Libyans used as mercenaries in the past by strong kings, became dangerous enemies of weak ones.

One reason for this weakness was the continued growth of priestly power.   By  the time of Ramses XI (1100) the priests of Amon-Ra in Thebes ran what was almost an independent state in the south of Egypt.

Indeed, Ramses XI was the last king of the New Kingdom, and a chaotic Third Intermediary Period (1070-712) followed.  For centuries, foreign elements in the military dominated Egyptian politics.   Thereafter, Egypt (mostly under the control of the temples) became the prey to a number of foreign empires.   Egypt became a prize of war.

One could draw all sorts of extravagant conclusions from the decline of the imperial New Kingdom of Egypt, but I will be content to point out something rather simple.

By the first millennium B.C., even so large and rich and distinctive a country as Egypt was merely a part of a large civilized world, and could not maintain either isolation or unchallenged dominance.   We are about to see an era of new empires larger than any seen before.


John Baines and Jaromír Málek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt (NU)
Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharoahs
Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, Tutankhamen:  Life and Death of a Pharoah (N.Y., 1963) (NU)
This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.