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Ancient Egypt

The Pharaohs of Egypt

by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999. Updated 12 May 2007

Tuthmosis III (Greek: Thotmes) (1479-1425 BC)

Tuthmosis became a pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty at the age of six, upon the death of Tuthmosis II in 1501 BC. His throne was held safe for him for around twenty-one years by Queen Hatshepsut and when he acceded the throne he initially respected Hatshepsut's reign and achievements.

His eastern vassals, for so long quiet, were starting to challenge Egypt's dominance, so he embarked upon a series of glorious campaigns, including the dramatic capture of Megiddo, and saw Egypt restored to her position of power. Egypt now controlled an empire which stretched from beyond the third cataract in Nubia to the banks of the River Euphrates in Syria.

Using his hard-won wealth, Tuthmosis attempted to out-build Hatshepsut. But after a while there was destruction alongside the construction. The royal masons had been charged with the task of removing all traces of the female pharaoh. By the time of his death, some thirty-three years after his solo accession, Tuthmosis was confident that Hatshepsut's unorthodox reign would soon be forgotten.

Tuthmosis proved himself a calm and prudent general, a brave man not given to hasty or irrational actions. He did not start his solo reign with an assault on Hatshepsut's memory; indeed, he allowed her a traditional funeral, and waited until it was convenient to fit the desecration into his schedule.

Some of the destruction was even carried out by his son, after his death, when most of those who remembered Hatshepsut had also died. It was a remote, rather than an immediate, attack. Furthermore the attack was not a thorough one. Enough remained of Hatshepsut to allow modern scholars to recreate her reign in some detail.

Her tomb, the most obvious place to start the attack, still housed her name. Hatshepsut may have been erased from Egypt's official record, but she was never hated as Akhenaten 'The Great Criminal' would later be.

By removing all obvious references to his co-ruler, Tuthmosis could incorporate her reign into his own. He would then become Egypt's greatest pharaoh; the only successor to Tuthmosis II. Hatshepsut would become the unfortunate victim, not of a personal attack, but of an impersonal attempt at retrospective political correctness.


Akhenaten (1352-1334 BC)

Initially acceding as an Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh under the name of Amenhotep IV, his assumed name means 'the spirit of the Aten'. Together with his wife, Nefertiti, Akhenaten introduced a monotheistic cult of one god, the sun god Aten or Aton, and abolished the worship of all the other traditional Egyptian gods.

Aten was defined as a universal, omnipresent spirit, one which not only had created the universe, but also ruled it. Akhenaten's choice of monotheism was not only motivated by religious speculation, but was also an attempt to increase the power of the pharaoh at the expense of the local temples and their officials, which had become both rich and politically important.

Whilst nothing can be proved, many scholars have suggested that his monotheism came to influence the Hebrew prophets a few centuries later, when monotheism came to be defined in Israeli religion.

For his daring and heresy, Akhenaten was branded the 'Criminal of Amarna' (the city he built to the Aten). His name and memory, and those of three subsequent kings (including Tutankhamun, whose tomb was discovered in 1922), were erased from Egyptian history, and the Egyptian capital of Thebes (modern Luxor) was restored.


Seti I (Sethi) (1290-1279 BC)

Seti was appointed vizier and commander of Sile during the reign of his father, Ramses I, which secured a stable transfer of power from the preceding dynasty.

During the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egypt had lost much of its international strength. Seti set out to restore this, and increased Egyptian territory into Palestine and Syria, while also protecting the border against the Libyans. He fought against the Hittite King Muwatallis further north in the Levant, and it appears that he concluded a peace treaty which secured the borders at Kadesh on the River Orontes.

However, at home he may have had something of an image problem. The Egyptian god Seth (or Set) murdered and dismembered his brother Osiris, but was later forgiven by Isis, his sister and the wife of Osiris, even though Seth had badly damaged Horus' eye in their fight.

Seti I, who built a great temple to Osiris at Abydos, the cult centre of Osiris, was named after Seth and so politely altered his name in the temple inscriptions to commemorate Osiris instead of Seth. By this means the Egyptians recognised the moral awkwardness of putting the name of Osiris' murderer on his temple, but this did not discredit the cult of Seth or the pharaoh who bore his name.

Seti's son was Ramses II, nicknamed 'the Great'. Together, ruling for more than eighty years between them, these two pharaohs did much to restore Egypt's international power and prestige.


Shoshenq I / Shishak / Sheshonk (circa 943-922 BC)

Sheshonk was a Libyan mercenary who managed to snatch Egypt from the hands of a weak pharaoh, thereby ending the Twenty-First Dynasty and replacing it with his own Twenty-Second Dynasty.

During his reign he is best known for invading Israel and besieging Jerusalem, being recorded in the Old Testament as Shishaq. An Egyptian relief carving describing the Pharaoh Sheshonk's exploits refers to a raid on the 'highlands of David', meaning the kingdom of Israel. Shishaq waited for Solomon to die before invading Judah, primarily the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, during the fifth year of the reign of King Rehoboam. He is credited with taking with him most of the treasures of the temple which had been built by Solomon.

However, he did not enter the kingdom's capital and therefore was not responsible for carrying off the Ark of the Covenant to Tanis (whatever else he may have been able to pilfer). A year after his return Tanis was supposedly buried by a months-long sandstorm, which is where the ark was thought to have laid.


Saite Pharaohs (26th Dynasty) (672-525 BC)

The system of thirty dynasties was formulated by the Egyptian priest, Manetho, writing in Greek under the rule of the Ptolemies.

The Persians, who overthrew the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty in 525 BC, were reckoned by Manetho to be the Twenty-Seventh Dynasty. Sometimes the last Persian rulers of Egypt (Artaxerxes III, and his successors), and sometimes the Ptolemies are referred to as the Thirty-First Dynasty, but these are modern suggestions. Generally the dynasty of the Ptolemies is not numbered.

The Twenty-Sixth Dynasty represents the greatest flowering of the Egyptian state and civilisation since the New Kingdom period started. Sadly, it was also the last hurrah for ancient Egypt. The Saite rulers almost seemed aware of that themselves. They carried out probably the first official exploration of the pyramids, copying the Old Kingdom art they discovered and introducing their own burials into tombs which were already two thousand years old.

This antiquarian project is then found together with the first hints of the Hellenistic period. The reliance of the Saite pharaohs on Greek mercenary soldiers and the significant presence of Greek traders in Egypt launches a Greek presence which soon enough becomes dominant.



Text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.