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Egyptian History Part 3 - From the Depths to the Heights

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An Introduction to Pharaonic Egypt | The Rise of Egypt | Rebuilding | From the Depths to the Heights | The Amarna Period | The Long, Slow Decline | Egyptian Mummies | Egyptian Pyramids | Egyptian Legends and Theology | Egyptian Gods

With the fall of the Middle Kingdom, Egypt was once again in the doldrums, both politically and militarily. Foreigners ruled over large parts of the traditional kingdoms of Egypt, and the natives were too divided to fight back effectively. Monumental building almost ceased, and since much of our knowledge of pharaohs comes from inscriptions on temples and steles1, it is difficult to determine details of this period with any certainty.

Once again, it would take a brilliant leader to restore Egyptian civilisation and ensure another 500 years of wealth and prosperity - with one exceptional period of instability that could have been catastrophic. This is the period of history that best reflects the schoolchild's image of Egypt - massive temples covered in part-profile figures, mummified pharaohs and a huge and powerful empire.

Second Intermediate Period (1782 - 1550 BC)

13th Dynasty (1782 - 1650 BC)

This was another period of shrinkage for Egypt, though there is disagreement whether it was the tail end of the Middle Kingdom or the start of the Second Intermediate Period. Pharaoh Dudimose lost control of Nubia2 to the Kushites. Otherwise, the history of this era is poorly understood due to a lack of monumental building.

14th Dynasty

Lasting less than a century and ruling from Sais, this dynasty was fragmentary and in opposition to other, concurrent regimes. Dates are hard to establish, but may have covered roughly 1750 to 1660 BC.

15th and 16th Dynasties (1650 - 1550 BC)

Around 1720 BC, the Hyksos - possibly descendants of foreign labourers invited to the country by the 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Amenemhat III - captured the Lower Egyptian town of Avaris. The 15th and 16th Dynasties comprised their descendants, and ruled simultaneously, though only in the eastern Delta. The 13th Dynasty continued to rule from Memphis, but with ever-decreasing power and weaker pharaohs, often controlled by their viziers3.

17th Dynasty (1650 - 1550 BC)

The 17th Dynasty declared Thebes to be the capital of an independent Upper Egypt. These kings declared war on the Hyksos, and Wadikheperre Kamose besieged Avaris. His son Ahmosis eventually expelled the Hyksos entirely in around 1550 BC (or 1567 BC, or 1570 BC), re-uniting the kingdom under native rule.

New Kingdom (1550 - 1069 BC)

The 'New Kingdom' period is far better understood than earlier periods of ancient Egyptian history. Under the conqueror-pharaohs of these dynasties, Egypt reached its greatest geographical extent and some of its most famous monuments were constructed.

18th Dynasty (1550 - 1295 BC)

Ahmosis founded this new dynasty, which would go on to take a reinvigorated Egypt to the very zenith of its power. Ruling from Thebes, Ahmosis raided the Near East, Syria, Palestine and, most important of all, Nubia, where he could obtain gold, ivory, ebony, gems and slaves.

Taking Amun as their patron, the list of Ahmosis's descendants and successors reads like a list of the greatest names in Egyptian history. Tuthmosis I was the first monarch to be buried in the Valley of the Kings. His daughter Hatshepsut was undoubtedly the most successful female pharaoh, and Tuthmosis III conquered Nubia, crossed the Euphrates and fought with the Hittites. Amenhotep II once again raided Nubia, and his son Tuthmosis IV and grandson Amenhotep III took Egypt to its greatest geographical extent, a world superpower against which it seemed no other nation could stand.

But then something very strange happened. Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and embarked on an unprecedented period of religious, artistic, political and cultural reforms that left Egypt weakened and reduced militarily - a period so embarrassing to the pharaohs who followed that it would be obliterated from history for over 3,000 years. The 'Amarna Period' is discussed in detail in the next Entry of this project: History of Egypt Part 4.

Tutankhamun (lived 1367 - 1350 BC) - born Tutankhaten but renamed to reflect the changing religious ideas - was a child pharaoh who undid all of Akhenaten's changes, moving the capital back to Thebes and abandoning Amarna, reinstating worship of other gods and commissioning monuments in the classical style. Tutankhamun's young age suggests to some that he may have been controlled by reactionaries among the priesthood or military. Tutankhamun's successor Ay continued the counter-revolution, but it was the next pharaoh who decided to erase all trace of the heretical worship of the Aten.

Horemheb embarked on a systematic campaign of removing all references to Akhenaten. Although the idea of attempting to erase a hated ancestor was by no means unique in Egyptian history, it was successful enough on this occasion that the whole Amarna period was unknown until the late 19th Century AD. However, Horemheb died without an heir around 1295 BC which, combined with his lack of royal4 blood, brought the 18th Dynasty to an end.

19th Dynasty (1295 - 1186 BC)

Ramses I may have been Horemheb's vizier. His son Seti I began to reconquer the territories Akhenaten had lost in Nubia, Palestine and the Near East, and Ramses II recovered more Levantine territories. He once again took Egypt's borders to the edge of the Hittite Empire in the famous battle of Kadesh. Although this engagement appears to have been a draw in which he was nearly killed in an ambush, Ramses II chose to celebrate it in huge victory inscriptions at Abydos.

The next pharaoh, Merneptah, successfully fought off invasions by the Libyans and the mysterious 'Sea Peoples', and still found time for a series of raids into Palestine. During one of these, he conquered a people known as the Hebrews, a fact recorded on the Merneptah Stele that is the earliest undisputed reference to the Jewish people. Seti II died in 1186 BC without an heir, and the dynasty again changed.

20th Dynasty (1186 - 1069 BC)

It appears that on this occasion, Egypt was resilient enough to survive a change of dynasty, and possibly a brief interregnum. Sethnakhte eventually took power, but his descendants - all called Ramses - presided over another steady erosion of Egyptian power. Ramses III built the massive funerary temple at Medinet Habu, but was pressed by further sorties from the Libyans and 'Sea Peoples'. By the time of Ramses XI, Egypt's empire was gone. The Theban priests were ruling Upper Egypt and the pharaoh's viziers were in effective control of Lower Egypt from Tanis.

This de facto division of Egypt spelled the beginning of the end of its period of greatness. The final Entry in this series will chart the millennium-long slide into obscurity.

1A stele is an inscribed stone slab.2Modern Sudan. 3A vizier was equivalent to the role of Prime Minister.4The 'dynasties' are a bit random, and may have been decided centuries after the events. Sometimes a change of capital city was taken to constitute a change of dynasty, even when the first pharaoh of the later dynasty was the son of the last pharaoh of the previous dynasty. When this was not the case, the new dynasty was usually founded by a more distant relative of the previous pharaoh. The issue with Horemheb was that he was not related to the pharaohs in any way - he had been a 'commoner' who became vizier. He was therefore regarded by some as an upstart who was unable to trace his ancestry back to the gods.

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