New Kingdom of Egypt – A 500-year period that saw ancient Egypt reach its peak
The New Kingdom of ancient Egypt is described as a period marked by immense wealth, cultural progress, and territorial expansion. This golden age of ancient Egypt had very powerful and intelligent rulers. Some rulers, for example female pharaoh Hatshepsut, concentrated on developing trade and political relations with neighboring lands, making Egypt very prosperous; others focused on military conquests, which allowed Egypt to reach its largest and mightiest.
From the period where an Upper Egyptian king named Ahmose I defeated the Hyksos and reunited Egypt to a period that saw the kingdom begin to decline when Ramesses III had to contend with attacks by the Sea Peoples, World History Edu explores the history, facts and major accomplishments of the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt.
New Kingdom: Fast Facts
Began – c. 1570 BC – c. 1544 BC
Ended – c. 1077 BC
First king – Ahmose I
Last king – Ramesses XI
Most Notable Pharaohs – Ahmose I, Thutmose III, Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten (also known as Amenhotep IV), Tutankhamun, Seti I, Ramesses II
Capital cities of the New Kingdom
For long periods during the New Kingdom, Thebes, a city located along the Nile and about 500 miles (800 kilometers) south of the Mediterranean, served as the religious and cultural center.
The city of Memphis (located in modern day Mit Rahina), served as the capital of the New Kingdom for some periods – between 1213 and 1069. Akhenaten’s successor Tutankhamun (formerly Tutankhaten) is said to have relocated the royal court from Akhetaten to Memphis. This move was just one of numerous attempts by Tutankhamun to do away with the radical religious reforms instituted by his father, Akhenaten. The boy-king also restore many temples in Memphis that were left neglected during his predecessor’s reign.
Memphis was famous for being the center of education of royal family members. According to the records that exist today, Pharaoh Amenhotep II was born and raised in Memphis.
Located in Lower Egypt, Memphis was famous for being the cult center of Egyptian god Ptah, the patron god of craftsmen. For example, there was a famous temple built in Ptah’s honor named Hut-ka-Ptah, which means “Enclosure of the ka of Ptah”.
The Valley of the Kings
The capital city of the New Kingdom, Thebes, which was known to the Egyptians as Waset, was home to the famous Theban triad of gods that included Amun, the Hidden One; Khonsu, the green-faced god of the moon; and Mut, a mother goddess. Rising above the Theban landscape were beautiful architectural marvels like the temples of Luxor and Karnak. And on the west bank of the Nile, just opposite Thebes, was the famous Theban Necropolis, which also included the Valley of the Kings, a massive burial site where Egyptian pharaohs and nobles were buried for almost 500 years.
When was the New Kingdom?
Historians like to place this very important period of ancient Egypt between the 16th century BC and the 11th century BC. Going by the 30-Dynasty classification of ancient Egypt history, the New Kingdom is said to have spanned the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Dynasties. The 18th Dynasty is considered the most prosperous of time of the New Kingdom.
How the New Kingdom began
The first pharaoh of the New Kingdom period was Ahmose I. Known as the Egyptian ruler who drove the Hyksos foreign rulers out of Egypt, Ahmose I was a very brave and capable ruler. Historians credit him as the founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt.
Born into the Theban royal house in Upper Egypt, Ahmose I grew up watching his father Seqenenre Tao and brother Kamose make tentative efforts to expel the Hyksos rulers from Egypt. The Hyksos, who constituted rulers of the 15th Dynasty of Egypt, had their power base in the city of Avaris in the Nile delta. In effect, the Hyksos’s sphere influence covered all of Lower and Middle Egypt.
Even though Ahmose I succeeded to the Theban throne at just the age of 10, he would go on to prove himself extremely capable in the fight against Hyksos rulers in Lower Egypt. After the expulsion was complete, Ahmose proceeded to reunite Egypt under one rule. His efforts during his reign (c. 1550-1525 BC) served as launching pad for the likes of Amenhotep I, Hatshepsut and Thutmose III to make ancient Egypt great again.
Ancient Egypt at its greatest territorial extent
Rulers of the New Kingdom marched the Egyptian army and carved out territories in the south and north in order to create some kind of buffer against would-be armies that sought to eat into Egypt’s expanding territories. With memory of the Hyksos foreign rulers (15th Dynasty of Egypt) still fresh in the mind of Pharaoh Thutmose III, the Egyptian army was able to capture large parts of territories in Nubia in the south and Syria, Lebanon and Israel in the north. Those areas were to serve as buffer and prevent a recurrence of a situation where Egypt proper got overran by foreigners.
Further up north, New Kingdom rulers, especially 18th Dynasty rulers, also embarked on campaigns against the Hittites, a powerful Anatolian empire whose sphere of influence reached as far as northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia.
A period of very powerful pharaohs
The New Kingdom, particularly the 18th Dynasty, is famous for having some of the most powerful ancient Egyptian rulers of all time. Pharaohs like Thutmose III, Amenhotep III, Queen Hatshepsut, Tutankhamun, and even Akhenaten had tremendous impact on the economic, military and cultural fortunes of ancient Egypt. Take the example of female Pharaoh Hatshepsut – it was said that during her 20-year reign, Egypt established strong trade ties with the Land of Punt to the east. By so doing, Egypt was able to attain a level of prosperity not seen in any other period or era. Hatshepsut holds the record of being the longest-serving female pharaoh to hail from Egypt.
Succeeding Hatshepsut was Thutmose III, arguably the greatest pharaoh of the New Kingdom era. This pharaoh, who by the way was a stepson and nephew of Queen Hatshepsut, spent the bulk part of his 54 years on the throne transforming Egypt into a real powerhouse. According to the records that survived, King Thutmose III embarked upon at least 17 military campaigns, conquering territories as far as northern Syria.
Then there was Akhenaten, the sort of bad boy of ancient Egyptian kings. Also known as Amenhotep IV, this pharaoh is said to have turned the entire ancient Egyptian religion on its head by introducing a kind of monotheistic religious belief system, which had the sun god Aten as the chief of all gods. Akhenaten was not only famous or infamous (depending on how you look at it) for his religious revolution, as art and culture in Egypt witnessed tremendous changes.
During Pharaoh Ramesses II’s reign, the landscape of ancient Egypt witnessed an unprecedented level of construction, from magnificent temples, palaces to obelisks. Ramesses II, also known as Ramesses the Great, wasn’t just a great builder, but he was also an intelligent propagandist and diplomat, whose efforts resulted in the signing of the first known peace treaty in the world. The treaty helped bring an end to Egypt’s inconclusive, decades’ long conflict with the Hittites who occupied what is now present-day Turkey in Anatolia.
18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt – 16th century BC to 13th century BC
The Eighteenth Dynasty, which spanned from around 1543 to 1292 BC, had famous kings such as Ahmose I, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, and Tutankhamun. This dynasty is sometimes known as the Thutmosid Dynasty.
Pharaohs Ay and Horemheb were the last kings of the 18th dynasty. Following the death of Horemheb, the crown passed on to Vizier Ramesses, who later became Ramesses I, the founder of the 19th Dynasty.
Nineteenth Dynasty – 13th century to 12th century BC
Ramesses I is credited as the founder of the 19th Dynasty of ancient Egypt. He was vizier during the relatively short reign of Pharaoh Horemheb, the last pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. With no surviving child of his own, Horemheb chose his trusted vizier, Menpehtyre Ramesses, as his heir. Ramesses, also spelled as Ramses, had a very brief reign, which began around 1292 BC. What is categorically clear is that Ramesses I was succeeded by his son Seti I.
During Seti I’s reign (c. 1290 – 1279), Egypt began to reassert itself as dominant power in the region. This involved taking back territories that had been conquered by the Hittites in Anatolia. This action was necessary because for many decades latter 18th Dynasty rulers (beginning around the reign of Akhenaten), Egypt had ignored the threat posed by the Hittites and the Libyans.
Set I secured many military victories, including bringing the Syrian city of Kadesh (Qadesh) under his control. Seti I’s efforts were shored up by his son and heir Ramesses II (also known as Ramses the Great), who had several military campaigns against the Libyans and the Hittites. Capitalizing on the internal turmoil among the Hittites, Ramses the Great was able to seize many Hittites territories in Syria. He even matched his army as far north as Tunip (located in present day western Syria).
With both armies locked in a fierce struggle that seemed to be going nowhere, the rulers of Egypt and Hittite decided to enter into a peace treaty, which many historians consider as the first-known treaty in history. To further seal the peace accord, Ramesses was allowed to marry two Hittite princesses from the court of King Hattusili III, the brother of King Muwatalli II.
Egyptian king Ramesses II (c. 1303-1213 BC) and Hittite king Muwatalli II signed the world’s first-known peace treaty after an inconclusive struggle at the Battle of Kadesh.
Following the long and remarkable reign of Ramses the Great, Merneptah, one of the few surviving sons of Ramses, succeeded to the throne. Merneptah had very huge boots to fill considering all the feats that his father chalked. Safe to say, Merneptah and his successors did not live up to those lofty heights set by their predecessors as the kingdom’s wealth and stability began to erode gradually.
Pharaoh Seti II’s ascent to the throne interrupted for a brief period by a usurper called Amenmesse. It’s said that Amenmesse was the half-brother of Seti II. Kings that ruled after Seti II were his heir and son Siptah and his wife Twosret. Pharaoh Twosret, one of the few female rulers of ancient Egypt, was the second royal wife of Seti II. Prior to becoming pharaoh, Twosret was the regent to her stepson, Pharaoh Siptah. During Twosret’s reign, she was described as the “Daughter of Re”.
After Twosret’s brief reign, Egypt most likely descended into a political turmoil, which coincided with the reign of Setnakhte, the founder of the 20th Dynasty. Some scholars have suggested that Twosret was overthrown by Setnakhte during a fierce civil war.
Twentieth Dynasty – 12th century to 11th century BC
After the brief civil war towards the end of the 19th Dynasty, a new dynasty was born – the 20th Dynasty, which was founded by Pharaoh Setnakhte. After Setnakhte’s death, his son Ramesses III succeeded him. Scholars reason that Ramesses III was the last great pharaoh of the New Kingdom. His 8-year reign saw the Egyptian army defeat the Sea Peoples, a confederation of seafaring tribes that tried to invade Egypt by sea and land. It is unclear where the Sea Peoples originated from; some scholars have speculated that they came from places including western Asia Minor, Southern Europe and the Mediterranean islands.
After defeating the Sea Peoples, King Ramses III is said to have allowed them to settle in Southern Canaan. Ramesses III also fought against a number of Libyan tribes. Those military campaigns put a huge strain on an already royal coffers. This was followed by a general decline in Egypt’s influence in the region. Within his empire, Ramesses III had to contend with a labor strike that almost resulted in his overthrow.
It’s safe to say that Ramesses III did not leave a fully thriving empire for his successors. This explains why his sons – Ramesses IV, Ramesses VI, and Ramesses VIII – struggled during their reigns. The endemic corruption in government – as well as irregular flow of the Nile, sporadic famine and drought – did not help matters. And soon, Egypt was plunged into a civil unrest.
By the time Ramesses XI had succeeded to the throne, there was hardly any central power left. The land of Egypt had become to fracture, as powerful high priests in Thebes stepped up to fill the power vacuum. Those Theban rulers became the de facto overlords of Upper Egypt, i.e. the South of Egypt. In north, i.e. Lower Egypt, the governor of the region, Smendes, became ruler of Lower Egypt following the death of Ramesses XI. Thus New Kingdom had ended, and thus was born the Third Intermediate Period, which lasted from around 1069 BC to 664 BC.
Decline of the New Kingdom
For many years, the royal coffers of ancient Egypt was steadily depleted by the extent of the kingdom’s military conquests, lavish lifestyle of the royal family, and most importantly the massive construction projects that littered the length and breadth of the kingdom. Throw in a bit of poor harvest as a result of prolonged bad weather conditions, and then we have a huge recipe for chaos and political instability. The central power in Thebes gradually weakened beginning around the reign of Ramesses III.
The death of Ramesses XI in 1070 BC sealed the decline of the New Kingdom, which in turn was followed by the Third Intermediate Period. Ramesses XI’s successors like Smendes I ruled a completely different Egypt than the one of his forefathers. His sphere of influence was only in Lower Egypt, while wealthy high priests of the god Amun ruled large parts of Middle and Upper Egypt.
Last Pharaoh of the New Kingdom
Ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses XI was part of a long line of Egyptian rulers and descendant of Rameses the Great (also known as Ramesses II). Unlike his ancestors, Ramesses XI’s reign (c. 1107 – c. 1078 BC) was far from memorable. By the time he had ascended the throne, the Egyptian society was in a state of disarray. Years of infighting, political instability, and massive government corruption had caused the central government to become weak.
To make matters worse, Egypt was also rocked by incessant droughts and famine due to irregular flow of the Nile. Very wealthy high priests of Thebes in Upper Egypt took advantage of the turbulence and began to assert themselves in the region. In his later years, he transferred the political capital of Egypt to Tanis.
Upon his death around 1078 BC, he was buried in Lower Egypt by Smendes, the governor of the region. Smendes also succeeded Ramesses XI to the throne, although his sphere of influence was confined to just Lower Egypt as High Priests of Amun in Thebes held control over Middle and Upper Egypt.
The Third Intermediate Period
Following the demise of the New Kingdom, a period of infighting, disunity, and economic and social turbulence became the order of the day. This chaotic period, which comprised dynasties 21 to 25, is commonly termed as the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1068-664 BC).
Weakened by those issues, the land of Egypt was there for the taking by invaders from foreign lands. Around the middle of the 7th century BC, the Assyrians marshalled a strong force and marched into Egypt.
The defeat by the Assyrians paved the way for further humiliation at the hands of the Persians (led by Cambyses II, the son of Cyrus the Great) in the 6th century BC and later by the Greeks (led by Alexander the Great of Macedon) in the 4th century BC.
Did you know?
- Scholars sometimes refer the 19th and 20th Dynasties as the Ramesside period. That period had eleven pharaohs take the name Ramesses, including Ramesses I, the founder of the Nineteenth Dynasty.
- The population of ancient Egypt during the New Kingdom era was between 3.5 million to 5 million.
- Ramesses XI – the 10th and final pharaoh of the 20th Dynasty of Egypt – is generally regarded as the last pharaoh of the New Kingdom.