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The Rise Of The New Kingdom History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The New Kingdom of ancient Egypt spanned five centuries, c. 1550-1069 BC, from the Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties. This period saw Egypt reach the pinnacle of its stately power and become the most prosperous period in Egypt’s history. The New Kingdom was preceded by the Second Intermediate Period, c. 1650-1550 BC. This period was mostly associated with the Hyksos period and was characterised by a period of decentralisation. However, there are debates on whether the term Hyksos should define the period immediately before the Eighteenth Dynasty (Bourriau 1997, p. 159). Barry Kemp characterises the New Kingdom as a “more pluralist society which destroyed the possibility of the state ever fully developing into a single hierarchy in which everyone knew and accepted their place and the adaptation of divine monarchy to the changing circumstances in ways that have proved to be indestructible” (2009, p. 247). From this, the New Kingdom was no different from the previous periods where Pharaohs were revered and worshipped as gods. However, what made the New Kingdom society different was the beginning of “a changed balance of internal forces [and] the emergence of institutions with a greater professional coherence” (Kemp 2009, p. 248). It is the purpose of this essay to provide an overview of the New Kingdom, the Second Intermediate Period preceding it, the Pharaohs who played a role in the rise of the New Kingdom, as well as other aspects or factors that were pivotal during the rise of New Kingdom Egypt’s power. This essay will follow the chronology in Ian Shaw’s Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (2000, pp. 479-483).

Manetho, the Egyptian historian describes the appearance of the Hyksos in Egypt by the following:

“… and unexpectedly, from the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land. By main force, they easily overpowered the rulers of the land, they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of the gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility, massacring some and leading into slavery the wives and children of others. Finally, they appointed as king one of their number whose name was Salitis…” (Oren 1997, xix)

The Hyksos’ period being one of violence, disarray, and chaos has been a traditional view long espoused by Manetho. However, new theories have been presented regarding whether the Hyksos period was indeed a chaotic and violent period. One increasingly accepted theory involves a simple migration rather than a violent invasion by force by the Hyksos. Large building and industrial projects showed that Egypt economically prospered, but, accompanied with low Nile inundations, they greatly exhausted the economy (Callender 2000, pp. 168-169). In addition, the large number of Asiatics, including the Hyksos, who partook in the large building projects and who migrated into the Delta region ultimately sealed what was to be the gradual collapse of Egyptian rule under the Thirteenth Dynasty Pharaohs (Callender 2000, pp. 169). Analysis of ceramic materials recovered from Lisht and Dahshur showed no sudden change in Middle Kingdom ceramic pottery, bearing no evidence for an intrusion of Hyksos-style ceramic pottery (Bourriau 1997, pp. 164-165). Key innovations in warfare also could have played a major role in ensuring the Hyksos’ ascendency in Egypt’s Delta. Archaeological evidence recovered at Tell el-Dab’a indicate the Hyksos were a warrior people, of Syro-Palestinian origin, which included duck-bill axe, socketed axe, lance heads, and most importantly, the horse-drawn chariot (Booth 2005, pp. 9-10). Whether the Hyksos arrived in Egypt by means of force and violence or by simple migration, they brought new innovations that would prove vital in reinforcing the New Kingdom’s grand power in the Near Eastern world.

The Eighteenth Dynasty, c. 1550-1295 BC, marked the beginning of the New Kingdom by the reunification achieved by the Theban prince Ahmose, the first king of the Eighteenth Dynasty who reigned in the years c. 1550-1525 BC. Ahmose played a crucial role in the capture of the Hyksos capital of Avaris and consequently in the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt, a campaign which had began with his predecessor Kamose. There was a re-emergence of massive building projects in Memphis, Karnak, Heliopolis, Abydos, Avaris, and Buhen, something which had not been seen since the Middle Kingdom (Bourriau 2000, p. 216). From here, Ahmose laid the foundations for the rise of New Kingdom Egypt as a major competing power force in the Near Eastern world.

Egypt became a major trade player in the Near Eastern world, competing with Mitanni and Hatti for control of trade in gold, copper, pottery, wine, oil and resin. Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1473-1458 BC, played a key role in the expansion of Egypt’s trade routes. Reliefs on Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari depict a royal trading expedition to the land of Punt dated to the mid-18th Dynasty. Although there are still debates on the exact location, specialists have speculated that Punt was undoubtedly located on the border of the Red Sea (Naville 2004, pp. 26). Nubian tribute bearers were depicted in private tomb paintings bringing lavish items such as ivory tusks, panther skins, live elephants, and gold (Bryan 2000, p. 242). The expedition to Punt can be viewed as an example of how Egypt established commercial relations with its neighbouring state powers. In addition, Queen Hatshepsut inaugurated ambitious building projects that surpassed those of her predecessors. In her inscriptions, Queen Hatshepsut claims to have rebuilt temples at Hebenu, at Hermopolis, and at Cusae, and, more importantly, Thebes, where extensive work done at the temple of Karnak (Bryan 2000, p. 238-240). Although there was no accounts of noteworthy conquests, Queen Hatshepsut’s government was no doubtedly economically rich and powerful when Thutmose III succeeded her. A strong government allowed Thutmose III to venture on the building of great edifices as well as having successions of victorious military campaigns.

Thutmose III played a key role in expanding and controlling Egypt’s army with great success in order to strengthen an empire created by his predecessors, the largest empire Egypt had seen. Thutmose III reigned in c. 1479-1425 BC and ruled as co-regent alongside Queen Hatshepsut. He is viewed as an expansionist ruler, and is considered as one of ancient Egypt’s greatest conqueror and described as a “Napoleonic man” (Hayes 1973, p. 319). Thutmose III conducted no fewer than seventeen military campaigns in twenty years, successfully overtaking three hundred and fifty cities. There was also an increase in Egypt’s already prosperous economy as a result of services and annual tributes to the imperial system (Cline & O’Conner 2006, pp. v-vi). Because of the revolutionary improvements in army weapons first introduced by the Hyksos, Thutmose III was able to succeed in conquering a large number of lands, extending from southern Syria through to Canaan and Nubia (Cline & O’Conner 2006, pp. v-vi).

Before Atenism came into being, the god Amun was the chief deity of the New Kingdom. Although not having a substantial record in history, the god Amun’s overall importance in this period was the result of “deliberate theological emphasis” (Kemp 2009, p. 262; Arnold 1974, pp. 78-80).The rise of the Amun cult began after the expulsion of the Hyksos when Ahmose successfully drove the Hyksos out of Egypt. Thebes, the birth city of Ahmose, became an important city and gradually became the capital of the New Kingdom, and Amun, the local patron deity of Thebes, also became an important god. According to Tobin, the Egyptians were oppressed during the period of the Hyksos rule, and the victory accomplished by the Pharaohs who worshipped Amun was seen as “upholding the rights of justice for the poor” (Tobin, p. 20). The cult of Amun grew in importance and began to be identified with Ra-Herakhty, the merged identities of the gods Ra and Horus. This identification led to another merged identity, that of Amun and Ra becoming Amun-Ra. In the Hymn to Amun-Ra, Amun is described as a “Lord of truth, father of the gods, maker of men, creator of all animals, Lord of the things that are [and] creator of the staff of life” (Budge 1997, p. 214). The sun-god was the primeval creator and the other gods had emerged from him and, therefore, became aspects of the sun-god. In this perspective, the concept of monotheism was conjectured in the religion of New Kingdom Egypt (Van Dijk 2000, p. 273). Amun-Ra became the most important god, receiving a substantial part of Egypt’s wealth and whose priesthood had acquired considerable political and economic power. It is not until the reign of Amenhotep IV where polytheism is abolished in favour of a monotheistic worship solely on a new god.

Known before his fifth year of reign as Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten ruled for seventeen years. What is especially noteworthy about Akhenaten was his abandonment of traditional Egyptian polytheism and introduction of a new monotheistic religion devoted solely to the Aten. In art, the sun-god Aten is represented by a disc with rays that ended in hands that touched the king and his family. This depiction of the Aten coincided with the introduction of a new representational art style, which was characterised by realistic scenes of intimate family life. This new art style seems to demonstrate Akhenaten’s attempt of reducing the power of the Theban priesthood of Amun in order to strengthen his own secular and spiritual power.

Akhenaten’s reign provided many important evidence about foreign policy during the New Kingdom. The Amarna Letters is a cache of diplomatic correspondence that was discovered in 1887 at the site of Akhenaten’s abandoned capital, Tell el-Amarna. The Amarna letters spanned the reigns of the Eighteenth Dynasty rulers Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. The documents comprise of a collection of messages written in cuneiform on clay tablets that were sent to Akhenaten from various subject and foreign rulers. Cohen and Westbrook categorises the letters into two main groups relating to the foreign policy of Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt. The first group, labelled as international correspondence, consists of fifty diplomatic documents addressed to the Pharaoh from foreign rulers of other Great Powers – Mitanni, Babylon, Assyria, and Hatti – and lesser independent states, and deals with a wide variety of topics such as dynastic questions, particularly marriage, exchange of gifts, alliance and strategic matters, trade, legal problems, the mechanics of diplomacy (Cohen and Westbrook 2000, p. 1). The second group, named as imperial documents, consists of more than three hundred administrative correspondence sent mainly to the Egyptian court from Egypt’s empire in Canaan, with many of the letters dealing with vassals’ domestic problems, quarrels between vassals, trade and tribute, and internal security (Cohen & Westbrook 2000, pp. 1-2). The Amarna Letters provide insight into how diplomacy played an important part in how managing international relations was implemented in the Amarna period. Kevin Avruch describes the Amarna system synonymous to an “exchange system” (Cohen & Westbrook 2000, p. 226). International relations provided opportunities for the trading of commercial goods, opportunities for disputes to be settled, dynastic ties promoted, and most importantly, peace between the great powers (Cohen & Westbrook 2000, p. 236).

Multiculturalism is a theme that was present in Akhenaten’s court, which at that time had become a diplomatic centre of international importance (Kemp 2009, pp. 292-296). In a way, there was a certain openness towards foreign cultures and their native gods. New foreign gods were introduced into the Egyptian religion, and gradually, they became associated with the Egyptian king. Thus foreign people became part of the Egyptian god’s creation, “protected and sustained by the benevolent rule of the sun-god Ra and his earthly representative, the Pharaoh” (Van Dijk 2000, p. 272). The sun-god king was the centre of Egyptian theological thinking and practices a they had been over the previous centuries. The principle was to maintain the created order of the universe, which was represented through Ra’s daily journey through the heavens, where the sunrise represented the birth of Ra and the sunset saw Ra enter the underworld before being reborn for the next day’s cycle. This process represented the daily cycle of death and rebirth, two important themes in Egyptian religion and kingship. Marriages between the royal families of foreign origin was also arranged for reasons of diplomacy. But ultimately, as Kemp states, what “took [the Egyptians’] fancy were the tastes of the wide world of western Asia, [and] they were prepared to sacrifice cultural integrity just as easily as they were prepared to ignore traditional strictures about keeping foreign peoples at bay” (2009, p. 296).

The New Kingdom saw the trend in the rising power and influence of royal women. Royal wives were prominent during the New Kingdom, witnessed in the reign of Thutmose III with Hatshepsut as his regent, Queen Tiye and her son Akhenaten, and Ahmose’s wife Ahmose-Nefertari (Bryan 2000, pp. 226-230). The status of royal women seems to have been defined by their position in relation to the king, such as “king’s mother”, “king’s wife”, “king’s daughter”, “king’s principal wife”, and “king’s sister”. In art, royal women were often depicted smaller than their husbands in Egyptian art. An example of this can be seen in an excerpt from the Papyrus of Ani. A complete image of the entire Papyrus of Ani provided by Vassar College (n.d.) shows Ani playing senet, a type of board game. Ani is positioned facing the board game while his wife is placed behind him without access to the game and seems rather miniscule and unimportant. Despite having a small role, royal women, in particular the queen, held the responsibility to produce heirs to the throne. If successful, her status would have been elevated, and she would have acquired more power and influence to manipulate her husband’s diplomatic decisions, and perhaps, influence her son’s accession to the throne. Another powerful royal woman was Queen Ahmose-Nefertari who “used the god’s wife title more frequently than that of great royal wife [and] operated independently of both her husband and her son in monument building and cult roles” (Bryan 2000, p. 229). Queen Hatshepsut is, perhaps, the best example of a royal woman who had immense control of power. She was the daughter of a king and of a princess, a queen in her own right. She considered herself a daughter not of her human father Thutmose I but of the god Amun himself. Her writings contain the most ancient and most complete account of of her divine birth and what has been called theogamy, the union of a queen with a god (Naville 2004, p. 2).

The New Kingdom saw Egypt at the zenith of its power. Ahmose gave back Egypt its former glory by driving the Hyksos out of Egypt and restoring Theban rule across the land. However, there are growing speculations on exactly how the Hyksos attained control and whether their migration into Egypt was by simple means of immigration or by force and violence. The Hyksos brought new innovative ideas to Egypt which was in a period of decentralisation. The New Kingdom also saw the expansion of Egypt’s trade routes with Queen Hatshepsut playing a major role in the expeditions to Punt, which adorn the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari. Her successor, Thutmose III, was left with a strong and rich government, which aided in his seventeen successful military campaigns. There was also a change in religion from polytheism to a religion devoted solely to the Aten, implemented by Amenhotep IV or better known as Akhenaten. The Amarna Letters discovered at Tell el-Amarna are a valuable insight in how international relations was carried out in New Kingdom Egypt. During this period, Egypt became home to numerous people of foreign origin, and this migration saw a trend towards a multicultural viewpoint. Royal marriages between states were made to strengthen relationships. This openness to multiculturalism also saw the adoption of other foreign gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The New Kingdom witnessed several royal women who had a major influence in the central government. Among these famous women were Queen Tiye, Queen Hatshepsut, and Ahmose-Nefertari. Despite royal women having the main responsibility of producing heirs to the throne, they nevertheless held enough power to influence matters in diplomatic affairs. The end of the Eighteenth Dynasty began when the Hittites saw their expansion into Syria and Palestine and becoming a major power and competitor in international politics. The Nineteenth Dynasty saw Seti I and his son Ramesses II faced with this new threat to Egypt.

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