The New Kingdom of Egypt, also referred to as the Egyptian Empire, is the period in ancient Egyptian history between the sixteenth century BC and the eleventh century BC, covering the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth dynasties of Egypt. Radiocarbon dating places the beginning of the New Kingdom between 1570 BC and 1544 BC. The New Kingdom followed the Second Intermediate Period and was succeeded by the Third Intermediate Period. It was Egypt’s most prosperous time and marked the peak of its power.
The concept of a “New Kingdom” as one of three “golden ages” was coined in 1845 by German Egyptologist Baron von Bunsen. Its definition would evolve significantly throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The later part of this period, under the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties (1292–1069 BC), is also known as the Ramesside period. It is named after the eleven pharaohs who took the name Ramesses, after Ramesses I, the founder of the Nineteenth Dynasty.
Possibly as a result of the foreign rule of the Hyksos during the Second Intermediate Period, the New Kingdom saw Egypt expand in the Levant. During this time, Egypt attained its greatest territorial extent. Similarly, in response to seventeenth-century BC attacks/raids during the Second Intermediate Period by the Kushites, the rulers of the New Kingdom felt compelled to expand far south into Nubia and to hold vast territories in the Near East.
Rise of the New Kingdom
The Eighteenth Dynasty included some of Egypt’s most famous kings, including Ahmose I, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and Tutankhamun. Hatshepsut concentrated on expanding Egypt’s external trade, including sending a commercial expedition to the land of Punt and making the kingdom prosperous.
Ahmose I is viewed to be the founder of the eighteenth dynasty. He continued the campaigns of his father Seqenenre Tao and Kamose against the Hyksos until he reunified the country again. Ahmose would then continue campaigning in the Levant, the home of the Hyksos, to prevent any future invasions of Egypt.
Ahmose was followed by king Amenhotep I, who campaigned in Nubia and was followed by Thutmose I. Thutmose I campaigned in the Levant and reached as far as the Euphrates, thus becoming the first pharaoh to cross the river. During this campaign, the Syrian princes declared allegiance to Thutmose. However, after he returned, they discontinued tribute and began fortifying against future incursions.
Hatshepsut was one of the most powerful pharaohs of this dynasty. She was the daughter of Thutmose I and the royal wife of Thutmose II. Upon the death of her husband, Hatshepsut ruled jointly with his son by a minor wife, Thutmose III, who had ascended to the throne as a child of about two years of age, but eventually, she ruled in her own right as king. After her death, having gained valuable experience heading up the military for Hatshepsut, Thutmose III assumed rule. Hatshepsut was built extensively in the Karnak temple in Luxor and throughout Egypt. She oversaw the preparations and funding for a mission to the Land of Punt. She re-established the trade networks that had been disrupted during the Hyksos rule of Lower Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, thereby building the wealth of the Eighteenth Dynasty.
Thutmose III expanded Egypt’s army and wielded it with great success to consolidate the empire created by his predecessors. This resulted in a peak in Egypt’s power and wealth during the reign of Amenhotep III. The term pharaoh, originally the name of the king’s palace, became a form of address for the person who was king during his reign (c. 1479–1425 BC).
Widely considered a military genius by historians, Thutmose III conducted at least 16 campaigns in 20 years. He was an active expansionist ruler. He is recorded to have captured 350 cities during his rule and conquered much of the Near East from the Euphrates to Nubia during seventeen known military campaigns. He was the first pharaoh after Thutmose I to cross the Euphrates during his campaign against Mitanni. He quickly crossed the Euphrates in his boats, taking the Mitannian king entirely by surprise. He continued north through the territory belonging to the still unconquered cities of Aleppo and Carchemish.
Amenhotep III, the wealthiest of all the kings of this dynasty, built the Luxor Temple, the Precinct of Monthu at Karnak and his massive Mortuary Temple. Amenhotep III also built the Malkata palace, the largest built in Egypt.
One of the best-known eighteenth dynasty pharaohs is Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaten in honour of the Aten, representing the Egyptian god, Ra. His worship of the Aten as his deity is often interpreted as history’s first instance of monotheism. Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti, contributed significantly to his new direction in the Egyptian religion. Nefertiti was bold enough to perform rituals on Aten. Akhenaten’s religious fervour is cited as the reason why he and his wife were subsequently written out of Egyptian history. Under his reign, in the fourteenth century BC, Egyptian art flourished in a distinctive new style (see Amarna Period).
By the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egypt’s status had changed radically. Aided by Akhenaten’s apparent lack of interest in international affairs, the Hittites had gradually extended their influence into the Levant to become a significant power in international politics—a power that both Seti I and his son Ramesses II would confront during the Nineteenth Dynasty.
The last two members of the Eighteenth Dynasty—Ay and Horemheb—became rulers from the ranks of officials in the royal court. However, Ay might also have been the maternal uncle of Akhenaten and a fellow descendant of Yuya and Tjuyu.
Ay may have married the widowed Great Royal Wife and young half-sister of Tutankhamun, Ankhesenamun, to obtain power; she did not live long afterwards. Ay then married Tey, who initially had been wet nurse to Nefertiti.
Ay’s reign was short. His successor was Horemheb, a general during the reign of Tutankhamun, whom the pharaoh may have intended as his successor if he had no surviving children, which came to pass. Horemheb may have taken the throne away from Ay in a coup d’état. Although Ay’s son or stepson Nakhtmin was named as his father or stepfather’s Crown Prince, Nakhtmin seems to have died during the reign of Ay, leaving the opportunity for Horemheb to claim the throne next.
Horemheb also died without surviving children, having appointed his vizier, Pa-ra-mes-su, as his heir. This vizier ascended the throne in 1292 BC as Ramesses I and was the first pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty.
Height of the New Kingdom
The Nineteenth Dynasty was founded by the Vizier Ramesses I, whom the last ruler of the eighteenth dynasty, Pharaoh Horemheb, had chosen as his successor. His brief reign marked a transition period between the power of Horemheb and the mighty pharaohs of this dynasty, in particular, his son Seti I and grandson Ramesses II, who would bring Egypt to new heights of imperial power.
Seti I fought a series of wars in western Asia, Libya, and Nubia in the first decade of his reign. The primary source of knowledge of Seti’s military activities is his battle scenes on the north exterior wall of the Karnak Hypostyle Hall, along with several royal stelas with inscriptions mentioning battles in Canaan and Nubia. The most outstanding achievement of Seti I’s foreign policy was capturing the Syrian town of Kadesh and the neighbouring territory of Amurru from the Hittite Empire. Egypt had not held Kadesh since the time of Akhenaten. Seti I successfully defeated a Hittite army that tried to defend the town and erected a victory stela at the site, which archaeologists have found. Kadesh, however, soon reverted to Hittite control because the Egyptians did not or could not maintain a permanent military occupation of Kadesh and Amurru, which were close to the Hittite homelands.
Ramesses II sought to recover territories in the Levant held by the 18th Dynasty. In his second year, before confronting the Hittites, Ramesses II had to deal with a raid by the Sherden sea people, whom he defeated and incorporated into his army. His campaigns against the Hittites culminated in the Battle of Kadesh, where he led Egyptian armies against those of the Hittite king Muwatalli II. Ramesses was caught in history’s first recorded military ambush. However, he was able to rally his troops and turn the tide of battle against the Hittites thanks to the arrival of the Ne’arin (possible mercenaries in the employ of Egypt). The war’s outcome was undecided, with both sides claiming victory at their home front, resulting in a peace treaty between the two nations. He campaigned later in the Levant, capturing Edom and Moab. New kingdom Egyptian stelae from this period have been found in Jordan. Later, Egyptians conquered Qatna and Tunip, where a statue of Ramses II was erected. Thus he recaptured Qadesh and northern Amurru.
Egypt was able to obtain wealth and stability under the rule of Ramesses for more than half a century. His immediate successors continued the military campaigns, although an increasingly troubled court—which at one point put a usurper (Amenmesse) on the throne—made it increasingly difficult for a pharaoh to retain control of the territories effectively. Nevertheless, like Seti I, he found that he could not permanently hold the territory so far from base and after years of conflict, a peace treaty was concluded between the two nations.
Ramesses II built extensively throughout Egypt and Nubia, and his cartouches are prominently displayed, even in buildings he did not construct. There are accounts of his honour hewn on stone, statues, and the remains of palaces and temples—most notably the Ramesseum in western Thebes and the rock temples of Abu Simbel. He covered the land from the Delta to Nubia with buildings like no king before he had. He also founded a new capital city in the Delta during his reign, Pi-Ramesses. It previously had served as a summer palace during the reign of Seti I.
Ramesses II constructed many prominent monuments, including the archaeological complex of Abu Simbel and the Mortuary temple known as the Ramesseum. He built on a monumental scale to ensure that his legacy would survive the ravages of time. Ramesses II erected more colossal statues of himself than any other pharaoh and usurped many statues by inscribing his cartouche on them. Ramesses used art as propaganda for his victories over foreigners, depicted on numerous temple reliefs.
Ramesses II was also famed for the enormous number of children he sired by his various wives and concubines; the tomb he built for his sons (many of whom he outlived) in the Valley of the Kings has proven to be the largest funerary complex in Egypt.
The immediate successors of Ramesses II continued the military campaigns, although an increasingly troubled court complicated matters. He was succeeded by his son Merneptah and then by Merneptah’s son Seti II. Seti II’s right to the throne seems to have been disputed by his half-brother Amenmesse, who may have temporarily ruled from Thebes.
Upon his death, Seti II’s son Siptah, who may have been afflicted with poliomyelitis during his life, was appointed to the throne by Bay, a chancellor and a West Asian commoner. Siptah died early, and the throne was assumed by Twosret, who was the royal wife of his father and, possibly, his uncle Amenmesse’s sister. They served as viziers behind the scenes.
A period of anarchy at the end of Twosret’s short reign saw the enthronement of Setnakhte, establishing the Twentieth Dynasty.
Final years of power
The last “great” pharaoh from the New Kingdom is considered to be Ramesses III, a Twentieth Dynasty pharaoh who reigned several decades after Ramesses II.
In the eighth year of his reign, the Sea Peoples invaded Egypt by land and sea. Ramesses III defeated them in two great land and sea battles (the Battle of Djahy and the Battle of the Delta). He was later compelled to fight to invade Libyan tribe members in two major campaigns in Egypt’s Western Delta in his sixth and eleventh years. He incorporated them as subject peoples and is thought to have settled them in Southern Canaan, although there is evidence that they forced their way into Canaan. Their presence in Canaan may have contributed to the formation of new states, such as Philistia, in this region after the collapse of the Egyptian Empire (In the reign of Ramses III himself, Egyptian presence in the Levant is still attested as far as Byblos).
He was later compelled to fight to invade Libyan tribe members in two major campaigns in Egypt’s Western Delta in his sixth and eleventh years.
The high cost of this warfare slowly drained Egypt’s treasury and contributed to the gradual decline of the Egyptian Empire in Asia. The severity of the difficulties is indicated by the fact that the first known labour strike in recorded history occurred during the twenty-ninth year of Ramesses III’s reign. At that time, the food rations for Egypt’s favoured and elite royal tomb-builders and artisans in the village of Deir el Medina could not be provisioned. Air pollution limited the amount of sunlight penetrating the atmosphere, affecting agricultural production and arresting global tree growth for almost two decades until 1140 BC. One proposed cause is the Hekla 3 eruption of the Hekla volcano in Iceland, but the dating of this remains disputed.
Decline into the Third Intermediate Period
Ramesses III’s death was followed by years of bickering among his heirs. Three of his sons ascended the throne successively as Ramesses IV, Rameses VI, and Rameses VIII. Egypt was increasingly beset by droughts, below-normal flooding of the Nile, famine, civil unrest, and corruption of officials. The power of the last pharaoh of the dynasty, Ramesses XI, grew so weak that in the south, the High Priests of Amun at Thebes became the de facto rulers of Upper Egypt, and Smendes controlled Lower Egypt in the north, even before Rameses XI’s death. Smendes eventually founded the twenty-first dynasty at Tanis.