1.3 Ancient Egypt


Year(s) Event(s)
c. 7000 BCE Beginnings of Agricultural Revolution in Northeast Africa
c. 6000 – 3500 BCE Desiccation of  the Sahara Desert pushed people toward the Nile River Valley
c. 4000 BCE Towns and villages grew near the Nile River
c. 3100 BCE Unification of Upper and Lower Egypt
c. 3100 – 2700 BCE Egyptian Archaic Period
c. 2700 – 2200 BCE The Old Kingdom
c. 2200 – 2025 BCE First Intermediate Period
c. 2025 – 1630 BCE The Middle Kingdom
c. 1630 – 1550 BCE Second Intermediate Period
c. 1550 – 1075 BCE The New Kingdom
1350 – 1325 BCE Amarna Period (Pharaoh Akhenaten)
1075 – 332 BCE Egyptian Late Period
656 – 639 BCE Assyrians occupied Egypt


As civilization arose in Mesopotamia, its development was paralleled to the west along the Nile River in northern Africa. Unlike the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which flood unpredictably, the Nile River floods very predictably. This made agriculture (and therefore, civilization) in the alluvial plains of the Nile River easy to establish and fruitful.

What do we mean by society? What do we mean by culture? Rather than delve into a complex theoretical discussion, let’s simply agree that society refers to how a particular civilization is organized by class, gender and ethnicity, while culture encompasses both artistic and intellectual pursuits. Like economics, the social organization and cultural output of any given society is often influenced by other factors, such as religion, politics and economics. Indeed, social organization and cultural output reflect the priorities, the beliefs, and the values of the civilization in which they exist. As such, by examining society and culture, we gain a deeper understanding of the mind-set of those who lived in the past.

Due to its importance in terms of agriculture and travel, the Nile River was the physical and cultural center of Ancient Egypt — all of its major cities were built along the banks of the Nile, and the products of the Nile, such as mud for the creation of bricks and papyrus used in weaving and other endeavors, served to shape its culture. The political power of Egypt’s two kingdoms also followed the Nile: Upper Egypt located along the southern banks of the Nile River, and Lower Egypt, located at the river delta along the alluvial plain formed where the Nile meets the Mediterranean Sea.

“Ancient Egypt.” Come Together: Ancient Worlds. 2010. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=55134&loid=248002. 3:19.

In our study of World History, ancient Egypt serves as an excellent example of a complex society with cross-cultural connections, adaption to and control over changing environments, and sophisticated political and religious developments. All of these themes are evident in an examination of the origins of Egypt. Egyptian leaders unified Upper and Lower Egypt around 3100 BCE, creating a powerful ancient state. Developments in the millennia preceding unification, including the sharing of innovations and responses to environmental change, set the stage for the emergence of the Egyptian civilization.

“River Nile: Egypt’s Lifeblood to Food and Farming in Ancient Egypt.” Ancient Egypt. 1996. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8683&loid=602049 . 7:41.

Key Questions

  • How was the government of Ancient Egypt organized? What was the role of the pharaoh, the bureaucracy and the individual in that government?
  • In what ways did rulers such as Amenhotep IV and Tutankhamen challenge and transform the existing political order?
  • How was the economic life of Egypt influenced by geography, politics, and religion? In what ways did economics impact the survival of this civilization and did  it play a role in its eventual decline?
  • How was power physically manifest in the pyramids and the temple complexes?


The Nile River and Society

Cross-cultural connections introduced the people of Northeast Africa to domesticated wheat and barley, two of the crops that they grew and whose surpluses supported the process of social differentiation and eventually the pharaonic, elite, and skilled classes of ancient Egypt. People in Northeast Africa had likely been gathering wild barley since before 10,000 BCE. However, sharing in the knowledge spreading from the Fertile Crescent around 7,000 BCE, they began cultivating wheat and barley and also keeping domesticated animals, including sheep and goats. At that time, agricultural production and herding were possible in areas that are today part of the Sahara Desert. The period was much wetter than now. People in the region settled into small communities, and archaeological evidence of hearths, grinding stones, and storage silos show the growth of settlements in areas that today are not well watered enough for agricultural production. The presence of crocodile bones, along with similar pottery styles, also suggest a history of contact between communities emerging along the Nile River and these settlements farther west. However, environmental change was leading to the desiccation or drying out of areas not adjacent to the Nile River, and by about 5,000 BCE, it was no longer possible to farm much beyond the floodplain of the Nile River. Many people adapted by moving towards the Nile River, and the Nile River became increasingly important to Egypt’s populations.

Map 2.6 | The Path of the Nile | The White Nile originates near Lake Victoria, in the Great Lakes region of East Africa. The Blue Nile flows from the Ethiopian Highlands. Both rivers merge at Khartoum, in present day Sudan, and flow northward to empty into the Mediterranean Sea. Author: User “Hel-hama” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The Nile River flows south to north, fed by two main river systems: the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile flows steadily throughout the year and has its origins in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa. The Blue Nile originates in the Ethiopian highlands, and brings floodwaters up past the first cataract in the summers. Cataracts are generally considered impassable by boat due to their shallows, rocks, and rapids. Comparatively, the flood plain of the Nile River is narrow, leading, especially with the desiccation of the surrounding areas, to high population densities close to the river. The winds also blow north to south, in the opposite direction of the river flow, thus facilitating trade and contact between Upper Egypt (to the south) and Lower Egypt (to the north). Upper and Lower Egypt lie north of the first cataract, usually allowing river traffic to proceed uninterrupted throughout the territory. Egyptian views of the Nile generally recognized the river’s centrality to life as demonstrated in the “Hymn to the Nile,” dated to approximately 2100 BCE. The praise-filled ode to the Nile River begins, “Hail to thee, O Nile! Who manifests thyself over this land, and comes to give life to Egypt.”[1]  The course of the Nile River definitely impacted settlement patterns, while the river also allowed for trade and the development of larger agricultural communities.

At the tail end of that era of desiccation, from about 3600 to 3300 BCE, complex societies formed in areas adjacent to the Nile River. These communities exerted increased influence over their environments, exhibited social differentiation, and showed evidence of labor specialization. For example, people in the settlements of Naganda and Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt cleared trees and built dykes, canals, and early irrigation systems. By about 3500 BCE, they used these methods to quadruple the amount of cleared, arable land and could support population densities of up to one thousand people per square mile. Just as one example, recent archaeological finds at Hierakonpolis also show evidence of both social differential and specialization with separate burials for the settlement’s elite, the oldest known painted tomb, and the remnants of a large-scale brewery, capable of producing up to 300 gallons of beer a day. It is believed that early leaders in Naganda, Hierakonpolis, and similar communities cemented their roles by claiming control over the environment as rainmakers or commanders of the floods. Over time, some of these leaders created divine kingships, asserting their right to even more power and access to resources, power that they legitimized by claiming special relationships with, or even descent from, gods. Once Egypt was unified, pharaohs ruled as divine kings, as the personification of the gods. They promised order in the universe. When things went well, the pharaohs were credited with agricultural productivity and the success of the state. There was no separation between religion and the state in ancient Egypt.

“Great Empires of the Past: Ancient Egypt.” Great Empires of the Past: Core Concepts Video Clip Library. 2010. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=41675&loid=217863 2:20.

The history of Egypt is typically divided into 31 dynastic periods. The first two of these dynasties make up the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 3100 BCE to 2700 BCE). The first dynasty began with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the rule of Menes (Narmer). Egyptians consider this unification as the most important event in Egyptian history.  With unification, Menes establishes the capital of all of Egypt in Memphis. The unification of Egypt and location of the capital were considered particularly important because it meant that resources could travel unimpeded up and down the Nile River.

Figure 2.6 | Both Sides of the Palette of Narmer Author: User “Jean88” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC0 1.0 and Figure 2.7 | Detail of Palette of Narmer | Closeup of the left side of the Palette of Narmer. Note the larger figure of King Narmer, with celebratory flag bearers preceding him. Author: User “NebMaatRa” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The Palette of Narmer, which is used to date the unification of Egypt, shows signs that King Narmer legitimized his rule, in part, by claiming a special relationship with the gods. King Narmer, who is referred to in some text as Menes, is commonly recognized as the first unifier of Upper (to the south) and Lower (to the north) Egypt in approximately 3100 BCE. Unification brought together Egypt from the first cataract at Aswan to the Nile Delta. The Palette of Narmer, which was found in Hierakonpolis, shows King Narmer’s conquest of both regions. The right side of the Palette of Narmer shows him slaying an enemy of Upper Egypt. The largest figure, Narmer is wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and beheading a rival king, while standing atop conquered enemies. The left side also shows him as a conqueror, wearing the crown of Lower Egypt and directing flag bearers to mark his victory. Religious imagery appears in the inclusion of the goddess Hathor at the top of the palette as well as the falcon, a reference to Horus, the patron god of Hierakonpolis, who later in dynastic Egypt became the god of sun and kingship.

Both sides of the Palette of Narmer also have some of the earliest known hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphics emerged as written text, combining pictograms (a pictorial symbol for a word or phrase) and phonograms (a symbol representing a sound), during the period of unification. Tax assessment and collection likely necessitated the initial development of Hieroglyphics. Ancient Egyptians eventually used three different scripts: Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, and Demotic. Hieroglyphics remained the script of choice for ritual texts. Students of Egyptian history are most familiar with hieroglyphics as they were usually what artists used to record the history of Egypt’s elite. For example, skilled artisans used hieroglyphs to chronicle glorified accounts of their patrons’ lives on the sides of their tombs. The Egyptians developed Hieratic and Demotic, the two other scripts, slightly later and used them for administrative, commercial, and many other purposes. The Egyptian administration tended to use ink and papyrus to maintain its official records. On the other hand, literate people used ostraca, pieces of broken pottery and chips of limestone, for less formal notes and communications. Over the past decades, archaeologists have uncovered a treasure trove of ostraca that start to tell us about the lives of the literate elite and skilled craftsmen. Just like Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt had one of the oldest written scripts found anywhere in the world.

In addition to one of the earliest writing systems and Egyptian paper (papyrus), archaeologists have credited ancient Egyptians with a number of other innovations. For construction purposes, ancient Egyptians invented the ramp and lever. They also developed a 12-month calendar with 365 days, glassmaking skills, arithmetic (including one of the earliest decimal systems) and geometry, and medical procedures to heal broken bones and relieve fevers. Finally, Egyptians used stone-carving techniques and other crafting skills and tools that were shared throughout the Mediterranean.

Dynastic Egypt

Culture and Society

“Enigmas of Ancient Egypt.” Ancient Egypt. 1996. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8683&loid=358223:51.

Scholars break the 1500 years following unification, a time known as dynastic Egypt, into three main periods: the Old Kingdom (c. 2660–2160 BCE), the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 – 1640 BCE), and the New Kingdom (c. 1530–1070 BCE). There is some disagreement about the exact dates of the periods, but, in general, these spans denote more centralized control over a unified Egypt. During dynastic Egypt, pharaohs ruled a united Upper and Lower Egypt. In between these periods of centralized control were intermediate periods, during which the Egyptian pharaohs had less authority. The intermediate periods were characterized by political upheaval and military violence, the latter often at least partially resulting from foreign invasions.

Striking continuities existed in Egypt throughout the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. Egypt had stable population numbers, consistent social stratification, pharaohs—who exercised significant power—and a unifying religious ideology, which linked the pharaohs to the gods. As Egypt transitioned from the period of unification under King Narmer to the Old Kingdom, the pharaohs and the elite became increasingly wealthy and powerful. They further developed earlier systems of tax collection, expanded the religious doctrine, and built a huge state bureaucracy.

“Pharaohs as God-Kings.” Ancient Egypt. 1996. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8683&loid=35827. 2:41.

Key Questions

  • How did the polytheistic belief systems of Ancient Egypt differ from that of Mesopotamia and how did it differ from the religion of the Hebrews (later)? What factors (political, economic, social and cultural) might help to explain those differences?

Social distinctions and hierarchies remained fairly consistent through all of dynastic Egypt. Most people were rural peasant farmers. They lived in small mud huts just above the flood plain and turned over surplus agricultural produce to the state as taxes. When they weren’t farming, they were expected to perform rotating service for the state, by, for example, working on a pharaoh’s tomb, reinforcing dykes, and helping in the construction of temples. The labor of the majority of the population supported the more elite and skilled classes, from the pharaoh down through the governing bureaucrats, priests, nobles, soldiers, and skilled craftspeople, especially those who worked on pyramids and tombs.

Map 2.7 | Upper and Lower Egypt | Note the narrowness of the floodplain, marked in green. The narrow floodplain, usually not more than 15 miles wide and often considerably less, encouraged high population densities close to the Nile River. Author: Jeff Dahl Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Another continuity in dynastic Egypt was the relative equality of women to men. At least compared to women in other ancient societies, women in ancient Egypt had considerable legal rights and freedoms. Men and women did generally have different roles; Egyptian society charged men with providing for the family and women with managing the home and children. Society’s ascribed gender roles meant that women were usually defined primarily by their husbands and children, while men were defined by their occupations. This difference could leave women more economically vulnerable than men. For example, in the village of craftspeople who worked on the pharaoh’s tomb at Deir el Medina, houses were allocated to the men who were actively employed. This system of assigning housing meant that women whose husbands had died would be kicked out of their homes as replacement workers were brought in. Despite some vulnerability, Egyptian law was pretty equal between the sexes when it came to many other issues. Egyptian women could own property, and tax records show that they did. Egyptian women could also take cases to court, enter into legally binding agreements, and serve actively as priestesses. There were also female pharaohs, most famously Hatshepsut who ruled for twenty years in the fifteenth century BCE. One last, perhaps surprising, legal entitlement of ancient Egyptian women was their right to one-third of the property that a couple accumulated over the course of their marriage. Married women had some financial independence, which gave them options to dispose of their own property or divorce. Therefore, while women did face constraints in terms of their expected roles and had their status tied to the men in their families, they nevertheless enjoyed economic freedoms and legal rights not commonly seen in the ancient world.

“Egypt’s New Kingdom to Hatshepsut’s Temple.” The Golden Age: Treasures of Ancient Egypt. 2014. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=57679&loid=610388 6:03.


Figure 2.8 | Female figurines from ancient Egypt | These figurines show some of the everyday tasks carried out by women. They made bread, brewed beer, and prepared for family meals. Author: Andreas Praefcke Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

While scholars working over the past several decades have used artwork, archeology, and the surviving legal documents to draw conclusions about women’s roles in ancient Egypt, there is much ongoing debate about the prevalence of slavery within this society. Part of the disagreement stems from how various scholars define slavery. There is also great uncertainty about the number of slaves within the Egyptian population. The emerging consensus suggests that Egyptians increasingly used slaves from the Middle Kingdom onward. The majority of the slaves in these later dynasties were either prisoners of war or slaves brought from Asia. Slaves performed many tasks. For example, they labored in agricultural fields, served in the army, worked in construction, helped their merchant owners in shops, and were domestic servants for the Egyptian elite. Slaves were branded and, if possible, would be captured and returned to their masters if they tried to escape. Some masters undoubtedly abused their slaves, though the image of thousands of slaves sacrificed to be buried with pharaohs incorrectly depicts dynastic Egypt. Manumission (freeing a slave) was seemingly not very common, but if they were freed, former slaves were not stigmatized; instead, they were considered part of the general free population. These new scholarly conclusions about the relatively small numbers of slaves in Egypt, especially during the Old Kingdom, have impacted our understanding of how pyramids, tombs, and temples were constructed during dynastic Egypt.

The Old Kingdom, c. 2700 – 2200 BCE

After the Early Dynastic Period, stability was finally achieved in the unified kingdom around 2700 BCE – the beginning of the Old Kingdom. Also coming to fruition then was Egyptian religion. Like Mesopotamian this was a polytheistic religion, except that in Egypt the pharaoh (king) ruled as a god.

Figure 2.9 | The Great Pyramid at Giza Author: User “Jeancaffou” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The Old Kingdom saw pharaohs harness their influence to build pyramids to emphasize their relationship to the divine and facilitate their ascent to the gods after their earthly deaths. Pyramids, with their distinctive shape, contained tombs for the pharaohs and their wives. They were marvels of engineering, built on a massive scale to honor the pharaohs and usher them into the afterlife. Pharaohs were mummified to preserve their bodies and were buried with everything considered necessary for the afterlife, including furniture, jewelry, makeup, pottery, food, wine, clothing, and sometimes even pets. The most recognizable pyramids from the Old Kingdom are the three pyramids at the Giza complex, which were built for a father (Egyptian pharaoh Khufu), and his son and grandson, who all ruled during the fourth dynasty.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, built for Pharaoh Khufu, is the largest of the three pyramids. Still largely intact today, it was the largest building in the world until the twentieth century. Over 500 feet high, it covered an area of 200 square yards, and was built with over 600 tons of limestone. Recent studies on the construction of the pyramids have put much more emphasis on the roles of skilled craftsmen—who might work at multiple pyramid sites over the course of their lifetimes—and rotating groups of unskilled workers than on slaves. These studies suggest that skilled craftsmen and local labor forces of Egyptians were the primary builders of the pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Great Pyramid of Giza took an estimated 20 years to construct and employed skilled stonemasons, architects, artists, and craftsmen, in addition to the thousands of unskilled laborers who did the heavy moving and lifting. The construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza was an enormous, expensive feat. The pyramid stands as testimony to the increased social differentiation, the great power and wealth of the Egyptian pharaohs, and the significance of beliefs in the afterlife during the Old Kingdom.

“Ancient Egypt: The Great Pyramids.” Great Empires of the Past: Core Concepts Video Clip Library. 2010. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=41675&loid=217864 2:40.

In addition to the construction of pyramids, the Old Kingdom saw increased trade and remained a relatively peaceful period. The pharaoh’s government controlled trade, with Egypt exporting grain and gold (the latter from Nubia to the south) and importing timber, spices, ivory, and other luxury goods. During the Old Kingdom, Egypt did not have a standing army and faced few foreign military threats. Lasting almost 400 years, the Old Kingdom saw the extension of the pharaoh’s power, especially through the government’s ability to harness labor and control trade.

“Daily Life and Religious Monuments in Ancient Thebes to Children, Leisure, and Celebrations in Ancient Egypt.” Thebes, Part 1: Life on the West Bank of the Nile. 2004. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=38797&loid=617733 16:31.

However, the power of the pharaohs began to wane in the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Continuing environmental change that led to droughts and famine, coupled with the huge expense of building pyramids likely impoverished pharaohs in the last centuries of the Old Kingdom. Additionally, the governors known as nomes, who administered Egypt’s 42 provinces from the fifth dynasty onward, became more independent and took over functions that had been overseen by the state. As an added blow, the pharaohs lost control of trade. While dynastic leaders still referred to themselves as pharaohs, they lacked central authority over a unified Egypt by 2180 BCE.

First Intermediate Period,  c. 2200 – 2025 BCE

As priests and nomarchs (governors usually of the pharaoh’s family) gained more power, the centralized power of pharaoh waned. This led to an intermediate period characterized by chaos, decentralization and conflict.

The kings of the Tenth Dynasty established themselves south of Giza, and the kings of the Eleventh Dynasty, who based themselves in Upper Egypt, eventually settled the rivalry (with the Thebans winning) and established the Twelfth Dynasty under the rule of Amunemhet I. Amunemhet I reunited Upper and Lower Egypt and founded the Middle Kingdom, a period of reconciliation where the pharaohs were more focused on the people of Egypt.

“Establishing a New Dynasty.” Come Together: Ancient Worlds. 2010. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=55134&loid=248003 2:46.

The Middle Kingdom, c. 2025 – 1630

Middle Kingdom pharaohs attempted to emulate past glory in an effort to heal the hurt done to the Egyptian people during the Intermediate Period. As a result, they also built pyramid complexes with grandiose artwork, but they also were determined to remove any threats to their power and thus spent most of the period attacking their neighbors — particularly the Nubians.

Key Questions

  • Why did the search for greatness and a solidification of power lead to conquest and ultimately turmoil once again with the coming of the Second Intermediate Period?

The Middle Kingdom, Following the decentralized First Intermediate Period of roughly 150 years, Pharaoh Mentohotep II reunified Egypt to found the Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom saw the reorganization of the state’s bureaucratic apparatus to control the nomes. To further strengthen their authority, the pharaohs also moved their capital from the Old Kingdom capital of Thebes south to Lisht, halfway between Upper and Lower Egypt. With military expeditions, they extended the boundaries of the state north to Lebanon and south to the second cataract of the Nile into a region known as Nubia. With this extension of territory, Egypt had access to more trade goods, and the organization of trade shifted so that professional merchants took a leading role in developing new trade routes. These professional merchants paid taxes to the state, supporting further consolidation of power by the pharaohs and also infrastructural improvements like irrigation. During the Middle Kingdom, the pharaohs focused less on the building of massive pyramids and more on administrative reorganization, military expeditions, and the state’s infrastructural repair.

“Thebes: Middle Kingdom to Senworset II Statues.” The Golden Age: Treasures of Ancient Egypt. 2014. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=57679&loid=610358. 4:07.

“Middle Kingdom.” Egyptian- Stone Age to Modern Day : Timelines of Ancient Civilizations. 2003. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=65619&loid=367225. 2:14.

Second Intermediate Period, c. 1630 – 1550 BCE

Disputes over succession and ineffectual rulers led into the Second Intermediate Period as the Thirteenth Dynasty fell.  The rise of the Fourteenth Dynasty brought with it a new period of uncertainty.. Most notably, Egypt was invaded from both the north and the south during this period. The Hyksos invaded from the north in 1670 BCE and brought a humiliating defeat to Egypt. They also brought bronze and horse-drawn chariots, which allowed them to conquer parts of Lower Egypt and establish their own kingdom, one lasting about 100 years in the Nile Delta region. From the south, the Kingdom of Kush, based in Nubia, invaded and temporarily established control over Upper Egypt to Aswan. Thus, foreign rulers dominated much of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period.

Key Questions

  • What made this invasion and defeat so humiliating to the Egyptians? How does this set the stage for the glorious revival of Egyptian pharaonic rule?

With the expulsion of the Hyksos, the Second Intermediate Period came to an end. Ahmose (Akmose) became pharaoh, reuniting Egypt once again. To protect Egypt, Ahmose begins a war of conquest to eliminate any future threats to Egypt’s greatness, and thus begins a golden age, a period of luxury and grandeur not previously seen.

The New Kingdom, c. 1550 – 1075


Map 2.8 | Egypt during its Imperialistic New Kingdom, c. 1400 BCE Author: Jeff Dahl Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The New Kingdom of reunified Egypt that began in 1530 BCE saw an era of Egyptian imperialism, changes in the burial practices of pharaohs, and the emergence of a brief period of state-sponsored monotheism under the Pharaoh Akhenaten. In 1530 BCE, the pharaoh who became known as Ahmose the Liberator (Ahmose I) defeated the Hyksos and continued sweeping up along the Eastern Mediterranean. By 1500 BCE, the Egyptian army had also pushed into Nubia, taking Kush southward to the fourth cataract of the Nile River (see Map 2.8). As pharaohs following Ahmose I continued Egypt’s expansion, the Imperial Egyptian army ran successful campaigns in Palestine and Syria, along the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, by expanding into Kush, Egypt controlled trade routes into Sub-Saharan Africa. Adopting the Hyksos’ chariot military and metal technologies contributed to the Egyptian ability to strengthen its military. Egypt maintained a large standing army and built an expansive empire during the New Kingdom.

Egypt saw many other developments during the New Kingdom, especially when it came to burial practices and religion. Pharaohs began building elaborate tomb structures underground and temples above ground.  During the New Kingdom, pharaohs and Egyptian elites used the Valley of Kings, located across the Nile River from Thebes, as their preferred burial site. They desired tombs that were hidden away and safe from tomb robbers. Therefore, instead of pyramids, they favored huge stone tombs built into the mountains of the Valley of the Kings. Nearly all of the tombs in the Valley of Kings were raided, so the fears of the pharaohs were well founded. Tomb raiding was even common during dynastic Egypt. King Tutankhamen’s tomb has become one familiar exception. His tomb fared unusually well over the millennia, and King Tutankhamen’s image is well known to us because his tomb was found mostly intact in 1922.


“Treasures of Tutankhamen.” Ancient Egypt. 1996. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8683&loid=35830. 6:14.

Throughout dynastic Egypt, much continuity existed in religious beliefs, causing scholars to characterize Egyptian society as conservative, meaning that Egyptians shied away from change. In general, Egyptian religious beliefs emphasized unity and harmony. Throughout the dynastic period, Egyptians thought that the soul contained distinct parts. They believed that one part, the ka, was a person’s lifeforce and that it separated from the body after death. The Egyptians carried out their elaborate preservation of mummies and made small tomb statues to house their ka after death. The ba, another part of the soul, was the unique character of the individual, which could move between the worlds of the living and the dead. They believed that after death, if rituals were carried out correctly, their ka and ba would reunite to reanimate their akh, or spirit. If they observed the proper rituals and successfully passed through Final Judgment (where they recited the 42 “Negative Confessions” and the god Osiris weighed their hearts against a feather), Egyptians believed that their resurrected spirit, their akh, would enter the afterlife. In contrast to Mesopotamian society, Egyptians conceptualized the afterlife as pleasant. In the afterlife, they expected to find a place with blue skies, agreeable weather, and familiar objects and people. They also expected to complete many of the everyday tasks, such as farming, and enjoy many of the same recognizable pastimes. Throughout the centuries, the Egyptians conceptualized the afterlife as a comfortable mirror image of life.

Figure 2.10 | Tombs at the Valley of the Kings Author: User “Karmosin” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

One change that occurred over time was the “democratization of the afterlife.” As time progressed through the Middle Kingdom and into the New Kingdom, more and more people aspired to an afterlife. No longer was an afterlife seen as possible for only the pharaoh and the elite of society. Instead, just about all sectors of society expected access, as evident in the increased use of funeral texts, like the Book of the Dead. People of varying means would slip papyrus with spells or prayers from the Book of the Dead (or a similar text) into coffins and burial chambers. They intended these spells to help their deceased loved ones make it safely through the underworld into the pleasant afterlife. Conceptualizations of the afterlife consistently emphasized its familiarity and beauty, while more people looked forward to this continued existence after their earthly deaths.


“Religious Cults and the Afterlife.” Ancient Egypt. 1996. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8683&loid=35829. 5:56.

As they developed religious doctrine and came into contact with new deities, Egyptians integrated new gods and goddesses into their religious beliefs. Like ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians were polytheistic. Some of the roles and back-stories of the deities did change over time; nevertheless, over the millennia they remained quite consistent. For example, Re, Osiris, Horus, and Isis, just to name a few deities in the Egyptian pantheon, stayed significant throughout dynastic Egypt. Re was the sun god, Osiris was the god of the afterworld, who also controlled nature’s cycles (like the all important flooding of the Nile), Horus became a god of war and protection, and Isis was a goddess associated with healing and motherhood. During the Middle Kingdom, Amun, initially a patron saint of the city of Thebes and later recognized as the father of the pharaoh, was combined with Re, the sun god, to become Amun-Re the supreme god of the Egyptian pantheon. Amun-Re retained this place at the top of the Egyptian pantheon through most of the New Kingdom. One major exception occurred during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten.

“Ancient Egypt: Religion, Science, and Culture.” Great Empires of the Past: Core Concepts Video Clip Library. 2010. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=41675&loid=217865. 2:30.

Pharaoh Akhenaten started what is known as the Amarna Period. The Amarna Period, which lasted from approximately 1350 to 1325 BCE, stands out for its state-sponsored monotheism. Akhenaten introduced radical changes to Egyptian society, moving the capital to Tell el Amarna, a new settlement in the middle of the desert that was devoted to the worship of Aten and the recognition of the pharaoh’s superiority over everyone else. Aten, who had been one of many deities worshipped during the Middle Kingdom, was elevated to the creator god associated with sunlight, the foundation of all life. The “Great Hymn to Aten” explains the god Aten’s association with the sun as, like the sun, his “rays embraced the lands” of Egypt.[2] Akhenaten had the Great Temple of Aten built in the middle of the new capital, and, unlike previous temples, this one had no roof and was open to sunlight. Akhenaten further modified Egyptian religious doctrine to identify himself as the son of Aten. According to the new religious ideology, Akhenaten alone was able to ensure access to the afterlife and communicate with Aten, the sole god. To reinforce Aten’s singularity, Akhenaten withdrew financial support from temples dedicated to other deities and defaced the temples dedicated to Amun, who had previously been the most dominant Egyptian deity. The prominence of Aten and Akhenaten’s exclusive access to him define the Amarna Period.

Why did Akhenaten introduce these radical changes? At least in part, Akhenaten wanted to break with the priests in Thebes who controlled the temples dedicated to Amun because he believed that these priests had become too powerful. Additionally, by taking on the role of the son of Aten and regulating entry into the afterlife, Akhenaten certainly attempted to reformulate beliefs to emphasize his own importance.

Figure 2.11 | Panel with adoration Scene of Aten | Pharaoh Akhenaten with his wife and children making offerings to Aten, the divine incarnation of the sun during the monotheistic Amarna Period. Author: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY 2.0

Akhenaten’s radical changes were likely troubling for most of the Egyptian population. They had previously found comfort in their access to deities and their regular religious rituals. The worship of Aten as the only Egyptian god did not last more than a couple of decades, floundering after the death of Akhenaten. Pharaohs who ruled from 1323 BCE onward tried not only to erase the religious legacies of the Amarna Period, but also to destroy the capital at Tell el Amarna and remove Akhenaten from the historical record. Archaeologists have not found Akhenaten’s tomb or burial place. Scholars continue a long-standing debate about how this brief period of Egyptian monotheism relates (if at all) to the monotheism of the Israelites. Despite such uncertainties, study of the Amarna period does indicate that Egyptians in the fourteenth century BCE saw the fleeting appearance of religious ideology that identified Aten as the singular god.

Some of the strongest rulers of the New Kingdom, including Ramses I and Ramses II, came to power after the Amarna Period. These pharaohs expanded Egypt’s centralized administration and its control over foreign territories. However, by the twelfth century BCE, weaker rulers, foreign invasions, and the loss of territory in Nubia and Palestine indicated the imminent collapse of the New Kingdom. In the Late Period that followed (c. 1040 to 332 BCE), the Kingdom of Kush, based in Nubia, invaded and briefly ruled Egypt until the Assyrians conquered Thebes, establishing their own rule over Lower Egypt. Egyptian internal revolts and the conquest by Nubia and the Assyrian Empire left Egypt susceptible to invasion by the Persians and then eventually the 332 BCE invasion of Alexander the Great.

The ancient Egyptians made numerous contributions to World History. We remember them for mummification, their pharaohs, and the pyramids. Certainly, in this era, Egypt stands out for its ability to produce agricultural surpluses that supported the elites, priests, and skilled craftspeople. While we tend to focus on the bureaucratic, religious, and artistic contributions of these classes, all Egyptians played crucial roles in creating and maintaining this sophisticated civilization. Additionally, the innovations of Egyptians, such as their stone-carving techniques, hieroglyphics, the use of papyrus, their knowledge of the length of a solar year, and their construction methods, influenced the ancient world and still inspire awe. Overall, the ancient Egyptians created a vibrant civilization, while they also found comfort in the familiar and traditional.

[1] “Hymn to the Nile, c. 2100 BCE, ” Ancient History Sourcebook, Fordham University, http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/ ancient/hymn-nile.asp.