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6-08-2015, 15:48

Imperial Egypt

THE 350 YEARS OF DYNASTIES 18 AND 19 WERE THEWORLD’S
first great empire. A series of brilliant military pharaohs extended Egypt’s
domain from the fourth cataract deep in Nubia in the south, to the Euphrates
River in the Near East. Egypt’s empire was much smaller than
the later Persian and Roman empires, was built up gradually, and took
shape not entirely by design. Egypt’s greatest general-kings appeared
when much of the rest of the Mediterranean world was unstable and
weak. Still, Egypt was the world’s first superpower.
The imperial age brought vast wealth and a new, cosmopolitan outlook
to Egypt. Previously isolated in their narrow valley, Egyptians now
subdued a multitude of nations, adopted their gods and goddesses, and imported
their fashions and technologies.
Sons of the leaders of conquered territories in Nubia and Asia were
compelled to live in Egypt, study in temple schools, and learn Egyptian
ways. Foreign princesses joined the royal harem—the king’s group of wives.
Harems could be quite large, with hundreds of wives. Although these foreigners
lived in luxury, their marriages were strictly diplomatic—their presence
kept the tribute and gifts flowing, and discouraged revolt.
Trade, always important, became more varied and extensive. Finely
made products—weapons, furniture, faience (glazed earthenware), linen,
jewelry—from the workshops of Egypt’s skilled artisans were in demand
everywhere. Goods and materials Egyptians had always craved poured
in from abroad.
From Nubia and further south came gold, ebony, ivory, amethysts,
carnelian, jasper, diorite (a hard, grayish-green stone used for statues),
leopard skins and other exotic animal pelts, incense, oils, ostrich eggs
and feathers, and monkeys. From the mountainous deserts to the east
came carnelian, garnets, jasper, rock crystal, obsidian, green and multi-hued
feldspar, alabaster, copper, and rare emeralds. The copper and turquoise
mines of Sinai were in constant production. Silver and lapis lazuli came
from the far reaches of the Near East.
With Ahmose’s triumph over the Hyksos (see page 35), the Thebans
reigned supreme. In a series of military campaigns, Ahmose secured
Egypt’s borders. To build support for his central government, he gave the
nomarchs and provincial nobles a great deal of authority and responsibility—
backed up with land grants and rich gifts. He also started major
temple-building projects all over the country. His son, Amenhotep I, ruled
for 21 years, continuing his father’s military campaigns in Nubia and
Syria, and founding the great temple of Karnak, near Thebes.
The next king, Thutmose I, was a non-royal general who gained
the throne by marrying a princess. During his 11-year reign, the priests of
Amun-Re at Thebes became fabulously wealthy and powerful.
Thutmose II was the son of a royal harem woman. He found it prudent
to strengthen his claim to the throne by marrying his half-sister. Like
Thutmose I, he conducted successful military campaigns in Nubia and
Syria.
Thutmose III was also the son of a minor harem wife. He became
king as a small child. His aunt Hatshepsut, ruling as his regent, seized
the throne within two years. A talented and ambitious woman, Hatshepsut
became one of Egypt’s most powerful female pharaohs. She built and restored
many temples, and built a splendid mortuary temple of unique design
for herself at Deir el-Bahari near Thebes. With her lavish royal
support, the Amun-Re priesthood became even richer.
Hatshepsut was not much concerned with military matters, but she
was very interested in trade. She sent almost continuous expeditions to the
turquoise mines of Sinai, and to Punt, down the African coast. Meanwhile,
Thutmose III was in the army, studying military strategy and planning
his comeback.
There is much historical evidence that Thutmose III disliked his
aunt Hatshepsut. As soon as she died (some scholars speculate that
Thutmose actually had a hand in her death), he destroyed many of her
monuments and those of her supporters. He scratched her name off
inscriptions and made sure she was left off the official king lists. His
revenge complete, he proceeded to earn his modern title, “The Napoleon
of Egypt.”

The death of Thutmose III provoked widespread revolts around
his empire. Because Egypt had never been known for military or imperial
ambitions, the conquered peoples could be forgiven for hoping that
when Thutmose III died, they would be able to regain their independence.
But his son, Amenhotep II, quickly set them straight. A vigorous
man, famous as a sportsman and athlete, the new king subdued every revolt.
He moved swiftly into Nubia, killing seven captive Nubian princes.
He hung one from the walls of the Nubian capital, as a warning. A decisive
campaign in Palestine confirmed that Amenhotep meant to hold on
to his empire.
For the rest of his 26-year reign, peace ruled the empire. Tribute
flowed into Egypt as reliably as the Nile floods. The next king, Thutmose
IV, also enjoyed a peaceful, prosperous reign. Thutmose IV and the powerful
Mittani kingdom of the Near East reached a peace accord, and Thutmose
married at least one Mittani princess. From then on, all that was
required to keep the empire in line were a few “police actions” in Nubia
and Syria.
The next king, Amenhotep III presided over a prosperous, stable
empire. There was little need for military action during his 37-year reign,
because the empire was secure. Egypt was the world’s undisputed superpower.
The king built grand temples, enhanced his reputation as a
sportsman, and enjoyed luxury and high living at his fabulous court, along
with more than 1,000 wives. His era is known for magnificent artwork
and statuary.
Egypt’s wealth during this prosperous era did not come from war
booty, but from vast international trade and tribute from conquered
provinces. Gold poured in from the empire’s mines. The king built a spectacular
mortuary temple at Thebes that included two 60-foot-tall statues
of himself, known as the colossi of Memnon.
It was lucky for Egypt that the next king reigned only 17 years. Focused
on promoting his new religion, Amenhotep IV badly neglected the
empire. Only quick, decisive work by the kings who followed him kept
Egypt’s empire together.
Tutankhamun was a young boy, and his power was controlled and
manipulated by older, experienced officials. During his 10-year reign, extensive
building was carried out at the temples of Karnak and Luxor.
There were military campaigns in Nubia and Syria, although Tutankhamun
probably did not personally participate. He left no heir. He may have
been murdered, but this idea is very controversial.
Akhenaten’s reign had destabilized the empire at a time when the
neighboring Hittites were becoming a major force. Renewed military efforts
would have been needed, but Tutankhamun had been too young
and inexperienced to lead effective military campaigns. After Tutankhamun’s
premature death, his young wife, Ankhesenamun, wrote to
the Hittite king and asked him to send one of his sons. She would marry
the son, she said, and he would become king of Egypt.
This sounded too good to be true. The Hittite king suspected a trap,
and sent a team of diplomats to investigate. Assured that Ankhesenamun’s
story was true and her offer sincere, the Hittite sent his son—who
was ambushed at the border and murdered. The next three generations saw
sporadic war between Egypt and the Hittites.
Tutankhamun’s successor, Ay, was an elderly official who had served
under several kings. Ay ruled only four years. He was followed by
Horemheb, an experienced, war-hardened general whom scholars consider
the chief suspect in the murder of the unfortunate Hittite prince.
Horemheb was a career officer who had served ably under three kings.
Supremely ambitious, he seized the throne upon Ay’s death, and married
a sister of Nefertiti to establish a link to the royal family.
There is little evidence that Horemheb undertook any major military
campaigns. His 27-year reign was focused on restoration, consolidation,
internal reforms, and rewriting history. He immediately repaired
and reopened temples closed by Akhenaten. He restored the wealth and
prestige of the Amun-Re temples with lavish royal support—but took the
precaution of appointing army officers loyal to him as chief priests. He
did everything possible to erase all records of the kings between Amenhotep
III and himself.
After Horemheb’s death, his vizier became king. Ramesses I, first
king of the Nineteenth Dynasty, was a career military officer who reigned
only two years. His son, Sety I, presided over a rebirth of art and culture.
A major builder and patron of Amun-Re, Sety I started the splendid Great
Hypostyle Hall at the temple of Karnak, and built many other temples. He
also resumed military campaigns to Nubia and Syria. His tomb is the
largest and finest in the Valley of the Kings. But his greatest achievement
might have been fathering Ramesses II—Ramesses the Great.
Ramesses II did everything on the grandest possible scale. No other
pharaoh built so many temples, fathered so many children (more than
100 sons, daughters not counted), or erected so many colossal statues
and obelisks. He presided over the peak of Egypt’s imperial age.
As a young prince, Ramesses II participated in many military campaigns
against the Hittites. Soon after taking the throne, he led 20,000
soldiers against the Hittites in a great battle at Kadesh in Syria. The battle
ended in a stalemate, but Ramesses II returned home and proclaimed
victory. Further campaigns had similar outcomes. This started getting expensive,
and embarrassing, for both sides. According to Egyptian records,
it was the Hittite king who proposed a peace treaty. Hittite records say it
was Ramesses. In any case, flowery diplomatic letters, rich royal gifts,
and Ramesses’s marriage to a Hittite princess sealed the peace pact.
Ramesses II was one of Egypt’s biggest builders. He completed
Sety’s mortuary temple at Thebes, another for himself at Abydos, and the
huge mortuary temple called the Ramesseum. He added to the temple
complexes Karnak and Luxor, and built major temples all over Egypt.
His Great Temple at Abu Simbel, cut into the rocky cliffs near Elephantine,
was dedicated to the gods Re-Herakhte, Ptah, and Amon-Re—but with
its four 60-foot-tall statues of himself, it was clearly meant to proclaim
his own magnificence. Nearby, he built a smaller temple to honor his favorite
wife, Nefertari, and the goddess Hathor. He built a new city, Piramesse
(“Domain of Ramesses”) in the Delta.
A total of 14 jubilee festivals were held in ancient Egypt by various
kings. Also called heb-sed festivals, these weeks-long national parties
were held to reaffirm the king’s vigor and fitness to rule. The heb-sed included
many religious ceremonies and a ritual “marathon run” in which
the king ran a course around the temple precincts to show that he was in
excellent shape. Kings held heb-seds at different intervals, and some held
many more than others. They were generally 10 to 15 years apart during
the 64-year reign of Ramesses II. The king was more than 90 years old
when he died.
Ramesses II is believed by many scholars to be “Pharaoh” mentioned
in the Bible in the book of Exodus, which describes how Moses
freed the Israelite people from Egyptian slavery. However, there are no surviving
records in Egypt of this event during the reign of any pharaoh.

The Beginning of the End



When Merneptah, 13th son of Ramesses II, took the throne, revolt was in
the air. Merneptah repelled waves of Libyan invaders, subdued rebellion
in Nubia, and turned back hordes of refugees from Mesopotamia, who
were suffering from extreme droughts. (He did send grain to the faminestricken
Hittites.) Times were equally difficult for the rulers who followed
him through the end of the Nineteenth Dynasty, including Twosret, Egypt’s
fourth reigning queen. Within 25 years of the death of Ramesses the Great,
Egypt was beset by invaders, and disorder mounted. The Nineteenth Dynasty
ended in confusion.
The Twentieth Dynasty saw the beginning of the end of Egypt’s empire.
Ramesses III was the last great imperial pharaoh. When he took the
throne in 1279 B.C.E., the world was in turmoil. The Trojan War and the
fall of Mycenae in what is today Greece, and several years of drought,
poor harvests, and famine in lands around the Mediterranean sent hordes
of refugees on the move.
A confederation of refugees—collectively called the Sea Peoples—
tried again to invade Egypt. They had first appeared during the reign of
Merneptah, but had been turned back. This was not an army. These were
entire nations—men, women, children, animals, household goods—on the
move, desperate for a place to live. They had their eyes on the fertile Nile
River Delta.
Their attempts to invade overland were met with fierce resistance,
resulting in heavy loss of life. When their ships approached close to Egypt’s
northern shore, ranks of archers drove them off with wave after wave of
deadly arrows. The remnants of the Sea Peoples were finally chased back
to the Near East.
This gave Egypt only a short break from trouble. Invasions of the
Delta and several waves of Libyan invaders required the king’s attention.
Ramesses III crushed them all. His reign was prosperous, but troubled. He
was even beset by problems in his own palace. A “harem conspiracy,” led
by a minor queen who wanted to promote her son’s fortunes (and her
own) plotted to kill the king. The plot was discovered just in time. Most of
the conspirators were allowed to commit suicide (considered a great boon)
in lieu of execution. A few other chose to kill themselves rather than face
lesser punishments, such as having their ears and noses chopped off.
Ramesses III was followed by a long series of kings, also named
Ramesses (IV through XI). They are called the Ramessides. The kings
from Ramesses IV onward had no family connection with Ramesses the
Great. And borrowing his name did them little good. Little is known
about these kings. During the 81 years of their reigns, internal instability
increased. Trade dropped sharply. Egypt was plagued by civil wars, strikes,
widespread lawlessness, and huge price increases. The empire was swiftly
receding, which meant less tribute and gifts coming in (the Egyptian
economy and the lifestyles of the rich and royal had become quite dependent
upon all this tribute, which they did not have to work to earn).
Troubles around the Mediterranean curtailed trade, meaning even less
income. The pie was shrinking and the elites were elbowing one another to
get their share before it all disappeared. The growing prevalence of infighting
was not good for social stability. Nubia, and its important gold resources,
was finally lost. Under Ramesses VI, the eastern frontier was
pulled back to the eastern Delta. The turquoise mines in the Sinai were
abandoned. Some building still went on in Egypt, but as less tribute flowed
in from the weakening empire, funds dried up.
The powerful priests of Amun-Re at Thebes rebelled openly against
the throne. Civil war raged in Thebes. Finally, Herihor, a high priest of
Amun-Re who had risen through the military ranks and had been southern
vizier and viceroy of Nubia, declared himself king. His reign overlapped
the last six years of the reign of Ramesses XI, who continued to rule
from Piramesse in the Delta. The two kings acknowledged each others’ separate
spheres of influence. There was not much Ramesses XI could do
about it.

 

 

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