Around 1800 B.C.E., Egypt entered another period of decline. Once again, irregular floods, this time being too high, probably played a role in undermining the pharaoh's power and authority. A series of pharaohs, ending with the rare rule of a woman, Nitocris, marked the end of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of another period of anarchy, the Second Intermediate Period.
Agricultural decline and political anarchy followed much the same pattern as during the First Intermediate Period, with Egypt splitting back into its upper and lower halves. One new factor added to the confusion: foreign invasion. A group of peoples known to the Egyptians as Hyksos, or "foreign kings", came thundering into Egypt with the horse drawn chariot and the more powerful composite bow. These new weapons allowed them to conquer Lower Egypt, although Thebes in the south remained independent under the priests of Amon. The Biblical Hebrews were probably not among the Hyksos invaders, but they probably entered Egypt during the time of Hyksos rule as reflected in the Biblical story of Joseph, a foreigner who rises to very high status in Egypt.
The Hyksos, like so many other nomadic invaders, adopted the ways of their civilized subjects. Their rulers used Egyptian titles and customs, wrote their names in hieroglyphics, and worshiped the Egyptian god Seth. They also used Egyptian officials and tried to maintain the administrative machinery. Still, Hyksos rule was a shock to the Egyptians. When rulers from Thebes finally drove them out of Egypt, their attitude toward the outside world had been radically changed by the experience of foreign domination. The new era which dawned, the New Kingdom, would see the pharaohs actively pursue a policy of foreign conquest and empire building. Egypt's age of glory had arrived.
Egyptian history is traditionally divided into thirty-one dynasties or ruling families. The most famous of these are the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties who established Egypt as a great imperial power in the Near East. The eighteenth dynasty in particular saw a succession of able rulers.
Amenhotep I (1545-1525 B.C.E.) spent much of his reign securing his realm against the desert tribes who had caused so much trouble during the recent period of turmoil. He realized that it was futile to try to hold the entire desert. Instead he seized various oases scattered throughout the Sahara along Egypt's flanks. This deprived the nomads of places from which to launch raids and refresh themselves. It also gave the Egyptians advanced bases so that they could intercept any nomads trying to slip through for raids.
Thutmose I (1525-1490 B.C.E.) was the pharaoh who really established Egypt's empire. He extended Egyptian power into Nubia once again. This meant Egypt controlled a thin strip of river valley some 1200 miles long. Thutmose also advanced into Palestine and Syria to protect Egypt against any "Hyksos" there. The various independent city-states there, such as Byblos and Ugarit, fell before the onslaught of the pharaoh's army, which fought its way all the way to the upper Euphrates River. There many of the Egyptian soldiers experienced rain for the first time, which they could only describe as "the Nile falling from the sky."
Egyptian rule in Palestine and Syria was more lenient than that of such peoples as the Assyrians and Babylonians. For one thing, any cities that fell to the pharaoh were considered the property of the gods (including pharaoh). As a result, they were not usually allowed to sack a city since that would be a sacrilege. Some strategic or especially rebellious cities were left with Egyptian governors and garrisons. However, for the most part, the pharaohs left native rulers in power as long as they remained loyal to Egypt. Taking the sons of these rulers as hostages back to Egypt insured such loyalty. There they were educated in Egyptian ways so that by the time they assumed the reins of power, they saw things from a very Egyptian point of view.
After Thutmose I and the brief reign of his son Thutmose II, we encounter the first woman to make a major mark in history, Hatshepsut (1590-1560 B.C.E.). Technically, she was only a regent, or temporary ruler, for the young king, Thutmose III. However, she liked the feeling of power and decided to keep the throne for herself. Since the Egyptian people probably would not take kindly to a woman's rule, she styled herself as a "king".
Her statues sported a beard and obscured her more feminine features. Hatshepsut did not push her luck trying to lead the army, and her reign was generally peaceful as a result. The most famous event of her reign was a trading expedition to the exotic land of Punt, which brought back myrrh, incense, ivory, monkeys, and a panther.
Hatshepsut's peaceful reign was followed by that of the great warrior pharaoh, Thutmose III (1469-1436 B.C.E.). It is a tribute to Hatshepsut's ability that she had been able to keep this able young soldier under her thumb even after he came of age. The new king's frustration at having been kept from his rightful throne for so long was quickly shown by his having Hatshepsut's name erased from all public inscriptions and replaced either with his own name or those of his ancestors. Thutmose III spent much of his reign restoring Egyptian power in Syria and Palestine where it had slipped during Hatshepsut's less aggressive reign. He waged six campaigns there and another eleven against the Hurrians who had settled down to found the powerful kingdom of Mitanni. Much of this required long drawn out sieges, such as that of Megiddo, which lasted eleven months and involved building a wooden palisade and moat to completely cut the city off from outside help. Sometimes trickery was used. At the siege of Joppa, Egyptian troops supposedly got into the city by hiding in grain bags going in through the gates. At other times, the Egyptians found themselves involved in some pretty hard fighting.
Such extended campaigning so far from home forced the Egyptians to build a large professional army. Most recruits were Egyptians, but foreign mercenaries, and even captives of war made up larger proportions of the army over time. The Egyptian army was divided into divisions of about 5000 men each. The infantry were armed either with bows and arrows or large shields and axes. The most illustrious branch of the army was the chariot corps, organized into groups of twenty-five chariots each. These were light two man chariots that would sweep in front of the enemy while firing arrows into their ranks to disrupt them. After several such passes, the infantry could move in to finish off the enemy. Egypt also developed a navy whose main purpose was to transport the army by sea between Egypt and Palestine, a much easier trip than marching through the Sinai Desert.
Thutmose III's three successors, Amenhotep II, Thurmoses IV, and Amenhotep III, ruled Egypt for some seventy years. They were all able warriors and generals, and maintained Egypt's power in the Near East. However, they added little or nothing to the size of the empire, probably feeling it was already about as big as they could effectively rule.
Egypt at the height of its power and glory must have been a fascinating place to visit. Wealth poured into its treasury, allowing the pharaohs to build the massive temples of Karnak and Thebes, the magnificent tombs cut out of cliffs in the Valley of the Kings along the Nile, and gigantic statues of themselves, some of them up to sixty-five feet in height. Another popular kind of monument was the obelisk, or needle. This was a tall thin piece of granite, carved into a pyramid shape at the top. This peak was then covered with gold to reflect the brilliance of the sun god to whom it was dedicated. The Washington Monument is in the form of an obelisk, although it is not made out of a single piece of stone.
Egypt's cities also reflected the influx of wealth and new peoples that its empire brought in. Thebes, the capital, was especially renown for its wealth and splendor. Even the Greek hero, Achilles, in the great epic of the Trojan War, The Iliad, mentions "Egyptian Thebes, the world's great treasure house...Thebes with its one-hundred gates where two-hundred men issue from each gate with horses and chariots." The influx of foreign peoples also meant the influx of foreign ideas, and that may have been a factor influencing the next great pharaoh, Amenhotep IV, known to us a as Akhenaton.
The reign of Akhenaton (1370-1353 B.C.E.) was a turning point in Egyptian history. Originally, this new ruler was named Amonhotep in honor of Amon, the primary state god. However, he changed his name to Akhenaton in honor of Aton, the sun god, whom he wanted his people to worship instead. Why he wanted to change the religion is a matter of dispute. Some people think he was influenced by the simpler religious beliefs of his wife, a princess from Mitanni, or even the Hebrews, then captive in Egypt. Others see a more practical motive: trying to break the power of the priests of Amon, who had gradually gathered huge amounts of land and power into their hands over the last 700 years. Some historians estimate that they owned about thirty percent of all the land in Egypt by Akhenaton's reign. This was tax-free land, which deprived the pharaohs of money and created a growing threat to their own power. This in itself would have been enough motive to change the religion, although purer religious motives may have been mixed in as well. It also shows the importance of religion to a society that feels so helpless before the forces of nature.
Contrary to popular imagination, Akhenaton did not create a monotheistic religion worshipping only one god. Instead, he made Aton the primary focus of worship in Egypt, with the royal family worshipping him for all of Egypt's benefit. This eliminated the need for any extensive priesthood, which certainly angered the priests of Amon. They in turn played upon people's fears of what would happen if the old gods who had protected Egypt for so long were neglected. In a traditional society such as Egypt, these fears were a powerful force to overcome. Akhenaton tried to escape these problems by moving the capital from Thebes, the center of Amon's worship, to a new city, Tell-el-Amarna, dedicated to Aton. In the end, Akhenaton's experiment failed and barely outlived him. The nine-year-old Tutankhaton, better known to us as Tutankhamon after he changed his name to please the old state deity, Amon, and his powerful priests, succeeded him. Ironically, Tutankhamon is the best known of the pharaohs, although he was probably just a puppet of the resurgent priests of Amon and died before he was even old enough to rule on his own. However, it was his tomb alone that was destined to survive the ravages of grave robbers and give us a clue to the wealth and splendor of Egypt at its height.
The internal turmoil caused by Akhenaton's reforms and the reaction against them weakened Egypt's hold on its empire and brought its golden age and the eighteenth dynasty to an end. The empire did experience a revival under the nineteenth dynasty, which was founded by Ramses I (1304-1303 B.C.E.). By this time, Egypt's main rival for power in the Near East, the kingdom of Mitanni, had been replaced by an even more dangerous power, the Hittite empire. Once again, the pharaoh's chariot corps rolled northward to defend Egypt's interests. Seti I (1303-1290 B.C.E.) met the Hittites and defeated them, but they still remained a power in Palestine. Seti's successor, Ramses II (1290-1223 B.C.E.), took up the struggle and met the Hittites at Kadesh, one of history's great chariot battles. After being routed by a Hittite surprise attack, Ramses rallied his troops and struck back at the Hittites who had stopped to loot the Egyptian camp. The battle ended basically as a draw that led to a peace treaty and marriage alliance between the two powers. It is remarkable that, after such bitter fighting, the Egyptian and Hittite empires settled down to a peaceful co-existence that lasted until the fall of the Hittite Empire around 1200 B.C.E. At one point, Egypt even sent grain to the Hittites during a famine.
Ramses II was the last Pharaoh to see Egyptian power at its height. After his death, Egypt entered a period of slow but steady decline. The first major shock to its power was the invasion by a mysterious people known to us only as the Sea Peoples. Who they were is not exactly clear, but some of them seem to have come from the area of the Aegean Sea around Greece. Their path of conquest followed the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean. The Hittite Empire crashed down in ruins before their onslaught and disappeared from history. Syria and Palestine were hit next as the Sea Peoples passed on to Egypt where the first recorded naval battle in history was fought. The Egyptians won, but it took a tremendous effort that sapped their strength. The Peleset, as the Egyptians called the Sea Peoples, made their way to Palestine (which gets its name from them), settled down, and became the Biblical Philistines. This period may also be the time of the Exodus when the Israelites made good their escape from Egypt to the Promised Land.
By 1085 B.C.E., Egypt was clearly in decline. It had lost its possessions in Palestine to the Philistines and Israelites, while revolts and raids in Nubia were destroying its grip on that vital part of its empire. It also suffered from various internal problems. For one thing, low floods had damaged its economy and weakened its ability to recover from other troubles. For another thing, the powerful priesthood of Amon was a greater threat than ever to the pharaoh's power, especially after Akhenaton's attempt to destroy them had soured relations between king and priests. Finally, the increased reliance on foreign mercenaries created problems since the pharaohs often did not have the money to pay them. This made the troops restless and put the pharaohs into a very dangerous position.
Egypt's internal troubles added to the problems outside its borders. In 940 B.C.E., a Libyan general by the name of Sheshonk forced his way into the royal family through marriage, overthrew his in-laws, and founded the twenty-second dynasty. Around 750 B.C.E., Nubians coming up from the south founded another foreign dynasty, the twenty-fifth. The fact that these foreign rulers had absorbed Egyptian culture can be seen in the pyramids that the Nubians built in their kingdom of Kush to the south. Egypt was destined to fall under the rule of other peoples even less friendly to its civilization. In 652 B.C.E., the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, conquered Upper and Lower Egypt. Although the Egyptians drove the hated Assyrians from their land a few years later, their freedom was short-lived. In 525 B.C.E., the Persian king, Cambyses, overwhelmed any resistance to his armies and took over the Egyptian kingdom. It is at this point that we can say that the age of the pharaohs came to an end, as a long succession of Persian, Macedonian, Roman, Arab, Turkish, and British powers would rule it for the next 2400 years. Not until the modern era would a native Egyptian again rule over the Gift of the Nile.