The History of Ancient Egypt, Part 4/5: 1500BC - 1000BC
After centuries of greatness, the civilization of Ancient Egypt has now entered a long period of decline.
The period of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt was one in which Egypt reached the height of its international power, and was a leading player in the war and diplomacy of the Middle East. This was matched by prosperity and firm government at home. However, decline set in after about 1200 BC, bringing an end to the great days of Ancient Egypt.
A Strong Monarchy
The kings of the New Kingdom concentrated power firmly in their own hands. The court was again the source of all authority, the localities firmly subordinated to central control.
The resources of the entire country were mobilized in a thoroughgoing way, this time not so much to create magnificent tombs for the kings – though the wonderful temples in the Valley of the Kings testify to the ongoing importance of this concern – but to developing the territorial and economic resources of the country. In so doing, they turned Egypt into a true imperial power.
An Imperial Power
To the south, Egypt waged an unrelenting war against the kingdom of Kush. By Thutmose I’s day (c. 1493-1481) the Egyptian frontier lay at the third cataract on the Nile – a mere 30 kilometres north of the Kush capital, Kerma. During the reign of Thutmose III (c. 1479-1425) they drove their frontier much further south, establishing a fortified town at Napata, deep within Kushite territory.
The lands thus conquered were assimilated into the Egyptian administration and heavily guarded with forts and garrisons. Native chiefs were co-opted into the provincial system as local officials, and they soon adopted the trappings of Egyptian civilization. Temples to the Egyptian gods were scattered throughout the land, a testament to cultural imperialism.
Statue of Thutmosis III at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
From the time of Thutmose III, chiefs outside direct Egyptian control also recognized Egyptian suzerainty, giving their aid to the Egyptian gold-mining operations. It was these, along with the trade goods coming up from the south, that gave the Egyptian kings the wealth to conduct the large-scale international trade (which was still a royal monopoly) and diplomacy with which they furthered Egypt’s interests to the north.
International Trade and Diplomacy
In fact, international trade and diplomacy were so intertwined that it is doubtful whether the Egyptians recognized any distinction between the two.
The kings of the New Kingdom adopted a much more aggressive stance in their relations with the rulers of Palestine and Syria. Thutmose I led an army as far as the Euphrates, and Thutmose III undertook no less than 17 campaigns in Palestine and Syria. The strategic pattern seems clear.
The great seaport of Byblos was again the lynchpin of Egypt’s influence in the region and the logistics base for the Egyptian presence in the Levant, which was used to control the trade routes between the Mediterranean and the rich lands of Mesopotamia. Further south Egypt’s interests lay in securing the land-based caravan routes through Palestine.
In order to pursue these goals, the Egyptian government adopted an “indirect rule” policy: Egyptian forces only intervened in Syria or Palestine on rare occasions, and Egypt did not seek to rule territories in Palestine or Syria directly. Instead, the Egyptian government used loyal chiefs of tribes and rulers of city-states to protect its interests in the region.
The Armarna letters, found in a royal archive containing over 350 diplomatic letters between the Egyptian king and foreign rulers, offer a fascinating glimpse into the international scene at this time. The king of Egypt related to the powerful kings of Babylon and the Hittites as equals (“brothers”), but to the many petty chiefs and kinglets of Palestine he was their overlord.
The kings of Egypt during the period covered by the Armarna letters were experiencing – or perhaps provoking – internal struggles. Amenhotep IV (1344-1328 BC) sponsored the cult of the Sun god, Aten. Indeed, he replaced the god Amon with Aten as the chief deity in the Egyptian pantheon. He had himself renamed Akhenaten, and after a time promoted the worship of Aten as the one true god.
Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten, second from the left is
Meritaten who was the daughter of Akhenaten
This was a revolutionary departure from the ancient religion of the country, and was quickly reversed after his death. The end result may well have been to increase the power of the priests of Amun, with their chief centre at Thebes. Certainly, subsequent pharaohs of the New Kingdom emphasised their loyalty to Amun.
The Hittite Challenge
A new and more dangerous phase began for Egypian foreign policy with the aggressive expansion of the Hittites. This posed an increasing threat to the trade routes to Mesopotamia, and hence to Egyptian commercial/diplomatic interests in Syria, and even Palestine.
It was the kings of the 19th dynasty that had to deal with this danger, above all one of the most famous kings in all Egyptian history, Ramses II (c. 1279-1213).
Ramses led his army to battle against the Hittites at the strategically sited city of Kaddesh, and won a famous victory there – or so he claimed in his account of the action inscribed on his temple in the Valley of the Kings. The battle came near to disaster for Ramses, and probably ended as a draw. In the end the rise of another power, Assyria, convinced both Ramses and Hattusili II of Hatti to come to terms, and in c. 1259 BC they agreed to divide Syria between them.
By the end of the 19th dynasty (c. 1295-1186) a new threat was appearing from the west. Lybian tribes began migrating – which, given their military capabilities, effectively meant invading - into the Delta region from the western coastal desert.
The Egyptians built a series of forts to control this nuisance, and under Merenptah (c. 1213-1203 BC) and Ramses III (c. 1184-1153 BC) inflicted several defeats on them. In the time of Ramses III, also, a new set of invaders, this time from the north, had to be dealt with.
Ramses III offering incense, wall painting
These were the “Sea Peoples”, an apparently diverse group of peoples whose origins lay in Europe but with elements who may well have been refugees from Asia Minor, where the Hittite state had recently been destroyed.
These threats seem to have been dealt with reasonably effectively, and, unlike many states in the Middle East, Egypt survived as a wealthy and united country. However, internal developments were at work to undermine the centralizing power of the kings.
Throughout the New Kingdom, temples had been accorded high status and a privileged position within the state. The lands and wealth they controlled made them indispensable allies of the king. This wealth and power had gradually been increasing, above all for the priests of Thebes.
It was now that the high priest of Amun at Thebes elevated himself to kingly status, challenging the status of the kings of the 20th dynasty (c. 1186-1069 BC).
A civil war broke out which ended with the confirmation of the Theban priest-king’s position as an autonomous ruler within the wider land of Egypt, and the permanent reduction of the pharaoh’s prestige and authority.
The weakening power of the king of Egypt at home soon had its effects abroad. To the south, Nubia was lost to a rebellious general. This cut off Egypt’s supply of gold, on which its commercial/diplomatic influence had been largely based. Local rulers in Palestine and Syria drifted away from their centuries-long Egyptian loyalties.
A glimpse of this decline in Egyptian power is seen in “The Tale of Wenamum”, in which a royal official encounters all sorts of difficulties and humiliations in a journey to and from Byblos. Whatever the exact significance of this tale – was it fiction? – the impression it gives of Egyptian international impotence is unmistakable.
The weakness of the kingdom of Egypt did not mean that there was an immediate fragmentation, however. A rapprochement was worked out between the high priests of Thebes and the kings of the 21st dynasty (c. 1069-945 BC), whereby the high priests seem to have usually recognized the secular authority of the pharaohs. In return, the pharaohs sent their daughters as brides for the Theban high priest; and in due course the families became so intertwined that the Theban high priest Har-Psusennes ascended the throne as pharaoh (c. 959-945 BC).
Continue: Part 5: Ancient Egypt 1000 BC - 500 BC - ancient Egypt in decline
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The History of Ancient Egypt:
Part 4 - Ancient Egyptian History 1500 BC- 1000 BC: A Strong Monarchy, An Imperial Power, International Trade and Diplomacy, Egyptian Imperialism, Religious Upheavals, The Hittite Challenge, New Threats, Impotence Abroad c.1153-1069 BC, Weakness at Home