The greatest pharaohs of Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was one of the most advanced ancient civilisations the world has ever seen as illustrated in Sky History’s Mystery Season ‘Legends of the Pharaohs’.
The Pharaoh dynasties ruled for three thousand years, building monumental palaces, statues and pyramids in a land of scorching desert that gave way to a flourishing civilization springing from the river banks of the river Nile. From the Great Pyramid of Giza to the site’s mystifying Sphinx standing on the Giza Plateau, to the colossal religious temples of Karnak and Luxor and the legendary Valley of the Kings and Queens – all remain as an irreplaceable legacy of Egypt’s unique ancient past that the greatest of the pharaohs left to the world.
Although there were hazy, intermediate periods between 30 dynasties, grouped and called the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms respectively, the dates themselves merged, creating a system that appeared to be watertight. One pharoah on the list whose existence was revealed in the 19th century led to a re-ordering of the system to accommodate this overlooked king.
Here, we look at some of the Egyptian period's most influential rulers which by the year 1386BC was already 2000 years old and had been ruled by eighty-six pharaohs though this was not used to address the kings of Egypt until the 19th Dynasty in 1200 BC.
Khufu (reign 2589 – 2566 BC)
Also known as Cheops (Greek translation), Khufu was the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty in the first half of the Old Kingdom period. Famous for building the Great Pyramid of Giza, also known as the ‘Pyramid of Khufu’; it is considered the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World in existence that is also intact. The pyramid was the tallest man-made structure at 146.7 metres (481 ft) for the best part of 4000 years and estimated to weigh approximately 6 million tonnes. Khufu’s Great Pyramid (the largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex) was conceived as his stairway to heaven and passage to eternal life. This revolutionary structural concept for royal burials was replaced with hidden tombs in the Valley of the Kings after it became apparent pyramids were a big neon light saying ‘this way to the gold!’
Reign and Legacy
Khufu is seen as the originator of the concept of pyramids as monumental mausoleums for Egyptian Kings and Queens who were revered as gods. But very little documented evidence remains about his reign and the only completely preserved portrait of Khufu is a three-inch high ivory figurine discovered in 1903.
Many other statues of Khufu were found in fragments and his structures built at the time of his reign now lost. Documents written about Khufu were years after his death, and so conflicting descriptions of the king have left him a somewhat enigmatic and mysterious figure. Because of the king’s association with Egypt’s culture of mausoleums and its rituals revolving around mummification and the afterlife, Khufu has become an iconic symbol of Egypt’s ancient past and has inspired countless novels and movies over the decades.
In 1827, Jane C Loudon wrote the novel The Mummy!. This three-volume novel concerns the Egyptian mummy of Cheops, who is brought back to life. The story tapped into the era’s fascination with anything Egyptian, a fashion that would last well into the Victorian period. Films referencing King Khufu range from Howard Hawks’ 1955 movie Land of the Pharaohs to the 1995 blockbuster Stargate, in which an extraterrestrial device is found near the pyramids.
Hatshepsut (reign 1478 – 1458 BC)
The second confirmed female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, also known by her throne name Maatkare was born in 1508 BC and governed Egypt in the 18th Dynasty, the first royal dynasty of the New Kingdom (1550 – 1077) and one now hailed as the ‘golden age’ of pharaohs and the empire’s most prosperous time.
Hatshepsut’s image, as seen in early cartouches and sculptures shows that she adopted a masculine look, complete with a shaved head and a false beard more associated with male rulers. Technically she was not the first female pharaoh as female regents had ruled before her, but it is claimed that she was not only one of Egypt's greatest queens but one of the greatest pharaohs to have ever lived.
Ironically for one of the New Kingdom’s most ambitious and astute pharaohs, her existence was almost erased from history by successive rulers, most notably by her step-son and successor Thutmose III. Daughter of Thutmose I and step-sister and wife of Thutmose II, Hatshepsut produced just one daughter, Neferure, when she discovered she was unable to have children again.
Ruling Egypt as co-regent with her young step-son Thutmose III, Hatshepsut declined to cede authority when the youth came of age, instead of taking over as Queen consort of Egypt in 1493 BC. Once she had established her position as ruler she abandoned the cross-dressing custom and was happy to describe herself in inscriptions as the female Horus and the ‘daughter of Ra’ (god of the sun).
Reign and Legacy
Believed by historians to have reigned for15-20 years and having secured peace and prosperity for Egypt, Hatshepsut is noted for two major achievements – establishing vast trading networks, such as seafaring expeditions across the Red Sea to the Land of Punt, and her construction projects across Upper and Lower Egypt, that included her spectacular mortuary temple complex at Deir-el-Bahri, famous for its perfect symmetry that predates Rome’s Parthenon. The site would later become known as the Valley of the Kings.
Hatshepsut may have been aware that the age of pyramids was over, but she wanted to show Egypt could still impress the world with magnificence. Part of her construction master-plan was the vast temple of Karnak (in modern-day Luxor) where she built the tallest obelisks in the world.
At the time of Hatshepsut’s death in her 22nd reign, she suffered from arthritis and was over-weight, which may have contributed to her diabetes. She also had bad skin which led to the queen inadvertently poisoning herself through the use of toxic lotions causing skin cancer. Hatshepsut, the queen who became a pharaoh died in 1458 BC and was buried in royal tomb KV20 alongside her father, Thutmose I, one of the first tombs built in the Valley of the Kings.
Amenhotep III (reign 1388 – 1351)
Son of Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III took Egypt to the pinnacle of its power after the country’s military campaigns in Nubia and Syria, creating wealth and prosperity for his people. A member of the Thutmosid family that had ruled at the time for 150 years, the ninth pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty has the distinction of having the most surviving statues of any Egyptian pharaoh, with over 250 presently identified.
Reign and Legacy
Amenhotep sired nine children including his successor Akhenaten, the controversial ruler later known as ‘The Heretic’. His rule saw the Egyptian empire well established, stable and prosperous. A striking characteristic of Amenhotep’s reign is a series of over 200 large commemorative stone scarabs (stone carved beetles) that document key events in the first twelve years of his thirty-year reign. Seen as the first telegrams in history, one hundred thousand were produced at the time and distributed throughout the kingdom and overseas. The era also saw the birth of diplomatic letters in the form of stone tablets written in Arcadian which depicted the correspondence of heads of state from Egypt to Babylonia, Syria and many other kingdoms. Such literary innovations have left the modern world with a rich insight into the events and lives of individuals of Ancient Egypt.
Egypt’s wealth and prosperity linked to trade and gold that was mined in Nubia, allowed Amenhotep to initiate vast construction projects centred in the ancient city of Thebes, guaranteeing that he would be remembered for eternity. Huge grandiose buildings, temples and towering statues of royal figures and gods signified his reign. Like pharaohs before him, Amenhotep also made impressive contributions to the sacred religious temple at Karnak, the vast temple dedicated to the deity Amun, the god of creation.
Sadly the only remnants of Amenhotep’s city-size mortuary temple, the ‘Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III’, residing on the west bank of the Nile, are two sixty-foot statues of him. The ‘Colossi of Memnon’ depict a seated Amenhotep and standing by his side, at less than the height of his thigh, is his loyal wife and mother of his sons, Queen Tiye. Amenhotep III’s reign saw Egypt prosper in great wealth which encouraged a culture of leisure of recreation unlike ever before.
Akhenaten ‘The Heretic’ (reign 1351 – 1334 BC)
The pharaoh who was never meant to be ruler, Akhenaten was one of the most controversial rulers of the New Kingdom, who took Egypt to the brink of bankruptcy through his ideological beliefs and religious policies. Originally named Amenhotep IV after his older brother unexpectedly died, the young pharaoh challenged religious beliefs of the time and was to create cultural, political and religious revolution after he and his wife Queen Nefertiti set out on a course to redefine the way ordinary Egyptians worshipped.
Reign and Legacy
At an early stage in his life as ruler Akhenaten declared that instead of all the many Egyptian gods, there was only one God, the Aten (the Sun disc) that would be worshipped. As part of his revolutionary zeal to change Egypt’s age-old ways from a polytheistic religion (many gods) to monotheism (one god), he also decided to shift the country’s religious capital in Thebes to Amarna in Upper Egypt, making the city of ‘Akhetaten’ the new capital for the worship of Aten in 1346 BC.
The undertaking of a new city to the one god Aten, challenged the powerful priesthood of the old capital Thebes as the fearless young pharaoh chipped away at the authority of the priesthood. His radical beliefs were reluctantly adhered to by the population but never fully accepted because the new religion of monotheism went against everything Egyptians believed in the afterlife and an underworld, where deceased spirits were reborn.
As well as siring ten children, including three daughters with queen Nefertiti, Akhenaten was also father to the most celebrated pharaoh on the planet, Tuteankhamun. During Akhenaten’s controversial 17-year reign he invented an entirely new style for Egyptian art. His down sculptures depicted him with a feminine face, long neck and bulbous lips, and sometimes with pendulous breasts, that made some historians question his gender. The style of art in cartouches and sculptures had never been seen before and is known now as Amarna art, characterised by its radical expressionism and realism.
The new religious centre in Amarna representing Akhenaten’s revolutionary sun disc god was short-lived. Several theories abound why the vast religious complex of Akhetaten was abandoned a few years after it was planned. It may have been that the ‘heretical’ pharaoh found himself in conflict with the powerful priesthood and followers of the traditional god Amun, which forced the pharaoh back to the traditional site of religious worship, governed by the high priests of Amun in Luxor.
Akhenaten’s lack of popularity compounded by several military disasters and a devastating plague that ravaged Egypt - killing three of the pharaoh and Nefertiti’s daughters - signalled the end of his reign in 1336 BC. In the years following Akhenaten’s burial at around the age of 32 at his Amarna temple site, his sarcophagus was destroyed as part of a concerted effort by his detractors to erase his existence. Ironically it was Akhenaten’s young son Tutankhaten (originally named as to represent the sun god Aten) who, under his elder advisors had his father’s new temple city abandoned and the capital of religious worship moved back to Thebes. The young pharaoh also changed his name to Tutankhamun, recognising the old deity Amun.
Almost lost to history the discovery in the 19th century of Akhetaten revealed how Akhenaten’s hidden city of palaces was deliberately razed and reduced to rubble. The discovery of the Armana Letters, a group of 382 clay tablets containing diplomatic correspondence at the abandoned site in 1887, unlocked the world’s best-kept secret of the ‘heretic’ king’s existence, who had been deliberately purged from the pages of history for 3000 years.
Tutankhamun (reign 1332 -1323)
The boy-king, who married his half-sister Ankhesenamun, was originally named Tutankhaten rein reference to his father’s religious obsessions about worshipping ‘Aten’ the sun god. In a bizarre act of defiance and a reversal of his father’s beliefs, the young pharaoh, who became ruler at just aged nine, changed his name to represent Egypt’s traditional beliefs in polytheism – the worship of many gods.
Reign and Legacy
Tutankhamun is, without doubt, the most universally famous pharaoh, not because of his achievements - as he died at 19 years-of-age - but simply because the historic discovery of his tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter, revealed vast unspoilt wealth – when most tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been plundered. Tutankhamun gained worldwide attention and celebrity, made all the more news-worthy with rumours of an alleged curse which was immediately linked to the mysterious deaths of Carter and other notable attendees at the opening of the sealed tomb.
As a boy of no more than nine when he took the throne, Tutankhamen’s early reign was one steered by his elder advisors, who may have also influenced the youth to distance himself from his father’s (Akhenaten) beliefs in monotheism and the exclusive worshipping of the sun god Aten. The priesthood had suffered under Akhenaten’s reign and one defining aspect of the boy king’s rule was the attempts of his elders and the priesthood to redress the balance of his father’s shifting the country’s religion to monotheism. A notable ambition during the young king’s brief reign was enriching the priests who worshipped the god Amun and restoring their status under royal protection after his father had diminished the priesthood’s powers.
In 2005 a scan of Tutankhamun’s mummy revealed that the slight framed youth had a partially cleft hard palate and a curved spine. Other ailments, possibly caused by inbreeding, also revealed that the young pharaoh’s right foot was flat and his left one clubbed, explaining why many walking canes were found in his tomb. DNA samples showed that a parasite linked to malaria may have compromised his immune system and left him vulnerable to infection. Despite allegations that Tutankhamen’s death may have been the result of deliberate poisoning, a more likely event is that the young and physically afflicted pharaoh’s early demise was the result of weakening disorders and a leg fracture that contributed to his passing at just 19.
The glorious riches of Tutankhamun’s tomb chamber numbering around 5000 items and notably his spectacular gold and bejewelled face mask have become the iconic symbol and representation of Ancient Egypt. Despite the young pharaoh’s lack of achievements as a king, he is today the most influential of Egyptian kings in popular culture and holds the same fascination with the public as when his tomb’s discovery created headlines around the world.
Ramesses the Great (reign 1279 – 1213 BC)
Regarded as the greatest and most powerful pharaoh of the New Kingdom of the 19th Dynasty, the son of Seti I was celebrated for his monumental building programme of cities, temples and monuments and his unashamed lack of modesty.
Reign and Legacy
Ramesses II ruled initially as a co-regent, for 67 years, lived for 90 and waged 20 wars. He is noted famously in books, movies and TV dramas as the king who oppressed the Israelites which led to the prophet Moses arising as a spiritual revolutionary and leading ‘God’s chosen’ from Egypt.
Ramesses, the great king of kings and creator of the colossal temples at Abu Simbel, married three times and maintained a harem of more than 200 women, producing 100 sons and 60 daughters. By his daughters, he added more grandchildren.
Renowned to be handsome and represented in statue form, far outnumbering those of any other pharaoh, his self-aggrandising obsession with populating the land with his image lent itself to a kind of Ancient Egypt propaganda machine. In reality, the opening of his coffin revealed a Ramesses with rotting teeth and a large hooked nose which his sculptors appeared to have over-looked.
A ferocious military man with a ruthlessness to match, Ramesses’ greatest battle was fought against the Hittites (ancient peoples from Anatolia) near Aleppo in Syria in 1285 BC. His rule follows the religious upheaval fomented by Akhenaten and the boy-kingTutankhamun. He is the pharaoh most associated with the oppression of Hebrews, using them as slaves in the fields and to build his monuments.
From palaces to temples and notably the gargantuan rock temples of Abu Simbel, Ramesses II dominated the land from the Delta to Nubia with his presence in stone like no monarch before him. But he also had a tendency to claim the building contributions of others, such as Ramesses I and Set I, as his own. That said many of his self-glorification monuments such as the magnificent Ramesseum, the temples of Karnak and Abydos and parts of the temple of Luxor are still with us to admire and wonder at their achievement.
Ramesses’ reign is notable for its vast construction of effigy building and temples and marrying Nefertari, a woman he adored and who descended from Egypt’s despised enemy the Hittites. His rule also presided over the beginning of the dissolution of the Egyptian Empire in the 12th century BC. An ironic twist being that for all his opulent buildings showcasing his existence, Ramesses’ body had to be hastily removed from the Valley of the Kings to save it from robbery.
Cleopatra (VII) (reign 51-30 BC)
The most famous member of the Ptolemaic dynasty was Cleopatra VII, simply known as Cleopatra. Born in Alexandria (Early 69 BC) and of Macedonian ancestry, the Greek-Egyptian queen was successively the consort of Rome’s statesman and dictator, Julius Caesar, and after his assassination became the lover of Roman general Mark Anthony, having children with both of them.
Reign and Legacy
According to Saint Chrysostom, Cleopatra was ‘exceedingly beautiful’ with the ‘sweetest voice’. But these flattering observations were written a century after the Egyptian queen’s death. Whatever her actual physical attributes – most of the portraits and statues of her were destroyed - she was certainly wily and prepared to use her sex for political leverage. As one historian wrote ‘she never neglected the possibilities of bribery, combined with an occasional assassination’. Cleopatra’s contemporaries were very much taken by her as she was witty and an accomplished linguist (her native language was Koine Greek) and capable of conversing with Egyptians, Ethiopians, Hebrews, Arabs and Syrians.
Shakespeare and classical paintings have contributed to the kind of romantic mythology linked to Cleopatra that pervades popular culture today and reinforced through movies and plays. But one harsher interpretation, given the queen’s involvement in the death of her two brothers and sister, and the execution of an Armenian king she held captive, could also see her meriting the title of ‘murderess’.
A master strategist in politics, her relationship with the middle-aged statesman and general (later dictator) Julius Caesar, gave her the backing of his armies to install her as ruler of Egypt. Perhaps somewhat unsettling for Caesar was the fact Cleopatra was married to her younger half-brother Ptolemy XIV, who was also the joint ruler of Egypt.
Cleopatra gave birth to a son she declared was Caesar’s and named him Caesarion even though Caesar never admitted paternity. Shortly after Caesar’s assassination outside the Theatre of Pompey in Rome on the Ides of March 44BC, Cleopatra is alleged to have murdered her brother with poison to replace him with her own son as co-ruler.
The love-match between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, a Roman politician and general has become the most written of all love affairs, making them perhaps the greatest lovers in history. Having first met in Syria when Cleopatra sailed in splendour to meet him, the sophisticated Egyptian queen found herself falling in love with Anthony, a rough and ready soldier.
Anthony’s enemies in Rome, notably Octavian (later known as Augustus) saw the 2nd triumvirate between Anthony, Octavian and Roman general Lepidus, become strained. Octavian (Caesar’s adopted son) despised Cleopatra and Anthony for their affair which he saw as insulting his sister, Octavia, who was married to Anthony. When Octavia was rejected for Cleopatra, Octavian declared war on the lovers.
In what has become famously known as a tale of two suicides, Anthony’s tragic demise before Cleopatra's, taking his life, after a disastrous battle against Octavian’s army, has parallels with Shakespeare’s legendary tale ‘Romeo & Juliet’. After believing Cleopatra had killed herself, Antony thrust a sword into himself but survived to die in Cleopatra’s arms. Contrary to the popular legend, the Egyptian queen didn’t immediately clasp a poisonous asp to her bosom, but attended Anthony’s funeral and lived some time afterwards before committing suicide.