This era has been called "Egypt’s Empire", when Egyptian armies reached and crossed the river Euphrates in the north and marched deep into Nubia. The rulers of the Eighteenth Dynasty (1550–1295 b.c.e.) pursued a policy of vigorous expansion, creating an empire that the pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty (1295–1186 b.c.e.) were able to sustain.
Its focus was commercial rather than military, designed to facilitate control of trade routes and to extract the resources of conquered territories. Native princes ruled under the supervision of Egyptian officials; their sons were taken to Egypt to be raised in the royal household and their daughters to the royal harem.
Nubian gold, the timber and metals of Syria-Palestine, Aegean trade, and regular tribute sustained the Nineteenth Dynasty. After the end of the weaker Twentieth Dynasty, Egypt slowly declined into its long twilight.
In the last phase of the Second Intermediate Period (1650–1550 b.c.e.), a native Egyptian dynasty ruled from Thebes. By 1550 b.c.e. their inﬂ uence extended from Qis in Middle Egypt to the First Cataract: The Hyksos prince of Avaris held sway north of Qis, and a native Nubian dynasty ruled from Kerma at the Third Cataract.
In a replay of the origins of the Middle Kingdom, the foundations of the New Kingdom were laid by Theban rulers, notably Kamose (1555–50 b.c.e.) and his brother Ahmose (1550–25 b.c.e.), the latter recognized as first king of the Eighteenth Dynasty. It was Kamose who complained that his rule meant nothing while he was "bound to an Asiatic and a Nubian".
He pushed as far south as the Second Cataract and set up the new government office of viceroy of Nubia, "the King’s Son of Kush". He began a series of campaigns against the Hyksos that ended their rule at Avaris and united Egypt once more. Ahmose strengthened Egypt’s borders in Nubia and Syria and consolidated his rule at home.
The Eighteenth Dynasty is best seen through several remarkable pharaohs. Thutmose I (1504–1492 b.c.e.), a nonroyal, succeeded Amenhotep I without dynastic change. In his short reign a series of successful forays into Nubia and Syria deﬁ ned Egypt’s early empire.
Thutmose I enlarged and endowed the temple of Amun at Karnak, practices continued by his successors that would lead to the wealth and power of Amun’s priesthood rivaling that of the pharaoh. Thutmose II married his half sister, the famous Hatshepsut. His life was brief, and his young son by a concubine became Thutmose III (r. 1479–1427 b.c.e.).
For two years Hatshepsut, "Foremost of Noble Women", was content to be regent for her nephew, but she soon assumed royal trappings, even having herself portrayed as a male. Other women ruled in Egypt, but she is the best known, chiefly from her magnificent mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri.
A relief from this temple shows the circumstances of her divine birth where the god Amun visits her mother, Queen Ahmose. Her tomb is in the Valley of the Kings, the preferred burial place of New Kingdom pharaohs.
After her death Thutmose III came into his inheritance. In his 32 years of sole rule he proved an energetic and adept military leader, advancing to the Fifth Cataract in Nubia. He made 17 campaigns into Syria, even crossing the Euphrates.
He captured the strategic cities of Joppa and Megiddo and brought the city of Kadesh firmly under Egyptian domination. These wars were intended for plunder, tribute, and future peaceful trade, and Thutmose III’s incessant activity ensured Egypt’s prosperity.
His building activities extended throughout Egypt. His tomb in the Valley of the Kings contains the complete set of vignettes and accompanying text of the Book of What Is in the Underworld, recounting the night journey of the sun god, Ra.
Amenhotep II (1427–1400 b.c.e.) followed his energetic father into Syria and Nubia. These campaigns of his first 10 years mark the end of the consolidation of Egypt’s empire. The reign of Thutmose IV began the association of the king with the sun god, Ra, and the joining of Ra with Amun as the supreme deity AmunRa.
Also royal women came to prominence in the roles of "king's mother" and "great royal wife". The Eighteenth Dynasty reached its high point in the magnificent opulence of Amenhotep III, who reigned for almost 40 peaceful and prosperous years. Two large statues of this king stand forlornly beside the tourist road to the Valley of the Kings, all that survives of his mortuary temple.
Every class of Egyptians appears to have prospered, and Amenhotep III was later revered as a fertility god. The cult of the sun god increased at Thebes and devotion centered on the, aten, the sun disc or sphere, as the giver of life.
Amenhotep III was followed by his second son, Amenhotep IV (1352–36 b.c.e.). Initially he ruled from Thebes and did not disrupt traditional religious life. The cult of the Sun reached its climax in his reign: The aten was depicted with its rays ending in hands holding the ankh, symbol of life.
In year five of his reign he abruptly ordered the building of a capital at a site in Middle Egypt, el-Amarna, called Akhetaten, "Horizon of the Aten", where the court moved in year nine. His name change to Akhenaten, "servant of the Aten", signaled his complete rejection of the other gods, notably Amun.
Akhenaten’s famous wife, Nefertiti, played an equal role with her husband. The Amarna idyll lasted only until his death in 1336 b.c.e. The boy-king Tutankhaten was moved to the ancient capital at Memphis, and his name changed to Tutankhamun, a clear return to the old ways and gods of Egypt, notably Amun.
Enormous effort was made to expunge the Amarna period from Egypt’s history and to obliterate Akhenaten’s memory. Tutankhamun died after 10 years, probably of natural causes. Paradoxically, this obscure teenager is the best known of Egypt’s kings due to the discovery of his intact tomb in 1922. The reigns of the nonroyal Ay and Horemheb brought the Eighteenth Dynasty to an end.
Ramses I, a close adviser and military officer, succeeded Horemheb. He was the founder of the Nineteenth Dynasty (1295–1186 b.c.e.). This dynasty is defined by the 67-year reign of his grandson Ramses II (1279–12 b.c.e.).
Ramses (born of Ra) was a larger-than-life figure who filled Egypt with his statues, recorded his military campaigns on temple walls, and built on a scale of unparalleled magnificence. His huge mortuary temple, the Ramesseum, stands on the West Bank at Thebes.
His greatest monument is his temple carved into the mountainous cliffs at Abu Simbel above the Second Cataract. It was saved from the rising waters of Lake Nasser during the 1960s by an international effort and, with Giza and Karnak, remains a prime archaeological site. Two enormous statues of Ramses flank the entrance.
Ramses built a residence at Piramesse in the Delta where his family came from. The events of the biblical Exodus are traditionally associated with him, without much evidence. His first and beloved "great royal wife" was Nefertari, whose magnificent tomb in the Valley of the Queens has been carefully restored.
Father of more than 100 sons and daughters, several of his sons by his chief wives held high positions. He died around the age of 92 and was buried in the Valley of the Kings. Ramses’s mummy remains in good condition in the Cairo Museum.
He outlived 12 of his sons and was succeeded by the 13th, Merneptah, already in his 60s. In his 10-year reign Merneptah subdued the Libyans and sent military expeditions to Nubia and Palestine. After Merneptah a disputed succession ushered in the last four short reigns of the Nineteenth Dynasty ending with Queen Twosret.
The origins of the Twentieth Dynasty (1186–1069 b.c.e.) remain confused: From its second pharaoh, Ramses III, all its rulers were named Ramses. Ramses III reigned for 31 years and was the last powerful pharaoh. He successfully prevented the Sea Peoples from entering Egypt but ruled an Egypt whose influence abroad had diminished.
At home the centuries-old policy of lavishing endowments on the major temples, particularly that of Amun-Ra at Karnak, led to a priesthood whose political and economic power rivaled that of the pharaoh. During the 28-year reign of the last pharaoh, Ramses XI, the high priest of Amun at Karnak, Herihor, adopted some royal titles and was virtual ruler of Upper Egypt.
Royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings were pillaged and the royal envoy to the ruler of Byblos, Wenamun, was received with scant courtesy. The power of Amun-Ra had finally eclipsed that of the pharaohs, and Egypt’s imperial age slid into decline and civil discord.