During the New Kingdom, Egypt became a great empire of the ancient Near East. Its southern borders reached the Fourth Cataract in Nubia, and to modern-day Syria in the north. The economy flourished to an astounding degree, and most of the most famous and impressive surviving ancient Egyptian monuments date to this period.
The Eighteenth Dynasty (c.1550–1295 BC) began with Ahmose II, who expelled the Hyksos, a West Semitic people who ruled most of Egypt during the preceding period. Most of the kings of the early New Kingdom pursued an aggressive foreign policy in response. The acquired wealth was used to undertake many construction projects everywhere in Egypt, particularly in Karnak Temple in Luxor, the temple of the most important god of Thebes, Amun. Most of the kings of this dynasty were buried in the now-famous Valley of the Kings.
Art, architecture, and the nation’s economy reached new heights during the reign of Hatshepsut. Her husband, Thutmose II had unfortunately not reigned for long, and his son by another wife, Thutmose III, was still too young to rule. Then-Great Royal Wife Hatshepsut, possibly in order to secure the royal line, proclaimed herself king, and reigned alongside her stepson. She developed a royal ideology of kingship and its link with Amun to legitimize her reign. This ideology defined kingship for the remainder of the New Kingdom, and left a deep mark on the Theban geographical, religious, and political landscape.
Thutmose III proved to be a most capable ruler. During his reign, Egypt’s borders reached their furthest extent. His monuments span the length of the Nile Valley, including Nubia, and he left as big a mark on Karnak Temple as Hatshepsut did. Peace was eventually achieved during the reign of his son, Amenhotep II. Peace and international trade bore their fruit during the reign of Amenhotep III in particular. Few kings can match the quality, scale, and quantity of his construction projects. He built many monuments across Egypt and Nubia, including half of Luxor Temple as it survives today.
His son, Amenhotep IV, changed his name to Akhenaten, and proclaimed that there was only one god: Aten, which was also the ancient Egyptian word for the sun-disk in the sky. His reign saw other revolutionary changes in royal ideology, art, architecture, and language. He neglected Egypt’s foreign affairs, however, and by the end of his reign, Egypt’s territories in the Levant (the area of Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria) were lost.
A turbulent period followed, with Horemheb, previously a general, eventually ascending the throne. He completed the return to normalcy, and appointed his vizier and general, Paramessu, as his successor. His ascension to the throne, as Ramesses I, marks the beginning of the Nineteenth Dynasty (c.1295–1186 BC). His son Sety I succeeded him, and ushered into an era of prosperity. He also undertook many campaigns, most importantly against the Hittites, who had arisen as a new power had arisen in the Ancient Near East. He reconquered much of Egypt’s lost territories in the Levant.
His son, Ramesses II, known as the Great, was one of the most successful monarchs in ancient Egyptian history. Over the course of his long reign, he fought, and achieved peace with the Hittites, and left a bigger mark on Egypt’s monumental landscape than any other king. His son, Merenptah, fended off a large attack by the so-called Sea People, after which the Nineteenth Dynasty went into decline.
With King Sethnakht, the founder of the Twentieth Dynasty (c.1186–1069 BC), order returned to the country. His son, Ramesses III, was the last great warrior-Pharaoh of the New Kingdom, after whose reign the country steadily declined further and further, until it split in two, with the next Dynasty only effectively ruling Lower Egypt.