Late New Kingdom: Ancient Egypt’s Golden Age (Dynasties 19 and 20)
The Late New Kingdom was a time of great prosperity and peace for Egypt. This is recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster between 1200 BC – 755 BC. It was also a period of expansion, although the Egyptians were not without their rivals in the region. Which included the Hittites and Libyans during this period. It was also a time of ambitious building projects and revival of great artistic styles. Egypt’s religion had been consistently polytheistic, but a brief time during Akhenaten’s reign saw the worship of a single god in the form of Aten. The 18th Dynasty ended long before the death of Horemheb, its last pharaoh. The royal family lineage of the 18th died along with Tutankhamen, who perished when he contracted gangrene after breaking his leg.
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Horemheb, the last Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom, died without an heir and handed the throne to his vizier Paramessu. Upon ascending the throne, this military man became Ramesses I who began Egypt’s 19th Dynasty. He reigned only one year due to his old age and was succeeded by his son Seti I after his death.
Seti I is credited with restoring traditional temples that were partially destroyed by Akhenaten when he established the monotheistic worship of the god Aten. He also built temples in Memphis, Thebes, Abydos, and Heliopolis, and continued the construction of the ambitious Great Hypostyle Hall. These projects were made possible because of his mining and quarrying in the Sinai. Raids against the Nubians who provided cheap labor also contributed. His reign was marked by skirmishes with the Hittites and the first appearance of nomadic Libyan tribes which will later play a considerable part in the formation of the Third Intermediate Period.
He was followed by Ramesses II, who went to war against the Hittites for territories in the Levant. The Battle of Qadesh with the Hittites led by King Muwatalli II resulted in a truce between the Hittites and the Egyptians. Further treaties produced relative peace between two peoples. Ramesses II was then able to concentrate on dealing with the invading Libyan tribes from the west. He also undertook grand building projects and employed skilled craftsmen from the Hittites as a result of the peace agreement between the two regional powers. After his long reign (c 1279-1213 BC) his son, Merneptah succeeded him as pharaoh.
Several cities of Palestine were under Egypt’s rule during Merneptah’s reign. He was also famous for the stele with which he proclaimed his victory over the rebellious Canaanites. The Merneptah stele may have been the first instance when the word ‘Israel’ was mentioned in an Egyptian inscription. The Libyans who allied themselves with the Sea People were also making headway in their invasion of the Nile Delta. However, they were defeated by Merneptah and the succeeding years of his reign were peaceful. The captured people, however, were settled in the Nile Delta and through assimilation, they became powerful in the Egyptian political sphere.
Merneptah was followed by three more kings and one queen, Twosret or Tausret, who became one of Egypt’s few female rulers. She died without an heir and was succeeded by Sethnakht, who reigned for only two years. He started Egypt’s 20th Dynasty and was succeeded by his son, Ramesses III. He has constant battles with the Libyans, but a greater threat loomed in the Mediterranean with the victories of the Sea Peoples. The Hittite kingdom had been destroyed by the Sea Peoples, and they turned towards Egypt as their next conquest. Ramesses was prepared, and he successfully repelled their invasion. He was followed by eight more pharaohs (all named Ramesses) including Ramesses XI, who was the 20th Dynasty’s last king.
Third Intermediate Period (Dynasties 21 and 22)
By the time of Ramesses XI’s death, the kingdom’s funds had been depleted by numerous military campaigns. Droughts, low Nile floods, and civil unrest also affected the kingdom. Egypt was also a divided country at that time as the 21st Dynasty kings ruled in Tanis in the Nile Delta while the religious center was ruled by the high priests of Amun in Thebes.
The 21st Dynasty was established by Smendes I whose origin was unclear. He may have been related to the High Priests of Amun and married to Tentamun, a daughter of Ramesses XI. His reign, as well as his successor’s, were uneventful. A pharaoh of the 21st Dynasty, Siamun, may have given his daughter in marriage to Solomon. This signified the weakened state of Egypt in the region as royal princesses were never permitted to marry the ruler of neighboring kingdoms (although Pharaoh can and had married foreign princesses).
The Third Intermediate Period was marked by a weakened economy, fragmented society, and the increase of immigration by Libyan tribes. Libyans who were captured in the past wars initiated by the 19th and 20th Dynasties, as well as those who have immigrated in the Nile Delta, increased in number. These immigrants also consolidated power through intermarriage with Egyptian royal families from Lower Egypt and the high priests of Upper Egypt. Shoshenq I, the chieftain of a Libyan tribe called Meshwesh, had his own son Osorkon I marry Maatkara, the daughter of Pharaoh Psusennes II, making the transition from an exclusive Egyptian rule to a Libyan rule easy.
Shoshenq I (the Biblical Egyptian king Shishak) modified the function of the theocracy, reducing the regular consultations in policy-making and reestablishing central authority under the king. For the first time in many years, Egypt was once again unified, and he reasserted Egypt’s rule in the Levant. His inscriptions in Karnak record his expeditions in Israel and Judah. He died shortly afterward, and the succeeding kings of the 22nd Dynasties were not as effective as Shoshenq was.
The independence and growing power of the high priests of Amun threatened the unity of Egypt as the priesthood once again became hereditary. The decentralization of the government continued, and the succeeding pharaohs’ authority weakened. The Neo-Assyrian Empire under Shalmaneser V was a regional threat at that time. This external threat plus the weakening of the pharaohs’ rule ended the Libyan reign in Egypt. Osorkon IV, Egypt’s last Libyan king, may have been king So mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 17:4).
Van Dijk, Jacobus. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Ian Shaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 285-296
Taylor, John. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Ian Shaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 324-345.
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