A History Of Ancient Egypt From The Pre-dynastic Through The Roman Period

Ancient Egypt, Part Two


Robert Guisepi, 2004

The Valley of the Nile


The 13th Dynasty was a time of weak rulers—50 or 60 in 150 years. The Second Intermediate period (14th-17th dynasties) was again a time of divided rule in Egypt. The Hyksos, foreign invaders from western Asia, entered the land and set themselves up as rulers in their own right. This had a lasting impact on the land, because the Hyksos brought to Egypt new technology and, at the same time, gave the Egyptians a broader view of their place in the Mediterranean world. Once again, however, the reunification of Egypt came from Thebes, the foreigners were expelled, and a single kingship was established. The New Kingdom, beginning with the 18th Dynasty, came to be a period of great power, wealth, and influence exemplified by extensive foreign trade and conquest.

The kings of the 18th through the 20th dynasties were great builders of religious architecture. With the capital reestablished at Thebes, special attention was paid to the local god Amon, who became the most important deity in Egypt. The temple complex at Al Karnak, the cult center of Amon, was added to by virtually every ruler in the New Kingdom, resulting in one of the most impressive religious structures in history. Gigantic pylon gateways, colonnaded courts, and many-columned halls decorated with obelisks and statues created an impressive display directly attributable to the power of the king and the state.

On the west bank, near the necropolis of Thebes, temples for the funerary cult of the kings were built. During the New Kingdom the bodies of the rulers were buried in rock-cut tombs in the arid Valley of the Kings, with the mortuary temples at some distance outside the valley. Of these, one of the first and most unusual was the mortuary temple (circa 1478 BC) of Hatshepsut at Dayr al Baḩrî, built by the royal architect Senemut (died about 1482 BC). Situated against the Nile cliffs next to the 11th Dynasty temple of Mentuhotep II, and probably inspired by it, the temple is a vast terraced structure with numerous shrines to the gods and reliefs depicting Hatshepsut’s accomplishments. Other kings did not follow her precedent; they built their temples at the edge of the cultivated land, away from the cliffside.

The rock-cut tombs were dug deep into the cliffsides of the Valley of the Kings in an effort—not always successful—to conceal the resting places of the royal mummies. The long descending passageways, stairs, and chambers were decorated in relief and painting with scenes from religious texts intended to protect and aid the spirit in the next life.

In the 19th Dynasty, Ramses II, one of the greatest builders of the New Kingdom, created the gigantic rock-cut temple of Abű Simbel in Nubia to the south. Hewn into the mountainside, with four colossal figures of the king in front, it was saved between 1964 and 1968 from immersion beneath the waters of the new Aswân High Dam and halls of the entire temple were cut out of the mountain and moved to a higher location.

As in all periods, domestic and palace architecture was of perishable mud brick. Enough remains have been preserved, however, to convey an idea of well-planned multiroomed palaces with painted floors, walls, and ceilings. Houses for the upper classes were arranged like small estates, with residential and service buildings in an enclosed compound. Examples of the modest workers’ dwellings can even be found, clustered together in villages very much like those of modern Egypt.

The art of sculpture in the New Kingdom reached a new height. The severe stylization of the Old Kingdom and the bitter realism of the Middle Kingdom were replaced with a courtly style combining a sense of nobility with a careful attention to delicate detail. Begun in the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, this style reached a maturity in the time of Amenhotep III that was never again equaled in Egypt. Portraits of rulers were imbued with grace and sensitivity, as were depictions of the courtiers.

The art of the time of Akhenaton, son of Amenhotep III, reflects the religious revolution this king set into motion. Akhenaton worshiped Aton, the sun god, and he believed art should have a new direction. Early in his reign a realism bordering on caricature was employed, but this developed into a style with a subtle beauty and a deep sense of feeling, qualities embodied in the painted limestone head (circa 1365 BC, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) of Nefertiti, Akhenaton’s queen.

While relief carving was used during the New Kingdom principally for the decoration of religious structures, the art of painting came to dominate the decoration of private tombs. The necropolis at Thebes is a rich source of information on the slowly changing artistic tradition as well as of vivid illustrations of life at the time.

The medium of painting made possible a wider range of expression than sculpture, allowing the artist to create colorful tableaus of life on the Nile. Officials are shown inspecting the exotic tribute brought to Egypt from all parts of the known world. The crafts of the royal workshops are depicted in meticulous detail, illustrating the production of all manner of objects, from massive sculptures to delicate jewelry. Funerary rites are illustrated from the procession to the tomb to the final prayers for the spirit. One of the standard elements in Theban tomb painting, known as early as the Old Kingdom, is a representation of the deceased hunting and fishing in the papyrus marshes, pastimes he would have wanted to enjoy throughout eternity.

Decorative Arts

The decorative arts of the New Kingdom are equal to the sculpture and painting in their high level of accomplishment. Ordinary objects for the use of the court and the nobility were exquisitely designed and made with great care. Nowhere is this better shown than in the funerary items from the tomb (discovered in 1922) of Tutankhamun, in which rich materials—alabaster, ebony, gold, ivory, and semiprecious stones—were combined in objects of consummate artistry. Even the pottery of the New Kingdom partakes of this rich love of decoration, with brilliantly painted surfaces employing mainly floral motifs. From the evidence of tomb paintings and the decorative arts, the Egyptians of this time took particular delight in a richly colorful life.


As may be expected from earlier history, the strong kings of the 18th and 19th dynasties and the first part of the 20th Dynasty were succeeded by weak rulers who allowed the country to fall from their grasp. Ramses III, the last powerful ruler of the 20th Dynasty, built an immense mortuary temple (1198-1167 BC) on the west bank of the Nile at Medinet Habu, near Thebes, which remains one of the best preserved today. A palace adjoined the temple; it is clear that the king visited and used it during his lifetime. Ramses III had to organize the defense of Egypt from foreign invasion; the battles of these campaigns are vividly recorded in reliefs on the temple walls.

The 21st through 24th dynasties are considered the Third Intermediate period, a span of more than 350 years, with rulers at Sais, Tanis, and Bubastis in the Nile delta. The rulers of the 25th Dynasty who reunited Egypt were foreigners from Kush in the Sudan; they worshiped Egyptian gods, however, and practiced Egyptian customs in the belief that it was their duty to restore Egypt to glory. These Kushite kings refurbished temples and built new structures to the gods. They incorporated in their names those of famous kings of the past, and their art imitated scenes and motifs from earlier monuments. The practice of pyramid burial was revived in their homeland of Kush. During their reign the Assyrians invaded Egypt and eventually put an end to Kushite domination.

The Assyrians were not able to hold the country; the appointed vassals of the Assyrians created a new native dynasty at Sais and ruled for nearly 140 years. The Saites carried on the restoration of tradition begun by the Kushites, and the arts flourished. Sculpture and bronze casting became major industries; contacts were made with the Greeks, some of whom served in the Egyptian army as mercenaries. A Jewish colony was even established as far south as Aswân, testifying to contact by the Saite kings with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The art of the 26th Dynasty used many ancient forms, often literally copying motifs from earlier monuments. An interest in perceptive portraiture begun in the 25th Dynasty was continued, sometimes with splendid results.

The 26th Dynasty ended with the invasion by the Persian Empire and, except for brief periods, Egypt was never again completely free from foreign domination. The conquest of the country by Alexander the Great in 332 BC and by the Romans in 30 BC brought Egypt into the classical world, but the ancient artistic traditions persisted. Alexander and his successors were depicted on the walls of temples as Egyptian kings in an Egyptian style of relief carving. Temples were built in the Ptolemaic period (the dynasty founded by Alexander) and in the Roman period that echoed traditional Egyptian styles in architecture.

Egyptian art also exerted a powerful influence on the cultures of the invaders. Early Greek artists acknowledged a debt to Egypt in the development of their own styles. The Romans so loved Egyptian art that they carried off to their homeland countless examples and even had imitations of Egyptian sculpture carved by Roman artists. The influence of Egyptian art and an interest in Egyptian antiquity have lasted to the present day.  For further information on Egyptian rulers, see biographies of those whose names are not followed by dates.

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