Friday, January 16, 2009

Egypt's Golden Empire

Over 3,500 years ago, Rome was no more than a soggy marsh and the Acropolis was just an empty rock, but Egypt was on the brink of its greatest age - the New Kingdom.

PART ONE - The Warrior Pharaohs

In 1560 BC, Egypt was divided into two. Its very existence was threatened from both north and south. But one family was determined to restore Egypt to its former glory. One by one, the King of Thebes and his two sons, Kamose and Ahmose, fought the Hyksos, who occupied northern Egypt. Both the King and Kamose died trying.

Ahmose was more successful, driving the Hyksos out of the north before attacking the Nubians to the south. By the time he died, he had united Egypt and created the beginnings of a new empire. In 1479 BC, around 50 years after Ahmose's death, Egypt was again in turmoil. Against all Egyptian traditions and beliefs, the pharaoh was a woman. Hatshepsut was stepmother to the rightful king, Tuthmosis III, but had stolen his throne and was ruling in his place.

Hatshepsut needed to use all her cunning to secure her position. She used images on temple walls to claim that her father had publicly appointed her as pharaoh. Later on, she sent the army - now led by Tuthmosis III - on a trade expedition to Punt, the first in over 500 years.

The success of the mission and the exotic riches it brought back to Egypt cemented her reputation. Her throne was safe. After waiting more than 20 years, Tuthmosis III finally gained the throne. He was keen to expand Egypt's borders and build an empire.

A daring victory at Megiddo brought him fame and enormous riches. These were increased greatly by control of the Nubian gold mines. By the end of his reign, Egypt controlled a vast empire of enormous wealth.

PART TWO - Pharaohs of the Sun

When Amenhotep III became pharaoh in 1390 BC, Egypt controlled a vast empire and was rich, respected and free. But it faced the challenge of powerful new rivals. Rather than fighting these rivals, as his predecessors had done, Amenhotep III talked to them. The Amarna letters were small stone tablets - correspondence between the pharaoh and the leaders of rival nations. Instead of war, Egypt was now using diplomacy.

In its diplomacy, Egypt had one huge advantage. Its enormous quantities of gold made it the most valuable ally in the ancient world. Foreign kings often asked Amenhotep for gold. The pharaoh was clever: although he gave them gold, he always left them wanting more. Amenhotep also used this wealth to start an extensive building program, which included enormous temples dedicated to himself and his chief queen, Tiy.

However, he was also growing tired of the power of the priests, particularly those of the chief god, Amen-Re. To keep the priests in their place, he began to pay attention to a minor god, Aten. When he died, his son became pharaoh and took this religious change to extremes. He declared that Egypt would worship only one god, Aten, and closed down all the temples to Amen-Re.

The pharaoh then changed his name to Akenhaten and ordered a brand new capital city to be built at Amarna. Once completed, he packed up the city of Thebes and moved out. After the death of his beloved wife, Nefertiti, Akenhaten ordered the destruction of all references to Amen-Re. He also lost touch with the outside world, ignoring the pleas of his people and allies and almost destroying Egypt's empire.

When Akenhaten died, his heir inherited an empire on the brink of disaster. Tutankhamen, the new pharaoh, was just nine years old, so priests and courtiers ruled behind the scenes. They reinstated Egypt's traditional gods and acted as if Akenhaten had never ruled. When Tutankhamen turned 19, he was old enough to rule for himself. The same year, he suddenly died in mysterious circumstances and was buried with the heretical remains of his father's reign.

PART THREE - The Last Great Pharaoh

The reign of Ramesses II - known also as Ramesses the Great - marked the high point of the New Kingdom and the high point of Egyptian culture. But like any highpoint, it was all downhill as the New Kingdom gradually fell into ruin.

When Ramesses came to the throne, Egypt was threatened by the Hittites. They soon invaded and took the town of Kadesh. Ramesses had no option but to fight. Tall and red-headed, Ramesses was a distinctive and powerful figure. He was lucky to win the Battle of Kadesh, but wanted his victory to seem more impressive. He carved stories on temple walls that told his people how, single-handed, he had defeated the enemy. Throughout his reign he would use propaganda to build up his reputation.

Ramesses also used Egypt's wealth to expand or rebuild its temples, including those at Luxor and Karnak. He also constructed a brand new capital, built in his honor - Per Ramesses. But his greatest buildings were two enormous temples, carved out of the mountains of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. The first was for his dead wife, Nefertari, while the other was for him.

Ramesses had a huge number of children - possibly around 80 sons and 60 daughters. He outlived almost all of his children, reigning for a remarkable 67 years and only dying at the grand old age of 93. As most subjects had been born within the lifetime of this worshipped pharaoh many thought his death marked the end of Egypt. In some ways, they were right. The New Kingdom would never again see the glory days of Ramesses the Great. Within 150 years the golden age of Egypt was over for good.

More documentaries like this...

The Vanished City of the Pharaoh

The Dark Lords of Hattusha

The Lost Pyramids of Caral

Get the whole 'Empires' box set on DVD...

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