Ancient History & Civilisation

THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS, LUXOR TEMPLE, THE COLOSSI OF Memnon, and the gold mask of Tutankhamun—the dazzling cultural achievements of ancient Thebes conjure up a lost world of breathtaking opulence and artistic patronage on a lavish scale. Created in the space of eight generations, these towering monuments and dazzling treasures are the legacy of a single royal line, the Eighteenth Dynasty, that ruled over the Nile Valley for two centuries. Its period in power represents the high-water mark of pharaonic civilization, when Egypt’s confidence and sense of its own destiny seemed to know no bounds.

Casting off the yoke of foreign domination, King Ahmose and his descendants promulgated the cult of monarchy with a renewed vigor. If divine kingship was the drama, Thebes was the stage. With the wealth created by foreign trade and wars of conquest, this modest provincial town in Upper Egypt was transformed into the religious and royal capital of an empire, a “hundred-gated” city with obelisks, temples, and giant statues dominating the skyline in all directions. From its palaces and offices, courtiers and bureaucrats governed the king’s realm with ruthless efficiency, controlling every aspect of people’s lives and livelihoods. While the king played out the great ceremonies of state, his people continued to labor in the fields, their lot little changed. In the cloistered world of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the only revolutions involved the institution of kingship itself. Although their reigns marked abrupt departures from accustomed practice, neither the female king Hatshepsut nor the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten was able to overturn centuries of accumulated tradition.

Part III charts the rise and fall, the triumph and tragedy, of the Eighteenth Dynasty, from national renewal to decadence and decay. It describes how, with dynamic and determined leadership, and no small measure of self-belief, a band of Theban loyalists succeeded against all odds in expelling the hated Hyksos invaders and reunifying the Nile Valley. Shaking off the dishonor of foreign rule, Egypt extended its reach to emerge as a great imperial power, controlling a territory that stretched more than two thousand miles. Breaking out of their former introspection, the pharaohs discovered a role for themselves on the world stage. Foreign emissaries from distant lands brought exotic tribute to the royal court, while the Egyptian army swept all before it in the hills and plains of the Near East. In the south, the systematic colonization and exploitation of Nubia gave Egypt mineral wealth to match its military might, and provided the royal workshops with the raw materials to manufacture sumptuous and sophisticated works of art. It was truly a golden age.

Yet the steady enhancement of royal authority on top of so much power and prosperity proved disastrous. When a ruler with a penchant for radical theology decided to push the godlike status of the monarchy to its logical extreme, Egypt was turned upside down as hallowed cults and customs were swept away in an orgy of autocratic and puritanical fervor. Only the death of the heretic king and the swift maneuverings of counterrevolutionaries ensured a return to the old ways and a more stable regime. But in the process, the Eighteenth Dynasty itself withered and died, having been weakened and discredited. Its passing paved the way for a new imperial order, one based not upon fine gold but upon cold bronze.



THE LIBERATION OF EGYPT FROM HYKSOS RULE WOULD BE REMEMBERED by later generations as a moment of national renewal, of cultural renaissance, the dawn of a new age. The kings who led the fight for Egyptian independence would be regarded as founders and unifiers on a par with Menes, the first ruler of Egypt, and the great Mentuhotep, victor in the country’s protracted civil war. Egyptologists, too, share this view of the struggle between the indigenous Egyptians and their Asiatic overlords. The expulsion of the Hyksos signals the beginning of the New Kingdom, that most glorious of eras in the long history of ancient Egypt.

But that was not how it felt at the time. King Kamose’s lament on the state of his country was heartfelt. In 1541, hemmed in between the Hyksos in the north and the Kushites in the south, Egypt as an autonomous territory occupied barely a third of the area that the great kings of the Twelfth Dynasty had controlled. For many Egyptians, even within the Theban heartland, the status quo did not seem such a bad option. After all, collaboration with the Hyksos ruler in Hutwaret had its benefits: the Thebans were allowed to cultivate fields and to pasture herds in lands under Hyksos control, and receive supplies of animal fodder from the same region, in return for taxes paid to their foreign masters. Kamose’s own officials are reported to have told him that they were happy with this relationship. While this may be a classic piece of royal propaganda, designed to portray the king as a resolute and decisive leader in the face of cowardly and complacent officials, it probably contains more than a grain of truth. The Hyksos had brought technological innovations to Egypt (not least the horse and chariot), opened up the country to Mediterranean commerce on a grand scale, and shown themselves every bit as adept at administration as the native Egyptians. A policy of peaceful coexistence would certainly have been the easy option. But it held little attraction for a man and a dynasty with ambitions to recapture the glories of the past. For a proud Theban, foreign occupation of any part of the beloved land was anathema, and Kamose expressed his personal determination in the clearest possible terms: “My wish,” he told his closest lieutenants, “is to rescue Egypt.”1

Before Egypt could be said to have been “rescued,” however, there were the small matters of continued Hyksos occupation and a growing Kushite menace to deal with. The ruler of Kush had built up a formidable army with a sizeable cavalry, and would lose no opportunity to extend his writ. The raids on Nekheb a generation earlier had taught the Thebans a valuable lesson: securing their southern frontier was an essential prerequisite to engaging the northern enemy. Outnumbered by the Hyksos forces and with inferior military technology, they could ill afford to fight on two fronts simultaneously. The threat from Kush would have to be neutralized first. So in 1540, in only his second year on the throne, and after months of preparation, Kamose led his forces southward. Their immediate mission was to retake Wawat and secure it against Kushite attack, thereby creating a buffer zone on the Thebans’ southern flank. Moving through the sparsely populated stretch of valley south of Abu, they seem to have encountered little if any resistance. As they reached the foot of the second cataract, their goal loomed into view: the fortress of Buhen. After serving as one of the main nerve centers of Egyptian military occupation throughout much of the Middle Kingdom, Buhen had fallen easily under Kushite control in the following decades. The fort’s Egyptian inhabitants had all too readily switched sides, serving their Nubian masters as dutifully as they had the great kings of the Twelfth Dynasty. But once they saw a new Egyptian army massed in force on the horizon, they appear to have capitulated without a fight, rediscovering their erstwhile allegiance to the lord of the Two Lands. Welcomed as a conquering hero, Kamose oversaw the restoration of Buhen’s defenses and its rearmament as a vital forward garrison.

Strategic commander that he was, his vision extended beyond immediate defensive needs. Looking to the future and the long-term occupation of Nubia, he also reestablished Egyptian administration in the region. No king could rely on the vacillating loyalties of fortress commanders. A different mechanism would have to be found to ensure direct royal control of the conquered territories. Kamose’s solution was an administrative innovation that would characterize Egyptian control of Nubia for centuries to come. He appointed a trusted official, Teti, to be the first “king’s son” of conquered Nubia, a viceroy who would act on the king’s behalf and answer directly to his royal master for all Nubian affairs. With Teti firmly installed in the viceregal headquarters at Faras, Kamose and his forces returned to Egypt to prepare for battle with the Hyksos, an altogether more difficult and dangerous proposition.

Kamose’s strategy for his northern front was as much psychological as military. His calculation was that a policy of shock and awe directed against the Hyksos-supporting towns of Middle Egypt would have a profound effect on his opponents’ morale and soften them up for a final assault. In his own words,

I sailed downstream as a victor to drive out the Asiatics according to the command of Amun … my brave army in front of me like a blast of fire.2

His first target was the town of Nefrusi, which lay inside Hyksos territory just to the north of the regional administrative center of Khmun (modern el-Ashmunein). Nefrusi was governed by an Egyptian called Teti, son of Pepi. If Kamose’s forces could make an example of him, other collaborators might heed the message and desert to the Egyptian side. After maneuvering into position under cover of darkness, the Theban army struck Nefrusi at first light: “I was upon him like a hawk.… My army were like lions carrying off their prey.”3 Showing no mercy, Kamose watched while the town was ransacked, then ordered it to be razed to the ground. A similar fate was dealt the settlements of Hardai and Pershak a few days later. With towns throughout Middle Egypt lying in ruins, Hyksos hegemony in the region had been destroyed. Thebes was on the march.

Then an unexpected stroke of luck delivered Kamose a further propaganda coup. Building on the Thebans’ long experience and mastery of desert routes, honed in the days of civil war, Kamose had regular surveillance missions patrolling the tracks through the Western Desert, keeping a discreet watch over comings and goings, and reporting on any unusual movements. For their part, the Hyksos also relied on desert routes for trade with the kingdom of Kush. (Thebes might have been subject territory, but sending shipments of Nubian gold by river through the heartland of the resistance was simply too risky.) Hence the road between Sako (modern el-Qes) in Middle Egypt and the Kushite capital at Kerma via the Western Desert oases was a busy highway, carrying trade caravans and diplomatic messengers between north and south. One such envoy had the misfortune of being intercepted by Kamose’s patrol, just south of the oasis of Djesdjes (modern Bahariya). We can imagine the Thebans’ delight when they discovered that the messenger was carrying a letter from the Hyksos king to the new ruler of Kush. And the contents of the letter were nothing short of explosive:

From the hand of the ruler of Hutwaret. Aauserra, the son of Ra Apepi, greets the son of the ruler of Kush. Why do you ascend as ruler without letting me know? Have you noticed what Egypt has done against me? The ruler who is there, Kamose …, penetrates my territory even though I have not attacked him as he has you. He chooses these two lands in order to afflict them, my land and yours, and he has ravaged them. Come northward; do not flinch. Look, he is here in my grasp. There is no one who will stand up to you in Egypt. Look, I will not give him passage until you arrive. Then we shall divide up the towns of Egypt.4

Despite his pique at not being kept informed about the Kushite succession, Apepi was making an extraordinary offer to his Nubian ally: in return for military support, he would be willing to share Egypt—a classic case of divide and rule. The Thebans’ worst fears were well-founded. If they did not act, and soon, Egypt risked utter annihilation.

Kamose’s response was immediate and intuitive. Instead of killing the unfortunate messenger, he sent him back to Hutwaret with a message of his own for Apepi: “I will not leave you alone; I will not let you walk the earth without my bearing down upon you.”5To drive the point home, the messenger was also instructed to tell Apepi about Kamose’s recent attacks on towns in Middle Egypt. Not only were the Theban forces brave and determined, they were scoring victories in the Hyksos’s backyard. Apepi had fatally betrayed his own weakness by requesting Kushite support. Suddenly, the prospect of a Theban attack on Hutwaret itself seemed more plausible than ever.

If Kamose’s vivid personal account of the war is to be believed, he did indeed press home his advantage and attack the center of Hyksos rule. He boasted of reaching the outskirts of Hutwaret, drinking wine from Apepi’s vineyards, cutting down his trees, raping his women, and plundering his storeships full of produce from the Near East: “gold, lapis lazuli, silver, turquoise, bronze axes without number …, moringa oil, incense, fat, honey, willow, boxwood.”6 He claimed to have gotten within sight of the royal citadel itself—a building he contemptuously referred to as “the house of brave words”—where the Hyksos women “peeped out from the battlements … like baby mice inside their holes.”7 Lining up his naval forces in attack formation, Kamose launched an all-out assault on the Hyksos stronghold, but without apparent success. He made a brave face of this failed attempt, returning to Thebes in triumph at the head of his army. In time-honored fashion, he ordered that his heroic exploits be recorded for posterity on a series of great stelae, set up in the temple of Amun at Ipetsut. But Theban celebrations were short-lived, rudely curtailed by Kamose’s premature death a few months later in 1539. The cause of his untimely demise is not known. For all his bravery and bluster, his was not a victor’s burial. He was interred in a modest, ungilded coffin with two daggers by his side, his life’s work unfinished.

As if Kamose’s death were not devastating enough for the Egyptians, their sense of loss, frustration, and anxiety must have been compounded by the vagaries of the royal succession. Just three years earlier, Kamose had very likely been chosen as king in place of the heir apparent because he was of an age to carry on the fight that had claimed Seqenenra’s life. Now, with Kamose dead as well, the heir could not easily be passed over again … even though he was only a boy.

As Thebes waited for the new king, Ahmose, to come of age, ten long years passed in military stalemate. With Buhen in Egyptian hands, Kush was successfully held at bay. Apepi’s demoralized forces were in no position to launch an attack, but without a leader, neither were the Thebans. All they could do was sit tight and make preparations.


AFTER A DECADE OF ENFORCED INACTIVITY, EGYPT WAS CHAMPING AT the bit when Ahmose reached adulthood in 1529 and took his place at the head of his army. At last, the final push could begin. The best account comes from a man who was not merely an eyewitness but an active participant in the battle for Hutwaret. Ahmose, son of Abana, as his loyalist name suggests, was one of the Theban king’s most eager and devoted foot soldiers. His father before him had served in the Theban forces. Growing up in the town of Nekheb, a staunch ally of Thebes, Ahmose, son of Abana, would have absorbed loyalty to the Theban cause with his mother’s milk. Pursuing a military career, he first joined the marines on the ship Wild Bull. A few years later, he was transferred to another craft, theNorthern, which formed part of King Ahmose’s fleet for the initial siege of the Hyksos capital. While the Theban navy blockaded Hutwaret, preventing Hyksos forces from breaking out, the king led his army on a carefully planned advance through Middle Egypt toward the apex of the delta. Their first objective was both strategic and highly symbolic: the city of Memphis, traditional capital of Egypt since the foundation of the state. Next came an equally significant target: Iunu, cult center of the sun god Ra. It, too, fell with apparent ease. The Thebans could now claim to be a national army, one with divine support from the creator god.

Back at Hutwaret, Ahmose, son of Abana, joined a new warship, the Risen in Memphis, named to celebrate the fall of the capital. Spurred on by their comrades’ success, the marines launched a daring assault on the main Nile channel that flowed past the Hyksos citadel, killing several enemy soldiers in the process. The war of attrition seemed to be going Thebes’s way. Ahmose, son of Abana, was rewarded for his bravery with the gold of honor, Egypt’s highest military decoration—the first of seven such awards during his long and distinguished career.

A second marine assault had to be broken off when the king summoned his forces to join a fierce fight south of Hutwaret. As Theban land forces drew nearer their final objective, they were beginning to meet stiffer resistance. The final piece in King Ahmose’s strategy, before the all-out attack on Hutwaret could commence, was the capture of Tjaru, the border fortress that had proved such a vital element in homeland security during the Twelfth Dynasty. Three months after taking Iunu, and after a brief siege, Ahmose’s army captured the fort. Theban forces were now in a position to intercept any Hyksos retreat from Hutwaret. Apepi and his followers were caught in a trap.

Ahmose, son of Abana, with his wife and pet monkey  DR. WILLIAM MANLEY

With such a carefully planned series of moves brilliantly accomplished, the final outcome was never in doubt: “Hutwaret was plundered.”8 This laconic comment from Ahmose, son of Abana, summed up the Theban victory. For most of Hutwaret’s Asiatic inhabitants, death came quickly. For those who managed to escape the destruction of their city, Egyptian forces lay in wait at the border. A few Hyksos may have made it to the relative safety of Hyksos-controlled territory in Palestine, but King Ahmose had plans for them, too. Determined that there should be no hiding place for Egypt’s erstwhile oppressors (as he saw them), he led his army across the northern Sinai and laid siege to Sharuhen (modern Tell el-Ajjul), the main center of Hyksos political and commercial power in the Near East. For three years, Egyptian forces surrounded the city until it, too, surrendered. A loyal garrison was duly installed, as at Buhen, to secure the surrounding territory for the Egyptian king. And, just to make sure, a backup force was stationed at nearby Gaza, which had been renamed “the town the ruler seized,” just to rub it in. Ahmose’s victory was total. After a brief tour of coastal Palestine, during which he hacked up a few towns to intimidate the native inhabitants, the king returned in triumph to Egypt. The hated Asiatic had been driven out. National unity had been restored.

Expelling the Hyksos and securing Egypt’s northern frontier with a defensive buffer zone were a good start, but Ahmose knew that the country’s future prosperity would depend on more than just security. It needed renewed access to gold, and that meant large-scale reconquest and reoccupation of Nubia, especially the gold-bearing region south of the second cataract. This became the major strategic objective for the latter part of Ahmose’s reign. Buhen was already safely in Egyptian hands and was a useful forward base for operations, but what Egypt needed, above all, was a fortified headquarters in the immediate vicinity of the gold mines. That meant outdoing the great conqueror Senusret III and setting the border even farther south than Semna.

Fortunately, the perfect geographical location presented itself. The island of Shaat (modern Sai) lay midway between the second and third cataracts, right at the heart of the gold-producing region. One of the largest islands in the Nubian Nile, it was ideal for settlement and fortification. On his only Nubian campaign, Ahmose headed directly for Shaat, occupied the island, and built a military headquarters, enclosed by a massive fortified wall fifteen feet thick, reinforced with buttresses. The site was well chosen, atop a sandstone outcrop that overlooked the east branch of the Nile and a broad section of the east bank. A sandstone quarry was opened up on Shaat to provide building material for the fortress and other royal installations in lower Nubia. And finally, Ahmose had a statue of himself installed in the temple at Shaat to act as a focus for patriotic fervor and to inspire the loyal defense of his new southern headquarters, just as Senusret III had done at Semna. With Egyptian hegemony now firmly established from the coasts of the Near East to the upper Nile, Ahmose boasted that “his slaughter is in upper Nubia, his war cry in the lands of Phoenicia.”9

Egypt was great once more, its people free from occupation and the threat of invasion. But not everyone shared in the mood of national euphoria. “Freedom,” people might have remembered, meant different things to different audiences. For the monarchy, the restoration of order meant a return to the methods of the past, with the king at the apex of society, supported and served by an uncomplaining populace. For the populace, Egypt’s rebirth meant a return to autocratic government. Yet a few people were willing to risk their lives to oppose the Theban monarchy and its seemingly unstoppable rise to absolute power. No sooner had Ahmose planted the Egyptian flag on Shaat Island and begun to sail northward to Egypt than a minor rebellion broke out, led by a Nubian insurgent. He seems to have taken the opportunity of the king’s temporary absence to launch an attack, but it was woefully underprepared and doomed to failure. Ahmose summoned his forces, engaged the rebel, and seized him as a living captive. His hapless followers were taken prisoner, no doubt to be sent to work in the gold mines of Nubia. Then, inspired perhaps by such a brave but reckless show of defiance, a more serious insurgency flared up. This time it was led by an Egyptian named Tetian, possibly a son or relative of the governor of Nefrusi, who had been the object of Kamose’s wrath a generation earlier. Tetian’s cause, opposition to Ahmose’s rule, had attracted a large number of supporters, and these malcontents clearly posed a real threat to the government and its plans. The king’s response was immediate and ruthless. “His Majesty killed him; his gang was annihilated.”10 The dissidents (or freedom fighters) had had their chance and had squandered it. There would not be another open rebellion against the Egyptian monarchy for five hundred years.

Hand in hand with political challenges came natural disasters. To the north of Egypt, the Minoan civilization had recently been devastated by the volcanic eruption of Thera. The ash cloud had completely buried the Minoan colony of Akrotiri, while burning debris falling from the sky had destroyed crops and houses on Crete, 150 miles away. Weakened by the resulting famine and social instability, the Minoan world, which had dominated the Aegean for five centuries, suddenly looked vulnerable, a fact not lost on the small but ambitious city of Mycenae, on the Greek mainland. At around the same time, though probably unconnected with the Theran cataclysm, a meteorological calamity beset Egypt: a violent rainstorm swept the country, causing major damage to property, including the royal residence. Determined to rectify this show of divine displeasure as vigorously as he had put down Tetian’s rebellion, Ahmose ordered the restoration of flood-damaged buildings and the replacement of temple furniture, so that Egypt was “restored to its former state.”11 Recording his pious actions for posterity, the king likened the damage caused by the tempest to the recent ravages of the Hyksos. The message was clear: whatever the source of chaos, Ahmose, the true king and upholder of creation, would impose order in its place.


BORDERS SECURED, ACCESS TO TRADE AND GOLD REESTABLISHED, internal opposition silenced—Ahmose’s achievements might have been thought sufficient to restore the might and majesty of the Egyptian monarchy. But his vision for the country went beyond practical economics and politics to embrace ideology as well. Whether by learning or instinct, Ahmose and his advisers realized that ideas could be the most powerful force for national unity, if harnessed appropriately and well tuned to the Egyptian psyche. The king’s own experience had taught him the importance of a close-knit family, and the same was undoubtedly true out there in the towns and villages of Egypt. With the country—or its rulers, at least—enjoying peace and plenty once more, Ahmose set about making his own royal family the primary focus for religious devotion throughout the land. It was perhaps his greatest achievement, and one that was to define his entire dynasty.

Personally, Ahmose had particular cause to give public recognition to key members of his family. Because he had acceded to the throne as a boy, the government had been run during his minority by his grandmother Tetisheri and his mother, Ahhotep. Indeed, Ahhotep’s impeccable royal credentials gave her unrivaled legitimacy to carry out such a role. She was, after all, a king’s daughter, a king’s sister, a king’s great wife, and, by the end of her life, a king’s mother as well. The peculiarly incestuous relationships favored by Ahmose’s family meant that his mother and father were full brother and sister, both of them offspring of Tetisheri. Ahmose in turn married his full sister, Ahmose-Nefertari. (The relationships and the frequency of the name Ahmose, for both men and women, must have made life in the royal court either fiendishly complicated or greatly simplified.) Whether keeping it in the family to such an extent was designed to distinguish the royals from ordinary mortals (by copying the brother-sister marriages of the gods) or was intended merely to shut out any potential rival claimants, the result was an exceptionally close group of relatives in which the female members played an unusually prominent role. Ahmose’s genius was to turn this family business into a national cult.

At Abdju, ancient burial place of kings and thus a key site for the veneration of royal ancestors, Ahmose erected a pyramid temple for himself, decorated with scenes of his victory over the Hyksos, and a shrine for his grandmother Tetisheri. At its center, a monumental stela recorded that “His Majesty did this because his love for her was greater than anything [else].”12 We can detect here, perhaps, the enduring bond between a man and his grandmother who brought him up while his own mother was busy with affairs of state. For Ahhotep, Ahmose’s thanks and praise were even greater. He had a great stela set up at Ipetsut in the temple of Amun, which was fast becoming Egypt’s national shrine. As well as listing the king’s pious donations to the temple (mostly huge quantities of gold from the mines of Nubia), the inscription exhorted the people of Egypt, now and in the future, to remember Ahhotep’s considerable achievements:

Give praise to the lady of the land,

The mistress of the shores of Hau-nebut,

Whose reputation is high over every foreign land,

Who governs the masses,

The king’s wife, the sister of the sovereign (life, prosperity, and health!),

The king’s daughter, the noble king’s mother,

The wise one,

Who takes care of Egypt.

She has gathered together its officials

And guarded them;

She has rounded up its fugitives

And gathered up its deserters;

She has pacified Upper Egypt

And subdued its rebels:

The king’s wife, Ahhotep, may she live!13

It is an extraordinary encomium for an exceptional woman. As well as recording Ahhotep’s role in governing the country, the verses more than hint at her involvement in putting down the rebellion of Tetian and reimposing law and order throughout the land. It is no coincidence that Ahhotep’s grave goods from her grateful son included a necklace of golden flies, awarded for bravery in battle (the fly was an appropriate symbol of perseverance). She was evidently a force to be reckoned with, and would serve as a powerful role model for other ambitious royal women later in the dynasty.

Ahhotep’s curious epithet, mistress of the shores of Hau-nebut, is particularly tantalizing. Much later, in the Ptolemaic Period, the phrase “Hau-nebut” was used to refer to Greece, and it suggests a connection between the Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian royal family and the Minoan civilization of Crete. It may be no coincidence that, in addition to the golden flies, Ahhotep’s burial equipment included two objects, a dagger and an axe, with characteristically Minoan decoration. Recent excavations at Hutwaret lend weight to the theory of a diplomatic alliance between Ahmose’s family and the Minoans (the leading naval power in the eastern Mediterranean). The public rooms of the early New Kingdom royal palace, built on the ruins of the former Hyksos citadel, were decorated with frescoes in Minoan style. Scenes of acrobats, bull leaping, and bull wrestling have close parallels on the island of Thera and on Crete itself, at the palace of Knossos. Most suggestive of all is a large griffin, a motif related to Minoan queenship. Its presence at Hutwaret raises the intriguing possibility of a dynastic marriage between the Egyptian and Minoan courts. It might have been the first time that Egypt sought the protection of a foreign power against third-party aggression; it would certainly not be the last.

Having thus honored his grandmother and mother, Ahmose’s policy of elevating royal women to the status of national icons now turned to his own generation and his sister-wife, Ahmose-Nefertari. Her rise to prominence coincided with a natural moment of transition in the life of the royal family: the death of the queen mother Ahhotep and the birth of an heir apparent. With this new arrival ensuring the dynasty’s future, Ahmose-Nefertari thus became a king’s mother as well as a king’s daughter, king’s sister, and king’s great wife, the same collection of titles held by her late mother. But her brother-husband had another title planned for her, one that would give her not just status but considerable wealth and political influence as well. Ahmose-Nefertari was to become god’s wife of Amun, the female counterpart to the high priest of Amun and hence effectively joint head of the Amun priesthood. The creation of this new office was part of a wider reorganization of religious administration under Ahmose, and it was a masterstroke. With a flourish, it achieved two goals, giving the dynasty control of a major political and economic institution (the temple of Amun, with its vast wealth and extensive landholdings) and establishing a close theological link between the cult of Amun and the royal family. To confirm his intentions, Ahmose erected another monumental stela at Ipetsut, recording the property and authority vested in Ahmose-Nefertari as god’s wife. For her part, she did not disappoint. For the rest of her life, she used the title “god’s wife” above all others.


WHEN KING AHMOSE DIED A FEW YEARS LATER IN 1514, STILL ONLY in his thirties, Egypt stood transformed. In the space of a single reign, the country had shaken off the yoke of foreign occupation, confirmed itself as a new and rising power in the Near East, regained mastery of the Nubian gold mines, and quelled internal dissent. The monarchy had triumphantly reestablished itself at the apex of Egyptian society, mastering the political scene and engineering a brilliant symbiosis with the dominant national cult. The foundations had been laid for the power and glory of the New Kingdom. Now all that remained to be done was to build upon those foundations—to give concrete architectural expression to the mystery and majesty of kingship in a manner that would last for eternity. That would be the task for Ahmose’s son and heir, Amenhotep I (1514–1493).

Or, rather, for the queen mother, since Ahmose’s premature death left Egypt, once again, with an underage monarch. This time the country was at peace, and the court could turn its full attention to a building program the likes of which Egypt had not seen for centuries. Ahmose had already reopened the limestone quarries at Ainu (modern Tura) late in his reign, and had boasted that stone blocks were being hauled from the quarry face by “oxen from the lands of Phoenicia.”14 Under the young Amenhotep I, extraction resumed at all the great quarries—Bosra and Hatnub for alabaster, Gebel el-Silsila for sandstone—and turquoise mining started up again in the Sinai for the first time since the reign of Amenemhat III, 250 years earlier. The length and breadth of Egypt echoed once more to the sounds of quarrymen, masons, and builders. It was as if the Pyramid Age had returned. Only the emphasis this time was on temples for the living, not tombs for the dead.

For the second time in Egyptian history, the focus of royal building activity was the dynastic seat of Thebes. In the centuries since it had first risen to prominence, the settlement had expanded beyond the confines of the Middle Kingdom walls, but conditions were still cramped and squalid for most of the inhabitants. In the absence of planning regulations, districts grew up organically, masking the grid pattern of the earlier town. With agricultural production the city’s first priority, building land was at a premium, and tangles of houses were crammed together in a dense maze of alleyways. Space, water, and shade were desirable commodities in ancient Egypt but extremely hard to come by in an urban setting. Families who could afford to do so built upward to gain extra room, escape the risk of flooding during a high Nile, and retreat from the accumulated rubbish and foul odors at street level. Only the wealthiest Thebans could afford to build out of town on the desert margin, where more plentiful land made possible the construction of luxurious villas with their own pleasure gardens. City dwellers had to make do with the occasional breeze coming through window gratings high up in the walls, painted reddish brown to reduce the sun’s glare. All in all, life in New Kingdom Thebes was crowded and noisy. For those living closest to the temple of Amun, it was about to get noisier still.

Under the Eighteenth Dynasty, the great temple at Ipetsut (Egyptian for “the most select of places”) was the greatest beneficiary of royal largesse. It had been founded by the Theban Eleventh Dynasty in the dark days of civil war, and had been honored by the Theban Twelfth Dynasty. Now, with another dynasty from Thebes on the throne of Egypt, Ipetsut was again the natural focus for royal projects. Although the surviving Middle Kingdom buildings were relatively small in scale, the purity of the architecture and quality of the relief carving evidently had a profound effect on Amenhotep’s builders. Inspired, in particular, by the beautiful monuments of Senusret I, they set about creating copies for the new king’s grand design. Their replica of Senusret’s jubilee pavilion was correct down to the last detail; only the substitution of the name Amenhotep for that of Senusret distinguished the copy from the original. Directly in front of the Twelfth Dynasty temple, a great courtyard took shape, dominated by a giant pylon gateway resembling the hieroglyph for “horizon,” the place where the sun rose and set. Amenhotep I’s Ipetsut would be nothing less than the act of creation in microcosm. The courtyard walls were decorated with scenes of the king offering to Amun, and priests offering to the king—the quintessential combination of divine and royal cults in a single space. In the center of the court, a magnificent alabaster shrine was erected as a resting place for the sacred barque shrine of Amun when it was carried in procession through the temple. The alabaster shrine’s decoration stressed the mystic union between god and king, and depicted the royal jubilee (already being planned, though never actually celebrated). Along two sides of the court, small side chapels housed statues dedicated to the royal cult, their walls decorated with scenes of perpetual offerings. To complete the layout, a sacred abattoir was built next to the temple. It would be used to provide cattle for religious festivals and, of course, for the cults of Amenhotep I and his mother, Ahmose-Nefertari. Ostensibly a magnificent new house for the god Amun, Amenhotep’s constructions at Ipetsut were equally a monument to divine kingship. The fact that the two strands could not be disentangled was entirely deliberate. By placing himself as the direct heir to the great royal builders of the Middle Kingdom, Amenhotep was consciously casting a veil over the intervening chaos. His work at Ipetsut seemed to confirm that the sacred essence of kingship had passed directly from the Twelfth Dynasty to the family of Ahmose. Like all great Egyptian rulers, Amenhotep I had a penchant for rewriting history.

The king’s ambition, to turn Thebes into a giant open-air temple to kingship, did not stop at Ipetsut. In the sacred theater of the Nile Valley, the west bank was just as important as the east, since the two together formed one of those symbolic dualities through which the Egyptians made sense of the world around them. In the particular case of Thebes, the west bank was the city’s main burial ground, where the rulers of the Seventeenth Dynasty had built their modest pyramid tombs, but it also had a deep and ancient connection with kingship. The dramatic embayment in the cliffs at Deir el-Bahri was believed to be a dwelling place of Hathor, mother goddess and protector of monarchs. For this reason, the civil war victor, King Mentuhotep, had chosen it as the location for his mortuary temple and for the national war grave. The symbolism of the place must have been particularly striking for Amenhotep I. Not only had his own Theban dynasty recently emerged triumphant from another war, but the theological relationship between Hathor and the king provided the divine pattern for his own close association with his mother, Ahmose-Nefertari. Their joint rule was not just god-given; it was divinely inspired.

To give these ideas concrete expression, Amenhotep commissioned two chapels at Deir el-Bahri, one of them directly in front of Mentuhotep’s temple. He also built a sanctuary to house the barque of Amun when it traveled across the Nile from Ipetsut in a great procession once a year called the Beautiful Festival of the Valley. At Deir el-Bahri, as at Ipetsut itself, the inscriptions and decoration emphasized the royal cult, with particular emphasis placed on the role of Ahmose-Nefertari and on the king’s much anticipated jubilee. Finally, Amenhotep erected a temple dedicated to himself and his mother on the plain of western Thebes, directly in front of the Seventeenth Dynasty royal necropolis, where his father and grandmother lay buried. They would have been proud of him. The cult of the royal family was now at the center of the nation’s religious life, at Thebes and Abdju, and the family’s monuments marked the horizon in every direction.

Long after their monuments had been dismantled and reused by later generations of rulers, Amenhotep I and Ahmose-Nefertari were remembered and revered by the inhabitants of western Thebes as patron deities of the district. Their memory was especially sacred to one small community known as the Place of Truth (modern Deir el-Medina). The community’s foundation sums up the religious and architectural program of Ahmose’s dynasty and its lasting impact on ancient Egyptian civilization as a whole. By the time Amenhotep I came to the throne, kings had learned from bitter experience that a monumental tomb, especially a pyramid, was more of a curse than a blessing. Advertising the location of the royal burial for all to see merely attracted the attention of tomb robbers and almost guaranteed that the deceased would not remain undisturbed for eternity. If the king were to enjoy a blessed afterlife, as intended, the nature of the royal tomb itself had to change.

A view of the workmen’s village  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

As part of his wider program of religious remodeling, Amenhotep I implemented just such a radical redesign. From now on, the royal mortuary complex would be split into two distinct elements. A mortuary temple, sited prominently on the plain, would stand as the monarch’s permanent memorial and would act as a public focus for the royal cult. Quite separate, hidden away in the cliffs of western Thebes, a royal tomb cut deep into the rock would provide a secure resting place for eternity, without any outward sign to attract unwanted attention. To ensure complete secrecy for the royal burial, it would be necessary not only to conceal the tomb but also to isolate its builders from the rest of the population. The solution was to establish a workmen’s village, hidden away in a remote valley in the Theban hills, where those employed on the royal tomb, together with their wives and children, could live in splendid isolation. The secrets of their sensitive work would remain safe. The Place of Truth was duly founded, with Amenhotep I and Ahmose-Nefertari as its royal patrons, and the community remained in use, fulfilling its original purpose, for five centuries. Today it is the single most important source of evidence for daily life in the New Kingdom.

As for Amenhotep I’s own tomb, its whereabouts remain a mystery, despite more than a century of archaeological investigation. In contrast to his successors’ sepulchres, which have become modern tourist traps, Amenhotep’s dwelling place for eternity lies undisturbed. In this, as in the rest of his program for the Egyptian monarchy, his wish was fulfilled.

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