The glittering 18th Dynasty (c.1550-1295 BC) spanned the middle of ancient Egypt’s long and illustrious history, beginning over a millennium after the pyramid era and ending another millennium before the nation fell to Alexander the Great in 332 BC. A combination of factors brought into being a line of kings who ruled what became temporarily the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the region, a position it had reached by the mid-1400s BC. The era serves as an allegory of unrestrained ambition and greed for all times. It is also one of the first periods for which there is a genuine history in the form of documents and inscriptions that enable us to reconstruct a series of key events.
Egypt flaunted all the usual characteristics of an imperialist state: violence, the systematic exaction of resources and manufactured goods from conquered or vassal states, slavery, and a self-glorifying ideology based on the idea of a divinely backed and despotic monarchy. During this time, Egyptian culture reached full maturity, benefiting from specialised artisans with exceptional skills. Egypt could field major armies, work gold and silver into fabulous pieces of art, fashion vast stone obelisks and monumental statues, and build gigantic temples decorated with reliefs depicting the gods and the exploits of kings.
The pharaoh posed as the bastion between the people and the forces of chaos that the Egyptians dreaded. Everything was invested in his ability to maintain order, enshrined in the goddess Maat (personifying the primeval state of Truth and Harmony), a concept deliberately fostered to maintain control and suppress dissent. In the 18th Dynasty, the visual back catalogue of artistic tradition was combined with innovative imagery to reinforce the image of the king as a semi-divine superman figure. State vanity building projects were designed to glorify and perpetuate the regime in a mirage of permanence. The Amun cult at Karnak underpinned the dynasty’s destiny theatre. The kings of the 18th Dynasty routinely claimed to have been sired by Amun, who had come to their mothers in the guise of their fathers. Not surprisingly, then, the kings showered the Karnak temple with gifts and contributed more pylons, obelisks, reliefs, and structures.
The 18th Dynasty was established by the exultant Ahmose I (r. c.1550-1525 BC) who expelled the Hyksos (foreign invaders thought to come from Western Asia) from the Delta region and reunified Egypt. From them he acquired the horse-drawn chariot, which Egypt lightened and improved. Egypt’s armies abruptly became a blitzkrieg force that ruled the Near East. Ahmose’s successors sent out chariot-led armies to conquer territory in Nubia to the south and in the Near East, reducing countless petty chieftains and kings to vassal status.
Egypt’s Asiatic and Nubian foes were already a familiar theme in its culture. The Egyptian king smiting the enemy dated back to the 1st Dynasty around 3000 BC. Under the 18th Dynasty, the trope became fully developed. Egypt was imbued with a sense of absolute superiority. Nubia (Kush), for example, was usually dismissed as ‘vile Kush’, using a word that had connotations of being feeble and mean-minded. Egypt’s enemies were always depicted as witless cowards led by imbeciles.
Thutmose III (r. c.1479-1425), one of the longest-lived kings of the 18th Dynasty, was militarily the most successful in Egyptian history. As a child, he had to rule alongside his half- aunt Hatshepsut (r. c.1473-1458), who had made herself king. Unable to fight wars in person herself for fear her radical experiment at female rule would lead to a coup, Hatshepsut cultivated her image as Amun’s chosen king after her half-brother husband Thutmose II unexpectedly died young.
Hatshepsut decorated the walls of her celebrated memorial-mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari with reliefs and sculpture that reinvented the image of the king as a male-female composite. With no concept of a queen-regnant in Egypt, she had to adopt the trappings of a male ruler. Much of this was designed and implemented by her brilliantly creative chief steward Senenmut. On her magnificent obelisks at Karnak, Hatshepsut mused ‘my imagination runs riot wondering what the common people who see my monument in the years to come will say’.
When Hatshepsut died, Thutmose III burst on to the scene with such vigour it is remarkable he had hitherto been kept in the shadows so successfully. His sole reign began with a rout of a Qadeshi force at Megiddo. From there on, Thutmose unleashed his forces on the region almost annually, leading to a cavalcade of booty carted back to Egypt and recorded with acquisitive glee on the walls of the temple of Amun at Karnak. On one of the new pylon gateways Thutmose III erected at Karnak, he can still be seen as a gigantic figure in relief towering over his Asiatic foes. They have been reduced to a diminutive cluster of identical overlapping bearded figure motifs, their hair gathered together in a single clump grasped by Thutmose, who leans forward to smite them with a mace.
The loot was also used to maintain the patronage that ensured Egypt’s obsequious and self-serving elite would stand by the crown, ensnared in a system that benefited a very few at the expense of the many. One was the vizier Rekhmire, a man who developed his memorial chapel in Western Thebes into a showcase of his exalted status as the king’s supreme favourite, the recipient of tribute on the king’s behalf, and who basked in the admiration and respect of his anonymous underlings. The memorial chapels and tombs of the elite aped those of the kings and were the Egyptian equivalent of the great Tudor prodigy houses. But the jealousy and febrile nature of the court, where jockeying for profit and position were endemic, is revealed by the number of these monuments that were never used and which were desecrated.
Thutmose’s son Amenhotep II (r. c.1425-1400) took the imagery of warrior king a stage further. The tendentious texts that purport to record his wars are typically bombastic. He was allegedly ‘great in strength, who has no equal and for whom one cannot find a second; he is a king with a very mighty arm, there is none who can draw his bow, neither among his soldiers nor among the rulers of the hill countries and the princes of Retjenu (Syria)’.
At Karnak, Amenhotep II’s archery skills were celebrated by showing him riding a chariot on one relief having fired five arrows through a ox hide-shaped copper ingot and about to fire off a sixth as he hurtles past. The king is shown standing alone in the chariot, the bow in his left hand, his right pulling back the sixth arrow. The two horses leap forward, their back legs hovering above the ground. The composition was only partially successful, exposing the weakness of the Egyptians’ reliance on stylised figures and postures. The king could not possibly have stood in an advancing chariot and fired his bow without holding on or being strapped in. The reins are shown as rigidly horizontal. The four-spoked wheel of the chariot is static. The arrow Amenhotep is about to let loose is aimed at a point in mid-air above the ingot.
Nonetheless, the image stuck. Amenhotep II’s son Thutmose IV (r. c.1400-1390) was depicted in a similar guise on his own chariot, part of which was found in his tomb, but this time running down his miserable enemies who are crushed as he drives over them. Thutmose IV, however, died after only a short reign and may never even have fought such a war.
The 18th Dynasty reached its zenith of extravagance under Amenhotep III (r. c.1390-1352) and his queen Tiye. By his time, warfare was scarcely necessary. Vassal states handed over the tribute, wary of Egypt’s wrath if they did not. Amenhotep III developed gigantism to an unprecedented level. Ruling a nation with absolute power and where political representation and protest were non-existent, he could and did act as he pleased. On the West Bank at Thebes, he commissioned an enormous sprawling memorial-mortuary temple and palace complex with ceremonial lake. Here his semi-divinity was flaunted in extravagant jubilees, with an increasing emphasis on the solar cult.
Today, little is visible of Amenhotep III’s hubris, but two of the enormous statues that once fronted his temple still stand. Battered and damaged, they remain perhaps the most evocative single relics of the 18th Dynasty. They stand more than 18m in height and weigh over 700 tonnes each. Known since Graeco-Roman times as the Colossi of Memnon, they once formed part of a series of colossi on the site, most of which fell down in an earthquake around 1200 BC. In the dedication speech of the Colossi of Memnon attributed to Amenhotep, he made a specific reference to the ‘great rejoicing because of their size’.
The 18th Dynasty included the extraordinary reign of Akhenaten (r. c.1352-1336) with his queen Nefertiti. Famously, Amenhotep III’s son Amenhotep IV began his reign in a conventional way, but soon tore up the rulebook. Obsessed with the cult of the Aten, the solar disc, he initiated a religious, cultural, and artistic revolution that began with a huge new temple complex next to Karnak.
Facing opposition from vested interests, Akhenaten (as Amenhotep IV had by then renamed himself) soon moved the court, the nobles, and huge numbers of labourers to build his dream downriver at Tell el-Amarna. Here a new city was built around new Aten temples and royal palaces, all contained within a vast plain surrounded by cliffs and demarcated by boundary stelae. All this was only possible because of the absolute power of an Egyptian king.
Akhenaten entirely disrupted the religious bedrock of royal ideology, and with that went key elements of royal art. The traditional pantheon of gods was eliminated from temple and funerary art. In the imagery of Atenism, members of the royal family were transmuted into animated cult idols in place of all the old inert ones, their public appearances serving as choreographed tableaux vivants of royal divinities in new ceremonies and parades. These were matched by statues and reliefs that depicted only the royal family, for example on the boundary stelae.
Akhenaten and Nefertiti toured their new home with military escorts. They, their daughters, and their attendants rode around Amarna in a cavalcade of chariots, followed by the similarly mobilised and gleeful elite, maintaining the well-established 18th Dynasty style of displaying status. It was a remarkable transformation of the military chariot into limousine-style transport.
Their chariot wheels spinning as they cruised along the Amarna Strip, the vehicles and their passengers were a new form of pageantry that substituted the living god and his family for the old religious processions. Meanwhile, the populace prostrated themselves as the luminaries passed, or at least were portrayed as doing so.
At the palace ‘window of appearances’ Nefertiti and Akhenaten showered their elite followers with gifts, a scene featured in some of the noble tombs at Amarna. The king and queen were also depicted in palace settings engaged in unparalleled intimate poses and settings, often with their daughters. The intensity of some of the scenes of Akhenaten and Nefertiti suggests they were sexually infatuated with one another, emphasised by their flaunting of their progeny.
Along with these innovations came Akhenaten’s extraordinary physical form, applied to his family, too. Much has been written about his elongated face, distended belly, and bulbous hips and thighs. Since the body of Tutankhamun (r. c.1336-1327), his probable son, exhibits some of these features in less exaggerated form, it seems likely Akhenaten’s naturally unusual appearance might have been enhanced for the sake of underscoring his otherness and exceptionalism.
One of the most fascinating consequences was the way prominent individuals adopted the new style and the king’s features. A self-portrait of the senior sculptor Bek (‘Servant’) and his wife from Amarna shows him with the same distended belly exhibited by Akhenaten and Nefertiti, but this is also found on reliefs in tombs of other Amarna officials.
Bek’s work helped create a radical new normal for the image of the regime that would exhibit the exceptional qualities of the royal family and set them apart from others. The sculptor Thutmose was another creative force in the Amarna era. He produced artistic works in the latter part of the reign that aspired to a more natural and realistic style. The contents of Thutmose’s studio at Akhet-aten (Amarna), abandoned along with the rest of the city, included portrait busts of some of the principal players in the drama, but most importantly Akhenaten and Nefertiti. It is clear from the celebrated bust of Nefertiti found in Thutmose’s studio that he was eminently capable of producing accomplished works easily comparable with Graeco-Roman classical sculpture.
The dramatic evidence from workers’ cemeteries at Amarna speaks volumes about the price paid for pharaonic indulgence. It paints a picture of a largely young workforce afflicted by disease, skeletal fractures, other injuries, and premature death. Many of the bodies showed signs of a lack of nutrition resulting in characteristic underdevelopment of teeth enamel, evidence of childhood starvation. Scurvy was present, too. Signs of bone and muscle conditions including injury and degenerative joint disease were also common, the latter visible in over 77 per cent of adult bodies, and with over 67 per cent having fractured bones. Over half of the bodies discovered were aged between seven and fourteen, and few were older than young adults.
Akhenaten had been reared in a phenomenally wealthy and privileged court. Exploiting the workforce to pursue pharaonic ambitions was nothing new, and integral to the nature of Egypt’s despotic monarchy.
After Akhenaten’s death, the 18th Dynasty moved quickly to restore normal service. Tutankhamun’s tomb is a repository of Amarna-derived material, together with a revival of more familiar themes. These included a large box decorated with a scene of him hurtling along in a chariot over his enemies while letting off arrows. It is unlikely he ever went to war, though the several chariots in his tomb and arrows that had signs of being fired suggest he was an enthusiastic charioteer and hunter.
The 18th Dynasty closed with the commoner Horemheb (r. c.1323-1295), a highly successful general under Tutankhamun, the man on the spot when the bloodline failed. He continued the work begun under Tutankhamun to undo Akhenaten’s revolution. In his Saqqara tomb, created while he was still a military commander, Asiatic captives are shown shackled and being dragged along by Egyptian soldiers.
A despot, but an enlightened one, Horemheb reformed many of the worst abuses of the 18th Dynasty, imposing severe sentences on those who in the name of the crown had exploited their position to rip off ordinary Egyptians. Nevertheless, Horemheb also firmly restored the king’s power in the name of Amun. He usurped his immediate predecessors’ monuments and cast himself centre-stage as the embodiment of divinely backed rule. He left no descendants but chose another soldier to succeed him, thereby establishing a new warrior-pharaoh dynasty, the 19th.
By then, Egypt’s dominance was waning, but the image of the warrior pharaoh lasted until Egypt was a Roman province. At the temple of the ram god Khnum at Esna, the emperor Titus (AD 79-81) was portrayed pulverising Egypt’s enemies with a mace. It was over thirteen centuries since the 18th Dynasty had ended.
Pharaohs of the Sun by Guy de la Bédoyère was recently published by Little, Brown (ISBN 978-1408714232; £22).