The Egyptian Timeline
The general misconception of Ancient Egypt is of everything mixed together in one time and one place: Pyramids, Pharaohs, Cleopatra, camels, mummies and so on, largely due to the way that Hollywood has portrayed it, whereas in actual fact the timeline of Ancient Egypt spans many thousands of years, as shown in the graphic below.
As you can see, the pyramids are generally assumed to have been built around 2500 years before the common era (BCE), while Cleopatra died in 30 BCE. A huge time-span of two and a half thousand years, but don’t worry, we are not going to cover all of that. The period we will be concentrating on is known as the New Kingdom, well over a thousand years before Cleopatra. It is the golden age of Egyptian history and the time of many of the more well-known Pharaohs, including Tutankhamun, Nefertiti and Ramses the Great. In our exploration of the West Bank of Luxor we shall meet not only the great rulers, but also the courtiers and noblemen of the time, as well as the men who actually built and decorated these magnificent tombs.
The New Kingdom began with the expulsion of a foreign people known as the Hyksos who had taken control of the northern part of Egypt and split the country in two. From their stronghold in the Theban area in the south, the 17th dynasty rulers began a campaign to drive out the hated Hyksos. The success of this campaign reunited the country and so began the the New Kingdom and the 18th Dynasty.
The 18th Dynasty
It is impossible to spend time in Luxor and not come across the 18th Dynasty. From its beginning with Ahmose, whose body lies in the Luxor Museum to Horemheb whose magnificent tomb we will hopefully visit, the 18th Dynasty dominated the Theban political and religious landscape. It is the time of the mighty queen, Hatshepsut, the era of Tuthmose III, known as the “Napoleon of Egypt”. It saw the expansion of the Egyptian empire to become the most powerful country in the known world. It was also the dynasty of the religious heretic Akhenaten, his beautiful wife, Nefertiti and his famous son Tutankhamun.
The 19th Dynasty
Moving from the 18th to the 19th Dynasty saw many changes. This was the rise of the Rameside family. Horemheb, the military general and last ruler of the 18th gave way to another military man, Rameses. Hailing from the north-eastern part of the Delta, Ramses the First was already an old man when he took the throne, and didn’t rule for long, but he sired the beginnings of one of the most powerful families in the ancient world. His grandson was Rameses the Great, a prolific warrior, campaigner and builder, and there is no part of Egypt that does not carry his name on buildings and statues. Although the Ramesides ruled from the north, Thebes (Luxor) was still the religious capital and the Rameside kings certainly left their mark there.
By the time of his death, aged about 90 years, Rameses the Great was suffering from severe dental problems and was plagued by arthritis and hardening of the arteries, and had outlived most of his wives and children. His campaigns had made Egypt rich from all his conquests. Nine more pharaohs were to take the name Rameses in his honour. Most of the Rameside kings were buried in the Valley of the Kings, as we shall see.
The 20th Dynasty
The last Dynasty of the New Kingdom was the 20th. The end of the 19th had seen a decline into a state approaching civil war, until Setnakhte restored some form of order. He didn’t rule for long and his successor was Rameses III. During this time Egypt was threatened by the Sea Peoples, but Rameses III was able to defeat this confederacy from the Near East. This king is also known for what is known as “The Harem Conspiracy” in which Queen Tiye attempted to assassinate the king and put her son Pentawere on the throne. The coup was not successful in the end. The king may have died from the attempt on his life, but it was his legitimate heir, Rameses IV, who succeeded him to the throne. After this a succession of kings named Rameses took the throne, but none would truly achieve greatness. Some of their tombs are the most splendid in the Valley of the Kings.
The power of the pharaoh was undermined by the rise of the Amun priesthood, to the point that toward the end of the dynasty the priests of Amun in Thebes effectively controlled the crown. Constant in-fighting between the sons of Rameses III also contributed to the eventual collapse and demise of the New Kingdom.
As we shall see, Luxor is one colossal open-air museum with its main feature being the New Kingdom.