Ancient Egypt has captivated the Western imagination for two millennia. The fact that more time separates Cleopatra from the construction of Egypt's famous pyramids than separates Cleopatra from us should put into perspective the great antiquity of this civilization. Generally speaking, what we call "ancient" Egypt existed from about 3200 BC to about 30 BC, at which time it became a province of the new Roman Empire. Any civilization that lasts for over 3000 years is bound to go through some profound changes and produce both exceptionally good and exceptionally bad figures. One exceptionally good figure who lived during a great time of upheaval was the pharaoh Ahmose I. Ahmose is considered the founder of the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, which brought us virtually all of the best known pharaohs, including Thutmosis III, Akhenaten, Hatshepsut, and most famously Tutankhamun.

Early Years and Context

Ahmose I was born around the year 1559 BC. He was (apparently) the second son of the pharaoh Seqenenre Tao and his sister-wife Ahhotep. In less turbulent times, Ahmose probably would have enjoyed a life of banal luxury in his father's court, receiving training and education commensurate with his status as a pharaoh's younger son with a handful of sinecure titles and positions. As it happens, though, Ahmose was born into a very precarious political situation.

On several occasions throughout its long history, Egypt was not a unified state. Indeed, the man regarded as the first pharaoh -- Narmer -- achieved his semi-legendary status precisely because he united Upper and Lower Egypt into one state for the first time around 3200 BC. (Paradoxically, Upper Egypt was the southern portion of the country while Lower Egypt was the northern part; they were designated as such because of their positions relative to the Nile River). By the time of Ahmose's birth, Egypt was again divided. Most of Lower Egypt was ruled by a dynasty comprised of Semitic-speaking foreigners that we call Hyksos while most of Upper Egypt was under the control of a native Egyptian dynasty -- specifically Ahmose's family. It is also possible that there was a third breakway state centered around the city of Abydos that controlled a fairly small area of territory from about 1650 BC to 1600 BC.

Today when we think of ruling dynasties, we tend to imagine them chronologically. However, due to the fractured nature of Egypt during the period between 1650 and 1550 BC (referred to as the Second Intermediate Period), the numbering conventions we use for the 15th, 16th, and 17th dynasties are misleading because they refer to groups ruling different areas of the country at the same time. The 15th dynasty was comprised of Hyksos rulers and lasted for the entirety of the Second Intermediate Period. They ruled Lower Egypt from the city of Avaris. There is debate as to whether the 16th dynasty was made up of Hyksos, Egyptians, or some combination of both, but they ruled Upper Egypt from Thebes for about the first 70 years of the Second Intermediate Period. It appears that Upper Egypt may have existed as a vassal state to Lower Egypt for part of the 16th dynasty and that there may even have been instances of pharaohs from the 15th dynasty directly ruling over it.

Either way, Seqenenre was the penultimate pharaoh in what is considered the 17th dynasty. This dynasty succeeded the previous one in the south but was relatively short-lived. In the 20 years prior to Seqenenre's reign, there had been 7 pharaohs, so longevity was not exactly guaranteed. Legend states that Seqenenre received a letter from Apophis, the Hyksos ruler in the north, complaining that he could hear the hippos in Thebes bellowing all the way up in Avaris and could he please shut them up? The true meaning of this correspondence -- and indeed, whether it happened at all -- is unclear. What is clear, though, is that Seqenenre took it as an insult and responded accordingly.

Seqenenre decided that the time was right for all of Egypt to be ruled by Egyptians again, and he set out to campaign against the Hyksos. As daring as this idea was, his mummy tells the story of how it went. His body shows multiple large head wounds, any single one of which would likely have been fatal, and the lack of defensive wounds show that he was either taken completely by surprise or he was simply executed. Decomposition had already begun to set in before mummification, which means his body was simply left where it fell for some time. He was almost certainly killed in battle, making his 4-year reign unfortunately typical for the 17th dynasty pharaohs.

Kamose and Regency

Seqenenre was succeeded as pharaoh by his elder son Kamose, who would have been a teenager at the time of his accession. Kamose's situation was even worse than Seqenenre's because he was now in conflict with both the Hyksos to the north and the Thebans' former Nubian vassals to the south (who had since claimed part of Upper Egypt as their own). Kamose enjoyed some success against the Hyksos but fought two largely inconclusive campaigns against the Nubians before suddenly dying after 4 or 5 years in power (his cause of death is unknown). Since Kamose had yet to have any children by the time of his death, Ahmose was his designated heir. Ahmose was only 10 years only when he succeeded his brother as pharaoh circa 1549 BC and his mother Ahhotep served as his regent for the first part of his reign.

The regency lasted until about 1543 BC and seems not to have been too militarily eventful, although there is an inscription that suggests Ahhotep put down a rebellion in Thebes during this time. Shortly after Ahmose attained the age of majority, the Hyksos king Apophis died after ruling for 40 years. He was succeeded by Khamudi, whose relationship to Apophis is unknown, but who was apparently a significantly weaker ruler than his predecessor. Ahmose resumed the war against the Hyksos, fighting a long, slow campaign that gradually saw Thebes regain its northern territories.

Later Reign

While the ultimate goal would have been to take the enemy capital of Avaris, Ahmose instead decided to instead attack the major cities to the north and to the east, which left the Hyksos unable to retreat back into Canaan, their homeland. In 1532 BC, Ahmose reached a treaty with the Hyksos whereby they would be allowed to leave Egypt. Things didn't go precisely according to plan, however, and fighting resumed for the entirety of the Hyksos' escape from Egypt into the Levant. With the expulsion of the foreigners in the north, Ahmose was now the undisputed master of a reunified Egypt, marking the first time in more than a century that the whole land was ruled by a native Egyptian.

With the threat of the Hyksos finally ended, Ahmose returned his attention to the Nubians. He marched south with the goals of punishing the Nubians for their alliance with the Hyksos, reclaiming the territory that had been lost in the chaos of the end of the 17th dynasty, and to seize the gold in Nubia. The first Nubian campaign coincided with another rebellion, this time on the part of native Egyptians who had been allies of the Hyksos. Ahmose brutally suppressed the rebellion and executed both its leaders and its common soldiers. He pushed deep into Nubian territory and established Egyptian authority over a significant portion of the country.

With all military threats dealt with, Ahmose turned to domestic concerns. Using the newly acquired wealth and resources from Nubia, Lower Egypt, and the Levant, he refurbished temples that had fallen into disrepair and built new ones. He created employment opportunities for Egyptian men by reopening mines and quarries that had lain dormant in addition to the obvious construction jobs. He built what would go on to be the last Egyptian-built pyramid inside of Egypt (although it is in ruins today).

Like his father and his brother, however, Ahmose was destined for a short life. He died around the age of 35 in 1524 BC after a reign of 25 years. A mummy identified as Ahmose was discovered in the 1880s and the lack of wounds on it makes it unlikely that he died violently. He was succeeded by his son Amenhotep I, with whom he seems to have reigned jointly for the final six years of his life. Presumably he wanted his son to come into his own reign with better preparation than he had gotten.

Assessment

Ahmose I is not as well known as some of the other members of his dynasty but he really ought to be. Even though he was the son and brother of the final two pharaohs of the 17th dynasty, his achievements were significant enough to justify calling him the founder of an entirely new dynasty. This is because his dynasty was the first to rule over all of Egypt in many many years and because Egypt was now on the ascendant. He laid the foundation for the state that would go on to become the Mediterranean/Near Eastern world's premiere empire for three centuries afterward. Ahmose was a rare ancient ruler who had great success in foreign affairs, military prowess, and domestic prosperity. For these reasons, I would rank Ahmose as my favorite pharaoh.

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