The 18th Dynasty (founded by Ahmose, son of Seqenenre Tao II) was the absolute peak of Ancient Egypt’s prosperity, military might, political dominance and cultural influence. During this time, new trade routes were established, monuments constructed and enemies vanquished. Thebes was the capital of the New Kingdom, situated mainly on the eastern bank of the Nile some 670Km from Cairo. Thebes rose to prominence when its princes (the rulers of the Middle Kingdom), indignant over the taxes levied by the Semitic Hyksos invaders and their annexation of territories containing many of the most revered Egyptian monuments and holy sites, pushed their conquerors back and fought their way to the forefront of the ancient world.
In a certain light, this was very uncharacteristic. The attitude of Egypt's rulers prior to the New Kingdom period was historically conservative and insular, its society rigidly stratified and deeply religious. Its technologies (especially military technologies) advanced slowly and thus the birth of imperialism seems abrupt and unprecedented. One can, however, appreciate the horror the Egyptians would have felt at having their greatest architectural feats and long-held territories subjected to the whim of a hated foreigner. Each of these rulers’ actions can be seen in the context of the ancient Egyptian axiom: “foreigners are dirt under the feet of Pharaohs.” The translation to aggressive expansionism is a logical - albeit dramatic - development.
Ahmose (Nebpehtire) I, 1570-1546 BC:
There is some debate as to whether the first New Kingdom Pharaoh was Ahmose, or his elder brother Kamose (usually said to be of the 17th Dynasty) who died in the midst of a campaign against the Hyksos invaders. At any rate, Kamose significantly weakened their position and enabled Ahmose to press the advantage, first pushing allies of the Hyksos from Memphis then launching an amphibious attack against their capital, Avaris. Resoundingly successful, he was able to motivate the army to press on to the fortress of Sharuhen, in Palestine. This fell after three years of siege and the defenders were given over as slaves to his officers and outstanding soldiers (as recorded on the tomb wall of Ahmose, son of Ebana, who served under several Pharaohs). Successful in consolidating the north, he then turned south to counter Nubian incursions. He slew the King of Nubia (a past ally of the Hyksos), forced the border back to the second cataract and created a new temple at Buhen (modern Wadi Halfa) to reinforce the impression of Egyptian might. Ahmose married his sister, Ahmose-Nofretari, in order to perpetuate royal blood and the notion of the Divine Right of Kings. She received the title “God’s Wife of Amun”. Ahmose also made several fundamental changes to Egyptian society - these deserve special mention.
A stronger emphasis was placed on documentation and propaganda, leading to the recruitment of more scribes (and the existence of more documentary evidence). Ahmose rejuvenated the Egyptian economy by re-opening the copper mines in Sinai. Nubia also possessed many gold mines and these were seized. Trade was re-opened with the independent cities of the Syrian coast (made possible by copying the Hyksos design for the keel) and the wealth of these ventures led to the restoration of many public monuments and temples. He also instituted a sweeping reform of the military; soldiery was now an acknowledged profession and military officers were considered to fulfil a noble role. Promotion was based on merit, rather than heredity, although the inherent advantages of the noble class meant that they were more often found in higher offices. This army used the weapons of the Hyksos (bronze swords and axes, Syrian helmets, the chariot and compound bow) and incorporated their tactics.
Amenhotep (Amenophis) I, 1546-1526 BC:
Eager to continue the work of his father, Amenhotep I’s first action was to lead an invasion of Nubia, defeating most remaining hostile elements and turning the entirety of the conquered territories into an Egyptian province. Encouraged by his successes here, he led an expedition north against the coastal cities of Palestine and Syria, subduing them and returning home with vast quantities of plunder and dominance of a region comparatively rich in timber, which the Egyptians needed for monuments and boats. He too used this wealth to restore public monuments and reputedly constructed some of his own (to venerate the Egyptian patron deity, Amun-Re), although there is little evidence remaining today - successive Pharaohs plundered his works to construct their own. Despite this, it is known that Amenhotep I’s construction projects secured employment and prosperity for much of Egypt. In order to cope with the administration of new territories, Ahmose created an office, the “King’s son of Kush.” This office was a lofty one, second only to the Vizier (First Minister) in importance to the King. He may also have been the first Pharaoh buried in the Valley of the Kings and although this is not known, documents from the tomb-makers’ village of Set Ma’at (Deir el-Medina) hail Amenhotep I as their patron and the founder of the custom.
Thutmose (Thothmes) I, 1525-1512 BC:
Thutmose I was not of royal blood - instead, he was a highly successful general raised by Amenhotep I to the status of son-in-law. In the second year of his reign, he pushed even deeper into Nubia, extending his rule past the fourth cataract and setting the boundary at Kanisa Kurgus. He built several new forts to enable forceful Egyptian administration. He returned the year after that to suppress dissent and cleared the canal that Sesostris III had built at Elephantine. Thutmose I then stormed through Syria, crossing the Euphrates and defeating the Mitanni at Carchemish, where he erected a victory stele. Thutmose I established a distinctive style for New Kingdom temples, renovating the Middle Kingdom temple of Amun-Re at Thebes and (reputedly) conceiving of the rock-cut tomb as being a more secure form of burial for Pharaohs, who valued the security of their bodies and posthumous possessions as being paramount. His reign was short, but his contribution to Egypt’s fortunes was significant.
Thutmose (Thothmes) II, 1512-1504 or 1490 BC:
Thutmose I’s son (by a lesser wife), Thutmose II married his half-sister Hatshepsut to strengthen the legitimacy of his claim. In the very same year he ascended to the throne, Nubia broke into uprising and Thutmose II was forced to send a large force to end it. This force brutally slew any man who offered even the slightest indication of resistance, capturing one young Nubian prince and indoctrinating him with Egyptian ideals and culture. This became a common practice for Egyptian subject nations; the theory was that when these individuals ascended to their thrones, they would accept and perhaps even welcome Egyptian overlordship. Rebel Bedouin in Palestine were dispersed with similar ferocity, accelerating the slave trade in Egypt, but no other significant gains were made. The end of Thutmose II’s reign is obfuscated, the date and means of his death uncertain.
Queen Hatshepsut, 1503 or 1490-1482:
Hatshepsut was the most mysterious of the Pharaohs. Half-sister to Thutmose II, she was de facto mother to Thutmose III (born to a lesser wife) who, at ten years of age, was too young to take the throne. At first, Hatshepsut claimed to be a regent for the boy, but as time progressed it became progressively more obvious that she had styled herself as a female Pharaoh (a travesty by conservative Egyptian sensibilities). She installed her own ministers, who were in turn reliant upon her for their position and were nonetheless close friends. She donned male garb in public and introduced subtly masculine elements into all statues made to represent her. For a long time, she was successful and Egypt prospered, despite growing dissent within the army, who revered Thutmose III and looked to him for guidance. As Hatshepsut and her supporters aged, Thutmose III’s retinue gained ever-greater power. Eventually, whether due to Hatshepsut's abdication or by a coup, Thutmose III took the throne and ruled as sole monarch. The circumstances of Hatshepsut’s death are also unknown.
Her military abilities are unknown, although inscriptions on the wall of her temple at Deir el-Bahri suggest that she undertook two successful campaigns, against the Nubians and Palestinians. Many of her military exploits were led by Thutmose III, in an effort to keep him preoccupied and away from Thebes and the seat of power. Hatshepsut commissioned the famous expedition to Punt (believed to be somewhere in Somalia), where her troops exacted tribute in the form of gold, ebony, animal hides, baboons and myrrh (both processed incense and living trees, the latter of which were set in the Temple of Amun-Re). Her chief architect and closest confidante was Senenmut, who oversaw all of her building projects: restoration of public monuments, her Deir el-Bahri mortuary temple, a rock-cut temple in Beni-Hassan. Senenmut was rewarded with interment beside his queen, although this appears to have been revoked at a later date for unknown reasons. Scandalous sexual rumours concerning the two are most likely attempts at denigrating Hatshepsut’s achievements.
Thutmose (Thothmes) III, 1482-1450 BC:
Although the given date is the time at which Thutmose III was crowned Pharaoh, he preferred to date his rule back to 1504 and, with one sweeping directive, had Hatshepsut’s name chiselled from her monuments and his own (or those of Thutmose I and II) inserted in its stead, believing them to be his (and their) rightful possessions. This is curious, as there is every indication that Hatshepsut, while protective of her power, was quite kind to Thutmose III, giving him command of the army, seeing that he was well-trained (both to fight and rule) and ensuring that he was physically healthy. The popular theory (that he destroyed her image out of anger) could be mistaken and some have suggestion that simple misogyny was to blame.
At any rate, he had several campaigns under his belt when he came to rule. His first challenge came from Kadesh, where Syrian kings had begun to muster their forces. Hatshepsut's relatively pacifistic reign had been construed by Egypt's bitterest enemies as a sign of weakness. They cancelled the established tribute. In response, Thutmose III led his army north and, in an abrupt attack from an unexpected route (allegedly taken despite the urging of his officers to take a safer road), routed the enemy swiftly and would have defeated them utterly if not for the fact that his army ceased pursuit of the enemy and began plundering their camp. Resigning himself to a siege, Thutmose III finally captured the fortress of Megiddo after eight months. In about 1471, Thutmose III led another major campaign into the lands of Mitanni, who had long since declared independence. He made extensive plans and the two armies clashed on the northern bank of the Euphrates River. The Egyptians prevailed (albeit with great loss) and Thutmose III declared a victory celebration.
Thutmose III undertook seventeen campaigns, in total. These have earned him the honorific “the Alexander the Great of Ancient Egypt” from many scholars. He adhered to the strategy of taking the first child of conquered monarchies and favourably disposing them to his rule. Egypt’s ever-increasing power, though, meant that the subject people were eternally seeking relief from Egyptian taxes and paid tribute grudgingly. This tribute, though, came in the form of cattle, horses, grain, timber, metals and precious stones, which swelled the coffers and saw enormous building projects, especially at Karnak where his exploits are recorded. In the last years of his life, Thutmose III shared rulership with Amenhotep II, his son. He was buried in the Valley of the Kings.
Amenhotep (Amenophis) II, 1450-1425 BC:
Amenhotep II was renowned as a prodigious athlete, giving public displays of his skills and impressing many of his subjects. If his boasts are to be believed, a Giza stele tells us that he was incomparably knowledgeable of war and horses, was stronger and more dextrous than any warrior, could row for three miles without tiring, drew three hundred strong bows and was able to hit half a dozen palm-sized copper targets with arrows from horseback; some of these find corroboration in other sources. At any rate, his athleticism was his most highly-prized trait, and he demanded to be buried with his bow.
Amenhotep II’s first campaign was at Takhsy, in Syria, where he personally executed the seven rebelling princes. He sent the bodies and heads to Thebes and Napata (the capital of Nubia), by way of cautioning any who dissented. Despite this and other extreme demonstrations (including riding into battle with severed hands and heads attached to his chariot), he was forced to return to the coastal city of Ugarit in order to secure supply lines to Egyptian fortresses in the Levant - again, he was successful. His last seventeen years were peaceful and during this time he added much to the Temple of Amon at Karnak.
Thutmose (Thothmes) IV, 1425-1417:
Apparently not the heir apparent, Thutmose IV was nonetheless the son of Amenhotep II and his chief wife, Queen Tiaa. The real reason for this lack of acknowledgement is unknown, but speculation (based on a stele found between the Giza Sphinx’s paws) alerts us to it. It concerns a fanciful tale, wherein Thutmose IV attempts to legitimise his accession by evoking ideas of divine favour. At any rate, his rule was defined by a peace treaty signed with Mitanni, who he (correctly) sensed were a growing power. To cement the treaty, he married King Artatama’s daughter, Mutemwa. The treaty is broadly hailed as a success, as it lasted for many years, where previously there was constant danger of full-scale war.
The one violent action Thutmose IV did conduct, though, was also successful. A rebellion was quickly dispersed in Nubia (preventing claims of cowardice from more hawkish military officers). Thutmose IV had little time for building plans or civic administration anyhow, though: with a reign of only eight or nine years, his few projects included an obelisk in Thebes (now situated in Rome), a modest mortuary temple and a wayside chapel for the barque of Amon. These monuments feature recurring images of the Aton (the visible sun-disc), although his borderline monotheism did not achieve the same notoriety as that of his grandson, Akhenaten of the 19th Dynasty. He died a relatively young man.
Amenhotep (Amenophis) III, 1417-1379:
The last of the 18th Dynasty Pharaohs, Amenhotep III was born of Mutemwa and is occasionally referred to as “the Magnificent.” Crowned at twelve, he married a common woman named Tiy and made her his principal wife. Amenhotep III’s actions are an anomaly in the history of Egyptian monarchs: not only was it frowned upon to choose a commoner as a wife, it was certainly very strange for him to build a temple for her worship (while she still lived), a special lake for her to go boating on in private and to actively encourage her interest in religious matters (as she was particularly devoted to the Aton). During his last days, he became ill and self-indulgent, perhaps a sign of the decline which was evident in the turmoil of the 19th Dynasty.
In the fifth year of his reign, Amenhotep III was forced to tackle a revolt in Nubia. This was the only rebellion he encountered here. There were some troubles in the Nile Delta, but these were quickly dealt with by one of his officials. Like his father, he was keen to use diplomacy to resolve disputes before war became necessary: he maintained good relations with other monarchs, frequently writing to them. The letters (discovered at Tell el-Amarna, and so dubbed “the Amarna Letters”) give an enormous amount of evidence about Egypt, its neighbours and the rulers of both during this time. He also married princesses of Mitanni and Babylon; King Tushratta of Mitanni was a close friend of Amenhotep III’s, sending messages of concern and (supposedly) curative charms to him when he became ill in later years. Trade was strong and relations good, save when Amenhotep’s pacifism was seen as weakness by several client rulers who rose up and were quickly halted.
Amenhotep III’s policies saw the empire and treasury expanded to its greatest extent. He ordered the construction of a massive pylon at Karnak, a temple to Amun at Luxor, a palace at Malkata and a gigantic mortuary temple at Thebes, which is now mostly in ruins. The remnants, the Colossi of Memnon, are twenty metre tall statues of a seated Amenhotep III hewn from a single block of stone.
…And then came the 19th Dynasty. Throughout this period, the sun slowly began to set upon the empire of the ancient Egyptians.
The World of Ancient Times, Carl Roebuck
Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia, various authors
History of Ancient Egypt, Gae Callender
Documents of the Egyptian Empire (1580-1380) , C. Forbes and C. Garner