When most of us hear ‘ancient Egypt’, the New Kingdom is what springs most often to mind. But with the exception of Rameses, almost all the great figures come from a single Dynasty of the New Kingdom, the first: the Eighteenth Dynasty, by Manetho’s tradition.
This was the time of Tutankhamun, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti. It was a period of unprecedented wealth and prosperity, of great military and diplomatic successes, of religious evolution and – most uncharacteristically – of empire. But immediately before the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egypt was sandwiched between two foreign kingdoms, who were encroaching on it’s traditional territory. To the north-west, holding the Delta, there were the Hyksos. To the South, in Nubia, was the kingdom of Kush – a truly fascinating culture that has only recently begun to be properly explored.
But we’ll deal only with Egypt, for now. In the reign of only three kings, Egypt went from a small, submissive state squeezed between it’s neighbours to not only reclaim, but begin to extend it’s traditional territory. That’s quite a change.
The first of those kings was Seqenenre Ta’a, the second-to-last king of Dynasty Seventeen. His mummy survives, but we know relatively little of him, except that he began the push back against the Hyksos. This we know because there is an impact wound in his skull that matches the shape of a Hyksos battleaxe – he was definitely fighting the Hyksos, and even died in battle.
His successor, probably in the same family, was called Kamose. He was the last king of Dynasty Seventeen. We do not have Kamose’s mummy, nor even a tomb, but we do have some inscriptions and stelae. We also have a tomb of one of the soldiers who served under him, a tomb which contains a rather long and exceptionally useful biography of it’s owner’s career under various kings. From these sources, we can learn that Kamose led a rather successful campaign against the Hyksos in the north. He reclaimed territory right up to the north-west Delta, but didn’t actually penetrate their well defended capital Avaris. He also campaigned in Nubia. Although he didn’t succeed in re-unifying Egypt, his efforts certainly made it possible for his successor to do so.
That successor was Ahmose, the first king of the Eighteenth Dynasty. It was he who conquered Avaris, and campaigned equally successfully in Kush. He reclaimed the last of the traditional ‘two lands’, and even extended the borders, the first hints of the expansionism that would, really for the first time, be characteristic of the dynasty.
I’m doing a course on Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty this semester. This seemed more fun than bullet-point study notes.