Egypt had one of the most enduring and most captivating civilizations of the ancient world, one that still greatly fascinates us today. Their society stretched over 3,000 years of history and brought us the pyramids, the sphinx, the mummies, and, of course, the pharaohs – the all-powerful rulers of Ancient Egypt who were thought to be descended from the gods themselves.
With such a long history, there were obviously a lot of pharaohs, so today we will be taking a look in chronological order at 10 of them who, arguably, played the most significant roles in the development of Ancient Egypt.
It’s not surprising that we are starting this list with the first pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, the ruler who united the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt and founded the First Dynasty over 5,000 years ago. However, his identity is still a matter of debate among scholars.
Basically, we have two names to work with – Narmer and Menes – and there is evidence which identifies each man as being the first pharaoh, although more of it seems to be in favor of Narmer. The Narmer Palette, for instance, is a strong example, since it dates to his own time. Not only does it identify Narmer by name, but it also shows him wearing the crowns of both Upper and Lower Egypt.
There is a third possibility, one that has been discussed among Egyptologists for a hundred years, and that is that Narmer and Menes were, in fact, the same person, which would not be entirely out of the question since pharaohs had multiple names.
Whatever his name might have been, it’s what he did that matters, as the first pharaoh created a new kingdom, which would go on to have a unique and undeniable place in ancient history.
Obviously, one of the first things that come to people’s minds when thinking about the Egyptians is pyramids. However, the construction of these ancient marvels was a drawn-out process, as the Egyptians did not start with pyramids right off the bat. They did not have the know-how to build these complex structures, nor did they have the interest since the pharaoh’s afterlife was not such an integral part of their culture. At least not yet…
The very first pharaohs were buried in basic tombs that consisted only of a few chambers dug into the ground and lined with mud bricks. Some of them had a mastaba, which was a tomb that had a flat, rectangular roof. During the second dynasty, gallery graves became more common, although some of their tombs remain undiscovered to this day.
Then came Djoser, the first pharaoh of the Third Dynasty. He apparently had a lengthy reign, during which he led several successful military expeditions and secured precious resources for his kingdom. The one thing he is remembered for, however, is his tomb at the Saqqara necropolis, which is not only Egypt’s first pyramid, but also its oldest-surviving stone structure.
Credit for this innovation usually goes to Djoser’s royal architect, Imhotep. Since he wanted to create something grander than anything ever seen before, he started off with a traditional mastaba, but then placed another, smaller one on top of it. And then another on top of that one…and another on top of that one. And so on until the Step Pyramid, as it came to be known, measured six layers and almost 200 feet in height. Fortunately for us, he also built it out of cut limestone instead of mud bricks, so it survives even today, almost 5,000 years later.
The Third Dynasty might have started the trend of constructing pyramids to serve as royal tombs for the pharaohs, but it was the Fourth Dynasty that perfected it. This was a Golden Age for Ancient Egypt, one which allowed the pharaohs to spend staggering amounts of resources and labor in order to build their royal tombs. This gave us the Giza Plateau, located today outside the city of Cairo, where three giant pyramids still rise up in defiance of humanity’s ephemeral nature, accompanied by another well-known ancient marvel, the Great Sphinx, as well as a few smaller, subsidiary pyramids. They belong to Khufu, as well as two other Fourth Dynasty pharaohs who came after him – Khafre and Menkaure, who get honorable mentions on this list.
Very little is known about Khufu outside of his pyramid, but that feat alone was enough to secure his place in history.
7. Mentuhotep II
Even though the Age of the Pharaohs is known for its longevity, it almost ended a lot sooner if not for Mentuhotep II, which is why he belongs on this list, even though his name might not be familiar to a lot of people.
With the end of the Sixth Dynasty also came the end of Egypt’s so-called Old Kingdom around 2200 BC. It was followed by a 125-year interval full of strife and chaos known as the First Intermediate Period. During this time, Egypt was no longer unified – the pharaohs of Upper Egypt ruled from Thebes, while those in Lower Egypt established a new seat of power at Heracleopolis. Ostensibly, four-and-a-half dynasties are included in the First Intermediate Period, but the rulers of these dynasties are almost completely unknown to us. Many of them had short reigns of only a couple of years and today, we only know them as names in a kings list and nothing else.
Mentuhotep II is recognized as the sixth pharaoh of the 11th Dynasty, which ruled Upper Egypt concurrently with the 10th Dynasty governing over Lower Egypt. In the 14th year of his reign, he launched a military campaign against Lower Egypt, and he slowly, but surely pushed the enemy forces further up north. The opposing pharaoh of the 10th Dynasty, Merikare, died around this time, making it even easier for Mentuhotep to advance, eventually conquering Heracleopolis and reuniting the two Egypts.
Mentuhotep II became the first pharaoh of a new golden age known as the Middle Kingdom, and in later inscriptions has been referred to as the “second founder” of Egypt.
After the Middle Kingdom came another time of instability, predictably named the Second Intermediate Period. Egypt was once again divided, but this time, a great part of it had been lost to a foreign power – the people known as Hyksos, who conquered most of Egypt and formed the 15th Dynasty. Meanwhile, the native pharaohs only retained control over Thebes and the region surrounding it, and the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Dynasties ruled over this land concurrently with the Hyksos.
This time, it wasn’t a single pharaoh who restored Egypt to its former glory, but rather a protracted conflict that spanned over several reigns. It culminated with Ahmose I, who permanently defeated the Hyksos, united Egypt once again and launched the third and final golden age known as the New Kingdom. He was the first pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, a crucial dynasty that will be well-represented in this list, as you will soon find out. However, since we are limiting ourselves to ten entries, Ahmose I only gets an honorable mention, as we focus on the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Hatshepsut.
What makes this pharaoh special? Hatshepsut was a woman. Not only that, but 19th century Egyptologist James Henry Breasted described Hatshepsut as the “first great woman in history of whom we are informed.”
Initially, Hatshepsut ruled as regent for her young stepson, Thutmose III, but she did not cede power when he came of age, instead installing herself as pharaoh in her own right. Why and how she did this is still a matter of debate – some think it was simple lust for power, while others believe that Hatshepsut did it to protect her stepson from another family member vying for the throne.
Hatshepsut had a lengthy and productive reign, leaving behind a rich and powerful empire which Thutmose III expanded to its greatest size ever, making him also worthy of a mention here on our list. She was not the first female pharaoh – at least one and, perhaps, two other women came before her, plus others who served as regents. But Hatshepsut was, undoubtedly, the most powerful woman to rule over Ancient Egypt.
We are staying in the 18th Dynasty, but we are moving on to a pharaoh who achieved everlasting notoriety for something completely different. Initially ruling as Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten is remembered as a heretic who rejected thousands of years of religious tradition. He did away with all the old gods and introduced a new monotheistic religion called Atenism, which focused on the worship of Aten, the sun disc.
At the same time, the pharaoh decided that he needed a new city to serve as his capital, so he founded Akhetaten, which later became known as Amarna and also lent its name to a new and short-lived art style that remains unique in Egypt’s history.
Akhenaten was obsessed with Atenism, to the detriment of all other aspects of his reign. His last few years as pharaoh are poorly attested, so we are uncertain about his death and succession, but we do know that Atenism died with him. After Akhenaten was gone, the Egyptians quickly reversed all of his policies and went back to the old ways, even abandoning his new city after only 20 years of occupation.
This worked out well for us because, otherwise, we might have never known about him. After his death, his temples were torn down and his name removed from inscriptions, in an effort to wipe Akhenaten from history. And it worked for 3300 years, until the ruins of Amarna were excavated during the 19th century.
This entry barely needs an introduction since Tutankhamun is the most famous pharaoh in history. He was the son of our previous entry, Akhenaten, and assumed the throne when he was just eight or nine years old. Because the Egyptians had firmly rejected Atenism, Tutankhamun spent the first part of his reign reversing the policies enacted by his father – Thebes became the capital again and the old gods were worshipped once more. The “Boy King” then distanced himself from his father and branded him a heretic who didn’t deserve to be remembered.
It is unlikely that Tutankhamun himself had any real say in the matter. Even though he was pharaoh, he was still a child, and most decisions were made by his close advisors, particularly Ay, who succeeded him as pharaoh.
Tutankhamun died when he was 17 years old, following a rather insignificant reign. It certainly was not enough to warrant an inclusion on this list, but all of his fame was achieved posthumously, almost 3300 years later.
In November, 1922, Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Tombs of the pharaohs had been found before, but none were quite like this. It was nearly intact and over 5,000 items were recovered from the tomb, including Tutankhamun’s iconic gold mask, his intact sarcophagus and his mummy, a dagger made from meteorite, a pair of trumpets, and other priceless treasures that provided us with a glimpse into the past that, up until that point, we thought impossible.
3. Ramses II
Ramses II, also spelled Ramesses and sometimes known as Ozymandias, is considered by many scholars to be the greatest pharaoh in Egyptian history. He had an incredibly long reign, ruling until he was in his early 90s and fathering around one hundred children. He was probably Ancient Egypt’s most prolific builder, but was also one of its most successful military leaders. After over six decades on the throne, he arguably brought his civilization to the peak of its power, and even today, remnants of his mighty reign are still prevalent throughout Egypt.
Ramses became pharaoh following the reign of his father, Seti I, who was also a successful ruler who left behind a rich kingdom, allowing his son to take it to new heights. Ramses started by commissioning a large number of construction projects – religious temples, funerary temples, monuments, and a lot of giant statues of himself.
Afterwards, the pharaoh embarked on a series of military campaigns against the Nubians, the Canaanites, the Lybians, and his greatest foe, the Hittites. His victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh which led to a peace treaty between the two sides is often hailed as his greatest achievement, but it is also important from a scholarly perspective, as the text for the treaty still survives, and in both languages, which is something unique from that time.
But the text is just the beginning, because there are so many other elements from his reign which can still be seen today. There’s the temple complex known as the Ramesseum; the massive rock-cut temples at Abu Simbel, all of the giant statues of the pharaoh, and, of course, the mummy of Ramses himself. They all serve as reminders of the time when Ramses II ruled over Egypt.
2. Cambyses II
After an entry who symbolized Egypt at the peak of its power, we have one who is the antithesis of that. Cambyses II was not Egyptian, but Persian. He was the son of Cyrus the Great and the second ruler of the Achaemenid Empire. Cambyses conquered Egypt and became the first pharaoh of the 27th Dynasty, turning the once-mighty kingdom into just one part of an even-bigger empire, and never again would Egypt manage to soar to the heights it once achieved.
In 525 BC, Cambyses defeated Pharaoh Psamtik III at the Battle of Pelusium, bringing an end to the rule of the 26th Dynasty. Egypt then became part of the Achaemenid Empire and the 27th Dynasty lasted for 125 years and consisted mainly of Persian pharaohs, as well as a few native Egyptians who managed to rebel for a few years.
The rule of Cambyses II represented a turning point for Ancient Egypt. The kingdom had been conquered before and ruled by foreign pharaohs, but always succeeded in turning the tide and regaining their independence. They managed to do it here, too, but only for a brief 60-year period before being conquered once more by the Persians under Artaxerxes III. Afterwards came Alexander the Great. Following his death, his former general Ptolemy started the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty. And after them came the Romans, thus bringing an end to the time of the pharaohs.
We end this list with Cleopatra, who is not only one of the most famous rulers in ancient history, but likely the last true pharaoh of Egypt. We say “likely” because Caesarion, her child with Julius Caesar, may have technically been the sole pharaoh for a few days after Cleopatra’s death, until he was killed by the Roman general Octavian. But he didn’t have any real power. Egypt itself was far from the mighty kingdom it used to be, and served as a client state of Rome.
Besides her important place in history, Cleopatra (who was actually Cleopatra VII, if we’re being technical) became famous due to the many intrigues and affairs that plagued her life. She first fought her brother, Ptolemy XIII, over the throne, and she seduced Julius Caesar in order to secure his support. Afterwards, it is believed that she poisoned her other brother, Ptolemy XIV, so that she could name her son to be her new co-ruler. Once Caesar was dead, Cleopatra found a new lover in Mark Antony, and allied herself with him in his power struggle against Octavian. She killed herself once Antony had been defeated, using a venomous snake, according to her legend.
The death of Cleopatra and her son brought an end to the Ptolemaic bloodline. Octavian would then go on to become Augustus and found the Roman Empire, turning Egypt into one of its provinces. From a historical perspective, this brought a definitive end to the dynastic period of Egypt and started a new chapter in its history, that of Roman Egypt.