Egypt: The New Kingdom

The New Kingdom

The XVIII dynasty is the most important and the best-recorded period in Egyptian history. The local governors generally opposed both the Hyksos and the new dynasty; those who survived were now made mere administrators, their lands passing to the crown. Ancient Egypt reached its height. Its boundaries were extended into Asia, with a foreign province reaching the Euphrates (see Thutmose I). Letters known as the Tell el Amarna tablets are dated to this dynasty and furnish the details of the reigns of Amenhotep III and his son, Ikhnaton. As Ikhnaton neglected his rule in the pursuit of religion, letters from local rulers became increasingly urgent in begging help, especially against the Hittites. Of the rulers following Ikhnaton in this dynasty, Tutankhamen is important for his law code and his enforcement of those laws through the courts. Architecture was at its zenith with the enormous and impressive buildings at and around Thebes.

Egyptian civilization seems to have worn out rapidly after conflicts with the Hittites under the XIX dynasty and with sea raiders under the XX dynasty. With a succession of weak kings, the Theban priesthood practically ruled the country and continued to maintain a sort of theocracy for 450 years. In the delta the Libyan element had been growing, and with the disappearance of the weak XXI dynasty, which had governed from Tanis, a Libyan dynasty came to power. This was succeeded by the alien rule of Nubians, black Africans who advanced from the south to the delta under Piankhi and later conquered the land. The rising power of Assyria threatened Egypt by absorbing the petty states of Syria and Palestine, and Assyrian kings had reached the borders of Egypt several times before Esar-Haddon actually invaded (673 b.c.) the land of the Nile.

Assyrian rule was, however, short-lived; by 650 b.c., under Psamtik, Egypt was once more independent and orderly. Greek traders became important, and their city of Naucratis, founded by Amasis II, thrived. Attempts to reestablish Egyptian power in Asia were turned back (605 b.c.) by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, and Egypt fell easy prey (525 b.c.) to the armies of Cambyses of Persia. Despite occasional troubles, the Persians maintained their hegemony until 405 b.c. New dynasties were then established, but they did not regain the old splendor. The Persians again became dominant in 341 b.c. Egypt, rich and ill-defended, fell to Alexander the Great without resistance in 332 b.c.

When Alexander's brief empire faded, Egypt in the wars of his successors (the Diadochi) fell to his general Ptolemy, who became king as Ptolemy I. All the succeeding kings of the dynasty were also named Ptolemy. The great city of Alexandria became the intellectual center and fountainhead of the Hellenistic world. The Ptolemies maintained a formidable empire for more than two centuries and exercised great power in the E Mediterranean. The Jewish population was large—perhaps as much as a seventh of the total population—and even the Palestinian Jews looked to the Alexandrian Jews for guidance.

The rising power of Rome soon overshadowed Egypt, but it was not until Ptolemy XII sought Roman aid through Pompey to regain his throne that Rome actually obtained (58 b.c.) a foothold in Egypt itself. Cleopatra, the daughter of Ptolemy XII, tried to win back power for Egypt, especially through Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) actually annexed Egypt to Rome, putting to death Cleopatra's son, Ptolemy XV, who was the last of the Ptolemies. Egypt became a granary for Rome; the emperors from Augustus to Hadrian raised the irrigation system to great efficiency, and Trajan reopened the ancient Nile–Red Sea canal. In the 2d cent. a.d., strife between Jews and Greeks in Alexandria brought massacres.

Christianity was welcomed in Egypt, and several of the most celebrated Doctors of the Church, notably St. Athanasius, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and Origen, were Egyptians. Egypt gave rise to the Arian and Nestorian heresies, and Gnosticism flourished there for a time. The patriarch of Alexandria was probably the most important figure in Egypt. After St. Cyril, Monophysitism became the national faith; out of this arose the Coptic Church. The hostility of the people to the Orthodox Byzantine emperors and officials probably helped Khosru II of Persia to gain Egypt in 616. It was recovered (c.628) by Heraclius, but the Persian invasion proved to be only a forerunner of the more serious Arabian invasion.

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