2015/10/10

The Decline of the Pharaohs

Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs
The Decline of the Pharaohs

During the New Kingdom Ramsees II and his successors were unable to pull Egypt out of what would prove to be a long and steady decline, bringing to an end the glorious age of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. During the 20th dynasty, towards the end of the 2nd millennium B.C., the Egyptian empire began to falter under the strain of repeated attacks by Mediterranean invaders known only as "Peoples of the Sea," who crossed over from the region of Greece and attacked Egypt from the north or via Libya in the west. The Third Intermediate Period was now upon Egypt.

  The Decline of the Pharaohs
Abu Simbel Close Up




As one weak dynasty followed another, the country slid into anarchy. Competing dynasties, including one founded by priests and another by a Libyan prince, began to tear the country apart. Eventually, in 667 B.C., the country was invaded by the Assyrians, a neighboring Middle Eastern empire with a reputation for ruthlessness and, for a brief while, they dominated the country. The Egyptians fought back and momentarily reestablished their rule, only to be invaded once more, in 525 B.C., by the powerful Persian Empire, which reduced their country to the status of a mere province. 


Despite initially respecting the customs and traditions of the ancient Egyptians, the new Persian rulers became heavy-handed once they had consolidated their power. A series of anti-Persian uprisings culminated in a brief spell of renewed Egyptian independence, only to be dashed by yet another Persian invasion in 341 B.C.

 Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs

Barely a decade later, in 332 B.C., a 25-year-old Greek commander, known to the Western world as Alexander the Great, scored a series of defeats against the Persians and heralded in a new phase of Egyptian history. Alexander was the young ruler of a group of united Greek city states. He had shown himself to be a brilliant military commander and was in the process of building himself a huge empire. Jubilant at having been liberated from their Persian overlords, the Egyptians gave Alexander a hero's welcome.

In Egypt, Alexander made the difficult journey to Siwa to consult the famous oracle of Amun. It was a highly significant act for the Greek commander, who had dreamed in his youth that he was the son of Amun. Fortunately, his divine birth was confirmed by the oracle. Satisfied, the priests of Amun accorded him the honor of a deity, and he was accepted as the new pharaoh of Egypt.

Yet the ambitious Alexander had pressing military engagements elsewhere, and the following year he left Egypt to wage campaigns in the Middle East and the Indus Valley, in present-day Pakistan.

The young commander's phenomenal career was cut short by a fever in 323 B.C. before he ever had the chance to return to Egypt. Following his death, his empire was divided amongst his most powerful generals. Egypt went to his close friend and companion, Ptolemy. The Egyptians, unaware of the extent to which they would lose their independence, were quite happy to accept him as Alexander's heir and to proclaim him their new pharaoh.

The arrival of the Greeks dealt the final blow to the pharaonic age. Whereas before, the Egyptians had successfully pulled themselves out of periods of sustained crisis and reestablished their own dynasties, it would be a long time before the country would be ruled by native rulers once more. The Greeks were now in Egypt to stay, and for the next 300 years, it was Ptolemy's who would hold sway over the country.

During the New Kingdom, the cult of the sun god Ra became increasingly important until it evolved into the uncompromising monotheism of Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV, 1364-1347 B.C.). According to the cult, Ra created himself from a primeval mound in the shape of a pyramid and then created all other gods. Thus, Ra was not only the sun god, he was also the universe, having created himself from himself. Ra was invoked as Aten or the Great Disc that illuminated the world of the living and the dead.

Akhenaten
Akhenaten

The effect of these doctrines can be seen in the sun worship of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who became an uncompromising monotheist. Aldred has speculated that monotheism was Akhenaten's own idea, the result of regarding Aten as a self-created heavenly king whose son, the pharaoh, was also unique. Akhenaten made Aten the supreme state god, symbolized as a rayed disk with each sunbeam ending in a ministering hand. Other gods were abolished, their images smashed, their names excised, their temples abandoned, and their revenues impounded.

The plural word for god was suppressed. Sometime in the fifth or sixth year of his reign, Akhenaten moved his capital to a new city called Akhetaten (present-day Tall al Amarinah, also seen as Tell al Amarna). At that time, the pharaoh, previously known as Amenhotep IV, adopted the name Akhenaten. His wife, Queen Nefertiti, shared his beliefs.

Akhenaten, maybe the first monotheist?
Akhenaten, maybe the first monotheist?

Akhenaten's religious ideas did not survive his death. His ideas were abandoned in part because of the economic collapse that ensued at the end of his reign. To restore the morale of the nation, Akhenaten's successor, Tutankhamen, appeased the offended gods whose resentment would have blighted all human enterprise. Temples were cleaned and repaired, new images made, priests appointed, and endowments restored. Akhenaten's new city was abandoned to the desert sands.


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