The dark side of ancient Egypt
Guy de la Bédoyère is a historian and author. His latest book, Pharaohs of the Sun: How Egypt's Despots and Dreamers Drove the Rise and Fall of Tutankhamun's Dynasty (Little, Brown) is out now
This article first featured in the December 2022 edition of BBC History Magazine
From the colossal temples of Luxor to Tutankhamun's golden death mask, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt's golden age created some of history's greatest treasures. Yet, writes Guy de la Bédoyère, behind the glittering facade lay a society built on brutality, inequality and staggering levels of corruption
On 26 November 1922, when Howard Carter reported what he could make out in the gloom of a dusty chamber in the Valley of the Kings, a new phase of Egyptomania began. For more than 100 years, since Napoleon's Egyptian campaign at the turn of the 19th century, Europeans and North Americans had been enthralled by the architecture, art, design and dress of this ancient civilisation.
Carter's discovery was different, though. "Everywhere the glint of gold!" he famously recalled of the moment he first saw the wonders of Tutankhamun's tomb. The scene was set for an international fixation with this gilded young pharaoh who presided over a glittering court of fabulous wealth. Tutankhamun seduced the world, further sensationalising the popular image of Egypt at its height during the 18th Dynasty (c1550–1295 BC).Monuments such as the temples at Luxor and Karnak in southern Egypt had already stunned visitors and archaeologists alike. They spoke of a Bronze Age imperialist state possessed of astonishing confidence, led by chariot-borne pharaohs firing off a fusillade of arrows at their cowering foes.
Yet look beyond the dazzling architecture, the power and the riches, and there's a darker tale to be told about ancient Egypt's so-called golden age. It's a story of wealth, glory and political power being monopolised by a tiny, spectacularly self-entitled elite, while everyone else was left to scrabble around in the dirt.
The 18th Dynasty was born out of an episode of disorder known today as the Second Intermediate Period. Around 1550 BC, a warrior king called Ahmose I emerged from obscurity to expel the Asiatic Hyksos from the Nile Delta region. Adapting the Hyksos's horse-drawn chariot, Ahmose transformed Egypt's army into a dynamic force that tore through the near east and Nubia (north-east Africa). He also created the Egyptian royal liberation myth that legitimated the dynasty's hold on power, posing as the protector of maat (truth and harmony) from the forces of chaos.Ahmose and his successors diverted Egypt's resources into self-glorification and the magnificence of temples to the gods who backed their power. No wonder most of them claimed to have been sired by the king of the gods, Amun himself. Indeed, Amun's temple at Karnak became a state within a state.
The kings were gleefully backed by the elites, who were on the make just as much as their rulers. Take Ahmes, son of Ibana, a brilliantly successful soldier – or so he claimed – under the first three kings of the 18th Dynasty: Ahmose, Amenhotep I and Thutmose I. His tomb biography itemises his derring-do, recounting how his admiring kings handed him shares of booty, slaves and land, as well as promoting him to the highest position in the armed forces. "I have been rewarded with gold seven times before the entire land, and also with male and female slaves. I have been endowed with many fields," he bragged.
Thutmose I was equally boastful. A typically tendentious stela inscription from one of his Nubian wars claimed that so many of the enemy archers had been killed that the valleys were "flooded with their innards", and all of the local birds were unable to carry off the body parts. This was routine pharaonic bombast: inscriptions always portrayed the king as a dynamic superhero, and his hapless Nubian or Asiatic foes as witless cowards led by imbeciles.
War profits were mostly spent on conspicuous waste, but helped create an illusion of permanence. State vanity building projects were designed to glorify the regime as part of that mirage. Take as an example the works of Hatshepsut, daughter of Thutmose I. Widowed after the death of her husband (also her half-brother) Thutmose II in 1479 BC, she acted as regent for her half-nephew, the child Thutmose III, before declaring herself king alongside him. Because Egypt had no concept of the queen regnant, she had to redefine their role as a composite king and queen.
Exulting in her power and wealth, Hatshepsut commissioned her vast terraced mortuary temple in western Thebes (now Luxor), designed by her steward and admirer-in-chief, Senenmut. At Karnak she erected several obelisks, including two that towered over the temple, tipped with glittering electrum. These honoured Amun, her divine father, who had chosen her – so she claimed – to be king. Inscriptions on them record her musing: "My imagination runs riot, wondering what the common people who see my monument in the years to come will say."Following her death in 1458 BC, the now-adult Thutmose III roared into action with a vigour that left the near-eastern kings shaking in their sandals. Leading his army with bravado and recklessness, Thutmose conquered more territory than any other pharaoh.
Thutmose III's Annals, inscribed on a wall at Karnak, comprise a triumphant account of systematic brutalisation and greedy acquisitiveness, itemising his booty with covetous precision. In the first year of conquest alone, the haul included 924 chariots from the enemy army and allied princes. Livestock seized included 20,500 sheep, and he also took several thousand slaves and a "silver statue with a golden head". The detailed inventory lists everything from knives to "one large jar of Syrian workmanship" and 207,300 sacks of wheat. Year on year, more piled in, along with several trophy wives for Thutmose's harem.
During this period, Egypt's only interest was profiteering, backed by a constant threat of violence. Nothing was done to create a sustainable system of provincial government. Instead, a teetering hierarchy of avaricious, nepotistic officials and priests squabbled over position and power. They poured their kickbacks into tombs and chapels to memorialise themselves and advertise their families' greatness, much like the "prodigy houses" of Elizabethan England 3,000 years later.
One such official was Rekhmire, vizier to Thutmose III and his son Amenhotep II. This swaggering bigwig (who indeed wore a big wig to prove his status) built himself an extravagant memorial chapel at Thebes. Scenes inscribed there depict the great man lording it over his underlings as they slaved on various projects, and tribute bearers from foreign lands carrying in epic quantities of goods for the Egyptian state.
Texts at his chapel boast how "greatly loved" and "greatly respected" Rekhmire was, and that he was the beneficiary of royal favour. This chapel was an extravagant monument showcasing his status, paid for out of the profits of high office, legitimate or otherwise. It was later desecrated, suggesting that he fell from favour – a fate that befell more than a few major officials. In the superheated context and bitter rivalries of a Bronze Age superstate court, the stakes were enormous.One gets the measure of these pompous martinets from a letter sent by Sennefer, another high official under Amenhotep II, to a farmer, demanding that food and flowers be made ready for his visit. "Do not let me find fault with you concerning your post," he ranted. "Do not have it lacking in good order… You shall not slack, for I know that you are sluggish and fond of eating lying down."
Theft was endemic, a consequence of the staggering inequality pervasive in Egypt at the time. Of course, there's no point in judging a Bronze Age nation by the standards of today, but in Egypt the gap steadily widened as the elite abused its power. Egyptian kings and high officials happily took from other nations and even from each other. Kings purloined or demolished their predecessors' monuments, absorbed their achievements, and sometimes even helped themselves to grave goods.
Egypt's downtrodden underclass were also fully aware of the spoils waiting for those courageous enough to raid graves, often helped or even commissioned by corrupt officials. Tomb-robbing really took off in the centuries following the 18th Dynasty, but two break-ins at Tutankhamun's tomb soon after his burial in c1327 BC show that gangs were already at work then. All were prepared to risk the brutal punishments meted out to criminals, including mutilation and impalement.
Heights of extravagance
Many of the kings of the 18th Dynasty were young adults or even infants when they succeeded to the throne. So it was with Amenhotep III (ruled c1390–1352 BC), great-grandson of Thutmose III, who was still a child when he became king. Yet so embedded was the system and the divine myth with which the royal line had surrounded itself that such young kings ruled unchallenged. The otiose Amenhotep III and his fiercely dominant wife, Tiye, presided over a culture of solar worship, with the king as the supreme mortal. His reign reached new heights of extravagance.
Most foreign nations handed over tribute rather than risk conflict. Surviving diplomatic correspondence shows that Amenhotep III's neighbours constantly sought his friendship and benevolence. They took infantile pleasure in receiving evidence of his approval and good intent in the form of letters and gifts. And they grew petulant and worried if these seemed in any way to devalue their conceits about their standing in his eyes.
Amenhotep III built a sprawling palace complex on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes, and a memorial mortuary temple nearby, with courts and pylons fronted by colossi depicting himself. The temple was filled with slaves, and accommodated "the children of the princes of all the countries of the captivity of His Majesty". It was also surrounded by "settlements of Syrians, colonised by the children of princes", showcasing Amenhotep's power.
The temple's two front statues, the so-called Colossi of Memnon, still stand. In his dedication speech, Amenhotep mentioned the "great rejoicing because of their size". These vast statues, each more than 18 metres high and weighing perhaps 700 tonnes, were carved from blocks of stone brought from near the site of modern Cairo. They were far from accurate depictions, though. If the mummy believed to be his has been correctly identified, Amenhotep was a man barely over 5ft tall, afflicted with rotten teeth, obesity and his inbred dynasty's congenital overbite.
Such figures were designed to show that the king was bigger and more powerful than anyone else, but also to trumpet the capabilities of the Egyptian state. The creation of such statues, and most of the gigantic monuments, palaces and temples, involved startling levels of labour and danger for ordinary Egyptians and foreign slaves. Most of these projects were never finished; perhaps going slow was one way for the workers to fight back.
Aten's agents on Earth
Akhenaten, son of Amenhotep III and Tiye, and his queen Nefertiti launched a religious revolution. He famously shut down the cult of Amun and that of most other gods, supplanting them with worship of the Aten, the solar disc. The Aten was not new, but the idea of putting it centre stage was. Akhenaten and Nefertiti were the Aten's agents on Earth – the supreme medium through which the Aten's powers could be accessed.A huge Aten complex was built at Karnak using forced labour. In the face of resistance from established interests, though, around 1348 BC Akhenaten and Nefertiti abandoned Thebes and moved the whole court north to the site now known as Tell el-Amarna (or simply Amarna), on the Nile roughly midway between Luxor and Cairo. Here they established a new city, Akhet-aten ("Horizon of the Aten"), with palaces and temples where they could indulge their ecstatic cult, bathed in the rays of the Aten. They cruised down the Amarna strip in their chariots, substituting themselves for the old cult statues and posing in tableaux vivants as the intermediaries between ordinary mortals and the gods.
The complex theology of Atenism was built on an idealised state of affairs epitomised in Akhenaten's "Hymn to the Aten". "You rise in perfect beauty from the sky's horizon, the living Aten who begins life", Akhenaten said, comparing night to death, and musing on how sunrise brought renewal and triggered life in a mother's womb.
Theirs was one of the most outrageous conceits in history, possible only in a system where the word of the king was unquestioned. For all the bizarre mystery of Atenism and the artistic revolution over which Akhenaten presided, his dreams came at a terrible price for his people (see box, below). The general stress under which the Amarna population lived resulted in an adult population unusually short in stature for dynastic times, when compared to studies from other sites and periods. Men averaged just 5ft 4ins (1.63 metres) in height, and women only 5ft (1.52 metres). And for all their religious idealism and utopian vision, Akhenaten and Nefertiti had little to offer most of their people. They relied on the existing social structure and the traditional acceptance by those lower down the ladder of their position in the hierarchy.
Demise of a dynasty
It's possible that Nefertiti ruled briefly as king after Akhenaten's death, but their religious revolution was soon abandoned as fast as it had begun. The dynasty foundered with Tutankhamun, who was probably Akhenaten's son and married that king's third daughter, Ankhesenamun. Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun's childless, decade-long reign, and the sickly king's premature death, left the royal line in a tight corner. Foreign powers – especially the rising Hittites – spotted Egypt's weakness and began to muscle in.
For a few years after Tutankhamun's death, an elderly career official called Ay – who was also possibly a relative – wielded power before being displaced in 1323 BC by a remarkable figure called Horemheb. Though believed to be of lowly origins, Horemheb had forged a brilliant military career that brought him fame and fortune under Tutankhamun. He then became king, largely because there was no one else left to take the throne. However, Horemheb could not manufacture a myth of being fathered by Amun in the guise of a predecessor. Instead, he claimed to have been chosen and reared by Amun, and embarked on undoing what he called the "storm" of Akhenaten's regime.Horemheb understood the responsibilities of power and the transaction between a king and his people. He overturned abuses (or claimed to), and it's thanks to his reform programme that we know about some of the ingrained corruption of preceding regimes.
Soldiers had become accustomed to brutalising poor people, ripping them off on the pretext of collecting legitimate dues for the royal harem. Royal officials helped themselves to ordinary people's slaves, putting them to work on their own projects. They took the best of the vegetables from poor people, too, claiming they were "for the impost [tax] of pharaoh". Such abuses, detailed in a text known as the Great Edict of Horemheb inscribed on a stela at Karnak, dated back at least as far as Thutmose III's time.
Horemheb ordered grievous punishments for those who abused their power. If a soldier was found guilty of extortion, "his nose shall be cut off". Those caught stealing hides were to be subjected to "a hundred blows, opening five wounds". Horemheb also warned members of local judiciary panels not to accept bribes. In the middle of Egypt's Bronze Age, he was the first enlightened despot.
Horemheb also played the part of a traditional pharaoh. He built monuments at Karnak, usurped those of his predecessors – especially Tutankhamun and Ay – and completed the demolition of Akhenaten's first Aten temple at Karnak. But he left no heir. Horemheb was the last ruler of Egypt's 18th Dynasty.
The despots and dreamers of that dynasty had run an international imperialist state protection racket. They brought Egypt security, stability and a sense of superiority. But those benefits came at an enormous price.
The Egyptian people were controlled through the opiate of cult and ritual that dominated society. There was no political representation, and no mechanism of protest or reform. This was arguably the first great historical era of conspicuous inequality. Egypt's glory days were built on a hierarchy with gold-bedecked kings at the top and the broken bodies of labourers, including children and prisoners of war, at the bottom.
Scurvy, sweat and stunted growth
Excavations of one of ancient Egypt's great cities reveal how the underclass paid for a pharaoh's indulgences
Standing on the east bank of the Nile, the city of Akhet-aten (today known as Tell el-Amarna) was one of the jewels of Egypt's late 18th Dynasty. Built in the 14th century BC by the pharaoh Akhenaten as his great capital, where he could give full expression to his devotion to the solar disc, Aten, it was abandoned just a few years after his death in c1336 BC.
We now know there was a darker side to this city of temples and palaces. That's because excavations of Akhet-aten's cemeteries in recent years have provided some of the most graphic evidence for the price Egypt's underclass paid for pharaonic indulgences. Malnutrition was rife, as was scurvy. Stunted growth was common, along with bone and muscle conditions including injury and degenerative joint disease – the latter evident in more than three-quarters of adult bodies. Two-thirds had fractured bones, consequences of accidents and carrying heavy loads during the construction of Akhenaten's vanity project.
A medical papyrus from the Old Kingdom (c2575–c2130 BC), with its itemised guidance for the examination, diagnosis and treatment of injuries, shows that Egyptian doctors had long been familiar with the physical consequences of such work. And the tomb of Ipuy at Deir el-Medina in western Thebes illustrates the industrial accidents that even befell those making tomb furniture, including eye injuries and damaged limbs.
Many found at Amarna died young. In one study, more than half of the bodies examined were aged 7–14; more than a quarter of these had suffered fractures of some sort. Few of the adults were older than their mid-twenties at death. None were mummified – they lacked the means even for the most basic process.
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