Gods Amongst Men - Egypt's 7 Greatest Pharaohs
Gods Amongst Men – Egypt’s 7 Greatest Pharaohs

Gods Amongst Men – Egypt’s 7 Greatest Pharaohs

Patrick Lynch - December 4, 2016

Over the course of thousands of years, hundreds of men and women benefitted from the title ‘Pharaoh of Egypt’. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh was an influential political and religious leader who was seen as a ‘god-king.’ Other titles held by these individuals included ‘Lord of the Two Lands’ and ‘High Priest of Every Temple.’ As well as owning all the land in Egypt, they were responsible for creating and enforcing the laws of the country.

The term ‘Pharaoh’ became the form of address for a king during the reign of Thutmose III in the 15th century BC although it wasn’t widely used for a few more centuries. The first ruler of Egypt was probably Menes in the 32nd or 31st century BC. He united Upper and Lower Egypt and made Memphis the capital. Cleopatra VII was the last Queen of Egypt and her death in 30 BC marked the beginning of the Roman Province of Egypt.

In this article, I look at seven of the greatest rulers of Egypt; some were great leaders, some were legendary builders and some, like Ahmose I, were both!

Gods Amongst Men – Egypt’s 7 Greatest Pharaohs
Sneferu (Ancient Wisdom Daily)



1 – Sneferu (2613-2589? BC)

As one might expect with a ruler that reigned over 4,500 years ago, the exact details of Sneferu’s reign are patchy. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt says he was Pharaoh for 24 years but other historians believe he ruled for a lot longer; up to 48 years according to Stadelmann. Certainly, the 24-year reign outlined in the Turin Canon is likely to be short although experts can’t agree on the dates or duration of his reign. Most of them agree that he founded the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt and his reign was the start of the Old Kingdom period. While most kings claimed the throne as their birthright, Sneferu became a monarch through marriage.

He is probably best known for the three pyramids built during his reign. The Meidum pyramid was his first attempt, but it was far from being a success. It was originally a seven-stepped pyramid but the steps were filled in to form a ‘true’ pyramid. However, the casing soon collapsed. The Bent pyramid was almost a disaster too as the sides were too steep. However, it was quickly made more stable. The Red pyramid was his final attempt and the most successful. Indeed, historians believe the Pharaoh was buried in it. Both the Bent and Red pyramids still stand today.

Historical records suggest Sneferu was an excellent military commander and he led a number of apparently successful campaigns against the Nubians and Libyans. The campaigns against Nubia, in particular, were lucrative as Egypt was able to take important construction raw materials that helped build various structures. Sneferu probably believed it was important to fight against Nubia to protect the nation’s southern borders. An inscription on the Palermo Stone suggests that the Pharaoh captured thousands of people from other countries and used them to increase the size of his labor force.

Sneferu ensured the power of the royal family remained intact and the majority of his appointed officials were also members of his ruling family. This enabled him to keep a tight grip on administrative affairs. When he died, he was succeeded by his son Khufu.

Gods Amongst Men – Egypt’s 7 Greatest Pharaohs

2 – Khufu (2589 – 2566? BC)

The son of Sneferu was to make his mark as the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Once again, the exact details of the dates and duration of his reign are not known. Modern historians suggest he reigned anywhere from 23 to 46 years while ancient historian Manetho suggests Khufu (also known as Cheops) reigned for an incredible 63 years which seems unlikely. He is believed to have had three wives and ironically, given the fact he presided over what was the world’s largest structure for thousands of years, the only statue of him that survives is approximately three inches tall!

There are also very different accounts of the type of ruler Khufu was. Ancient historians such as Diodorus, Herodotus, and Manetho claim he was a ruthless and cruel tyrant. In contrast, the 13th Dynasty Papyrus Westcar puts him in a more positive light. While there is no way of knowing for certain, it may be advisable to take the view of the ancients with a large grain of salt. This is because of their false assertion that the Great Pyramid was built by slaves. Herodotus, in particular, was adamant that slaves created the marvelous pyramid.

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the laborers were paid to complete the structure and worked in three-month shifts. There were probably 10,000-20,000 workers and the pyramid took up to 30 years to complete. A modern construction management study disagrees with these figures and claims the maximum workforce could have been 40,000 and the structure could have been completed in 10 years. Historians can’t even agree on the construction method used! The 2.3 million stones might have been lifted, dragged or rolled into place. The largest granite stones weighed up to 80 tons!

Evidence of Khufu’s political activities is scarce, but it appears as if he wasn’t an idle monarch. He sent expeditions to Wadi Maghareh to source copper and turquoise mines and also sent men to Byblos. Khufu had a number of sons and was succeeded by Djedefre upon his death.

Gods Amongst Men – Egypt’s 7 Greatest Pharaohs
Mentuhotep II (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

3 – Mentuhotep II (2061-2010? BC)

Mentuhotep II reigned for approximately 51 years during the 11th Dynasty and eventually unified Egypt to bring an end to the instability of the Early Intermediate Period. Other estimates suggest his reign began in 2008 BC, but he is now deemed to be the first ruler of the Middle Kingdom by most historians.

One of his greatest achievements was the unification of Egypt which happened during the 39th year of his reign. When he ascended the throne, he was only the ruler of Upper Egypt as the Heracleopolitan Kingdom was in power in Middle and Lower Egypt. In the 14th year of his reign, Mentuhotep decided it was time to wrestle back control of the country, so he launched an attack against Heracleopolis. Sadly, there are few details of the war, but it appears as if the Pharaoh was aided by a change in the leader of the enemy’s capital. After around 25 years of fighting, Egypt was once again a whole kingdom.

Mentuhotep’s reign was very much a military focused one. After unification, he was forced to fight the Bedouin who continually attacked the north of the nation. Egypt also annexed Northern Nubia in the later years of Mentuhotep’s reign. Thebes became the capital and the Pharaoh rewarded his loyal followers with important government posts. He was certainly a savvy ruler because he even forgave members of the Heracleopolitan Kingdom that showed loyalty.

With reunification came a boost in trade and construction. Mentuhotep built temples across northern Egypt but unfortunately, little remains of these structures. He also built a temple complex at Thebes and when he died, his successor, Mentuhotep III, was left with a wealthy and powerful kingdom to rule.

Gods Amongst Men – Egypt’s 7 Greatest Pharaohs
Ahmose I Ceremonial Ax (StudyBlue)

4 – Ahmose I (1539-1514? BC)

Ahmose I was probably only 10 years of age when he became Pharaoh. Despite his tender age, Ahmose was to become one of the great rulers of Egypt. During his reign, Ahmose drove the Hyksos from the Delta region, restored the rule of Thebes over the entire nation and expanded his empire by retaking former Egyptian territories in Canaan and Nubia. He also founded the 18th Dynasty.

Soon after taking the throne, Ahmose fought the Hyksos and destroyed their allies in Middle Egypt. After capturing the traditional capital, Memphis, Ahmose attacked the Hyksos capital, Avaris. He was successful in sea and land attacks but had to go north to suppress an uprising. He achieved this, returned to Avaris, captured it, chased the Hyksos to modern day Palestine and defeated them after a three-year siege.

Rather than marching further into Palestine, he advanced into Nubia and benefitted from the gold mines he found there. With secure borders, Ahmose established an administration he could trust and rewarded loyal soldiers and supporters with gifts of land. The next step was to reopen the copper mines in Sinai and resume trade with cities located on the coast of Syria.

Ahmose was not just a supreme military commander; he also found the time to support the arts and a variety of stunning structures were built during his reign. However, his building program probably only began after the Hyksos were defeated which means it wouldn’t have lasted more than seven years. As a consequence, much of the work started during his reign would have concluded during the era of his successor, Amenhotep I.

Although the quality of craftsmanship doesn’t equal that of the Old or Middle Kingdoms, the material used was of superior quality to the Second Intermediate Period. Glass making probably began during Ahmose’s reign and the Pharaoh also built various temples to gods in Upper Egypt. His pyramid in Abydos was discovered in 1899, but it is possible that he was initially buried in the Dra Abu el-Naga area before being moved to Deir al-Bahari to protect him from tomb robbers.

Gods Amongst Men – Egypt’s 7 Greatest Pharaohs
Thutmose-III-Luxor-Museum (U3A Vall del Pop)

5 – Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC)

Also known as the Napoleon of Egypt, Thutmose III was the sixth Pharaoh of the legendary 18th Dynasty and created the biggest empire in the nation’s history to that point. He became Pharaoh at the age of two so his stepmother and Aunt Hatshepsut was his co-ruler for 22 years until her death. As well as being an accomplished warrior, Thutmose was one of the great military leaders of the ancient world. Over the course of an estimated 17 campaigns, it is reputed that he never lost a battle.

Hatshepsut ruled Egypt according to her wishes during Thutmose’s formative years. He was taught all necessary military skills such as archery and horsemanship. He once boasted that none of his followers were his equal in terms of marksmanship and physical strength. While the early years of his reign were far from being a disaster, Egypt did lose influence in Palestine and Syria. This was due to the inaction of Hatshepsut who was reluctant to send armies into battle.

This era of passivity ended once Thutmose became sole monarch. To be fair, it seems as if his hand was forced because the king of Kadesh helped form a powerful coalition against Egypt in the 22nd year of Thutmose’s reign. At this point, the queen died, so Thutmose had to face the crisis alone. He responded like the great leader he was to become by leading his army into battle against the enemy. After an eight-month siege, he took Megiddo and launched further successful campaigns. Ports along the Phoenician coast were turned into supply bases, and various other cities were taken.

After a decade in power, Thutmose launched a daring attack on the kingdom of Mitanni. Once again, he emerged victorious but did not march any further. Upon his return to Thebes, Thutmose was content to consolidate his kingdom which he did by allowing conquered peoples to rule their own territories as vassals of Egypt. A number of fortresses were built along the coast with garrisons placed at key points. Thutmose was even successful in subduing Nubian tribes by giving them employment in the gold mines.

He was content to enjoy the fruits of his labor in the final decade or so of his reign. His architects created some remarkable structures including the Temple of Amon and beautiful obelisks. In approximately 1427 BC or two years before he died, Thutmose appointed his son Amenhotep II as co-regent. Upon his death, he was buried in the famous Valley of the Kings.

Gods Amongst Men – Egypt’s 7 Greatest Pharaohs
Luxor-Court_of_Amenhotep_III (Wikimedia Commons)

6 – Amenhotep III (1386-1353? BC)

Amenhotep III was the ninth Pharaoh of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, father of the infamous Akhenaton and grandfather of Tutankhamen. He is widely regarded as one of the great rulers of Egypt because he not only presided over an array of impressive structures; he strengthened and then expanded the nation’s borders while ensuring the land enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity.

He did benefit from the fact that his father, Tuthmose IV, was a capable ruler and left a strong, powerful and wealthy empire. However, Amenhotep was only 12 years old when he came to the throne and soon married his wife Tiye, who he ruled the kingdom with for almost 40 years. Tiye was given the title Great Royal Wife which meant she outranked the Pharaoh’s mother in matters of state.

The Pharaoh continued along his father’s path by creating a range of impressive structures throughout Egypt. He is described as a ‘luxurious’ Pharaoh and his buildings included a pleasure palace near Thebes among the 250 or so projects that were completed during Amenhotep’s reign. The Colossi of Memnon are impressive stone statues and the only pieces left of the king’s mortuary temple. The Pharaoh was known to be a superb diplomat and lavished gifts of gold and other riches upon allies to ensure they remained in his debt. There were also various successful military campaigns during his reign which only served to expand the empire and boost its coffers.

The cult of Amun had grown long before Amenhotep came to power and at that stage; the priests of Amun were almost as wealthy as the royal family. Although he did nothing to interfere with their power directly, he did elevate a minor sun god called Aten to the level of the Pharaoh’s personal deity. This action didn’t curb the power of the priests during his reign. However, it had a profound effect on his son Akhenaton who created a new religion called Atenism. Amenhotep suffered from various maladies in later life including dental issues and obesity. It is possible that he died from an abscess that arose from his dental problems. When he died, foreign leaders sent letters of condolence which show the high regard in which the Pharaoh was held.

Gods Amongst Men – Egypt’s 7 Greatest Pharaohs
Temple of Ramses II (Ancient Egypt)

7 – Ramses II (1279-1213 BC)

Ramses II, or Ramses the Great, is often given the title of ‘Egypt’s greatest Pharaoh.’ He was the third king of the 19th Dynasty and reigned for approximately 66 years. As he probably didn’t ascend the throne until he was 24 years of age, it is likely he lived to be at least 90; a remarkably long time by the standards of the ancient world.

Ramses was named co-ruler with Seti I when he was 22, and by then, he was already leading campaigns in Nubia. At this point, the Egyptians had a fractious relationship with the Hittites and Egypt lost important trading centers in Canaan and Syria to their rivals. Although Seti took back the crucial center of Kadesh, the Hittite king Muwatalli II, recovered it within a few years.

Ramses launched a successful military campaign against the Canaanites and returned home with plunder and prisoners. Perhaps his biggest achievement was driving the Hittites back at the Battle of Kadesh in approximately 1274 BC. At one point in the battle, it appeared as if Ramses would be defeated. Fortunately for him, the Hittites failed to press home their advantage, and he managed to turn the tide. While Ramses claimed victory; the reality is that a stalemate was achieved. After almost two decades of fighting, Egypt, and the Hittites signed a peace treaty.

Although he was reasonably successful in the military sense, Ramses is perhaps best remembered for his architectural achievements. The Ramesseum, his memorial temple, was the beginning of an almost unmatched period of building in ancient Egyptian history. A few years after becoming Pharaoh, Ramses embarked on the most ambitious building program since the Pyramids. Ancient temples in Thebes were changed to honor Ramses while other notable structures included the temples at Abu Simbel, the complex at Abydos, the hall at Karnak and hundreds of other monuments.

Ramses wisely requested that his carvings were deeply engraved in the stone. In the past, Pharaohs could easily transform the markings of predecessors in an attempt to wipe them from history. He suffered from hardening of the arteries and dental issues in later life but eventually succumbed to old age. By the time of his death, Egypt was a powerful and wealthy kingdom. In the last century or so, some historians have criticized Ramses and claim he was a propagandist while others suggest he was a great ruler. Certainly, all available evidence shows that he was an effective Pharaoh and enriched Egypt while overseeing a remarkable building program.