For some two hundred years Amenemhet’s successors maintained a prosperous rule and Egyptian influence was extended abroad: along the Red Sea, to Nubia and Kush, around the Mediterranean to Libya, Palestine and Syria, even to Crete, the Aegean Islands and the mainland of Greece. But though natives of Thebes the rulers had their capital in the Fayoum area.
With the passing of the Middle Kingdom we come to a time of decline, the Second Intermediate Period, covering the 13th to the 17th Dynasties (c. 1786-1567 B.C.). This was the era of the ascendancy of the Hyksos. Coming from the direction of Syria, these tribes occupied Egypt at the end of the 13th Dynasty and ruled for some 100 years until the 17th Dynasty. The Egyptian prince Sekenenre and his son Kamose finally rose against the brutal invaders. Kamose’s brother Ahmose established the 18 th Dynasty and the New Kingdom, which included the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties (c. 1567-1080 B.C.). He completed the task begun by Kamose, finally rid the country of the Hyksos plague and began a period of gigantic imperial expansion in West Asia and the Sudan.
It was only now that Thebes began to develop. As befitted a new capital, the expansion was slow at first but it continued with increasing momentum until the one-time village was transformed into the seat of a world power never before witnessed. Military conquests and territorial expansion went hand in hand with an artistic and architectural revolution of unparalleled grandeur. Following the accession and conquests of Thutmose III, who pushed the northern frontiers of the country to the Euphrates, booty from conquered nations and tributes from the provinces of the then known powers poured into the gigantic storehouse of Thebes. The greater part of the wealth was bestowed upon Amon who, with the aid of the now influential priesthood, was established as ‘Solar God’, ‘The King of Gods’, the great Amon-Ra.
The power of Amon was everywhere in evidence. Magnificent temples were built for him, elaborately embellished and adorned. It was both a duty and a privilege to serve him and successive Pharaohs systematically endeavoured to outdo their predecessors in the magnificence of their architectural and artistic endeavours. ‘Hundred- Gated Thebes’ was at the peak of its glory.
Primitive animal deities had long ago given way to variations of the human form with animal heads or, where the head was also human, adorned with plaited beard or characteristic headgear as distinguishing marks. Amon-Ra himself was variously represented: as a ram with curved horns; as a man with a ram’s head; as a man with a headgear of two upright plumes in whose hands were a sceptre as a symbol of power, and the symbol of life. He was sometimes depicted standing, sometimes seated majestically holding his emblems. Only the Pharaoh of Egypt or the high priest delegated in his stead were permitted into the sacred sanctuary of Amon or Holy of Holies. And only on certain days of the year was the deity shown to the populace, carried in extravagant procession along garlanded thoroughfares. Amon guided the Pharaoh in civic affairs, granted him victory over his enemies, favoured all who served him. Amon gave divine protection.
When Amon was dishonoured by Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), who worshipped the life-giving rays of the full solar disc of Aten in place of the ascending sun Ra, this in retrospect affected Thebes but slightly. Although murals were defaced, shrines destroyed and the image of Amon hacked away, his dethronement was short-lived. Tutankhamun, on succeeding to the throne, started the restoration of damaged temples, and Haremhab, Ramses I, Seti I and Ramses II continued the work of rebuilding, reconstructing and renovating the temples, to restore the reputation of the King of Gods.
Down the years Amon’s wealth increased enormously. He possessed over 5,000 divine statues, more than 81,000 slaves, vassals and servants, well over 421,000 head of cattle, 433 gardens and orchards, 691,334 acres of land, 83 ships, 46 building yards and 65 cities and towns.1
The arch-priests, already wielding a growing political power as a result of their very special reinstated position, gradually came to regard themselves as the ruling power of the state. Their long- awaited opportunity finally came when Akhenaten’s religious revolt was followed, in the 20th Dynasty, by a succession of weak rulers. This enabled Amon’s priests to usurp the throne and for a time to unite priesthood with royalty. The days of Egyptian conquest were over.
To endeavour to date the fall of Thebes is difficult. One could say it started as far back as the 18th Dynasty when Akhenaten, the sensitive, peace-loving Pharaoh who believed in a universal god, shifted the capital to Tel el Amarna and failed to maintain his foreign interests. One could date it to the reign of Ramses II in the 19th Dynasty when, in his concern to place his armies more strategically for his battles against the Hittites, he transferred the royal residence to Per-Ramses in the eastern part of the Delta. Or one could see the 20th Dynasty as the turning point, and certainly Ramses III and his ever-weakening successors fell more and more under the yoke of the priesthood and undoubtedly contributed to the collapse of the state. But the real downward slope of the graph, and its continued drop, came in the 21st Dynasty, just over one thousand years B.C., when Hrihor made Egypt an ecclesiastical state. Thus began the period known by historians as the Period of Decline of the 21st to the 24th Dynasties (c. 1080-715 B.C.) followed by the Late Period, the 25th to 30th Dynasties (c. 750-332 B.C.).