In the case of some of the most famous figures of ancient Egypt, their reputation has been built less on what they achieved in life and more on what they left behind to be discovered by Egyptologists. It was the 1922 discovery of his tomb by Howard Carter that made Tutankhamun known worldwide, and to hear the name Nefertiti is to picture the magnificent limestone bust of her found in 1912.

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Yet the legacies of many of the Egyptian pharaohs have survived thousands of years, glimpsed in the colossal monuments and statues they built and recorded in hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Here are five of the most powerful pharaohs to leave their mark in the sands of Egypt...


On the podcast | Joyce Tyldesley answers listener questions on ancient Egypt’s royal rulers:


1

Djoser

Ruled 2667–2648 BC

Djoser’s rule saw the creation at Saqqara of one of Egypt’s most famous landmarks: this sprawling necropolis, which dates back to Predynastic times, is home to the Step Pyramid, a monumental structure that was the first of its kind to be built in history. Constructed solely from stone, Saqqara marked a radical departure from previous building works in Egypt, which typically also incorporated mud bricks.

The shape of the buildings was different, too, with stepped pyramids replacing flat-roofed royal tombs. These radical designs were the brainchild of Imhotep, one of Djoser’s advisors. Before the pharaoh constructed the Step Pyramid, he won the admiration of the Egyptians for rebuilding the Temple of Khnum (the god of the Nile).

Djoser also made history as the first pharaoh to make Memphis his permanent and only home. This helps explain why the city became the beating heart of the Old Kingdom. He lived there with his wife (and likely his half-sister), Hetephernebti, who seems to have been his only wife.

A statue of Djoser from Saqqara, now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (Photo by DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Contributor / Getty Images)
A statue of Djoser from Saqqara, now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (Photo by DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Contributor / Getty Images)
2

Khufu

Ruled 2589–2566 BC

While the Greek writer Herodotus claimed Khufu’s rule was one of suffering and oppression, this damning view is in contrast to his reputation as a wise pharaoh and builder. He commissioned the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. Herodotus is also responsible for the common idea that the pyramids were built on slave labour. It’s actually more likely the 2.3 million building blocks were dragged into place by conscripted workers.

3

Amenhotep III

Ruled 1390–1352 BC

Ruling in a time of relative peace, Amenhotep made sure the empire prospered economically and culturally. He worked to build strong trade relations, using clay tablets to communicate with the leaders of nearby kingdoms in what are history’s earliest diplomatic letters. He also distributed more than 200 stone scarabs inscribed with five of the biggest events from the first 12 years of his rule, and erected various temples and statues. His seven children by his chief queen included Akhenaten, his successor.

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Colossal statue of Amenhotep III, which stood in the mortuary temple at Thebes (Photo by Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group / Getty Images)
Colossal statue of Amenhotep III, which stood in the mortuary temple at Thebes (Photo by Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group / Getty Images)
4

Akhenaten

Ruled 1352–1336 BC

The Egyptians venerated a pantheon of gods, but Akhenaten believed there was only one deity who should be worshipped, a sun god known as the Aten – and that his subjects should follow suit.

In 1346 BC he created a new capital, dedicated to the Aten, at Amarna. His wife, Nefertiti, is often depicted acting alongside him and supporting him in these beliefs. After Akhenaten’s death, however, Egypt soon returned to its original way of worship.

5

Thutmose III

Ruled 1479–1425 BC

Dubbed ‘the Napoleon of Egypt’ by Egyptologists, Thutmose was a military powerhouse. He started training in the arts of war as a youth, when his stepmother Hatshepsut was ruling Egypt as his co-regent. After her death in 1458 BC he came to sole power and put his military know-how to use. Thutmose expanded Egypt’s empire further than ever before, winning 17 campaigns.

He seized Syria to the north and his troops campaigned in Nubia, an ancient north African province. Here, they crushed tribes and put many to work in the region’s gold mines – with the profits lining Egypt’s coffers. With the wealth from these mines and Tribute sent by the peoples Thutmose had conquered, the pharaoh was able to splash out on an ambitious building programme. He extended the principal temple at Karnak dedicated to Amun, king of the gods at this time, adorning the site with imposing granite obelisks, and erected more than 50 temples.

Thutmose was also a keen hunter, taking on elephants and lions. In his twilight years, he made his son Amenhotep II his co regent. After dying in his mid-fifties he was interred in the Valley of the Kings, with his mummy being discovered in 1889.

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This article was first published in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Rhiannon DaviesSection editor, BBC History Magazine

Rhiannon Davies is section editor for BBC History Magazine and our Tudor ambassador, writing a fortnightly newsletter in which she shares the latest Tudor news, anniversaries and content with her audience. She also regularly appears on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.

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