10 Famous Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs | History Hit

10 Famous Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs

Harry Atkins

30 Jul 2021
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The remarkable sophistication of the Ancient Egyptian empire is still hard to reconcile with how far back in time it existed. But the stories of the pharaohs undoubtedly bring us closer to a fascinating civilization that spanned over 3,000 years and 170 pharaohs.

The pharaoh’s role was both political and religious. Interpretations varied from ruler to ruler, of course, but the pharaohs were generally thought to be imbued with divinity and were effectively regarded as intermediaries between the gods and people.

Yet, despite the spiritual reverence with which they were regarded, the pharaohs were also responsible for the more earthly concerns of leadership, and each pharaoh had a unique legacy; some were architectural innovators or revered military leaders while others were brilliant diplomats. Here are 10 of the most famous.

1. Djoser (reign 2686 BC – 2649 BC)

Djoser is perhaps the most famous Third Dynasty pharaoh, but little is known about his life. What is known, however, is that he oversaw the construction of the famous step pyramid at Saqqara, a hugely significant milestone in ancient Egyptian architecture. This pyramid, in which Djoser was buried, was the first structure to realise the iconic step design.

2. Khufu (reign 2589 ‒ 2566 BC)

The Great Pyramid of Giza remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for the best part of 4,000 years.

Image Credit: British prime minister Neville Chamberlain (left) (1869 - 1940) and Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945) with his interpreter Paul Schmidt and Neville Henderson (right) at dinner during Chamberlain's 1938 appeasement visit to Munich. (Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/Getty Images)

A Fourth Dynasty pharaoh, Khufu’s greatest legacy is undoubtedly the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The monumental structure is a testament to the bewildering sophistication of Egyptian architecture and, remarkably, remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for the best part of 4,000 years. It was conceived by Khufu as his stairway to heaven and the means of its construction remains something of a mystery to this day.

3. Hatshepsut (reign 1478–1458 BC)

Only the second woman to assume the role of pharaoh, Hatshepsut was the wife of Thutmose II and reigned in the Eighteenth Dynasty. Her step-son Thutmose III was just two years old when his father died in 1479 and so Hatshepsut soon took on the role of pharaoh (though Thutmose III also technically ruled as co-regent).

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Hatshepsut shored up her legitimacy as pharaoh by claiming that her mother was visited by the deity Amon-Ra while pregnant with her, thus signalling her divinity. She took to the role of pharaoh and proved an accomplished ruler, re-establishing important trade routes and overseeing extended periods of peace.

4. Thutmose III (reign 1458–1425 BC)

Some Egyptologists refer to Thutmose III as the Napoleon of Egypt.

Image Credit: While technically the aqueduct is not a Roman invention, the Romans greatly improved on previous examples found in the ancient world in places like Egypt and Babylonia. Crucially, they exported hundreds of examples of their advanced version of the aqueduct, forever changing the face of urban civilisation wherever they settled. The first aqueduct in Rome was constructed in 321 BC. Many vestiges of Roman aqueducts remain as enduring monuments to Ancient Rome’s accomplishments in engineering and as reminders of the vast reach of the Empire. They can still be seen throughout the ancient power’s former territories, from Tunisia to central Germany and in places as far flung as France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey and Hungary. [programme]

A lasting legacy of function

As opposed to purely symbolic tributes to Rome’s own grandeur, aqueducts served practical purposes and improved the quality of life for countless people. In fact, many Roman cities would have been much smaller and some would not even have existed if it were not for these technological wonders of the day. Sextus Julius Frontinus (c. 40 – 103 AD), a Roman politician who was Water Commissioner under Emperors Nerva and Trajan, wrote De aquaeductu, an official report on the aqueducts of Rome. The work provides much of the information we have today on the technology and details of the ancient aqueducts. With typical Roman conceit, he compares Rome’s aqueducts with the monuments of Greece and Egypt, despite the fact that Rome also had plenty of its own ‘useless’ structures and also built them throughout its territories.
. . . with such an array of indispensable structures carrying so many waters, compare if you will, the idle Pyramids or the useless, though famous works of the Greek. —Frontinus [caption id="attachment_15999" align="alignnone" width="690"]roman aqueducts An ancient Roman aqueduct crosses a modern highway in Evora, Portugal. Credit: Georges Jansoone (Wikimedia Commons).[/caption]

Water an empire and watch it grow

By importing water from mountain springs, cities and towns could be constructed on the dry plains, as was often the custom of the Romans. Aqueducts furnished these settlements with a reliable supply of clean drinking and bathing water. Similarly, Rome itself used large aqueducts and an extensive sewer system for bringing in clean water and removing refuse, resulting in a massive city that was incredibly clean for the day. [programme]

How aqueducts work

A considerable feat of ancient engineering that was not bested until modern times, Roman aqueducts made good use of the knowledge and materials available at the time.
If we consider the distances traversed by the water before it arrives, the raising of the arches, the tunnelling of mountains and the building of level routes across deep valleys, we shall readily admit that there has never been anything more remarkable in the whole world. —Pliny the Elder
The structures were built from stone, volcanic cement and brick. They were also lined with lead, a practice — along with the use of lead pipes in plumbing — that certainly contributed to health problems among those who drank from them. In fact, there are several Roman texts which ascertained that lead pipes were unhealthier than those made of terra cotta. Ducts were designed to carry water from higher elevations by using gravity. Though we associate aqueducts with the large arches used to create sufficient height when necessary, as in the case of valleys or other dips in elevation, much of the system was at ground level or underground. Rome itself also used elevated reservoirs that fed water into buildings via a system of pipes. [caption id="attachment_16000" align="alignnone" width="800"]roman aqueduct Aqueduct outside of Tunis, Tunisia. Credit: Maciej Szczepańczyk (Wikimedia Commons).[/caption]

The benefits of aqueducts in Roman life

Aqueducts not only supplied cities with clean water, as part of an advanced system they helped carried away polluted water through sewer systems. While this contaminated rivers outside the cities, it made life within them much more bearable. The system made indoor plumbing and running water available to those who could afford it and enabled a culture of public baths to permeate the Empire. Besides urban life, aqueducts facilitated agricultural work, and farmers were permitted to draw water from the structures under permit and at set times. Industrial uses for aqueducts included hydraulic mining and flour mills.

Thutmose III dedicated himself to military training while his step-mother was pharaoh, only taking over the role of main ruler when Hatshepsut died in 1458.

The pharaoh’s military training paid off and he earned a reputation as something of a military genius; indeed, Egyptologists sometimes refer to him as the Napoleon of Egypt. Thutmose III never lost a battle and his military exploits won him the respect of his subjects and, for many, a status as the greatest ever pharaoh.

5. Amenhotep III (reign 1388–1351 BC)

During Amenhotep III’s 38-year reign, he largely presided over a peaceful and prosperous Egypt. Indeed, Amenhotep III’s accomplishments as pharaoh were more cultural and diplomatic than military; few pharaohs can match his architectural and artistic legacy.

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6. Akhenaten (reign 1351–1334 BC)

The son of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten was named Amenhotep IV at birth but changed his name in accordance with his radical monotheistic beliefs. The meaning of his new name, “He who is of service to the Aten”, honoured what he believed to be the one true god: Aten, the Sun God.

Akhenaten’s religious conviction was such that he moved the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna and named it Akhetaten, “Horizon of Aten”. Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti, was a strong presence during his reign and played a significant part in his religious revolution.

After Akhenaten’s death, Egypt rapidly returned to polytheism and the traditional gods he had disavowed.

7. Tutankhamun (reign 1332–1323 BC)

The youngest pharaoh in Egyptian history when he ascended to the throne at just nine or 10 years old, Tutankhamun became the most famous pharaoh of all.

But the young pharaoh’s fame isn’t the result of extraordinary achievements but instead derives almost entirely from the discovery of his tomb in 1922 – one of the great archaeological finds of the 20th century.

“King Tut”, as the pharaoh became known after the discovery of his spectacular burial site, only reigned for 10 years, and died aged just 20. The cause of his death remains a mystery to Egyptologists.

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8. Ramses II (reign 1279–1213 BC)

Ramses II’s reign was undoubtedly the greatest of the 19th Dynasty and, even by pharaoh standards, unabashedly ostentatious. The son of Seti I, with whom he had a period of co-regency, Ramses II went on to declare himself a god, while earning a reputation as a great warrior, fathering 96 children and ruling for 67 years.

Make no mistake, Ramses the Great was not a modest pharaoh. The extensive architectural legacy of his reign is testament to this – as is the fact that his excesses are thought to have left the throne close to bankruptcy at the time of his death.

9. Xerxes I (reign 486 – 465 BC)

Xerxes I reigned in the 27th Dynasty during which time Egypt was part of the Persian Empire, having been conquered in 525 BC. Persian Achaemenid Kings were acknowledged as pharaohs and so Xerxes the Great, as he was known, earns a place on our list by virtue of fame, if not popularity.

He is often portrayed as a tyrant and it’s likely that, as a Persian king, his disregard for local traditions did not endear him to the Egyptians. Xerxes I was very much a pharaoh in absentia and his failed attempts to invade Greece ensured that his portrayal by Greek historians (and by extension the film 300) is not kind.

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10. Cleopatra VII (reign 51 – 30 BC)

The last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, Cleopatra presided over the dying days of the Egyptian empire, yet her fame has lived on through folklore, Shakespeare and Hollywood. It’s hard to disentangle the real Cleopatra from the legend but scholars suggest that her portrayal as a stunningly beautiful seductress undersells her brilliance as a leader.

Cleopatra was an astute, politically savvy ruler who succeeded in bringing peace and relative prosperity to an ailing empire. The story of her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony is well documented but, without space to explore the complexities of a familiar tale, we might at least say that it’s tragic conclusion – Cleopatra’s suicide on 12 August 30 BC brought an end to the Egyptian empire.

Harry Atkins

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