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)
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).
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.