9 Egyptian Pharaohs Who Changed the Course of History

The most famous of Pharaohs now weren’t always the most influential then. These men and women instituted important shifts in the history of pre-Hellenistic Egypt.

May 17, 2020By Marian Vermeulen, BA History and Philosophy
The great sphinx of Giza
The great sphinx of Giza


Throughout Ancient Egypt, men and women took the helm of leadership as pharaohs. However, the most famous are not necessarily the best rulers in Ancient Egyptian history. Until Egypt was annexed by the Roman Empire in 30 BCE, these 9 rulers made great progress and had incredible influence over their kingdom.


Nectanebo II – The Last Native Ruler Of Egypt


Nectanebo Horus sculpture
Nectanebo being sheltered at the feet of Horus, Met Museum


Nectanebo II, last Egyptian king of the 30th dynasty, bears the unfortunate distinction of being the Pharaoh that saw his nation fall to foreign rule. Despite losing control of Egypt, Nectabebo II began his rule as a successful Pharaoh. He oversaw numerous construction and restoration projects with a particular focus on temples. Though much of the art and architecture remained traditional, Nectabebo also continued the trend of growing realism in artwork that had begun in the 26th dynasty. Yet Nectanebo was up against the impossible task of defending against the vast might of the Persian Empire, determined to take control of Egypt. 


Relief from temple of Isis at Behbeit El Hagar
Relief from Nectanebo’s restoration of the temple of Isis at Behbeit El Hagar, Met Museum


After successfully defending his throne for several years, one of his mercenary commanders, Mentor of Rhodes, defected and joined the Persian advance in 345 B.C. At the same time, several Greek cities agreed to send soldiers in support of the Persian campaign. The Persians defeated the Egyptian forces at the Battle of Pelusium and installed a Persian satrap to govern from Memphis. Nectanebo escaped, but fled south to Nubia. He presumably remained in sanctuary there for the remainder of his life. A more fanciful account comes from the Alexander Romance. It insists that Nectanebo fled to the Macedonian court, there seducing the king’s wife, Olympias, and fathering Alexander the Great himself. 


Hatshepsut – A Powerful Female Pharaoh 

Statue of Hatshepsut
Statue of Hatshepsut, Met Museum

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Though not the first female Pharaoh, Hatshepsut is one of the most popular. The fifth Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, her reign was one of great prosperity. It was also the longest reign of any female Pharaoh. Women rulers remain uncommon and discouraged in Egypt, but Hatshepsut set a precedent for future noble Egyptian ladies. Some would follow in her footsteps. Hatshepsut successfully campaigned against Nubia. She personally led the army on at least one occasion and she sent a massive trading expedition to the land of Punt. Hatshepsut holds the distinction of being one of the most prolific builders in Egyptian history. She followed and expanded upon the example of Amenhotep in the creation of her extravagant mortuary temple. The temple marks another important shift which moved the design of mortuary temples from a focus on monumental grandeur to one of active worship.


Thutmose III – The “Napoleon Of Egypt”

Statue of Thutmose III
Statue of Thutmose III, Met Museum


Thutmose succeeded Hatshepsut, his step-mother, and continued her successful legacy. However, late in his reign either he or his son worked to obscure much of her history. He reigned for almost 54 years from approximately 1479-1425 B.C., and excelled at military expansion. Thutmose had been the head of the Egyptian army under the reign of Hatshepsut, and grew into a skilled general. He launched a minimum of sixteen campaigns over the course of twenty years, capturing around 350 cities. His conquests included much of Nubia, Canaan, and Syria, and under his reign Egypt reached her greatest territorial limits. 


Interior Tomb of Thutmose III
Interior Tomb of Thutmose III – note the fully painted chamber, walls and ceiling 


Thutmose also continued his family’s tradition of extensive building projects. He commissioned over fifty temples and countless tombs for nobles. Certain artistic trends started under Hatshepsut were only accelerated under Thutmose. He was the first to so completely embrace pillars in his designs and oversaw the building of the first basilica style structure. Tombs built under his reign were the first to be completely painted instead of only painting the relief carvings. Even glass-making made significant progress in the introduction of core formation. This technique uses a solid core with a rod support to allow the formation of molten glass around it. Once solid, the rod is removed and the core scraped away. 


Akhenaten – Attempted A Radical Change In Religion

The Wilbour Plaque Relief
The Wilbour Plaque, Relief depicting Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Brooklyn Museum


Born Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten changed his name during his time as Pharaoh to reflect his change in Egyptian religion. After five years in power, Akhenaten declared Aten to be a variant of the supreme deity, Amun. He changed his name and began construction of his new capital called Akhetaten, which means ‘Horizon of Aten.’ By the ninth year of his reign, he had radically rejected all other deities and established a monotheistic devotion solely to Aten. He banned all images except those representing Aten, destroyed many temples and monuments to other gods, and seems to have persecuted the worshippers of Amun. There is evidence that many private citizens chose to chisel away images of Amun on their personal effects rather than risk retribution. He even named his son for the god, Tutankhaten. Akhenaten’s chief wife was the mysterious and intriguing Queen Nefertiti. 


Horemheb – Re-Stabilized A Shaken Egypt

Statue of Horemheb with Horus
Statue of Horemheb with Horus, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna


The changes made by Akhenten were not well-received by most citizens of Egypt. After his death his son changed his name to reflect Amun rather than Aten, making him the famous Tutankhamun, or King Tut. Tutankhamun became Pharaoh at only age eight or nine, and reigned for only about ten years before his death. In that time, he began the reversal of his father’s policies, moving the capital back to Thebes and reinterring Akhenaten’s remains in the traditional Valley of the Kings. His first successor, Ay, reigned for only about four years. After that, power passed to Horemheb, general of the Egyptian armies and the last Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty.


Relief from the Tomb of Horemheb
Relief from the Tomb of Horemheb with military encampment, Archaeological Museum of Bologna


Though Tutankhamun had begun reversing the worship of Aten, Horemheb unequivocally rejected it. He began comprehensive internal reforms. This included returning some measure of power to the priests of Amun, reappointing judges and regional governmental authorities, and a division of oversight between Upper and Lower Egypt. His careful reorganization of Egyptian government created a distribution of power that kept any one authority from unilateral control. Akhenaten’s radical changes had thrown Egypt into chaos and broken her dominance over the Mediterranean world, but Horemheb restored it. His work stabilized the nation and laid the groundwork for the rise of the powerful and ambitious 19th dynasty of Pharaohs. 


Piye – The First Nubian King Of Egypt

Nubian pyramids
Nubian pyramids near the ancient Kushite capital of Meroe


After the heights of power and prosperity of the 18th and 19th dynastic periods, Egypt fell into a slow, gradual decline. The prestige of the Pharaohs declined and squabbles between heirs and civil wars destabilized the monarchy. As a result, the nation was ripe for invasion, and Egypt’s old nemesis was eager for the opportunity. Over many centuries, Egypt had constantly alternated between frequent wars and short periods of peaceful trade with their neighbor’s to the south, the Nubians or Kushites. King Kashta began a diplomatic takeover of Egypt, and his son, Piye, continued the work militarily. He declared a holy war, dedicating his campaign to Amun, and swept through southern Egypt. His successor, Shabaka, completed the efforts by conquering Lower Egypt as well. 


A 25th dynasty Menat of King Taharqo
A 25th dynasty Menat of King Taharqo being nursed by the lion-headed goddess Bastet, Met Museum


Yet in this case, the rule of a foreign nation did not end destructively for Egypt. The Nubian kings had great respect for Egyptian culture. They merged their own styles with that of Egypt and embarked on restoration and construction projects throughout the Nile region. The Kushite rulers brought back the first widespread building of pyramids since the Middle Kingdom, though they favored smaller structures. Nubian influence can also be seen in art from the period, particularly in depictions of Pharaohs wearing traditional Nubian garb, and in deeper cuts in relief carvings. 


Djoser – The Original Pyramid Builder

Statue of Djoser
Statue of Djoser, Egyptian Museum Cairo


Specific details regarding Djoser are limited, but his many archaeological works tell his story. He was the first king of the Third Dynasty of Egypt, ruling sometime around 2600 B.C., and holding power for twenty to thirty years. In a series of successful military campaigns, he first secured the borders of Egypt. That done, he moved to take neighboring territories, conquering parts of Libya and the Sinai Peninsula. Legends tell that he saved Egypt from a seven-year famine by rebuilding the Temple of Khnum, the god of the Nile River source, on the island of Elephantine. The myth is recorded on the Famine Stele, built hundreds of years later during the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The development of this legend, even during times of great hardship, speaks to Djoser’s popularity as Pharaoh.


Djoser’s Step Pyramid
Djoser’s Step Pyramid, the oldest Egyptian Pyramid, c. 2670–2650 BC, archaeology.org


Once the land was enjoying peace and prosperity, Djoser turned his attention to building projects. He commissioned numerous tombs, temples, and monuments, but his greatest legacy is the introduction of the building that has become synonymous with ancient Egypt – the pyramid. Under the guidance of Imhotep, the first named architect in history, Djoser’s rectangular tomb plans grew into the Step Pyramid. It was an architectural and engineering marvel for its time, the very first concept of a pyramid structure as well as the first use of large limestone blocks in construction. The Step Pyramid was the ancestor of all the Egyptian pyramids to come.   


Khufu – Created A Wonder Of The Ancient World

The three pyramids of Giza
The three pyramids of Giza; Pyramid of Menkaure, Great Pyramid of  Khafre, and Pyramid of Khufu. The one to the right and largest, is Khufu’s wonder of the ancient world


The second Pharaoh of the 4th Dynasty of Egypt, Khufu reigned around a century after Djoser, and he took his predecessor’s innovations to new heights. Historical records are divided concerning Khufu. The Greek historian Herodotus claims that Khufu’s reign was one of tyranny and oppression. He even suggests that Khufu prostituted his daughter to be able to afford his building projects. However, Egyptian records disagree; describing him as a fairly benign ruler, and the popularity of his funerary cult also suggests he was not a violent tyrant. The one thing absolutely certain of Khufu is that he commissioned the building of the first pyramid at Giza, the Great Pyramid. It is the largest of the three and included among the seven wonders of the ancient world. Ironically, the only surviving statue of Khufu is the smallest Egyptian royal sculpture ever found.


Statuette of Khufu
Statuette of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, 7.5cm, Cairo Egyptian Museum


Menes – The First Pharaoh Of Egypt

Limestone head Menes/Narmer
Limestone head thought to be Menes/Narmer, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, via wikimedia


Menes holds a status similar to that of Romulus and Remus of Rome. Legends and myths surround his reign, and the line between fact and fiction is often delicate. The Egyptians considered Menes to be the very first Egyptian Pharaoh, at least the first human one, whose rule was handed down directly from the god Horus. Various historical traditions credit him with founding the capital city of Memphis, introducing the worship of gods, and inventing writing. An even more colorful tale records that Menes was once attacked by his own dogs while hunting. He jumped onto a crocodile to escape, which ferried him across Lake Moeris. In gratitude, Menes founded the city of Crocodilopolis. He is said to have reigned for sixty-two years and been killed by a hippopotamus.


Narmer Palette
Plaster cast of the Narmer Palette, British Museum


Despite these fanciful tales, historians believe that Menes was a real individual. The legends sprang up later, blurring the historical figure. General historical consensus believes Menes to be either the personal name or an honorific title of Pharaoh Narmer, who united Upper and Lower Egypt, founding the official 1st Dynasty, sometime around 3000 B.C. Narmer is well attested in various archeological discoveries. The most famous of these is the Narmer Palette, which depicts a conquering Narmer uniting Egypt through war. Despite this, it seems that his unification was, in fact, a peaceful one, accomplished by diplomacy and marriage to Princess Neithhotep of Naqada in Lower Egypt. The image of the conquering hero was probably a later, symbolic representation. Whatever the method, however, Narmer successfully created the kingdom of Egypt and made possible the great civilization to come. 

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By Marian VermeulenBA History and PhilosophyMarian has been a devoted student of the ancient world since primary school. She received her BA in History and Philosophy from Hope College and has continued researching and writing on topics of ancient history from the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire and everything in between. She enjoys dabbling in historical fiction, but generally finds the actual true individuals of history and their stories more fascinating than any fictional invention. Her other passion is horses, and in her spare time she enjoys starting young horses under saddle and volunteer training for the local horse rescue.