What caused the decline of ancient Egypt?

Ancient Egyptian civilization reached the height of its power, wealth and influence in the New Kingdom period (1550 to 1070 BC), under the reigns of iconic pharaohs like Tutankhamun, Thutmose III and Ramses II, who may have been the biblical pharaoh of the Exodus story.

At its height, the Egyptian Empire controlled a vast territory stretching from modern Egypt to the northern Sinai Peninsula and the ancient land of Canaan (which encompasses modern Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan and southern parts of Syria and Lebanon).

But from the murder of Ramses III in 1155 BC. AD, Egypt’s once great empire was slowly brought to its knees by a centuries-old drought, economic crises, and opportunistic foreign invaders.

Ramses III, the last great Egyptian pharaoh

Ramses III ruled Egypt for 31 years and is widely considered the last of the “great” pharaohs. His reign coincided with one of the most turbulent and difficult periods in the history of the ancient Mediterranean, known as the invasion of the “Sea Peoples”.

The precise identity of the Sea Peoples is still unknown, but most scholars believe they were an ethnically diverse group of refugees from the western Mediterranean displaced by drought and famine, who came to the is in search of new lands to conquer and inhabit. The marauding fleets of the Sea Peoples may have attacked Egypt at least twice during the reigns of Merenptah and Ramses III.

In 1177 BC. AD, Ramses III and the Egyptian navy managed to repel the second massive invasion of the Sea Peoples, and the pharaoh commemorated the victory on the walls of his complex of temples and tombs at Medinet Habu.

But the celebration was short-lived, says Eric Cline, a Bronze Age archaeologist and historian, who wrote 1177 BC. J.-C.: the year of the collapse of civilization. Ramses III was able to fight off the Sea Peoples, but not an assassination plot by a jealous secondary queen of his harem. According to CT scans of the mummy of Ramesses III, the pharaoh was stabbed in the neck and murdered in 1155 BC.

“It was the beginning of the end,” Cline says. “After Ramses III, that’s all. Egypt is never the same again.

WATCH Engineering an Empire: Egypt On HISTORY Vault.

Bronze Age Collapse Domino Effect

Ramesses III and his soldiers defeating the Sea Peoples during the Battle of the Delta (naval battle), relief, Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III, Medinet Habu Temple Complex, Theban Necropolis, Luxor, Egypt.

In the 12th century BC, the entire Mediterranean region went through a cataclysmic event known as the “Bronze Age Collapse”. For kingdoms that fell to the Sea Peoples – or other contemporary calamities like drought and famine – the collapse was swift and absolute. The Mycenaeans of Greece and the Hittites of Anatolia, for example, saw their cities, their cultures and even their written languages ​​practically wiped out.

Partly because Ramses III managed to repel the Sea Peoples, Egypt lasted longer, Cline says. But it eventually fell prey to the same problems plaguing the wider region: a “mega-drought” lasting 150 years or more and the disintegration of a once-thriving Mediterranean trade network.

“The international relationships that had been so important and widespread in the late Bronze Age are all cut off,” says Cline. “In Egypt, the 12th century after Ramesses III was marked by food shortages and internal political struggles, as well as a rapid decline in Egypt’s role as a great international power.”

WATCH Ramses’ Egyptian Empire on HISTORY Vault.

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Illness, Lost Resources, and Grave Robbery

After the death of Ramses III, Egypt was ruled by a series of ineffective pharaohs also named Ramses. (Ramses XI, who died around 1070 BC, was the last pharaoh of the New Kingdom.) Archaeological records from this period give clues as to why and how Egypt went into such rapid decline.

For example, the mummy of Ramses V appears to have smallpox scars on his face. While historians cannot be sure if he actually died of smallpox, records indicate that Ramses V and his family were buried in newly dug graves, and also that there was a six-month moratorium on anyone visiting the Valley of the Kings after the burials. .

Some scholars suggest this may be one of the earliest disease-inspired isolation orders – and a possible sign that Egypt was in the throes of a smallpox epidemic at this time.

Moreover, during the reigns of Ramesses V and Ramesses VI, Egypt seems to have lost control of important copper and turquoise mines in the Sinai Peninsula, since their names were the last of the Egyptian pharaohs inscribed on the sites. . Egypt had probably completely withdrawn from Sinai and Canaan by 1140 BC. AD, says Cline.

Then, under Ramses IX, who reigned at the end of the 12e century BC, Egypt was rocked by a series of tomb robberies. Economic conditions were so desperate – and respect for the pharaoh’s authority so low – that thieves brazenly plundered the tombs of fallen pharaohs for gold and treasure.

“It is a shocking crime, but the reign of Ramesses IX is only the beginning of a long period of thefts from royal tombs,” says Cline. “At some point during the reign of Ramesses XI they had to move some of the royal mummies to safety.”

READ MORE: 14 Everyday Objects From Ancient Egypt

The aliens on the throne

The Roman fleet of Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) clashes with the combined Roman-Egyptian fleet commanded by Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium off Greece during the Roman Civil War, 31 BC. The battle was a decisive victory for Octavian, and marked the end of the last of the Egyptian dynasties.

After the New Kingdom, Egypt was ruled by a succession of foreign powers, further evidence of its decline as an independent empire.

First came the Libyans, a nomadic people from the western border of Egypt, whose influence and culture gradually took over the seats of power. Shoshenq I, a Libyan-born pharaoh, was the first pharaoh of the 22nd Dynasty, who attempted to restore the glory days of Ramses III by invading the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 10th century BC.

Then, in the eighth century BC. BC, the Nubians or Kushites peacefully claim the Egyptian throne during a period of political turmoil. A succession of Kushite pharaohs ruled Egypt for nearly a century as the 25th Dynasty before being expelled by invading Assyrians.

“Once the Kushite kings took over, that was really the end of Egypt as an independent power,” says Cline. “Then the Assyrians came, followed by Persians, Greeks, Romans, then Islam. If you talk about ancient Egypt being a power in itself and ruled by Egyptians, it was never the same again .

Egypt experienced its last burst of greatness during the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305-30 BC), a succession of Macedonian Greek pharaohs who ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. Cleopatra VII is the best known of the Ptolemaic pharaohs, who built a magnificent Hellenistic capital at Alexandria.

When Cleopatra and Mark Antony were defeated by Roman Emperor Octavian (Augustus) in 30 BC. AD, Egypt became a province of the Roman Republic, ending the last of the ancient Egyptian dynasties.

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