The New Kingdom and beyond

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 2 Apr 2024

Zahi Hawass reviews the history of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom after the victory over the Hyksos.

Relief from Sennedjem tomb at Al-Medina
Relief from Sennedjem tomb at Al-Medina


Once the invading Hyksos people had been driven from the north and the country reunified, the warrior kings of ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty moved their principal administrative capital back to Memphis.

The city of Thebes, hometown of the royal line, was another major population centre and the focus of the ritual life of the court. Apart from a brief interlude at the city of Al-Amarna in Middle Egypt, Memphis and Thebes remained the key cities for this Dynasty.

During the 19th Dynasty, the country’s centre of gravity shifted north into the Delta to the new capital of Pi-Ramses. The kings of the 21st Dynasty abandoned Pi-Ramses for another Delta city, their own hometown of Tanis.


Although it had been the capital of their enemies, the first pharaohs of the New Kingdom took over the town of Avaris as an ideal staging point from which to launch military campaigns into Asia Minor, into which they had chased the Hyksos.

At least two palaces, dating to the reign of Queen Hatshepsut and King Tuthmosis III, were built here on top of older remains. The smaller of these was decorated with frescoes almost certainly painted by craftsmen from the island of Crete.

The excavator, Manfried Bietak, has suggested that this was built as a temporary residence for a princess or queen visiting Egypt, perhaps for the purpose of marriage.


Another late Second Intermediate Period or early New Kingdom palace has been excavated at Deir Al-Ballas, which lies on the west bank of the Nile in northern Upper Egypt along the Qena Bend.

To the north and south are private houses of various sizes, from small huts to elaborate mansions. At the far southern end of the settlement, set high on a hill, is a large rectangular mudbrick platform fronted by a broad terrace.

This has been labelled the South Palace, and it appears to mark the southern boundary of the city. It also must have served as a lookout post. An interesting area to the north was occupied by a group of large buildings arranged in a grid, identified as an administrative centre.

The main palace compound covers more than 45,000 square metres of ground. The central part was built atop a foundation created by filling long chambers of mud brick of up to five meters high (casemates) with rubble, then paving them. Although much of its plan was lost, due both to later occupations and poor recordkeeping by the early excavators, this fortified core apparently consisted of a pillared throne room and the private apartments of the king.

Fragments of wall painting show that the decoration included soldiers with battleaxes. Surrounding the core was a series of columned courts, and associated with the palace were workshops and kitchens.


Thebes, cult centre of the state god Amun, was both the ritual and administrative centre of the south of Egypt.

Although the main administration remained at Memphis, at least one royal palace was maintained at Thebes, where the king came to celebrate the various festivals that honoured Amun and his pantheon and also to give out rewards to officials and military leaders who had served him exceptionally well.

There was certainly a thriving town here in the Middle Kingdom, which became a city during the New Kingdom, but its archaeological remains are scant. Egyptian scholar Alexander Badawi tried to reconstruct this city, using modern parallels and images from tomb walls. He suggests that it was walled and consisted of narrow, winding streets lined with closely packed houses with multiple stories.

The upper classes might well have spent most of the time on country estates such as those seen at Al-Amarna. Elite townhouses, again based on pictorial rather than purely archaeological evidence, were probably arranged in several stories. Occupying the ground floor and basement would have been bakeries, breweries, and kitchens, along with workshops for artisans. There might also have been animal pens here, and storerooms.

The floor above would have been a public space, where the dignitary concerned carried out his official business. The second floor would have been for the private chambers: bedroom, bathroom, perhaps a dining chamber, and women’s quarters. The roof held granaries and other storage spaces and areas for servants. In hot weather, this could also be used for sleeping.

As had been the case earlier, the principal New Kingdom Theban residence was on the west bank of the Nile. This is only known through textual evidence; no actual remains have ever been excavated. However, most Egyptologists think that the original palace was toward the northeast and was relatively small. In the late 18th Dynasty, this palace was replaced by Amenhotep III’s enormous new palace city at Malqata, complete with lake and harbour, jubilee temples, and several state and residential palaces.

There was probably also a second palace, for ritual or ceremonial purposes, on the east bank of the Nile beside the Temple of Amun at Karnak. This is thought by some to have been north of the open court where the third pylon was built. Other scholars think that the east bank palace lay somewhere between Karnak and Luxor. There is no question but that there was dense habitation here from the Middle Kingdom through the Late Period, but no traces of a palace have been located.

Although both east and west banks were densely populated during the New Kingdom, the only substantial settlement remains that have been excavated here are the palace at Malqata and the workmen’s community at Deir Al-Medina. The palace complex of Amenhotep III, built on the occasion of his first jubilee, to date has been only partly explored.

An artificial lake, the Birket Habu, was dug in front of the site, linking the royal residence directly with the Nile. This served both as a harbour for the royal fleet and a stage for the Sed Festival, which celebrated the rejuvenation of the king.

The city covered about 350,000 square metres; in addition to the state and residential palaces, audience halls, and temples for the Sed Festival, there were kitchens, storehouses, wine cellars, workshops, administrative buildings, and houses for the highest royal officials.

The king’s private apartments, along with his harem quarters, were on a hillside above the lake to take advantage of the cooling breezes and the vista of western Thebes. The walls here were plastered and painted with geometric designs and hunting scenes. Unfortunately, these have been exposed to the elements and are rapidly disintegrating.

The Theban palace at Malqata might still have been used into the early 19th Dynasty, but it appears to have been abandoned soon afterwards. Ramses II, for example, does not seem to have visited Thebes. The city became a part-time royal residence again under Ramses III, who had living quarters attached to his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu.

These were located within two large buildings near the entrance to the complex inside two towers known as the East and West High Gates. This architectural form, basically a castle, is known from literary texts and temple reliefs. The East High Gate was for the king himself, and the West High Gate was for his queens and princesses. Many of the chambers were in mud brick, and these have disappeared, although the stone parts are well preserved.

The living areas were on the second and third floors, with large windows (although the basic structure of the building is that of a fortress). The decoration in the Eastern High Gate shows the king with his sons and daughters: he plays games with them or receives gifts of flowers and wine.

Associated with the living quarters were administrative buildings; stables for the royal horses; military installations such as training grounds, troop barracks, and quarters for the royal bodyguard; houses for the royal attendants, and a garden with a pool.

There is also a small palace south of the first court of the mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. Similar palaces have been found in a number of other New Kingdom royal funerary complexes. The example at Medinet Habu contains a limited number of small rooms: a reception hall, a throne room, a bathroom, and one narrow private bed chamber. There are no rooms for royal attendants, and the entire structure does not appear to be very functional.

This and the other mortuary temple palaces could not have served as royal residences even for a short stay. At Medinet Habu, only the state rooms and “Window of Appearance” seem usable; the other rooms are small and rough, there is no system for water drainage, and there are no kitchens or other support areas.

There were, however, false doors in the rear walls of at least two of the throne rooms, suggesting that these were magical dwellings for the deceased king. There may even have been portable royal statues that could be placed on the thrones. There are two building phases here, and the first layout could not have been used for anything more than ritual appearances. Linked to this palace, connecting it with the court of the temple, is a large “Window of Appearances”.

Representations of such structures are shown in tomb art as the location for award ceremonies and ministrations of the south under the high priests of Amun settled at Medinet Habu. Workmen from Deir Al-Medina moved here; one interesting house belongs to the necropolis scribe Butehamon. The site continued to be occupied well into the Christian era.


Towards the end of the 18th Dynasty, a new capital city was built on the east bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt.

This was founded by Akhenaten, known to history as the “heretic pharaoh.” He and his wife Nefertiti, with their six daughters, left Thebes (although they may have maintained a residence at Memphis) for this new, virgin site dedicated to the worship of their chief god, the sun disk, or Aten. Their city, called Akhetaten (the horizon of the Aten) in ancient times and Al-Amarna today, was built very quickly, occupied for less than a generation, and then abandoned.

Although later kings took much of its stone for other building projects, the ground plans of the city’s temples, palaces, and houses, all of which lay in the low desert, are well preserved, and additional information can be gleaned from the nearby tombs. Sometime around the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten ordered that a series of stelae be carved into the cliffs ringing the site he had selected for his city. These marked the boundaries of the royal territory, which was about eight miles from north to south and three miles wide across its centre.

Here, in the low desert on the east bank of the Nile, the great new city was erected. Explored earlier by a number of important Egyptologists, this site is now being excavated and certain areas being reconstructed by British archaeologist Barry Kemp.

Running from north to south is a great Royal Road, a ceremonial processional way along which the royal family travelled each day when they were in residence. The Royal Road began in the North City, an area that included the North Riverside Palace, thought to be the main leisure-time home for the royal family. The fortified complex included a large administration building, barracks for the royal bodyguard, and storehouses. Large houses in this area were most likely for high-ranking courtiers.

South of this was the North Palace, which contained reception halls, gardens, and living chambers. Much painted decoration has been recovered from this palace, most of it brightly coloured scenes of natural subjects such as marsh plants and birds.

In the centre of the city was an immense temple to the Aten, along with a great state palace and a smaller residential palace (the King’s House) with its own smaller temple. The Great Palace was centered around a large courtyard surrounded by colossal figures of the king. The state apartments here are thought to have been where the king received both native dignitaries and foreign diplomats. A brick bridge ran over the road from the Great Palace to the King’s House.

This was also used for state occasions, and a “Window of Appearances” has been reconstructed in one courtyard as the place where the king appeared to his subjects. The administration buildings were in this area, including the Records Office, from whence an important cache of diplomatic letters came.

To the north and south of this central core were clusters of large and small houses, including several estates and a village for the workmen who built the city and carved the elite and royal tombs. At the far south of the site are the Kom Al-Nana, a temple complex possibly dedicated to the queen; and the Maru-aten, an area also associated with the royal women, which contained altars, shrines, pools, and gardens.

The estates of the elite were self-sufficient economic units, large complexes surrounded by walls. In general, these are nearly square, and enclose an area filled with gardens boasting many plants: date and dom-palms, pomegranates, sycamore figs, acacias, vegetables, and flowers. A rectangular pool in the centre of the enclosure teemed with fish and aquatic plants, and most estates had a private shrine.

Kitchens, workshops, areas for food processing and storage, and enclosures for animals were built around the edges of the gardens. The villa proper, set on a platform, was entered through a square antechamber approached by a flight of stairs or a ramp. Through the antechamber was a broad vestibule, then a decorated reception hall with small windows to let in the breeze. Mud-brick benches or mats provided seating for visitors.

The more private part of the house was centered on a square central hall lighted by clerestory windows and furnished with chairs for the master and mistress, a water tank, and an altar. Beyond this was a smaller hall for private gatherings, then a sleeping chamber and bathroom suite. Side rooms could serve as extra bedrooms and storage magazines. A staircase led from the central hall to the roof, and some houses appear to have had second storeys. The average Al-Amarna villa had between 20 and 28 rooms.

The less well-to-do lived in smaller houses, laid out more simply. One residential area to the south, enclosed by a mud-brick wall, contained five narrow streets dividing the area into blocks of row houses packed together in groups of 12. A typical house in this development had four rooms on the ground floor. The first room was divided into a hall and a working area. The next was the living room, furnished with a clay bench built against two of the walls that was once covered with matting. These were heated with pottery hearths. One room at the rear was used for sleeping, and contained a built-in platform on which a mat could be laid. The other room was filled by a staircase.

During the divided rule of the Third Intermediate Period, there were centres of power at Xois and Sais in the north and Thebes in the south. Memphis remained, as always, an important administrative centre.

The Delta remained the site of the principal royal residence for the rest of Pharaonic history. In the 26th Dynasty, it was Sais that came to the fore. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 323 BCE, he founded Alexandria in the western Delta on the shores of the Mediterranean. This rapidly became a great city, and a centre for learning and culture.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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