If asked to name 10 key figures of contemporary America, one would have a wide choice. The list could feature people from many walks of life and might include a political figure, a religious leader, a military or civic hero, an actor, a musician, an author, an athlete, a doctor, a scientist, and an inventor. People in all of those careers contribute to society in important ways. If you were short on names, you could turn to websites, newspapers, television, and libraries to remind you of the people making an impact here and now.
But if asked to name the key figures of ancient Egypt, our range of roles and occupations becomes much narrower. Although the Egyptians recorded their history through hieroglyphs and hieratic script, most of the existing records highlight political and religious rulers. Even some of these key figures have acquired layers of legend as their stories were carried through the centuries. This history can make it difficult to separate myth from fact. Many influential figures in ancient Egypt, however, remain unknown to us because many records were lost or have not been recovered.
There are three key figures of the Old Kingdom (circa 2700-2100 B.C.E.) who drove the development of Egypt's most famous monument, the pyramid. As the architect to King Djoser (circa 2650-2575 B.C.E.), Imhotep is credited with the development of a six-layer step pyramid at Saqqarah. He is the only key figure we cite who is not a ruler. The world's oldest stone monument, the Step Pyramid, was built over a mastaba, an older form of a rectangular, one-layer tomb in use at the time. It is considered the essential first step in the development of the pyramid.
It was Snefru, a pharaoh who reigned around 2600 B.C.E., who made the transition between a stepped pyramid and a true pyramid. However, there were some issues along the way—such as the limestone casing falling off the Meidum Pyramid and getting the angle wrong on the Bent Pyramid. But with the Red Pyramid at Dashur, he achieved what is widely considered to be the first true pyramid.
Snefru's son, Khufu (reigned circa 2580-2565 B.C.E.), learned from his father's technological advances. He had the Great Pyramid at Giza built. This structure—with a height of 147 meters (481 feet)—was the world's tallest building for about 3,800 years, until the Cathedral at Lincoln, England, was completed in 1311 C.E.
Noteworthy Egyptian Rulers
In the New Kingdom (circa 1560-1070 B.C.E.), a set of Egyptian rulers achieved renown for vastly different reasons.
Hatshepsut (reigned circa 1473-1458 B.C.E.) began her rule first as a queen married to Pharaoh Thutmose II, then as regent to her stepson Thutmose III, to rule for him until he came of age, as he had ascended to the throne as a child of about two years old. She later took the throne herself and reigned as pharaoh for more than 20 years, the first woman to rule Egypt.
Thutmose III (reigned circa 1479-1425 B.C.E.) followed Hatshepsut to the throne after she died. He apparently tried to erase all evidence of her rule. It is now believed that he did this to secure the tradition of males serving as the ultimate rulers. Under his rule, Egypt reached the height of its power, with holdings in southwest Asia up to the Euphrates River and supply ports along the Levantine coast in the Middle East. Egypt also continued its dominance over Nubia, the region along the mighty Nile River.
Amenhotep IV (reigned circa 1353-1336 B.C.E.) instituted dramatic changes in Egyptian religion by promoting the worship of the sun god, Aten, at the expense of other traditional Egyptian gods. Changing his name to Akhenaten, he declared that as pharaoh, he was the highest priest in the land. Through this move, he effectively dismissed the priests of the chief god of the pantheon, Amun. Busy establishing a new capital in Amarna, he neglected other aspects of political rule, which would have been disastrous, had he not died. Shortly thereafter, the priests and people went back to traditional worship and the capital returned to Memphis.
Non-Egyptian Rulers, Including Cleopatra
Cambyses II (reigned circa 530-522 B.C.E.), a king of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E. during the reign of Pharaoh Psamtik III. Cambyses II replaced him. Persian control of Egypt lasted until 404 B.C.E.
There was a second shorter period of Persian rule from 343 to 332 B.C.E., when Macedonian King Alexander the Great (reigned circa 332-323 B.C.E.) took power. Alexander conquered Persia and its extended provinces across Southwest Asia and reached Egypt in 332 B.C.E. After the kingdom's current governor of Egypt surrendered, Alexander proceeded to adopt local customs to foster acceptance. In part, this included traveling to the oracle of the chief god, Amun, where he received the priest's greeting to a pharaoh, under which title he was crowned ruler of Egypt. He also founded the city of Alexandria.
After Alexander's death, the rule of Egypt was taken up by one of his companions, Ptolemy Soter (reigned circa 323-282 B.C.E.). Cleopatra VII Philopator (reigned 51-30 B.C.E.) was the last of the Ptolemy line. She ascended the throne along with her brother, Ptolemy XIII, but was forced out of Egypt by ministers loyal to her brother. Raising an army, she returned to fight her sibling, but Julius Caesar's intervention brought about a transient period of peace. After Ptolemy XIII's death, she co-ruled with another brother, Ptolemy XIV, until his death in 44 B.C.E., the same year Caesar was murdered. In Caesar's will, he named his grandnephew Octavian as his adopted heir. This angered Roman general Marc Antony, who had hoped to be named Caesar's heir.
Eventually, Marc Antony and Cleopatra combined forces and faced off against Octavian. Octavian, though, defeated them in the Battle of Actium in 30 B.C.E. and three years later was crowned as the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Egypt was added to the Roman Empire, ending ancient Egypt's existence as an independent state.