Key Figures of Ancient Egypt

Key Figures of Ancient Egypt

Due to the limited nature of the information we have about ancient Egypt, the historical figures that we call key is a more limited group than it would be in contemporary times. The article explores three groups of key figures: those involved in developing the form of the pyramid, famous Egyptian rulers, and important non-Egyptian rulers.


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Anthropology, Archaeology, Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations

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If someone asked you to name 10 important people in America today, you would have many choices. They might include a lawmaker, an actor, a writer, and a scientist. There might be an inventor and a musician in there, too. People in all of those careers contribute to society in different ways.

Naming key people in ancient Egypt, though, is a more difficult task. The Egyptians recorded their history in hieroglyphs and other writing. However, most of the records found only mention the rulers, mostly, known as pharaohs. Also, many important figures in ancient Egypt remain unknown to us because many records were lost or have not been recovered.

The Monumental Figures Behind the Pyramids

One figure who was not an Egyptian ruler was Imhotep, an architect. He lived during a period remembered as Egypt's Old Kingdom. It lasted from about 2700 to 2100 B.C.E. Imhotep was the architect of King Djoser.

Almost 5,000 years ago, Imhotep built an early attempt at Egypt's most famous monument, the pyramid. Imhotep developed the pyramid at Saqqarah made of six layers or steps. Known as the Step Pyramid, it was built over a mastaba, an older form of a one-layer tomb at use at the time. It is considered the important first step in the development of the pyramid.

It was the pharaoh Snefru who took pyramid-building to the next level. He was responsible for the Red Pyramid at Dashur. Built about 4,600 years ago, it is widely considered to be the first true pyramid.

Khufu, Snefru's son, ruled from about 2580 to 2565 B.C.E. He learned from his father's advances and had the Great Pyramid at Giza built. More than 147 meters (480 feet) tall, it was the world's tallest structure for more than 3,800 years. It wasn't until the year 1311 C.E. that anyone built something taller—the Cathedral at Lincoln, England.

A Few Egyptian Rulers Worthy of Note

The New Kingdom of ancient Egypt began about 3,700 years ago. It lasted from about 1560 to 1070 B.C.E. During this period several Egyptian rulers achieved fame for very different reasons.

Hatshepsut ruled from about 1473 to 1458 B.C.E. She began as a queen, married to Pharaoh Thutmose II, then served as an adviser to her stepson, Thutmose III. She ended her life as a pharaoh herself, becoming Egypt's first woman ruler.

After Hatshepsut's death, Thutmose III took the throne. He seems to have tried to erase all proof of his stepmother's rule. He likely wanted to keep the tradition that only men could be pharaohs. During his rule, Egypt reached the height of its power, controlling territories and ports in Asia and the Middle East. Egypt also continued its hold on Nubia, along the Nile River.

Less than 100 years later, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV tried to force major changes to Egyptian religion. He called for the worship of the sun god, Aten. Other traditional Egyptian gods were to be considered less important. He changed his name to Akhenaten, declaring he was the highest priest in the land. He took action to move the capital from Memphis to Amarna. After his death, though, the capital returned to Memphis, and the worship of traditional gods resumed.

Non-Egyptians Rule over Territory

In some cases, rulers of other lands conquered ancient Egypt and then ruled as pharaohs. Cambyses II was a king of the Persian Empire, located east of Egypt. He conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E. Persian control then lasted more than 100 years.

The Macedonian king Alexander the Great took power in Egypt about 200 years later. He had already conquered Persia and expanded its territory. Egypt surrendered to him and he was crowned its new pharaoh.

After Alexander's death in 323 B.C.E., one of his companions took over—Ptolemy Soter. In Ptolemy's line of rule was Cleopatra VII, who ruled from 51-30 B.C.E. At first, she and her brother Ptolemy XIII ruled together. She was forced from power, though, and soon raised an army to fight.

At this point, Julius Caesar and the powerful Roman Empire became involved in Egypt's fate. 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. They faced off against Octavian. He defeated them in the Battle of Actium in 30 B.C.E. Three years later, he was crowned Roman emperor. Egypt became part of the Roman Empire. These events marked the end of ancient Egypt as an independent kingdom.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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