If asked to name 10 key figures in America today, the list could include people from many walks of life. They might feature a political figure, a religious leader, a military hero, an actor, a musician, an author, an athlete, a doctor, and a scientist. People in all of those careers contribute to society in important ways. If you still were short on names, you could turn to websites, newspapers, television, and libraries. These resources would remind you of the people making an impact here and now.
But if asked to name key figures of ancient Egypt, our range of roles and occupations becomes much narrower. The Egyptians recorded their history in hieroglyphs and hieratic script. However, 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.
The Driving Forces Behind the Pyramids
There are three key figures of the Old Kingdom—lasting from about 2700–2100 B.C.E.—who drove the development of Egypt's most famous monument, the pyramid. The architect Imhotep is credited with the development of a pyramid at Saqqarah made of six layers, or steps. He is the only key figure we cite who is not a ruler. Imhotep was the architect of King Djoser.
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. Imhotep's innovation is considered the essential first step in the development of the pyramid.
It was the pharaoh Snefru (reigned from about, or "circa," 2600 B.C.E.) who took pyramid-building to the next level. 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 for about 3,800 years. It was not until the Cathedral at Lincoln, England, was completed in 1311 C.E. that anyone built something taller.
Most Famous Egyptian Rulers
In the New Kingdom (circa 1560-1070 B.C.E.), a set of Egyptian rulers achieved fame for very different reasons.
Hatshepsut (reigned circa 1473-1458 B.C.E.) began her rule first as a queen. She was married to Pharaoh Thutmose II, then served 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 for more than twenty years, becoming 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 his stepmother's rule. It is now believed that he did this to secure the tradition of males serving as the ultimate rulers. During his reign, Egypt reached the height of its power. It controlled territory in southwest Asia up to the Euphrates River and ports along the Levantine coast in the Middle East. Egypt also continued its dominance over Nubia, the region along the almighty Nile River.
Less than 100 years later, Amenhotep IV (reigned circa 1353-1336 B.C.E.) instituted dramatic changes in Egyptian religion. He promoted 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, Amun. Busy moving the capital from Memphis to Amarna, he neglected important aspects of political rule. The result would have been disastrous had he not died. Shortly afterward, the priests and people went back to traditional worship and the capital returned to Memphis.
Non-Egyptians Take the Helm
Cambyses II (reigned circa 530-522 B.C.E.) was a king of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. He conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E. during the reign of Pharaoh Psamtik III. Cambyses ruled Egypt as a pharaoh, and Persian control of Egypt lasted until 404 B.C.E.
There was also a second shorter period of Persian rule from 343 to 332 B.C.E. It was ended by Macedonian King Alexander the Great (reigned circa 332-323 B.C.E.). Alexander conquered Persia and its extended provinces across Southwest Asia and reached Egypt in 332 B.C.E. After being greeted by the surrender of the current governor, Alexander proceeded to adopt local customs to foster acceptance. He was eventually crowned ruler of Egypt.
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 (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 brother, but the intervention of Rome's Julius Caesar brought about a brief 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. He was crowned Emperor of the Roman Empire three years later, with Egypt as part of it. Thus ended ancient Egypt's existence as an independent kingdom.