“Best” is a word that’s hard to define. How do you make it fit with regard to the pharaohs of Egypt or any other kind of ruler? How can you tell which ruler is truly the “best?”
For me, when measuring the worth of a leader, we can look at a passage of advice Louis XIV left for his son.
You will always find in me the same perseverance in labor, the same firmness of resolution, the same love for my people, the same passion for the prosperity of my state, and the same ardor for true glory.
So then, let’s look back over the 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history and try to discern which of the pharaohs best lived up to these words.
10. Amenhotep III
Ruling Egypt at the peak of its power, Amenhotep III wasn’t a pharaoh that saw the need to assert military dominance. Instead, Amenhotep III ran Egypt as a business operation, using his wealth to put pressure on his competitors and derive advantages for Egypt. Foreign rulers often wrote to him requesting gold. The pharaoh in turn would dangle it in the faces of his peers in return for actions on their part that were favorable to the best interests of Egypt.
With Egypt flush with so much wealth, the pharaoh built splendidly. Art and culture flourished in Amenhotep III’s reign more than that of any other Egyptian ruler. It was a time of peace and prosperity and Amenhotep III’s mastery of diplomacy kept it that way throughout his nearly 40 year reign.
Hatshepsut is one of the most interesting people, let alone pharaohs, that Egypt ever produced. Beginning as the regent for the child Thutmose III, she eventually transformed her regency into a reign as a full-blown pharaoh. To secure the support she would need to reign as a female king, she must have had charisma and persuasive gravitas. Hatshepsut certainly displayed this skill with her propaganda campaign to legitimize her rule to the public.
To justify her reign as pharaoh, Hatshepsut liked to associate herself with her father, the famous military commander, Thutmose I. If she was a member of the fairer, weaker sex, Hatshepsut was keen to remind everyone that she had the characteristics of her mighty father.
She also was keen to tell the story that she actually wasn’t the daughter of Thutmose I at all, but was in fact the offspring of Amun, the national god of Egypt. In her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, Hatshepsut had the story of this divine conception painted on the walls.
Her magnetism and these narratives allowed Hatshepsut to hold power for 25 years, even after Thutmose III reached his majority. Usurper though she may have technically been, Hatshepsut served her nation well. Her reign was known for its peacefulness. The government was strong and she organized trading expeditions to faraway lands, including the fabled land of Punt, which reestablished Egypt’s trading empire to the south. The reopening of the African trade routes brought significant economic growth to Egypt and played a key role in the rise of its golden age.
8. Ramesses II
Thanks to the success of his own propaganda, which may have been the most sophisticated of all the pharaohs, Ramesses II has been overrated in Egyptian history, but he was nevertheless a capable ruler whose 67-year reign brought stability and permitted the last flowering of the culture of Egypt.
Though he failed in his initial military objectives, Ramesses II was wise enough to recognize his limitations and establish peace with the Hittites, forging an alliance with an old enemy that was truthfully in Egypt’s best interests. This alliance stabilized Egypt’s borders, successfully kept the surging Assyrians out of Syria and Canaan, and brought economic growth to the region.
Meanwhile, at home, Ramesses II established national unity through his skill at persuasion and his sheer longevity to keep Egypt peaceful and prosperous. His building projects left many grand monuments that last to this day, which is part of why he’s so famous.
7. Seti I
Though he didn’t reign for long and is overshadowed by his famous son, Ramesses II, Seti I was a very capable pharaoh who put Egypt back on the right track. When he came to power, the country was still reeling from Akhenaten’s failed revolution. Horemheb had restored order internally, but Egypt had lost territory and prestige on the international stage and its national security was now threatened by the growing power of the Hittites.
Horemheb had attempted the reconquest of the lost lands, but his campaigns failed to secure any lasting gains for Egypt. Seti I’s top priority after becoming pharaoh was to bring Canaan and Syria back under Egyptian control.
Seti I was successful in most of his campaigns, checking the power of the Hittites and even recapturing Kadesh. Though he wasn’t able to permanently reestablish Egyptian supremacy that far north, Seti I was nevertheless successful in bringing Canaan back under the control of Egypt. It would remain that way until the end of the Bronze Age and put Egypt in a far stronger position on the international stage. Seti I ultimately made an accord with the Hittites on the boundaries of the two empires which was reaffirmed at the Battle of Kadesh. His time as pharaoh set the stage for the long and prosperous reign of his son by eliminating most of Egypt’s major problems.
6. Ramesses III
Though not nearly as well known as his predecessor and namesake, Ramesses III secures his place on the list of best pharaohs by successfully dissolving one of the biggest crises any had ever faced.
By the time he came to the throne, Egyptian power was at an ebb. The pharaohs no longer stood as juggernauts on the world stage. Only a generation after the death of Ramesses II, the international situation had vastly changed. The Assyrians were still rising in the East, having defeated the Hittites. Even more ominously, the Sea Peoples marauded around the Mediterranean. Despite being previously rebuffed by the Pharaoh Merneptah in 1208 B.C., they were now back, and stronger than ever. Hot off the heels of bringing Mycenaen Greece to its knees, destroying the Hittites for good, and sweeping down through Syria and Canaan, they now threatened Egypt.
Ramesses III was tasked with facing this formidable force without any allies and with an army whose effectiveness was far beneath that of the Egyptian golden age, or even the post-golden age fighting force used by Seti I and Ramesses II.
Yet somehow, Ramesses III defeated the Sea Peoples on land at the Battle of Djahy and in the water at the Battle of the Delta. These monumental victories against the odds saved Egypt from invasion and the chaos that had reigned over the Mediterranean from Italy to Syria.
Ramesses III’s defeat of the Sea Peoples didn’t prevent Egypt from declining. However, he did save it from sudden turmoil and secured internal peace for at least a while. He also governed his nation competently for decades, preventing the rot in social order that would break out under his successors. He was in fact the last of the strong pharaohs before Egyptian power became insignificant on the world stage.
For these achievements against the odds at a time of considerable stress, Ramesses III is perhaps the most underrated of the Egyptian pharaohs and certainly one of the best. He deserves a lot more respect and recognition than he gets. He certainly deserved better than to be murdered by conspirators from his own harem.
5. Mentuhotep II
Little-known today, the Pharaoh Mentuhotep II ended the First Intermediate Period of Egypt and ushered in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, thus ending a period of internal division and high stress.
Following the collapse of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, local potentates, known as nomarchs, had taken power, breaking the country up into a series of petty polities. This division lasted for about 150 years. Eventually, two centers of power developed – Herakleopolis in the north and Thebes in the south.
After several generations of steadily advancing northward, Mentuhotep II completed the work begun by his forefathers and defeated the Herakleopolitan kings to become the first true pharaoh in a century and a half, reuniting the kingdom. More importantly, he kept it united, putting in place a system that would serve its best interests by limiting and ultimately degrading the power of the local nomarchs. This insured that the country couldn’t split up again. This system would remain in place for centuries and maintain the internal order of the kingdom.
One can’t make a list of the best pharaohs without mentioning Egypt’s founding father. Though one might argue that Narmer’s achievement of first unifying Upper and Lower Egypt into a single country was inevitable, what he did in the aftermath of this event matters even more. Narmer’s greatest achievement was to create the mythology, images, and symbols of the Egyptian pharaohs that would last until the very end of the culture.
Every nation needs its myths. Every ruler needs his narratives and symbols. Logic doesn’t capture the hearts and minds of a population. By forging these things, which would endure for millennia, Narmer brought his nation important and long-lasting institutions that would maintain order, national pride, and stable government. The Egyptian pharaohs were his invention and this achievement, even more than his conquest, cements his place among the best rulers of Egypt.
After the fall of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, a group of invaders that have come to be called the Hyksos moved in and took over the northern part of the country. These people proclaimed themselves as pharaohs and became Egyptianized. However, they were different from the Egyptians in a very important way – they had superior military technology. It’s thought that the horse, chariot, composite bow, and bronze weapons were all introduced by these people. For Egyptians who were used to using stone weapons, this must have been a terrifying development.
Their inferiority was displayed for all to see – then and now – when the Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao was killed in battle against the Hyksos. The mummy is a ghastly sight. The Hyksos as a fighting force must have been terrifying enough, but to the Egyptian seeing his divine king killed in battle, it must have sapped his morale that much further.
Into this depressed atmosphere stepped Kamose, the son of the fallen king. Though the glory for expelling the Hyksos goes to his younger brother Ahmose, Kamose was the pharaoh that adapted the technologies of his enemies and used them for his own benefit. Kamose won a series of decisive victories against the Hyksos and kept the ambitions of the Nubians in check by campaigning to the south.
Though the pharaoh was unable to complete the job, Kamose revived Egyptian morale at a time when the remainder of the country was vulnerable to conquest by the Hyksos-Nubian alliance. He left Ahmose in a strong position to expel the Hyksos and begin Egypt’s New Kingdom. It isn’t hyperbole to say that Kamose saved Egypt’s culture as we have come to know it. Underrated, he belongs high on any list of the best pharaohs.
2. Ahmose I
Picking up where his predecessor left off, Ahmose I completed the expulsion of the Hyksos. Not only that, the pharaoh chased them into Canaan and made sure that they would never threaten Egypt again. Ahmose also turned his attention southward and reestablished Egyptian supremacy over Nubia, recovering the old Middle Kingdom borders which had been lost in the confusion of the Hyksos invasion and the Second Intermediate Period.
Considered the founder of the New Kingdom, it was Ahmose I’s successful campaigns which set the stage for the pharaohs to follow him. Many of the other best pharaohs owe him a debt of gratitude, as he solidified Kamose’s work and got Egypt started on the road to its greatest glory.
1. Thutmose III
When creating a list of even the best pharaohs, one stands head and shoulders above them all, to the point that the gold medalist is a no-brainer. The achievements of Thutmose III tower over any other Egyptian king.
Thutmose III would quickly prove himself through the meat grinder. His personal rule began after the death of Hatshepsut, but it was no time for celebration. Egyptian power having been established in the Levant by her immediate predecessors, Hatshepsut was facing a well-organized rebellion there by the end of her reign, sponsored by the powerful Kingdom of Mitanni. Hatshepsut was reluctant to confront the rebels, so the problem mounted, and was thrust right into Thutmose III’s hands.
He took his army and marched north, crushing the rebels at Megiddo. Numerous other campaigns would follow. Throughout them, Thutmose III brought Egypt to its greatest territorial extent. Canaan and Syria were firmly brought into the Egyptian sphere of influence, with a border at the Euphrates. Down south, Egyptian supremacy over Nubia was reaffirmed to the fourth cataract.
Not only did his campaigns secure Egypt’s territorial dominance, but they also left behind a well-trained military that became an enduring institution. The transformation of the Egyptian military from amateur militia to professional fighting force began under Kamose and Ahmose, but Thutmose III perfected the system. The result was a fearsome military that guarded Egypt’s best interests and, thankfully, wasn’t abused by the successors of Thutmose III, as such an institution has often been by rulers throughout history.
Wealth poured into Egypt from north and south, leading to a flourishing of the arts throughout the land. Grand monuments were constructed. More interestingly, Thutmose III created a botanical garden for all the species of plants and animals he had brought back from abroad. The pharaoh was as interested in accumulating knowledge and wisdom as he was wealth and power.
Thutmose III also brought innovations in statecraft. Instead of massacring the inhabitants of the cities he captured, his policy was to take the sons of the leaders of those cities back to Egypt as hostages. This guaranteed the good behavior of their fathers. Furthermore, when those sons eventually took their father’s places, they would be Egyptianized and thus act in ways favorable to Egyptian best interests.
With great victories, a prosperous people and empire, the guarantee of that empire’s stability through diplomatic and military innovations, and a new culture of learning all left behind him, Thutmose III rightly claims the title of the best pharaoh. It was he who fathered Egypt’s golden age.
Persuasion was an important tool for all of these pharaohs. If you want to be the “best” in anything, you’ll need it. To secure your own empire, read Stumped today.