The story of Amun’s rise to supremacy over the Egyptian pantheon is inseparable from the story of how Thebes rose from an insignificant speck on the map to the spiritual center of the Egyptian universe.    

This account of the ascent of Thebes and the god Amun sets the background for a series that will investigate an order of female pontiffs called the God’s Wives of Amun and how these tributaries converge into the ethos, or pathos, of the Heretic King, Akhenaten.   



The Rise of Thebes, the Rise of Amun

AmunTo understand how the office of the God’s Wife of Amun was transformed from an order of temple functionaries into a female pontiff with her own domain and retinue we must first understand the interconnectedness between the rise of both the Theban nobility and the god Amun to national significance.  Like the God’s Wife herself, it is a tale of the rise from obscurity to supremacy.   

Prior to the Middle Kingdom Period, Thebes was simply the capital of Waset, the fourth nome of Upper Egypt.  It was a quiet little backwater township of little significance until the closing years of the First Intermediate Period, when the foundations of the Eleventh Dynasty were laid.   


The First Intermediate Period

The First Intermediate Period was a miserable time for Egypt, when drought spread famine and disease, and the lack of a central government fomented civil unrest.  The land was divided into three kingdoms with ineffective and bickering local administrators based at Memphis, Herakleopolis, and Thebes.  But an ambitious Waset nomarch (governor of a nome) would set in motion a series of changes that would lay the course for Thebes’ transformation into the capital of all Egypt.   

First Intermediate Period MapThe consolidation of power in Thebes began when a nomarch named Intef “the Great” combined the office of governor with that of “overseer of priests,” to which he added “great overlord of Upper Egypt.”  Such lofty claims of station were far from unique during the First Intermediate Period, but there is evidence that Intef’s claim was not your typical blustering.    

Since an inscription referring to this Intef was found in the cemetery of Dendera (the capital of the sixth nome of Upper Egypt), it seems fair to assume that his authority was recognized far beyond the confines of his native province.”  (Seidlmayer, p. 133) 


Intef II

Pharaoh Intef II (Photo by David Liam Moran)

 Intef the Great would not be recognized as a king in the regular sense, but his successor, Mentuhotep I, would be posthumously ascribed pharaohood and is credited with founding the Eleventh Dynasty.  A series of three rulers would follow who would carry Intef’s name, but it is during the fifty-year reign of the second of these, appropriately named Intef II, that the new dynasty really begins to assert itself militarily. 

Intef II launched a northward expansion that captured Abydos, the real seat of power in Upper Egypt, and pressed into Wadkhet, the tenth nome of Upper Egypt.  This campaign was Intef II’s fait accompli and the beginning of the end for the Tenth Dynasty, based at Herakleopolis.  As Stephan Seidlmayer observes:    

This constituted a policy of open hostility against the Herakleopolitan kings, and for several decades war was to be waged intermittently in the stretch of land between Abydos and Asyut.  (p. 135)      


Pharaoh Mentuhotep II

But once the Thebans had wrested control of Abydos from the Herakleopolitans, the die was cast.  When Asyut finally succumbed to Intef II’s grandson, Mentuhotep II, the Herakleopolitans lost their primary base in Upper Egypt.  Provinces that had been loyal to Herakleopolis had no desire to face down the victorious Thebans, opting to join them instead.  

Mentuhotep II then set his sights on Herakleopolis, taking the old capital of Memphis as well.  With the Tenth Dynasty out of business and all of Lower Egypt under his control, Mentuhotep II became the first Theban pharaoh to rule all of Egypt.  Thus began the Middle Kingdom Period.   


 The Middle Kingdom



Rather than move the capital back to Memphis, Mentuhotep II transformed the minor city of Thebes into the capital, and this promotion extended to the local gods as well.  The patron god of Thebes at this time was Montu, a warrior god who was said to possess soldiers on the battlefield, and Mentuhotep II’s namesake—Montu is Content.   

But Montu’s winter of discontent was on the horizon.  



MutBefore the Middle Kingdom Period Amun was a lesser deity, little more than an Old Kingdom god who had found his way into the Theban pantheon.  His earliest known appearance is in the Pyramid Texts of the Fifth Dynasty where he is a primeval creative principle and protector of the king.  

But by the time of the Eleventh Dynasty he had his own temple at Karnak and had become more defined and human-like, gaining a consort in Mother Mut, who had her own adjacent temple precinct.   


From this point forward Amun grows in significance both locally and nationally.  Montu would remain a defender of Thebes, but with the tumultuous First Intermediate Period over and prosperity on the rise, Amun found increasing resonance with the Egyptian people.  The hard times had passed and people identified more with the fatherly and benevolent Amun than the hawkish Montu.  


OsirisNot all of Amun’s competition was local, and he found himself in a sort of turtle vs. hare contest with the god Osiris, with the latter seeming to own the race during the Middle Kingdom.  This was due in part to the “democratization of mummification.”  As Gae Callender notes, 

Another religious development of the Middle Kingdom was the idea that all people (not just the king) had a ba, or spiritual force (p. 180).  

With an afterlife to contemplate, the Egyptian people found new veneration for the Great God of the Necropolis.  

But as important as the afterlife was to the Egyptian people, Amun was increasingly viewed as the primary god of the living.  In an inscription in the Jubilee Chapel of Senusret I at Karnak, dating from the Twelfth Dynasty, Amun is already referred to as the King of the Gods.  By the time of the New Kingdom his primacy will be unchallenged (with a notable exception during the Amarna Period).  But Egypt was about to face a new period of adversity, one from which Amun would emerge supreme.   


The Second Intermediate Period


Map of EgyptThe Thirteenth Dynasty began peacefully enough, but after a long period of slowly losing its grip on the provinces and a multitude of pharaohs with short reigns, the old Theban nobility found themselves in a crisis of succession.  The death of Pharaoh Merneferre Ay left a vacuum, with no single king laying claim to both Upper and Lower Egypt.  The Middle Kingdom Period collapsed and Egypt fell again into decentralization and fragmentation.    

Provincial rulers in the Eastern Delta took this opportunity to found their own dynasty, the Fourteenth, centered mainly on Sais and Avaris.  But disorganized and divided, they proved to be the lesser problem.   An even greater peril to Egypt’s sovereignty would rise up from the Delta and Eastern Desert to form its own dynasty, the Fifteenth.   

Called the Hyksos by the Greeks, from the Egyptian hekau khasut (“rulers of/from foreign countries”), this new threat made Avaris their own and pushed at least as far south as Memphis, seizing control of Lower Egypt.  As if to set the tone for their future relations with the old nobility, the Hyksos stole the pyramidion (capstone) from Merneferre Ay’s pyramid and carted it off to Avaris as a trophy (Bourriau, p. 196).    

But there was an even more direct attack on the Theban nobility.  At the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty, Pharaoh Amenemhat I had moved the capital from Thebes to Itjtawy, the location of which has not yet been discovered, but was close to Memphis and the foreign troubles which were beginning to manifest even then (Callender, p. 158).  With their capital sacked and Lower Egypt in the hands of the Hyksos, Thebes again became the seat of power for the remnants of the Thirteenth Dynasty.   

Meanwhile, the Fourteenth Dynasty proved unable to form a cohesive union of their own.  After as many as 76 kings in less than 125 years, they either joined or were subjugated by the Hyksos.  Although the Saite nobility would eventually earn their own legends during the Third Intermediate and Late Kingdom Periods, for now they bowed to the foreign power seated at Avaris.    

As for the Thebans, they had also organized into a new dynasty.  The Sixteenth Dynasty was long thought to be foreign vassals of the Hyksos, but the work of Egyptologist Kim Ryholt indicates this may not be the case.  Dr. Ryholt’s recent work with the list of pharaohs known as the Turin Canon suggests that as many as fifteen kings of the Sixteenth Dynasty had ruled from Thebes (Bourriau, p. 203)   

One of these kings, Iykhernefert Neferhotep, had a stele erected which clearly showed his affiliation with Thebes and the gods sacred to her.  According to Janine Bourriau:   

Neferhotep is shown protected by the gods Amun and Montu and by a goddess personifying the city of Thebes itself.  She appears armed with a scimitar, bow, and arrows.  (P. 203)   

From this description we may assume that the Thebans meant business, although Bourriau points out that we don’t know if this business was with the Hyksos and their lackeys or with rivals closer to home (pp. 203-4).  But from the Sixteenth Dynasty nobles a new line of rulers would emerge that would become the scourge of the Hyksos.   

Pharaoh Rahotep was probably the first king of the Seventeenth Dynasty (although some lists attest Intef V first, then Rahotep) and with him and his successor, Sobekemsaf I, we see a return of expenditures on civic projects.  Some temple restorations and quarry expeditions were conducted which, while modest by Middle Kingdom standards, nonetheless showed enough local stability to be concerned with something other than conflict and display a return of confidence (Bourriau, p. 205).   

This stability seems to have stemmed in part from a cooling off period between the Thebans and the Hyksos, wherein the former were treated as subjects by the latter.  But to the same degree that security was reestablished in Upper Egypt, resentment against the Hyksos seems to have grown as well.  As relations became increasingly strained war seemed inevitable.  It is unclear exactly what led to the initial bloodshed, but it seems to have involved… noisy hippopotami.   

Scarab with Apepi's cartouche (Photo by Keith Schengili Roberts)

Scarab with Apepi's cartouche (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts)

The story comes to us by way of a text known as Papyrus Sallier .  The crux of the story is that Apepi, the king of the Hyksos, sent a messenger to Seqenenre Tao II, the Theban king, ordering him to control the hippo population in a canal to the east of Thebes because: 

They don’t let sleep come to me either in the daytime or the night, for the noise of them is in his citizens’ ears.  (For a full translation, see Pharaonic EgyptThe Quarrel of Apophis and Sekenenre). 


SetAfter an initial period of shock and insult, Seqenenre replied that he would look into it, but somewhere along the way diplomacy broke down.  Perhaps the Theban king was insulted at being sent on such an errand by the Hyksos king.   

Apepi’s patron god was Set, and hippos were sacred to Set.  Perhaps, either unintentionally or by design, Seqenenre’s manner of removing the animals was not to Apepi’s liking.  Perhaps, either unintentionally or by design, Apepi had presented Seqenenre with a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.     


The battered head of Seqenenre Tao II

The battered head of Seqenenre Tao II

Regardless of how it happened, the quarrel descended into an all out war that Seqenenre Tao II took serious enough to personally lead his troops into battle.  This did not go as well as he had hoped.  His mummy reveals a number of mortal wounds to his head, at least one of which was probably inflicted in combat, but there is disagreement as to whether he died on the battlefield or was assassinated while recovering (See The Theban Mummy ProjectSeqnenre-Taa II).  

Far from breaking their spirit, the death of Seqenenre Tao II galvanized the Thebans against the Hyksos and hostilities escalated under the rule of his successor, Kamose ‘the Brave.’  Kamose spent a short but eventful three years as regent of Upper Egypt, doing his best to avenge Seqenenre and push the Hyksos out.  His success is debatable, but the insults of the Hyksos, perceived and actual, were answered in kind.   


Pharaoh Kamose (Photo by Kurohito)

Pharaoh Kamose (Photo by Kurohito)

Kamose made fierce advances against the occupiers, plundering Hyksos ships and towns as he sailed north along the Nile, and punishing the Kush in the south for their collusion with the enemy.  He ignored a peace treaty drafted by Apepi and instead pushed his troops to the edge of the northern capital.  Kamose never seized Avaris, but did his best to humiliate the Hyksos king while encamped at the edge of the city:  

 Then follows the traditional boastful speech to Apepi: ‘Behold, I am drinking of the wine of your vineyards…I am hacking up your place of residence, cutting down your trees’, and a list of the plunder he was carrying away.  (Bourriau, p. 212).  


Second Stele of Kamose, describing his campaign against Apepi (Photo by Kurohito)

Second Stele of Kamose, describing his campaign against Apepi (Photo by Kurohito)

Cut off from his southern allies, Apepi wisely assessed his situation and chose to settle for a stalemate rather than clash with the haughty young king.  For his part, Kamose eventually declared victory and withdrew back to Thebes and to a hero’s welcome.  But as history would have it, the stalemate would prove final.  Within a few years both Kamose and Apepi would be dead with neither having won a decisive victory against the other.  

 King Apepi was succeeded by Khamudi, Pharaoh Kamose by Ahmose I.  Ahmose I was too young to assume the responsibilities of kingship, so his mother, Ahhotep I, stepped up as regent.  Seqenenre Tao II’s widow exhibited as much vigor as her husband, acting as both ruler and commander-in-chief.  She held the pact together, quelling or expelling rebellious elements and maintaining a decade-long détente with Khamudi while Ahmose I came of age.  



Pharaoh Ahmose I (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts)

Pharaoh Ahmose I (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts)



But the cessation of hostilities would not last, and on assumption of his sole rulership, Ahmose I initiated the final drive against the Hyksos.  Some sources place the date in Ahmose I’s eleventh regnal year, while others contend it was Khamudi’s eleventh year, but either way it was roughly a decade after the deaths of Apepi and Seqenenre Tao II.

Seqenenre’s heir would not only finish the work of his predecessors, he would found one of the most celebrated dynasties of Egypt and help establish Amun as King of the Gods.   




The New Kingdom

Ahmose defeating the Hyksos

Ahmose defeating the Hyksos

It is not certain what prompted Ahmose I to launch his campaign against Khamudi other than a general desire to expel the Hyksos from Egypt.  No specific event seems to precipitate his decision to go on the offense, and the level of strategy he employed argues against a heated reaction to some slight.  Ahmose I initiated a well-planned assault aimed at isolating Avaris, driving out the occupiers, and sweeping up behind them.   

Ahmose I’s assault on Lower Egypt was in many ways the opposite of Kamose’s, which had the feel of a war of opportunity with no real forethought.  Rather than plundering his way down to Avaris and laying siege with no thought given to what next, Ahmose’s fleet sailed past Memphis and seized Heliopolis.  This was in July, ahead of the inundation of the Nile.  He then bivouacked there for three months, waiting out the flood season.   

Second Intermediate Period MapIn mid-October, with the waters of the Nile back within her banks, Ahmose I took his fleet north, this time bypassing Avaris to attack Tjaru.  Tjaru was the gateway to the Sinai, an important fortress along the Horus Road that connected Egypt to the East.  By controlling access to the Horus Road, Ahmose I deprived the Hyksos of any aid Canaan and Palestine might have sent, and likewise prevented any large-scale retreat across the Sinai.   

With Avaris sealed off at Tjaru and Heliopolis, Ahmose I was ready to lay siege to the Hyksos capital.  The account of one of Ahmose I’s top soldiers, also named Ahmose (son of Ebana), details an initial battle followed by a protracted siege and numerous skirmishes on land and water.  Khamudi had taken advantage of the years of relative peace to fortify the city and her walls which frustrated Ahmose’s attempts to enter the city.   

From better days--Bronze dagger with Apepi's name (Photo by Udimu)

From better days--Bronze dagger with Apepi's name (Photo by Udimu)

But while the city had grown strong during the decade between Kamose and Ahmose I, the Hyksos military had grown weak in a way that left them vulnerable in battle.  During the Second Intermediate Period both the Egyptians and the Hyksos used weapons made of a tin and bronze alloy.  By the time of the battle with Ahmose I, the Hyksos had begun using unalloyed copper for their weapons, which looked attractive but did not hold as good an edge as the tin bronze, which the Thebans had retained (Bourriau, p. 124).   

The superior defenses of the Hyksos and the superior weapons of the Thebans seem to have cancelled each other out, and the long siege may have compelled Ahmose I to offer terms to the Hyksos.  According to Josephus’ version of Manetho’s account of the siege, Ahmose I and Khamudi negotiated a surrender that allowed the Hyksos to depart peacefully, with the same terms being extended to Memphis.   

Evidence from Avaris itself tends to confirm this picture of mass exodus rather than slaughter after Ahmose’s victory.  A clear cultural break is visible between the latest Hyksos stratum and that of the earliest Eighteenth Dynasty all over the site, largely because of the appearance of a new ceramic repertoire.  The same phenomenon appears also at Memphis.  (Bourriau, p. 214)   

In other words, the Hyksos left and took what they could carry with them, with no signs of a Theban coup de grâce, and no signs of a mixed Egyptian/Hyksos populace after the siege.  As the Hyksos departed Ahmose I seems to have followed them into Palestine, not in pursuit, but rather as more of a land grab.  With the Hyksos out of power he probably found their allied towns easy picking, and pushed as far east as Sharuhen before turning his attention back to internal affairs.   

Ahmose I next took his fleet south to the second cataract to finish off the Nubians who had allied with the Hyksos, after which there were two small uprisings he had to put down.  The first came from a Nubian leader named Aata who was launching raids from the north.  Aata and his men were most likely remnants of the Nubians the Hyksos had employed to defend Memphis and Avaris, doing what recently unemployed soldiers tended to do—loot.  The second was an Egyptian named Teti-an, who led his own band of disenfranchised malcontents.   

With the land once again reunited under a Theban crown, Ahmose I then concerned himself with healing the kingdom.  He launched a program of temple building and restoration after reopening the quarries at Tura.  He also reopened the copper mines at Sinai and the trade routes with the Syrians.  Having Nubia under his control also meant gold was again flowing into the royal coffers.    

The future of the dynasty--Ahmose Nefertari and Amenhotep I

The future of the dynasty--Ahmose Nefertari and Amenhotep I

On the political front, Ahmose I was planning for the future of his dynasty.  Following in the footsteps of Seqenenre Tao II, Ahmose I laid out a plan whereby access to the throne would be limited to his immediate family and their offspring.  This was achieved by refusing to allow royal princesses to marry anyone other than their royal brothers.  Kings were free to marry whoever they wished, but this system of interfamilial marriage for daughters meant nobody could marry their way to the throne.   

Ahmose I’s plan of insulating the throne via incest would last no more than a few generations, but another of his institutions would survive well into the Late Period—the God’s Wife of Amun.  Thebes had remained true to Amun after the Middle Kingdom collapsed, calling upon his protection throughout the occupation and resistance, and tying their dynasty to his favor as the New Kingdom was born.    

Amun - King of the Gods

Amun - King of the Gods



In the eyes of Egypt, Amun had rewarded Thebes with victory, he had become the god of the oppressed, the god of the underdog, the god of the people.  There would still be a place for Montu in the pantheon, but from the Eighteenth Dynasty forward, Amun in one form or another would remain King of the Gods.   

There was, of course, an exception.  But we are still a while off from dealing with him.   






Next in this series:  The God’s Wives of Amun – Royal Women and Power Politics in the Eighteenth Dynasty


Works Cited


Bourriau, Janine.  “The Second Intermediate Period.”  The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.  184-217.   

Callender, Gae.  “The Middle Kingdom Renaissance.”  The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.  148-83.   

Miller, Wm. Max.  Online:  The Theban Mummy ProjectSeqnenre-Taa II   

Seidlmayer, Stephan.  “The First Intermediate Period.”  The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.  118-47.   

Wente, Edward F., trans.  “The Quarrel of Apophis and Sekenenre.”  The Literature of Ancient Egypt.  New Haven and London:  Yale UP, 1973.  77.  Online:  Pharaonic EgyptThe Quarrel of Apophis and Sekenenre   



Copyright by Keith Payne, 2010.  All rights reserved.   


Photographs “AhmoseI-StatueHead MetropolitanMuseum” and “ScarabBearingNameOfApophis MuseumOfFineArtsBoston” by Keith Schengili-Roberts are used in accordance with the Creative Commons 2.5 Generic License.  Photographs “Funerary stele of Intef II” by David Liam Moran.  Photographs “dagger with Apepi’s name” by Udimu, and “2e-stele-Kamose” and “Sarcophage-Kamose” by Kurohito are used in accordance with the GNU Free Documentation License.  The original graphics “Montu”,  “Amun”, “Mut”, “Osiris”, and “Set” are by Jeff Dahl and were altered and used by Keith Payne in accordance with the GNU Free Documentation License.  Photographs “Mentuhotep II”, “Sequenre tao”, “Ahmose-Nefertari I”, “Amun”, and “ahmosedefeatingHyksos” are in the public domain.

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6 comments so far


Hello Shemsu Sesen

Hope summer is finding you well!

A strong belief in a God is one of the deadliest weapons in an armies arsenal. It is ultimate propaganda especially for the justification and triumph of the victorious.

The balance in the propaganda is in raising your God above the others without alienating the pantheon but of which the victor may condemn the God of the loser as impotent.

People will make huge sacrifices for a God that they would not for a mortal, even a king. I liked very much your approach to the story of Apophis and Sekenenre.

Truly though with the rise of the eighteenth dynasty a remarkable family emerges bringing a positive destiny for their God Amun.

Can you give me information about the term Pharaoh, I have heard many suggestions as to when the term applies to an Egyptian king including not prior to Akhenaten?

PS. Two of my projects recently have gone sideways and my next book review, in a week or so, is seriously political.

Peace Man

July 10th, 2010 at 2:25 pm
Jean-Pierre Houdin

Hi Keith,

Congratulations for your work…
The 18th Dynasty will be “THE SERIES” of SUMMER 2010 regarding ANCIENT EGYPT…
Knowledge against appearance…;-)
I’m thankfull to you for helping me understanding this complex era leading to New Kingdom…



July 10th, 2010 at 4:53 pm
Shemsu away from Home!

Greetings to Tim and Jean-Pierre, from the Misty Mountians! No trolls or goblins, fortunately! Vacation is going well, and I am lugging many books with me, but not the right ones to weigh in on your question, Tim.

I am heading back to the lowlands of my old Kentucky home tomorrow, so I should be able to better formulate an opinion then.

Merci, Jean-Pierre, much about the Eighteenth Dynasty this summer, but 90% of that is already written. Finishing touches will be placed as they go online. But most of my behind the scenes work now is on finishing Hemienu to Houdin and preparing for the Autumn of Khufu and Beyond!

These are very exciting times to chronicle Egyptology. They say that the invention of the microcomputer was the microscope of the social sciences. I think the perfection of interactive 3D technology is going to prove to be the microscope of archaeology. Real science done in labs all over the world, with no political hoops for permits.

A brave new world! But I am veering off the subject of the 18th Dynasty.

In the next installment we will see how Ahotep I made use of his position and wealth, and how royal women were granted a new-found power that allowed them to make their mark on history, including a lady pharoah! I will get into your quesiton about the meaning of the term pharoah before that, Tim, as best I can! Hopefully others will join the conversation. I know from emails that we have some brilliant readers here.

Come forth by day!


July 12th, 2010 at 3:22 pm

First rate article Keith, really enjoyed reading the article and it shone light on the rise in prominence of Amun. Looking forward to the rest of the series esp the way you will deal with Hatshepsut and the demise of Amun during the Armarna period. Are there really misty mountains, sounds like Lord of the Rings!

July 17th, 2010 at 5:31 am

Thanks, Dave! It is funny how much attention Tut gets when there are so many fascinating people in the Eighteenth Dynasty. I have to admit it was not a period that held much interest for me until I began working on this series.

For me, the Old Kingdom is still where it’s at! But I have a new appreciation for the complexity of the New Kingdom and the people who shaped it.

By the way, Tim– I have not forgotten the subject of the term pharaoh. I use the terms pharaoh and king interchangeably on Em Hotep. I hope we are not opening a can of worms here that will result in me rewriting everything! I can be pretty obsessive like that…

July 19th, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Shemsu Sesen

The answer is a mystery to me but I do not believe this can has any worms. My belief is that there is no consensus on the issue but I will write my findings and maybe with help there is an answer.

Hope your vacation has gone well and take care.

July 20th, 2010 at 2:04 am

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