Amenhotep III (c. 1386-1353 BCE) was the ninth king in Egypt’s 18th dynasty. Amenhotep III was also known as Amana-Hatpa, Amenophis III, Amenhotep II and Nebma’atre. These names reflect the concept of the god Amun being pleased or satisfied or, as in Nebma’atre, with the concept of satisfied balance.
Amenhotep III’s most significant contribution to Egyptian society was his efforts to maintain an enduring peace and build upon his kingdom’s prosperity. Fewer military campaigns abroad allowed Amenhotep III to channel his energy and time into promoting the arts. Many of ancient Egypt’s most majestic feats of construction were constructed during his reign. When tested by external threats to his kingdom, Amenhotep III’s military campaigns not only resulted in stronger borders but also an expanded empire. Amenhotep III ruled Egypt for 38 years with his queen Tiye until his death. Amenhotep IV the future Akhenaten followed Amenhotep III onto the Egyptian throne.
Facts About Amenhotep III
- Amenhotep III (c. 1386-1353 BCE) was the ninth king in Egypt’s 18th dynasty
- He was just twelve years old when he ascended Egypt’s throne
- Amenhotep III ruled Egypt for 38 years with his queen Tiye until his death
- Amenhotep III had inherited a fabulously wealthy Egyptian empire. Rather than fighting his enemies, Amenhotep III made extensive use of diplomacy
- Amenhotep III’s diplomatic notes are known as “The Amarna Letters” discovered in 1887
- The Amarna letters reveal even kings were not too proud to beg for gifts of Egyptian gold
- A noted sportsman and hunter, Amenhotep III bragged he killed 102 wild lions
- Amenhotep III’s vision for his Egypt was a state so magnificent that it would render competing rulers awestruck at Egypt’s wealth and power
- His version of “shock and awe” comprised more than 250 temples, buildings, stele and statuary built during his rule and erected in Egypt, Nubia and Sudan
- The Colossi of Memnon are the sole surviving remnants of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple
- As Egypt grew increasingly wealthy and influential under Amenhotep III’s reign, the priesthood of the god Amun jockeyed with the throne for political influence.
King Amenhotep III’s Family Lineage
Amenhotep III was the son of Tuthmosis IV. His mother was Mutemwiya, Tuthmosis IV’s lesser wife. He was Queen Tiye’s husband, father to Akhenaten and Tutankhamun and Akhsenamun’s grandfather. Throughout his reign, Amenhotep III maintained an extensive harem that numbered foreign princesses amongst its members. However, the surviving records are clear that his marriage to Queen Tiye was a love match. Amenhotep III married Tiye prior to becoming king. Unusually for her status as the Chief Wife, Tiye was a commoner. At this time many royal marriages were driven by politics, yet Amenhotep’s marriage to Tiye appears to have been a devoted one.
As a show of his devotion, Amenhotep III constructed a lake 600 cubits wide by 3,600 cubits long in Tiye’s hometown of T’aru. Amenhotep held a festival on the lake, during which he and Tiye cruised on the ‘Disk of Beauties,’ their royal boat.
Tiye gave Amenhotep III six children, two sons and four daughters. The eldest son Thutmose entered the priesthood. Prince Thutmose died, freeing the way for his brother, the future King Akhenaton, to ascend the throne.
A Looming Storm
As with other pharaohs, Amenhotep III faced his share of external political and military challenges. Amenhotep III had inherited a fabulously wealthy Egyptian empire. The empire’s vast wealth and the influence it bought were greatly envied. Surrounding states such as Assyria, Babylonia and Mitani were emerging as potential rivals around this time. Amenhotep was aware of the need to protect Egypt’s borders from his rivals but desperately wished to avoid yet another expensive and disruptive war.
An alternate solution presented itself. Rather than fighting his enemies, Amenhotep III decided to use diplomacy instead. He began writing regularly to the Near East’s other rulers. These letters took the form of carved letters on small stones. Messengers transported these letters to foreign princes.
Words, Replace Weapons
Our best source for evidence of Amenhotep III deft use of diplomacy comes from The Amarna Letters, discovered in 1887 show that he was controlling his world, with words, not weapons. The pharaoh had evolved into a successful diplomat
Amenhotep had a key advantage in negotiating with his rivals. Egypt’s great wealth was transformed into a lever of power. Egypt’s control of the Nubian gold mines provided Egypt with a steady stream of riches other countries could only dream of. Ambassadors brought gifts signifying their friendship while smaller countries sent tributes of exotic animals and other treasures in a demonstration of their loyalty.
The Amarna letters reveal even kings were desperate to share in Egypt’s gold. They were not too proud to beg for gifts of Egyptian gold. Amenhotep managed his supplicant kings adroitly, sending them some gold, but always leaving them wanting more and thus remaining reliant on his good will.
Amenhotep Iii’s Reign
Amenhotep’s father, Tuthmosis IV, bequeathed his son an immensely powerful and wealthy empire. Amenhotep III was fortunate enough to have been born at a time when Egyptian power and influence reigned supreme.
Amenhotep III was just twelve years old when he ascended Egypt’s throne. He and Tiye were married in a lavish royal ceremony. Immediately afterwards, Amenhotep III elevated Tiye to the status of Great Royal Wife. Amenhotep’s mother, Mutemwiya had never had this honour bestowed upon her, which placed Tiye ahead of Mutemwiya in matters of the royal court.
During his subsequent reign, Amenhotep III largely continued his father’s policies. He marked his reign by initiating a major new construction program throughout Egypt. As he matured, Amenhotep III mastered diplomacy. He was renowned for placing other countries in Egypt’s debt through lavish gifts including gold. His reputation for generosity to compliant rulers established and he enjoyed productive relationships with Egypt’s surrounding states.
A noted sportsman and hunter, Amenhotep III bragged in an inscription that survives to this day that, “the total number of lions killed by His Majesty with his own arrows, from the first to the tenth year [of his reign] was 102 wild lions”. More importantly for Egypt, Amenhotep III proved to be a deft military commander who is thought by scholars to have fought a campaign against the Nubians. Today, we have the inscriptions carved to commemorate that expedition.
Notably, Amenhotep III maintained the honour of Egyptian women. He steadfastly turned down all requests to dispatch them to foreign rulers as wives or consorts. He claimed no Egyptian daughters had ever been given to a foreign ruler and he would not be the pharaoh who broke with that tradition.
Over his long reign, Amenhotep III mirrored or surpassed his father’s policies. As was his father, Amenhotep III was an enthusiastic supporter of Egypt’s religious traditions. This religious sentiment became a perfect means of expressing his most compelling passion, the arts and his beloved construction projects.
A Predilection For The Monumental
Amenhotep III’s vision for his Egypt was a state so magnificent that it would render competing rulers and dignitaries awestruck at Egypt’s wealth and power. His foundation for his version of “shock and awe” comprised more than 250 temples, buildings, stele and statuary built during his time on the throne.
Today, the statues known as the Colossi of Memnon are the sole surviving remnants of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple. These two stone giants sit majestically representing Egypt’s most imposing monarch, Amenhotep III. Each is carved from a single massive rock roughly seventy feet high and weighing approximately seven hundred tons. Their monumental size and intricate detail suggest his mortuary temple together with Amenhotep III’s other construction projects, which did not survive from antiquity, would have been equally magnificent.
Among these vanished projects was Amenhotep III’s pleasure palace on the Nile’s west bank at Malkata, across from Thebes Amenhotep III’s capital. This vast labyrinthine complex was known as, “The House of Nebma’atre as Aten’s Splendour.” This ancient resort was home to a lake more than a mile long. The complex held residences for both Queen Tiye and the king’s son Akhenaten. A pleasure boat, naturally dedicated to their god Aten for lake outings completed the complex’s indulgences. Tiye frequently accompanied Amenhotep III on these pleasure trips, further confirmation Tiye was his closest confidant in both his private and public life.
Based on surviving historical records, Tiye, seems to have acted as almost an equal to her husband. This is reflected in Tiye being shown as the same height as Amenhotep on many statues, symbolizing the enduring equality and harmony of their relationship.
As Amenhotep occupied himself directing his construction projects, Tiye largely oversaw Egypt’s affairs of state and managed the Malkata palace complex. We know Tiye was kept busy with these affairs of state from surviving correspondence she received from foreign heads of state.
Complementing Amenhotep III’s expansive construction projects during his reign, Amenhotep III also erected 600 statues of the goddess Sekhmet around the Temple of Mut, set to the south of Karnak. Amenhotep III similarly refurbished the Temple at Karnak, placed the granite lions to guard the front of the Temple of Soleb in Nubia, constructed temples to Amun, erected statuary depicting Amun, raised towering stele recording his many achievements and decorated numerous walls and monuments with images showing his deeds and the enjoyment the gods took from them.
In his first year as pharaoh, Amenhotep ordered new limestone quarries be developed in Tura. Near the end of his rule, he had nearly exhausted them. Soon, depictions of Amenhotep and his beloved gods rippled out across Egypt in a cleverly devised propaganda campaign. Under his supervision, entire cities were rehabilitated and roads improved enabling faster, easier travel. Improved transportation links enabled merchants to bring their goods to market more speedily which provided a welcome boost for Egypt’s economy.
With a vigorous economy and increased revenue from its subject states, Egypt grew increasingly wealthy and influential under Amenhotep III’s reign. His people were largely contented, securing the throne’s power over the state. The sole threat to royal rule was that posed by the priesthood of the god Amun whose cult jockeyed with the throne for political influence.
The Priests Of Amun And The Sun God
A parallel power base in Egypt, which contended for influence with Amenhotep III’s royal throne, was the cult of Amun. The cult’s power and influence had been expanding domestically well before Amenhotep III ascended the throne. Land ownership conveyed wealth in ancient Egypt. By Amenhotep III’s time, the priests of Amun rivalled the pharaoh in the amount of land they owned.
Adhering to traditional religious custom, Amenhotep III did not move overtly to oppose the power of the priesthood. However, Egyptologists believe the cults immense wealth and influence posed a substantial threat to the power wielded by the throne. This ever-present political rivalry had a significant influence on his son’s worldview. In Amenhotep III time, the ancient Egyptians worshipped many gods and the god Aten was simply one of them. However, to the royal family, Aten had a distinct symbolism. Aten’s significance would later be manifested in Akhenaten’s contentious religious decrees. At this time, however, Aten was simply one god worshipped alongside many others.
Amenhotep III whose name translates as ‘Amen is satisfied’, channelled vast amounts of Egypt’s riches into Amen-Re’s major temple. Over time, the temple’s priests grew ever wealthier and more powerful. Only they could interpret the will of Amen-Re. The Pharaoh despite his own personal wealth and power had to obey their religious dictates. Frustrated by their looming power, Amenhotep redirected his patronage to support a rival god, the previously minor Aten, the sun god. This was a decision, which would have enormous consequences for Egypt and the pharaoh after Amenhotep III’s death.
Some scholars believe in an attempt to constrain the power of the priests of Amun, Amenhotep III aligned himself with Aten more overtly than any preceding pharaoh. Aten had previously been a minor sun god, but Amenhotep III elevated him to the level of the personal deity of the pharaoh and the royal family.
Amenhotep’s Death And The Ascension Of Akhenaten
Amenhotep III is thought by scholars to have been afflicted by arthritis, severe dental disease and conceivably advanced obesity during his declining years. He is recorded as writing to the king of Mitanni, Tushratta, asking him to send the statue of Ishtar that had accompanied Mitanni to Egypt during Amenhotep III’s wedding to Tadukhepa, one of Tushratta’s daughters. Amenhotep hoped the statue would heal him. Amenhotep III died in 1353 BCE. The surviving letters from numerous foreign rulers, like Tushratta, are fulsome in their grief at his death and express their sympathy to Queen Tiye.
Undeniably, Amenhotep III’s greatest enduring legacy was his flowering of Egyptian artistic and architectural achievement during his reign. This highly sophisticated and refined taste in art and architecture permeated through to all parts of Egyptian society. It manifested itself in the tombs of leading state functionaries such as Khaemhet and Ramose. Amenhotep III’s rule left behind some of ancient Egypt’s finest monuments. Amenhotep rightly deserves the title “the Magnificent.”
Amenhotep III’s other enduring legacy was to set the stage for his second son Akhenaton’s unique approach to his rule and religious reforms. Amenhotep III attempted to restrict the growing power of the Amun priesthood by recognizing other cults. One of these cults was a unique sect worshipping a form of the god Ra known as the Aten. This was deity which Amenhotep’s son, Akhenaton, promoted as the one true god during his reign. This created a major schism in Egyptian society and its resulting turbulence plagued Egypt for the next generation.
Reflecting On The Past
Did Amenhotep III’s obsession with his monumental construction projects fuel the growing power of the priesthood, which shaped his son’s radical embrace of monotheism?
Header image courtesy: Scan by NYPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons