If asked to name ten key figures of contemporary America, one would have a wide choice. The list could include people from many walks of life. It might include a political figure, a religious leader, a military or civic hero, an actor, a musician, an author, an athlete, a doctor, a scientist, and an inventor. People in all of those careers contribute to society in important ways. If you were short on names, you could turn to websites, newspapers, television, and libraries to remind you of the people making an impact here and now.
But if asked to name the key figures of ancient Egypt, our range of roles and occupations becomes much narrower. Although the Egyptians recorded their history through hieroglyphs and hieratic script, 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, making it sometimes difficult to separate myth from fact.
We will look at three groups of key figures of ancient Egypt: those who contributed to the early development of the pyramid as an important emblem of ancient Egyptian society; those ancient Egyptians whose leadership is noteworthy; and important rulers from outside of Egypt.
There are three key figures of the Old Kingdom (circa 2700–2100 B.C.E.) who drove the development of Egypt’s most famous monument, the pyramid. As the architect to Djoser (circa 2650–2575 B.C.E.), Imhotep is credited with the development of a six-layer step pyramid at Saqqarah and is the only key figure we cite who is not a ruler. 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 and is considered the essential first step in the development of the pyramid.
It was Snefru (reigned circa 2600 B.C.E.) who covered the ground between a stepped pyramid and a true pyramid, albeit with some issues along the way—such as the limestone casing falling off the Meidum Pyramid and getting the angle wrong on the Bent Pyramid. But 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, a structure that—with a height of 147 meters (481 feet)—was the world’s tallest building for about 3,800 years, until the Cathedral at Lincoln, England, was completed in 1311 C.E.
Egyptian Rulers of Renown
In the New Kingdom (circa 1560–1070 B.C.E.), a set of Egyptian rulers achieved renown for vastly different reasons.
Hatshepsut (reigned circa 1473–1458 B.C.E.) began her rule first as a queen married to Thutmose II, then as regent to her step-son Thutmose III, but ended it as a king in her own right, the first woman to rule Egypt as king.
Thutmose III (reigned circa 1479–1425 B.C.E.) followed Hatshepsut to the throne after she died and apparently tried to eradicate all evidence of her rule. It is now believed that he did this to secure the tradition of males serving as the ultimate rulers. Under his rule, Egypt reached the height of its power, with holdings in southwest Asia up to the Euphrates, supply ports along the Levantine coast in the Middle East, and continued dominance over Nubia, the region along the almighty Nile River.
Amenhotep IV (reigned circa 1353–1336 B.C.E.) instituted dramatic changes in Egyptian religion by promoting 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 of the pantheon, Amun. Busy establishing a new capital in Amarna, he neglected other aspects of political rule which would have been disastrous, had he not died. Shortly thereafter, the priests and people went back to traditional worship and the capital returned to Memphis.
Non-Egyptian Rulers of Note
Cambyses II (reigned circa 530–522 B.C.E.), a king of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E. during the reign of Pharaoh Psamtik III. Cambyses initiated the rule of Egypt as a pharaoh, and Persian control of Egypt lasted until 404 B.C.E.
There was a second shorter period of Persian rule from 343 to 332 B.C.E., which was ended by Macedonian King Alexander the Great (reigned circa 332–323 B.C.E.). Alexander conquered Persia and its extended provinces through Southwest Asia, reaching 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. In part, this included traveling to the oracle of the chief god, Amun, where he received the priest’s greeting to a pharaoh, under which title he was crowned ruler of Egypt. He also founded the city of Alexandria.
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 Philopator (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 Julius Caesar’s intervention brought about a transient 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. Eventually, Marc Antony and Cleopatra combined forces and faced off against Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, who defeated them in the Battle of Actium in 30 B.C.E. and was crowned Emperor of the Roman Empire three years later, with Egypt incorporated into the empire. Thus ended ancient Egypt’s existence as an independent state.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry ancient Egypt Noun
civilization in northeastern Africa, lasting from 3200 BCE to about 400 CE.
to go up.
(69-30 BCE) queen and last reigning pharaoh of ancient Egypt.
authority or control.
ruler of an empire.
group of nations, territories or other groups of people controlled by a single, more powerful authority.
Gaius Octavius Noun
(63 B.C. -14 A.D.) first Roman emperor; defeated Caesar’s assassins and political rival Mark Antony, establishes the Roman Empire.
(~1495-1458 BCE) Egyptian pharaoh.
rectangular burial mound with sloping walls and a flat roof, usually made of mud
Nile River Noun
(5,592 kilometers/3,473 miles) river in East Africa.
ruler of ancient Egypt.
Encyclopedic Entry: Pharaoh priest Noun
title of religious leader in many faiths.
three-dimensional shape with a square base and triangular sides that meet in a point.
Encyclopedic Entry: Pyramid transient Adjective
lasting only a short time.