Ancient Egypt was one of the world’s great civilisations. Spanning three millennia, much of what we know today in the fields of architecture, agriculture and mathematics comes from the ancient Egyptians.
The development of hieroglyphics enabled them to document their rich and fascinating history, religion and culture. Today, we’re still learning about the prominent kings and famous Egyptian queens who were the best-known pharaohs of Egypt. They maintained social order, enforced the laws of the land, managed resources and oversaw the religious rituals that were central to the lives of the people.
The ancient Egyptian civilisation and the ruling pharaohs have captivated the world’s imagination for many hundreds of years, inspiring modern archaeological techniques and the study of ancient societies, enhancing our understanding of the past.
Here are some of the most famous pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
Reign: Somewhere between 3270 BC and 2990 BC
Narmer may not be one of the famous Egyptian kings but he is one of the most important. It’s believed he unified Egypt and may have been the first pharaoh at the start of the First Dynastic Period. According to hieroglyphics, his name translates as something like ‘raging catfish’. The Narmer Palette, a stone tablet dating from around 3100 BC is one of the earliest known hieroglyphic inscriptions, perhaps describing the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. It has been called the ‘first historical document in the world.’
Reign: Somewhere between 2686 BC and 2630 BC
Djoser was one of the most famous pharaohs of the Third Dynasty. Much of his life is subject to conjecture due to the fragmented nature of record keeping from this period of ancient Egypt. His statue, kept at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, is the oldest life-sized statue of a pharaoh ever excavated. His reign coincided with advancements in trade, the development of cities and the growth of the Nile civilisation but he is perhaps most famous for building the step pyramid at Saqqara. It was the forerunner of the great pyramids at Giza and one of the world’s great examples of ancient architecture.
Reign: Approx. 2590 BC – 2566 BC
The Fourth Dynasty’s second pharaoh succeeding his father Sneferu, Khufu’s reign is poorly documented, but nevertheless he remains one of the most famous Egyptian pharaohs. He commissioned the Great Pyramid of Giza, the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing and one of the world’s biggest pyramids. Indeed it was the tallest man-made structure in the world for almost 4,000 years. Built around 2570 BC, the pyramid is the defining symbol of Egypt and is an astonishing feat of design, engineering and construction that continues to bewilder architects to this day.
Reign: Somewhere between 1570 BC and 1514 BC
The first pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, usually called the New Kingdom of Egypt. It’s believed he took the throne aged around ten after his father and brother were killed. During a chaotic period in Egyptian history, with power struggles occurring all over the region, he re-established Egyptian power and stabilised the economy. He’s also remembered as one of the best-known pharaohs of ancient Egypt as he was among the last Egyptian rulers to build a pyramid. Today, it lies in ruins in Abydos, around 550 kilometres south of Cairo.
Reign: Approx. 1478/9 BC – 1458 BC
Another famous Pharaoh, Hatshepsut was one of the most famous Egyptian queens. She ruled as a regent for her stepson Thutmose III and as a pharaoh in her own right. She ruled for over two decades and proved to be incredibly successful. She established lucrative trade routes, and ruled over a time of peace and prosperity. Her construction projects are viewed as masterpieces of ancient Egyptian architecture and include the vast Karnak Temple Complex and the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahari.
Reign: Approx. 1479 BC – 1425 BC
Thutmose III reigned jointly with his stepmother from the age of two until her death in 1458 BC, and then as sole ruler for a further thirty-three years. One of the famous pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty, he was said to have been one of history’s great military strategists and tacticians and grew the Egyptian empire to its greatest extent. It’s said that he never lost a battle and a number of prominent Egyptologists over the years have lauded him as perhaps the greatest ever pharaoh.
Reign: Approx. 1391 BC – 1351 BC
Said to be the grandfather of Tutankhamun, Amenhotep III, the ninth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, is one of the most famous Egyptian kings and has the unique distinction of having the most statues of any pharaoh. He presided over a time of great prosperity as well as cultural and artistic enlightenment when the civilisation of ancient Egypt was at its zenith.
Reign: Approx. 1332 BC – 1323 BC
In any list of the most famous Egyptian pharaohs, Tutankhamun, the Boy King or King Tut, usually comes at the top. He ascended to the throne aged nine or ten and – despite a largely unremarkable reign – he is world-famous as the subject of arguably the greatest archaeological excavations in history. In 1922, British Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered his tomb. Inside there were over 5,000 artefacts, including the instantly recognisable gold and jewelled face mask that has become the most iconic symbol of ancient Egypt.
Reign: Approx. 1279 BC – 1213 BC
Builder of the monumental Abu Simbel temple complex, Nineteenth Dynasty pharaoh Rameses II ruled for sixty-six years. He was a ruthless warrior, an ambitious builder and he was one of the most powerful and best-known pharaohs of ancient Egypt. He is known as ‘The Great Ancestor’ and ‘Rameses the Great.’ It’s believed he fathered somewhere close to 100 children and, on his death aged around 90, he was buried in the Valley of the Kings.
Reign: 51 BC – 30 BC
Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, ‘Cleopatra the Father-Loving Goddess’ is among the best known Pharaohs. One of the Egyptian empire’s most politically-astute leaders, today she is probably the most famous Egyptian queen. One of the very few non-Egyptian pharaohs – she was of Macedonian descent – the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt prospered under her leadership. However she was also the final pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, and indeed the final Pharaoh of ancient Egypt. Having entered the dangerous world of Roman politics, she eventually found herself on the losing side of the civil war between Octavian and Mark Antony. With the might of the Roman Empire closing in, she committed suicide aged 39.
Famous Egyptian Queens
We’ve mentioned Hatshepsut and Cleopatra but one of the most powerful yet mysterious of all the famous Egyptian queens is surely Nefertiti. Indeed her bust, rumoured to be by the sculptor Thutmose and discovered in 1912, is one of the most beautiful ever created. Aside from the face mask of Tutankhamun, it’s one of the most widely-copied ancient Egyptian works of art. Nefertiti, translated as ‘the beautiful one has come’, was the wife of Amenhotep IV who changed his name in the fifth year of his reign to Akhenaten. Together they ruled over what may have been the richest period in the history of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. After her husband died, it’s possible she reigned as a pharaoh named Neferneferuaten, although that remains the subject of much debate among scholars and historians.