In 1922, however, British archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen (toot ahng KAH mun), which had remained almost untouched for more than 3,000 years. The tomb and its treasures have provided scholars a wealth of evidence about Egyptian civilization.

The mummified body of the 18-year-old “King Tut” had been placed in a solid-gold coffin, nested within richly decorated outer coffins. Today, the dazzling array of objects found in the tomb fills several rooms in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The objects include chariots, weapons, furniture, jewelry, toys, and games. Tutankhamen was a minor king. Imagine the treasures that must have filled the tombs of great pharaohs like Ramses II.

An Attempt to Reshape Religion

About 1380 B.C., a young pharaoh challenged the powerful priests of Amon-Re. He devoted his life to the worship of Aton, a minor god whose symbol was the sun's disk. The pharaoh took the name Akhenaton (ah keh NAH tun), meaning “he who serves Aton.” With the support of his wife Nefertiti, Akhenaton tried to sweep away all other gods in favor of Aton. He ordered priests to worship only Aton and to remove the names of other gods from their temples.

Photo of golden death mask of King Tutankhamen, with background of gold and painted wall. The mask resembles a sculpted bust wearing an ornate headdress.

Tutankhamen, or “King Tut,” reigned for only eight or nine years. However, his tomb has unraveled many mysteries about his life and death. His solid gold funeral mask is shown here.

Scholars disagree about whether or not Akhenaton was trying to introduce a new religion based on worship of a single god. Akhenaton's radical ideas had little success, however. Priests of Amon-Re resisted the revolutionary changes. Nobles also deserted the pharaoh because he neglected his duty of defending the empire. After Akhenaton's death, priests of the old gods reasserted their power.

Organization of Egyptian Society

Like other early civilizations, Egypt had its own class system. As both a god and an earthly leader, the pharaoh stood at the top of society, along with the royal family. Directly under the pharaoh were government officials and the high priests and priestesses, who served the gods and goddesses. Next came the nobles, who fought the pharaoh's wars. A tiny class of merchants, scribes, and artisans developed slowly. They provided for the needs of the rich and powerful. At the base of society were the majority of Egyptians, the peasants who worked the land.

Peasant Farmers Most Numerous

Most Egyptians were peasant farmers. Many were slaves. Men and women spent their days working the soil and repairing the dikes. In the off-season, peasant men were expected to serve the pharaoh, laboring to build palaces, temples, and tombs. Besides working in the fields, women also spent much time raising children, collecting water, and preparing food.

One ancient record describes the life of a typical Egyptian peasant. “When the water is full he irrigates [the fields] and repairs his equipment. He spends the day cutting tools for cultivating barley, and the night twisting ropes.”

Changes to Social Structure

During the New Kingdom, society became more fluid as trade and warfare increased. Trade offered new opportunities to the growing merchant class. Foreign conquests brought riches to Egypt, which in turn meant more business for artisans. These skilled craftworkers made fine jewelry, furniture, and fabrics for the palaces and tombs of pharaohs and nobles.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments