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Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt

Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt

Professor Bob Brier Ph.D.
Long Island University
Course No.  3588
Course No.  3588
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

No great civilization continues to speak to us like that of ancient Egypt. But what is it about this ancient civilization that still captures our imaginations? What made Egypt special, allowing it to grow, in Professor Bob Brier's words, "from a scattering of villages across the Nile to the greatest power the world had ever seen"?

Professor Brier has designed this course to focus on the fascinating leaders of ancient Egypt. The information in this course is also covered in our more extensive course, The History of Ancient Egypt.

"My thesis in Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt is that what made Egypt great were the people—individuals who did great things," says Professor Brier. "By recounting the lives and accomplishments of the great ones of Egypt, we will present a history of Egypt spreading over 30 centuries. By the time we come to the last ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra, we will have peered into almost every aspect of ancient Egyptian life, seen what made Egypt great, and what finally brought about its downfall.

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No great civilization continues to speak to us like that of ancient Egypt. But what is it about this ancient civilization that still captures our imaginations? What made Egypt special, allowing it to grow, in Professor Bob Brier's words, "from a scattering of villages across the Nile to the greatest power the world had ever seen"?

Professor Brier has designed this course to focus on the fascinating leaders of ancient Egypt. The information in this course is also covered in our more extensive course, The History of Ancient Egypt.

"My thesis in Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt is that what made Egypt great were the people—individuals who did great things," says Professor Brier. "By recounting the lives and accomplishments of the great ones of Egypt, we will present a history of Egypt spreading over 30 centuries. By the time we come to the last ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra, we will have peered into almost every aspect of ancient Egyptian life, seen what made Egypt great, and what finally brought about its downfall.

"My hope is that by the end of the course you will have a sense that you personally know the men and women who made Egypt the greatest nation of the ancient world."

A Great Teacher and Egyptologist

Professor Brier is an Egyptologist and specialist in mummies who knows the ancient Egyptians—literally—from the inside out. In fact, in 1994, Dr. Brier became the first person in 2,000 years to mummify a human cadaver in the ancient Egyptian style. This research was the subject of a National Geographic television special, Mr. Mummy.

Relaxed, matter-of-fact, and wryly humorous, he weaves into the stories of the great pharaohs the daily realities of Egyptian life. You learn, for example, that the origin of eye makeup was not due to vanity. Instead, makeup was ground on small, personal palettes and worn by every Egyptian for the same reasons modern athletes wear black eyeliner under their eyes: to absorb the sun's glare.

A Palette Launches 3,000 Years of Imagery

It is a quite different palette—that of Narmer, the king who unified Egypt—that marks our real introduction to Egypt's great rulers. Considered the first historical document, the "Narmer Palette" reveals images of traditions Narmer created that would endure for 3,000 years, including the double crown of Egypt and the "smiting pose" in which all pharaohs ever after would be shown.

Just as scholars look to the Narmer Palette as their earliest message from Egypt, it is the pyramids that perhaps serve that role for the rest of us.

The pharaoh Sneferu, seeking a suitable way to house his own burial chamber, taught Egypt how to perfect the pyramid, a structure whose origins lay in the need to protect desert graves from exposure by the wind. Professor Brier makes it clear, however, that pyramids were far from Sneferu's only achievements.

A Female Pharaoh Lost to History

One of Egypt's greatest rulers, the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, raised magnificent obelisks at the Temple of Karnak and built what Professor Brier calls "perhaps the most beautiful temple in all of Egypt," Deir el-Bahri. The inscriptions on the temple's walls are the first known depictions of sub-Saharan Africa; Hatshepsut was so powerful a king she was able to send a trading expedition there.

Ironically, most of the evidence of Hatshepsut's existence was systematically erased after her death; Egyptians simply did not want to acknowledge that a woman had been king.

Professor Brier continues with the tale of one of Egypt's most controversial pharaohs, Akhenaten, who tried to alter the three stabilizing principles of Egyptian society—the religious, military, and artistic traditions of the most conservative nation on earth—and almost destroyed Egypt in the process. Akhenaten's story left a legacy the ancients would attempt to erase. Ironically, this forgotten pharaoah would be the father of the most famous pharaoh in modern times: the boy-king Tutankhamen.

Tutankhamen: Murdered by His Successor?

The discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb by Howard Carter in 1922 is the most scrutinized episode in the history of Egyptology, and Professor Brier leads a fascinating exploration into the world of Egyptian tombs.

For those who love a good mystery, Professor Brier introduces his own theory that Tutankhamen was actually murdered by Aye, the vizier of Egypt, as part of a successful plot to gain the crown for himself.

The next major subject in the series is Ramses II, or Ramses the Great. His 67-year reign was the longest of all the pharaohs, but the last two-thirds of that reign began with a treaty with Egypt's ancient Hittite enemy and bear little resemblance to his early years of war, conquest, and monument-building.

Ramses has been reputed to be the pharaoh of the biblical exodus. And though there is no archaeological evidence to support the story, Professor Brier offers some tantalizing connections to what we know of Ramses's actual life.

Nubia Tries to Restore Egypt's Greatness

After the death of Ramses, Egypt entered a long decline. As Egypt weakened, Nubian neighbors to the south, in what is now Sudan, grew strong. They eventually moved north taking control and trying to rebuild—primarily through the efforts of five great Nubian kings—the great Egyptian traditions they had seen crumble away.

Rather than conquer Egypt, they restored it. They celebrated Egyptian religious festivals and even took over some Egyptian burial practices. The first of these kings, a ruler named Piye, even built a pyramid, though it had been 1,000 years since the last Egyptian pyramid had risen from the desert.

From the Nubians, Professor Brier takes you into the Greek era of Egyptian history, beginning with the career of Alexander the Great. He discusses the three great events that marked his sojourn in Egypt: the declaration by the oracle at Siwa that Alexander's father was "the Sun"; his crowning as Pharaoh that the oracle's pronouncement made possible; and his creation of the city of Alexandria, which Alexander mapped out by dropping a trail of grain to show where the streets should go.

The Reign of the Ptolomies

The death of Alexander gave rise to the reign of a series of Ptolemies—15 rulers in all—beginning with Ptolemy I.

Running Egypt like a business, the early Ptolemies had some notable achievements, including Ptolemy I's building of Alexandria's Pharos Lighthouse and its extraordinary library.

The Ptolemies were unable to sustain their brilliant beginning. The last Ptolemy was Cleopatra, the enigmatic Grecian ruler who learned Egypt's language and tried to resurrect both the nation's religion and greatness. Her valiant attempts to save Egypt, with the aid of Julius Caesar, and afterwards with Marc Antony, were doomed. Egypt, no longer a nation, would become a Roman province.

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    King Narmer—The Unification of Egypt
    This lecture discusses how Narmer, Egypt's first king, unified Upper and Lower Egypt and how the world's first nation came to dominate the Near East for thousands of years. x
  • 2
    Sneferu—The Pyramid Builder
    The founder of Egypt's "Fabulous Fourth" Dynasty oversaw the beginning of true pyramid construction, Egypt's rise to international power, and the establishment of artistic standards that would last for millennia. x
  • 3
    Hatshepsut—Female Pharaoh
    This lecture examines the life of one of the greatest individuals in Egyptian history, and discusses why her name was systematically erased from Egyptian records. x
  • 4
    Akhenaten—Heretic Pharaoh
    The reign of Egypt's most enigmatic and controversial ruler illustrates the consequences of attempting to alter all three of Egypt's fundamental societal pillars: religion, the military, and the role of pharaoh. x
  • 5
    Tutankhamen—The Lost Pharaoh
    This lecture details the fascinating events—including the first car wreck in Britain—that led to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. x
  • 6
    Tutankhamen—A Murder Theory
    Professor Bob Brier presents his own research suggesting that Tutankhamen was murdered, showing what can be learned from the autopsy of a mummy. x
  • 7
    Ramses the Great—The Early Years
    Ramses II ruled for 67 years and was one of Egypt's greatest pharaohs, warriors, and builders. x
  • 8
    Ramses the Great—The Twilight Years
    The last 40 years of Ramses's reign differed markedly from his glorious beginning. This lecture examines the changes in his personality, as well as the assertion that he was the pharaoh of the biblical exodus. x
  • 9
    The Great Nubians—Egypt Restored
    In the twilight of Egypt's history, the once-dominated land of Nubia fought its way north to defend Egypt from invaders. Under the new rule of five great kings, the Nubians restored much of Egypt's glory. x
  • 10
    Alexander the Great—Anatomy of a Legend
    The rule of Alexander began 300 years of Greek control of Egypt. This lecture examines the three major stages of Alexander's career: young general, pharaoh, and legend. x
  • 11
    The First Ptolemies—Greek Greatness
    This lecture examines the beginning of the end for ancient Egyptian civilization, beginning with the rule of the first Ptolemies, who ran Egypt "like a business" and whose great achievements were purely Greek conceptions. x
  • 12
    Cleopatra—The Last Pharaoh
    Although she was at one time probably the most famous woman in the world, Cleopatra remains an enigma. We reconstruct her history: before Caesar, after Caesar, and with Marc Antony. x

Lecture Titles

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Bob Brier
Ph.D. Bob Brier
Long Island University

Dr. Bob Brier is an Egyptologist and Senior Research Fellow at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. He earned his bachelor's degree from Hunter College and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Brier has twice been selected as a Fulbright Scholar and has received Long Island University's David Newton Award for Teaching Excellence in recognition of his achievements as a lecturer. He has served as Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities' Egyptology Today program. In 1994, Dr. Brier became the first person in 2,000 years to mummify a human cadaver in the ancient Egyptian style. This research was the subject of a National Geographic television special, Mr. Mummy. Dr. Brier is also the host of The Learning Channel's series The Great Egyptians. Professor Brier is the author of Ancient Egyptian Magic (1980), Egyptian Mummies (1994), Encyclopedia of Mummies (1998), The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story (1998), Daily Life in Ancient Egypt (1999), and numerous scholarly articles.

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Reviews

Rated 4.7 out of 5 by 85 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Course I loved this course. The professor was great and I hope he has other courses available because I think he is what made this such a great course. I bought this course on CD and enjoyed every lecture. I was disappointed that there weren't more of them. I can definitely recommend this course to anyone who enjoys history. I learned a lot listening to this and again - the professor was the best!! August 26, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Unimpressive but still kind of interesting This course was interesting enough for me to listen all the way through, but overall I found it disappointing. I had trouble with Professor Brier's attempt to present the pharaohs as "individuals" rather than just public figures. This is a great concept if you have enough personal information on the public figures to draw some insight into their individual characters and perceptions, but in this case we don't have that information. Most of the "individualization" in this course was pure conjecture based on age, circumstance, and assumption--basically the approach Hollywood would take if they wanted to make a movie about an Egyptian pharaoh and fill in the historical facts with fictional drama and humanity. This aspect of the course did not feel academically meaningful to me, and occasionally had me grinding my teeth. Similarly, Professor Brier seems to take all historical documents at their face value. When it's something commissioned by a pharaoh and touting his own accomplishments or any sort of nationalistic superiority, it seems like we should approach it with a bit of skepticism. I can think of plenty of present day national leaders who saturate the media with an incredible amount of propaganda--am I really to believe that this did not happen thousands of years ago, when the media with infinitely easier to control? It may be that there are other historical indications that, for example, Egypt never lost a military engagement for centuries at a time, but the way Professor Brier presents the material it sounds like he is simply trusting the literal translation of Egyptian documents touting their military might to be infallibly accurate. I'm not asking him to verify facts that cannot be cross-checked, but introducing a bit of realism and skepticism where it is due would make this course feel much more trustworthy to me. I think part of the issue here is that the professor seems very excited about these historical events--he obviously LOVES ancient Egypt--and while this level of engagement is generally a good thing, I had a hard time trusting him to not take a partisan view of history. I also was unable to get used to the professor's heavy New York accent and frequent odd pronunciations of common words, but this was something that would have been easy to overlook if it were easier for me to embrace the content of this course. With all of that said, there is a lot of interesting information in this course. It's a short course, so the information is fairly superficial, but it did walk away with a better understanding of ancient Egyptian history and dynastic succession than I had before, along with some interesting trivia. August 17, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Lively, Informative, and Enjoyable This course is a distillation of the highlights of Dr. Brier’s earlier 48-lecture course spanning some thirty dynasties and 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history from Narmer to Cleopatra. For the typical ancient history buff who is relatively well informed about the classical world but less so regarding Egypt, this abbreviated course is perhaps of more lasting value in retaining a basic understanding of the Egyptian dynastic culture through a personal look at the lives and achievements of its most distinguished and successful pharaohs. Narmer and Cleopatra again form the bookends of coverage, with four lectures devoted to the illustrious 18th dynasty, arguably the pinnacle of Ancient Egypt. Dr. Brier’s presentation style is easy and informal, speaking without notes or a teleprompter, often reflecting his personal views and interpretations. Perhaps less erudite than a more familiar formal university course, it is nevertheless refreshing and enjoyable, as well as the source of much important information. With so much material to choose from in a 12-lecture course, significant omissions are inevitable. My only quibble with Dr. Brier’s selections is that he devoted two lectures to the brief reign of the boy king Tutankhamen, the second to the lecturer’s theory that he was murdered by his elderly chief adviser and successor as pharaoh, Ay. While this scenario was plausibly presented in the 2004 release of this course, it was soon superseded in 2005 by a new scientific study and CT scan of King Tut’s mummy which revealed extensive damage to a leg and ribs and an ensuing infection, causing death soon thereafter. The new conclusion is accidental death, likely from a chariot accident or perhaps in a military engagement, not murder. Though this historical correction does not diminish Dr. Brier’s overall narrative, he might in retrospect more productively have incorporated his murder theory briefly into a single lecture on King Tut and used the extra time to devote attention to two other outstanding and long-reigning pharaohs of the 18th dynasty, Thutmose III and Amenhotep III, both brilliant military leaders and monumental builders. Other reviews of this course have rated it variously from outstanding to disappointing. Dr. Brier observes that the long survival of the culture and pre-eminence of ancient Egypt centered on the interrelationship of religion, the army and the pharaoh. Given his goal of summarizing three millennia of Egyptian history through the lives and times of its most famous pharaohs, I believe that he has succeeded admirably in this short and fast-paced course. May 14, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Conversational Egypt Dr Brier's conversational style in this brief summary of just some of the characters from the long history of ancient Egypt is both engaging and fascinating. His 48 lecture History of Ancient Egypt was the first lecture series (DVD) that I purchased, preceding a trip to Egypt from Cairo to Aswan, and was helpful in keeping the fabulous remains of this civilization in perspective. This 12 lecture (audio download) was available on sale so I took that opportunity to use the lectures as a type of review of some of the high points (Egypt-lite). From the start Dr Brier captures your attention with (My Man) Snefru, later through the mystery of Tutankhamen (no, he wasn't murdered), and finally to the trials of Cleopatra...Bob is right there on the treadmill with you, describing some of the most interesting times in the ancient world. Great little course...you won't be disappointed. April 4, 2014
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