Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt

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

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 Considered the first historical document, the "Narmer Palette" reveals images of traditions Narmer created that would endure for 3,000 years, including the double crown of Egypt and the "smiting pose"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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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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  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 80-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 80-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos
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  • Suggested readings

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Your professor

Bob Brier

About Your Professor

Bob Brier, Ph.D.
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...
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Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 180.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating One of my favorite courses. Professor Brier brings the personalities of the Pharaohs to life and adds depth to our general knowledge of Egypt and its history.
Date published: 2020-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good summary Overall, this was an excellent course. I liked the summary of each of the leaders listed. Only minor fault was a little too much belief in the Exodus story being possibly true, but that is a minor quibble. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2020-02-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging teacher Professor Brier is a very engaging speaker. The course is short and shouldn't be seen as an exhaustive history of Egypt, but more of a survey course to wet your appetite on the subject. Each lecture Brier picks a fascinating character from Egyptian history and tells the story of that individual. The only exception is the opening of King Tut's tomb, which is more of a 19th century story that explains a lot about how Egyptian archeology worked at that time--as well as being a compelling story of those doing the excavating. Definitely an introductory course, so people who already know a lot of Egyptian history might do better with another course. But for newcomers, this is very well done. I was sorry when it was over.
Date published: 2020-01-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best ! First, Dr. Brier is absolutely incredible! He teaches from memory and passion. He chice of material is excellent ! He gives enough info to keep you well informed and yet you are on the edge of your seat. Excellent teacher, excellent information ! Love it !
Date published: 2020-01-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Audio only was disappointing I got the Instant Audio and was expecting a video, not an audio-only class. Although I listen to recorded books in my car all the time, I wanted to be able to both listen and see the professor for this art-focused topic. There is a manual that accompanies the class - will have to see if that's just a transcript or if there are illustrations.
Date published: 2019-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview and presentation stye Found this course to be engaging, enlightening and well balanced in content. The depth of the subject was well executed and included an excellent selection of Egyptian pharaohs and their broad and lasting influence of their reigns on Egyptian history as a whole. Great course!
Date published: 2019-10-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from New info and theories about Pharoahs My family and I have enjoyed this series. The professor included some of his own theories.
Date published: 2019-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Amazing Story !! I seriously can't stop listening to this course. This professor is an absolutely amazing storyteller, perhaps the very best of the best !! I love how he emphasizes certain points in how he repeats certain words. He's patient and reveals the story in such a wonderful way. I am telling everyone how wonderful this course is. You will not regret purchasing this course - 100% satisfied. This course literally PURE NUBIAN/EGYPTIAN GOLD. My coworkers now think I am an expert of Egyptian history.
Date published: 2019-08-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course In my opinion Dr Brier is the best professor in all of the Great Courses. Please give us more courses from him
Date published: 2019-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Accurate The presenter of this course was incredibly engaging and highly educational - by far one of the best audio experiences I've ever had. 100% recommended!
Date published: 2019-06-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from SCRATCHING THE SURFACE I purchased this course first, but after watching Prof. Brier's complete Ancient Egypt course, I realized i should have gone straight to that one from the beginning. However, this short 12 lecture version is still beneficial for those who plan to visit Egypt and wish to gain some insight prior without a full immersion 48 lecture course. Prof. Brier delivers this lecture in his typical enjoyable, 'easy to listen to' style. I only gave it 4 stars because it is a piecemeal summary course.
Date published: 2019-02-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Brief discussions of Ancient Egypt leadership Prior to this course, I had taken Dr. Brier's course "Decoding Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs. I thoroughly enjoyed that course. One of the reasons I only gave this course three stars is a lot of the material in this course was touched upon in the other course, so it was like a review of what I had already heard. Another reason is that the lectures on Tutankhamun (2), had the first lecture mainly discussing how archaeologists found tombs back then and discussed Howard Carter and his career. The only discussion about Tutankhamun was mainly in the second lecture about him. The lectures discuss how the pharaohs were chosen based on marriage. I would like to have seen more discussion on this subject. For example, were the parents of Akhenaten brother and sister and possibly resulting in his strange physical appearance? I recently read in an article that Tutankhamen's wife (half sister) was possibly born with a badly deformed club foot and possibly Tutankamen had a club foot. Both of their children died supposedly at, or soon after birth. This is presuming the infant mummies are Tutankhamen's children. I would have liked to known how far this incest was carried on during this period and if it had any mental or physical affects on the pharaohs. The last four lectures were more interesting since they had information about the power structure and how Egypt had slowly declined as a nation and dwelt with the personalities involved.
Date published: 2019-02-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great addition to my passion for Egyptology. So far, the material is in depth and we'll researched. This is an excellent way to spend time in my retirement years, feeding an insatiable appetite for all things from that space and time.
Date published: 2018-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Easy to Understand Course I bought this course as a preview for our upcoming trip to Egypt. The speaker does a great job of explaining how life was among the Egyptians several thousand years ago and the accomplishments of these great pharaohs. It should help me better appreciate what I'm seeing when we're in Egypt.
Date published: 2018-10-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from First lecture great I’ve only started but the first lecture is great. No reason to think that the rest are not the same.
Date published: 2018-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Starting Point! Knowing basically nothing about Ancient Egyptian history and culture, this course has thoroughly rustled my jimmies enough to make me want more! The lecture looks like it was recorded on the set of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, but Brier's enthusiasm and obvious wealth of experience (the photos are great, too) kept me engaged the whole time. Brier introduces some of Egypt's greatest personalities while adding in just enough backdrop to give the novice a better choice of where and when to begin building their own great pyramid of knowledge. And for only $20 bucks, the DVD is very much worth it. Thank God, I see Brier's also got another, more in depth course on Egypt and even one introducing hieroglyphs! I will certainly be adding those to my collection, as well.
Date published: 2018-09-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brier’s "The Great Pharaohs" vs Brier's "Hx of Anc Years ago [when the Great Courses was the Teaching Company and audios came on tape], I purchased Bob Brier’s 48 Lecture "The History of Ancient History”. I remember liking the course a great deal. My audiotapes were happy in my sleek Sony Walkman. However, over a relatively brief period, I began to mix the many lectures up. As Professor Brier teaches: much of the physical society and nomenclature really does continue identically for thousands of years…so after a while things blur. Much more recently I purchased the video version of Brier’s 12 Lecture “The Great Pharaohs" which is a nice “highlights and summarization” of the long course. In retrospect, “The Great Pharaohs" video is the way to start your trek because the illustrations provide reinforcing memory tools. With this as a framework, the longer course would be easier to retain. What a difference the visuals made in this shorter course! You can see Brier's passion for simplification and enthusiasm for teaching in his every move. Additionally, the visuals happily recalled distant memories from the long course and greatly improved my comprehension. In comparing the two courses, I did notice that the material has been given different emphasis and content. So buying the longer after the shorter complements rather than duplicates the 12 lectures. Should you get the long course in video? It was an early [1999] production when, in general, far fewer visuals appeared. SUMMARY: If you have the slightest interest in Egypt, buy “The Great Pharaohs" first in its video version. A FUN EXERCISE showing the value of the Great Courses: In Lecture 4, Brier discusses Amarna, the same city Steven Tuck’s Great Course “Cities of the Ancient World” L8 covers. The information in the two courses about the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten is additive, not duplicative. Though both professors are equally interesting, Tuck's view is shaded quite differently. For example Tuck’s views of the motivations of workers attracted to Amarna are diametrically opposed to those of Brier's. It is a healthy reminder that academia is not only information but also a viewpoint. This cross-course comparison is a reminder that other approaches to a subject may have equal value…if they are allowed to present themselves. It is an appreciated contradistinction to our fabulously expensive universities with their “protective” legalism, unbalanced unipolar political hiring practices, and resultant speech intolerance. Thank you, Great Courses, for an inclusive approach often no longer available. CONSIDER THESE ADDITIONAL COURSES: 1.) Lecture 11 mentions Ibn Battuta, an amazingly traveler whose story is expanded in Vejas Liulevius’ L7 of “History’s Greatest Voyages of Exploration”. 2.) Steven Tuck’s Great Course “Cities of the Ancient World” L7 nicely expands Brier’s L8 coverage of Deir el-Medina in addition to the contrasts mentioned regarding Amarna above.
Date published: 2018-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great teacher Bob Brier is a greater teacher. Period. I just don't think anybody can dispute that with a good reason.
Date published: 2018-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from well presented I really enjoyed this class very much. Was very enlightening and entertaining.
Date published: 2018-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Quickhistory of the Great Pharaohs Over a span of several thousand years, Egypt had numerous pharaohs. This course highlighted the most important ones and told why these leaders were greater than the rest and what their impacts were on Ancient Egypt. I learned so much in preparing for a future trip to Egypt. This is a worthy course for anyone who wants to learn about Egypt but does not have a lot of time the other courses may require.
Date published: 2018-08-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Professor has an annoying speech pattern. Detracts from the content.
Date published: 2018-07-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My husband and I had a wonderful experience listening to this. The professor is funny, incredibly clear and his lecture flowed logically from beginning to end. It's for beginners (as we are), but sparks an interest in learning more.
Date published: 2018-06-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Quite Entertaining The professor is entertaining, well-spoken and engaging in his historical knowledge.
Date published: 2018-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Continued my interest in Eygpt started long ago. Once I saw this offered at a reduced rate I had to have it. I've watched all the programs which I could find on TV, so this was a no brainer that this would be ordered. I loved his style of lecture -- no stuffiness here. He was down to earth and you could tell he loved his area of study. It was so appreciated that once through, I ran it through the following week in case I missed something. Glad that I ordered this one!
Date published: 2018-04-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good driving audio Purchased the audio for use while driving. Enjoyable.
Date published: 2018-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent title I am so happy I bought this. Now my mom is watching it!
Date published: 2018-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great introductory Course I thought the subject matter was very interesting. The approach taken in discussing the great pharaohs should be of value for anyone planning on taking a course on Egyptian civilization. Professor Brier did a masterful job of making his lectures interesting. The guide book is a valuable reference.
Date published: 2018-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from very engaging and educational It is obvious that the Professor really loves his topic and his enthusiasm is contagious. Dr. Brier has been there, done that and has brought back the t-shirt to show us. The Course is unfortunately short or maybe it just seems that way. It left me wanting more. In fact I will be ordering “the History of Ancient Egypt” taught by the same professor.
Date published: 2018-01-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Pharaohs' Biographies In “Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt,” Dr. Bob Brier devoted single lectures to Narmer, Sneferu, the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Alexander, the female pharaoh Cleopatra VII, the Nubian pharaohs as a group, and the Ptolemaic pharaohs as a group. Two lectures each were included for Tutankhamen and Ramses II. I know from other reading that there were nearly 200 pharaohs during the thousands of years of ancient Egyptian civilization, though; and while I enjoyed the course, I felt it was a bit too brief to cover the subject satisfactorily. In fairness, twelve lectures may have been all that Dr. Brier was engaged to present; and I admit that it is a plus that my appetite has been whetted and I want to learn more on the subject. I liked the professor’s basic premise that studying the lives and personalities of individuals was a better way to study this history in a short course than to focus on numerous dates and archeological facts meant to be memorized. He called it his “People Magazine” approach to Egyptian history, contending that this civilization owed more to impressive leadership by key individuals than primarily to the “the gift of the Nile” assumption that has been traditional since Herodotus. Dr. Brier was an unfailingly enthusiastic and encouraging speaker with impressive skill as a story-teller, one who wanted his students to enjoy what they were learning. I appreciated that he evidently gained much of his own knowledge beyond the “halls of academia,” having actively worked at sites in Egypt and having pioneered modern re-creation of ages-old mummification techniques. Accompanying visuals for this course were sparse and too-often repeated, in my opinion. Perhaps the challenge of illustrating points relating to the distant past could have been further addressed by adding in artists’ conceptions and computer graphics. Dr. Brier was certainly not shy about espousing novel theories about the history he discussed, even while acknowledging that other scholars might not be in agreement with him. For example, his personal take on why the Narmer Palette must have been carved by two different artists, and his theory about why Sneferu’s first pyramid was abandoned uncompleted, seemed to me to be fascinating and well-argued. On the other hand, his contention that Tutankhamen had likely been murdered, and his speculation that Ramses II might be the pharaoh mentioned in the Bible story of Moses, while both possibly true, struck me as less substantiated. Here again, a longer course might have given Dr. Brier time to back up the theories more thoroughly, even as a greater number of biographies could have left me more convinced that exceptional leadership explains the amazingly long run of success experienced by ancient Egyptian civilization.
Date published: 2018-01-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good professor Great, but you might as well buy the full lecture series on ancient Egypt by the same lecturer. There is a lot of cross over and redundant subjects.
Date published: 2018-01-06
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