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Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs

King Tutankhamun riding a chariot.

Centred in North Africa on the Nile Delta, ancient Egypt was one of the most powerful and influential civilizations of the ancient world. It’s complex political structure and social organisation, military campaigns, vibrant culture, language and religious observances towered the Bronze Age, casting a shadow that lasted during its long twilight into the Iron Age when it was finally subsumed by Rome.

The people of ancient Egypt were organised in a hierarchical system. At the top of their social summit were the Pharaoh and his family. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the farmers, unskilled labourers and slaves.

Social mobility was not unknown in Egyptian society classes however the classes were clearly delineated and largely static. Wealth and power accumulated nearest the top of ancient Egyptian society and the Pharaoh was the richest and most powerful of all.

Facts about Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs

  • Pharaohs were the god-kings of ancient Egypt
  • The word ‘Pharaoh’ comes to us via Greek manuscripts
  • The ancient Greeks and Hebrew people referred to the Kings of Egypt as ‘Pharaohs.’ The term ‘Pharaoh’ was not used in Egypt to describe their ruler until the time of Merneptah around c. 1200 BCE
  • In ancient Egyptian society wealth and power accumulated nearest the top and the Pharaoh was the richest and most powerful of all
  • The Pharaoh enjoyed wide powers. He was responsible for creating laws and maintaining social order, for ensuring ancient Egypt was defended against its enemies and for expanding its borders through wars of conquest
  • Chief among the Pharaoh’s religious duties was the maintenance of ma’at. Ma’at represented the concepts of truth, order, harmony, balance, law, morality and justice.
  • The Pharaoh was responsible for appeasing the Gods to ensure the Nile’s rich annual floods arrived to ensure a bountiful harvest
  • The people believed their pharaoh was essential for the health and happiness of the land and the Egyptian people
  • The first pharaoh of Egypt is believed to be either Narmer or Menes
  • Pepi II was Egypt’s longest-ruling pharaoh, reigning for approximately 90 years!
  • The majority of pharaohs were male rulers, however, some famous pharaohs, including Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Cleopatra, were female.
  • Enshrined in the ancient Egyptians’ belief system was the doctrine that their Pharaoh was an earthly incarnation of Horus, the falcon-headed god
  • Upon a pharaoh’s death, he was believed to become Osiris the god of the afterlife, the underworld and rebirth and so journeyed through the heavens to be reunited with the sun while a new king assumed Horus’ rule on Earth
  • Today the most famous pharaoh is Tutankhamun however Ramesses II was more famous in ancient times.

The Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’s Social Responsibilities

Believed to be a God upon the Earth the Pharaoh exercised wide powers. He was responsible for creating laws and maintaining social order, ensuring ancient Egypt was defended against its enemies for expanding its borders through wars of conquest and for appeasing the Gods to ensure the Nile’s rich annual floods arrived ensuring a bountiful harvest.

In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh combined both secular political and religious roles and responsibilities. This duality is reflected in the Pharaoh’s dual titles of ‘Lord of the Two Lands’ and ‘High Priest of Every Temple.

Intriguing Detail

The ancient Egyptians never referred to their Kings as ‘Pharaohs’. The word ‘Pharaoh’ comes to us via Greek manuscripts. The ancient Greeks and Hebrew people referred to the Kings of Egypt as ‘Pharaohs’. The term ‘Pharaoh’ was not used contemporaneously in Egypt to describe their ruler until the time of Merneptah around c. 1200 BCE.

Today, the word Pharaoh has been adopted into our popular vocabulary to describe Egypt’s ancient line of kings from the First Dynasty c. 3150 BCE through to Egypt’s annexation by the expanding Roman Empire in 30 BCE.

Pharaoh Defined

In Egypt’s early dynasties, ancient Egyptian kings were conferred with up to three titles. These were the Horus, the Sedge and Bee name and the Two Ladies name. The Golden Horus together with the nomen and prenomen titles were later additions.

The word ‘pharaoh’ is the Greek form of the ancient Egyptian word pero or per-a-a, which was the title given to the royal residence. It means `Great House’. Over time, the name of the King’s residence was closely associated with the ruler himself and in time, was used exclusively to describe the leader of the Egyptian people.

The early Egyptian rulers were not known as pharaohs but as kings. The honorific title of `Pharaoh’ to denote a ruler only appeared during the New Kingdom period, which ran from c.1570-c through to approximately 1069 BCE.

Foreign luminaries and members of the court typically addressed kings drawn from the dynastic lines prior to the New Kingdom as `your majesty’, while foreign rulers addressed him as `brother’. Both practices appeared to continue in use after the king of Egypt came to be referred to as a Pharaoh.

Horus depicted as the ancient Egyptian falcon headed-deity. Image courtesy: Jeff Dahl [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Which Ancient God did the Egyptians Believe their Pharaoh Represented?

A Pharaoh was the most powerful person in the kingdom in part due to his role as high priest of every temple. The Pharaoh was believed to be part-man, part-god by the ancient people of Egypt.

Enshrined in the belief system of the Ancient Egyptians was the doctrine that their Pharaoh was an earthly incarnation of Horus, the falcon-headed god. Horus was the son of Ra (Re), the Egyptian’s sun god. Upon a pharaoh’s death, he was believed to become Osiris the god of the afterlife, the underworld and rebirth in death and journeyed through the heavens to be reunited with the sun while a new king assumed Horus’ rule on Earth.

Establishing the Egyptian Line Of Kings

Many historians hold the view that the story of Ancient Egypt begins from when the north and the south were united as one country.

Egypt once consisted of two independent kingdoms, the Upper and the Lower Kingdoms. Lower Egypt was known as the red crown while Upper Egypt was referred to as the white crown. Sometime around 3100 or 3150 BCE the pharaoh of the north attacked and conquered the south, successfully uniting Egypt for the first time.

Scholars believe the name of that pharaoh was Menes, later identified as Narmer. By uniting Lower and Upper Egypt Menes or Narmer became the first true pharaoh of Egypt and began the Old Kingdom. Menes also became the first pharaoh of the First Dynasty in Egypt. Menes or Narmer is depicted on inscriptions of the time wearing the two crowns of Egypt, signifying the unification of the two kingdoms.

Menes founded the first capital of Egypt where the two formerly opposing crowns met. It was called Memphis. Later Thebes succeeded Memphis and became the capital of Egypt to be succeeded in turn by Amarna during the reign of King Akhenaten.

Menes/Narmer’s reign was believed by the people to reflect the will of the gods, however, the formal office of the king itself was not associated with the divine until later dynasties.

King Raneb also known in some sources as Nebra a king during Egypt’s Second Dynasty (2890 to 2670 BCE) is believed to be the first Pharaoh to connect his name with the divine, positioning his reign as reflecting the will of the gods.

Following the reign of Raneb, the rulers of the later dynasties were similarly conflated with the gods. Their duties and obligations were seen as a sacred burden placed on them by their gods.

The Pharaoh and Maintaining Ma’at

Chief among the Pharaoh’s religious duties was the maintenance throughout the kingdom of Ma’at. To the ancient Egyptians, Ma’at represented the concepts of truth, order, harmony, balance, law, morality and justice.

Maat was also the goddess personifying these divine concepts. Her realm encompassed regulating the seasons, the stars, and the deeds of mortal men together with the very deities who had fashioned order from chaos at the moment of creation. Her ideological antithesis was Isfet, the ancient Egyptian concept of chaos, violence, injustice, or to do evil.

The goddess Ma’at was believed to impart harmony through the pharaoh but it was up to the individual pharaoh to interpret the goddess’ will correctly and to act appropriately on it.

Maintaining Ma’at had been a command of the Egyptian gods. Its preservation was vital if the ordinary Egyptian people were to enjoy their best possible lives.

Hence, warfare was viewed through the lens of Ma’at as an essential facet of the pharaoh’s rule. Warfare was viewed as necessary for the restoration of balance and harmony throughout the land, the very essence of Ma’at.

The Poem of Pentaur written by the scribes of Rameses II, the Great (1279-1213 BCE) epitomizes this understanding of war. The poem sees Rameses II’s victory over the Hittites during the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE as restoring Ma’at.

Rameses II portrays the Hittites as having thrown the balance of Egypt into disorder. Thus the Hittites needed to be dealt with harshly. Attacking neighbouring territories of competing kingdoms was not just a battle for control over vital resources; it was essential to restoring harmony in the land. Hence it was the pharaoh’s sacred duty to defend Egypt’s borders from attack and to invade adjoining lands.

Egypt’s First King

The ancient Egyptians believed Osiris was Egypt’s first “king.” His successors, the line of mortal Egyptian rulers honoured Osiris, and adopted his regalia the crook and the flail to underpin their own authority, by carrying. The crook represented kingship and his undertaking to provide guidance to his people, while the flail symbolised the fertility of the land through its use in threshing wheat.

The crook and flail were first associated with an early powerful god named Andjety who was eventually absorbed by Osiris in the Egyptian pantheon. Once Osiris was firmly entrenched in his traditional role as Egypt’s first king, his son Horus also came to be connected with the reign of a pharaoh.

Statuette of Osiris.
Image Courtesy: Rama [CC BY-SA 3.0 fr], via Wikimedia Commons

Sacred Cylinders of the Pharaoh and the Rods of Horus

The cylinders of the Pharaoh and the Rods of Horus are cylindrical objects often depicted in the hands of Egyptian monarchs in their statues. These sacred objects are believed by Egyptologists to have been used in religious rites to focus the pharaoh’s spiritual and intellectual energy. Their use is similar to today’s contemporary Komboloi worry beads and Rosary Beads.

As supreme ruler of the Egyptian people and the intermediary between the gods and the people, the pharaoh was the embodiment of a god on Earth. When the pharaoh ascended the throne he was immediately linked with Horus.

Horus was the Egyptian god who banished the forces of chaos and restored order. When the pharaoh died, he was similarly linked with Osiris, the god of the afterlife and ruler of the underworld.

As such, through the pharaoh’s role of ‘High Priest of Every Temple’, it was his sacred duty to construct magnificent temples and monuments celebrating his personal achievements and offering reverence to the gods of Egypt who bestowed upon him the power to rule in this life and who act as his guide him during the next.

As part of his religious duties, the pharaoh officiated at major religious ceremonies, selected the sites of new temples and decree what work would be carried out in his name. The pharaoh, however, did not appoint priests and rarely actively participated in the design of the temples being constructed in his name.

In his role of ‘Lord of the Two Lands’ the Pharaoh decreed Egypt’s laws, owned all the land in Egypt, directed the collection of taxes and waged war or defended Egyptian territory against invasion.

Establishing the Pharaoh’s Line of Succession

Egypt rulers were usually the preceding pharaoh’s sons or adopted heirs. Usually these sons were the children of the pharaoh’s Great Wife and main consort; however, occasionally the heir was a child of a lower-ranked wife whom the pharaoh favoured.

In an effort to secure the legitimacy of their dynasty, pharaohs married female aristocrats linking their lineage to Memphis’, which at that time was Egypt’s capital.

This practice is speculated to have begun with Narmer, who selected Memphis as his capital. Narmer consolidated his rule and linked his new city to the older city of Naqada by marrying its princess Neithhotep.

To maintain the purity of the bloodline, many pharaohs married their sisters or half-sisters, while Pharaoh Akhenaten married his own daughters.

The Pharaohs and their Iconic Pyramids

The pharaohs of Egypt created a new form of monumental construction, which is synonymous with their rule. Imhotep (c. 2667-2600 BCE) King Djoser’s (c. 2670 BCE) vizier created the imposing Step Pyramid.

Intended as Djoser’s eternal resting place, the Step Pyramid was the tallest structure of its day and ushered in a new way of honouring not only Djoser but also Egypt itself and the prosperity the land enjoyed under his reign.

The splendour of the complex surrounding the Step Pyramid together with the structure’s imposing height of the pyramid demanded wealth, prestige and resources.

Other 3rd Dynasty kings including Sekhemkhet and Khaba constructed the Buried Pyramid and the Layer Pyramid following Imhotep’s design. Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) continued this model of construction, which culminated in the Great Pyramid at Giza. This majestic structure immortalised Khufu (2589-2566 BCE) and demonstrated the power and divine rule of Egypt’s pharaoh.

King Djoser’s Step Pyramid.
Bernard DUPONT [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How Many Wives did A Pharaoh Have?

Pharaohs frequently had several wives but only one wife was officially recognized as the queen.

Were the Pharaohs Always Men?

Most pharaohs were male but some famous pharaohs, such as Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and later Cleopatra, were female.

Egypt’s Empire and the 18th Dynasty

With the collapse of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom in 1782 BCE, Egypt was ruled by enigmatic Semitic people known as the Hyksos. The Hyksos rulers retained the panoply of the Egyptian pharaohs, thus keeping Egyptian customs alive until the royal line of the Egyptian 18th Dynasty overthrew the Hyksos and regained their kingdom.

When Ahmose I (c.1570-1544 BCE) expelled the Hyksos from Egypt, he immediately set up buffer zones around Egypt’s borders as a preemptive measure against other invasions. These zones were fortified and permanent garrisons established. Politically, administrators reporting directly to the pharaoh governed these zones.

Egypt’s Middle Kingdom produced some of its greatest pharaohs including Rameses the Great and Amenhotep III (r.1386-1353 BCE).

This period of Egypt’s empire saw the pharaoh’s power and prestige at its height. Egypt controlled the resources of a vast swath of territory stretching from Mesopotamia, through the Levant across Northern Africa to Libya, and south into the great Nubian Kingdom of Kush.

Most pharaohs were male but during the Middle Kingdom, the 18th Dynasty’s Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE) ruled successfully as a female monarch for over twenty years. Hatshepsut brought peace and prosperity during her reign.

Hatshepsut re-established trading links with the Land of Punt and supported wide-ranging trade expeditions. Increased trade triggered an economic boom. Consequentially, Hatshepsut initiated more public works projects than any other pharaoh apart from Rameses II.

When Tuthmose III (1458-1425 BCE) ascended the throne after Hatshepsut, he ordered her image removed from all her temples and monuments. Tuthmose III feared Hatshepsut’s example might inspire other royal women to ‘forget their place’ and aspire to the power Egypt’s gods had reserved for male pharaohs.

The Decline of Egypt’s Pharaohs

While the New Kingdom elevated Egypt to its loftiest successes militarily, politically and economically, new challenges would present themselves. The supreme power and influences of the office of pharaoh began a decline following the highly successful reign of Ramesses III (r.1186-1155 BCE) who ultimately defeated the invading Sea Peoples in an attritional series of battles waged on land and at sea.

The cost to the Egyptian state of their victory over the Sea Peoples, both financial and in terms of casualties was catastrophic and unsustainable. Egypt’s economy began a steady decline following the conclusion of this conflict.

The first labour strike in recorded history took place during the reign of Ramesses III. This strike seriously questioned the pharaoh’s ability to fulfil his duty to maintain ma’at. It also posed troubling questions as to how much Egypt’s nobility really cared for the wellbeing of its people.

These and other complicating issues proved instrumental in ending the New Kingdom. This period of instability ushered in the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BCE), which drew to an end with an invasion by the Persians.

During Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period power was shared almost equally between Tanis and Thebes initially. Real power fluctuated periodically, as first one city, then the other held dominion.

However, the two cities managed to rule jointly, despite their often diametrically opposed agendas. Tanis was the seat of a secular power, while Thebes was a theocracy.

As there was no real distinction between one’s secular and religious life in ancient Egypt, ‘secular’ equated to ‘pragmatic.’ Tanis rulers came to their decisions according to the often-turbulent circumstances confronting them and accepted responsibility for those decisions even though the gods were consulted during their decision-making process.

The High Priests at Thebes consulted the god Amun directly on every aspect of their rule, placing Amun directly as the real ‘king’ of Thebes.

As was the case with many positions of power and influence in ancient Egypt, the king of Tanis and the High Priest of Thebes were frequently related, as were the two ruling houses. The position of God’s Wife of Amun, a position of significant power and wealth, shows how ancient Egypt came to an accommodation in this period as both daughters of the rulers of both Tanis and Thebes held the position.

Joint projects and policies were frequently entered into by both cities Evidence of this have come down to us in the form of inscriptions created at the direction of the kings and priests. It seems each understood and respected the legitimacy of the other’s rule.

After the Third Intermediate Period, Egypt was unable to once again resume its previous heights of economic, military and political power. In the latter part of the 22nd Dynasty, Egypt found itself divided by civil war.

By the time of the 23rd Dynasty, Egypt was fragmented with its power split between self-proclaimed kings ruling from Tanis, Hermopolis, Thebes, Memphis, Herakleopolis and Sais. This social and political division fractured the previously united defence of the country and the Nubians took advantage of this power vacuum and invaded from the south.

Egypt’s 24th and 25th dynasties were unified under Nubian rule. However, the weakened state was unable to resist successive invasions by the Assyrians, as first Esarhaddon (681-669 BCE) in 671/670 BCE and then Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE) in 666 BCE. While the Assyrians were eventually driven out of Egypt, the country lacked the resources to beat back other invading powers.

The social and political prestige of the office of pharaoh waned precipitously following the Egyptian defeat by the Persians at the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE.

This Persian invasion abruptly ended Egyptian autonomy until the emergence of Amyrtaeus (c.404-398 BCE) 28th Dynasty in the Late Period. Amyrtaeus successfully freed Lower Egypt from Persian subjugation but was unable to unify the country under Egyptian rule.

The Persians continued to reign over Upper Egypt until the 30th Dynasty (c. 380-343 BCE), of the Late Period once again unified Egypt.

This state of affairs failed to last as the Persians returned once more invading Egypt in 343 BCE. Thereafter, Egypt was relegated to the status of a satrapy until 331 BCE when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. The Pharaoh’s prestige declined still further, after the conquests of Alexander the Great and his founding of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

By the time of the last pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, Cleopatra VII Philopator (c. 69-30 BCE), the title had given up much of its lustre as well as its political power. With Cleopatra’s death in 30 BCE, Egypt was reduced to the status of a Roman province. The military might, religious cohesion and organizational brilliance of the pharaohs had long faded into memory.

Reflecting on the Past

Were the ancient Egyptians as all-powerful as they appear or were they brilliant propagandists who used inscriptions on monuments and temples to claim greatness?

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs," Give Me History, February 25, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/ancient-egyptian-pharaohs.

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