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The Pharaoh













Pharaoh: common title for the kings of ancient Egypt. The word is a rendering of the Hebrew par', which in turn renders the Egyptian word pr-' ('great house'). From the fifteenth century BCE, this title was used as a synonym to describe the person of the king; in combination with the king's name (e.g., 'pharaoh Amasis'), it is used from the tenth century.

The names of the pharaohs are known from Egyptian texts and the Aegyptiaca of Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived in the first half of the third century BCE. He divides the Egyptian history in thirty dynasties; sometimes he is wrong, but it is common to follow his division.

Pharaoh originally meant, the royal palace in ancient Egypt; the word came to be used as a synonym for the Egyptian king under the New Kingdom (starting in the 18th dynasty, 1539-1292 BC), and by the 22nd dynasty (c. 945-c. 730 BC) it had been adopted as an epithet of respect. The term has since evolved into a generic name for all ancient Egyptian kings, although it was never formally the king's title. In official documents, the full title of the Egyptian king consisted of five names, each preceded by one of the following titles: Horus; Two Ladies; Golden Horus; King of Upper and Lower Egypt and Lord of the Double Land; and Son of Re and Lord of the Diadems. The last name was given him at birth, the others at coronation.

The Egyptians believed their pharaoh to be a god, identifying him with the sky god Horus and with the sun gods Re, Amon, and Aton. Even after death the pharaoh remained divine, becoming transformed into Osiris, the father of Horus and god of the dead, and passing on his sacred powers and position to the new pharaoh, his son. The pharaoh's divine status was believed to endow him with magical powers: his uraeus (the snake on his crown) spat flames at his enemies, he was able to trample thousands of the enemy on the battlefield, and he was all-powerful, knowing everything and controlling nature and fertility.

As a divine ruler, the pharaoh was the preserver of the god-given order, called ma'at. He owned a large portion of Egypt's land and directed its use, was responsible for his people's economic and spiritual welfare, and dispensed justice to his subjects. His will was supreme, and he governed by royal decree. To govern fairly, though, the pharaoh had to delegate responsibility; his chief assistant was the vizier, who, among other duties, was chief justice, head of the treasury, and overseer of all records. Below this central authority, the royal will of the pharaoh was administered through the nomes, or provinces, into which Upper and Lower Egypt were divided.

Since he was considered a god, the pharaoh lived apart from other men, and his subjects subscribed to rituals that exalted him as a divine king. All those approaching him, for example, had to prostrate themselves on the ground. When the pharaoh died, Egyptian funerary rituals were performed that were thought to guarantee that he survive in the afterlife as a god, apart from other men.

Evidence suggests, however, that the Egyptians knew that their divine ruler was only a human being, if a supreme one; they judged him according to his deeds, criticizing pharaohs, plotting against them, and deposing or murdering ineffectual ones. Each succeeding pharaoh, however, ascended the throne under the aegis of the rituals and traditions that recognized him as divine ruler.

After c.2000 BCE, the pharaoh had five names: four throne names and the name he had received when he was born.

  1. the Horus-name (i.e., manifestation of the heavenly falcon)
  2. He of the two ladies (i.e., the twofold country Egypt, represented by the cobra-goddess Wadjet and the vulture-goddess Nekhbet)
  3. the golden Horus-name (expressing eternity)
  4. He of the sedge and bee (e.g., Upper and Lower Egypt)
  5. Son of (the sun god) Ra (i.e., personal name).
For example, a pharaoh could be called
  1. Horus Mighty Bull, Beloved of Truth
  2. He of the two ladies, Risen with the fiery serpent, Great of strength
  3. Horus of gold, Perfect of years, He who makes hearts live
  4. He of the sedge and bee Aakheperkara
  5. Son of Ra Thutmose living forever and eternity
Modern scholars call this king Thutmose I. The same titles were used for foreign rulers. For example, the Horus-name of Alexander the Great was 'protector of Egypt' and his fifth name was 'beloved by Amun, chosen by Ra'

The king was set apart from his subjects. He was surrounded by servants and dignitaries, sat on a throne, wore the insignia of his office, the crook, the flail [7], a false beard [8], and covered his head with a variety of head dresses [9].

Akhenaten holding the symbols of pharaonic power, flail and crook
Source: Egyptian Museum, Cairo

    He was the embodiment of all aspects of the Egyptian state: he was the head of the administration, be it 'civil' or 'religious', the representative of the country toward foreign powers, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He often led his armies in person, taking part in the fighting. Sometimes his eldest son deputized for him.
    The king and his insignia were
untouchable to ordinary mortals. Petitioners and ambassadors approached him with due reverence, which in the New Kingdom meant (in the words of Yapahu of Gezer) to prostrate oneself seven times and seven times both upon the belly and back. Fulsome praise of the king could not hurt anybody and was forthcoming unsparingly, as was self-abasement. The rulers of Canaan liked to compare the pharaoh to the sun and themselves to the dust under his feet. Those who were in constant contact with the king must have obeyed special, abbreviated ceremonials, but nothing is known about this.
    The Egyptian kingship was based on divine right. Re created the pharaohs for the purpose of ruling his land.

I will settle firm decrees for Harakhty.
He begat me to do what should be done for him,
to accomplish what he commands to do,
He appointed me shepherd of this land,
knowing him who would herd it for him.
He gave to me what he protects,
what the eye in him illuminates.
He who does all as he desires
conveys to me what he wants known.
I am king by nature,
ruler to whom one does not give.
I conquered as a fledgling,
I lorded in the egg,
I ruled as a youth.
[Mine is the land], its length and breadth,
I was nursed to be a conqueror.
Mine is the land, I am its lord,
my power reaches heaven's height.
I excel by acting for my maker,
pleasing the god with what he gave.
[I am] his son and his protector,
he gave me to conquer what he conquered.

Building Inscription of Sesostris I, Middle Kingdom
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, pp.116f

    On a more mundane level the kingship was passed on by inheritance from father to son, generally the eldest surviving son of the main wife. If a pharaoh had seized power illegally he (or she, as in the case of Hatshepsut [10]) often stressed his divine descent and showered the gods, i.e. their temples and priests, with gifts.
    From the Middle Kingdom onward the crown prince was sometimes made familiar with his future position by appointing him co-regent. If the right of accession to the throne of the father was in doubt, this might also confer some legitimacy and a great deal of knowledge how to wield royal might on the son.
    Changes of power were not always peaceful or according to tradition. Any semblance of order disappeared during the first and part of the second Intermediate Period, and local rulers vied with each other for supremacy. But there are indications that even during the stable times of the Kingdoms, when the threat to the central authority was small, there were a few attempts against the divine ruler.


  • 6th dynasty - Teti (Horus name: Sehetep-tawi , i.e. the two lands are pacified, which seems to point to a reunification of the country or the like) assassinated by his bodyguards according to Manetho
  • 6th dynasty - Pepi I ascended the throne only after entering into an alliance with Upper Egyptian nomarchs, possible harem conspiracy led by the great king's wife
  • 11th dynasty - Coup attempt against Nebkheperure-Intef by the nomarch Teti: Coptos Decree of Nebkheperure-Intef
  • 11th dynasty - The last Mentuhotep was possibly overthrown by Amenhotep I
  • 12th dynasty - assassination attempt against Amenemhet I: Teachings of Amenemhet
  • 17th dynasty - Tao II, who fought the Hyksos, died from a head wound, which may have been inflicted by a murderer.
  • 18th dynasty - The popular conjecture that Tutankhamen was assassinated by Ay seems to be unfounded.
  • 20th dynasty - An unsuccessful attempt against Ramses III's life by members of the court and harem was severely punished: Judicial Turin papyrus
  • 26th dynasty - Ahmose II deposed Wahibre: Herodotus on Apries

The priest

    The pharaoh was the foremost servant of the gods, and he never completely surrendered his sacerdotal role to the priests appointed to be his every-day substitutes. But the control over the temple administrations slipped from his hands. After the demise of the 20th dynasty the Amen-Re priesthood was strong enough to start running the whole of Upper Egypt, and later during the periods of foreign rule the temples, despite being lavishly endowed with goods by the occupiers, were often centres of discord.

The politician

    While the pharaoh wielded great power over his people, it was not absolute. Kings always act in political contexts, woo power groups for their support or try to neutralize the influence of their opponents. Most people can be bought with gifts of power or possessions, and pharaohs lavished favours on the social groups which could help them to achieve their political aims: the military high command, the priesthood and the scribal elite.

  • When Horemheb needed a successor to continue his aggressive policy toward Hatti, he turned to the army and appointed a general to become king, Ramses I. A generation later Ramses II turned on his generals and accused them of neglecting their duty after the dbcle at Kadesh, instituting the change of the traditional, confrontational Egyptian policy vis--vis Hatti which yielded a peace treaty 16 years later.
  • The priesthood seems to have fared best when there were legitimacy issues and the pharaoh needed divine approbation. This became blatant during the New Kingdom when local princes toppled the, albeit foreign, Hyksos pharaohs, when regents tried to hold on to power after their charges had grown up, or when generals were appointed to the throne. A backlash against the increasing influence of the priesthood, above all that of Amen-Re, began under Amenhotep III who showed support for the hitherto unimportant Aten cult and reached a climax when his son Akhenaten removed the temples' sources of income, and created a new centre of power at Akhetaten. After Akhenaten's death Ay supervised the restoration.
  • For the day to day administration of the country the king relied civil servants. In the Middle Kingdom Instructions of Merikare the king is exhorted to treat his servants well. Conversely, Horemheb in his Great Edict tried to curb corruption by promulgating harsh laws against offending officials.

    Buying support did not always work, as Amenemhet I warned his son in 'his' Teaching, the top was a lonely place and not even family bonds ensured loyalty:

Be on your guard against all who are subordinate to you when there occurs something to whose terrors no thought has been given; do not approach them in your solitude, trust no brother, know no friend, make no intimates, for there is no profit in it. When you go to rest, guard your own heart, for no man has partisans on the day of trouble. I gave to the poor man, I cherished the orphan, I caused him who had nothing to attain (to wealth) like him who was wealthy, but it was he who ate my bread who raised levies; he to whom I had given my hand created terror thereby; those who wore my fine linen looked on me as a shadow; and they who smeared on my myrrh poured water under (me).

The man

Growing up

     Nurses like Maya [1], wet nurse to Tutankhamen, raised royal children and enjoyed a high social status. Senay [2], nurse of Amenhotep II, was wife of the mayor of Thebes. She bore the titles of royal nurse and favourite (ta-Sps.t). Sat-re [4], whose statue shows her holding Hatshepsut as a child, was called Great Wet-nurse of the Lady of the Two Lands and was buried in the Valley of the Kings.

Ramses II
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    Some nurses may have replaced mothers which had died during childbirth, a common occurrence in all social circles, but many noblemen had nurses looking after their children as a matter of course.
    Men were also involved in education. Hatshepsut's daughter Neferure was looked after by Senenmut [
3], royal tutor, who was the queen's confidant and fulfilled many executive positions.
    The education of the future king was seemingly in the hands of a number of people. Much of it, certainly in the child's earlier years took place in the harem, but as the boy grew up, he was shown the workings of government at first hand and probably also given ever growing administrative responsibilities.

He (i.e. Harakhte) advanced me to Lord of the Two Parts,
a child yet wearing swaddling clothes.

Building Inscription of Sesostris I
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, p.116

    When a young boy acceded to the throne a regent was appointed to run the country. This was generally a close relative, mostly the mother (e.g. Neithotep for Djer, Merenith for Den, Queen Iput for her son Pepi I, and seemingly Ankhenesmerire II for Pepi II),or occasionally someone else like a step-mother (Hatshepsut for Thutmose III) or an uncle (Ay whose relatedness to the ruling family is not quite clear, apparently for Tutankhamen).
    Sometimes the king decided to give his son practical experience in running the country by appointing him co-ruler.
    Children brought up in the company of the future king bore the title of Foster Brother (or Sister) of the Lord of the Two Lands.

.... in the time of Menkaure; whom he educated among the king's children, in the palace of the king, in the privy chamber, in the royal harem; who was more honored before the king than any child; Ptahshepses.
... in the time of Shepseskaf; whom he educated among the king's children, in the palace of the king, in the privy chamber, in the royal harem; who was more honored before the king than any youth; Ptahshepses

The family

     Historical sources are either silent or conventionally formal where the relations of royal fathers and mothers to their offspring are concerned. An exception is the Amarna Period. Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti are often depicted with their daughters, caressing them and playing with them. They appear to have been doting parents. In the words of Akhenaten:

My heart rejoices in the great royal wife and her children, and old age be granted to the great royal wife, Nefer-nefru-aten Nefertiti, living forever, in these millions of years, she being in the care of Pharaoh, and old age be granted to the princess Meretaten and to the princess Meketaten, her children, they being in the care of the Queen their mother ...

Boundary Stela
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 2, p.50

Most kings and queens probably treated their children like this. Tales, while they are in all likelihood mirroring the lives of the educated scribal classes, who wrote and enjoyed reading them, rather than the lives of noblemen, generally describe royal parents as loving and sympathetic to the wishes of their children.

We were the two children of the King Merneptah, and he loved us very much, for he had no others; and Naneferkaptah was in his palace as heir over all the land. And when we were grown, the king said to the queen, "I will marry Naneferkaptah to the daughter of a general, and Ahura to the son of another general."

    In Pepi I's Pyramid Texts the different attitudes mothers and fathers have towards their children are given expression: "Good one" said his mother, "Heir," said his father. The fear of not having a son, who would continue one's line, inherit one's position [5] and take care of one's mortuary offerings, was universal.
    Some pharaohs were little favoured by popular opinion. Khufu is described in
ancient stories as having little compassion for others; according to a tale Herodotus relates he did not treat his own daughter any better:

Cheops moreover came, they said, to such a pitch of wickedness, that being in want of money he caused his own daughter to sit in the stews, and ordered her to obtain from those who came a certain amount of money (how much it was they did not tell me)

Herodotus, Euterpe

    All ancient parent must have lived in constant worry that their children would not survive into adulthood.

Once upon a time there was a king in Egypt whose heart was heavy because that he had no son. He called upon the gods, and the gods heard, and they decreed that an heir should be born to him. The seven Hathors greeted the prince and pronounced his destiny; they said he would meet with a sudden death, either by a crocodile, or a serpent, or a dog.

    Well-born infants were better nourished than most and therefore more likely to be able to resist disease, and better looked after and therefore less prone to being killed in accidents. Still, Merneptah had had 13 older brothers who had died before their father did, and did not accede to the throne.


     Diodorus Siculus described the life of the Ptolemaic pharaohs as highly regimented, where every move the king made was prescribed. Of course, our modern western view of life as being neatly divided into a nine-to-five work period and an evening of leisure would have appeared strange to anybody living before the industrial revolution. Pharaohs did not stop being kings when they left their audience hall. Their "after-work" activities are not as well documented as their "official" deeds. This reflected the importance they attached to what happened to them.

  • Akhenaten seems to have enjoyed his family life hugely, and is often depicted in the company of his wife and daughters.
  • Other kings thought of hunting in heroic dimensions and left descriptions and reliefs of massive slaughter of animals on the walls of their temples.

    Behold, he (Thutmose IV) did a thing that gave him pleasure upon the highlands of the Memphite nome, upon the southern and northern road, shooting at a target with copper bolts, hunting lions and wild goats, coursing in his chariot, his horses being swifter than the wind; together with two followers, while not a soul knew it.

    The Sphinx Stela, first half of the 1st millennium BCE
    J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two,  813
  • Amenhotep II was proud of his physical prowess and his achievements in the martial arts, and he wanted people to know that nobody was his equal at shooting with bow and arrow (cf. The Amada Stela).
  •  The pharaohs also played games. Boards have been found in tombs and depictions on the walls of pharaohs indulging in a game of senet.
  • Listening to stories has been a favourite pastime since people have learned how to talk. While there are no official records of pharaohs enthralled by a good yarn (apart from Ramses II listening to the Hittite spies at Kadesh), there are tales about it. The Westcar Papyrus contains three stories, purportedly told to Khufu by his sons. They describe activities kings are sure to have indulged in: obsessing about unfaithful wives, going on boating trips with beautiful girls, or watching magicians perform tricks.


    While apparently anybody who came into contact with a pharaoh boasted in his tomb inscriptions that he had been his bosom friend, sole companion or king's confidant, the monarchs themselves were much more reticent on this subject. Like all powerful men throughout the ages they must have found it difficult to make friends, as they could not accept any of their subjects as equals, or completely trust that their affection was without ulterior motives.

[5] To a king the fulfillment of his duties was paramount

As for any son of mine who shall maintain this border which my Majesty has made, he is my son, born to my majesty. The true son is he who champions his father, who guards the border of his begetter. But he who abandons it, who fails to fight for it, he is not my son, he was not born to me.

Boundary Stela of Sesostris III
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, pp.119f

[6] Valiant shepherd (Amen as Harakhte) who drives his flock, Their refuge, made to sustain them.

Lichtheim II, p.88

[7] Flails or fly-whisks are still used as insignia of power in East Africa.
[8] Even Queen Hatshepsut took to wearing a false beard after her successful coup.
[9] Ordinary Egyptians, apart from occasionally wearing wigs during the New Kingdom, were bare headed.
[10] A whole mythology was invented for Hatshepsut:

Utterance of Amon-Re, lord of Thebes, presider over Karnak. He made his form like the majesty of this husband, the King Okheperkere (Thutmose I). He found her as she slept in the beauty of her palace. She waked at the fragrance of the god, which she smelled in the presence of his majesty. He went to her immediately, coivit cum ea (had intercourse with her), he imposed his desire upon her, he caused that she should see him in his form of a god. When he came before her, she rejoiced at the sight of his beauty, his love passed into her limbs, which the fragrance of the god flooded; all his odors were from Punt.
Utterance of Amon, Lord of the Two Lands, before her: "Khnemet-Amon-Hatshepsut shall be the name of this my daughter, whom I have placed in thy body, this saying which comes out of thy mouth. She shall exercise the excellent kingship in this whole land. My soul is hers, my [bounty (?)] is hers, my crown [is hers (?)], that she may rule the Two Lands, that she may lead all the living //////.

J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two.  196ff



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