Pharaoh: common title for the kings of ancient Egypt. The
word is a rendering of the Hebrew par'ô, 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
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
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
After c.2000 BCE, the pharaoh had five names: four throne names
and the name he had received when he was born.
For example, a pharaoh could be called
- the Horus-name (i.e., manifestation of the heavenly falcon)
- He of the two ladies (i.e., the twofold country Egypt,
represented by the cobra-goddess Wadjet and the vulture-goddess
- the golden Horus-name (expressing eternity)
- He of the sedge and bee (e.g., Upper and Lower Egypt)
- Son of (the sun god) Ra (i.e., personal name).
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'
- Horus Mighty Bull, Beloved of Truth
- He of the two ladies, Risen with the fiery serpent, Great of
- Horus of gold, Perfect of years, He who makes hearts live
- He of the sedge and bee Aakheperkara
- Son of Ra Thutmose living forever and eternity
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 ,
a false beard ,
and covered his head with a variety of
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
The king and his insignia were
to ordinary mortals. Petitioners and ambassadors approached him with due
reverence, which in the New Kingdom meant (in the words of
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
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
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
- 11th dynasty - Coup attempt against Nebkheperure-Intef by the
Decree of Nebkheperure-Intef
- 11th dynasty - The last Mentuhotep was possibly overthrown by
- 12th dynasty - assassination attempt against Amenemhet I:
- 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:
- 26th dynasty - Ahmose II deposed Wahibre:
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
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
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
them of neglecting their duty after the
at Kadesh, instituting the change of the traditional,
confrontational Egyptian policy vis-á-vis Hatti which yielded a
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
- For the day to day administration of the country the king relied
civil servants. In the Middle Kingdom
of Merikare the king is exhorted to treat his servants well.
Conversely, Horemheb in his
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).
Nurses like Maya ,
wet nurse to Tutankhamen, raised royal children and enjoyed a high social
status. Senay ,
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 ,
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
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 ,
royal tutor, who was the queen's confidant and fulfilled many executive
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
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
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
.... 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
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 ...
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 
and take care of one's mortuary offerings, was universal.
Some pharaohs were little favoured by popular opinion.
Khufu is described in
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)
All ancient parent must have lived in constant worry
that their children
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.
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
The Sphinx Stela, first half of the 1st millennium
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two,
- 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
there are tales about it. The
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.
 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
 Valiant shepherd (Amen as Harakhte) who
drives his flock, Their refuge, made to sustain them.
Lichtheim II, p.88
 Flails or fly-whisks are still used as insignia
of power in East Africa.
 Even Queen Hatshepsut took to wearing a false beard
after her successful coup.
 Ordinary Egyptians, apart from occasionally wearing
wigs during the New Kingdom, were bare headed.
 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