The Egyptian Monarchy
The Egyptian Monarchy
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter details the administrative functions, religious symbolisms, and other such historic intricacies of the Egyptian monarchy. At the pinnacle of Egyptian society sat the king. Below him were the layers of the educated bureaucracy, comprising nobles, priests, and civil servants, and under them the great mass of the people, largely living an agricultural life. The ancient Egyptian monarchy lasted in a recognizable form for over three thousand years. Although many changes occurred during that time, almost all of the fundamentals remained in being. The chapter also notes the difficulties of current historical sources for vocalizations and chronologies for the monarchical information since reconstructed.
At the pinnacle of Egyptian society sat the king. Below him were the layers of the educated bureaucracy, comprising nobles, priests, and civil servants, and under them the great mass of the people, largely living an agricultural life. Except in the earliest times, when the highest official seems to have been the chancellor, for most of Egyptian history the senior official was the vizier (tjaty), roughly equating to a modern prime minister. In New Kingdom times, two vizierates existed, responsible for Upper and Lower Egypt respectively. Below the vizierate, other officials were responsible for the treasury, agriculture, and the numerous other ramifications of the state. All bore with pride the title ‘scribe’ (sesh): in a world where literacy was the rare exception, the ability to wield the pen was to have the potential to wield power.
The king himself was the figure upon whom the whole administrative structure of the state was predicated. He was the head of the civil administration, the supreme warlord, and the chief priest of every god in the kingdom: all offerings were made in his name by a priesthood acting in his stead. In addition, he was himself a divine being, the physical offspring of a god. Accounts of a ruler’s divine birth center on a god assuming the form of (or becoming incarnate in) the king’s father, who then impregnated his wife, who accordingly bore the divine king.
In many accounts, the king is viewed as an incarnation of Horus, a raptor god, the posthumous son of Osiris, a divine king slain by his brother, Seth. Horus fought his uncle for the possession of the throne, and part of the accession process of a king was the proper burial of his predecessor as Horus carrying out the last rites for Osiris. There are a number of (p.8) cases whereby such an act may have been the legal basis for a commoner’s ascent to the throne. More usual, however, was the succession of the eldest son, whose status as heir seems normally to have been proclaimed during his father’s lifetime. In certain cases this was taken a step further by the heir’s coronation as coregent, henceforth ruling as an equal partner with his father, although this seems to have been less common than has often been asserted by Egyptologists.
There is no evidence whatsoever for the old idea that the right to the throne was carried by the female line, meaning that a putative king had to marry the daughter of his predecessor, even if she were his full-blooded sister. Brother–sister marriages did occur in the royal family, but with sufficient irregularity for the motivation to be sought elsewhere.
The title of ‘pharaoh’ has come to us from the Old Testament. It originates in the Egyptian per-aa, ‘great house,’ a designation of the palace, which first came to be used as a label for the king around 1450 bc, and becomes common only some centuries later. For most of the time, the usual word for ‘king’ is nesu, but a whole range of titles were applicable to any full statement of a king’s names and titulary.
From around 2500 bc onwards, an Egyptian monarch had five names. The first was the Horus name, written inside a frame surmounting a representation of the façade of a palace (serekh: ), the falcon of the god Horus, patron of the monarchy, perched atop it. The second, the Nebty (‘Two Ladies’) name, linked the king with the patron goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, while the third was the Bik-nub (‘Golden Falcon’) name, whose significance has been much debated. Apart from the Horus name, which was the principal means of designating the king during the very first few centuries of Egyptian history, these names were far less used than the remaining two, one or other of which became the usual way to refer to a king in both formal and informal contexts.
Both were enclosed in what is today referred to as a cartouche, from the French for an oval enclosure (and gun cartridge). Representing a double rope, encircling the dominions of the king, the oval enclosure () was called by the Egyptians shenu. The first of the names contained within a cartouche is today referred to as the ‘prenomen,’ and was usually preceded by the titles Nesu-bity (‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt,’ or perhaps ‘Two-aspected King’—the point is a matter for Egyptological debate) or Neb-tawy (‘Lord of the Two Lands,’ referring to the Valley and Delta areas of Egypt). It was, like the preceding three names, composed on the king’s accession, and almost invariably incorporated the name of the sun-god Re.
(p.9) The second cartouche name, the ‘nomen,’ was preceded by the titles Si-Re (‘Son of Re’) or Neb-khau (‘Lord of Appearances,’ or possibly ‘Crowns’). It usually represented the birth name of the king, sometimes, particularly in later periods, with some form of additional epithet, such as ‘beloved of Amun’ (mery-Amun), or ‘divine ruler of Thebes’ (netjerheqa-Waset). It is by their nomina that the ancient kings are referred to by modern historians, who distinguish like-named individuals by the addition of ordinals such as ‘II’ or ‘VI.’ In ancient times, kings of the same birth name were distinguished by their distinctive prenomina, it being extremely rare to find precisely the same combination of cartouche names being used by different pharaohs (although a number of Third Intermediate Period kings had confusingly similar ones).
Since the ancient Egyptian scripts do not write vowels, vocalization of names presents some problems, although there are conventions that allow acceptable transcriptions to be made: for example, the king ’Imnmss is usually referred to as Amenmeses (the approach taken in this book). However, for a number of kings, Greek transcriptions survive, and one convention, now largely obsolete, is that where these are tolerably close to the Egyptian skeleton they will be used. Thus, a King ḏḥwty-ms, who might otherwise be transcribed ‘Djhutmose’ or ‘Thutmose,’ becomes ‘Tuthmosis,’ s-n-wsrt (‘Senusret’/‘Senwosret’) becomes ‘Sesostris,’ ẖnmw-ẖw.f-wỉ (‘Khnum-khufu’) becomes ‘Kheops,’ and, at the extreme of the technique, NSỉ-b3-nb-Ddt (‘Nesibanebdjedet’) becomes ‘Smendes.’
Many of these Greek writings derive from a history of Egypt written in that language around 300 bc by an Egyptian priest named Manetho; excerpts of it survive in the works of later antique authors. In its text, he divided up the royal succession into thirty ‘dynasties,’ broadly corresponding to the European royal ‘houses’ of Plantagenet, York, Windsor, Bourbon, Hohenzollern, Romanov, and so on. Although there are numerous problems with Manetho’s system, it is retained by Egyptologists to this day as the most straightforward way of reckoning the progress of the ancient civilization.
These dynasties are usually grouped into ‘periods’ and ‘kingdoms,’ corresponding to distinct phases in the country’s political or cultural evolution. Thus, the Old Kingdom embraces the Third to Sixth Dynasties, the time occupied by the great pyramid builders, while the Middle Kingdom, comprising the later Eleventh, Twelfth, and Thirteenth Dynasties, represents a reunification of the country, consolidation and cultural development, and then decline. The New Kingdom (the Eighteenth to (p.10) Twentieth Dynasties) is the era of Egypt’s imperial power in Asia, seeing the construction of an empire that extended from Sudan to the Euphrates. The three Intermediate Periods, following each of the ‘Kingdoms,’ highlight centuries during which central authority was eroded, accompanied in some cases by foreign rule of parts of the country.
In addition to the Manethonic framework, we have a number of earlier, and thus potentially more reliable, king lists that help to confirm the ordering of rulers. These lists all date to the New Kingdom, and comprise an administrative listing, giving full reign lengths as well as royal names (the badly damaged Turin Canon), and four monumental offering lists, three of which place their contents in historical order. Of the latter, the best is that from the temple of Sethy I at Abydos; all of them are, however, incomplete and omit rulers for political and other reasons (e.g., space on the wall!). However, these lists combine with contemporary monuments and documents to permit the construction of our modern framework of Egyptian history.
Putting dates bc (a so-called ‘absolute chronology,’ not referring to its underlying accuracy, but merely an ability to express events in modern terms) to the dynasties thus reconstructed is often difficult, as the ancient Egyptians dated events by the years of a given king—and we have neither a complete list of kings, nor the lengths of many of their reigns. Some astronomical events, recorded in monumental inscriptions and papyri, can be of some help, as can synchronisms with other cultures whose absolute chronology is better established (e.g., Assyria from the tenth century bc onward), but all dates prior to 690 bc must be regarded as approximations only and are often the subject of intense scholarly debate. Even in the well-known New Kingdom, conservative estimates of absolute dates can vary by up to fifty years (with some more radical ones by much more); the further back one goes, the worse it gets.
The ancient Egyptian monarchy lasted in a recognizable form for over three thousand years. Although many changes occurred during that time, almost all of the fundamentals remained in being. We may now move on to look in detail at the reigns of a number of the individuals that held the venerable office of pharaoh, beginning with the first of them all, and finishing with the last native Egyptian to do so. Even after he was driven from his throne, the monarchy was to remain in at least theoretical existence for further centuries until the primeval ways of life were driven out by the new tenets of Christianity and Islam.