Pharaoh

Definition

by
published on 02 September 2009
Ramesses II ()

The Pharaoh in ancient Egypt was the political and religious leader of the people and held the titles 'Lord of the Two Lands’ and 'High Priest of Every Temple’. The word 'pharaoh’ is the Greek form of the Egyptian 'pero’ or 'per-a-a’, which was the designation for the royal residence. The name of the residence became associated with the ruler and, in time, was used exclusively for the leader of the people. The early monarchs of Egypt were not known as pharaohs but as kings. The honorific title of `pharaoh' for a ruler did not appear until the period known as the New Kingdom (1570-1069 BCE). Monarchs of the dynasties before the New Kingdom were addressed as `your majesty' by foreign dignitaries and members of the court and as `brother' by foreign rulers; both practices would continue after the king of Egypt came to be known as a pharaoh.

In 3150 BCE the First Dynasty appeared in Egypt with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by the king Menes (now believed to be Narmer). Menes/Narmer is depicted on inscriptions wearing the two crowns of Egypt, signifying unification, and his reign was thought to be in accordance with the will of the gods; but the office of the king itself was not associated with the divine until later. During the Second Dynasty of Egypt (2890-2670 BCE) King Raneb (also known as Nebra) linked his name with the divine and his reign with the will of the gods. Following Raneb, the rulers of the later dynasties were equated with the gods and with the duties and obligations due those gods. As supreme ruler of the people, the pharaoh was considered a god on earth, the intermediary between the gods and the people, and when he died, he was thought to become Osiris, the god of the dead. As such, in his role of 'High Priest of Every Temple’, it was the pharaoh’s duty to build great temples and monuments celebrating his own achievements and paying homage to the gods of the land. Additionally, the pharaoh would officiate at religious ceremonies, choose the sites of temples and decree what work would be done (although he could not choose priests and very rarely took part in the design of a temple). As 'Lord of the Two Lands’ the pharaoh made the laws, owned all the land in Egypt, collected taxes, and made war or defended the country against aggression.

The rulers of Egypt were usually the sons or declared heirs of the preceding pharaoh, born of the Great Wife (pharaoh’s chief consort) or sometimes a lesser-ranked wife whom the pharaoh favored. Early on, the rulers married female aristocrats in an effort to establish the legitimacy of their dynasty by linking it to the upper classes of Memphis, which was then Egypt’s capital. This practice may have begun with the first king, Narmer, who established Memphis as his capital and married the princess Neithhotep of the older city of Naqada to consolidate his rule and link his new city to Naqada and his home city of Thinis.  To keep the blood-line pure, many pharaohs married their sisters or half-sisters and Pharaoh Akhenaten married his own daughters.

The chief responsibility of the pharaoh was to maintain Ma’at, universal harmony, in the country. 

The chief responsibility of the pharaoh was to maintain Ma’at, universal harmony, in the country. The goddess Ma’at (pronounced 'may-et’ or 'my-eht’) was thought to work her will through the pharaoh but it was up to the individual ruler to interpret the goddess’ will correctly and to then act on it. Accordingly, warfare was an essential aspect of the rule of pharaoh, especially when it was seen as necessary for the restoration of balance and harmony in the land (as the Poem of Pentaur, written by the scribes of Rameses II, the Great, on his valor at the Battle of Kadesh attests). The pharaoh had a sacred duty to defend the borders of the land, but also to attack neighboring countries for natural resources if it was thought that this was in the interest of harmony.

By the 3rd dynasty King Djoser commanded enough wealth, prestige and resources to have the Step Pyramid built as his eternal home. Designed by the vizier Imhotep, the Step Pyramid was the tallest structure of its day and a very popular tourist attraction then as it is today. The pyramid was designed primarily as Djoser's final resting place but the splendor of the surrounding complex and great height of the pyramid were intended to honor not only Djoser but Egypt itself and the prosperity of the land under his reign. Other 3rd Dynasty kings such as Sekhemkhet and Khaba built pyramids following Imhotep's design (the Buried Pyramid and the Layer Pyramid) and created a type of monument which would become synonymous with Egypt even though the pyramid structure was used by many other cultures (notably the Maya, who had no contact at all with ancient Egypt). Old Kingdom monarchs (c.2613-2181 BCE) then followed suit culminating in the Great Pyramid at Giza, immortalizing Khufu and making manifest the power and divine rule of the pharaoh in Egypt.

Nebamun Hunting in the Marshes

With the collapse of the Middle Kingdom in 1640 BCE, Egypt came to be ruled by the mysterious semitic people known as the Hyksos. The Hyksos, however, emulated all the trappings of the Egyptian pharaohs and kept the customs alive until their kingdom was overthrown by the royal line of the Egyptian 17th Dynasty which then gave rise to some of the most famous of the pharaohs such as Rameses the Great and Amenhotep III. Although pharaohs were predominantly male, Queen Hatshepsut of the 18th Dynasty (also known as Ma’at-kare) ruled successfully for over twenty years and, during her reign, Egypt prospered. Hatshepsut was responsible for more public works projects than any pharaoh save Rameses II and her rule is marked by peace and affluence throughout the land. When Tuthmosis III came to power after her he had her image removed from all her temples and monuments in an effort, it is speculated, to restore order to the land in that a woman should never have held the title of the pharaoh and he feared her example might inspire other women to 'forget their place’ in the sacred order and aspire to power the gods had reserved for males.

The prestige of the pharaoh waned considerably after the defeat of the Egyptians by the Persians at the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE and, still further, after the conquests of Alexander the Great. By the time of the last pharaoh, the well-known Cleopatra VII Philopator of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, the title no longer held the power it once did, fewer monuments were erected and, with her death in 30 BCE, Egypt became a Roman province and the glory and might of the pharaohs of old faded into memory.


About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He teaches ancient history, writing, literature, and philosophy.

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