The Pharaohs were the rulers of all the ancient Egyptian Dynasties. The title Pharaoh itself originates in the Egyptian translation of the term ‘Great House’ describing Royal Palaces. Correctly and historically however the title Pharaoh only started being used to describe the king during the ‘New Kingdom’ which started around the sixteenth century BC and specifically during the 18th dynasty after the reign of Hatshepsut.
Walk like an Egyptian
Although the term Pharaoh originally meant ‘Great House’ or Palace, sometime during the reign of Thutmose 3rd (1479-1425 BC) ‘Pharaoh’ came to be used as the form of address for someone who was King and was a descendant of the Sun God Ra. Ra was considered to be the father of all the Pharaohs and it is claimed he created himself from a pyramid shaped mound of earth before going on to create all other gods. Records from the time however are sketchy and it is not clear whether this account of events is true. The first instance in which the term Pharaoh is used to describe a ruler appears in a letter sent to Amenhotep 4th also known as Akhenaten. Akenhaten reigned as Pharaoh between 1353 and 1336 BCE. The title Pharaoh came to be applied as a reverential designation of the ruler.
Pharaohs were the high priests of all temples, head of all things to do with the law, and the country’s administration. And crucially Pharaoh was commander of the army. Following on from Ra’s claims of his own divinity, Egyptians believed that pharaohs were more than mere great people. Pharaohs were regarded as half god and half man and only priests and pharaohs were allowed to enter the temples. Ancient Egyptians were obliged to rely on the pharaoh to converse with the gods on their behalf, so making the pharaoh all powerful as far as Egyptian society was concerned. This is remarkably similar arrangement to some other religions where church and political leaders claim the same privileges and duties. Were this set up not advantage enough for Egypt’s rulers it was also received wisdom that Pharaoh’s spirit would persist for eternity. Egyptians believed that Pharaoh would become a god after he (or occasionally she) died, a belief which resulted in the practice of treasures being buried with the deceased Pharaoh so they could be enjoyed in the afterlife. In some cases unfortunate servants were entombed with the dead Pharaoh as well. A case of ‘you can take it with you’, but only if you’re a Pharaoh. In the event it turned out that grave robbers were the main beneficiaries of this practice leaving the deceased Pharaoh destitute in his or her afterlife.
Rise and Fall of the Pharaohs
The office of Pharaoh brought with it the titles of ‘High Priest of every Temple’ and ‘Lord of the Two Lands’. The first ‘dynasties’ appeared in Egypt in around 3000 BC when Lower and Upper Egypt were unified. The Pharaoh was supreme ruler and god on earth. When Pharaoh died he or she was thought to become Osiris, ‘the god of the dead’. It is not at all clear where this idea came from, possibly from some Pharaoh himself. It did have the advantage of enhancing the Pharaoh’s status and security of tenure whilst still alive and a mere mortal. The obligation which these accolades brought to the Pharaoh whilst still on earth included a duty to build great monuments, to pay homage to the gods and to celebrate his own achievements. The latter again being a convenient duty for the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh was expected to decree what work should be done anywhere in the land, officiate at religious ceremonies and choose the sites for temples. In his capacity as ‘Lord of the Two Lands’ the Pharaoh organised wars to ‘defend’ the country, collected taxes, owned all the land, and made the laws. Pharaohs were usually the sons or at least,
declared heirs of the Pharaoh whom they followed on from. Pharaohs had a number of wives and the appointed heir was usually the son of the ‘Great Wife’, or of a lesser ranked wife whom the Pharaoh favoured. To keep the blood line pure some Pharaohs married their half sisters or sisters. Pharaoh Akhenaten even married his own daughters.
Step Pyramid Built by Pharaoh Djoser
One of the chief responsibility of the Pharaoh was to maintain ‘universal harmony’ (Ma’at) internally in the country. The goddess Ma’at was supposed to convey her wishes via the Pharaoh who was then expected to deduce the meaning of the goddess’s instructions and to apply them correctly in his domain. Warfare was though to be indispensable to maintenance of ‘harmony’ and the ‘balance in the realm’. In the ‘interest of harmony’ the Pharaoh had a sacred duty to attack adjacent lands to obtain natural resources and to defend his own borders, much in the way no doubt that modern rulers find it necessary to attack neighbouring states ‘in the interests of peace’. By the time of the third dynasty around 2680 BCE Pharaoh Djoser had accumulated enough wealth, resources, and prestige to commission the ‘Step’ Pyramid to be built to celebrate the prosperity of the land. Other Pharaohs followed suit and the Great Pyramid of Giza was built to immortalize Khufu around 2560 BC. This epic event underlined the Pharaoh’s divine rule and power in Egypt.
The cloak of divinity frayed a little at the edges in 1640 BCE when Egypt came under the rule of the Hyksos, a semitic people who took on all the trappings and customs of the Pharaohs. Egypt itself became a fragmented entity. The Pharaohs proper took over again in 1585 BCE. The 18th Dynasty as it was known included some of the most famous of Pharaohs including Rameses the Great and Armehotep 3rd. Occasionally a woman Pharaoh emerged, and Queen Hatshepsut ruled successfully from 1508 to 1458 BCE. During her rule as Pharaoh, Egypt experienced affluence and peace. But when Tuthmosis 3rd took over as Pharaoh following Hatshepsut’s death (or elevation to god), he had her image removed from all places including temples. It’s thought that the new Pharaoh believed that such remedial action was necessary to ensure that order was restored and to show that a woman should never have held the title of Pharaoh in the first place. Tuthmosis 3rd was concerned that women should be dissuaded from ‘forgetting their place’ in the sacred order. Women should not aspire to the office of Pharaoh which the gods had dedicated only to men.
Cleopatra the last of the Pharaohs
The final gasp
In the end however the office of Pharaoh was in reality no more than a political position and depended on the power, stability and prosperity of the land over which the Pharaoh ruled. Following the defeat of the Egyptians by the Persians in the Battle of Pelusum in 525 BCE and increasingly so after Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt around 340BCE, the status of Pharaohs went into steep decline. .The final Pharaoh was the Cleopatra 7th Philopator of the Ptolemaic dynasty (the Cleopatra we all think we know). Cleopatra expired in 30 BCE from a self administered suicidal snake bite and with her the office of the Pharaoh went for good. Egypt was relegated to the status of a Roman Province and has had a relatively undistinguished history ever since. Whether the former Pharaohs are still gods is a matter for speculation