Pharaoh is the title used today to refer to the kings of ancient Egypt. The term was not used in Egypt for the king for more than one and a half millennia from the time of unification of Egypt as one empire and it was never the king’s formal title. The Egyptian kings initially had three titles and two more were added later. The pharaoh was the most powerful person in ancient Egypt. He was seen as a living representative of a God and as the mediator between the gods and the people. He was both the political and religious leader of the citizens. The first pharaoh of a unified Egypt was Narmer or Menes. The greatest pharaoh was perhaps Ramses the Great while the most famous is undoubtedly Tutankhamun. The last pharaoh of Egypt was the famous queen Cleopatra. Know more about the crowns, titles, powers, marriages and burial of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 The term pharaoh means “Great House”

There are several ancient Egyptian words for king. The terms which were most commonly used were nsw (“king”), ity (“sovereign”) and heqa (“ruler”). The king was also referred to as hm-f (“his majesty”). The word pharaoh is the Greek form of the Egyptian pero or per-a-a, which was the designation for the royal residence and means Great House. The name of the residence became associated with the king and with time, the term was used exclusively for the monarch. The title pharaoh for the ruler doesn’t appear till a period known as the New Kingdom (1570 – 1069 BCE). The earliest known instance where it was used specifically to address the ruler is in a letter to Akhenaten, who reigned from around 1353 to 1336 BCE. Prior to that the king was usually officially referred to as hm-f (“his majesty”). This practice continued even after the king also became known as a pharaoh.

Pharaoh Akhenaten statue
Statue of pharaoh Akhenaten

 

#2 The pharaoh was seen as a living representative of the god Horus

The Osiris myth is the most influential story in ancient Egyptian mythology. Osiris was the son of the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. At the start of the myth, he rules over Egypt and there is order in the kingdom. However, he is murdered by his brother Set, who is associated with violence and chaos. Osiris’s wife Isis restores her husband’s body and conceives a son with him who is named Horus. When he becomes an adult, Horus challenges Set for the throne of Egypt. The conflict ends with the triumph of Horus; leading to restoration of order in Egypt. Horus was worshiped as a god of the sky, war, hunting, order and justice while Osiris was the god of transition, resurrection, the afterlife and the underworld. The Egyptian pharaoh was seen as a manifestation of Horus in life and Osiris in death. New incarnations of Horus were believed to succeed the deceased pharaoh on earth in the form of new pharaohs.

Ancient Egyptian Gods Horus and Osiris
Depictions of Horus (left) and Osiris (right)

 

#3 The first pharaoh of a unified ancient Egypt was Narmer or Menes

Initially Ancient Egypt was divided into two regions, namely Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt was in the south and consisted of the entire Nile River valley from the south of Cairo to Lake Nasser. Lower Egypt was in the north where the Nile stretched out with its several branches to form the Nile Delta. Around 3150 BCE, the ruler of Upper Egypt, Narmer, conquered the region of Lower Egypt to become the first king of a unified Egypt. He also founded what is known as the First Dynasty of Egypt. While Narmer is often credited with the unification of Egypt; Menes is traditionally considered the first king of Ancient Egypt. Narmer has been identified by the majority of Egyptologists as the same person as Menes.

First Pharaoh - Narmer
Depiction of Pharaoh Narmer on the Narmer Palette

 

#4 The pharaoh was both the religious and political leader of ancient Egypt

The pharaoh functioned as both the religious and political leader of ancient Egypt with the titles “High Priest of Every Temple” and the “Lord of the Two Lands.” He was believed to be the intermediary between the gods and the people. His religious duties included the construction of great temples and performing important sacred rituals. As the political head, the pharaoh made the laws, owned all the land in Egypt, collected taxes, and waged war or defended the country against aggression. The pharaoh was the symbolic father of the land and one of his primary responsibility was to maintain Ma’at in the region. Ma’at refers to the concepts of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality and justice. It was also the duty of the pharaoh to make sure the citizens had an adequate food supply and to attack neighboring regions for natural resources if it was necessary.

Ramses II storming the Hittite fortress of Dapur
Depiction of Pharaoh Ramses II waging war against the Hittite

 

#5 Pharaohs had an elaborate titulary consisting of five names

Egyptian pharaohs had a number of titles and by the Middle Kingdom (2055 BCE – 1650 BCE), the full royal titulary consisting of five names came into usage. The Horus Name is the oldest form of the pharaoh’s name. It conveyed that the King was the earthly embodiment of the God Horus. The Nebti-name (“two ladies”) refers to two goddesses: the vulture-goddess Nekhbet of Upper Egypt and the cobra-goddess Wadjet of Lower Egypt. It shows that the pharaoh is the ruler of both Upper and Lower Egypt. The Golden Horus Name featured the image of a Horus falcon perched above or beside the hieroglyph for gold. Its meaning is contested. It probably means that the pharaoh wishes to be Horus for eternity. The Prenomen was the throne name and granted to the pharaoh on his coronation. It means “He of the sedge and the bee”. The sedge and the bee were symbols for Upper and Lower Egypt and hence the name again indicates that pharaoh is the ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt. The Nomen was the birth name. It was preceded by the title “Son of Ra”. Ra was the sun god and one of the most important deities in ancient Egypt. The Nomen emphasized the role of the pharaoh as a representative of the solar god Ra.

The five names of pharaoh Thutose III in hieroglyphs
The five names of pharaoh Thutose III in hieroglyphs

 

#6 They wore a number of crowns with each having different significance

The Egyptian kings wore a variety of crowns with each crown having its own significance and symbolic meaning. The deshret (red crown) was worn by pharaohs of Lower Egypt. It is a red bowl shaped crown with a decorative curl. The hedjet (white crown) was worn by the kings of Upper Egypt. It resembles a bowling pin. The pschent (double crown) combines the hedjet with the deshret. It represented the pharaoh’s power over all of unified Egypt. The khepresh (blue crown or war crown) looks like a tall military helmet and has been depicted since the New Kingdom. Pharaohs were shown with this crown mostly in battle or in ceremonies. Atef was the crown of the god Osiris and the hemhem crown was an ensemble of three atef crowns. The hemhem crown was worn during very important ceremonies. The Egyptian word “hemhem” means “to shout” and the crown was also worn during warfare.

Ancient Egyptian crowns - Deshret, Hedjet and Pschent
(From left to right) Deshret (red crown) of Lower Egypt, Hedjet (white crown) of Upper Egypt, and Pschent (double crown) of a unified Egypt

 

#7 Why the pharaohs usually wore a false beard is not known with certainty

After the pharaoh Djoser of the Third Dynasty who reigned in 27th century BC, the pharaohs were usually depicted wearing the nemes headdress and an ornate kilt; and having a beard. Nemes was a striped head-cloth which covered the whole crown, back of the head and nape of the neck. It had two large flaps which hung down behind the ears and in front of both shoulders. A kilt is a knee-length non-bifurcated skirt-type garment. Also, in most cases the beard is false. Even Hatshepsut, one of the few female pharaohs of ancient Egypt, is always depicted with a false beard. It is not known why all the pharaohs wore a false beard but it is speculated that this somehow connected them to the Gods. Egyptian art commonly depicts pharaohs as being lean and fit. However, examination of mummies has indicated that this might not have been the case and many of the pharaohs were probably unhealthy and overweight.

 

#8 Pharaohs often married within the family to preserve their royal bloodline

In ancient Egypt, succession to the throne was mostly hereditary. After his death, a pharaoh was succeeded by his son, mostly the eldest, or at times by a declared heir. The pharaohs usually had a number of wives. The heir was the child of the Great Royal Wife, the principal wife of the pharaoh, or sometimes a lesser-ranked wife whom the pharaoh favored. As the pharaohs believed that they were descendants of the Gods, marriage within the family was a prevalent way to maintain their bloodlines. Many pharaohs married their sisters or half-sisters. A famous example is Tutankhamun, who married his half-sister Ankhesenamun; and he was himself a child of an incestuous union between Akhenaten and one of his sisters.

Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhesenamun
Tutankhamun receives flowers from his wife and half-sister Ankhesenamun

 

#9 The burial of a pharaoh in a pyramid was an elaborate process with many rituals

By 27th century BC, the Egyptians began building pyramids to bury their pharaohs. The burial of a pharaoh involved a complex series of rituals designed to aid the dead king’s transition into the afterlife. These included mummifying the body, casting magic spells, etc. The process of mummification removed moisture from the body and left behind a dried-out form that would resist decay. After the mummy was prepared, the opening of the mouth ceremony was conducted by a priest to ensure that the mummy could breathe and speak in the afterlife. Then prayers were recited, incense was burned, and more rituals were performed to help prepare the king for his final journey. The pharaoh was then placed inside the pyramid with enormous amount of food, drink, furniture, clothes and jewelry which were to be used in the afterlife. Ultimately the pyramid was sealed so that no one would ever enter it again. Preparation for the pharaoh’s burial began long before his death and many pharaohs began building their pyramids as soon as they took the throne.

Mummy of Pharaoh Ramses the Great
Mummy of famous pharaoh Ramses the Great

 

#10 Most famous Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun didn’t achieve much during his reign

There are around 170 known pharaohs in the more than 3000 years history of ancient Egypt. Tutankhamun (ruled 1332 – 1323 BCE) is the most famous pharaoh of ancient Egypt. Though there is not much he accomplished as a king, it was King Tut who revived interest in ancient Egypt and its culture. The most renowned structure in ancient Egypt, the Great Pyramid, was built during the reign of King Khufu (r. 2589 – 2566 BCE). Thutmose III (r. 1479 – 1425 BCE), who took the Egyptian empire to unprecedented heights, is considered the greatest expansionist pharaoh. The best ruler is perhaps Ramses II or Ramses the Great (r. 1279 – 1213 BCE). He is credited with building numerous monuments and making Egypt prosperous and powerful during his reign. Cleopatra VII (r. 51 – 30 BCE) was the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt after which Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire. She is also the best known female from ancient Egypt. However, the most successful female pharaoh was Hatshepsut (1478 – 1458 BCE), who oversaw a period of prosperity and build many great monuments.

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