A Fine Line. The boundary between politics and religion is hard to draw in ancient Egypt. The vocabulary used to describe the king illustrates the interconnectedness of these two categories in Egypt. Five different Egyptian words were used to refer to the king. These words cannot be translated clearly because the English language has no vocabulary to describe a man who becomes semidivine when taking a political office. Translations sometimes also blur the distinctions among the king’s roles. The following words (with their common translations) were used to describe the king:
TIME PERIODS AND DYNASTIES
Overlapping dates indicate coregencies and/or multiple claims to the throne.
Dynasty 0 (circa 3100-3000 b.c.e.)
Early Dynastic Period (circa 3000-2675 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 1 (circa 3000-2800 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 2 (circa 2800-2675 b.c.e.)
Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 B.C.E.)
Dynasty 3 (circa 2675-2625 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 4 (circa 2625-2500 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 5 (circa 2500-2350 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 6 (circa 2350-2170 b.c.e.)
Dynasties 7 and 8 (circa 2170-2130 b.c.e.)
First Intermediate Period (circa 2130-1980 b.c.e.)
Dynasties 9 and 10 (circa 2130-1980 b.c.e.) ruling from Herakleopolis
Dynasty 11 (circa 2081-1938 b.c.e.) ruling from Thebes
Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 11 (after circa 1980 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 12 (circa 1938-1759 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 13 (circa 1759-after 1630 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 14 (dates uncertain)
Second Intermediate Period or Hyksos Period (circa 1630-1539/1523 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 15 (circa 1630-1523 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 16 (circa 1630-1523 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 17 (circa 1630-1539 b.c.e.)
New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 18 (circa 1539-1295/1292 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 19 (circa 1292-1190 B.C.E.)
Dynasty 20 (circa 1190-1075 b.c.e.)
Third Intermediate Period (circa 1075-656 B.C.E.)
Dynasty 21 (circa 1075-945 b.c.e.) ruling from Tanis
Dynasty 22 (circa 945-712 b.c.e.) ruling from Bubastis
Dynasty 23 (circa 838-712 b.c.e.) ruling from Thebes
Dynasty 24 (circa 727-712 b.c.e.) ruling from Sais
Dynasty 25 (circa 760-656 b.c.e.)
Late Period (664-332 b.c.e.)
Dynasty 26 (664-525 B.C.E.) ruling from Sais
Dynasty 27 or First Persian Period (525-404 B.C.E.)
Dynasty 28 (404-399 B.C.E.)
Dynasty 29 (399-380 b.c.e.) ruling from Mendes
Dynasty 30 (381-343 b.c.e.) ruling from Sebennytos
Dynasty 31 or Second Persian Period (343-332 b.c.e.)
Source: Jack M. Sasson, ed., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes (New York: Scribners, 1995).
1.) Nisut: A religious concept used to describe the king as the representative of justice and legal order (maat).
2.) Nisut-biti: “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”; this term described the king as the embodiment of power on earth.
3.) Hemef (“His Majesty”) or Hemei (“My Majesty”) described the human ruler who sees orders carried out.
4.) Neb (“Lord”) and Iti (“Sovereign”) were used parallel to Nisut.
5.) Netjer (“God”) was never used alone of a living king except Amenhotep III (circa 1390-1353 b.c.e.) and Ramesses II (circa 1279-1213 b.c.e.). For deceased kings, netjer referred to the king becoming Osiris, the divine king of the dead. Netjer nefer (“Good God” or “Perfect, Youthful God”) was used when the king was described as the junior partner in government with the Great God Amun.
Pharoah. The word pharoah was transmitted to English from Greek and Hebrew transcriptions of the Egyptian expression pev-oa, which literally meant “Great House.” It was used to refer to the Egyptian king in the same way in the United States the expression “White House” is used to refer to the president. Pharoah is actually a more casual expression than terms such as Nisut and Hemef. The Egyptians did not begin to use the term until the reign of Thutmose III (circa 1479-1425 b.c.e.).
Co-regency. One means the Egyptians sometimes used to ensure a smooth succession from one king to the next was co-regency. A father could name his son “co-king” and rule jointly with him. Some kings of Dynasties 12 (circa 1938-1759 b.c.e.), 18 (circa 1539-1295/1292 b.c.e.), 19 (circa 1292-1190 b.c.e.), 22 (circa 945-712 b.c.e.) and 23 (circa 838-712 b.c.e.) appointed co-regents. Most often an older king would appoint his son so that the son could
lead the army and travel around the country. The senior king could then concentrate his energy on administration.
Jubilee (Sed) Festival. The jubilee festival, called the Sed in Egyptian, was celebrated throughout history. Though there must have been changes in detail and even in meaning over the three thousand years it was celebrated, the basic outline of the festival remained stable. Preparations included building a festival hall specifically for this purpose, quarrying obelisks, preparing for feasts, and bringing the cult statues of the major gods to the site of the festival. The king and the gods participated in a variety of ceremonies together and exchanged gifts. The king either walked or ran in a ritual race, participated in a mock funeral, and reenacted the coronation. Though these rituals seem designed to reinforce the legitimacy of the king’s rule, there is no evidence, as is so often claimed, that this ritual derives from a prehistoric tradition of murdering a king after thirty years of rule. It is also not clear how often the ritual occurred, though it is often stated that it was performed thirty years after the coronation.
Dynasty and the Royal Family. Egyptologists divide Egyptian history into thirty dynasties following a history of Egypt written by Manetho in the third century b.c.e. Recently, a dynasty preceding Manetho’s Dynasty 1 (circa 3000-2800 b.c.e.) has been discovered and named Dynasty 0 (circa 3100-3000 b.c.e.). In general, the reasons for designating a change in dynasty are not clear. Sometimes, however, it is possible to deduce that a change in royal family led Manetho to designate a change in dynasty. For example, a Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.) literary text described Khufu’s efforts (Dynasty 4, circa 2585-2560 b.c.e.) in the Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.) to discover the birth of divine triplets whose names are those of three kings of Dynasty 5 (circa 2500-2350 b.c.e.). Such a change in family is also clear in the transition from Dynasty 11 to 12 (circa 1938 b.c.e.) and from Dynasty 18 to 19 (circa 1292 b.c.e.) when the childless Tutankhamun’s throne was inherited by his generals, Ay, Horemheb, and Ramesses I in succession. If indeed the importance of the royal family was so great that a change in family required a change in dynasty, it is odd that the royal family itself is so little known. Younger sons of the royal family in the Old Kingdom did not have tombs larger than other officials had. (Tomb size remains the best indicator of social status.) Names of royal sons are rarely preserved, as in the case of Ramesses II’s forty-five-plus sons. Daughters are also little known unless they married the next king.
King Lists. The Egyptians made lists of the order of their kings for dating purposes. Rather than calculating the year from a fixed date and adding one at each new year, the years were named after the number of years a king ruled. For example, “Year 21 of King Thutmose III” came twenty-one years after he ascended the throne. In order to calculate when an event had occurred, it was necessary to know the order of the kings and the number of years that each one ruled. King lists were consulted, for example, to calculate that Year 12 of Sety I was eight years before Year 6 of Ramesses II. This date could be determined because the list would show that Sety ruled for fourteen years immediately before Ramesses II.
Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt, translated by Ian Shaw (Oxford & Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993).
Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (London & New York: Routledge, 1991).
Kemp, “Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and Second Intermediate Period, c. 2686-1552 BC,” in Ancient Egypt: A Social History, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, and others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 71–182.
Donald B. Redford, Pharaonic King-Lists, Annals and Day-Books: A Contribution to the Egyptian Sense of History (Mississauga, Canada: Benben, 1986).