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"King of Upper
and Lower Egypt"

in hieroglyphs





Pharaoh is a title used in many modern discussions of the ancient Egyptian rulers of all periods.[1] In antiquity this title began to be used for the ruler who was the religious and political leader of united ancient Egypt. This was true only during the New Kingdom, specifically during the middle of the eighteenth dynasty. For simplification however, there is a general acceptance amongst modern writers to use the term to relate to all periods.

Pharaoh meaning "Great House", originally referred to the king's palace but by the reign of Thutmose III (ca. 1479-1425 BCE) in the New Kingdom had become a form of address for the person of the king.[2] The Egyptian term for the ruler himself was nsw(t)-bjt(j) (rendered in Babylonian language as insibya; Egyptological pronunciation "Nesu(t)-Bit(i)"), "King of Upper and Lower Egypt", literally "he of the sedge and the bee" (properly nj-sw.t-bj.t)), the sedge and the bee being the symbols for Upper and Lower Egypt, respectively. Also nsw.t-t3wj "King of the Two Lands".

This double kingship was expressed in the Pschent, the double crown combining the red crown of Lower Egypt (Deshret) and the white crown of Upper Egypt (Hedjet).

Initially the rulers were considered the sons of the cow deity Bat and eventually Hathor and they occupied her throne to rule the country and officiate in religious rites. There is evidence that the ruler may have been sacrificed after a certain period of time in the earliest rituals but soon was replaced by a specially selected bull. The pharaohs were believed later in the culture to be the incarnations of the deity Horus in life[3] and Osiris in death. Once the cult of Isis and Osiris became prominent, pharaohs were viewed as a bridge between the god Osiris and human beings; and after death the pharaoh was believed to unite with Osiris. The royal line was matriarchal and a relationship with the royal women through birth or marriage (or both) determined the right to rule. The royal women played important roles in the religious rituals and governance of the country, sometimes participating alongside the pharaoh.

The term pharaoh ultimately was derived from a compound word represented as pr-`3, written with the two biliteral hieroglyphs {{lang|egy-Latn|pr]} "house" and `3 "column". It was used only in larger phrases such as smr pr-`3 'Courtier of the High House', with specific reference to the buildings of the court or palace itself.[4] From the twelfth dynasty onward the word appears in a wish formula 'Great House, may it live, prosper, and be in health', but again only with reference to the royal palace and not the person.

The earliest instance where pr-`3 is used specifically to address the ruler is in a letter to Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) in the mid-eighteenth dynasty (1550-1292 BCE) which is addressed to 'Pharaoh, all life, prosperity, and health!.[5] This may be contrasted with Hatshepsut, who ruled before him in the same eighteenth dynasty, who never had pr-`3 among her titles.

From the nineteenth dynasty onward pr-`3 on its own was used as regularly as hm.f, 'His Majesty'. The term therefore evolved from a word specifically referring to a building to a respectful designation for the ruler, particularly by the twenty-second and twenty-third dynasties. By this time, the Late Egyptian word is reconstructed to have been pronounced *par-ʕoʔ whence comes Ancient Greek φαραώ pharaō and then Latin pharaō. From the latter, English obtained the word "Pharaoh". Over time, *par-ʕoʔ evolved into Sahidic Coptic prro and then rro (by mistaking p- as the definite article prefix "the" from Ancient Egyptian p3).

A similar development, with a word originally denoting an attribute of the ruler eventually coming to refer to the person, can be discerned in a later period with the Arabic term Sultan.

Following unification, the ruler of Egypt wore a double crown, created from the Red Crown of Lower Egypt and the White Crown of Upper Egypt. In certain situations, the pharaoh wore a blue crown of a different shape. Typically, all of these crowns were adorned by a uraeus, a serpent symbol, which was doubled during the twenty-fifth dynasty.

After the third dynasty, the pharaoh also wore a striped headcloth called the nemes, which may be the most familiar pharaonic headgear. The nemes was sometimes combined with the double crown, as it is on the statues of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel.

The pharaoh often was depicted as wearing a false beard made of goat hair during rituals and ceremonies.[6]

Egyptologist Bob Brier has noted that despite its widespread depiction in royal portraits, no ancient Egyptian crown has ever been discovered. Tutankhamun's tomb, discovered largely intact, did contain such regal items as his crook and flail, but not a crown. It is presumed that crowns would have been believed to have magical properties. Brier's speculation is that there were religious or state items a dead pharaoh could not retain as a personal possession which, therefore, had to be passed along to a successor.


image of Pharaoh Seti I from his temple at Abydos.

Ancient Egyptian rulers changed their names as they assumed the throne. By the Middle Kingdom, the official titulary of the ruler consisted of five names;[7] for some rulers, only one or two of them may be known. Secrecy and euphemisms protected religious secrets and religion and governance were inexorably interwoven in Ancient Egypt.

Hatshepsut, one of three great female rulers of later Egyptian dynasties that include Neferneferuaten, possibly identical with Nefertiti, and Smenkhkare, assumed the typical titles for rulers. No word comparable to the contemporary term, Queen Regnant, existed in the Ancient Egyptian language. Also notable is Nefertiti who was made co-regent (the pharaoh's equal) during the reign of Akhenaten.[8]

Although not typical, there are instances of women who were pharaoh during very early dynasties. This continued until Egypt was conquered by Rome. The Ptolemaic dynasty's last ruling pharaoh was Cleopatra VII.

The royal lineage of Ancient Egypt was traced through its women and a pharaoh had to be from that lineage or marry a member of the lineage. This was one reason for all of the intermarriages in the royal families of Egypt and why foreign invaders married royal Egyptian queens and princesses. Many times, offspring of concubines and minor wives needed to marry a royal princess to advance to the throne and be approved by the religious leaders of the temples. At least once in historical records, the queen of a pharaoh who died while ruling, invited a foreign ruler to send a son to marry her and become the pharaoh because there was no member of the royal house who could qualify and she had no sons.

During the eighteenth dynasty (sixteenth to fourteenth centuries BCE) the title pharaoh was employed as a reverential designation of the ruler. About the late twenty-first dynasty (tenth century BCE), however, instead of being used alone as before, it began to be added to the other titles before the ruler's name, and from the twenty-fifth dynasty (eighth to seventh centuries BCE) it was, at least in ordinary usage, the only epithet prefixed to the royal appellative.[9] For instance, the first dated instance of the title pharaoh being attached to a ruler's name occurs in Year 17 of Siamun on a fragment from the Karnak Priestly Annals. Here, an induction of an individual to the Amun priesthood is dated specifically to the reign of Pharaoh Siamun. This new practice was continued under his successor Psusennes II and the twenty-first dynasty kings. Meanwhile, the old custom of referring to the sovereign simply as Per'o continued in traditional Egyptian narratives.

Pharaohs in the Bible

The first pharaoh of Egypt mentioned by name in the Bible is Shishaq (probably Sheshonk I), the founder of the twenty-second dynasty and a contemporary of Rehoboam and Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:40; 2 Chronicles 12:2 sqq.). The title pharaoh is prefixed to his name in the Great Dakhla stela—as in Pharaoh Shoshenq—which dates to Year 5 of his reign. 2 Kings 17:4 says that Hoshea sent letters to 'So, King of Egypt', whose identification still is not certain. He has been identified with Osorkon IV, who was a minor king at Tanis who ruled over a divided Egypt, with Tefnakht of Sais and Pi'ankhy.[10] Taharqa, who was the opponent of Sennacherib, is called King of Ethiopia (2 Kings 19:9; Isaiah 37:9), and hence is not given the title pharaoh, which he bears in Egyptian documents. Last are two kings of the twenty-sixth dynasty: Necho II, who the Bible says defeated Josiah (2 Kings 23:29 sqq.; 2 Chronicles 35:20 sqq.), and Apries or Hophra, the contemporary of Sedicous (Jeremiah 44:30). Both are styled as pharaoh in Egyptian records.

See also


  1. Beck, Roger B.; Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, Dahia Ibo Shabaka, (1999). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell. ISBN 0-395-87274-X. 
  2. Redmount, Carol A. "Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt." p. 89-90. The Oxford History of the Biblical World. Michael D. Coogan, ed. Oxford University Press. 1998.
  3. F. Fleming & A. Lothian, 12, 59
  4. Ancient Egyptian Grammar (3rd ed.), A. Gardiner (1957-) 71-76
  5. Hieratic Papyrus from Kahun and Gurob, F. LL. Griffith, 38, 17. Although see also Temples of Armant, R. Mond and O. Myers (1940), pl.93, 5 for an instance possibly dating from the reign of Thutmose III.
  6. The early dynastic and old kingdom periods - Pharaoh's divine power
  7. Ian Shaw, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press 2000, p. 477
  8. Ian Shaw, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press 2000, p. 271. Other scholars have their doubts concerning this co-regency. cf. Sally-Ann Ashton, The Last Queens of Egypt: Cleopatra's Royal House, Pearson/Longman 2003, p.9
  9. "pharaoh." in Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  10. Patterson, Richard D., "The Divided Monarchy: Sources, Approaches, and Historicity", pp 196-197, in David M. Howard & Michael A. Grisanti (eds), Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, Kregel Academic & Professional, January 1, 2004, ISBN 978-0825428920


  • Sir Alan Gardiner Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs, Third Edition, Revised. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. Excursus A, pp. 71-76.
  • Brier, Bob. PhD. History of ancient Egypt (Audio). The First Nation in History. The Learning Company. 2001.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Pharaoh. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.