The early rulers of Egypt were called kings. The first time a person was called pharaoh was in the New Kingdom, the third of three main periods in ancient Egyptian history. The word meant “great house,” which may have referred to the royal palace.
The pharaoh was more than just a king or ruler to the ancient Egyptians. He was also a god, so his word was law. Through religious ceremonies, he kept the sun shining and the crops growing.
A Descendant of the Gods
Re, the sun god, was the mythical first king of Egypt. The people believed he was the father of every pharaoh, and the pharaoh’s mother was chief queen.
Coronations took place in heaven and earth at the start of the new year. Each year began when the Nile River flooded.
While a pharaoh was alive, he was Horus, the falcon-headed god. After he died, he became Osiris, the god of the underworld. But the pharaoh’s ka, or spirit, still remained to spread power over the country. And his son succeeded him and pharaoh and became Horus.
Everything the pharaoh wore or used was made especially for him and consecrated (made holy) at a ceremony. Some of the pharaohs wore a bull’s tail to ensure strength and many children. They used the title “Victorious, Mighty Bull.”
The pharoah is often shown holding a scepter or hooked staff. The Egyptians also depicted gods holding the scepter, a symbol of both spiritual and earthly power. In pictures, the pharaoh held this staff across his chest along with a flail, a stick with a chain on it for threshing grain. This showed that the pharaoh provided food for his people.
When Egypt was divided into upper and lower kingdoms, each king had a different crown. The red crown, or deshret, stood for Lower Egypt, and the white crown, or hedjet, was worn in Upper Egypt. After the country was unified, the pharaoh combined these two crowns into the pschent, or double crown. The crowns had a uraeus, or rearing cobra, on the pharaoh’s forehead to protect him from enemies and show that he could strike back.
The atef crown, the white crown with a plume on each side, was important for rituals. The khepresh, or low, blue crown is shown in battle scenes, so this war helmet may have been made of metal with gold disks. Another common head covering for pharaohs was the nemes, a cloth headdress tucked behind the ears that hung down on each side, such as the Sphinx wears.
Marriage and Family
To keep the royal blood flowing in their children’s veins, pharaohs usually married a sister, a half-sister, or other close female relative. Often it was the oldest daughter of previous pharaoh.
Having an heir was important, so pharaohs had more than one wife. The chief wife’s eldest son became the pharaoh when his father died. When pharaohs died without a son, another male relative usually took over.
Although most pharaohs were men, several women also became pharaohs. After her husband died, Hatshepsut served as regent, or stand-in ruler, because the heir was too young to rule. Later, however, she proclaimed herself pharaoh. Cleopatra, too, ruled the land of Egypt. These two are the most well known female pharaohs, but other queens also took on the role.
In the 12th Dynasty, Sobekneferu ruled for three or four years for her young son. In the 19th Dynasty, after Seti II died, his Great Royal Wife, Queen Twosret, took over for the young heir and ruled as regent. The boy died a few years later, so she took on the title of pharaoh. Other women may have reigned, but archaeologists do not all agree on which ones became pharaohs. Until more evidence is found to prove they had assumed that title, these women are not usually included in the list of pharaohs.
During the Old Kingdom, kings were buried in the pyramids. New Kingdom burials were in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes. (The Old Kingdom was the first of three main periods in ancient Egyptian history; the New Kingdom was the third main period.) The pharaohs’ wives were buried near them in the Valley of the Queens.
Most pharaohs had elaborate tombs built and filled them with the goods they wanted to take to the afterlife. Scenes were painted on the tomb walls, and the mummified body was placed in specially shaped coffins of wood and/or stone called >sarcophagi (the plural of sarcophagus). These, too, were decorated.