The Ancient Egyptian empire spanned more than 3,000 years and an estimated 170 pharaohs – from Narmer, who ruled in the 31st century BC, to Cleopatra, who committed suicide in 30 BC.
The pharaoh’s role in the empire was hugely important, transcending that of a typical monarch in that it straddled both religious and political spheres. Indeed, pharaohs were considered to be near-deities who were nonetheless saddled with the distinctly earthly responsibilities of statesmen and women.
Though their reigns stretch back deep into antiquity, the lives of the pharaohs are still vividly evoked by the remarkable treasures of Ancient Egypt that continue to be unearthed today. Here are 10 facts about the pharaohs.
1. They were both religious and political leaders
It was a pharaoh’s responsibility to lead Egypt in both religious and political matters. These dual roles came with distinct titles: “High Priest of Every Temple” and the “Lord of the Two Lands”.
As a spiritual leader, every pharaoh was expected to carry out sacred rituals and effectively act as a conduit between the gods and the people. Political leadership, meanwhile, encompassed more pragmatic concerns like legislation, diplomacy and the provision of food and resources to their subjects.
2. Only pharaohs could make offerings to the gods
In their roles as high priests, the pharaohs made sacred offerings to the gods on a daily basis. It was believed that only the pharaoh could enter a holy temple and commune with the spirits of the gods.
3. The pharaohs were regarded as incarnations of Horus
In life, the pharaohs were believed to be incarnations of the deity Horus before in death becoming Osiris, the god of the afterlife. Each new pharaoh was considered to be a new incarnation of Horus.
4. Akhenaten introduced monotheism, but it didn’t last
The reign of Akhenaten represents a brief departure from polytheism in Ancient Egypt. Akhenaten was named Amenhotep IV at birth but changed his name in accordance with his radical monotheistic beliefs.
The meaning of his new name, “He who is of service to the Aten”, honoured what he believed to be the one true god – Aten, the Sun God. After Akhenaten’s death, Egypt rapidly returned to polytheism and the traditional gods he had disavowed.
5. Make-up was obligatory
Both male and female pharaohs wore make-up, most notably an application of black kohl around their eyes. It’s thought that this served several purposes: cosmetic, practical (as a means of reducing light reflection), and spiritual due to the fact that the almond-shaped eye make-up enhanced their resemblance to the god Horus.
6. The crook and flail were important symbols of pharaonic authority
Often depicted in the hands of pharaohs, the crook and flail were widely used symbols of power in Ancient Egypt. Typically depicted together and held across the chest of pharaohs, they formed an insignia of kingship.
The crook (heka), a cane with a hooked handle, represented the pharaoh’s shepherd-like role of caring for his subjects, while interpretations of the flail’s (nekhakha) symbolism vary.
A rod with three strands of beads attached to the top, the flail was either a weapon used by shepherds to defend their flock, or a tool to thresh grain.
If the former interpretation of the fail’s use is accurate, then it might symbolise a pharaoh’s firm leadership and their responsibility to maintain order, while as a thresher, it might symbolise the pharaoh’s role as a provider.
7. They often married their relatives
Like many royals through history, Egyptian pharaohs weren’t averse to marrying within the family to preserve royal bloodlines. Marriage to sisters and daughters was not unheard of.
Studies of Tutankhamun’s mummified body have revealed that he was the product of incest, a fact that undoubtedly led to health issues and undesirable characteristics, including an overbite, feminine hips, unusually large breasts and a club foot. Tutankhamun was just 19 when he died.
8. Tutankhamun may be the most famous pharaoh, but his reign was relatively inauspicious
Tutankhamun’s fame derives almost exclusively from the discovery of his tomb in 1922 – one of the great archaeological finds of the 20th century. “King Tut”, as he became known after the discovery of his spectacular burial site, only reigned for 10 years and died aged just 20.
9. Their beards weren’t real
The pharaohs were typically depicted with long braided beards but in truth they were all more than likely clean shaven. The beards were fakes, worn to imitate the god Osiris, who is depicted sporting a handsome beard. Indeed, facial hair was such a must-have that even Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh, sported a fake beard.
10. The largest of the pyramids is Khufu’s Great Pyramid
The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest and only surviving wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Built over a 10 to 20-year period, beginning around 2580 BC, it was designed as a tomb for the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Khufu.
It was also the first of the three pyramids in the Giza complex, which is also home to the Pyramid of Menkaure, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Sphinx. The Great Pyramid remains one of the largest structures ever built and an awe-inspiring testament to the Ancient Egyptians’ architectural ambition and ingenuity.