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Ancient Egypt

The Pharaohs

As an ambassador in Egypt I would like to take you through the history of the ancient Egypt with particular attention to Pharaohs and the slaves. The Subject of Pharaoh and slaves is a major centre of attraction especially when one has to tell the history of Egypt. Pharaoh was a King in Egypt and the Egyptians treated him like a god and accorded him a cultic worship. Most of the walls and pillars in Egyptian temples are covered with illustrations of a king giving offerings to the gods. The king in Egypt was considered to be the main link between human beings and the gods.

It was only the king Pharaoh who was mandated to build or renovate any of the cultic features found in the temples (Donadoni, 1997, p. 283). Any construction work that was done in the temples was done under the name of Pharaoh even in the tenure of Greco-Roman when the king was a Roman emperor. Nobody could question the Egyptian kingship until the arrival of Jesus whom the Christians believed and respected as a Son of God. Before the arrival of Christianity, the Egyptian kingship was unquestionable.

Criticizing the office of Pharaoh was not entertained and neither was open criticism of the sovereign. Some kings such as Cheops and Pepi II were however at times portrayed in negative manner (Donadoni, 1997, p. 284). Pharaoh was considered to be a symbol of respect not only in Egyptian religion but also in history and art. The time period before the Alexander Great is referred to as the ‘Pharaonic’ period and Egyptian history was also subdivided on the basis of dynasties of rulers. Art and Literature were also categorized and centered on kingship. The lower people in the society adored Pharaoh in all aspects trusting that their livelihood and religious hopes depended on him. The Egyptian history can therefore be considered to be mainly the history of Pharaohs (Donadoni, 1997, p. 284).


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Initially there were a lot of rituals that any person who was to become a king was exposed to. This started with the name given at birth as it contained a religiopolitical influence. For instance, names that were formed with a prefix ‘Re’ referred to the god of sun. When a king was born, god Amun assumed the responsibility of a father in order to engender the future King with the queen. There were also a lot of decorations in the temple of Luxor to indicate and celebrate the birth of a king who was considered to be a semi divine child who was looked after by divine nurses. According to the Egyptian history, a king was destined to be a ruler even before his birth. As the king took over the throne, his name was replaced with a Horus- name which installed him as the worldly version of the falcon-shaped sky god known as Horus (Donadoni, 1997, p. 284). In addition to lion and bull, falcons were also considered to be the most crucial animal aspect of Pharaoh who was at times depicted as a falcon with wings.

The king retained his birth’s name even after being accepted to the throne. With the beginning of the fourth dynasty, the king’s title was associated with ‘Son of Re’. Re in the Egyptian history was the sun God and even Pharaoh was designated with the image of the sun god in the epithets. More epithets like,” “the one who conquers all countries with his powerful strength,” “the one who crates truth and destroys the lie,” or “the Nile of Egypt. Who inundates the land with his perfection (Donadoni, 1997, p. 286)?”  All these tried to show the kind of expectations and hopes that people had placed on Pharaoh without necessarily referring to his personal qualities as a king.  More titles of Pharaoh included; “Lord of the Two Lands,” “lord of the crowns,” and “lord of the cult (Donadoni, 1997, p. 286).”

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By the time Christianity was introduced in the world, Pharaoh’s name had already made it to the Old Testament of the Bible where it meant “the great house.” The term Pharaoh was initially used to refer to the architectural place where the king stayed but it was later transferred to the institution and the individual occupying the palace. At times the expression hem.ef was used to refer to the king meaning “His Majesty.” The word hem was also used on other people such as slaves, making scholars to believe that it must have been referring to the physical presence of the king. Greeks used the word basilus to refer to the king based on his physical presence. Other words that were frequently used to refer to the king’s physical presence included “one rewarded,” “one ordered,” and “one sent” among others (Donadoni, 1997, p. 286).

The robes that were put on by Pharaoh differentiated him from the rest of the people and had similar characteristics like the garments of the gods. The gods and kings had a long ceremonial beard unlike the other Egyptians who were depicted as clean- shaven or bald. For the gods, the beard was curled at the tip while the king had had his straight down and attached to some ribbon. In most of the Egyptian paintings, kings who had died were illustrated as having a divine beard with the god Ptah shown to have a royal head that was straight (Donadoni, 1997, p. 287). The piece of cloth that was put on by Pharaoh in the older days was known as shendjut or the “loincloth” and had a trapezoidal piece at the middle with a later version having a triangular middle piece. The Roman emperors while playing their role as Pharaoh also wore shendjut and covered their upper body with a vest. During Sed Festival, which was an anniversary celebration, the king wore a short, tight- fitting coat.

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Crowns were the most important part of the royal dressing. The White Crown was used in the Upper Egypt and had a high cap of a leather material that ended as a round knob at the top while the Red Crown was used in the Lower Egypt and had a flat topped cap that was coiled in spiral (Donadoni, 1997, p. 286). Combining of the both Crowns resulted in a “Double Crown,” which was worn by the king of the whole country. Blue Crown was only put on by the king as opposed to the other crowns that were also put on by gods. In the later periods of the Pharaoh reign there were some feather crowns that that were embroidered with horns and uraeus-snakes and could form a part of any crown. To date there is no original crown that has ever been recovered and people entirely depend on pictorial representations of the crowns that were used.

In most times, Pharaoh preferred to wear a headdress that was made from a striped rectangular cloth. The front corners lay on the chest while the back corners had a twisted braid and lay on the back with uraeus-snake being part of the headdress as a symbol of kingship. At earlier representations the king wore bull’s tail to symbolize the image of a bull (Donadoni, 1997, p. 288).  When performing priestly functions it was common to see the king wearing panther’s fur and sandals. The rounded shepherd’s staff and the flagellum that Pharaoh held in his hands, were the most important icons of his power. The royal attire symbolized the specific roles that Pharaoh had to accomplish as stipulated by the epithets.

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The king was believed to possess magical power and that was the reason why every subject who approached him had to “kiss the ground.” The Egyptian art always tries to illustrate the king as a youthful person even if he is old as it was considered ideal for the king’s image to be youthful and full of vigor (Donadoni, 1997, p. 288). There are very few documents in the Egyptian History that allow access to the personal history of a Pharaoh. Some old documentation reveals that of some personal details about Pharaoh, which he had failed in some instances to a point of contemplating suicide. According to the royal authors, Pharaoh spoke directly to his son and Merikare who was destined to be his successor as the king of the Tenth Dynasty.

Despite being treated with maximum respect, only few indications of king’s burial are there today. The priests of the 21st Dynasty reburied some king’s excavations in some secret places in 1000 BC. The discovery of one of the secret places which is was the tomb of Amenophis II was done by the Egyptian Antiques Department. Another small tomb was discovered in 1871 at Deir al- Bahri by modern-day Egyptians (Donadoni, 1997, p. 292). The Egyptian Antiques Department transferred all the royal mummies from Luxor to Cairo in 1888 where they were preserved in a separate room of the Egyptian Museum.

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Detailed physical examinations for rulers like Tuthmosis III and Ramesses II can still be accessed and indicate even their causes of death. The mummy which is an anthropological piece gives the bibliographies of most of the kings such as their age at death and their health condition. Towards the end of the Twentieth Dynasty, Remesses IV could no longer take part in the construction of the large buildings in town (Donadoni, 1997, p. 295). He however was able to complete his tomb in the Valley of Kings.

The King of the Upper and Lower Egypt offered some advice to his son Merikare. He advised him not to indulge in crime but should endeavor to punish the followers or officials who rebelled (Simpson, 2003 pp. 153). He advised Merikare to observant in order to find out whether there would be any person with an intention of inciting the other citizens. According to the king such an individual should be denounced before the officials because such an individual is really a rebel who can be a challenge to the king’s administration. The harmony in the army can be spoilt by one individual and it is therefore the role of the Pharaoh to restrain the citizens to ensure that they don’t cause violence in Egypt. Pharaoh also advised his son Merikare to be proficient in his speech because a king was required to be an eloquent individual (Simpson, 2003 pp. 155). A king should be wise even when dealing with his officials and this would keep evil at bay. Merikare who was to become a king was also advised to emulate the knowledge of their forefathers and by doing this he was likely to be successful as king.

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The preparation for every royal tomb was designed to fit e ach new King. It still remains unclear whether the king was involved in the preparation of the royal tomb. But it could have been the work of officials and the priests. The king read the religious inscriptions that were on papyri that were normally stored in the House of Life where strict religious regulations were followed/ the dimensions of the tomb were generally increased to make look like a “burial palace,” which was well decorated. The king was buried in 1149 B.C. after ruling for six years. The same can be said of Ramesses II who was among the few pharaohs besides Akhenaten and Hatshepsut who had a monograph published before their death.

Pharaoh sought loyalty from his followers as it was from them that he was able to get the officials for his administration (Simpson, 2003 pp. 156). And as Simpson Puts it, “Great is the ruler whose officials are themselves great, mighty is the king who ha a loyal entourage, and wealthy is he who is rich in officials. Speak Ma’at within your palace so that the officials may respect you Pharaoh was always keen not to punish people unjustly (Simpson, 2003 pp. 157). He mostly sought to punish who broke the law by imprisoning them in order to maintain order in the land of Egypt

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People who study the history of the ancient Egypt find it hard to discuss the subject of slavery in Egypt that was practiced in the Nile Valley. Egypt in the Book of Hebrew is referred to as the house of slavery and that its wealth and civilization was as result of forced labor. Most of the documents in the history of Egypt do not refer to slaves directly but rather use such words as “workers,” “Servants,” Prisoners of War,” “personnel and many more (Donadoni, 1997, p. 185).  Slavery was not regarded as a clearly defined human condition by the Egyptian culture. Some proof is found in the Satire of Trade which mentions several instances of forced labor in the ancient Egypt (Donadoni, 1997, p. 189).

Simpson (2003) mentions of a scenario where slavery was used; “…it was lying down on a mat at the threshold of his house that he found him a servant (slave at his head massaging him and another wiping his feet (Simpson, 2003 pp. 19). It was with the emergent of the New Kingdom became part of Egyptian ideology. In the Eighteenth Dynasty, Ani commented; “Do not take another person’s slave if he has a bad reputation (Donadoni, 1997, pp. 189).” Slaves were involved in agricultural activities in land that belonged to the king or state and in the building of the pyramids. Slaves at times were hired as soldiers during the long expeditions in Libya and Nubia. Evidence shows that there were military expeditions to Nubia that were arranged to kidnap workers to be employed in the state economy.

Prisoners of war are depicted in the walls of temples with their hands tied behind their backs (Donadoni, 1997, pp.193). In the Middle Kingdom, prisoners who were captured during war time and raids especially fro Asia and Libya formed a group that was referred to as “slaves.” The educated class of the Middle Kingdom encouraged the introduction of servitude. The Architect Nekhebu of the Sixth Dynasty said that he had never struck someone until they fell which was an indirect implication that such acts existed in slavery. During the Old Kingdom there was immense subjection of people to forced labor in the agricultural fields. Middle Kingdom played a role in the birth of slavery as the extreme form of forced labor. Some documents in ancient Egypt reveal slaves being referred to as “servants of the king (Donadoni, 1997, pp.193).”

During the Middle Kingdom, simple field workers were subjected to high taxations and forced labor while the members of the ruling class who were define as “officials,” were exempted from paying taxes. Slaves who worked in private houses were often called “service personnel. Huge disparities were notable between the working class and the slave class that composed of the royal servants. When one was attached to be a soldier, the punishment for deserting the responsibility was forced labor for life. The courts could also condemn convicts to provide labor for life in the state land (Donadoni, 1997, pp.198).

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Asiatics fugitives who tried to escape from the military were reduced to slavery and joined the royal servants where they were entrusted to individuals as “property.” 

The Pharaonic culture played a crucial role in bringing Egyptians together and what would be referred to as social cohesion. This was well reflected in the concept of maat which formed a basis for political and religious cohesion among the Egyptians. A relatively big number of the Egyptians were exempted from the mandatory military service and corvee duty that involved being employed in the “City of Pyramid.” Others who were exempted included the individuals who worked in private or religious foundations, priests and officials all got their economic benefits from being exempted from compulsory service and were given the title “those who govern the lake.”. The “dependants” were obliged to obey orders from them (Donadoni, 1997, pp.198).

During the Eighteenth Dynasty the term mrj which initially was used while referring to the slaves as being “dependent”, gradually lost its meaning to describe the royal servants of the Middle Kingdom. Pharaoh had tendencies of donating personnel as it was the case when he rewarded one of his officials with 150 dependants due to his contribution to the foundation of many temples in Egypt (Donadoni, 1997, pp.202). Many Asiatics were brought to Egypt either through military or through commercial purposes but they eventually ended up in the slave market.

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Egypt was considered to be a major buyer of slaves in the Bronze Age in a market that was mainly controlled by Asiatic Bedouin.  Even the Bible mentions how Joseph was sold as a slave to the Ishmaelite traders who were on their way to Egypt (Donadoni, 1997, pp.202).

Towards the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty slaves were a common feature in Egypt. They used to be summoned to provide labor for the dead people and were also rented out for a specific period of time. This equated slaves to material objects such as clothes where female slaves were bought for personal needs although their prices were higher.

During Ramesside Period, the relationship between the slaves and their masters became a subject of analogy as it was said “as a slave serves his master, so I will serve the Lord.” Once the slaves were sold to a new master the wives and children suffered a great deal as most of them were not very strong to be involved in forced labor. The dehumanizing act of slave trade made some of them to be tattooed with the names of their master. Oxen and slaves were depicted in the Theban tomb (Donadoni, 1997, pp.205

Recaptured fugitives who were given the name “royal servant,” maintained their rights to property, and could decide whether to be given to potential buyers a fete that foreign prisoners never experienced. Most of the slaves were tribesmen who were destined to Egypt but upon being held captive they were handed over to His Majesty. There was an instance when a woman slave fainted due to exhaustion but she was warned to be ready for Pharaoh without receiving any assistance.

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The issue of slavery in ancient Egypt was a main challenge to authorities as they wanted to portray the country differently to the rest of the world. Individuals who were freed from slavery faced a major problem in as fitting in the social set up was embarrassing to them. The topic of slavery and Pharaoh are very crucial in the study of the ancient Egypt because they have been a center of interest to many historians. As one historian put it, the history of the ancient Egypt revolves around the Pharaohs.



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