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The Changing Nature of Kingship in Egypt

Free History Essays
The Changes of Rights and Roles

In Ancient Egypt, the position of the King was filled by a person whom the subjects and everyone in other kingdoms knew as a Pharaoh. He or she controlled every aspect of Egyptian life. The people depended on this figure for guidance on various social, political, and economic aspects of life. A monarch held this position their entire life. After their death, the power was passed to the person who was closest to the throne in order to ensure that the family remained in power for as long as possible. Such a tendency was constant and typical for Ancient Egypt. However, there were varying factors that existed throughout the Pharaoh era. Thus, in order to ensure that they maintained control over Egyptians and were respected by other leaders, the Pharaohs used various ploys.

From the onset, Egyptian monarchs realized that the only constant in life was changed itself. If they played a particular role in society and never adopted any alterations, then people would eventually grow bored with the monotony of their status in the kingdom. It would potentially lead to the uprisings in the country, and some individuals might even rise and try to remove them from the positions of power, which they held dearly. They realized that to ensure continuous reign over their subjects, they needed to reinvent themselves frequently. Many Pharaohs actually implemented these changes knowingly and made them either out of necessity or for their personal convenience.

The first way, in which the role of the Pharaoh changed, was to ensure that the position had control over the political and spiritual spheres of Egyptians’ lives. Initially, the land had two great powers at the time. The first was the Pharaoh who had political domination over entire Egypt: their wishes were carried out as decrees without question. Another entity that could rival the monarch’s influence over the people was the Priest class (Hill, Jones, & Morales, 2013). It controlled the spiritual lives of Egyptians and was believed to consist of the interpreters of the divine will. They could order various acts to take place in the land and justify themselves as acting on the behalf of the gods. When King Akhenaten ascended to power, he did not have the best relationships with this group. The two powerful entities were at a constant disagreement, and the Pharaoh was worried that the group might eventually undermine his influence over Egyptians. The priests had wealth that rivaled that of the monarch since they were entitled to religious tributes and had considerable political influence. Consequently, Akhenaten issued a decree abolishing the priesthood. In addition, the King banned the worship of all other gods making it a punishable offense. The only deity that he allowed Egyptians to worship was Aten, the Sun god. The name Akhenaten means “the living spirit of the Aten.” Thus, the Pharaoh made himself the priest of the only official religion in Egypt. Hereafter, the king or queen of Egypt acted as the priest of the Sun god, Aten.

Soon after the Pharaoh had made himself the priest of the Sun god, his role in the society took another direction in development as he ascended to be a god (Jestice, 2004). According to the history of Ancient Egypt, Aten and Ra can be used interchangeably to refer to the same deity. In all instances, they are a reference to the Sun god who was highly revered by everyone in Egyptian society. Evidence from ancient texts indicates that the Pharaoh was also known as Horus. According to Egyptian religion, the deity that the king was always referenced to was the son of the Sun god Ra. As a result, the role of the king in the society acquired a god-like status, and the Pharaoh was worshiped in equal measure as other deities. Temples that were dedicated to the god Horus had paintings and statutes of the contemporary Pharaohs. It meant that the king had transcended from being a man and was considered an idol to be feared and loved in equal measure. The Pharaoh had received an elevated status in the religion of Aten. It was argued that the reason why they were able to communicate with the Sun god was the result of the worshiped deity being their father.

Additionally, the Pharaoh was responsible for everything good and pleasant that took place in society. It was believed that it was their duty to ensure that everything in Egypt functioned properly without much discord. If the country was in danger, the Pharaoh was held responsible whether he or she was involved directly or not. The end of Akhenaten’s reign coincided with the end of monotheism. The Pharaohs who came to power after he did not emphasize so much on the issue of having an official deity. People were free to worship other gods as it was initially, and the temples for their worship were opened and restored. The Priest class also returned to take over these areas of devotion, and the system reverted to what it had been before the change. However, it was not exactly the same: Akhenaten’s ascension to the throne left a considerable impact. The Pharaoh was the chief priest to all gods in Ancient Egypt and was responsible for ensuring that they were adequately worshiped and were always pleased. However, this role had its shortcomings and often led to the questioning of a Pharaoh’s divinity. If there were poor harvests, the Pharaoh was blamed for either not pleasing the gods or arguing with them. In most cases, the Pharaoh faced an uprising that led to his or her abdication or even assassination.

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Furthermore, the Pharaoh fulfilled the role of the commander-in-chief of the military differently based on their age. From the Kings who were young and energetic, the masses expected to lead campaigns against other nations in search of new territories and expansion of borders. Moreover, they were supposed to lead a defensive charge if any outside forces encroached on Egyptian territory without the ruler’s consent. As a young man, one needed to prove his bravery, and the battlefield was a perfect place for anyone to demonstrate his fighting abilities. The Pharaoh who met this criterion and failed to fulfill the people’s expectations would be considered weak. On the other hand, elderly Pharaohs were expected to lead by giving insightful battle strategies. They were to use the wisdom that was associated with a long life in order to predict the enemy’s offensive strategies and ensure that the county was well prepared to fight against the enemy. In the two cases, the King was directly involved in ensuring that Egyptian soldiers emerged victorious from war. They either provided them with the necessary moral or with effective battle tactics.

The Ways the Kings Legitimized their Positions

Any dominant position in society will always have many contestants giving reasons why they are best suited to fill these positions. In the contemporary democratic society, politicians also campaign trying to convince the masses why people need to elect them instead of their rivals. The rulers of Ancient Egypt used the same tactics albeit using different methods compared to today’s world. Their leadership style was monarchical, and they needed to remind their subjects why they needed to rule over them until they passed away and allow the deceased’s family member to take their place. Therefore, the Pharaoh needed to develop effective means of ensuring that they could convince the people that their influence over them was valid.

First, the rulers convinced the Egyptian masses that they were not ordinary men but the descendants of the Sun god Ra (Acolatse, 2014). Egyptians were deeply religious people and could not bear the thought of challenging fighting against anyone who had a connection to the gods. It is also the reason why the priests who only served as a voice of these deities were feared and respected in Egyptian culture. Whatever they said was keenly listened to and was followed in accordance with their wishes. The fact that the Pharaoh connected his lineage with that of the feared and revered deities meant that the ruler’s status in the society could not be changed. His or her ancestry ensured that the Pharaoh could not be compared to ordinary people. Since he or she was such a prestigious individual with an exceptional bloodline, it was only natural for him or her to ascend to the throne as the King or Queen of Egypt. Moreover, the legitimization through the gods was further emphasized by the belief that he or she was the representation of the god Horus on earth. According to Egyptian mythology, the deity was the son of Ra who controlled the Sun. Many Egyptians believed that it would be unwise to challenge a god since it could result in severe consequences.

Furthermore, with the aim to ensure that their claim to the throne was valid, Egyptian monarchs married their family members (Najovits, 2004). Pharaohs were highly skeptical of people from other families who would join their family. They believed that many of them wanted to stake a claim to the throne and would act when the time was most convenient. Therefore, Egyptian monarchial families tended to have a history of royal inbreeding for the purpose of validating their rule. Brothers married their sisters to ensure that the queen of Egypt was still directly related to the crown both by blood and union. It was a process that many of them argued was a necessity of ensuring that the blood was kept pure. A partner from another family could allow other people to start making claims to the title of the Pharaoh. In the end, it could lead to much violence since the individual in charge could have their position challenged by numerous people. Moreover, marrying into the family ensured that everyone was satisfied and succession politics was suitable. For example, a son marrying his sister was the case of King Tutankhamun. The child who would come from the union would be of pure royal blood, and his or her associated ancestry with the gods would not be diluted.

Additionally, in order to receive the respect that the Pharaoh felt they deserved from the people who were religious and did not pay attention to politics, the ruler became the high priest of every temple in Egypt. Initially, the Pharaoh’s power had been contested by the priests of Amun who had grown quite powerful due to their massive religious following. The king realized that they needed to show these people that their power was valid in order to ensure that an uprising on a religious basis did not take place. When monotheism was eliminated following the death of Akhenaten, Egyptians were allowed to revert to polytheism on the grounds that the Pharaoh was the high priest of every temple dedicated to any god. Thus, the Pharaoh ensured that they had a substantial number of followers among religious people who could be easily swayed into starting a holy war. Akhenaten’s biggest threat was immediately nullified by the position which was created by the precedence he had set of acting as Aten’s high priest. Religious Egyptians relied on the guidance and wisdom of the high priest considerably, especially in the times of trouble. Therefore, having a solid power base in all religions in the country ensured that the Pharaoh did not face any threats to their position from a religious standpoint.

Finally, the ruler legitimized their power in Egypt by the wealth that he or she had. Usually, people who have got plenty of fortune are always respected and their counsel is keenly considered. In Egypt, the Pharaoh was the wealthiest person in the kingdom. All the lands belonged to him or her, and the people paid tribute by presenting him or her with different gifts. In addition, the taxes, which were collected for various activities in the land, were kept in the royal treasury. The treasury served as the Pharaoh’s private bank which they could use as they wished or considered necessary. Nobody could question him or her concerning the decisions to spend the money. The ruler had complete control over the resources in the kingdom. The massive wealth ensured that his or her subjects did not question his or her rule due to the sheer amount of riches.

The Reflection of the Changes in Kingship in Society

Since the Pharaoh had a great impact on what took place in society, their behavior affected society profoundly. The effect was either positive or negative depending on one’s opinion. In the end, society was ultimately significantly affected by the various decisions, which different Pharaohs decided to enact.

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When Akhenaten was the Pharaoh of Egypt in 1353-133 BCE, he brought with him a monotheistic wave of change in his kingdom (Hoffmeier, 2015, p.281). Before he started to reign, many cults or religions were practiced in Egypt with everyone having the freedom to choose their own. However, the situation changed after he converted to the cult of Aten and believed that there was one superior or right religion. Thus, Akhenaten thought that every other religion in Egypt was wrong; therefore, he abolished them. The citizens were surprised as previous Pharaohs were respectful of their beliefs. Additionally, Akhenaten made sure that the names of other gods, such as Amun, were chiseled out of all the monuments of ancient Egypt. All the traditional temples were closed or destroyed to prevent people from visiting them while the old practices that were against the Pharaoh’s beliefs were outlawed. He made sure that Egypt became the society of one religion or cult leading to some dictatorship. The people that were tasked with carrying out this job were thought to be “illiterate iconoclasts” who were obeying their king’s orders. Violence was used in implementing this new system in Egypt, which resulted in a religious revolution that had never been experienced before.

Due to the economic and military power of ancient Egypt, many nations aligned themselves with the Pharaohs of their time. As a result, Egypt had many allies among their neighbors as they had the power to either assist or destroy them, and it is not surprising that nearly all chose the former. It was to ensure that when they needed the help of any sort, they could rely on Egypt to provide it. However, during the reign of Akhenaten, many countries were sidelined due to the pharaoh’s lack of interest in anything outside his palace let alone on the other side of the border. The king of Byblos, Ribaddi, who was regarded as one of Egypt’s trusted allies, sent many letters voicing his concern over the lack of help from the Pharaoh. All his attempts were fruitless, and the kingdom of Byblos was eventually lost to Egypt. Another example of Akhenaten’s failure at foreign politics was the king of Mitanni, Tushratta, who voiced his grievances saying that the previous king Amenhotep III had sent him statues made of solid gold while his son and heir had sent only gold plated statues. It showed that Akhenaten cared little of past friendships and alliances as he demonstrated a consistent disregard for any of the former allies.

The Amarna letters represent the communications between Egypt and other nations. It showed how Akhenaten had a keen interest in foreign policy as long as the matter had personal significance to him (Silverman, Wegner, & Wegner, 2006). It is evident in the case of Abdiashirta who kept reminding to make the communication with Hittite who was the king of the land of Hatti less forceful. The Pharaoh regarded Hittite as the enemy of Egypt and wanted to ensure that all his allies had no contact with him. He did not address the death of Ribaddi or the taking of Byblos since it mattered little to him. When Abdiashirta continued to ignore his messages, he ordered him to be brought to Egypt for imprisonment which lasted for an entire year. However, Hittite’s advancing in the north forced Akhenaten to release Abdiashirta immediately. All this shows that the Pharaoh was acting impulsively and only cared for personal growth. The interest in the Egyptian kingdom as a whole mattered little to him. Compared to his royal predecessors, Akhenaten was reckless and selfish in his actions.

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Additionally, the kingship also ensured that women in Egypt were greatly empowered for the first time since the beginning of civilization. When the first female Pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut ascended the throne, women across the country were optimistic (Craesman, 2014, p.401). She has taken the stronghold of the key leadership position of Pharaoh from men. She was the first female leader in Egypt, and her reign was quite popular. Her rise to the throne was welcome across the country, and it showed that women could play any role in society. There was no position that was filled by a particular gender in Egypt hereafter. It was become a norm during Hatshepsut’s time to find women breaking the shackles of womanhood that were constantly limiting them. More women started venturing into the fields that were thought to be those of men. Moreover, men in society welcomed the shift in perception and allowed women to try new things. In fact, they were incredibly supportive in ensuring that women would be successful in these new activities.


On the whole, the Pharaoh played a vital role in the growth and development of the Egyptian people. He or she made various important decisions based on the necessity of the people or convenience for the throne. Since the beginning, the power of the Pharaoh as a constant monarch was passed only in the family. However, in order to preserve this system, the rulers had to take a number of steps and constantly evolve. Different Pharaohs found varying techniques of maintaining their status and remaining the overall supreme rulers of their kingdoms. In the end, by staying relevant to their subjects, they were able to realize this goal and preserve the royal bloodline for many generations while playing a vital role in many Egyptians.

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