Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Kings and Queens of Egypt

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The ancient Egyptians regarded their king and the office of kingship as the apex and organizing principle of their society. The king's preeminent task was to preserve the right order of society, also called maat. This included ensuring peace and political stability, performing all necessary religious rituals, seeing to the economic needs of his people, providing justice, and protecting the country from external and internal danger. It has sometimes been said that the ancient Egyptians believed their kings to be divine, but it was the power of kingship, which the king embodied, rather than the individual himself that was divine. The living king was associated with the god Horus and the dead king with the god Osiris, but the ancient Egyptians were well aware that the king was mortal. One of their most ancient rituals was the sed festival, or jubilee, at which the mortal king reaffirmed his fitness to continue as king.


The living king was associated with the god Horus and the dead king with the god Osiris, but the ancient Egyptians were well aware that the king was mortal.

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The descent of kingship was usually from father to son, but the role of mothers and queens was equally important. Ideally, the successor was the son of the king by the chief royal wife, who, as a close blood relative of the king, provided a double legitimacy to the succession. Throughout Egyptian history, the role of the queen as mother of the king, and therefore as a symbol of the powers of creation and rebirth, gave royal women considerable status and influence. Occasionally for political or dynastic reasons, queens assumed the kingship but, except for Hatshepsut, their reigns were usually brief.


While historical records of succession are few, it seems that the inherent desire for the proper order of the world mitigated against usurpation of power and messy dynastic affairs such as were seen in the Ptolemaic Period. The most important task of a king on his succession was to see to the burial of his predecessor and therefore to ensure order in both this world and the afterlife. The office of kingship was also flexible enough to allow for an occasional coregency, in which two rulers, an elder king and his junior partner, governed jointly.


The ancient Egyptians also referred to the king as "pharaoh," a term still in use today. It is the Hebrew pronunciation of the ancient Egyptian term per-aa, meaning "Big House." Originally it referred to the royal estate, but came to be used for the king himself, just as we might say "The Palace" or "The White House." Each king upon his accession was known by five names, which formed his titulary. These were his Horus name, the Two Ladies name, the Gold Falcon name, his King of Upper and Lower Egypt name (throne name), and the Son of Re name, which was his personal name given at birth. The throne name and personal name are enclosed in a cartouche, or name ring, in inscriptions. Though the Nile valley and the Delta had been unified by the first rulers of Dynasty 1, this dual kingship of Upper and Lower Egypt was preserved in many aspects of kingship, including the two crowns of Egypt: the white crown of Upper Egypt and the red crown of Lower Egypt. Kings are depicted wearing either crown, as well as the merged double crown.

Susan Allen
Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art