How the Pharaoh Ruled Egypt

During the reign of Amenhotep III (ca. 1390-1352 BCE) the Egyptian Empire had reached its greatest size. From Nubia in the south to Syria in the north, a distance of 3,000 km, the pharaoh ruled supreme. Today this area is administered by no less than six separate states, but during the Eighteenth Dynasty the entirety of Egypt’s Empire was controlled by one man. This feat was managed using a variety of methods to govern and administer this vast domain. The Egyptian Empire was based on the original consolidation of the Nile Valley from Aswan to the Delta which was the legacy of the first pharaohs. By the time of the New Kingdom Egypt was the dominant power across the all Near East.

The Egyptian New Kingdom Empire (Andrei Nacu)

The Egyptian New Kingdom Empire (Andrei Nacu)

Lord Of The Two Lands

Egypt itself was acknowledged by the Ancient Egyptians as being two lands rather than one. The pharaoh was commonly referred to as the Lord of the Two Lands in order to stress that the unification of southern Upper Egypt/Ta-Shemau and northern Lower Egypt/Ta-Mehu was the founding political principal of the kingdom. During much of pharaonic Egypt’s history the pharaoh governed each half of his kingdom with its own vizier. The two lands were each further subdivided into nomes, the Egyptian equivalent to our modern county.

During periods of history, where the power of the pharaoh was waning, it was often the leaders of the nomes, known as nomarchs, who would rise to power. However, during periods of strong central pharaonic control, the viziers controlled the nomarchs in their lands who were all royal appointees. Although the title Hereditary Count existed amongst nobles of the New Kingdom it was little more than an honorific, and real political power at the local level was held by a scribal bureaucracy not unlike a modern day civil service.

This bureaucracy was headed by The White Scribe, who oversaw production and distribution of grain and the Gold Scribe, who, as the name implies, was responsible for the acquisition of gold and other valuables for the crown. The prestige of being a scribe was such that it was traditional to portray yourself in a sculpture sitting cross-legged with a tablet on your knees much in the same way that a college graduate today might display a diploma.

The Army

The Army Council was headed by the Scribe of the Army and the Scribe of Recruits. Although these officials were not field commanders they directed the vast network of logistics needed to keep the Egyptian army running. Under this logistical command came the operational commanders. They were the Commander of Chariots, Commander of Bowmen, and the Commander of the Fleet. Also on the Army Council was the Dean of the School of Kap which was the imperial military academy.

Reporting to the Army Council were the generals known as Overseers of the Garrison Troops. These officers were assigned regions to supervise with typical divisions being the Mediterranean coast, The Sinai frontier and Nubia. In charge of the actual frontier fortresses were the Troop Commanders who were served in turn by ranks labeled as Commanders of 250, Standard Bearer’s and the Greatest of Fifty.

Overseer Of Priests

In addition to local civil administration each gnome had a temple power structure as well which was responsible for much of Egypt’s commercial and educational activities. In some gnomes such as Wasat, the Theban gnome, home of Karnak and Luxur, the temple administration overshadowed the civil. Although Egyptian cults, such as that of Amun, had famously competed with the pharaoh for power along with the nomarchs all the temples were officially under the pharaohs control.

New Kingdom pharaohs used the post of Overseer of the Priests in an effort to keep the temples in line. This arrangement allowed the pharaoh to appoint a priest to manage all the temples of each gnome, a position not unlike that of a bishop. All of these bishopric appointees reported in turn to the Overseer of Priests who was responsible for supervising all cult activity in the realm acting in the fashion of an arch-bishop. To extend the analogy the pharaoh would then be in the infallible position of a Pope serving for life.

The Pharaoh’s Palace

The Pharaoh’s palace and personal estates were governed by another group of officials usually headed by a Chamberlain who commanded a sizable corps of scribes. Various stewards would then manage the individual properties under the palace’s supervision. Other palace officials included heralds, physicians, tutors, sculptors and cup-bearers as well as treasurers and attendants who served in the kings own divine cult.

By the later years of Amenhotep III’s reign the pharaoh had a large cult presence in the Thebes area that at first complimented, then possibly competed with, the cult of Amun. Amenhotep III was personally worshiped as the living embodiment of the god Aten. The pharaoh had also built a large sprawling palace compound across the Nile from Thebes and adjacent to the mortuary temples of his ancestors. Amenohotep III spent most of his final decade at this location known today as Malqata. While the Pharaoh resided amidst all the luxury the Bronze Age could muster the kingdom’s actual capital was far to the North in Memphis where his ministers could more easily monitor affairs in the Egyptian territories of East Asia.

This all changed when Akhenaten became pharaoh and moved the capital along with the bureaucracy to a previously unsettled location in the middle of the country. He also challenged the status quo administration in a revolutionary attempt to consolidate his power and that of the Aten cult. The resulting effect would strain the empire’s vast administrative network. Ultimately a new pharaoh, Tutankhamun, would restore the cities of Memphis and Thebes to their previous status but the damage was done, the Egyptian Empire would never recover to its heyday before the Aten Revolution.

Sources

Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History Of Ancient Egypt, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000)

Spalinger, Anthony, War in Ancient Egypt, (Blackwell, Malden, 2005)