The pharaohs are often presented as wise leaders, great warriors, and perfect priests, but such presentations are based on ideological propaganda, and might be far removed from reality. In this article, we delve into the human side of the pharaoh, recreating a typical day in the life of a New Kingdom ruler.
Sleep was a dangerous time for the ancient Egyptians. Asleep, you awoke in a liminal zone, a place where the living, the dead, and the gods could observe and sometimes interact with one another – and not always in a pleasant way; at the same time your physical self lay vulnerable to malevolent forces that might try to enter your bedroom and attack your unconscious body. The Pharaoh, despite being the embodiment of divine royal authority, was not exempt from such night terrors and required protection. When Amenhotep III awoke each morning, he opened his eyes to the sight of the protective goddess Nekhbet painted on the ceiling above him. Turning to his side, his head supported by a headrest decorated with carved images of Bes, a god who repelled evil forces, he saw further images of Bes painted on the nearby wall, above ankh signs of life and tyt knots of protection. In this magically secure space, the Pharaoh could be sure he’d get a good night’s rest, free from the anxiety of unprovoked demonic attack; no evil forces could penetrate such a potent force field. He was also shielded from physical forms of violence – throughout the night, his bodyguard stood watch at his doorway, keeping an eye out for any would-be assassins.
Having survived another night without incident, the king would rise from his bed to begin his daily activities. At the Palace of the King at Malkata on Luxor’s West Bank, Amenhotep III would wander from his bed chamber through to his robing room, its ceiling decorated with images of cow heads, staring down from between swirling coils surrounded by rosettes. There he was met by the Chief of Secrets of the House of the Morning, a man charged with ensuring that the king’s washing and rising rituals went according to custom. Various staff members were then summoned to aid the king: the handlers of royal linen, the handlers of crowns and headdresses, and even the director of royal loincloths; in this confined space at the back of the palace, a vast army assembled to prepare the king for his daily duties.
Unless he was attending a formal or ritual event, the king’s daily dress appeared much like that of his high courtiers – simple linen bag tunics, some with the odd tapestry-woven decorative ﬂourish, sandals, and perhaps a sash around the waist. For more formal or ritual occasions, however, the king might wear elaborately woven garments, displaying mythical animals, plants, and cartouches. In place of a hefty crown, for everyday wear he probably wore a diadem consisting of a simple gold or silver band wrapped around his head, with a uraeus (a rearing cobra) at the front.
Dressed, his eye-makeup applied, and sweet-smelling unguents rubbed onto his skin, the king would now set off for his breakfast, taken in a part of the palace called the Mansion of Life. Although each palace had its own bakeries and kitchens, the king’s private food – called ankh nesut, or ‘royal victuals’ – was produced at a temple close to the palace to the same ritual standards as the food presented before the statues of the gods. Indeed, the king’s butlers were referred to as ‘pure of hands’, emphasizing this need for ritual purity when handling any food or drink to be consumed by the king. Unfortunately, it is not clear what the king ate for breakfast, or even at what time he ate, though we must presume that he rose at dawn with the sun.
Meanwhile, as the king prepared himself, his highest courtiers arrived at the outer gates of the palace, coming for their daily meeting with the pharaoh, during which each would update the other on pressing government business. Passing through the gates, each courtier entered the per nesu, the palace’s administrative and support area, similar to the ‘outer palace’ of medieval European palaces. This is where the vizier and other key members of the state had their offices, as well as where storage magazines and archives were located. Beyond this area lay the per-aa or the ‘great house’, the residential part of the complex.
Within the per-aa, the courtier made his way to ‘the place of silence’, where he was met by the royal herald, who oversaw palace protocol and etiquette. There, he was made to stand with his colleagues, who were then counted, placed in two rows, and arranged according to rank. When the ‘moment of ushering in’ came, they silently filed into the throne room, bowing respectfully to the doorkeepers as they passed. The royal throne dais now dominated their view; prostrate foreigners and bound enemies, each formed of faience, stared back at them from its base. The upper surface of the dais was reached via two sets of steps at opposite ends, the entrance to each ﬂanked by rearing lions, frozen in time, sinking their teeth into the heads of helpless foreign victims. A great kiosk stood upon the dais, gilded and painted with the king’s cartouches and titles, and surmounted by multiple rows of rearing cobras. The royal throne stood within the kiosk, awaiting the son of Re’s appearance.
His courtiers assembled, the king now entered the throne room from his private apartments at the rear of the palace. Passing calmly between the rearing lions, he ascended the steps to his throne dais, his movements symbolic of the rising sun at dawn. Out of respect, the courtiers duly threw themselves on their bellies, kissed the ground, and raised their arms in adoration, before returning upright. The meeting could now begin, with each courtier speaking in turn according to rank; as one spoke the others respectfully remained silent, a custom drilled into all would-be courtiers from a young age. It is difficult to know, however, what was discussed. In Egyptian royal texts, the king is presented as making all laws, while his courtiers only enforced them; few decrees display any sign of personality, leaving it unclear as to whether they were ever brought to the king’s attention for ratification, or if they were simply rubber-stamped in his name. Similarly, though all subjects technically had the right to petition the king with their concerns, pleas, and legal complaints, it was the vizier who judged trials and dealt with the public, even in the most high-level cases. The pharaoh was kept informed of events at court, but did not personally attend, though his permission was required to impose the death penalty. The appointment of officials was also discussed during the king’s morning meetings, as it was the pharaoh’s responsibility to appoint worthy courtiers to the highest offices in the land; sometimes kings appointed officials from Egypt’s most noble families, while at other times they appointed their childhood friends.
It is possible that after his morning meeting, the king would perform rituals at a nearby temple – perhaps the Temple of Ptah, if he were staying at Memphis, or the Temple of Amun at Karnak if in Luxor. It is, in fact, quite hard to know how often a pharaoh visited the temples because temple scenes show the king performing every ritual act in all temples simultaneously; though this is obviously impossible, and we know that, in reality, priests deputized for the pharaoh across the land, it is difficult to disentangle ideology from reality. What is clear though is that the king was always on the move, and is often referred to as ‘doing the praises’ of a particular deity of the city he is visiting; it is thus probable that he visited regional temples whilst travelling around the country, taking the opportunity to make offerings to local gods. It is also clear that the pharaoh participated in festivals associated with kingship; the Opet festival at Luxor Temple, in particular, involved the renewal of the royal ka (the divine force of kingship), while the Sed festival, held after thirty years of rule, emphasized the king’s continuing right to rule. The annual Sokar and Min festivals were also prominent events in the king’s calendar, during which he would have officiated at the ceremonies.
The Great Royal Wife also played an important ritual role, sometimes acting as a female equivalent of the king during proceedings, and so perhaps accompanied him on any visit made to the temples. She lived and travelled with the pharaoh generally, unlike his other, lesser wives, who lived with their staff and ladies-in-waiting in harem palaces dotted around the country. Women were not confined to such institutions, they could come and go as they pleased, but the naturally isolated locations in which these buildings were constructed no doubt discouraged frequent movement. Unlike his subjects, the Pharaoh was free to marry as many women as he wished, even his half-sisters; this ensured offspring and thus the royal bloodline; infant mortality was high in ancient Egypt, as in all parts of the ancient world, so the more sons born, the greater the chance that at least one of them would survive into adulthood to receive the Double Crown. Often, kings married the daughters of foreign rulers, to cement diplomatic relations between their states.
Life was not all politics and ritual. As entertainment, kings also enjoyed sporting activities, especially archery. Many pharaohs of the eighteenth dynasty boast of their ability to fire arrows with such force that they penetrated copper targets three fingers thick, while Amenhotep II challenged his troops to an archery competition; this is the only time a pharaoh is recorded as having made such a challenge. Hunting was popular in all periods too: both Tuthmosis I and Tuthmosis III hunted elephants in Syria as entertainment during their military campaigns. Some kings, however, preferred more quiet pastimes; within his High Tower at Medinet Habu, Ramesses III is depicted playing the board game senet with harem women – a unique image.
Back in the palace, the pharaohs employed doctors to help them stay healthy. Though in the Old Kingdom there were generic palace doctors – men who looked after all the courtiers – by the New Kingdom the king had amassed his own private group of specialists. The oculist of the palace examined the health of the royal eyes; there was a chief of palace dentists as well as a physician who cared for the king’s belly, among others. To cure patients, these doctors combined practical methods with magic, to drive out the demons that were believed to be the cause of all sickness. Due to the survival of the New Kingdom royal mummies, on the whole, we can see that the pharaohs’ doctors did a good job; very few seem to have suffered from any of the serious diseases of their time, and none display growth arrest lines (also called Harris lines) in their bones, which could indicate malnutrition and illness in youth. Of the more interesting cases: Ahmose I appears to have been quite weak, which is perhaps why he wasn’t circumcised; Amenhotep II had ankylosing spondylitis, which leads to rigidity of the spine; while Amenhotep III was overweight and suffered from abscesses in the teeth. Recently, it has been argued that Tutankhamen suffered from malaria. Even more unfortunately, Ramesses V seems to have suffered from small pox, an inguinal hernia, and perhaps even bubonic plague.
In the evening, his daily political and religious business dealt with, some time spent with the queen, perhaps a health checkup, and maybe even a few sports or games enjoyed, the king typically attended a royal banquet, surrounded by honoured guests and members of the royal family, while being entertained by musicians and dancers. Single men and women sat separately, while couples sat side by side together. All enjoyed copious amounts of wine and fine food delivered by servants; some food was even moulded into animal and spiral shapes for the amusement of the guests. As in the morning, the king ate food supplied by the temple, and could honour specific guests by offering them ritually charged delicacies from his own plate. As everyone tucked in, music played and stories of past kings were recited. At the end of his meal, the king left his guests and returned to his bedroom at the rear of the palace, safe in the knowledge that his guards and magic would protect him from any malevolent forces as he slept. In the morning Re would rise again, and with him, his royal son…
Garry Shaw’s book, The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign, released in 2012, is published in Egypt by the American University in Cairo Press. Elsewhere, it is published by Thames and Hudson.
Ancient Egyptian jewellery is famous for its beauty, elegance and colour; but what was the symbolic meaning of different colours and designs, and how did fashions change over time?
Through their hairstyles and wigs, still visible in art and preserved on mummies, much can be gleaned about the ancient Egyptians' fashion, health, diet and lifestyle across time.
With similarly unusual shapes and multifaceted meanings, the protective amulets worn by the ancient Egyptians are not so different from those seen across Egypt today.
Since the opening of Tutankhamen's burial chamber in 1923, the painted scenes have deteriorated. Now, a facsimile tomb, made using the latest 3D scanning technology, could provide the key to saving this tomb, as well as others in the Valley of the Kings and Queens.
Egypt's cultural identity is threatened by the recent widespread looting and destruction of its archaeological sites. But why do people loot their own fragile heritage? Are local communities to blame for such widespread acts of cultural vandalism? Or is the problem far more complex?
Garry Shaw is an Egyptologist, writer and editor. He holds a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Liverpool, where he studied the pharaoh’s role in day-to-day political affairs. This was also the subject of his first book, published in 2008. He has undertaken archaeological fieldwork in the UK, Turkey and Egypt; worked with various world museums; and has taught Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and the University of Liverpool.