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Ancient Egypt: Pharaohs

Resources for the Ancient Egypt unit.

gold Tut ornament

Source: Robert Thiemann (2019)

The Pharaohs were the rulers of Ancient Egypt and were considered to be gods. Read through the resources below to learn more about their role and some of the more famous rulers from Ancient Egypt.

Trial piece of Akhenaten, on the reverse a horse's head

This unfinished study of the head of Akhenaten was one of a number excavated by Flinders Petrie and Howard Carter in 1891–92 from the sculptors' workshops at Tell el-Amarna, the new royal capital founded by Akhenaten. It came to the Museum from the collection of Lord Amherst, who sponsored the excavations. It shows the king in a more naturalistic style. The characteristic attributes of the portraits of the king—long almond-shaped eyes, full lips, elongated jaw and chin, and sloping brow—are present but without the exaggeration associated particularly with the early portraits. These studies may have served as models for or practice pieces by the sculptors carving the reliefs for the huge Aten temples that the king was building in order to worship according to his own unorthodox interpretation of the religion of ancient Egypt; it is also possible that some may have been employed as donation pieces.

Profile Face Inlay of King Akhenaten

The characteristic facial features of pharaoh Akhenaten can be recognized in this carnelian inlay, in particular his high cheekbones, and fleshy lips and nostrils.

During the Amarna period, inlays of semi-precious stones, as well as those in glass and faience, were used to decorate pieces of jewelry, furniture, and even architectural elements. Examples such as this one, created highly colorful compositions

Head of Amenhotep III Wearing the White Crown

This small-scale head depicts pharaoh Amenhotep III wearing the white crown, adorned with an uraeus. Its facial features identify him as Amenhotep III. The size and the style of the sculpture are reminiscent of the shabtis made for Amenhotep III’s burial in the Valley of Kings (KV 22), however the remains of a back pillar on the rear right side of the crown point towards another purpose. This fragmentary head should rather be related to the small three-dimensional representations of Amenhotep III that were produced in a variety of materials as votive offerings in temples or as cult figures.

Cornice Block with Relief Showing the Baptism of Pharaoh

This block originally formed part of a screen wall that connected the four front columns and the sidewalls of the temple of Harendotes ("Horus the Avenger") on the island of Philae. The relief represents the "Baptism of Pharaoh," a purification ritual that was part of Egyptian coronation ceremonies. The gods Horus (not preserved) and the ibis-headed Thoth poured water-here represented by streams of ankh (life) and was (dominion) hieroglyphs-over the head of the king. 

Artist's Sketch of Pharaoh Spearing a Lion

In this lively hunting scene, an unidentified Ramesside pharaoh is represented symbolically slaying the enemies of Egypt in the form of a lion. The hieratic text reads: "The slaughter of every foreign land, the Pharaoh—may he live, prosper, and be healthy."

This ostracon, a limestone chip used for sketching, was found in the Valley of the Kings during excavations conducted by Howard Carter on behalf of the Earl of Carnarvon, who received the piece in the division of finds. Although many of the figured ostraca discovered in this royal cemetery were clearly trial sketches made to facilitate an artist's work, this scene is not found in royal tombs, nor do the figures conform to the strict proportions of a formal rendering.

The scene was drawn with great economy of line by the confident hand of a skilled artist who required no grid lines as a guide. It may have been done for the amusement of the maker, or it may graphically represent the artist's hope that the ruler should be a strong protector of Egypt.

The Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut

This graceful, life-size statue depicts Hatshepsut in female attire, but she wears the nemes–headcloth, a royal attribute usually reserved for the reigning king. In the columns of text inscribed beside her legs on the front of the throne, she has already adopted the throne name Maatkare, but her titles and epithets are still feminine. Thus, she is "Lady of the Two Lands" and "Bodily Daughter of Re." On the back of the throne, part of an enigmatic scene is preserved which probably consisted of two back-to-back goddesses. The goddess has the body of a pregnant hippopotamus with feline legs and a crocodile tail appears behind her legs. Although this resembles Taweret, the goddess who protects women and children, it is probably Ipi, a royal protector who appears in the same position on a statue of the Dynasty 17 king Sebekemsaf I (about 1575 B.C.) in the British Museum.

The pose of the statue, seated with hands flat on the knees, indicates that it was intended to receive offerings and it was probably placed in one of the Temple's chapels. In more public areas, such as the processional way into the temple, colossal sphinxes (31.3.166), kneeling (30.3.1) and standing statues (28.3.18) represent Hatshepsut as the ideal king, a young man in the prime of life. This does not mean that she was trying to fool anyone into thinking that she was a man. She was merely following traditions established more than 1500 years earlier. In fact, the inscriptions on the masculine statues include her personal name, Hatshepsut, which means "foremost of noble women," or a feminine grammatical form that indicates her gender. She had also been in the public eye since childhood, first as the daughter of king Thutmose I, then as principal wife of her half-brother Thutmose II, then as regent to her nephew/step-son Thutmose III, and finally as pharaoh. Only one other statue of Hatshepsut depicts her entirely as a woman (30.3.3).

Colossal Seated Statue of a Pharaoh

During the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1650 B.C.) colossal statues proliferated in ancient Egypt. Often created as pairs to flank the entrances to temples, or important sections of them, they served as guardians, presenting relatively accessible images of the ruler to his people.

This colossus (fig. 1 in the "Additional Images" above) has been recently identified by style as a representation of King Amenemhat II (ca. 1919–1885 B.C.), although an earlier identification as Senwosret II (ca. 1987–1878 B.C.) cannot be completely excluded because of the scarcity of inscribed images of that ruler. Not much is known about Amenemhat II’s long reign, which seems to have been mainly peaceful, despite preserved annals that report the taking of 1500 prisoners during a campaign in the Levant. Senwosret II reigned less than a decade. The placement of his pyramid complex at the entrance to the Fayum Depression seems to indicate his particular interest in developing this fertile area for agriculture.

The king is represented wearing the royal headcloth (nemes) and a partly pleated kilt that is fastened by a girdle around his waist. In his right fist – now missing – he held a piece of cloth, an accouterment of upper class Egyptians, while the left hand lies flat on his thigh. His athletic body has broad shoulders, muscular arms, and powerful knees. With the breast proudly lifted and the abdominal musculature contracted, this ancient ruler seems to be inhaling: he is clearly ready to burst into action.

Face attributed to Ptolemy II Philadelphos or a contemporary

This very fine fragment from a large statue is attributed to the pharaoh Ptolemy II, or perhaps Ptolemy III, or possibly to a high official of those reigns. Unlike portraits of the 30th dynasty pharaohs and early Ptolemaic royal portraits that continue in that vein, the face shows rounded eyes, fleshy cheeks over suppressed bone structure, a broad mouth, and a knobby chin, features that specialists note may reflect early influence of Hellenistic art on Egyptian.
The face was excavated at Heliopolis.

Sphinx of Hatshepsut

This colossal sphinx portrays the female pharaoh Hatshepsut with the body of a lion and a human head wearing a nemes–headcloth and false beard. The sculptor has carefully observed the powerful muscles of the lion as contrasted to the handsome, idealized face of the pharaoh. It was one of at least six granite sphinxes that stood in Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri.

The sphinx has a long history in Egyptian art, the most famous example being the great sphinx at Giza which represents the Fourth Dynasty King Khafre who lived almost a thousand years before Hatshepsut. Sphinxes representing other pharaohs may be seen throughout the Egyptian galleries.

Hatshepsut ruled Egypt, first as regent for and then as senior co-ruler with her nephew/step-son Thutmose III. Most of her statues depict Hatshepsut as an ideal king, a young man in the prime of life, but others depict her as a woman.

Menat of Taharqo: the King Being Nursed by the Lion-Headed Goddess Bastet

This menat, or necklace counterpose, is decorated with a relief scene showing King Taharqo as a child nursed by a the goddess Bastet, implying his divine status. The delicate faience material indicates the menat was not meant for use as part of a menat necklace shaken in temple ceremonies, but rather might have been a temple donation or possibly intended for the pharaoh's burial.

Scenes from a King's Thirty-Year Jubilee

After thirty years on the throne, the pharaoh celebrated a jubilee intended magically to rejuvenate the divine yet vulnerable monarch. This fragmentary relief, which formed part of a series of scenes depicting these complex and enigmatic rituals, was intended for a royal cult structure at a pyramid. In the main preserved register, the goddess Meret chants "Come and bring" to the pharaoh, whose large running figure would have been depicted beyond the broken left edge of the block. The standard-bearer who preceded him remains, and courtiers with their titles inscribed above complete the scene.

Like most of the royal Old Kingdom royal reliefs in this collection, this block was excavated at a Middle Kingdom pyramid site where it had been reused in the inner structure. Such blocks can be assigned to the Old Kingdom by their inscriptions or style. Although no royal name identifies the pharaoh here, the straight edges contouring the relief elements and the height of the carving suggest that the work dates from the reign of Snefru.

Head of King Amenemhat III

Although somewhat battered, this is an impressive image of a pharaoh wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The head is rounder than those depicting Senwosret III; the eyes are less bulbous, and the lids less fleshy. We see, in fact, a portrait of Senwosret's successor Amenemhat III. A piece closely related in style was found at Kom el-Hisn in the western Nile Delta. Like that sculpture the Museum's head has a distinctly youthful character, which is apparent in spite of the deep furrows at the sides of the king's nose. Egyptian artists often emphasized youthfulness in the face of an already mature pharaoh in images that commemorated the king's thirty-year jubilee (Heb Sed). The king was, in this image, most probably represented seated.

Arm Panel From a Ceremonial Chair of Thutmose IV

This wooden panel is part of the left arm of a throne that belonged to the pharaoh Thutmose IV. Traces of glue on the surface suggest that the low relief, with its exquisitely carved details, was once covered with gold foil. On one side, the king is shown as a standing sphinx subduing the enemies of Egypt. The falcon at the upper right represents the god Horus who is identified as "the great god, with dappled plumage, giving life and dominion." The text above the sphinx's back reads: "Horus, the lord of might and action, trampling all foreign lands."

On the other side, the panel depicts the enthroned king wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt. In front of him is the lion-headed goddess Weret-hekau who is depicted in coronation scenes and is associated with the uraeus cobra at the front of the king's crown. Behind the king is the ibis-headed god Thoth who presents him with "millions of years of life and dominion united with eternity."

A second arm panel from the same throne is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. They were discovered in Thutmose IV's tomb in the Valley of the Kings by Theodore M. Davis, who acquired them in the division of finds. The scenes on the panels suggest that the throne was used either for the king's coronation, or for his thirty-year rejuvenation festival, the Heb-Sed.

Queen Nefertari being led by Isis

Nefertari was the main wife of pharaoh Ramses II and her tomb with its vivid wall paintings is one of the most beautiful tombs in Egypt. This watercolor copy depicts the queen (left) being led by the goddess Isis (right). Noteworthy is that Nefertari’s husband, Ramses II, is absent in these scenes, indicating the queen's high status that allowed her to directly interact with the deities without him; such depictions would not be possible for non-royal individuals.

Akhenaten Sacrificing a Duck

The pharaoh Akhenaten believed that light was the only divine power in the universe and that the solar disk was the means through which this power came into the world. Akhenaten's god, the Aten, is portrayed through the symbol of a solar disk with rays ending in small human hands. This Aten symbol serves as a large-scale hieroglyph meaning "light." In representations of Akhenaten, one of these hands holds an ankh hieroglyph, the symbol of life, to his nose.

On this block from a temple relief, Akhenaten, recognizable by his elongated features, holds a duck toward the Aten. With one hand he wrings the bird's neck before offering it to the god. Although early depictions of Akhenaten often appear strangely exaggerated, later in his reign sculptors attempted a more naturalistic style, emphasizing a sense of space and movement. Akhenaten's hands here are grasping and straining to hold the struggling duck. Such a scene, capturing a single moment, would never have been attempted in an earlier period. However, Akhenaten's right hand is twisted so that all five fingers can be seen, a pose that conforms to the Egyptian convention of presenting each part of the body as completely as possible. To the lower right appear the webbed feet of a second duck.

In this relief, the artist has cut the outlines of the figures into the surface in a technique called sunk relief. Sunk relief appears mostly on the exterior of buildings, where the outlines cast shadows, emphasizing the sunlight. During the Amarna period almost all relief was executed in this technique.

Head of Tutankhamun

This head is a fragment from a statue group that represented a god seated on a throne with the young king Tutankhamun in front of him. The king's figure was considerably smaller than that of the god, indicating his subordinate status in the presence of the deity. All that remains of the god is his right hand, which touches the back of the king's crown in a gesture that signifies Tutankhamun's investiture as king. During coronation rituals, various types of crowns were put on the king's head. The type represented here—probably a leather helmet with metal disks sewn onto it—was generally painted blue, and is commonly called the "blue crown." The ancient name was khepresh.

Statue groups showing a king together with gods had been created since the Old Kingdom, and formal groups relating to the pharaoh's coronation were dedicated at Karnak by Hatshepsut and other rulers of Dynasty 18. The Metropolitan's head of Tutankhamun with the hand of the god is special because of the intimacy with which the subject is treated. The face of the king expresses a touching youthful earnestness, and the hand of the god is raised toward his crown with gentle care.

A cast of the head has recently been matched by a scholar to the remains of an indurated limestone seated statue of a god in the storerooms at Karnak in Thebes. She reports that the join is minimal, but conclusive. This confirms the long supposed origin of the Museum's head from Karnak temple, and also resolves the question of the young king's pose - he was standing rather than kneeling in front of the god. The seated god at Karnak is only preserved from the waist down and is much damaged, so that the god is not identified specifically. Amun is, however, the likely candidate.

Large Seated Statue of Hatshepsut

In this statue, Hatshepsut is portrayed as a male pharaoh dressed in the costume of an Egyptian king, although she does not wear the usual false beard. Like all the statues from Hatshepsut's temple, this one was broken into many pieces by her nephew and co-ruler, Thutmose III. Unlike most of the others, the features of her face have also been systematically destroyed. Certain details of the statue were originally painted, and traces of pigment are still visible on the headdress and broad collar.

Plaque with the Name of Amenhotep III Flanked by Two Uraei

On this piece the uraeus cobra functions as the protector of the royal name. The name of pharaoh Amenhotep III "The Lord of Maat is Re" is in the center of the plaque. The top and center part of the inscription is written twice and the direction of the hieroglyphs was reversed. Only the very bottom part is shown once. To each side is an uraeus with a sun disk, protecting the royal name in the same way the uraeus protects the king as a head ornament.
The underside of the plaque is undecorated and flat and does not bear any means of suspension. Originally the piece might have been fitted into a piece of jewelry, maybe it even belonged to the king himself?

Battle of Kadesh poem

The Poem of Pentaur is the official Egyptian record (along with The Bulletin) of the military victory of Rameses II (known as The Great, 1279-1213 BCE) over the Hittite King Muwatalli II (1295-1272 BCE) at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE. So proud was Rameses II of this campaign that he had the poem, which details his personal valor against overwhelming odds, inscribed on the walls of temples at Abydos, Luxor, Karnak, Abu Simbel and in his Ramesseum. Click on the link to read the poem.