Q: What does the word ‘pharaoh’ mean and when was it first used?

A: It comes from the ancient Egyptian for ‘great house’, but what it actually means is ‘king’. And it’s a word that today we use to describe ancient kings of Egypt, but the Egyptians themselves didn’t always use it.


Q: When did the era of the Egyptian pharaohs begin?

A: The first person we can really say ruled all of Egypt was Narmer in about 3100 BC. Before that, the land we now know as Egypt was made up of independent cities and satellite communities along the Nile and in the Nile Delta. So, the era of the pharaohs can really be seen to have begun with political unification of the country and continued to the reign of Cleopatra, who died in 30 BC. And there was never any real determination to break away from having a king, or pharaoh, of Egypt during this time.

A cosmetics palette depicts Narmer (far left), the first pharaoh of unified Egypt
A cosmetics palette depicts Narmer (far left), the first pharaoh of unified Egypt, parading by the beheaded remains of his enemies, seen to the far right of the scene. (Image by Getty Images)

Q: How many pharaohs ruled Egypt between c3100 BC and 30 BC?

A: It’s very difficult to tell. For some periods, we have really good records, but for other periods we don’t have any records at all, so it’s very hard to trace king after king. What’s more, during the times when Egypt was split into two separate kingdoms, there were two rival pharaohs on the throne at the same time, which also confuses things. And there were also occasions when kings ruled together, as well as regencies. But I would say there were probably at least 300 pharaohs during this period, possibly more, although they were not all from the same family line.

Q: Why did the pharaonic era last so long?

A: I think it’s because the pharaohs told everybody that they were indispensable and were the only people in Egypt who could communicate with the gods. The gods were everything to the ancient Egyptians, so if you can convince the people that you are the one person who can talk to them and keep them happy, then it’s very unlikely that they will try and get rid of you. We do know of pharaohs who were assassinated, such as Ramesses III in 1153 BC, but it didn’t happen very often. And there was never a move to replace a king with a democratic system of rule. I think the ancient Egyptians just couldn’t imagine life without a pharaoh; even their afterlife was ruled by a king – Osiris.

Q: How did ancient Egyptians feel about being ruled by a female pharaoh?

A: It was decided, right at the start of the dynastic age, that it was possible for a woman to rule Egypt, but it wasn’t considered an ideal situation. It was preferable for rule to pass from pharaoh to son, or to another male who had been adopted and who had assumed the role of son. But occasionally, where there was no obvious male successor, it was necessary for a woman to rule. This only happened a few times, and during their reigns, female pharaohs were accepted. Hatshepsut, for example, who is the female pharaoh most people know about, was on the throne for about 20 years and Egypt seems to have flourished during her reign. But after she had died, she wasn’t looked upon so kindly and was pretty much cut out of history by her successor. If it wasn’t for her magnificent temple at Deir el-Bahri, we wouldn’t know much about her. But during their actual reigns, people didn’t seem to have a problem with being ruled by a female pharaoh.

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Once you had been crowned king, it didn’t matter who you were before; the act of being crowned meant that you would be acceptable to the people from that point onwards. There was no going back once you’d been proclaimed king. This is why we tend to use the title ‘female pharaoh’ or ‘female king’ rather than ‘queen’, which has very different meanings when used in a modern, English context. When we’re discussing ancient Egypt, we’re not just talking about a strong ruling queen, we’re talking about a woman who has taken that extra step and become the king.

Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple survives at Deir el-Bahri
Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple survives at Deir el-Bahri, despite concerted efforts to erase traces of her rule by her successor, Thutmose III. (Image by Getty Images)

Q: What training did future pharaohs have to undertake?

A: It’s difficult to know for sure, but we do have some indications; we know that some kings were trained in military arts, for example. Tutankhamun had writing palettes in his tomb, so we think that he was trained in reading and writing as well. And it seems that there was a system of tutors who were attached to the royal palace. The problem was, though, that no one was ever certain who the next king would be because there were such high child mortality rates in those days. Several sons born to the king and queen would probably have been trained in the same way, and then eventually one of them would succeed to the throne. And it wasn’t necessarily the eldest son, because he might die before he got to the throne. Tutankhamun probably had an elder brother, but he was trained just in case. And as it turned out, it was he who came to the throne.

Q: How did royal marriages work?

A: Most ‘ordinary’ Egyptians during the dynastic age only had one husband or wife at a time. But the royal family was different, and the pharaoh had many wives, one of whom was his chief wife. It was his children with the chief wife who usually continued the royal line. In addition, pharaohs also had harems of wives, among them foreign-born princesses who were sent to Egypt to marry the pharaoh and create a bond with their home country. Interestingly, there’s no evidence that Egyptian princesses married outside Egypt, probably because Egypt was the dominant nation at the time. We even have letters from foreign kings pleading to be sent an Egyptian bride as a sort of reciprocal bride for the sister or daughter that they had sent to Egypt. But it just didn’t happen.

There were also Egyptian-born women in the pharaoh’s harem, who, it’s to be assumed, were just picked because the king wanted to marry them. We’re absolutely certain that pharaohs married their sisters and half-sisters, so there might well have been some of the king’s sisters in his harem as well. But sibling marriages weren’t compulsory: Tutankhamun, for example, married his sister or half-sister, but his father, Akhenaten, didn’t.

There are several theories about why a pharaoh might have chosen to marry his sister. One is that it cut down the number of relations the king had, since he wouldn’t have any in-laws; there would be no rival family vying for the throne. It also meant that the queen would be very loyal to the royal family since it would be her own as well. Plus, she could also be trained for the role from childhood.

The lid of a casket depicts Tutankhamun in a garden with his wife (and also sister) Ankhesenamun.
The lid of a casket depicts Tutankhamun in a garden with his wife (and also sister) Ankhesenamun. (Image by Getty Images)

The first people who translated texts containing information about pharaohs marrying their sisters tended to be western, strongly Christian, scholars who were very shocked by it and sought explanations for why these marriages took place. They came up with a theory that the kingship, the pharaohship if you like, was passed down through royal women. So to become a true pharaoh of Egypt, you had to marry the heiress who carried this kingship within her. It’s a theory that developed because people were so uncomfortable with the idea of intermarriage – but there were plenty of pharaohs who didn’t marry their sisters and yet were perfectly successful rulers, so it’s not correct.

Q: Why are pharaohs usually depicted with a beard?

A: It’s something we can see right from the start of the pharaonic age. We have images of Narmer, Egypt’s first ruling pharaoh, wearing a false beard; we know it’s false because it clips on and is tied to the face. Even the female pharaoh Hatshepsut is depicted wearing a false beard, so it was clearly symbolic and intended as a representation of kingship. Presumably on occasions when they performed rituals, pharaohs would have worn a beard, just as they would have worn a crown, and carried a crook and flail. They were all attributes of kingship and, interestingly they all continued right the way through to the end of the pharaonic age – the Egyptians never really diverged from their original ideal of kingship. It’s a system that must have worked very well – even now, with most people unable to read their writing, it’s not hard to pick out the figure of the pharaoh in ancient Egyptian art.

Q: What impact could pharaohs have on religion?

A: It’s important not to fall into the trap of saying that ancient Egypt had a religion. It was more like a lot of cults coexisting at the same time. There was nothing resembling a Bible or anything similar to that, and there was no religious code that you had to stick to.

But there were state temples with state gods, and these state gods were dependent on the king for regular offerings. Obviously, the pharaoh couldn’t make every offering himself, so he had priests who did it for him, but technically he was the head of every religious cult.

The temples at the Abydos necropolis, where early pharaohs were buried
The temples at the Abydos necropolis, where early pharaohs were buried, includes numerous painted panels. Here, an individual is shown worshipping the god Osiris. (Image by Getty Images)

Ordinary Egyptians didn’t have much to do with this state religion and were more likely to worship local, smaller gods and demigods in their own temples, such as gods associated with childbirth and health. The division between the state temples and the deities worshipped by the ordinary people was pretty big. We shouldn’t assume that Egyptians worshipped at the big state temples like Karnak, because they didn’t. The king went there, and so did his priests, to make offerings to the gods, but ordinary people only had contact with state gods when those gods processed out of the temples. It was the pharaoh who maintained the relationship with the gods and was responsible for keeping them happy.

Q: Were slaves and servants really buried alive in the pyramids alongside their deceased pharaoh, as Hollywood would often have us believe?

A: No. Certainly, a lot of people were involved in building the pyramids, but it was a type of national service; they were summoned from villages and towns all over Egypt. They went to the pyramid building site, worked on the pyramid for perhaps three or four months and then went home again and another batch of people came in to take their place. There was a stage before the pyramid building, right at the beginning of the dynastic age, when pharaohs were buried at a place called the Abydos. And we can see that, round the royal mudbrick tombs, there were people who seem to have been buried at the same time as the king, because the burials have the same roof. So, it’s possible that very early in the pharaonic age, some kings were buried with retainers who might have either been killed or who killed themselves to accompany the king on his journey to the afterlife.

But this was a very short-lived phenomenon and certainly, by the time you get to the age of the pyramids, there’s no suggestion at all that was still happening.


This timeline was first published in the June 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed


Charlotte HodgmanStrategic Projects Editor, HistoryExtra

Charlotte Hodgman is Strategic Projects Editor for HistoryExtra. She currently looks after the HistoryExtra Academy and was previously editor of BBC History Revealed, and deputy editor of BBC History Magazine - although not at the same time. She also makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast