What Did Egypt's Pharaoh do Each Day? | Rawi: Egypt's Heritage Review
|A headrest from the tomb of Tutankhamun|
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 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 '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 mediaeval 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 - the 'great house', the residential part of the complex.
|Columns from the Palace of Merenptah at Memphis|
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.
|The Temple of Amun at Karnak|
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 18th 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 quieter pastimes; within his High Tower at Medinet Habu, Ramesses III is depicted playing the board game senet with harem women - a unique image.
|The mummy of Amenhotep II|
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 honored 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 molded 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 honor 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.
This article was first published in print in Rawi: Egypt's Heritage Review, issue 5 (2013). Read it online by following the link: At Home with Egypt's Pharaoh.