Divine Kingship and the Ancient Egyptian Political System. I



1.  Divine Kingship probably originated in the role of a traditional shaman who possessed special ability to commune with the supernatural on behalf of his people.  During the evolution of the Upper Egyptian tradition this position became more formalized and powerful, becoming transformed into divine kingship during the Naqada III  (Gerzean) and unification period.  However, it retained its reliance on the supernatural identity of the shaman-ruler, of his ability to affect the destiny of his people, to be part of the supernatural realm, and expanded this to a belief in the convergence of death and rebirth in the immortal person of the king.  Here the village shaman is transformed into the divine king.


2. The central element of this unique shaman-ruler identity embedded the king’s immortality in the act of rebirth that accompanied a king's mortal death.  Thus the associated rituals of funerary practice became important in the maintenance of the social order that depended on this rebirth.  While having a deeply religious basis, funerary ritual rapidly assumed a strong political and economic role in supporting the social order and the state itself.


3.  Within this ideological system the monuments and rituals associated with the king's divinity became the central locations of kingly authority.  These not only included his immortal physical home – the great pyramids and their counterparts in other periods, but the sacred complexes where he conducted the rituals of power while alive, and the provincial temples, royal manors and shrines whose often- religious managers acted as agents for the central government in all aspects of economic, religious and political administration.


4.  Hence divine kingship was the central institution in a system whose related rituals and institutions, and the extensive system of officials who managed them, served the interests of political authority.  Together they comprised a well- organized structure that embedded the sociopolitical in the religious ideology of the populace and was regularly strengthened and renewed by great seasonal and annual festivals, (Sed Festival, festivals of death and transformation).




                                      Mortuary Ritual System as the Catalyst for Royal Power


                                                                     The royal tomb.



1.  The royal tomb served as a supremely important state reliquary where its most sacred objects were deposited.  First of all these included the mortal aspect of the divine king himself.  In addition the tomb with its abundant offerings and living symbols represented his physical home and ensured his supernatural presence in the land.    The royal tomb this became an active and vital embodiment of the enduring Egyptian state.   Royal mortuary architecture evolved in form and meaning through time marking the evolution of the concept of divine kingship, both as the practical instrument of statecraft and the ideological core of Egyptian civilization.   In a vast array of elaborate “artistic” bearers of ideological/religious items and tomb embellishments accompanied the king.  These not only helped secure his future welfare but, on the social level, stimulated the development of arts and crafts, technical prowess and writing.  


2.    On a political level, the effort that went into the building of the royal tombs, especially from the 3rd Dynasty (Old Kingdom), may well have formed the active context for the creation of the pharaonic administrative system.  They required the following institutional capacities to a degree never needed earlier:


- mobilization of huge labor forces.

- major expansion of attached specialist artists and craftsmen - diverse art forms.

- scribal specialization for recording - development of writing as an accounting device and to       

  document the accomplishments of the king and divine kingship.

- technical skill for planning, transportation and building.

- mathematics.

- long distance transportation system

- powerful, far-reaching and permanent central administrative organization.

- ability to produce, transport and distribute food to huge bodies of state employees.


3.  Following the major construction projects of the 3rd and 4th Dynasty pyramids this system was in existence and constituted a flexible organizational and managerial apparatus for the central government to apply to state needs throughout Egypt. Thus even though the emphasis on giant pyramids later subsided, the administrative system that it engendered continued in place as the basis of pharaonic government.


Early royal funerary architecture (through the 2nd Dynasty)

1. The 1st Dynasty tombs at Abydos were large North/South-oriented compounds with external facades that possessed recessed brick niches, possibly inspired by Mesopotamian temple architecture during the late predynastic period, and probably imitated the facades of the royal palaces.  They contained central burial chambers for the king surrounded by huge areas for storage of food and elite materials. 


2.  These “mastaba” tombs represent great mansions where the dead king eternally rested. His immortal needs were tangibly taken care of during the process of funerary ritual.  In this concept the dead, though immortal king had joined the divine pantheon and was a distant, historic figure.  This is the natural development of earlier ancestral reverence of the pre-dynastic period and the king’s connection with his dynastic ancestors and the local (Tribal) god of Upper Egypt - Horus.


3.  During this period the struggles between Set and Horus reflect the competition between the supporters of two local (tribal) ancestral deities of Upper Egypt with origins in the earlier predynastic period who had become the deities of the competing dominant cities of Naqada and Hierakonpolis.  The later Memphite theology explains the triumph of Horus within a consolidated formal state religion that did not exist in the Early Dynastic period.   The central importance of Horus was transferred to the kings of This (Abydos) with the unification of Egypt under King Narmer, founder of the 1st Dynasty. 


4.  The above statement is supported by the later texts referring to the "birth" of many deities in the early dynastic period.  This indicates that the local beliefs of earlier Egypt were being consolidated into a single religious system that grew from familiar beliefs yet changed them in scope and regularized their meaning.  This process involved the transformation of local deities into members of a transcendental pantheon with set relationships and roles and supporting priesthoods and temples. Significantly the king became a central member of this divine pantheon.


King Djoser's (Netjerikhet) Funerary Complex and the Pyramid Age

1. King Netjerikhet or Djoser, first king of the 3rd Dynasty (ca. 2680 BC), initiated the pyramid age that was to last till the end of the Middle Kingdom.  His step pyramid was part of the last major North-South-oriented complex, which incorporated his reliquary (tomb), a mortuary temple to house the rituals of the royal cult, and a complex of courts, provincial pavilions and shrines, and his funerary temple.  A great wall surrounded the entire complex over a mile in length that replicated the earlier palace facades and the "White Walls of Memphis" around which the early kings ran to mark their possession of the Two Lands. 


2. While the storage magazines and "great mansion," primarily concerned with the immortal aspect of the king following death, remain from earlier periods, Netjerikhet’s funerary complex introduced new elements that had their principal use during his life.  These new components reveal the evolving state political ritual and the central role played by the ruler at every step of this development.  Most importantly, they include the architectural features that housed the Sed Festival, a series of ceremonies conducted over several days, which periodically renewed the ruler’s kingship status, and asserted his role as the being who integrated the land of Egypt and its divinities.  Important features of Netjerikhet’s complex include the jubilee court where the king ritually and symbolically circumnavigated the land, the dual throne where the two lands were united under the king’s rule, and the rows of Nome (province) shrines that symbolized the concentration in one place of the local divinity of Egypt in the king’s presence. 


3.  This monument marked change from previous practice in the conception of divine kingship.  Earlier practice asserted the king’s immortality as a distant (departed) supernatural figure.  With Netjerikhet the royal ideology integrated present existence with future immortality after death in a way not done previously. It also saw the final consolidation of the practice of formalizing continuity after death with the religious cult of the king in which his statue embodied his living presence in the mortuary temple after his death. 


4. The change in the royal funerary complexes from their earlier North/South to an East/West orientation, starting after Netjerikhet’s (Djoser) funerary complex, and introduction of the pyramid form with its symbolic representation of the rays of the sun, signaled the rise of importance of the worship of Ra the Sun-God with his cult center at Heliopolois near Memphis and identification of the pharaoh with Ra. 


5. From this time divine kingship was identified with the sun, the creator and life-giver in his role as Atum or Ra.  As the sun traveled in his  (Ra-) boat through the underworld at night and across the sky by day in its E-W trajectory, so the orientation of the 3rd and 4th Dynasty pyramid complexes and their successors symbolized the continuous presence of the king as an aspect of creation and life force, alive or “dead.”   Thus the immortal king remained at the center of all aspects of Egyptian civilization in his identification the basic force that made all life possible and with it the socio-political construction that was the pharaonic state.