Ancient Egyptian Government

Ancient Egyptian government depended on two major factors; the Egyptian Pharaoh and agriculture. The Pharaoh was the political and religious leader and was considered the divine representative of gods on earth.

Agriculture, on the other hand, was the foundation of Egypt’s economy and government.

Most people were involved in agriculture and were tied to the land that belonged to the king. However, some lands could be bought and sold. Lands were assigned to high officials for income, and the state took back the abandoned land and reassigned it for cultivation. 

Slavery was uncommon and was reserved for captives, foreigners, and people in debt forced to sell themselves into service. 

What was the ancient Egyptian government like?

In ancient Egypt, the government was considered a divinely guided monarchy. The king ruled by order of the gods and was a representation of gods to the people and humanity to the gods, and the laws and policies approved in the kingdom were seen as the will of the gods.

What was the role of religion in the Ancient Egyptian Government?

Religion and government went hand in hand in ancient Egypt. They maintained order in the country concerning the construction of temples, creation of laws and taxation, labor organization, trade, and defense of the country’s interest.

How were the ancient Egyptian government officials treated?

After the pharaoh, the government officials belonged to the highest class in the social hierarchy. They assisted the pharaoh as the supreme leader and often were the members of the pharaoh’s family of upper-class families.

Ruler of Ancient Egypt

An image depicting a typical outlook of Ancient Egyptian Pharoah
An image depicting a typical outlook of Ancient Egyptian Pharoah
Source: Wikimedia Common

Pharaohs ruled through dynasties with power transferring from one family member to the other, and their word was the law of the land. The Pharaoh gave direct orders to the highest officials, whereas advisors, priests, officials, and administrators responsible for the welfare affairs of the state-assisted the Pharaohs.

The Pharaoh was at the highest level, followed by vizier- the most powerful officers, the executive heads of bureaucracy. Next to them were the high priests and royal administrators. The scribes, artisans, farmers, and laborers were at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Maintaining harmony in Egypt was the topmost responsibility of the Pharaoh along with warfare, especially needed for the restoration of balance and peace in the land. 

Another duty was to guard the border of the land and attack neighboring countries for resources in the best interest of Egypt. Trade and official taxes were the primary sources for the funds needed for massive projects, including constructing pyramids.

Pharaohs were known for making Egypt a mighty empire during their reign. They built incredible structures and expanded the borders of Egypt. Important technology like the water clock was also invented during their reign.

The king’s role is summarized by a text stating, “he is on earth forever and ever, judging mankind and propitiating gods and mortuary offerings to the spirits [the blessed dead].” He manifested as the gods on earth and represented humanity to the gods.

Dynasties of ancient Egypt

A stone carving with the first dynasty of Ancient Egypt
A stone carving with the first dynasty of Ancient Egypt
Source: Wikimedia Common

The history of ancient Egypt is mainly divided into three periods: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. There were more than thirty dynasties in Egyptian history, and they helped to keep Egypt united. During their reign, the leaders’ problems were chaos, ambitious rivalries, and foreigners wanting to conquer the region. 

During these periods, the dynasty ruled until other emperors overthrew it or due to lack of heirs, where one dynasty passed its powers to another. Each kingdom ended in chaos either as a result of infighting or invasion.

The Old Kingdom (about 2700-2200 B.C.E.) 

One of the famous pyramids of the old kingdom of Ancient Egypt
One of the famous pyramids of the old kingdom of Ancient Egypt
Source: Wikimedia Common

This era began with a central government where rulers held supreme power after 300 years; Menes, the king of Upper Egypt, united Egypt by conquering Lower Egypt. He built his capital at Memphis, near the border of the two kingdoms, as it was laid on an island in the Nile and was easy to defend.

The economy relied on agriculture and adopted barter systems. The lower class people did farming and provided the noble landowner with wheat and other produce, which was further used in the trade or distributed to the community by the government.

Menes initiated an event known as Shemsi Hor where the king and his attendants traveled through the country, making the king’s presence and power visible to the people. This event later became a standard practice among the subsequent kings. 

This event became the source of the government personally assessing individual wealth and levying taxes. Shemsi Hor later became an annual event in Egypt that provided Egyptologists with turbulent reigns of the kings as Shemsu Hor was recorded by authority and year.

Tax collectors would follow the recorded data to collect a certain amount of products and hand it over to the central government, then used in trade. This system flourished, making the empire capable of initiating building projects requiring high costs and an efficient labor force.

The six-million-ton Pyramids of Giza and The Step Pyramid of King Djoser are two of the most famous and longest-lasting among those constructions. The Great Sphinx was built under Chephren, a Fourth Dynasty ruler. 

Vizier was the most influential person in Egypt after the king, whose voice was very close to the monarch. He managed the bureaucracy of the government, delegated the responsibilities as per the king’s orders and was in charge of the building projects, and managed other affairs as well.

The power of the nomarchs and provincial governors grew along with their wealth which resulted in caring for the king’s thoughts and the vizier’s demands. Later, the civil wars between pharaohs and nobles marked the ending of the Old Kingdom.

The Middle Kingdom (2050-1800 B.C.E.) 

A map depicting parts of the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt
A map depicting parts of the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt
Source: Wikimedia Common

This kingdom was first ruled by Montuhotep II, an Eleventh Dynasty Pharaoh who was also the last ruler of the Old Kingdom. He, along with his successors, restored the political order of Egypt.

The nomarchs worked on their regions, collecting their taxes, building their temples and monuments, and financing their tombs as they grew in power. When Intef I rose to power in Upper Egypt, it inspired the community to rebel against the kings of Memphis, resulting in the victory of Mentuhotep II initiating the middle kingdom. 

The great pyramids were a reminder of the glory of the past in the Old Kingdom. It was called the great age in the history of Egypt. Montuhotep II, thus, ruled in the patterns of the Old Kingdom.

Montuhotep II’s successor Amenemhat I shifted the capital from Thebes to List to further unify Egypt by entering the government in the country’s middle. He established a standing army in Egypt directly under the king’s control, loyal first to the king, encouraged nationalism and more substantial unity than when the nomarchs sent his men from different districts, giving them great power.

Amendment III built the giant water wheels of Faiyum that diverted the floodwaters of the Nile and constructed the Pyramid of Hawara, also known as the Labyrinth, which consisted of more than 3000 rooms. The initiation of bronze weapons and horse-drawn chariots also took place during this era.

This era is known for flourishing arts, especially jewelry making, during which Egypt became a great trading power and continued massive construction projects. Mass production of artifacts and jewelry increased mass consumerism with the production of higher-quality products. The high standard of living in the kingdom fell with more power and wealth by the priests and regional governors- decreasing the effectiveness of the central government. Eventually, crop failures, economic despairs, dynasty power struggles, and foreign invaders arose.

The New Kingdom (1550-1100 B.C.E.) 

A map showing the parts of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt
A map showing the parts of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt
Source: Wikimedia Common

The Hyksos ruled this period and claimed to be chaotic as they invaded and destroyed the country. They admired Egyptian culture, and although they did not raid the Egyptian cities, the Hyksos dressed as Egyptians, worshipped their gods, and combined the fundamentals of their government on their own. 

The lower Egypt was handed over to the Hyksos by the Egyptian government. It moved the capital back to Thebes, giving Hyksos power in the north. The Kushites took back their lands and advanced in the south until the Egyptian king Seqenenra Taa felt insulted by the Hyksos and attacked them. Finally, his brother Ahmose I defeated the Hyksos and drove them out of Egypt.

The New Kingdom began with the victory of Ahmose I and is known as the best known and most well-documented era in Egyptian history. The hierarchy of the Egyptian government was reorganized with the Pharaoh at the top, followed by a vizier, royal treasurer, general of the military, overseers, and scribes.

Amenemhet I established the police force formed by the members of Bedouin tribes who were responsible for guarding the borders. The police were the warriors who had fought the Hyksos next to Ahmose I and were rewarded with new positions. 

Under the supervision of the Pharaoh, the vizier organized the police and authorized lower officials for patrols of the State Police. They secured borders, guarded temples, monitored immigration, stood to watch outside the royal tombs, and looked over the workers and the slaves at rock pits and mines.

Reformation and military expansion was also done in the New Kingdom as the encounter with the Hyksos made them realize how foreign power could dominate their country. Amenhotep I, son of Ahmose I, trained the army to regain the lands lost during the thirteenth dynasty and expand Egypt’s borders. His successors conquered lands from Syria to Libya and down through Nubia.

Egypt was a vast empire when Amenhotep III was in reign, and diplomatic and trade agreements were established with great nations, including Babylon, Hittites, Mitanni, and the Assyrian Empire.

This period is known as the period of revival in artistic creation and the end of dynastic rule. Corrupt priests and tomb-robbing by government officials tainted this period. Amenhotep IV, a famous pharaoh, initiated a religious revolution in Egypt before a polytheistic society where people believed in multiple gods. 

He changed his name to Akenhaton due to his radical notion of believing in one god- Aton, the sun god. The priests and many Egyptians were displeased by his act of discrediting their gods.

The temples were not only a place of worship but were also used as factories, dispensaries, workshops, counseling centers, houses of healing, and educational and cultural centers. Akhenaton closed all of these down and built new temples and shrines based on his monotheistic belief in Aten.

However, Tutankhamun, Akenhaton’s successor, reversed these policies, shifted the capital back to Thebes, and reopened the temples but died in between the process. Horemheb, a pharaoh, completed the process and attempted to delete any evidence supporting Akenhaton’s existence. 

He regained Egypt’s social status with other nations, rebuilt the temples, and improved the economy but could reach the heights as during the reign of Amenhotep III.

Thebes remained a vital religious center as Ramesses II moved the new capital to the north at ancient Avaris. The priests were free to operate the city as they pleased, increasing their power and rivaling the pharaohs. The New Kingdom ended under the rule of the high priests of Thebes while the pharaohs struggled to maintain their control.

Ptolemaic dynasty

A statue of one of the father figure of Ptolemaic dynasty
A statue of one of the father figures of the Ptolemaic dynasty
Source: Wikimedia Common

During the late period of Egypt, the government of Egypt divided once again as the government at Thebes claimed supremacy. This division weakened Egypt resulting in civil wars during the Late period between the would-be rulers of Egypt. The Assyrians attacked and took control of the country in 671 and d666 B.C.E. Persia invaded in 525 B.C.E.

In 331 BC., one of the most influential people, Alexander the Great took Egypt from Persia and crowned himself the Pharaoh at Memphis. After his death, his general Ptolemy established the Ptolemaic Dynasty who also admired Egyptian culture immensely and combined it into their rule. 

The country once again went into rebellion during the reign of Ptolemy V, resulting in the central government weakening. The last Pharaoh of Egypt was Cleopatra VII, after the death of whom Rome captured Egypt.

Conclusion

The Ancient Egyptian Empire spanned over three thousand years, making it the oldest and the longest-ruling empire in history. There was a rise and fall of the kingdom when power shifted from one dynasty to the next, including a few invasions from the neighboring empires, reasons being the loss of military force, lack of natural resources, and political conflicts.

Strength and agility marked the reigns of the last pharaohs, even though it left the empire’s economy struggling. 

Another reason causing the Ancient Egyptian Empire to weaken was the multiple economic and political instability. Most of the population distrusted the government and religious authorities as there were massive inequalities in wealth distribution among the elites and the ordinary people. These kinds of continuous conflicts led to extraordinary expenses weakening the economy of the Pharaoh.

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