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[fair-oh, far-oh, fey-roh]

Pharaoh is the title given in modern parlance to the ancient Egyptian kings of all periods. In antiquity it began to be used for the king, who was the religious and political leader of ancient Egypt, during the New Kingdom. Meaning "Great House", it originally referred to the king's palace, but the meaning loosened over the course of Egyptian history until it became interchangeable with the traditional Egyptian word for king, nswt. Although the rulers of Egypt were generally male, pharaoh was also used on the rare occasions when a female ruled. The pharaohs were believed to be the incarnations of the god Horus in life , and of Osiris in death.


The term pharaoh"الفرعون" ultimately derives from a compound word represented as pr-`3, used only in larger phrases like smr pr-`3 'Courtier of the High House', with specific reference to the buildings of the court or palace itself. From the Twelfth Dynasty onward the word appears in a wish formula 'Great House, may it live, prosper, and be in health', but again only with reference to the royal palace and not the person.

The earliest instance where pr-`3 is used specifically to address the king is in a letter to Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) in the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty (1550-1292 BC) which is addressed to 'Pharaoh, ''all life, prosperity, and health!'.

From the Nineteenth Dynasty onwards pr-`3 on its own was used as regularly as hm.f, 'His Majesty'. The term therefore evolved from a word specifically referring to a building to a respectful designation for the king or prince, particularly by the Twenty-Second Dynasty and Twenty-Third Dynasty. By this time, the Late Egyptian word is reconstructed to have been pronounced *par-ʕoʔ whence comes Ancient Greek φαραώ pharaō and then Late Latin pharaō. From the latter, English obtained the word "Pharaoh". Over time, *par-ʕoʔ evolved into Sahidic Coptic prro and then rro (by mistaking p- as the definite article prefix "the" from Ancient Egyptian p3).

A similar development, with a word originally denoting an attribute of the king eventually coming to refer to the person, can be discerned in a later period with the Arabic term Sultan.


The king of Egypt wore a double crown, created from the Red Crown of Lower Egypt and the White Crown of Upper Egypt. In certain situations, the pharaoh wore a blue crown of a different shape. All of these crowns typically were adorned by a uraeus, which was doubled under the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty.

The pharaoh also wore a striped headcloth called the nemes, which may be the most familiar pharaonic headgear. The nemes was sometimes combined with the double crown, as it is on the statues of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel.

The pharaoh would also wear a false beard made of goat hair during rituals and ceremonies.

Egyptologist Bob Brier has noted that despite its widespread depiction in royal portraits, no ancient Egyptian crown ever has been discovered. Tutankhamun's tomb, discovered largely intact, did contain such regal items as his crook and flail, but not a crown. Crowns were assumed to have magical properties, and Brier's speculation is that there were items a dead pharaoh could not take with him which therefore had to be passed along to his living successor.


The official titulary of the king by the Middle Kingdom consisted of five names; for some rulers, only one or two of them may be known.

Of the three great non-consort Queens of Egypt (Hatshepsut, Sobeknefru, and Twosret), at least Hatshepsut took the title pharaoh in the absence of an existing word for "Queen Regnant". Also notable is Nefertiti who was made co-regent (the pharaoh's equal) during the reign of Akhenaten. Some scholars further suspect that her disappearance coincides with the rise of Smenkhkare to the throne after Akhenaten's death, making Nefertiti yet another woman who became pharaoh in Egyptian history. Although not typical, there are instances of women who were pharaoh early in Egyptian history also and its last pharaoh was Cleopatra VII. The royal lineage was traced through its women and a pharaoh had to be from that lineage or married to one of them if coming from without the lineage. This was the reason for all of the intermarriages in the royal families of Egypt.

During the eighteenth dynasty (sixteenth to fourteenth centuries B.C.) the title Pharaoh was employed as a reverential designation of the king. About the late twenty-first dynasty (tenth century B.C.), however, instead of being used alone as before, it began to be added to the other titles before the king's name, and from the twenty-fifth dynasty (eighth to seventh centuries B.C.) it was, at least in ordinary usage, the only epithet prefixed to the royal appellative. For instance, the first dated instance of the title Pharaoh being attached to a king's name occurs in Year 17 of Siamun on a fragment from the Karnak Priestly Annals. Here, an induction of an individual to the Amun priesthood is dated specifically to the reign of Pharaoh Siamun. This new practice was continued under his successor Psusennes II and the twenty-first Dynasty kings. Meanwhile the old custom of referring to the sovereign simply as Per'o continued in traditional Egyptian narratives. The Biblical use of the term reflects Egyptian usage with fair accuracy. The early kings always are mentioned under the general title Pharaoh, or Pharaoh the King of Egypt; but personal names begin to appear with the twenty-second dynasty, although the older designation is still used, especially when contemporary rulers are spoken of. The absence of proper names in the first books of the Bible is no indication of the late date of their composition and of writer's vague knowledge of Egyptian history, rather to the contrary. The same is true of the use of the title Pharaoh for kings earlier than the eighteenth dynasty, which is quite in keeping with Egyptian usage at the time of the nineteenth dynasty.

Pharaohs in the Bible

The first king of Egypt mentioned by name in the Bible is Shishaq (probably Sheshonk I), the founder of the twenty-second dynasty and contemporary of Rehoboam and Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:40; 2 Chronicles 12:2 sqq.). The title pharaoh is prefixed to his name in the Great Dakhla stela—as in Pharaoh Shoshenq—which dates to Year 5 of his reign. 2 Kings 17:4 says that Hoshea sent letters to 'So, King of Egypt', whose identification is still not certain. He has been identified with Osorkon IV, who was a minor king at Tanis who ruled over a divided Egypt, with Tefnakht of Sais and Pi'ankhy. Taharqa, who was the opponent of Sennacherib, is called King of Ethiopia (2 Kings 19:9; Isaiah 37:9), and hence is not given the title Pharaoh which he bears in Egyptian documents. Last are two kings of the twenty-sixth dynasty: Necho II, who the Bible says defeated Josiah (2 Kings 23:29 sqq.; 2 Chronicles 35:20 sqq.), and Apries or Hophra, the contemporary of Sedicous (Jeremiah 44:30). Both are styled pharaoh in Egyptian records.

See also



  • Sir Alan Gardiner Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs, Third Edition, Revised. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. Excursus A, pp. 71-76.
  • Brier, Bob. PhD. History of ancient Egypt (Audio). The First Nation in History. The Learning Company. 2001.

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