Although in ancient Egypt the term pharaoh (great house) referred to the royal palace and was used in reference to the monarch only as an instance of metonymy, modern historians follow the biblical convention of using the term for the monarch himself.

Some Egyptians of the New Kingdom and later used the term the same way, but informally and never in official contexts. The first time pharaoh was used to refer to the monarch himself was in reference to Akhenaten.

The pharaoh wore a double crown to symbolize his rule of both Lower Egypt (Ta-Mehu, in the north, where the Nile Delta drains into the Mediterranean) and Upper Egypt (Ta-Shemau, in the south but upstream along the Nile River). The First Dynasty unified the two kingdoms in the 31st or 32nd century b.c.e.

It is not entirely clear who was the first pharaoh of a unified Egypt. No pharaonic crown has been found; pharaohs apparently were not buried with it, and there may have been one crown that was passed on from one ruler to the next.

The record of pharaohs is incomplete and often conflicting; the case of Menes is only one of several in which modern Egyptologists believe a recorded name may refer to a pharaoh we know by another name, or may only be legend.

In the Intermediate Periods and the early dynasties, there are dozens of pharaohs about whom we have only fragments of names, names without further information (such as the length of their reign or when it transpired), or dubious names that do not seem to fit with the information we do have.

Many pharaohs we know according to different parts of their full title, which by the Middle Kingdom became the fivefold titulary, a system of increasingly formalized names arranged to describe the pharaoh’s rule. These gove names were the Horus name (also called the Banner name and the Ka name), the Nebty (or Two Ladies) name, the Golden Horus (or Gold) name, the praenomen, and the nomen.

The Horus name represented the pharaoh’s divine relationship with the god Horus and was written in hieroglyphics in a pictograph of a palace, usually alongside the god in the form of a falcon. Horus names date to the Old Kingdom period and are frequently the only surviving name of early pharaohs, who adopted it upon ascending the throne and ceased using their birth names.

In the earliest dynasties Horus was read as part of the name: Hor-Aha, had he ruled in a later time, would simply have been Aha. During the New Kingdom period Horus was often depicted wearing a double crown and appeared with a sun and a uraeus (a stylized cobra appearing on the pharaoh’s crown).

The Nebty name became standard in the Twelfth Dynasty and was associated with the patron goddesses of Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt: Wadjet (symbolized by a cobra) and Nekhbet (symbolized by a vulture). Each goddess’s symbol appeared beside the name.

The significance of the Golden Horus name is somewhat less clear. It appeared beside a falcon perched above the hieroglyph for gold, and the Greek portion of the Rosetta Stone translates as "superior to his foes". Many Egyptologists believe the name symbolizes Horus’s triumph over his brother Seth, but gold’s symbolic meaning as "eternity" may be equally important, and the name may reflect something about the pharaoh’s wishes for the afterlife, an aspect of himself he considered immutable in any world.

At the end of the Old Kingdom most pharaohs were known only by their praenomen and nomen. Each of the names was enclosed in a cartouche, an oblong that enclosed a name to indicate its royal status. Other names were reserved for official formal purposes and record keeping.

The nomen was the birth name given to the crown prince and was represented by a duck (a homonym for the word for "son") and a sun to represent Ra. "The good god" or "the lord of apparitions" was sometimes added before the nomen. The praenomen was a name chosen upon ascending the throne and usually included a reference to Ra. It often appeared along with the title "Lord of the Two Lands", another reminder of Egypt’s pluralism.

The full name of Thutmose I, a Nineteenth Dynasty pharaoh, was therefore Kanakht Merymaat Khamnesretnebetaapehti Neferrenputseankhibu Aakheperkare Thutmose, with various titles inserted between the names according to the occasion.

The Pharaoh’s Role in Religion

Pharaoh role in religion
Pharaoh role in religion

As the son of Horus (and as a result of his connection with sun deities), the pharaoh had a divinely paternal relationship with his nation: personal, disciplinary, protective, and sustaining. The pharaoh was the source not only of the land's fertility and abundance but of the maintenance of maat, a distinctly Egyptian concept sometimes translated as "truth" or "justice" (as the goddess Ma’at presided over both) and related to the Greek logos.

Maat is perhaps best understood, as "the way things ought to be", a blueprint of a healthy and working universe in which everything is interdependent and in proper balance: Without it there would be chaos. When maat was in balance, the annual Nile floods would nourish the farmland, the people would have enough to eat and would not be beset by illness or plague, and Egypt would remain unconquerable.

The pharaoh’s responsibility was to preserve maat not merely through appropriate action but by being sufficiently divine, as a people ruled by a god would live in balance. The pharaohs’ extraordinary and labor-intensive construction projects resulting in the Sphinx, the pyramids, and other monuments reinforced the pharaoh’s importance.

The pharaoh’s ka, a part of the soul—in ordinary people passed on from the father, for the pharaoh from his divine parent—was unique in that, perhaps like the double crown, it was passed on from one pharaoh to the next. It did not matter if the successor was the blood relative of his predecessor: As celebrated in the Opet festival of the New Kingdom, the pharaoh received his ka from Amun and returned it to the god in the form of ritual and offerings so that it could be strengthened and maintained for the pharaohs to come.

The Opet festival was one of many which celebrated the pharaoh’s relationship with his kingdom and the divine and consisted largely of ceremonies and rituals in which the public did not participate, not even to bear witness. Increasingly, especially during the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom periods, participatory religious activities were absorbed into the religiopolitical framework of Egyptian government, and the priesthood was indistinguishable from the court bureaucracy.

Significant Pharaohs


Sneferu was the founder of the Fourth Dynasty and a prolific builder of pyramids and monuments. Under his reign the pyramid of Huni at Meidum was completed and turned from a step pyramid into the world’s first true pyramid (one with smooth sides).

At the royal necropolis of Dahshur, he also built the so-called Bent Pyramid (the top of which was built at an angle 11 degrees shallower than the rest, making it appear to bend or dimple) and the Red Pyramid, so called for its exposed granite surface. All of Sneferu’s pyramids show an interest in experimenting with building styles not seen under other pharaohs.


Best known by his Greek name, Cheops, Khufu was the son of Sneferu and builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that stands today, the Great Pyramid originally stood at 481 feet with a base covering 53,000 sq. miles and weighed about 6 million tons, or as much as 17 Empire State Buildings.


A Fourth-Dynasty pharaoh, Khafra was most likely Khufu’s grandson and continued in his family’s tradition of building. After building a smaller pyramid at Giza, he built the Great Sphinx, a half-man/half-lion statue 260 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 65 feet tall.

The lion was often a symbol of the Sun, as well as one used to represent the pharaoh during those early dynasties. Sphinx is a Greek name; it is unclear what the Egyptians called it and unknown whether the face of the Sphinx is meant to be that of Khafra or perhaps his father, or even Sneferu, the dynastic founder.

Pepi II

A Sixth Dynasty pharaoh whose reign began at age six and lasted for 94 years (2278–2184 b.c.e.), Pepi enjoyed the longest reign of any monarch in history. It was not a strong reign: Pepi’s rule is associated with the decline of the Old Kingdom, as power, influence, prestige, and wealth shifted from the pharaoh to the nomarchs (provincial governors). It is not clear whether Merenre Nemtyemsaf II or Nitiqret succeeded Pepi.


The last pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty is believed to have been a woman named Nitiqret. Her existence is attested both by Greek historian Herodotus and in detail by third-century b.c.e. Egyptian historian Manetho. Manetho credits her with the third pyramid at Giza, while Herodotus describes her fratricide and subsequent suicide. Many modern Egyptologists believe that Nitiqret never existed, and that "Nitiqret" originated as a bad transliteration of the male pharaoh Netjerkare Siptah I.


Sobekneferu, on the other hand, was certainly a pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty, and the first known female ruler of Egypt. She was most likely the daughter of Amenemhat III, whose son (her brother, Amenemhat IV) died without a male heir. She reigned for just less than four years, and the Twelfth Dynasty ended with her.


Originally called Amenhotep IV at the beginning of his Eighteenth Dynasty reign, Akhenaten is a complicated figure. The son of Amenhotep III and Tiy, and possibly a co-regent in the last few years of his father’s reign, Akhenaten was a religious heretic whose beliefs would become the central focus of his reign.

He revered the obscure solar deity Aten; for Akhenaten the Aten was not simply a deity of the Sun but the solar disc itself and the properties of light responsible for sustaining life. The Aten had previously been associated with a syncretic deity, a combination of Horus, Ra, and Amun, but Akhenaten dismissed those humanoid gods in favor of the disc itself and eventually declared the Aten the only true deity.

Atenism, also called the Amarna heresy, thus began as a henotheistic faith, one that acknowledged the existence of other gods but did not worship them (an unusual stance in the ancient world). Akhenaten emphasized a personal relationship with the divine Aten over the rituals that had so dominated Egyptian spiritual life—something which modern commentators have fixated on, sometimes calling him "the first individual".

While Sigmund Freud argued that Akhenaten’s monotheism inspired Judaism, there is no reasonable evidence for this, and the theory ignores the significant evidence that Jewish monotheism developed out of early henotheistic (and perhaps polytheistic) traditions that predate Akhenaten’s reign. It is also unlikely that Akhenaten is either of the two pharaohs referred to in the biblical book of Exodus.


After Akhenaten’ and the Amarna heresy Egypt returned to traditional worship under Tutankhamun, best known now as "King Tut". Howard Carter discovered his well-preserved tomb at the apex of Egyptology’s hold on the popular imagination, in 1923, leading to urban legends of "the mummy’s curse" and inspiring a new generation of tomb raiders.

Cleopatra VII

Generally referred to now simply as Cleopatra, Cleopatra VII Philopator was the last Hellenistic ruler of Egypt, the last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty that had begun when Ptolemy, a Macedonian general to Alexander the Great, declared himself ruler of all Egypt in the aftermath of Alexander’s death. The Ptolemaic dynasty had included seven queens, all named Cleopatra (Greek for "father’s glory"). All the kings were named Ptolemy.

Though perhaps not technically a pharaoh, Cleopatra is significant in the discussion of Egyptian monarchic rule, not for her romances with Roman general Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, but because with her suicide Egypt passed into Roman hands. While Roman rulers proclaimed themselves "Pharaoh of Egypt" from that point until the fall of the empire, there was never again a true pharaoh.