Photo by Kévin et Laurianne Langlais.
The government of ancient Egypt was a theocratic monarchy as the king ruled by a mandate from the gods, initially was seen as an intermediary between human beings and the divine, and was supposed to represent the gods' will through the laws passed and policies approved.
The way in which the government worked changed slightly over the centuries, but the basic pattern was set in the First Dynasty of Egypt (c. 3150 - c. 2890 BCE). The king ruled over the country with a vizier as second-in-command, government officials, scribes, regional governors (known as nomarchs), mayors of the town, and, following the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782 - c.1570 BCE), a police force. From his palace at the capital, the king would make his pronouncements, decree laws, and commission building projects, and his word would then be implemented by the bureaucracy which became necessary to administer rule in the country. Egypt's form of government lasted, with little modification, from c. 3150 BCE to 30 BCE when the country was annexed by Rome.
EARLY DYNASTIC PERIOD & OLD KINGDOM
The ruler was known as a 'king' up until the New Kingdom of Egypt (1570-1069 BCE) when the term 'pharaoh' (meaning 'Great House,' a reference to the royal residence) came into use. The first king was Narmer (also known as Menes) who established a central government after uniting the country, probably by military means. The economy of Egypt was based on agriculture and used a barter system. The lower-class peasants farmed the land, gave the wheat and other produce to the noble landowner (keeping a modest portion for themselves), and the landowner then turned the produce over to the government to be used in trade or in distribution to the wider community.
The most powerful person in the country after the king was the vizier. There were sometimes two viziers, one for Upper and one for Lower Egypt. The vizier was the voice of the king and his representative and was usually a relative or someone very close to the monarch. The vizier managed the bureaucracy of the government and delegated the responsibilities as per the orders of the king. During the Old Kingdom, the viziers would have been in charge of the building projects as well as managing other affairs.
Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, the viziers became less vigilant as their position became more comfortable. The enormous wealth of the government was going out to these massive building projects at Giza, at Abusir, Saqqara, and Abydos and the priests who administered the temple complexes at these sites, as well as the nomarchs and provincial governors, were becoming more and more wealthy. As their wealth grew, so did their power, and as their power grew, they were less and less inclined to care very much what the king thought or what his vizier may or may not have demanded of them. The rise in the power of the priests and nomarchs meant a decline in that of the central government which, combined with other factors, brought about the collapse of the Old Kingdom.
Photo by Jeremy Zero
FIRST INTERMEDIATE PERIOD & MIDDLE KINGDOM
The kings still ruled from their capital of Memphis at the beginning of the First Intermediate Period, but they had very little actual power. The nomarchs administered their own regions, collected their own taxes, built their own temples and monuments in their honor, and commissioned their own tombs. The early kings of the First Intermediate Period (7th-10th dynasties) were so ineffectual that their names are hardly remembered and their dates are often confused. The nomarchs, on the other hand, grew steadily in power. Historian Margaret Bunson explains their traditional role prior to the First Intermediate Period:
The power of such local rulers was modified in times of strong pharaohs, but generally they served the central government, accepting the traditional role of being First Under The King. This rank denoted an official's right to administer a particular nome or province on behalf of the pharaoh. Such officials were in charge of the region's courts, treasury, land offices, conservation programs, militia, archives, and store-houses. They reported to the vizier and to the royal treasury on affairs within their jurisdiction. (103)
During the First Intermediate Period, however, the nomarchs used their growing resources to serve themselves and their communities. The kings of Memphis, perhaps in an attempt to regain some of their lost prestige, moved the capital to the city of Herakleopolis but were no more successful there than at the old capital.
C. 2125 BCE an overlord known as Intef I rose to power at a provincial city called Thebes in Upper Egypt and inspired his community to rebel against the kings of Memphis. His actions would inspire those who succeeded him and finally result in the victory of Mentuhotep II over the kings of Herakleopolis c. 2040 BCE, initiating the Middle Kingdom.
Mentuhotep II reigned from Thebes. Although he had ousted the old kings and begun a new dynasty, he patterned his rule on that of the Old Kingdom. The Old Kingdom was looked back on as a great age in Egypt's history, and the pyramids and expansive complexes at Giza and elsewhere were potent reminders of the glory of the past. One of the old patterns he kept, which had been neglected during the latter part of the Old Kingdom, was duplication of agencies for Upper and Lower Egypt as Bunson explains:
In general, the administrative offices of the central government were exact duplicates of the traditional provincial agencies, with one significant difference. In most periods the offices were doubled, one for Upper Egypt and one for Lower Egypt. This duality was carried out in architecture as well, providing palaces with two entrances, two throne rooms, etc. The nation viewed itself as a whole, but there were certain traditions dating back to the legendary northern and southern ancestors, the semi-divine kings of the predynastic period, and to the concept of symmetry. (103)
The duplication of agencies not only honored the north and the south of Egypt equally but, more importantly for the king, kept tighter control of both regions. Mentuhotep II's successor, Amenemhat I (c. 1991 - c.1962 BCE), moved the capital to the city of Iti-tawy near Lisht and continued the old policies, enriching the government quickly enough to begin his own building projects. His shifting of the capital from Thebes to Lisht may have been an attempt at further unifying Egypt by centering the government in the middle of the country instead of toward the south. In an effort which curbed the power of the nomarchs, Amenemhat I created the first standing army in Egypt directly under the king's control. Prior to this, armies were raised by conscription in the different districts and the nomarch then sent his men to the king. This gave the nomarchs a great degree of power as the men's loyalties lay with their community and regional ruler. A standing army, loyal first to the king, encouraged nationalism and stronger unity.
SECOND INTERMEDIATE PERIOD & NEW KINGDOM
The later Egyptian writers characterized the time of the Hyksos as chaotic and claimed they invaded and destroyed the country. Actually, the Hyksos admired Egyptian culture and adopted it as their own. Although they did conduct raids on Egyptian cities such as Memphis, carrying statuary and monuments back to Avaris, they dressed as Egyptians, worshiped Egyptian gods, and incorporated elements of Egyptian government in their own.
The Egyptian government at Itj-tawi near Lisht could no longer control the region and abandoned Lower Egypt to the Hyksos, moving the capital back to Thebes. As the Hyksos gained power in the north, the Kushites advanced in the south and took back lands Egypt had conquered under Senusret III. The Egyptians at Thebes tolerated this situation until c. 1580 BCE when the Egyptian king Seqenenra Taa (also known as Ta'O) felt he had been insulted and challenged by the Hyksos king Apepi and attacked. This initiative was picked up and furthered by his son Kamose (c. 1575 BCE) and finally by his brother Ahmose I (c. 1570-c. 1544 BCE), who defeated the Hyksos and drove them out of Egypt.
The victory of Ahmose I begins the period known as the New Kingdom of Egypt, the best-known and most well-documented era in Egyptian history. At this time, the Egyptian government was reorganized and reformed slightly so that now the hierarchy ran from the pharaoh at the top, to the vizier, the royal treasurer, the general of the military, overseers (supervisors of government locations like worksites) and scribes who kept the records and relayed correspondence.
The monarchial theocracy of Egypt lasted over 3,000 years, creating and maintaining one of the world's greatest ancient cultures. Many of the devices, artifacts, and practices of the modern day originated in Egypt's more stable periods of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms when there was a strong central government which provided the stability necessary for the creation of art and culture.
The kings and later pharaohs of ancient Egypt began their reigns by offering themselves to the service of the goddess of truth, Ma'at, who personified universal harmony and balance and embodied the concept of ma'at which was so important to Egyptian culture. By maintaining harmony, the king of Egypt provided the people with a culture that encouraged creativity and innovation. Each king would begin his reign by 'presenting Ma'at' to the other gods of the Egyptian pantheon as a way of assuring them that he would follow her precepts and encourage his people to do likewise during his reign. The government of ancient Egypt, for the most part, kept to this divine bargain with their gods and the result was the grand civilization of ancient Egypt.
Late Period of Ancient Egypt & Ptolemaic Period
Egypt was again divided as it now entered the Third Intermediate Period (1069-525 BCE). The government at Thebes claimed supremacy while recognizing the legitimacy of the rulers at Per Ramesses and intermarrying with them. The division of the government weakened Egypt which began to degenerate into civil wars during the Late Period (c. 664-332 BCE). At this time, the would-be rulers of Egypt fought each other using Greek mercenaries who, in time, lost interest in the fight and started their own communities in the Nile River Valley.
In 671 and 666 BCE the Assyrians invaded and took control of the country, and in 525 BCE the Persians invaded. Under Persian rule Egypt became a satrapy with the capital at Memphis and, like the Assyrians before them, Persians were placed in all positions of power. When Alexander the Great conquered Persia, he took Egypt in 331 BCE, had himself crowned pharaoh at Memphis, and placed his Macedonians in power.
After Alexander's death, his general Ptolemy (323-285 BCE) founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt which lasted from 323-30 BCE. The Ptolemies, like the Hyksos before them, greatly admired Egyptian culture and incorporated it into their rule. Ptolemy I tried to blend the cultures of Greece and Egypt together to create a harmonious, multinational country - and he succeeded - but it did not last long beyond the reign of Ptolemy V (204-181 BCE). Under Ptolemy V's reign, the country was again in rebellion and the central government was weak. The last Ptolemaic pharaoh of Egypt was Cleopatra VII (69-30 BCE), and after her death the country was annexed by Rome.
Mark, J. J. (2016, October 13). Ancient Egyptian Government. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/Egyptian_Government/