The title might sound a bit strange and perplexing, but throughout the following lines I’m going to elaborate on the historical reasons why the rulers of ancient Egypt were called kings and not Pharaohs. And by straightening out this bizarre issue, the Israelite connection will eventually be exposed.
“Kings or pharaohs, what difference does it make?” some might argue.
Well, it would make a world of difference if we discovered that, for thousands of years, we’ve been living a myth that we continue to cling to and hold dear as the only irrefutable truth till this very day.
It would make a world of difference if we knew that what took place at that remote period of time in the ancient Near East, particularly in ancient Egypt, has dramatically shaped, over the centuries and through our willful ignorance, the way we live today with all this web of political, ethnic and religious conflict and intolerance, and that only by unraveling the truth and exposing the myths of that past could we untangle this web of antagonism and belligerence we currently endure.
Ancient Egypt, the rise and demise
Egypt, a nation known worldwide as the land of the pharaohs, is so embedded in history you can trace back its culture, spirituality and traditions for thousands of years way long before the world crossed the threshold of civilization; when ancient Egypt was building the great pyramids under a powerful, highly organized central government the world was still crawling out of its prehistoric ages
The thing that makes the ancient Egyptian kingdom stand out as a unique civilization in the ancient world history, besides the magnificent legacy of colossal wonders of masonry and engineering and the highly religious texts and moral teachings is the fact that the ancient Egyptians kept a solid and coherent documentation of their chronicles that covered the geo-political, socio-economic, military records and even covered the daily life activities in a way that left not much room for second guessing or speculation.
With the demise of ancient Egypt, the language of that civilization – hieroglyphs – that kept intact and thriving for well over three millennia was eventually declared extinct following the Ptolemaic and Roman period(332 BC- 395 AD)
After that, the ancient Egyptian monuments and texts had been shrouded in sheer silence and neglect and the once great civilization that witnessed the first dawn of human conscience and helped to shape the human code of moral conduct turned into oblivion.
For the following 1500 years too many narratives and stories had been spawned seemingly trying to retell the story of ancient Egypt, not as it actually occurred but through interpretations and perspectives that somehow served the interests of the story tellers.
The story of ancient Egypt, the Israelite version
Of all the narratives that were told about ancient Egypt, the Hebrew Bible is the one narrative that managed to convince the world with its stories of some Pharaoh and Hebrew slaves that, it alone, monopolized the truth about the history of ancient Egypt.
Most of the scholars of the history of the ancient Near East for nearly two millennia relied primarily on the Bible as a scientific reference and in doing so they simply followed what the Hebrew scribes wrote, or better yet tampered with in the history of ancient Egypt and blindly took it for granted.
As for the common people, who were illiterate, they fell prey to the rabbinic oral literature of Midrash and Mishnah ceaselessly boasting about the infamous myth of Moses and pharaoh.
Scholars of the Biblical ancient history of the Near East and in the absence of the technology of modern archeology, and instead of excavating the earth and digging out the hidden truth, they simply resketched the landscape and chronicles of that remote period of time following whatever signs they encountered within the confines of the Bible pages.
According to the book of Exodus, the king who ruled Egypt in Moses’ time was also referred to as Pharaoh. He is addressed as Pharaoh 128 times. Three examples are illustrated below:
When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian… [2:15]
Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet.” [7:1]
When Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and horsemen went into the sea, the Lord brought the waters of the sea back over them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry land. [15:19]
This is how the world got to recognize Egypt as the land, according to the Hebrew’s alleged narrative, where pharaohs brutally reigned and enslaved the ancient Hebrews and also as the land that witnessed the alleged devastating ten plagues, the awe-inspiring parting of the sea and the epical exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
So whenever Egypt was mentioned during the last two thousands of years, the word pharaoh would simultaneously pop up in the discourse thus adding more deluding power to the Hebrew and Biblical designation of the rulers of ancient Egypt as pharaohs.
Ancient Egypt resurrected
Thanks to this brilliant Champollion, the long muted and almost buried under the earth ancient Egypt with treasures of enormous records and chronicles inscribed on the stone and written on papyrus scrolls were resurrected and finally brought back to life.
And what the predecessors thought of as mute masonry covered with some weird scribblings and coffins haunted with some kind of eternal curse began to attract eager historians and modern archeologists who, upon dusting off the ancient artifacts and temple reliefs and inscriptions, and on reading the Egyptian texts they, and for the first time, began to listen to the stone and the papyri uttering the truth about the genuine story of ancient Egypt.
In the mid-nineteenth century the genuine version of the history of ancient Egypt and the Near East was beginning to unravel as its true stories were being retold again.
Ironically enough, what the excavated records of ancient Egypt told the modern historians and archeologists was totally different from what the Hebrew narrative said. But what struck historians as a total surprise is the fact that ancient Egyptian records had no mention of any Israelites in Egypt, non whatsoever, while the Hebrew Bible is replete with tales of Egypt, and the more of ancient Egypt texts and inscriptions were unraveled, the remoter from truth the Biblical narrative looked.
Interestingly, and as the historical findings and the non- stop archeological discoveries were in the process of resurrecting the true story of ancient Egypt the Biblical narrative kept on decomposing subjecting some of the dominant Israelite stories, like the exodus, to demolition after it had been scientifically refuted by prominent modern archeologists, many of whom are Israelis and who amongst other Canadian and American Egyptologists now view the story of the Israelites exodus as a mere myth or one of the ancient Israelite’s tales that had been somehow magnified, stretched out and skillfully embroidered by the gifted Hebrew scribes of the Bible over the years.
The ancient Egyptian royal titulary
If we went back in time and tried to find how the word “Pharaoh” claimed that worldwide popularity, we would undoubtedly have to stop before the Hebrew landmark story of the exodus from Egypt, the tale of Moses, where he and his people fled the Egyptian kingdom while being chased down by the army of an alleged tyrant referred to as Pharaoh.
Was pharaoh the name of the Egyptian king, or was it his title or his epithet, that is one thing the Bible had not been clear about. But while such nuance could be appreciated in fictional works, it could never fit satisfactorily into a scientific historical account.
Tracing the etymology and the historicity of that word “Pharaoh” and for an avid reader and researcher of Egyptology who spends almost all of his weekends at the Egyptian museum in Cairo, I stumbled upon the most astonishing discovery. I didn’t discover a new royal mummy nor found the lost tomb of king Akhenaten, I simply found out, contrary to what everybody believed, that the history and the chronicles of ancient Egypt had no mention of pharaohs.
History shows that ancient Egypt only knew kings and sometimes queens but never pharaohs nor any mention of enslavement of Israelites, as a matter of fact; slavery was not a common practice in ancient Egypt and it was introduced into the late dynasties of ancient Egypt only after the Persian and the Roman conquest.
The old kingdom (2686-2181 BC) knew kings such as Djoser, Khufu and Teti , the middle kingdom ( 2055-1650 BC) had kings such as Senusret I and Senusret II and the new kingdom ( 1550-1069 BC) witnessed the topnotch kings such as Thutmose III, queen Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and Usermaatre Setpenre ( Ramsses II )
Egyptian kings typically had five names, a Personal name (nomen) which was bestowed upon them at birth and another four names- Horus name, Nebty (“two ladies”) name, Horus of Gold, Throne name (praenomen),that were not given until they took the throne. The final four names were bestowed upon the king to officially commemorate his transformation from a mortal to a deity. The birth name of the king seems to have remained very prominent in the king’s life. It was the birth name that was primarily used in the cartouche and the name by which the king was most commonly known.
The kings’ throne name usually had strong connotations of sovereignty over the upper and lower Egypt and divine relation to the gods Amen or Re.
The coronation name inside a cartouche was usually accompanied with the title nesu-bity, “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” and the epithet neb tawy, “Lord of the Two Lands”, referring to upper Egypt and delta regions of Egypt.
For example, king Tutankhamun’s throne name was Neb-Kheperu-re, which means “Lord of Manifestations is Re and was customarily accompanied by the epithet “lord of the two lands” followed by the usual benediction “life, prosperity and health”
According to the ancient texts and papyri, high ranking officials like high priests, princes, commanders of the army… etc, addressed the king as the ruler of the crowns, beloved of the gods, lord of the diadems, living forever and forever… but never as Pharaoh.
Not so often kings of ancient Egypt were referred to as the magnificent in earth and heaven, lord of crowns and as “the sun in the sky” and this was the ultimate titulary that reflected the ascension of the king to the realm of deities.
Etymology shows that the word pharaoh is the Greek pronunciation of the compound word ” pe-ro” or “pr –aa” which referred to the palace of the king or rather the great house and not necessarily the king himself.
Some argue that during the eighteenth dynasty (sixteenth to fourteenth centuries BC) the title pharaoh was employed as a reverential designation of the ruler as is the case in a letter to Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), who reigned 1353 – 1336 BC, which is addressed to ‘Pharaoh, all life, prosperity, and health!.
But then again, that was not entirely correct, as shown in the letters of Amarna (Tablet correspondence between the Egyptian administration during the reign of king Akhenaten (1350-1334) and its representatives in Canaan and Amurru and the state of international affairs between Egypt and the major powers of the Middle East, Babylonia, Mitanni and Assyria).
In the letters sent by the kings of Babylon and Assyria Akhentaen is addressed as the king of Egypt whereas in those sent by the Canaanite representatives he is addressed “To the King my lord, my sun, my god, the breath of my life… your slave and dust under your feet. At the feet of the King my lord, my sun, my god, the breath of my life, I bowed down seven times seven times”
The Great House vs. the White House
In their letters to the royal palace, foreign non-Egyptian subordinates & representatives were not entitled to directly address the king of Egypt, the magnificent in earth and heaven by his throne name. It was simply not their place to do so. They had to refer to him in a highly dignified and reverential designation. So it was common and accepted from a protocol point of view to refer to the king of Egypt, who presided over the skies like the sun as the one who resides in the great house or the royal palace.
In other words, it was customary and kind of required of those foreign subordinates who were not Egyptian subjects nor well instructed in the Egyptian ancient traditions and culture to refer to the king of Egypt as the great house dweller.
And as we of today refer to the president of the United States and his inner circle of high officials as the white house, in the ancient world and especially amongst the Asiatic foreigners they referred to the mighty king of Egypt and his court of priests and commanders as the great house. And just as the white house is not the title of the president of United States so the “pr – aa” was not the name of the ruler of ancient Egypt.
Never was there a papyrus or an inscription on any wall or pylon of any Egyptian temple that showed the word pharaoh as a reference to the king himself. The name of the king, as the ancient Egyptian traditions decreed, was always enclosed in a royal cartouche.
And to get a grasp of the meaning of “pr – aa” and when ancient Egyptians were inclined to use it, we could only discern that in the following lines from a hymn to the god Ra taken out from the ancient coffin texts or what is known as the book of the dead.