1. They were gods
The pharaohs, who ruled Egypt from about 3150 BC to about 30 BC started out as simple kings. But following the unification of the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt the Pharaoh became an almost mythical figure, worshipped as a living god by his people. He was the living embodiment of the god Horus, the god of the sky, war, hunting, order and justice. After death they became the god Osiris, the chief deity, god of justice and the afterlife. It was this assumption of deity that justified the huge expensive tombs, which reached their magnificent pinnacle of ridiculousness with the great pyramid of Cheops build in about 2500 BC. The pharaohs lived in complete luxury and exercised absolute power over their kingdom, and later their empire.
2. There was a female pharaoh
Queen Hatshepsut was one of the few women to rule over Egypt. She was married to her half brother, and uniquely for a woman was his co-ruler. When her husband-brother died, Hatshepsut took over as Pharaoh. She is considered one of the most successful rulers of ancient Egypt. She fought hard to establish her authority and glorified her reign with some of the country’s most magnificent monuments. She was an able military commander but focussed on establishing and extending trade routes with the near and far world, increasing Egypt’s renown and wealth. In order to overcome the, to the Egyptians, awkward fact that she was a woman, she insisted that she only ever be portrayed as a man in art, and indeed she called herself ‘son of Ra’ and wore a fake beard when conducting kingly business. When she died, her son was so ashamed that he had her erased from history, Her existence, and her life story, were only discovered in 1903.
3. They often married their siblings
The line of succession in Egyptian society passed through the female line. The was complicated because, apart from Hatshepsut, pharaohs were male, and tended to name male heirs. So in order to shore up the heir’s claim to the throne, the great royal wife (that is the chief wife) who bore the heir was usually the king’s sister or half-sister. As a result the kings became pretty inbred. Take Tutankhamun. His parents were brother and sister, and he himself married his sister. In his fabulous tomb, discovered untouched in 1923, there are the burial remains of two still born children. Given the amount of inbreeding, their early deaths are not surprising. A recent reconstruction of Tutankhamun shows him as suffering from the effects of this inbreeding. The boy-king had an overbite, a cleft palate, a bad case of scoliosis and a clubbed foot.
4. Pharaoh Akhenaten was the first leader of a monotheistic religion
Egypt is famous for its plethora of gods. They had gods for everything and anything. By Amenhotep IV, who changed his name for religious reasons to Akhenaten, changed all that. He decided that the one true god was the sun-god Aten, and he went about changing Egyptian culture to cater for his god. Other gods were banned, and Akhenaten decided to build a new city for his capital that was untainted by the old gods. He chose a spot on the Nile called Amarna. He used slave labour to build this city in a short period of time and he pushed the slaves to death. Of the bodies found in Amarna’s cemetery two thirds have broken backs from the punishing work they were forced to carry out. The people were barely fed and anyone trying to get more food was stabbed to death. But soon he had his city of the sun-god, and he moved in with wife, Nefertiti, and his children which included the young Tutankhamun (called Tutankhaten at the time in honour of his father’s god). It didn’t last of course. At his death, Akhenaten was wiped from history, his city demolished, his monuments razed. Under his son, Egypt reverted to its old gods, and the reign of the sun-god was quietly forgotten.
5. Rameses II had 100 children
Considered one of the great, empire building pharaohs Rameses II inherited the throne when he was 14 and ruled for 76 years, dying at the astonishing age of 90. Called Rameses the Great, he built more statues and monuments than any other king, and he had at least 9 wives. These women bore him at least 100 children between them. He invaded Kheta and refused to agree to peace unless the king of Kheta gave Rameses his eldest daughter. He also liked to marry his own children, including his own eldest daughter. She bore him children just like the rest of his harem. He may also have married his sister Henutmire , but given Egyptian culture at the time, she was probably also his daughter.
6. Tutankhamun was a loser
Tutankhamun (ruled 1332 – 1323 BCE) is today the most famous pharaoh of ancient Egypt. This is due to the discovery of his intact tomb in the 1920s. It was the most complete royal Egyptian burial ever found. But for all his present-day fame, King Tut didn’t actually do much in his time on the throne. His main achievement was overseeing the return to polytheism after the monotheistic experiments of his father Akhenaten. Besides marrying his sister, and dying at the age of about 15, the great boy king was a bit of a loser.
7. Cleopatra was no beauty
Cleopatra VII, the famous Cleopatra, was the last queen of ancient Egypt. The realm had been invaded by her native Greek decades before and the ruling Ptolemy family were Greek speaking. Cleopatra won the heart of Julius Cesaer, dictator of Rome, and also of his sidekick, Mark Anthony. Shakespeare tells the tale of how that particular love triangle ended (spoiler – the end of Egypt as an independent kingdom and the founding of the Roman empire). So was Cleopatra the stunning beauty we have learned about? Erm. No. According to the only contemporary portraits we have – coins issued when she was Queen – Cleopatra had a big nose, deep-set eyes, and a large chin, There are no contemporary accounts of the queen, but the Roman historian Plutarch, hinting at the rumours that the queen was not pretty, said that her charm lay in her melodious voice, and the elegance with which she carried herself.
8. Rameses II made the first recorded peace treaty
The Egyptians and the Hittites fought each other for over 200 years. Over a series of bloody battles, they reached a stalemate. Each side also faced threats for other peoples, and so, in order that each empire could turn its attention to other threats, Rameses II, and the Hittite king Hattusili III entered into a peace treaty. The terms were peace between the two kingdoms, and mutual aid in the event either was attacked. Such is its status as the first peace treaty, that a copy adorns the entrance to the chamber if the UN Security Council in New York.
9. The pyramid builders were not slaves, and went on strike
Building the ridiculously huge tombs of the pharaohs was not easy. Most workers had terrible ailments related to the hard work of lugging huge slabs of rock across the desert. But they were all paid for their toil. Tradition, and Hollywood, has it that the workers were slaves, beaten mercilessly by evil overseers. In fact they were skilled artisans and temporary hired hands, receiving a regular wage for their work. And like workers everywhere, they sometimes got pissed off at conditions or pay. Builders on Rameses III’s tomb at Deir el-Medina were not paid their usual wages (paid in grain) and they organised a strike and a sit-in – occupying near-by temples and refusing to budge until their demands were met. It worked. They received their back pay and resumed work.
10. Was Tutankhamun eaten by a hippo?
Along with his physical defects, and lack of any real achievement (see above) Tutankhamen may have suffered an horrific death. Scans of the boy’s body show that he was buried without a heart ot chest wall. While organs were removed during embalming, the heart was usually replaced in the chest cavity or in a jar at the mummy’s feet. King Tut’s heart is missing. This is consistent with the body having suffered a massive injury at death. Some Egyptologists point to the Egyptians’ love of hippo hunting. Statues in his to show the king hunting with a harpoon, and it is known that the hue beasts were hunted for sport. The theory is that Tutankhamun was bitten to death by a hippopotamus. A nasty way to go.
11. Pharaohs had good PR
Al images of Pharaohs show fit young men in the prime of life. Even Hatshepsut (see above) was shown as a fit young man in the prime of life. They all had fine beards, and well-toned bodies. But that is just good PR. The Egyptian diet, for the rich, was beer, wine, bread, and honey – all high in sugar. Studies of pharaonic bodies have shown that they tended to be a little corpulent, in fact somewhat unhealthy. Diabetes may have been common. And the apparently slender and athletic Hatshepsut was in reality obese and balding, facts which I am sure she would be delighted we know 4000 years after she died.