Who's this Egyptian woman?

I was wonder who this woman was. It isn't Nefertiti, so I was wondering if this was Isis or Cleopatra or perhaps anyone else, I'm unsure.

The symbol on her head is a snake and she's just holding a decoration lamp.

I added a picture of the inscription too (Click image to enlarge)

EDIT: For people who misunderstand: I know it's not authentic nor am I asking if it is or not. I just want to know who the woman is.

The snake isn't just a snake, it's a defensive cobra known as Uraeus, and the woman depicted by this statue is may be Wadjet, an Egyptian goddess, whose symbol Uraeus primarily was. According to some newer mythologies, it was Isis who created the first Uraeus.

The Uraeus could have been added on the mask of important mortals as well, so Tutankhamun had one on his mask, too. So there's some chance that it could have been any important enough woman in the ancient Egyptian history. The inscription probably makes it clear who the woman is supposed to be.

The body is clearly a modern attractive woman - no woman on the old Egyptian statues was in such a good physical condition and so realistic - so the piece isn't supposed to be a replica of any ancient Egyptian sculpture.

5 Great Female Rulers of Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptian empire saw more women in positions of power than any other culture in the ancient world.

Some of the most powerful and important deities in the Egyptian pantheon were female, and the ancient Egyptians believed in the wisdom of female rulers.

Here are 5 important female rulers throughout the history of ancient Egypt.

Neithhotep ruled ancient Egypt after her husband's death

Since Neithhotep lived in the Early Dynastic Period, which ran from 3150 to 2613 B.C.E., information about her is scanty, much like it is for anyone in that far-away time. However, there are tantalizing clues that she may have ruled on her own after the death of the pharaoh.

Who, exactly, that pharaoh was is still in question. According to When Women Ruled the World, Neithhotep's presumed husband was either the legendary first pharaoh of a united Egypt, Narmer, or one of his close successors, Aha. Whoever he was, this early pharaoh died while his heir was still a young boy, leaving Neithhotep to reign as regent until the new king came of age.

As the Ancient History Encyclopedia reports, there's no direct record that says Neithhotep ruled on her own, but the circumstantial evidence of her power is pretty compelling. The people who uncovered her tomb many centuries later were awed by its richness and size, assuming that it must have been meant for Narmer's kingly successor. Her name has also been included in inscriptions typically meant only for kings. Though Neithhotep remains a mysterious figure from Egypt's deep past, it's pretty clear, given how her name has survived over the centuries since her own time, that Neithhotep was a force to be reckoned with.

3f. Women of Ancient Egypt

The actress Elizabeth Taylor portrayed Cleopatra in the 1963 Hollywood movie named after the famous Egyptian queen.

Women in ancient Egypt were ahead of their time. They could not only rule the country, but also had many of the same basic human rights as men.

One of the first women to hold the rank of pharaoh was Hatshepsut, who began her rule in about 1,500 B.C.E. Hatshepsut took care of her people and built temples to the gods as well as other public buildings. Egyptian custom dictated that a pharaoh, who was considered a god, could not marry a mortal. As a result, pharaohs chose spouses from within the royal family. Her husband, Thutmose, was her half brother.

Nefertiti was another Egyptian ruler. She married Amenhotep IV, who preached and supported monotheism, or the belief in only one god.

Found in the chapel of Merya at Armana, this drawing depicts Queen Nefertiti accompanying her husband, the pharaoh Akhenaton, from the royal palace to the temple. Because of exceptionally high status, Nefertiti rode in her own chariot.
The bust of Nefertiti, the Queen of Egypt, is legendary for its beautiful and mysterious depiction of the queen during the Amarna period. This portrait was sculpted in the workshop of Thutmose in Akhet-Aton.

The Egyptian goddess Isis was one of the most important deities of the ancient world. Originally the goddess of motherhood and fertility, Isis became the mother of all gods and was worshipped throughout Egypt until the 6th century C.E.

Cleopatra became the most famous of Egypt's female leaders. She was extremely intelligent, and ambitious and spoke several languages &mdash she even studied astronomy. At 18, she became queen of Egypt.

Romance and Tragedy in Cleopatra's Court

Cleopatra constantly battled jealous, ambitious people who wanted to kill her and occupy her throne. For a time, she was removed from power and banished. She sought help from Julius Caesar, the leader of the powerful Roman Republic.

When Caesar visited Alexandria, a large Egyptian city, Cleopatra saw her chance. She could not even enter the city to see Caesar because her jealous brother hired spies to kill her on sight. Craftily, she sneaked into the city rolled in a carpet. She was brought to Caesar, and the two developed a relationship. The couple had a son named Caesarion, and Caesar helped her recapture the throne. The relationship ended abruptly when rival Roman rulers murdered Caesar in the Roman Senate.

I'm Dying to See You

When Marc Antony became leader of Rome, he too, fell in love with Cleopatra. The two had children and together ruled the most powerful empires of the Mediterranean. Eventually, a rival defeated Antony's armies, and Antony drew a sword on himself in despair. As he was dying, he wanted to see Cleopatra one last time. He died in her arms. Later, Cleopatra killed herself by placing a poisonous snake on her chest. The greatest political soap opera of the age was now over.

The Rights Stuff

These were examples of elite Egyptian women. But what about the common folk? A woman's role as mother and wife still came first in Egyptian society. Some professions in which women worked included weaving, perfume making, and entertainment.

Egyptian women could have their own businesses, own and sell property, and serve as witnesses in court cases. Unlike most women in the Middle East, they were even permitted to be in the company of men. They could escape bad marriages by divorcing and remarrying. And women were entitled to one third of the property their husbands owned. The political and economic rights Egyptian women enjoyed made them the most liberated females of their time.

The Representation of Truth and Justice Was a Woman

According to ancient Egyptian texts, the representation of truth, morality, balance, law and justice was a goddess named Maat or Ma’at, which means “truth,” in Egyptian. She helped balance the universe, end chaos and manage both humans and gods. Maat not only had a great role in creating harmony for the universe, but also had a significant one in the afterlife—weighing hearts, often against feathers thus deciding the fate of both the virtuous and sinners. The ancients believed that a human being’s heart is weighed against the Feather of Ma’at (a representation of truth and virtue) to decide whether the person was virtuous or not. Drawings show her holding a scepter in one hand, which is the symbol of power in ancient Egypt, while holding an ankh (the key of life) in the other hand.

Who's this Egyptian woman? - History

Hatshepsut was the eldest of two daughters born to Egyptian King Thutmose I and Queen Ahmose Nefertari. Her younger sister died in infancy, meaning twelve year old Hatshepsut was Thutmose I’s only surviving child from his marriage to the queen. However Thutmose I, like other Egyptian pharaohs, maintained secondary wives also known as harem wives. Any sons born from those relationships could rise to the position of pharaoh should the king and queen be unable to produce a male heir.

So the position of pharaoh skipped Hatshepsut and instead went to her half-brother, Thutmose II. She still came into power as the Queen of Egypt when she married her half-brother at the age of 12. The marriage served a vital purpose of establishing Thutmose II’s legitimacy as king. Being the son of Thutmose I’s harem wife was only one of his problems. Hatshepsut’s grandfather failed to father any male heirs as well. So Thutmose I became king after marrying into the royal family, further diminishing Thutmose II’s claim to the throne. But by marrying his sister, it helped solidify his link with the line of royals.

Engravings from Thutmose II’s reign appeared to show Hatshepsut performing the role of a dutiful queen. Though the union failed to produce a son their only child was a daughter named Neferure. So when Thutmose II died shortly after taking over, his son from a harem wife became the next pharaoh. Except there was a catch- Thutmose III was only an infant at the time of his father’s death and much too young to ascend to the throne.

Hatshepsut stepped up to handle the business of running the Egyptian government as regent for her stepson/nephew. She did not break new ground in that regard as widowed queens often served as regent when the male heir was not old enough to rule the country. Engravings illustrating their relationship for the first years appeared to show a similar scene to those of Thutmose II’s rule: Hatshepsut standing behind Thutmose III as he performed his duties as pharaoh.

Then at some point during the first seven years of Thutmose III’s reign, Hatshepsut took the unprecedented step and declared herself pharaoh and co-ruler with Thutmose III. Women had previously been pharaohs, and there were no laws explicitly forbidding her from holding the position. However, those other female pharaohs only assumed the position when no male heirs existed in the royal family. Thutmose III was very much alive.

Previously Egyptologists attributed her decision to take over as simple ambition and desire for power. However, more recently this idea has been largely dismissed and her takeover is thought to have been about protecting Thutmose III’s throne, which he may have had a tenuous hold over for similar reasons to his father. It is theorized that a political crisis might have forced her to take on the role of king or risk Thutmose III losing his position for good.

The evidence appears to back up this theory as Hatshepsut could easily have ordered Thutmose III’s death while pharaoh, ridding herself of anyone who had as good of a claim on the throne as herself. Instead, she made sure he received a top notch education typically reserved for scribes and priests, creating something of a future scholar-king. Later Thutmose III joined the military. After he gained some experience there and proved himself worthy, Hatshepsut ultimately named Thutmose III the supreme commander of her armies. In this position, had he so chosen, he could have relatively easily overthrown her, but made no such move.

So it would appear the pair were on good terms and comfortable in their respective positions. All evidence indicates she was raising him to be the next pharaoh, and did a phenomenal job of it as well. Like Hatshepsut, he would become one of the great pharaohs in history, in his case both in administration and in battle strategy, since being called “the Napoleon of Ancient Egypt.”

In any event, once the decision was made, Hatshepsut worked quickly to solidify her position as pharaoh. She had herself partially portrayed as a man in engravings and sculpture in addition to wearing clothes worn by male pharaohs and the traditional false pharaoh beard. She also invented a story to justify her ascension to the throne. Illustrations at her mortuary temple tell the story that her father, Thutmose I, wanted her to become pharaoh. Another illustration claim the god Amun took on the appearance of Thutmose I and appeared to her mother the night Hatshepsut was conceived. He supposedly even instructed the Egyptian god of creation, Khnum, to “Go, to fashion her better than all gods shape for me, this daughter, whom I have begotten.”

The stories must have been convincing, or else Hatshepsut cultivated the right friendships among government officials, as she ruled over Egypt for about two decades, much longer than most pharaohs managed. During this time, Egypt enjoyed relative peace and great prosperity. Using the excess, she oversaw grandiose construction projects throughout her kingdom, being one of the most prolific of all pharaohs at instituting such projects, both in number and scale. She also notably orchestrated significant trade with a land called Punt, as well as cultivated many other trade networks to Egypt’s benefit.

Historians believe Hatshepsut died around the year 1458 BC. Based on studying her body, it is generally thought she died of either complications due to diabetes or bone cancer.

Whatever the case, upon her death, Thutmose III ascended to the position of pharaoh. As mentioned, he now presided over an Egypt that had prospered greatly under Hatshepsut’s rule. However, about two decades into his reign, for reasons unclear today, he began ordering his men to remove mentions of Hatshepsut as pharaoh. Her name and image were destroyed, scraped form engravings and her statues toppled- no easy task considering the numerous buildings and other works built under her rule, often featuring her in some way in them.

It was originally speculated that he did this out of anger for her usurping his throne earlier in his life. However, given that about two decades passed before he bothered and the seemingly good relationship the pair had during her rule (as commander of Egypt’s armies and the rightful heir, he could have overthrown her with little difficulty if he had really chafed at her rule), today it’s theorized that this act was probably more about legitimizing his own son’s rule. It’s even possible his son, Amenhotep II, was the one who ordered all this. Thutmose III was getting up in years at the time and Amenhotep II had become coregent around the time Hatshepsut began to be erased from history. It is also known that Amenhotep II did attempt to take credit for many of the things Hatshepsut had actually accomplished.

No matter the reason, much of Hatshepsut’s life was successfully removed from the history books until the 19 th century when her story was uncovered in surviving works, starting with texts on the Deir el-Bahri temple walls.

It was later discovered that even Hatshepsut worried about how she, a female pharaoh, would be remembered, or even if she’d be remembered at all one of her obelisks at Karnak containing the following (translated) text: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”

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“All too often, power is often wrongly attributed to just the public, political sphere,” says Aneilya Barnes, a classics professor at Coastal Carolina University.

“Because that space is particularly male-dominated, power and men become equated. I would extend that to say power is also influence.”

Cleopatra (69 B.C. – 30 B.C.), as a result of ancient writings and not-so-ancient Hollywood films, wields a reputation of seductress par excellence. The last scion of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years, Cleopatra secured her position—and her kingdom’s independence—through her influence over Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, some of the most powerful Western men of the time. [Learn how volcanoes caused violent uprisings in Cleopatra's Egypt.]

By Barnes’s estimation, Cleopatra’s status is unfairly and inaccurately attributed only to her sexuality. Calling that idea “absurd,” Barnes points out that “Caesar’s access to female bodies is infinite.” Barnes suggests that the emperor sided with Cleopatra against her brother-husband in the midst of an almost-civil war not because she was sexier, but because “he knew she had the power to take and hold the throne.”

Whether her intelligence or her sex appeal (or both) was the source of her influence, it’s undeniable that Cleopatra had plenty of it. Her influence-as-power strategy kept Egypt whole and independent in a tumultuous time—and secured her reputation for thousands of years.

An Ancient King’s Lover?

Dorothy grew up in a Christian family and she attended church regularly when she was young. One day, her parents took her to the British Museum. While looking at the photograph of the temple of Seti I, a pharaoh of the 19th dynasty of the New Kingdom Period (and the father of Rameses II), she said that it was her home. She couldn't understand why there were no gardens and trees around the temple, but she recognized the monuments and other artifacts in the rooms of the Egyptian collection. She kissed the feet of the statues, and very soon after, decided to study ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

One of her teachers was the famous E.A. Wallis Budge, who encouraged her to study the history of ancient Egypt. Dorothy was 15 years old when she described the first dream “meeting” she had with the mummy of Pharaoh Seti I. She claimed that he made her remember her past life. With time, she turned more and more to the ancient religion and stopped feeling attached to Christianity.

Dorothy married the Egyptian Eman Abdel Meguid in 1931. This marriage was like a ticket to her beloved Egypt, where she became an English teacher. When her feet touched Egypt’s land for the first time she kissed the ground and felt like she was welcomed by her old home. She had a son who she called Sety. In this period, she reported having visions related to Hor-Ra. She also discovered her ancient Egyptian name - Bentreshyt meaning ‘Harp of Joy.’ In her visions she also saw her ancient family.

Dorothy said that she was a daughter of one of Seti I’s soldiers and a woman who sold vegetables. Her mother died when she was three years old, and she was given to the temple in Abydos, where she grew up and became a priestess. At 12 years old, she claimed she became a consecrated virgin, but a few years later she met ‘a living god’ - pharaoh Seti I. They became lovers, and Bentreshyt got pregnant. Unfortunately, the lovers’ fate was not a happy one. The High Priest of the temple told her that the situation was a huge offense against Isis and would cause many problems for pharaoh, so she decided to commit suicide.

When taking any trip to Egypt you will learn a lot about the ancient Egyptian history and the role of women in the ancient Egyptian history. Women in ancient Egypt were really ahead of their time – they could rule the country and they had many of the same basic rights as men. This is very different than other ancient cultures, such as the society of Ancient Greece where women were considered to be legal minors without the same rights as men.

There were many powerful women who ruled in Ancient Egypt and took on very important roles in the history of the country. Here are a few of the women who made an impact – you are sure to hear a lot about these historical figures on your Egypt guided tour.

Queen Hatshepsut

Queen Hatshepsut was the first female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt, coming to the throne in 1478 BC. She is thought to be one of the most successful pharaohs and Egyptologist James Henry Breasted considers her the “first great woman in history.”

Queen Hatshepsut Temple in the West Bank of Luxor

Hatshepsut did a lot for Egypt during her 22-year rule. She established a lot of important trade routes which had been disrupted due to the Hyksos occupation of Egypt – which contributed to the growth of wealth in the 18th dynasty. She also oversaw the famous tradition expedition to the Land of Punt. Queen Hatshepsut built one of the most beautiful Egyptian temples in the West bank of Luxor, it is located couple miles from the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens.

She was also one of the most prolific builders of the time, commissioning hundreds of structures throughout Egypt. During your Egypt tour be sure to visit Karnak’s Red Chapel (Chapelle Rouge), which is, a shine lined with carved stones depicting events from Hatshepsut’s life. Also a great source to learn more about Queen Hatshepsut is to check Kara Cooney’s most recent book “The Women Who Would Be King”


Cleopatra VII ruled over ancient Egypt for nearly three decades. Well educated, smart and powerful, she could speak several languages and had romantic and military alliances with leaders such as Mark Antony and Julius Caesar.

Cleopatra as earned a place in myth and history due to her powers of seduction and exotic beauty. Her story lives on in many works of art including Alexandria, Shakespeare’s Antony, and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra.

Queen Cleopatra, One of the most famous women in ancient Egypt

Queen Nefertari

Not much is known about Queen Nefertari, the wife of Ramses II. Their union likely started as a political one, but it blossomed into love and Ramses II celebrated that love with monuments and poetry dedicated to his beautiful queen. She was given various roles in her function as queen and Ramses II even took her on his military campaigns.

You can see the beautiful tomb Ramses II built for his wife, it is located in the Valley of the Queens near Thebes. It is the biggest and most elaborate in the valley and the well-preserved wall paintings offer a fascinating insight into her life. Queen Nefertari has one of the most amazing temples in Aswan, Abu Simbel temple which is considered one of the marks of Nubian monuments in Egypt.

Queen Nefertari in the Temple of Ramesses II, Abu Simbel, Egypt. One of the ancient Egypt greatest monuments in Aswan

Queen Nefertiti

Queen Nefertiti and her famous husband Pharaoh Akhenaten were known for bringing a religious revolution to Egypt. They worshipped a single god Aten (known as The Sun Disc) and they promoted a new style of Egyptian artwork that was very different from anything that came before.

Queen Nefertiti, She seas one of the most famous women in ancient Egypt

Nefertiti was one of the most powerful women who ever ruled and her husband went to significant lengths to show that she was his equal. She is depicted in reliefs as wearing a pharaoh’s crown and smiting her enemies in battle. A famous bust carving of Nefertiti is one of the most iconic works of art from ancient Egypt. It is located in the Neues Museum in Berlin and draws more than 500,000 visitors every year.

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Clergy, Priests & Priestesses in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians understood that their gods had prevailed over the forces of chaos through the creation of the world and relied upon humanity's help to maintain it. The people of Mesopotamia held this same belief but felt they were co-workers with the gods, laboring daily to hold back chaos through even the simplest acts, but the Egyptians believed all they had to do was recognize how the world worked, who was responsible for its operation, and behave accordingly.

This behavior was directed by the central cultural value, ma'at (harmony and balance) which was sustained by an underlying force known as heka (magic). Heka (personified as the god Heka) had been present at the creation of the world, pre-existing the gods, and allowed those gods to perform their duties. All the people, by observing ma'at, helped to maintain the order established by the gods through heka, but a special class was responsible for honoring and caring for the gods daily, and this was the priesthood.


The clergy of ancient Egypt did not preach, interpret scripture, proselytize, or conduct weekly services their sole responsibility was to care for the god in the temple. Men and women could be clergy, performed the same functions, and received the same pay. Women were more often priestesses of female deities while men served males, but this was not always the case as evidenced by the priests of the goddess Serket (Selket), who were doctors and both female and male, and those of the god Amun. The position of God's Wife of Amun, held by a woman, would eventually become as powerful as that of the king.


High priests were chosen by the king, who was considered the high priest of Egypt, the mediator between the people and their gods, and so this position had political as well as religious authority. The priesthood was already established in the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt (c. 3150-2613 BCE) but developed in the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) at the same time as the great mortuary complexes like Giza and Saqqara were being constructed. Throughout Egypt's history, the priesthood would serve a vital role in maintaining religious belief and tradition while, at the same time, consistently challenge the authority of the king by amassing wealth and power which at times rivaled that of the crown.

Types of Priests

Male priests were known as hem-netjer and females as hemet-netjer (servants of the god). There was a hierarchy in the priesthood from the high priest (hem-netjer-tepi, 'first servant of god') at the top to the wab priests at the bottom. The wab priests carried out the essential but fairly mundane tasks of taking care of the temple complex and performing whatever function they were called upon for, such as helping to prepare for festivals.

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In between these two positions was a wide array of priests who performed all kinds of duties in service to the gods: kitchen staff, janitors, porters, scribes, anyone who worked in the temple complex who had any association with the god was in some form a priest. Even the cult singers and musicians needed to have had some training in the priesthood to perform their duties, though probably not the kind of initiation or education which actual priests went through.

The hour-priests were astronomers who kept the calendar, determined lucky and unlucky days, interpreted omens and dreams. There were the doctors, who were also priests, the swnw (general practitioner) and the sau (magical practitioner) who both combined medicine and magic. A ka-priest (also known as a ka-servant) was paid by a family to perform the daily offerings at the tomb of the deceased.


There were also sem priests who presided over mortuary rituals and conducted funeral services. Sem priests were the embalmers who mummified the corpse and recited the incantations while wrapping the mummy. The sem priests were highly respected because they were responsible for the precise utterance of the spells which would guarantee eternal life to the deceased. An interesting exception was the sem priest who would make the actual incision in the body to remove the organs. However he was treated the rest of the time, after this procedure, he was ritually insulted by his peers and chased down the road, most likely to ward off evil spirits associated with causing injury to the body.

Just below the high priest was the lector priest (hery-heb or cheriheb) who wrote down the religious texts, instructed other clergy, and recited the "authoritative utterance," the heka, in the temple and at festivals. Although there is evidence of women serving in all other positions in temple life, there is no record of a female lector priest. This could have been because the position was usually passed from father to son.

Besides the high priest, most of these positions were part-time. Priests and priestesses were divided into 'watches' and would serve the temple one month in every four. When their month of service was up, they returned to their regular jobs in the community which were usually those of mid-level bureaucrats. While they were in service, priests lived in the temple complex. They were expected to be ritually pure, bathe a number of times a day, and be able to carry out the duties required of them.


Duties & Rituals

Although the details are unclear, the clergy had to undergo some kind of initiation ritual before assuming their position. It has been suggested that the Negative Confession, the list of sins one could honestly claim one had not committed, was originally part of this initiation ritual. By the time of the New Kingdom of Egypt (c. 1570-1069 BCE) the Negative Confession was entirely associated with judgment by Osiris in the afterlife and included in The Egyptian Book of the Dead but most likely developed earlier as an affirmation that a person was worthy of serving the god.

There were as many duties and rituals as there were priests, but the high-ranking clergy participated daily in two which were considered of utmost importance: Lighting the Fire and Drawing the Bolt. In the fire ritual, the priests would gather before dawn in a sacred room close to the god's shrine and re-enact the first appearance of the sun by lighting a fire in a brazier. The boat of the sun god was thought to pass through the underworld at night where it was threatened by the serpent Apophis. Rituals were often observed to help the sun god navigate his nightly trip safely and defeat Apophis and lighting the morning fire was among these.

Following Lighting the Fire came Drawing the Bolt which was when the door was unlocked to the shrine room where the statue of the god resided. Only the high priest could enter this inner sanctum because it was believed the god or goddess lived in the statue and one was entering sacred space. The high priest was considered sanctified enough to share the presence of the god but no one else until the New Kingdom when the office of God's Wife of Amun was elevated under Ahmose I (c. 1570-1544 BCE). The God's Wife of Amun became the female counterpart of the high priest and some of the God's Wives had previously been high priestesses. The priest would wash and dress the statue, and then those of lesser rank would provide food and drink which was brought to the god and left in the room. When it was thought the god had supernaturally absorbed these offerings, they were removed from the room and dispensed to the temple staff.


Throughout the day the priests, priestesses, singers, musicians, and others performed many different rituals at the temple and in the temple complex. One important feature of temples was the institution known as the Per-Ankh (House of Life) which was part library, writing center, scriptorium, conference center, and institute of higher learning. Religious and medical texts were written, copied, studied, and discussed there, and it may have been where young priests and doctors were educated. Besides activities at the Per-Ankh, rituals were performed to honor lesser deities associated with the main god of the temple, to honor deceased kings, queens, or other people of note, and to ensure fertility and health in the land.

None of these rituals involved a weekly service where the people would come to worship the god and hear the priest or priestess speak. The people already understood how the world worked and what was expected of them and did not need any ecclesiastical authority to instruct them. There is evidence that people came to the temple for help with medical, financial, and emotional needs as well as to request protection against evil spirits or ghosts, and it is also clear they would bring offerings to the temple in gratitude for prayers answered. For the most part, however, the people of Egypt interacted with their gods privately or during the many festivals held throughout the year. The priests served the gods, not the people.

Evolution of the Priesthood

In time, however, the priests began to serve themselves more than either. There is evidence of this tendency beginning in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, actually, after the establishment of the grand royal necropolis at Giza. Giza in the Old Kingdom was not the lonely, wind-swept plateau of sand it is today, but a thriving community of state workers, merchants, craftsmen, and priests. These priests were responsible for providing the daily offerings and conducting the rituals which allowed for the continued journey in the afterlife of the kings.

One of the contributing factors to the collapse of the central government at the end of the Old Kingdom was that the king had exempted the priesthood from paying taxes. The priests not only lived off the offerings given to the gods but were able to profit from the land they owned, whose bounty was out of reach of the royal treasury. There is not a single period in Egyptian history in which this paradigm is not evident. It has been suggested, and is entirely probable, that the religious reforms of Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) in the New Kingdom were more of a political maneuver to undercut the power of the priesthood than a sincere effort at religious reform.

By the time of Akhenaten, the cult of Amun had grown so powerful and wealthy that they rivaled the king. The position of God's Wife of Amun, held by royal women at the Temple of Karnak at Thebes, had begun as an honorary title in the late Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2040-1782 BCE) but, by the New Kingdom, was a powerful post, and in the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BCE), the daughter of King Kashta (c. 750 BCE), Amenirdis I, effectively ruled Upper Egypt from Thebes as God's Wife. Akhenaten, who was probably not as mystically-inclined nor as politically inept as he is depicted, recognized the danger of the cult of Amun becoming too powerful and so tried to prevent this through the establishment of monotheism.

His efforts were in vain, however, not only because he was fighting against over 2,000 years of religious tradition but, on the purely practical level, too many people owed their livelihood to the temple and worship of the gods. After his death, his son Tutankhamun (c. 1336-1327 BCE) abolished his father's religion and returned to the old ways, and these reforms were completed by Horemheb (1320-1292 BCE) who erased Akhenaten's name from history in outrage at his impiety.

Degeneration & Disappearance

The priesthood was therefore allowed to flourish and became especially powerful at Thebes. Amun increasingly was regarded as the King of the Gods and became the political power at Thebes through his grand temple at Karnak and the manipulations of the priesthood there.

According to scholar Marie Parsons, by the time of the reign of Ramesses III (1186-1155 BCE) in the later New Kingdom, the priests of the various cults held more power and wealth than the pharaoh especially the priests of Amun. Parsons writes:

During the reign of Ramesses III, the temple of Amun at Karnak comprised 433 orchards, 421,000 head of livestock, 65 villages, 83 ships and 46 workshops, with hundreds of acres of farmland, and a total labor force of more than 81,000. The temple of Ra at Heliopolis owned hundreds of acres, 64 orchards, 45,544 head of livestock, 103 villages, 3 ships and 5 workshops, with a personnel force of 12,700. The overseers of the estates and granaries, scribes, soldiers, all reported to the high priests of their temple. (4)

Just as Akhenaten may have feared, the power of the priests compromised the position of the king. In the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt, Amun was effectively the ruler of Thebes and Upper Egypt. Instead of the pharaoh interpreting the will of the gods for the people and acting as supreme high priest, the priests consulted the gods directly and interpreted their answers. Civic and criminals cases, matters of policy, domestic issues, building policies, were all decided at Thebes by Amun whose will was then interpreted and implemented by the priests. Egyptologist Marc van de Mieroop writes:

The god made decisions of state in actual practice. A regular Festival of the Divine Audience took place at Karnak when the god's statue communicated through oracles, by nodding assent when he agreed. Divine oracles had become important in the 18th Dynasty in the Third Intermediate Period they formed the basis of governmental practice. (266)

Throughout the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period of Ancient Egypt (525-332 BCE), the priests continued to hold this level of power but the priesthood began to degenerate as offices were bought and sold. Egyptologist Margaret Bunson comments on this:

In time the priests would witness the downfall of their own shrines and temples and others of their ranks would enter the political world with ambitions. Even the role of the priesthood would be bartered away or squandered for gain. (209)

The priests maintained their position, with greater or lesser degrees of success, through the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332-30 BCE) and even into the later Roman Egypt, but by the time of the ascent of Christianity in the 4th century CE, they had lost most of their prestige and power and had largely betrayed their positions for material wealth and personal power. It was in partly because of the degeneration of the priesthood that Christianity was able to gain such influence in Egypt and eventually replace the old faith with a new one.

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