Ancient Egypt: History and culture
The ancient Egyptian administration:
The court
The civil administration
The military
Foreign relations
The temples
Regional and local government
The vice royalty of Kush

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The ancient Egyptian administration

Akhenaten holding the symbols of pharaonic power, flail and crook; (Source: Egyptian Museum, Cairo)     Pharaonic Egypt until the 3rd Intermediate Period was in theory a theocracy in the true sense of the word - rule by a god rather than rule by priests in the name of the god [10]. The pharaoh was identified with Horus, who had inherited all the land from his father Osiris. Everything belonged to him, again at least in theory, to do with as he wished, as long as he followed the precepts of Maat[1]

Akhenaten holding the symbols of pharaonic power, flail and crook
Source: Egyptian Museum, Cairo

    The continuity of succession from gods to pharaohs is stressed by the Turin papyrus compiled during the New Kingdom, which attempts to list all the past rulers of the country. It begins with a list of gods and spirits considered to have preceded Menes. Their names were written inside cartouches and the length of their reigns given. Thoth for instance was thought to have ruled 7726 years.

    The pharaonic government's aim was, as is the aim of any government, self-preservation. To this end it followed policies of prevention of famine, security for everybody, an acceptable system of justice, and protection of the weak. Social harmony was to be brought about through respect for authority, consensus, a balance of power, and regard for the precepts of the gods. Egyptian society was basically conservative, attempting to preserve maat, the universe's ideal state, as it had been instituted by the immortal gods themselves [8].

Horakhti, declared the king, has put me on earth in order to execute that which has to be done by him, in order to cause to happen that which he has prescribed. He has destined me to be the pastor of this country so he will know who will keep it in order.
Amenemhet I (1991-1962 BCE) [9]
Berlin Papyrus 3029
    The king was the head of a number of administrative bodies which were, from the New Kingdom onward at least, to some extent independent of each other. But the control of these bodies was generally in the hands of very few powerful and well-connected individuals. Piankh, Herihor's eldest son held a number of leading positions under Ramses XI
The fan-bearer to the right of the King, the King's Son of Cush, the First Prophet of Amon-Re, King of the Gods, the Commander of the Army, the Prince Paiankh.
Inscription on a wall of the temple of Karnak
Year 7 of the Repetition-of-Births under Ramses XI', i.e. in the 25th year of his reign.

    The king's rule was sometimes purely nominal, above all during times of social unrest or personal incapacity when the power passed into the hands of local potentates, the priesthood, inmates of the royal harem [7] or the head of the civil administration, the vizier.

    The major divisions of the administration were defined during the Old Kingdom, when the vizier was still in charge of the whole country which was administratively divided into two separate regions, following the historical division into Upper and Lower Egypt. The many titles of the 5th dynasty vizier Ptahhotep II listed in his mastaba give an idea of the complexity of the ancient administration. K. Sethe divided Ptahhotep's titles into three categories:

  • General titles
    • irj-pAt [14]
    • HAtj-A - [Leader]
    • irj p - Belonging to Buto
    • SDAtj (?) bitj - [Royal Sealer]
    • Smr watj n mrwt - [Companion peer beloved]
    • mdw rxjt - [Spokesman of the rekhyut] (i.e. the people)
    • xrp wsxt - [Controller] of the palace
    • inkmt
    • Hrj sSt n ni-swt - [Over the secrets] of the king
    • Hrj sSt n wDt-mdw nt ni-swt - [Over the secrets] of all commands of the king
  • Juridical and administrative service
    • sAb tAjtj TA - [High court] judge and vezir
    • imj-r kAt nbt nt ni-swt - [Intendant] of all the works of the King
    • imj-r zXA.ww a ni-swt - [Intendant] of the scribes of the archives of the King
  • Treasury service
    • imj-r ixt nbt nt ni-swt - [Intendant] of all the things of the King
    • imj-r Snwtj - [Intendant] of the two granaries
    • imj-r prwj HDwj - [Intendant] of the two White Houses (i.e. the finance department)
    • imj-r iswj xrjt sdAt - [Intendant of the registers of the] two storehouses of what is under seal
    • imj-r wabt - [Intendant of the pure place (=tomb)]
    • imj-r prwj nbw - [Intendant] of the two Houses of Gold
    • imj-r xkr ni-swt - [Intendant] of the royal favourites
    • xrj-Hb Hrj-DADA zXA.w dmDt - Chief lector priest, scribe of the divine books

M.A. Murray, Saqqara Mastabas Part II, Egyptian Research Account, Eleventh Memoir, p.14

    Not taking into account the various checks and balances, personal unions and chains of command a simplified chart of the various branches of government during the New Kingdom might look as follows :

Foreign territories
Foreign Affairs
Religious Affairs
  Great King's Wife Vizier Vizier Overseer Overseer Governors King's Son of Kush Commander in Chief Overseer of Prophets
Seal bearer
Overseer Overseer of Treasury
Overseer of cattle
Overseer of Treasury
Overseer of cattle

Temples of
Amen  Ptah  Re
First Prophets
God's Wife
Royal mortuary temple
King's Mother
King's Wives
First King's son
Overseer of public works

Royal bodyguard
Garrison of capital
Native vassals
General General Emissaries
The Six Courts
Village Elders
Local Scribes

Official staff court

The court

    The administrative unit closest to the king was the court, which dealt with the satisfaction of his daily needs and those of his extended family: children, wives, blood relatives and in-laws, many of whom took part in the running of the country to varying degrees.
  • During the times when the king did not lead the royal armies in person, a grown son or some other close relative was generally in charge.
  • When a child was enthroned, it was often the harem which exercised real power.
  • Hatshepsut was appointed regent during the childhood of Thutmose III and ruled as pharaoh for many years, even after the rightful king had grown up
    The personal servants were constantly in the presence of the pharaoh and thus acquired considerable influence and were appointed to important administrative positions. Titles like Friend or Known to the King were much coveted.
  • Weni was sandal bearer of the pharaoh when
    His majesty appointed me Judge over Hierakonpolis. ... because his heart was more filled with me than with any other of his servants
    and went on to assume even more important positions.
  • The Syrian butler Bay assisted Ramses Siptah to access the throne, was appointed vizier and was crucial to Siptah's remaining in power.
    Until the Middle Kingdom a number of titles were bestowed upon high ranking civil servants, which fixed the individual's precedence at court. According to the Lexikon der Ägyptologie the highest ranking official was the vizier (jrj-pat or rpat) [14], who preceded the responsible for Upper Egypt (jrj-pat Hatj-a). Nomarchs, often referred to as counts, and mayors [15] of the great cities (Hatj-a) ranked next, followed by the bearer of the royal seal (sDAwtj bjtj or xtmw bjtj). The Friend of the king (smr) ranked just below. This was one of the few titles which continued to be used by courtiers in the New Kingdom in a variety of guises. Lector priests (Xrj Hb), royal chamberlains (Xrj tp nswt) and judges (sAb aD mr) preceded the overseers of the royal property (jrj jxt nswt) who came to be called Known to the King (rx nsw).

The civil administration

Ptah hotep, vizier; Extract, photo by Jon Bodsworth     Egypt was administered by a single vizier until the 2nd Intermediate Period. The New Kingdom witnessed the administrative division of the country into Upper and Lower Egypt each under a vizier, halving the work load of the viziers and - which was probably more important to the king - their power.

Ptah hotep, vizier
Extract, photo courtesy Jon Bodsworth

The vizierate had become extremely powerful during the 13th dynasty, when pharaohs followed each other in rapid succession. It was the pre-eminent social institution through much of Egypt's history. Little seems to have been achieved without its involvement. Civil servants, which included judges, were answerable directly to the vizier or to his representative [13]:
Anything entering the region of the residence or leaving it, enters or leaves according to the instructions of his (the vizier's) deputy who gives permission to enter or leave. The commanders of the police, its officers and regional chiefs have to inform him of their business.
Regulations laid upon the vizier, New Kingdom
(After a German translation from 'Pharaos Volk', T.G.H.James)
    Each vizier had a treasurer under him, a superintendent of cattle, the mayors of the cities (Pi-Ramesse and Memphis in the north, Thebes in the south), the village chiefs and a whole army of minor officials. The vizier of Upper Egypt supervised also the Goldhouse. More independent of the viziers were the royal treasurer and the supervisor of the granaries, but they all worked together closely.
    The imi-ra (=he who is the mouth) were originally the representatives or speakers of groups of bureaucrats, a social position based on the respect the members of his group had for them rather than an official rank with administrative authority. The establishment adopted this function turning it into an office, and many high officials came to bear the title of imi-ra, supervisor or commander: imi-ra per hedj, supervisor of the White House (i.e. the treasury) since the 3rd dynasty at least, or the New Kingdom imi-ra-sesemut, marshal of the chariotry.

    Appointments of officials were generally the viziers' privilege, but kings often granted favourites sinecures or placed loyal retainers in especially sensitive positions.
    The reasons given for promotions of officials differed under the various kings. During the pre-Amarna 18th dynasty independent action and the assumption of responsibility was valued, while Akhenaten - because of his conflict with the Amen priesthood - preferred officials who were loyal and wholeheartedly supported him by meticulous execution of the royal orders.

    Keeping the administration efficient was a constant concern. Officials at times arrogated privileges, embezzled payments and extorted forced labour for their own benefit. Paheri, count of Elkab under Thutmose I, mentioned in his tomb a few of the schemes with which the dishonest filled their pockets:
My mouth was firm doing good for the lord. I was afraid of remainders, I did not feign to be deaf to a payment (seemingly meaning that he didn't not hear what the payment was for, and that it could be pocketed), I did not receive baksheesh from the revenues ...
After Sethe, Urk.IV 118
    Horemheb, Seti I and many others promulgated laws threatening offenders with harsh punishments. Measures such as these must have had some success at least: The Egyptian system of administration by a literate, apolitical scribal class which came into being during the Old Kingdom ran the country for more than two millennia. The system was far from perfect. Even when no immediate personal gain can be perceived, politicking was never far from the minds of the officials who forged alliances among each other, such as Count Iru tried to do when he attempted to enlist General Merrenakht against Count Sebni, accusing the latter of crimes against the country.

The military

    Often headed by one of the pharaoh's sons or a close relative [4], the military was administratively divided during the New Kingdom into a northern and a southern branch headed by lieutenants. The two armies were led by generals who commanded a scribal administration and a hierarchy of combat officers.
    During much of Egypt's history these appointments were made based on political and social considerations rather than military-professional ones. Thus, during the New Kingdom, it was often the pharaohs who led their armies personally, some with more success (like Thutmose III at Megiddo) than others (Ramses II at Kadesh).
    The involvement of the vizier in military matters was generally minor. But at Kadesh Ramses II was accompanied by his vizier
Then the vizier was ordered to hasten the army of his majesty, while they were marching on the south of Shabtuna, in order to bring them to the place where his majesty was.
Record of the battle of Qadesh
James Henry Breasted,Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, § 324.
and Ramses I had been a general and Horemheb's vizier.
    Whenever soldiers were needed to protect civilian endeavours like mining expeditions or excursions of the pharaoh, they were under the overall supervision of scribal administrators.
He (i.e. the vizier) shall order the mobilization of the troops who are to accompany the Lord when he travels upriver or downriver. He shall determine the remnant which will be left in the Southern City and in the Residence, according to what had been decided in the House of the King. The officer of the ruler who is stationed in his Hall shall be lead before him with the assembly of the troops so they can be given their orders.
Regulations laid upon the vizier, New Kingdom
(After a translation from 'Pharaos Volk', T.G.H.James)

Foreign relations

    Dealing with foreign states meant treating with kings, who were appeased, bought, cajoled or bullied, or whose daughters had to be married [6] according to the international constellation of the day. Treaties were signed between the pharaoh himself embodying Egypt and his foreign counterpart. Scribes translated the missives, made copies and archived them. At el Amarna more than three hundred clay tablets were unearthed, letters written by Middle Eastern rulers to Akhenaten.
    The emissaries who had to carry the messages and gifts abroad, were often personally chosen by the pharaoh, trusted followers who had proven themselves in the past, and were men of some standing who could represent their king with dignity. Often they had not only political but also economic duties and were involved in the overseas trade until the Late Period.

    The vizier had little to do with foreign relations, though occasionally he received ambassadors and emissaries bearing gifts or tribute, probably when the king was otherwise engaged.

The temples

Amenirdis, God's wife     The function of the temples was the service of the gods, and the king was the highest priest, the bridge between the world of the mortals and that of the gods. He performed sacrifices and ceremonies in the name of the people in temples closed to the public. During the second millennium, above all in the New Kingdom, many of these royal functions were delegated to the vizier (e.g. Paser who stood in for Ramses II) or the priesthood.

Amenirdis, God's wife
Egyptian Museum, Cairo

    The chief prophet of all gods was head of all the temple organisations, the most important among them being the Amen temple at Thebes with its royal funerary temple, the Ptah temple at Memphis and the Heliopolitan Re temple. These temples were all headed by High Priests of the respective gods, who had a number of prophets under them and many priests of varying ranks.
    The king was not just head of the temple administrations, appointing priests and prophets [16] or reaffirming their inherited rights [17], he also exercised direct control by sending his envoys to inspect them, such as Semti-Sheri who held a number of positions at court and was sent by Amenemhet II to Upper Egypt:
I came at the front in the presence of his majesty, he had me inspect the divine fathers, to expel evil and to prosper the fashion of their work, in eternal affairs. I commanded to fashion their offering tables, the electrum was under my seal.
I reached Elephantine according to his command; I kissed the earth before the lord of the cataract (Khnum).
I returned by [the way (?)] over which I had passed. I drove in the mooring stake at Abydos
Stela of Khentemsemeti
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 610-612

    A special position was held by the God's Wife of Amen and often one of the king's daughters was appointed to fill it (e.g. Amenirdis, daughter of Kashta or Nitocris, daughter of Psamtik I).
    During the Old and Middle Kingdom when the number of literate persons was still very small, many officials served as priests as well. The separation of the priesthood from the scribal civil service became more pronounced during the 18th dynasty and culminated in the break between the king and the Amen priesthood under Akhenaten. But it was never absolute; e.g. Ay, Tutankhamen's vizier, was a priest with the rank of God's Father. He was instrumental in reconciling the priesthood with the pharaoh and his administration.[2]
    The role of the priesthood in administering the country continued to grow in importance during the New Kingdom [12] and above all the Third Intermediate Period, when the High Priests of Thebes, who drew much of their authority from the commanding position they held in the army, ruled Upper Egypt outright. Even after the reunification of the country their influence was barely diminished. Under the foreign pharaohs, Persians or Ptolemies, they became the representatives of Egyptian identity and despite their sometimes open opposition to the conquerors, they were generally courted and their temples at times liberally endowed.[3]

Regional and local government

        Since Pharaoh Niuserre Egypt was divided into 42 nomes,[18] which during the Old Kingdom were partially autonomous administrative regions and their heads exercised real authority. The post of Hry tp aAw as a regional representative of the monarch was created at the beginning of the third dynasty. To begin with these nomarchs were appointed royal officials. During the 5th dynasty the role the nomarchs were to play during the subsequent centuries, was defined. The post became hereditary,[11] and its holders were part of the local nobility. Egypt began to display symptoms of a feudal society.
I brought back to life the names of my forefathers which I found destroyed on the gates, recognisable by their signs and precise in their readings, without substituting one for another. Truly, it is an admirable son who restores the names of his forebears.
Inscription of Khnumhotep II, nomarch of the Oryx nome, 12th dynasty
(After a translation from 'Pharaos Volk', T.G.H.James)
    When the central power was weak, as happened during the Intermediate Periods, the nomarchs took over functions ordinarily performed by the king and his officials: during the first Intermediate Period their courts vied socially with the royal court; they initiated large scale building projects; and at times they even drafted their own militias. During the second Intermediate Period the noblemen of Thebes led a revolt against the Hyksos kings, ultimately overcoming them and founding another native dynasty, the eighteenth.
    The far-reaching autonomy of the nomarchs remained basically unchanged for half a millennium. Most of the administrative functions, including the religious administration and divine services for the traditional local gods in the name of the pharaoh, were devolved upon them, but during the Middle Kingdom the pharaohs with the help of their viziers began to tighten their control over the whole country, by creating subdivisions of the nomes, which were administered by the less powerful iry-pat HAty-a.[5]
    Under the New Kingdom pharaohs the local rulers lost their independence and they became part of the state bureaucracy; but during the Ptolemaic Period the nomes took on a new significance and became important administrative units again. Thus officials of the nomes administered the law, applying Egyptian laws to native Egyptians and Greek law to Hellenists.
    Cities and villages were administered by mayors and village heads, who were appointed representatives of the central power.
[Behold, my majesty appointed] the official staff of the divine fathers, the prophets of the temples, the officials of the court of this land and the priests of the gods who comprise the official staff out of desire that they shall judge the citizens of every city. My majesty is legislating for Egypt, to prosper the life of its inhabitants; when he appeared upon the throne of Re. Behold, the official staffs have been appointed in the whole land ... all ... to comprise the official staffs in the cities according to their rank.

The vice royalty of Kush

Amenemope, King's son of Kush, Source: The British Museum website     A special case among regional governors, the viceroy of Kush bore the titles of King's Son of Kush and Overseer of the Gold Lands of the Lord of the Two Lands and ruled a territory which was not considered to belong to Egypt proper.

Amenemope, King's son of Kush
Source: The British Museum website, excerpt

    Nubia and Kush were important for their gold mines and the viceroy was a carefully chosen follower of the king, generally an official and seemingly a commoner rather than a nobleman. Their strategic position required also the stationing of garrisons which gave the viceroy military clout.
    The first viceroy, Turi, was above all the military commander of the region, stationed at Buhen and answerable to the southern vizier. Later the viceroy's residence was moved to Aniba, and he was responsible directly to the king. Under Thutmose III Nubia became more closely integrated, stopped being an embattled frontier, and lost many of its own cultural traditions. The fortresses became towns and much of the administration was in the hands of Nubians educated in Egypt.
    Occasionally there were outbreaks of unrest which were quelled by the Egyptian army, often led by the viceroy himself.
    Like practically all public official positions during most of Egypt's history this one was almost invariably filled by a man, but during the 21st dynasty, a period of execeptionlly wide involvement of women in public affairs, Neskhons, wife of Pinodjem II, became viceroy of Kush, overseer of the Southern Lands.


[1] The office of pharaoh rather than the man, who was of course recognized to be a mortal and served the gods in his function of first priest.
[2] cf. The priests of Amen and the Theban kings
[3] cf. Petosiris' restoration of temples
[4] e.g. Amenmose under his father Thutmose I, Thutmose III under Hatshepsut
[6] Pharaohs never married any of their own relatives to foreign potentates.
[7] Harem: ipet, institutions run by the pharaoh's first wife for the benefit of the pharaoh's wives and female relatives, not to be confounded with the Muslim harem of later times.
[8] A number of texts, among them the Teachings of Ptah-hotep were studied and copied by countless generations of future officials in an attempt to inculcate in them the necessary virtues.
[10] After the New Kingdom the Thebaid became an autonomous entity ruled by the Amen priests in the name of their god.
[11] often subject to royal confirmation, see The inscription of Djau, 6th dynasty, Inscription of Khnumhotep II, 12th dynasty
[12] Until the New Kingdom the pharaoh had been the Lord of Maat whom all officials worked for. With the increasing independence of the temples and the deepening of personal piety the gods, above all Amen, became Lords of Maat one did Maat for, and that one was rewarded for with favours, (Hzwt), and personal appreciation, (mrwt), which had been a royal prerogative before:
My lord made [m]e supervisor of thy (i.e. Amen's) buildings,
because he knew that I was careful,
and because I was an energetic supervisor of they buildings,
who did Maat for thee.
You make great him who does it on earth.
I did it and thou hast made me great.
Stela of the master builders Suti and Hor, reign of Amenhotep III of IV
After Bettina Hackländer-von der Way, Biographie und Identität, p.44, Dissertation, 1999, University of Zürich
[14] A few words about the transliteration and pronunciation of ancient Egyptian.
[15] This was also the title given to the kings in Canaan whose cities were conquered during the New Kingdom.
[16] The Donation Stela of Ahmose describes the appointment of the first God's Wife of Amen by Ahmose I:
...[I have given] the office of the second priest of Amun to the god's wife, great royal wife, she united to the beauty of the white crown, Ahmose-Nofretari, may she live!
But while royal appointments in the civil service or the army are frequently a cause for pride in autobiographies, priestly positions are generally mentioned in passing.
[17] Cf. The Petition of Pediese in which a 6th century prophet of Amen has his various priestly offices reaffirmed by Psamtik I in 651 BCE.
[18] Over the centuries the division of the country was occasionally altered. New nomes were created and old ones were united as the political needs of the pharaohs dictated. The total number of nomes was between 37 and 47.

- -The vizierate: historic development, rules of conduct, duties
-The pharaoh: man, ruler, and god
-[13] Extracts from a Middle Kingdom official journal
-Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page
Links(Opening in a new window)
I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these websites.
-[5] Khouenoukh, un nomarque originaire de la Résidence by Valérie Selve
-[9] El Reino Medio en Egipto: La figura de Amenemhat III by Alejandra R. Cersósimo.
-The high stewards of the Middle Kingdom
-Remarks on administration in ancient Egypt (University College London)

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