Ancient Egypt: The priests of Amen-Re and the Theban Kings
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The priests of Amen-Re and the Theban Kings

The growing power of the priesthood during the New Kingdom

    Amen-Re was considered to be the true father of the pharaoh and his crowning was the recognition of the son by his father. Amen was the counsellor of the king , who consulted the god's statue either in his sanctuary or during a procession, with the statue answering by voice or a nod. The private use of the oracle by the king in the role of High Priest strengthened the validity of his decisions by giving them the sanction of the god, while the public oracle was a tool in the hands of the priesthood to achieve their political and social aims.
    The intervention of this oracle became more and more frequent during the 18th dynasty with the priests taking on the role of defenders of the oppressed and guardians of justice, thus strengthening the position of the god's priests.

    Until the reign of Hatshepsut (1498-1483), the kings tried to limit the powers of the first prophets of Amen ( hem tep netjer) to religious affairs, still they were involved in the crowning of the king and the oracles. The first prophets performed the ceremonies in the king's stead, while his wife replaced the absent queen as "wife of the god" (hemet netjer), an office attested to since the beginning of the New Kingdom [5]. The nurses of the royal children also belonged to these sacerdotal families.

    Under Thutmose I (1527-1515) the worldly riches of Amen were administered by a lay person, Ineni, as was the supervision over the building of temples, a position of great importance during this time of monumental construction.

    The priesthood used legitimacy issues to increase their influence: Thutmose I, the son of one of Amenhotep's concubines, became king only because of his marriage to the princess Ahmose, daughter of Queen Aahetep. When Hatshepsut, a daughter of his and Ahmose, survived into adulthood, he was asked to resign in her favour, which he did in front of his court and the priesthood of Amen. Thutmose II (1515-1498), his son by a concubine who followed him in the list of kings, did so thanks to his marriage to Hatshepsut, the legitimate heiress.

    Thutmose III (1504-1450), the son of Thutmose II, had grown up in the temple of Amen, at first destined for priesthood. He was supported by those who feared that a woman couldn't fill the position of king effectively and became involved in the affairs of the army.

    Hatshepsut's party on the other hand included Hapuseneb, the First Prophet of Amen who first became administrator of the temple's wealth, the head of all the gods' priests of Upper and Lower Egypt and finally prefect of Thebes and vizier. The chancellor Nehesi and the architect Sennemut and Thuti the treasurer belonged to the ruling group. Grateful for the support the Amen priests had given her, the queen built the splendid temple at Deir el Bahri and many other chapels.
    Towards the end of her life, her power and that of her loyal servants must have waned, and Thutmose, who had become head of the army, took over. His conquests brought in a great deal of booty and tribute, of which Amen received his part, because, as the triumphal stele at Karnak describes

I have given thee by my order the earth in its length and width... Thou hast crossed the river in Nahrina, with all thy might and power... I ordain that thy conquests shall encompass all the lands, and that the peoples will come and prostrate themselves before thy majesty bearing tribute...
    Little of the wealth flowing into the country remained in the hands of the pharaoh after the warriors had taken their part, and the priesthood who claimed most of the rest, accumulated huge wealth, thus diminishing the power of the king, which would lead to open conflict later on. Thutmose enlarged the landholdings of the priesthood and added to the Amen temple at Karnak, but he took the post of vizier out of the hands of Menkheperrasenb, the High Priest of Amen, who still retained the function of director of the royal treasury and public buildings and head of all the priests of Egypt.

    His successors Amenhotep II (1450-1412) and Thutmose IV (1412-1402) continued this cautious policy vis-a-vis the sacerdotal class, but in the latter half of the reign of Amenhotep III, the High Priest Ptahmose added the position of vizier to his directorship of public works and prefecture of Thebes.

The power struggle

    During Amenhotep III's reign (1402-1364) the worship of the Rising Sun, Harakhti , (not the metaphysical Re-Atum of the theologians but the red disk of the sun itself, Aten) gained many adherents at court. After the king's death, his widow Tiye became regent and brought up their son Amenhotep in an atmosphere inimical Akhenaten relief taken from Karnak to the priesthood of Amen. Amenhotep was married to Tadukhepa, another Mitannian and lived in a close family circle devoted to Aten, which included the priest Ay and his uncle Inen, High Priest of Re at Hermonthis, where Amenhotep IV (1350-1334) was crowned king.

Relief of Akhenaten taken from the 9th pylon at Karnak
now at the Luxor Museum
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    The break with Amen's priests [3] became even more serious when the construction of a great temple honoring Re-Harakhti was built right by the Amen temple at Karnak and when the pharaoh declared himself to be the First Prophet of Harakhti. From a letter found at Amarna addressed to Ramose, his vizier and director of prophets of the South and the North - even though he was not a priest of either Amen or Aten, one can draw the conclusion that Amen's priests had reacted unfavourably
the actions of the priests are more perverted than those things I heard in year IV... more perverted than anything my father and my grandfather ever heard.
    In year 6 the new city of Aten, Akhetaten, was founded and Amenhotep's name was changed to Akhenaten. All his family members took Aten-names as did the members of the court and the royal administration, and the government removed itself to Akhetaten (today's el Amarna). The abrupt cessation of funding had a devastating effect on the Amen temples
the land was as if during a time of chaos... the temples of the gods at Elephantine had fallen on ill times. The ruinous sanctuaries were abandoned... All the land was in distress. The gods averted their faces from this land...If you invoked the gods, they didn't heed the appeal.
    The fate of the priests is unknown but the wealth of the temples, their land and slaves, were probably confiscated by the crown, unless economically ruined, the temples would not have been abandoned. To the followers of Amen this was a time of hardship and spiritual darkness caused by the god, yet they were certain that Amen would prevail, and 'they', the worshipers of Aten, would lose their power. This hope was expressed in a graffito inscribed by Pawah, a scribe of the temple of Amen, on the door jamb of a Theban tomb:
Turn your face towards us, O lord of eternity!
You were here before 'they' arose,
You will be here when 'they' are gone.
You caused me to see a darkness of your making.
Bestow light upon me, so that I may see you.
Jan Assman, Ocular Desire in a Time of Darkness

    The priests' party was not without public support. Unrest was the result of Akhenaten's policy. On the tomb of Mahu, chief of the Nubian guards, one finds images of Egyptian and foreign prisoners being brought before the pharaoh, possibly caught as being involved in a plot or an uprising against the king.

The restoration

    The partial restoration of Amen's temples began during the last years of Akhenaten's reign, when Smenkhkare [1] (1334), husband of Akhenaten's daughter Meritaten, was made co-regent and sent to Thebes to restore order. A wall painting in a Theban tomb dating from Smenkhkare's third year proves that he had a palace in Thebes which included an active Amen temple. After his death, Tutankhaten, advised by Ay, changed his name to Tutankhamen (1334-1325), abandoned Akhetaten in his 4th year and revived the cults of Amen and the other gods. He returned the confiscated wealth to the temples
multiplying it by three and by four, restores the buildings, the statues, the offerings and fills the hearts of the gods and their priests with great joy.
Stela of Karnak, 4th year
The Aten temples at Thebes and Heliopolis were destroyed and used as quarries for the building of new Amen temples.

    The "national party" and the supporters of Amen's priesthood chose Horemheb, Akhenaten's general in Canaan as the new king. He had accepted the Aten doctrine and changed his name to Pa-atenemheb, but grew rapidly disenchanted with his king's foreign policy. Upon the death of Ay (1325-1321) he was crowned by Amen's statue at Karnak and legitimized his position by marrying the princess Mutnezmet. Under him Amen was fully restored.
    Some aspects of Akhenaten's monotheism [4] didn't disappear after his death, but were exploited by the Theban priesthood in Amen's favour: Re was the head representing thought, Ptah the body executing and Amen the word which gives life or death.

    The position of the pharaohs vis-à-vis the priesthood and the god was further weakened by the non-royal origin of the 19th dynasty, which found its pictorial expression in the many depictions of Seti I humbling himself before the gods, [7] and had lasting political consequences. While during the 18th dynasty the priests had publicly interfered mainly in major political decisions such as the choices of Hatshepsut, Thutmose III and Horemheb as pharaohs, the 19th dynasty saw the continued crumbling of the pharaonic authority, when the priests in the guise of the Karnak oracle rejected all the nominations for High Priest made by Ramses II, and the beginning of their intervention in the destinies of individuals who became thus beholden to them: Thanks to an imperative arm movement of the statue of Isis a Ramesside officer received advancement and the statue of Ahmose I decided a court case in favour of a priest. Ramses II, wary of their growing power, tried to boost the influence of the Memphite Ptah priesthood at the expense of Amen's followers.

    Oracles, which were sacerdotal courts in reality, began to decide cases in the temples and necropoles, sometimes in direct opposition to the will and intentions of the king's administration. Thus they prepared the ground for a theocracy, but until outside forces began to shake the foundation of the kings' power, corruption and inefficiency became ubiquitous towards the end of the XX Dynasty and civil war broke out, they had to bide their time.

    Bekenkhonsu lived from the reign of Horemheb to that of Merneptah spanning almost a century and served as first prophet and head of the priesthood of both the North and the South, but the kings were very careful not to appoint him as vizier with responsibility for the palace administration, public works or the treasury. On the other hand they did embark on temple construction on a huge scale, which must have been a heavy economic burden on a country of about ten million inhabitants, most of whom were poor peasants. The wars against the Sea peoples drained Egypt's resources further. Under Ramses III the estate of Amen received only one-fifth of the quantity of gold they had been given by Thutmose III.
    Still, much of Egypt's wealth belonged to the temples: 15% of the land [2], more than 100,000 slaves, 169 towns in Egypt, Syria and Nubia, more than half a million head of cattle, 88 ships and 53 naval dockyards. More than two thirds of this belonged to the temple of Amen. It received yearly a tribute of 26,000 grains of gold from the land of Kush.
    Ramses III confirmed their holdings, as Ramses IV states in a papyrus, thus consolidating Amen's leading position among the temples, reinforcing the legitimacy of his dynasty, but at the same time critically weakening the power of the pharaohs themselves. The taking root of a tradition of inheritance of the position of high priest among a small number of families was countered by the occasional appointment of men loyal to the king. Ramsesnakht was Ramses IV's choice for the High Priest at Thebes and his son Amenhotep was Priest of Amen under Ramses V. This family acquired considerable control over the wealth of the temple and grew independent of the king, often arousing his displeasure.
    The power struggle was not just political and it was certainly public. Under Ramses IX a woman testifying in a criminal case used the events as a date:

She said: "When the revolt of the High Priest of Amon took place, this man stole some things of my father."
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 486
    The High Priest still recalls the benefactions he has received from the king and hopes for his blessing:
The king himself, he said to the princes and companions who were at his side: "Give many favors and numerous rewards of fine gold, silver, and myriads of all good things, to the High Priest of Amon Re, king of gods, Amenhotep, triumphant ...
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 494
May the ka of Ramses IX favor thee!
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 496
but he has himself depicted as equal to the king, economically independent after receiving the right to gather his own taxes
The harvests, the exactions of the impost of the people of the house of Amon-Re, king of gods, shall be under thy charge, and thine shall be the tribute in full according to their sums.
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 497
    Ramses XI made the last royal attempt to keep the country united and retain control over Nubia. He appointed Panehesy viceroy of Kush who succeeded in overcoming Amenhotep, the High Priest of Amen. Civil war devastated the Thebaid, and Panehesy rebelled and refused to obey orders from the king. In the 19th year of Ramses XI Paiankh was appointed viceroy of Kush, and Amenhotep's successor Herihor stopped Panehesy's expansion into southern Egypt, driving him back beyond the first cataract. Paiankh was unsuccessful in defeating Panhesy, and the former viceroy died in Nubia of old age [6].
    Herihor set himself up as vizier and Viceroy of Kush. While at first he had himself depicted as High Priest, he soon was represented as king, even if in fact his power did not extend beyond Thebes.
I give to thee very many jubilees, like thy father, Re; I give to thee every land together; while the Nine Bows fall down to thy power.
Utterance of "Khonsu-in-Thebes-Beautiful-Rest:" O my son, my beloved, Lord of the Two Lands, Siamon-Hrihor; how beautiful is this beautiful, pure, and excellent monument which thou hast made for me! My heart is satisfied in seeing them (sic!), and I give to thee reward for them, even life, stability, satisfaction, and the kingdom of the Two Lands, in peace, like Re.
From the Khonsu temple at Karnak
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 620

The triumph of Amen

    With the death of the last Ramses, the partition of Egypt became official. The North was ruled from Tanis by descendents of the Ramessides, the first among them, Smendes (Nesubanebzed), founded the Ankhnesneferibre, gods wife of Amen; Source: Jon Bodsworth Tanite Dynasty. Herihor seems to have accepted his legitimacy, as did his son Piankh, who was only First Prophet and did not claim kingship. While Egypt was thus divided, no conflict arose between North and South. Close family ties developed between the Thebans and the Tanites, though relationships are not always clear (Pinedjem I may have married Makara, a daughter of the Tanite king Psusennes I, or conversely, he may have been the pharaoh's father)

Ankhnesneferibre, God's Wife of Amen, with flail and crook, wearing an uraeus
Picture source: Jon Bodsworth

    Masaharta, son of Pinedjem, became First Prophet at Thebes. He and his descendents controlled Upper Egypt politically, financially and militarily up to Elephantine at least, possibly even up to Napata. They even exercised considerable power over the decision making of the Tanite kings by way of the oracle of Amen.
    By this time, Amen had, at least in the eyes of his priests, become the only god, pure spirit
Amen-Re, great god who lives on Maat, of whom no image is known, who has created himself, the very god
From a papyrus found on the mummy of Pinedjem II
    Osiris himself did not decide about the fate of the humans anymore. His role of punishing the evil and rewarding the good in the after-life had been assumed by Amen. The other gods were not abolished, but they were not mentioned anymore either.


Picture sources:
[  ] Ankhnesneferibre, gods wife of Amen - Source: Jon Bodsworth
[1]     Theories concerning Smenkhkare's identity abound. There is no agreement even as to his sex.
[2]     According to the Harris Papyrus 1,070,419 stat, 80% of which was in the hands of the Theban priesthood.
[3]     That there was a break at all may seem strange, as the king had always been the chief of the Amen priests, performing the important annual ceremonies himself. In theory the Amen priests had no independent power base: the temple property belonged ultimately to the king, they were appointed by him and from the point of worship they were just his stand-ins. But this was only true when the king was the real source of power. In practice they succeeded in retrieving their property and restoring their political clout.
[4]     Some think that his thinking might best be described as monolatry, worship of a single god, rather than monotheism, belief in a single god.
[6]     Michael Rice, Who's Who in Ancient Egypt, Routledge 1999
Lázlo Török, The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meriotic Civilization, Brill Academic Publishers 1997, pp.105ff.
Bojana Mojsov, Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God, Blackwell Publishing 2005, p.81
[7] Peter J. Brand, Ideology and Politics of the Early Ramesside Kings (13th Century BC) in Bisang et al. eds., Prozesse des Wandels in historischen Spannungsfeldern Nordostafrikas/Westasiens, Ergon Verlag 2001, p.26

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