Peeps at Ancient Egypt - Jamse Baikie

Pharaoh at Home

The time is coming on now for the King to go in state to the great temple at Karnak to offer sacrifice, and as we go up to the palace to see him come forth in all his glory, let me tell you a little about him and the kind of life he leads. Pharaoh, of course, is not his real name; it is not even his official title; it is just a word which is used to describe a person who is so great that people scarcely venture to call him by his proper name. Just as the Turks nowadays speak of the "Sublime Porte," when they mean the Sultan and his Government, so the Egyptians speak of "Per-o," or Pharaoh, as we call it, which really signifies "Great House," when they mean the King.

For the King of Egypt is a very great man indeed; in fact, his people look upon him, and he looks upon himself, as something more than a man. There are many gods in Egypt; but the god whom the people know best, and to whom they pay the most reverence, is their King. Ever since there have been Kings in the country, and that is a very long time now, the reigning monarch has been looked upon as a kind of god manifest in the flesh. He calls himself "Son of the Sun"; in the temples you will see pictures of his childhood, where great goddesses dandle the young god upon their knees. Divine honours are paid, and sacrifices offered to him; and when he dies, and goes to join his brother-gods in heaven, a great temple rises to his memory, and hosts of priests are employed in his worship. There is just one distinction made between him and the other gods. Amen at Thebes, Ptah at Memphis, and all the rest of the crowd of divinities, are called "the great gods." Pharaoh takes a different title. He is called "the good god."



At present "the good god" is Ramses II. Of course, that is only one part of his name; for, like all the other Pharaohs, he has a list of titles that would fill a page. His subjects in Thebes have not seen very much of him for a long time, for there has been so much to do away in Syria, that he has built another capital at Tanis, which the Hebrews call Zoan, down between the Delta and the eastern frontier, and spends most of his time there. People who have been down the river tell us great wonders about the beauty of the new town, its great temple, and the huge statue of the King, 90 feet high, which stands before the temple gate. But Thebes is still the centre of the nation's life, and now, when it is growing almost certain that there will be another war with those vile Hittites in the North of Syria, he has come up to the great city to take counsel with his brother-god, Amen, and to make arrangements for gathering his army. The royal palace is in a constant bustle, with envoys coming and going, and counsellors and generals continually passing in and out with reports and orders.

Outside, the palace is not so very imposing. The Egyptians built their temples to last for ever; but the palaces of their Kings were meant to serve only for a short time. The new King might not care for the old King's home, and so each Pharaoh builds his house according to his own taste, of light materials. It will serve his turn, and his successor may build another for himself. A high wall, with battlements, towers, and heavy gates, surrounds it; for, though Pharaoh is a god, his subjects are sometimes rather difficult to keep in order. Plots against the King have not been unknown in the past; and on at least one occasion, a great Pharaoh of bygone days had to spring from his couch and fight single-handed for his life against a crowd of conspirators who had forced an entrance into the palace while he was enjoying his siesta. So since then Pharaoh has found it better to trust in his strong walls, and in the big broadswords of his faithful Sardinian guardsmen, than in any divinity that may belong to himself.

Within the great boundary wall lie pleasant gardens, gay with all sorts of flowers, and an artificial lake shows its gleaming water here and there through the trees and shrubs. The palace itself is all glittering white stucco on the outside. A high central door leads into a great audience hall, glowing with colour, its roof supported by painted pillars in the form of lotus-stalks; and on either side of this lie two smaller halls. Behind the audience chamber are two immense dining-rooms, and behind these come the sleeping apartments of the numerous household. Ramses has a multitude of wives, and a whole army of sons and daughters, and it takes no small space to house them all. The bedroom of the great King himself stands apart from the other rooms, and is surrounded by banks of flowers in full bloom.

The Son of the Sun has had a busy day already. He has had many letters and despatches to read and consider. Some of the Syrian vassal-princes have sent clay tablets, covered with their curious arrow-headed writing, giving news of the advance of the Hittites, and imploring the help of the Egyptian army; and now the King is about to give audience, and to consider these with his great nobles and Generals. At one end of the reception hall stands a low balcony, supported on gaily-painted wooden pillars which end in capitals of lotus-flowers. The front of this balcony is overlaid with gold, and richly decorated with turquoise and lapis lazuli. Here the King will show himself to his subjects, accompanied by his favourite wife, Queen Nefertari, and some of the young Princes and Princesses. The folding doors of the audience chamber are thrown open, and the barons, the provincial governors, and the high officers of the army and the State throng in to do homage to their master.

In a few moments the glittering crowd is duly arranged, a door opens at the back of the balcony, and the King of the Two Lands, Lord of the Vulture and the Snake, steps forth with his Queen and family. In earlier times, whenever the King appeared, the assembled nobles were expected to fall on their faces and kiss the ground before him. Fashion has changed, however, and now the great folks, at all events, are no longer required to "smell the earth." As Pharaoh enters the balcony, the nobles bow profoundly, and raise their arms as if in prayer to "the good god." Then, in silent reverence, they wait until it shall please their lord to speak.

Ramses sweeps his glance over the crowd, singles out the General in command of the Theban troops, and puts a question to him as to the readiness of his division—the picked division of the army. The soldier steps forward with a deep bow; but it is not Court manners for him to answer his lord's question directly. Instead, he begins by reciting a little psalm of praise, which tells of the King's greatness, his valour and skill in war, and asserts that wherever his horses tread his enemies flee before him and perish. This little piece of flattery over, the General begins, "O King, my master," and in a few sensible words gives the information required. So the audience goes on, counsellor after counsellor coming forward at the royal command, reciting his little hymn, and then giving his opinion on such matters as his master suggests to him. At last the council is over, the King gives orders to his equerry to prepare his chariot for the procession to the temple, and, as he turns to leave the audience chamber, the assembled nobles once more bow profoundly, and raise their arms in adoration.

After a short delay, the great gates of the boundary wall of the palace are opened; a company of spearmen, in quilted leather kilts and leather skull-caps, marches out, and takes position a short distance from the gateway. Behind them comes a company of the Sardinians of the guard, heavily armed, with bright helmets, broad round shields, quilted corselets, and long, heavy, two-edged swords. They range themselves on either side of the roadway, and stand like statues, waiting for the appearance of Pharaoh. There is a whir of chariot-wheels, and the royal chariot sweeps through the gateway, and sets off at a good round pace towards the temple. The spearmen in front start at the double, and the guardsmen, in spite of their heavy equipment, keep pace with their royal master on either side.

The waiting crowd bows to the dust as the sovereign passes; but Pharaoh looks neither to the right hand nor to the left. He stands erect and impassive in the swaying chariot, holding the crook and whip which are the Egyptian royal emblems. On his head he wears the royal war helmet, in the front of which a golden cobra rears its crest from its coils, as if to threaten the enemies of Egypt. His finely-shaped, swarthy features are adorned, or disfigured, by an artificial beard, which is fastened on by a strap passing up in front of the ears. His tall slender body is covered, above his corselet, with a robe of fine white linen, a perfect wonder of pleating; and round his waist passes a girdle of gold and green enamel, whose ends cross and hang down almost to his knees, terminating in two threatening cobra heads. On either side of him run the fan-bearers, who manage, by a miracle of skill and activity, to keep their great gaily-coloured fans of perfumed ostrich feathers waving round the royal head even as they run.

Ramses II


Behind the King comes a long train of other chariots, only less splendid than that of Ramses. In the first stands Queen Nefertari, languidly sniffing at a lotus-flower as she passes on. The others are filled by some of the Princes of the blood, who are going to take part in the ceremony at the temple, chief among them the wizard Prince Khaemuas, the greatest magician in Egypt, who has spells that can bring the dead from their graves. Some in the crowd shrink from his keen eye, and mutter that the papyrus roll which he holds so close to his breast was taken from the grave of another magician Prince of ancient days, and that Khaemuas will know no peace till it is restored. In a few minutes the whole brilliant train has passed, dazzling the eyes with a blaze of gold and white and scarlet; and crowds of courtiers stream after their master, as fast as their feet can carry them, towards Karnak. You have seen, if only for a moment, the greatest man on earth—the Great Oppressor of Hebrew story. Very mighty and very proud he is; and he does not dream that the little Hebrew boy whom his daughter has adopted, and who is being trained in the priestly college at Heliopolis, will one day humble all the pride of Egypt, and that the very name of Ramses shall be best remembered because it is linked with that of Moses.