Pharaoh Up-Close: An Interview with Dr. Garry J. Shaw

The civilization of ancient Egypt is at once timeless and ethereal with remarkable cultural continuity and towering monuments. From the time of the semi-mythological Menes to the Roman Diocletian, it was also a civilization was guided by the rule of the legendary pharaohs. A king, priest, judge, and warrior, all in one, the pharaohs played a defining role in shaping Egyptian life and culture for thousands of years.

In this special feature interview, James Blake Wiener speaks with Dr. Garry J. Shaw, a British Egyptologist, who teaches at the Egypt Exploration Society in London, UK. Shaw’s latest work is The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign, which highlights the multifarious roles the Egyptian Pharaoh fulfilled within ancient Egyptian civilization.

JW: Dr. Shaw, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with the Ancient History Encyclopedia about your latest work! You are the first expert we have profiled with expertise on ancient Egypt, if you can believe it!

When most people ponder the word “ancient,” many immediately conjure images of ancient Egypt with its pyramids, mummies, and resplendent temples. Yet many of these architectural marvels and sociocultural practices would not have been possible without the vigor and dynamism of Egypt’s pharaohs. I thought that it might be prudent to begin our interview with a question about the political responsibilities of the pharaoh: how can we characterize their responsibilities as statesmen (and occasionally stateswomen), and what does this reveal about ancient Egyptian government? 

GS: Hello James! Thank you for having me and allowing me to share my passion for the pharaohs with the Ancient History Encyclopedia’s users.

Yours a quite tricky question, because the personal involvement of the king in political matters probably changed depending on period and individual interest. From a purely ideological point of view, the Pharaoh made every decision in government, sitting at the top of a vast bureaucracy divided between the administration, military, and priesthood; he had to protect Egypt’s population and borders; ensure that the gods received offerings in their temples (which he had to embellish); maintain laws; and make sure that maat (the Egyptian concept of divine order and justice) was continuously upheld. Furthermore, he had a duty to destroy evil.

Theoretically, the king chose all of his courtiers, but often, especially in times of weakened kingship, courtiers could pass their offices to their children, leading to mini-dynasties; conversely, times when established families suddenly lose power in favor of relative unknowns (such as under Amenhotep II, r. 1427-1401 or 1397 BCE, who appointed his childhood friends) provide evidence for an increase in royal influence. Commands came to the pharaoh from the gods, and he ensured that their wishes were carried out; the courtiers simply existed to fulfil his will and enforce his laws; they could advise, but the Pharaoh’s decision was final and always absolute.

We are told that every morning, the king met with his highest officials to be informed about the current state of the land, and gave his directives for the day; to what extent he actually had any input into the many extant royal decrees or commands is impossible to know, however; many lack individual personality, and though some say that the decree was “sealed in the presence of the king,” it is difficult to know how to interpret this. Was it sealed literally beside the king (and did he read it)? Could it have been sealed in a room beside the throne room? Sealed in a building near the palace? Sometimes objects–such as royal sceptres–could represent royal presence, so was it sealed in front of such an object? The king was the ultimate judge in the land, but he did not preside over all cases, even ones directly related to him; he was, however, kept informed of what was going on. The pharaoh was also the only person allowed to assign the death penalty.

Although it sounds like the government could tick along quite nicely without the pharaoh, his role in the cosmos was fundamental and vital; without him acting as intermediary between mankind and the gods, the universe would become unstable and maat could not exist. Put simply, the government needed the Pharaoh; at all times, someone had to occupy that divine office.

JW: Dr. Shaw, I was wondering if you might perhaps offer a comment or two on the religious obligations of the pharaohs? After reading your book, I feel that one of the biggest misconceptions the public has of the pharaohs is that the ancient Egyptian populace saw them as “divine.” The situation is a bit more complex and nuanced than this.

GS: Absolutely, James! Generations of scholars have grappled with the nature of ancient Egypt’s divine kingship. Early scholars assembled evidence that showed the pharaohs to be absolute gods on earth, but this was turned on its head when it was shown that these individuals had based their conclusions entirely on religious texts; the king was, after all, the highest priest in all the land, the middleman between mankind and the gods, therefore and shown performing all offerings in all temples. If you utilise only religious texts to build a picture of him, he will certainly seem like a god on earth. In the 1960s, the French Egyptologist, Dr. George Posener (1906-1988), argued that if the pharaohs were gods, they were gods who could die, and who had limitations on their powers. They were gods who were fallible, could get drunk, and angry, and had to perform annual rituals to renew their powers. Though Posener took us to another extreme, he at least reopened the discussion.

Today, Egyptologists see the king as a man imbued with a divine energy–the royal ka-spirit that merged with his body during the coronation. Just as a god inhabiting a statue was limited by this physical form, the divine kingship was limited by the human body, meaning that the populace did not expect him to be capable of outright supernatural acts. He was a human occupying a divine office, himself occupied by a divine force, and when he died, the eternal divine ka simply passed to another body.

JW: Your new book explores some of the daily routines of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh. Could you share with our readers, which of these routines you believe most would find curious or even surprising? Additionally, could you comment on which daily activities remained more or less continuous for thousands of years? 

GS: It is quite difficult to reconstruct the king’s daily routines in absolute detail, though one routine event is the morning meeting with the highest courtiers, as mentioned above. Preparing himself for this meeting must have been an important daily ritual, and we know that there was a vast array of courtiers involved in getting him ready. The Chief of Secrets of the House of the Morning took charge of the king’s washing and rising, and oversaw men charged with the king’s shaving, anointing, and purification. There was a Director of Wigmakers, a Lord of the Royal Wardrobe, men connected with royal linen, men who handled crowns and headdresses, and even a director of royal loincloths if you can believe it! The simple act of getting up seems to have involved an army of staff, and surely followed the same rigid routine each morning! I imagine this remained unchanged throughout the Pharaonic Period.

JW: The life of an Egyptian pharaoh was defined by ritual as much as routine. You underscore the affluence associated with the most important court ceremonies–royal coronations, funerals, holidays, and marriages–in conjunction with the harsh set of decorum expected of members of the royal court.

I was curious if you could go further and share with our readers how such protocol became established: were there occasions when protocol was more relaxed and less formal? What punishments awaited those who offended the pharaoh by breaching protocol?

GS: The king’s physical body was believed to be “inhabited” by the royal ka-spirit from the moment of coronation; this changed the nature of the man, divinizing him. So, when approaching the king, you were approaching a deity, and had to behave accordingly. Such ideas seem to have been around from the beginning of Pharaonic kingship, so it is not really possible to say specifically when this protocol became established. The moment you start treating a man as a god, however, you set him apart, and more and more complex rules are going to appear regarding how to deal with him. Nevertheless, there are rather entertaining glimpses into pharaohs behaving outside of the boundaries of established protocol.

A literary tale, The Prophecy of Neferti, presents the king and courtiers holding their morning meeting in a very formal style. They are then dismissed, but the king then calls them back in an informal manner and asks them to suggest some entertainment for him. Similarly, one king is presented making fishing nets with his courtiers, while others are described drinking, eating, and hunting with their friends. Despite being pharaoh, these men still lived their lives like anyone else, enjoying the company of friends and having pastimes. Still, it does seem that it was a bad idea to touch the king; one text describes the king pardoning one of his courtiers after the poor individual tripped over the king’s staff. It is possible that rather than pardoning him for interfering with a royal ritual, he was letting the man off for coming into contact with him.

JW: As I read your book, I could not help but think that while the pharaohs certainly exercised enormous powers, they were still quite human. They had pets, relished their leisure time, enjoyed song and dance, and spent time with their family. This “human” element strongly resonated with me and I wondered if you felt the same way as you researched this book?

GS: It did indeed, James, very much so. To reach the pharaoh’s human side was one of the main motivations behind the book; it was also the aim behind my PhD research. All too often, people have focused on the king’s ideal presentation, promulgating the royal myth that the ancient Egyptians themselves wished to present; my aim was to try as much as possible to glimpse the human behind the myth. This was difficult thanks to the rules of decorum followed by Egypt’s elite; basically, if you were going to mention the king in your tomb, let’s say in your tomb autobiography (a major source of information for Egyptologists), you had to talk about him in a very particular way, always highlighting his prime role, and even assigning your own achievements to him. Soldiers, for example, could not say they killed enemies, only the king could kill because it was his divine role as protector of Egypt. In this way, the human element gets lost behind the façade of an ancient ideal. By focusing on examples of royal pets, banquets, music, etc., I hoped to try and reclaim some of the king’s humanity.

JW: A pharaoh needed a consort or “Great Royal Wife” for reasons of national security and ceremonial ritual. What were their roles within the court and how influential were they politically? Likewise, what specific obligations were expected of the pharaoh as a husband?

GS: Although the king could marry as many women as he wished, there was only ever one Great Royal Wife. She was a female counterpart to the king, who owned her own estates, and performed high level priestly acts in temples; she could even be shown alongside the king in temple scenes making offerings to the gods. In addition to her religious role, the Great Royal Wife also held political power, though it is impossible to say how much simply due to a lack of evidence. When king Ahmose I (r. 1550-1525? BCE) was too young to rule independently–at the start of the 18th Dynasty–his mother Queen Ahhotep (c. 1560-1530? BCE) seems to have ruled as queen regent. Similarly, the famous Queen Hatshepsut (r. 1479-1458 BCE) governed for Thutmose III (r. 1479-1425 BCE), and eventually proclaimed herself pharaoh.

Except for the Great Royal Wife, who will have spent the majority of her time travelling around the country with the king, the pharaoh’s other wives lived in so-called “harem” palaces dotted around the country and had no ritual role. These women were allowed to come and go as they pleased, and managed their own staff, which included men. They seem to have spent a lot of time involved in weaving; the royal women would wear the fine linen clothing produced, and could send some of it to be used by the royal court. Harems were also stocked with fine jewellery and flowers, so no one missed the finer aspects of life.

JW: Which pharaoh(s) were the most successful in your estimation? Is there a pharaoh who is vastly underrated and merits further attention? On a lighter note, do you have one pharaoh in particular which you would regard as a “favorite”? If so, whom and why?

GS: As far as which pharaohs were most successful, I am a little biased in that my specialty is the 18th Dynasty (c. 1550-1292 BCE), so I am going to choose them as a whole. These kings had to rebuild Egypt following the 2nd Intermediate Period (1650–1550 BCE), when Egypt was divided by foreign enemies called the Hyksos, who ruled the north. Despite having lived under the shadow of foreign occupation, within a few generations, Egypt had become stronger and richer than it had ever previously been.

In terms of underrated kings, I would say Psamtik I (r. 664-610 BCE) of the 26th Dynasty (685-525 BCE). Most people probably have not heard of him, but he lived in a time of great turmoil brought on by the Assyrian invasion of Egypt. He was left to control Egypt in the name of the Assyrians, but turned his back on them, and, with the aid of Greek mercenaries, brought Egypt’s various squabbling governors together under his rule. His acts ended Egypt’s 3rd Intermediate Period (1070-664 BCE) and began a period of cultural renaissance. He is still not my favorite pharaoh, however; that honor goes to Amenhotep II.

I say he is my “favorite” because he is a king I like to mention frequently in my lectures, I can not seem to avoid him; he is one of the pharaohs whose character, I believe, shines through in the evidence, and not in a good way! If he is not sending enemies to be hung from the walls of Karnak, he is burning people in a ditch, or making sure that everyone knows he is the best sportsman ever to have lived. He appointed some of his childhood friends to the highest positions in the land, including the vizierate, removing certain families from power that had held influence for generations. In short, Amenhotep II (even in his own propaganda) comes across as a spoiled king, fond of cruelty, getting his own way, and making sure everyone knows he is the best. Though I can not imagine he was fun to be around, his personality does seem to shine through, which is more than can be said for many pharaohs.

JW: I was surprised to learn that Cleopatra VII (r. 51-30 BCE) should not be considered the last pharaoh in your opinion; instead, you posit that the Roman emperor, Diocletian (r. 285-305 CE), is the last “pharaoh.” Could you explain why in short detail?

GS: One thing I absolutely wanted to include in the book was the Roman pharaohs; most books disregard this phase of Pharaonic kingship, but the Egyptian priests certainly did not, so why should we? Roman emperors were depicted in just the same way as earlier kings and received royal names written in cartouches. I especially wanted to highlight the Roman emperors visited Egypt, and what they accomplished when there. Whilst researching the book, I realised that not only was Diocletian the last Roman emperor to set foot in Egypt, but he was also the last one to have his name written in a cartouche and receive a full titulary, as well as the last one to be referenced in dates (normally when a new pharaoh came to the throne, the year reset to “year 1” under that king).

To avoid using the names of Christian emperors, the Egyptian priests preferred to have an everlasting reign of Diocletian: the last known hieroglyphic inscription refers to year 110 of Diocletian (c.  415 CE), and the last known Demotic inscription dates to year 169 of Diocletian (c. 474 CE). This dating system was eventually taken up by Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who referred to it as the “Era of Martyrs”–a reference to the Christians persecuted under Diocletian’s reign. This dating system is still used today, and so, from a certain point of view, Diocletian’s reign never ended; he still rules as Egypt’s last pharaoh.

JW: Dr. Shaw, I would like to conclude this interview with a question on the experiences that led you to become an Egyptologist: had you always been drawn to Egypt or did you become enthralled with Egypt over time? What is it about ancient Egypt that captivates you the most?

GS: My interest began when I was quite young; I distinctly remember having to make a cardboard pyramid at school and mummifying a clothes peg to “bury” inside! During my teens, I started reading everything I could about Egypt, and eventually decided to study archaeology at Liverpool University, where I could focus most of my attention on ancient Egypt. I went on to study my MA and PhD, completely immersed in Egyptology, and here I am today. I am not sure what initially drew me to Egypt over any other ancient civilization, it is probably cliché to say that there seemed something adventurous about exploring the desert, about finding mummies and mystery.

Today, I enjoy trying to bring the ancient Egyptians more and more into focus; I like learning those odd little facts that make us seem so similar, but also those details that underline the differences. By assembling this information, I hope to bring the character of the ancient Egyptians and the reality of their environment back to life, not just as some romantic vision of pyramids, temples, and tombs, but as a place where real people lived and died.

JW: Thank you so very much for speaking with us and sharing your expertise on such a compelling topic, Dr. Shaw! Please keep us posted on your activities and do remain in touch. We wish you only the best in all your future endeavors!

GS: Many thanks, James. It has been lovely to chat!

Please see the Ancient History Encyclopedia’s book review of The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign.

Image Key:

1. Wall relief. In 1274 BCE, Ramesses II (The Great) of Egypt led his forces against the Hittite army, under King Muwatalli II, at The Battle of Kadesh. Both sides claimed victory and the conflict resulted in the world’s first peace treaty, The Treaty of Kadesh, signed in 1258 BCE. Based on Wikipedia content that has been reviewed, edited, and republished. Original illustration by Cave cattum. Uploaded by Joshua J. Mark, published on 04 January 2013 under the following license: Creative Commons; Attribution-ShareAlike.

2. Plastered and painted funerary stele from VII-IV century BCE. (Egyptian Museum, Castello Sforzesco, Milan). Original illustration by Mark Cartwright. Uploaded by Mark Cartwright, published on 14 May 2012 under the following license: Copyright.

3. Painting extract, Thebes, Egypt, Late 18th Dynasty, c. 1350 BCE. Trustees of the British Museum. Original illustration by Trustees of the British Museum. Uploaded by Jan van der Crabben, published on 26 April 2012 under the following license: Copyright.

4. Detail of Hatshepsut, Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, c. 1473-1458 BCE. Indurated limestone sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Hatshepsut is depicted in the clothing of a male king though with a feminine form. Inscriptions on the statue call her “Daughter of Re” and “Lady of the Two Lands.” Most of the statue’s fragments were excavated in 1929, by the Museum’s Egyptian Expedition, near Hatshepsut’s funerary temple, at Deir el-Bahri, in Thebes. The torso had been discovered in 1845, taken to Berlin, and acquired by the Museum in 1930. Original illustration by Postdlf. Uploaded by Jan van der Crabben, published on 26 April 2012 under the following license: GNU Free Documentation License.

5. The Avenue of the Sphinxes is a 3 km (5 mile) ancient processional route that once linked Luxor temple with the Temple of Mut, at Karnak, to the south. The avenue and sphinxes were built during the reign of Nectanebo I (r. 380-363 BCE), who ruled during the 30th Dynasty (380-343 BCE). Each of the approximately 1350 sphinxes which originally lined the route are inscribed with his name. Original illustration by sdhaddow. Uploaded by Jan van der Crabben, published on 26 April 2012 under the following license: Creative Commons; Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike.

Dr. Garry J. Shaw earned a doctoral degree in Egyptology from the University of Liverpool and previously taught at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. His chief interest lies in the daily life and the role of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh. Currently, Shaw works as an editor and staff writer for the magazine Al-Rawi: Egypt’s Heritage Review, and teaches at the Egypt Exploration Society in London, UK. He is the author of Royal Authority in Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty and most recently, The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All photographs supplied by Dr. Garry J. Shaw–book cover and profile picture, courtesy of Ms. Jennifer Willoughby–are copyrighted and belong exclusively to him. They have been given to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, as a privilege, for the purposes of this interview. Other images were obtained under legal means and have been properly attributed via the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013.

Filed under: Interviews


James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.