Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period

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Social Structure and Political Organisation

2.2 Roles of the vizier and members of the religious, administrative and military elites

See also Isabella's presentation for this topic

The king's men

A small group of powerful officials, reporting directly to the king, maintained control of the four major divisions of the administration of Egypt – the civil government, the religious government, the administration of the army and navy and the royal domains (the court and the royal estates).

Responsible to each of these heads of department were deputies and officials of high status who in turn were supported by vast bureaucracies of minor officials, scribes, priests, police, mayors, village chiefs and so on. These men, most of whom were buried in the Theban necropolis, had some of the following titles:

§ vizier of Upper Egypt
§ overseer of the treasury
§ viceroy of Kush
§ overseer of works
§ overseer of the granaries of Upper and Lower Egypt
§ overseer of the treasury
§ overseer of cattle
§ first, second and third prophets of Amun
§ great commander of soldiers
§ chief steward of the king
§ overseer of the granary of Amun
§ overseer of the royal harem
§ scribe of the pharaoh's fields
§ scribe of recruits
§ harbour master in the southern city.

Many of them also had the title of royal scribe.

Every part of the administration was hierarchical, which meant that each official was answerable to someone above him and responsible for someone below him.

Although it was possible for a man of reasonably humble background to rise to the top of the bureaucracy and to gain a position of influence with the pharaoh, there were considerable barriers to this promotion.

Literacy was the essential requirement for any position of responsibility and the number of high positions available at any one time was reduced by the practice of giving some officials a number of important roles. Treasurers were often also overseers of all the works of the king. There was a tendency for positions of importance to be monopolised by a small, elite group.

The most powerful officials in the administration were the viziers of Upper and Lower Egypt, viceroy of Kush, over­seer of the treasury, high priest of Amun and commander‑in‑chief of the army, the latter being held by either the king or crown prince.

The vizier

The vizier was the most important of all the pharaoh's officials. He headed the vast bureaucracy necessary to govern Egypt efficiently dur­ing the New Kingdom. Those appointed to the position of vizier during the New Kingdom had to be men of great ability since the office of vizier was 'the pillar of the whole land'.

Originally there was only one chief minister but by the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty there seem to have been two viziers ‑ the southern vizier who governed from Thebes and the northern vizier who governed from Memphis. Although very little evidence is available about the affairs of the northern viziers, the documentary and pictorial evidence for the duties and responsibilities of the Theban viziers is quite extensive.

It appears that during most of the New Kingdom the position of the southern vizier was superior to that of his colleague in the north, since Thebes was the religious capital (the centre of the worship of the imperial god, Amun, and the site of the royal necropolis).

One of the best known of the southern viziers was Rekhmire, who served both Thutmose III and Amenhotep II. Although Rekhmire was supported by a vast bureaucracy of scribal officials, his job was the most demanding in the country. He described himself as the king's ‘very own ­skipper who knew no sleep by night as by day'.

Since the time of the Old Kingdom, the behaviour expected of viziers and other officials had been outlined in tomb inscriptions (eg the Instructions of Ptahotep). During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth dynasties a text known as the Installation of the Vizier was found carved in the tomb chapels of a number of notable viziers of the Theban area. The best known is from the tomb of Rekhmire. A part of the text was also in the tomb of the vizier, Paser, who served under Seti I and Ramesses Il.

These texts, which were associated with the ceremonial appointment of a vizier, were divided into two parts:
1. advice from the king
2. a survey of the vizier's duties.

The installation of the vizier, from the tomb of Rekhmire

Advice from the king

Thutmose III was aware of just how difficult the job was when he addressed the incoming vizier with the words:
As to the vizierate, it is not sweet, indeed but it is bitter as gall. For the vizier is hard copper enclosing the gold of his master's house.

The king outlined the code of behaviour which he expected his highest official to follow. Although it is unlikely that all officials acted according to the principles laid down, it seems that the ideas of justice, charity, understanding and kindliness were fairly generally accepted.

The king instructed his vizier, in his role as chief judge in all civil cases, to accept all petitioners and to do everything to allow a man to plead his innocence. There should not have been any cause for anyone to complain that the vizier prevented them from pleading their case or that he was biased. Everyone could expect to be treated equally, 'the man you know and the man you do not know', 'whether he be mayor or district governor or common person'.

The king further instructed his vizier to dismiss a petitioner only after considering everything he had to say. When the vizier finally decided to dismiss the petitioner he had to give his reasons for doing so, because the 'petitioner prefers the consideration of his utterance to the judgment on the matter about which he has come'.

The incoming vizier was reminded that it was inappropriate for the vizier to 'lose his temper with a man improperly' and that he should not act according to his own wishes 'in matters about which the law is known'. Finally, the king stressed that when making judgments, the vizier should take into account the records of other cases preserved in the archives or 'hall with records of all judgments'.

Duties of the vizier

The text in the tomb of Rekhmire not only gives details on the duties of a vizier but the way he should dress, who should attend him and how he should present himself when making judgments. Although the list of duties seems extensive, the text does not cover all the activities super­vised by the vizier. Tomb paintings, which illustrate other activities supervised by Rekhmire, are used to supplement the text.

The vizier was in total control of the civil administration. He:
  • maintained law and order in civil cases and presided over the highest court of justice in the land
  • supervised the king's residence
  • assessed and collected taxes
  • appointed and supervised officials
  • received tribute and met deputations from foreign countries
  • supervised the vast temple workshops and the estates of the capital
  • controlled all public works
  • supervised the royal necropolis
  • controlled the movement of all traffic up and down the Nile
  • maintained all records and control of the archives
  • equipped ships and despatched agents when the king was on campaign.

Every day when the king was in residence, the vizier presented himself to get his orders and to report on the state of the country. He then met with the overseer of the treasury who informed him that all matters were 'in a good state and prosperous'. Once the treasurer reported that all the strongrooms had been sealed and re‑opened at the correct hour, the vizier sent someone to open all the doors of the palace. He was kept informed of everything that was taken in and out of the palace.

Much of the vizier's time was spent in his audience hall making judgments on a large range of issues. He could be called upon to make a ruling on a tax question, a dispute over a property boundary or contract, an accusation against an official, 'a case over any deficiency of divine offerings' or 'anyone who plunders a nome'.

He had to read reports from district assessors and administrators, from his agents on the state of the delta and northern fortresses, and from stewards on the condition of the royal estates. Although he sent frequent despatches to his agents in the provinces, he often made personal tours of inspection to check the granaries and the state of the country’s water resources and irrigation works. 'It is he who should examine water supplies on the first day of every ten‑day period.'

The vizier held regular meetings with the officials in charge of public works, particularly those involved in the construction of the royal tomb. It was the vizier's responsibility, for example, to make sure that the workmen from Deir el‑Medina, who were employed on building and decorating the royal tombs, were kept supplied with equipment and rations. The foremen of the work gangs reported directly to the vizier.­

The vizier also visited the workshops attached to the Temple of Amun, where skilled craftsmen manufactured equipment for the palace and the king's tomb. On a visit to these temple workshops, Rekhmire is described as 'seeing all the crafts and letting every man know his responsibilities in the execution of every occupation'.

The scenes in Rekhmire's tomb also show him 'receiving tribute from the foreign southern land, together with the tribute of Punt, the tribute of Retjenu, the tribute of Keftiu together with the plunder of all foreign lands'.

A New Kingdom vizier shouldered enormous responsibilities. Fortunately, he was supported by officials such as the overseer of the treasury, the overseer of the granaries of Upper and Lower Egypt, the chief steward and the overseer of works, each one of whom was at the top of a hierarchy of lesser officials.

The viceroy of Kush

This important official had great independence since he controlled the lands from Elkab in Upper Egypt to the southern frontier of the empire (which at the time of Thutmose III was near Napata). He was responsi­ble for:
  • the protection of his province from internal uprisings and external threats
  • the construction of temples, fortresses, canals and storehouses
  • the administration of justice
  • the delivery of all payments (taxes and tribute) from his province at the right time. Gold, cattle, female slaves, ebony, ivory and other exotic goods were shipped to Thebes and often presented to the king by the viceroy in person.

The wall paintings in the tomb of Huy, the viceroy of Kush at the time of Tutankhamun, provide a detailed account of his administration in the provinces of Kush and Wawat (Nubia).

Prior to his appointment as viceroy, Huy had held the following posi­tions ‑ scribe of the correspondence in the service of a previous viceroy of Kush (Merimose), sovereign's messenger in all foreign lands, divine father and fan‑bearer on the king's right, superintendant of Amun's cat­tle in the Land of Kush and superintendant of the lands of gold of the lord of the Two Countries. So, as well as holding a position of great prestige and power at court, he had diplomatic experience and a wide knowledge of Nubia, its organisation and its particular problems.

Tutankhamun presided over Huy's elaborate investiture, during which he was handed the ring of office and possibly also the vizier's seal. Once invested he took ship for Nubia.

The overseer of the treasury

The man who held this position looked after all aspects of the economy. This was particularly difficult since Egyptian business was carried on by the system of barter. The treasurer was directly responsible for:
  • the calculation of taxes (based on the height of the inundation, the yearly agricultural yield and the wage structure)
  • the amount to be paid to workers on the royal estates
  • the economic affairs of the temples (which owned the largest amount of land throughout Egypt, after the king)
  • payments to the army
  • the distribution of tribute paid from foreign princes and plunder collected during military campaigns.

All payments were collected and distributed in kind (goods of one form or another). Peasants paid a proportion of their crops as tax while craftsmen paid their tax in the form of a piece of handiwork. The royal store-houses were filled with an assortment of objects and products including perishable food items which had to be distributed as soon as possible after collection.

The number of people working for the treasury was extremely large as were the number of documents and records which had to be kept. The Egyptians were conscientious in keeping the details of exactly how much and what type of payment was received, from whom it was col­lected, when it came in and how it was used.

First prophet of Amun, and the priesthood

Like the civil administration, the religious establishment was hierarchi­cal. During the New Kingdom, the high priest or first prophet of Amun was overseer of prophets of all the gods of Upper and Lower Egypt The man appointed to this position by the king, usually had a high profile career at court or in the civil bureaucracy. This was a political appoint­ment.

The highest ranking priests (first, second, third and fourth prophets) held their positions permanently while those lower on the scale served in the temple on a part‑time basis. All priests came from the educated elite and many of them were appointed to a priestly position previous­ly held by one of their close relatives.

The part‑time priests, lived for three months of the year in the temple and for the remaining nine months carried on with their ordinary life. Some of them specialised in liturgy, medicine, law, mathematics, geom­etry, astronomy and astrology and so on.

Not only did they attend to the needs of the gods, but because the tem­ples were centres of higher learning, they taught the knowledge and skills associated with their professions. Any boy wishing to enter the religious or civil bureaucracy attended a temple school from about the age of 14. Much of this learning probably occurred in the house of life where scholarly books were stored and sacred writing was carried out.

While in the service of the temple, priests had to maintain ritual purity. They did this by bathing in a sacred lake several times a day, shaving their heads and bodies daily, giving up sexual intercourse and wearing only the finest linen garments.

When taking part in any one of the numerous rituals they wore a vari­ety of garments, wigs, pectorals and masks. There appears to have been a fairly standardised daily ritual performed in the cult temples through­out Egypt. These ceremonies, depicted on the walls of the temples, show the god‑king, as the representative of every Egyptian, performing rituals associated with both Re and Osiris.

The daily ritual comprised two services, both of which focussed on the pharaoh or the high priest who deputised for him. The pharaoh could not perform these rituals in every cult temple throughout Egypt, so the high priests acted as his proxy. The two services were:
1. the rite of the house of the morning
2. the daily service.

The rite of the house of the morning

As soon as the god‑king arose each morning he was ritually bathed with water from the temple's sacred lake. This water symbolised the primordial waters of Nun out of which the Egyptians believed the world was originally created. With this water the pharaoh was reborn each morning.
Two priests, wearing the masks of the ibis‑headed god Thoth and the falcon‑headed god Horus, anointed the king with precious unguents, placed his robe on him and then presented him with the royal insignia. The priests then led him to the sanctuary where the statue of the god was enclosed.

The daily service

Once the king or high priest broke the seal of the sanctuary, he lay face down before the shrine and recited the hymn of morning worship to awaken the god. He then purified it, held it in his arms, fed it, rouged its cheeks and clothed it in fresh coloured robes and royal emblems. During each of these phases, ritual formulae were recited. After replac­ing the god's statue in the shrine and sealing the doors, the king or high ­priest walked backwards, removing his footprints with a palm leaf. At midday and in the evening, more food was laid before the god. After each of these rituals, the food was removed and divided up among the priests as part of their daily food allowance.

Specialist priests

The lector priest specialised in the knowledge of the sacred writings and was often skilled in magic. It was he who read or spoke the prayers and spells during festivals and funerals.

The sem priest, who was always depicted wearing a leopard‑skin gar­ment, was the chief funerary priest and conducted the rites at the entrance to the tomb.

The overseer of the secrets of the place was the senior priest in the per­nefer or house of vitality, where embalming was carried out. The chief embalmer was the controller of the mysteries and his assistant was referred to as god's spell bearer. These priests were identified with the great mortuary god, Anubis.

Priest-doctors were often associated with the cult of a god of disease and healing. For example 'doctors could be priests of Sekhmet, goddess of disease and epidemics', of Thoth, the god of scribes, who knew the healing formulae, or of Isis, who reassembled her husband's body when it had been mutilated.

Significant reforms and developments during the Ramesside period included:

  • Promotion of military men to administrative positions including pharaoh e.g. Pramesses (Ramesses I).
  • An increase in the number of Asiatic officials in government by Dynasty XIX e.g. the Chancellor Bay.
  • Measures to curb corruption under Seti I e.g. edicts to protect royal goldmines and temple property.
  • Enforcement of high standards of efficiency and honesty under Ramesses Il.
  • Establishment of Per‑Ramesses as the administrative capital.

Prominent officials of the Ramesside period:

Governor of Thebes; Vizier to Seti I and Ramesses I; Chief Justice, Treasurer, oversaw tax collection
Viceroy of Nubia under Ramesses II; Responsible for construction of Nubian temples
Chief of the Treasury under Ramesses II; Viceroy of Nubia
Viceroy of Nubia under Ramesses II; Supervised preliminary construction work at Abu Simbel
'Head of Stables' under Seti I; High Priest of Amun under Ramesses II; 'Overseer of Works' at Luxor
'Chief of Works of the Royal Monuments' under Ramesses II; 'Royal Charioteer and Superintendent of Horses'; Royal Foreign Envoy