Ancient Egypt was ruled by the pharaoh, but it was the ancient Egyptian vizier that helped him govern the country, settle disputes, oversee provincial affairs, and make sure the monarch’s orders were carried out. In certain ways, the vizier was ancient Egypt’s version of a prime minister.

The rise of a complex bureaucracy in ancient Egypt made it necessary for the ruler to appoint an official who would oversee the day-to-day governance. Despite his importance, the ancient Egyptian vizier remains a shadowy figure that is often overlooked by historians and Egyptologists. In this article, we will help shed light on the importance and the role of the vizier in Ancient Egypt.

A Very Ancient Office

Ancient Egypt’s history goes back thousands of years and begins with the Predynastic period, which most Egyptologists place in the fourth millennium BCE. Egypt’s political unification under the rule of a single monarch, there arose the need to delegate some of the pharaoh’s power to rule the newly united country more effectively. Even though we don’t know when exactly was the office of the vizier established, Egyptologists believe the position was created during the Early Dynastic period.

What Role Did the Vizier Play in Ancient Egypt?

Throughout Egyptian history, the pharaoh remained an absolute ruler who acted as both political, religious, and military leader, but it was the vizier who oversaw the machinery of government. The vizier’s main task was to ensure the implementation of his pharaoh’s orders and ensure the smooth running of various government agencies. In essence, the vizier acted as the head of government to whom other officials were directly subordinated.

The vizier had many duties. These included:

  • Settling land disputes
  • Overseeing the nomarchs (provincial governors)
  • Controlling the country’s finances
  • The appointment of judges and other law-enforcement officials
  • The appointment of generals and approval of their subordinates
  • Overseeing the planning and building of monuments, including the king’s tomb
  • The planning and construction of roads, dikes, dams, and canals throughout Egypt
  • Aiding the monarch in the observance of religious rituals and the appointment of high priests

What Was the Vizier’s Social Background?

Ancient Egyptian government officials had to be highly educated, and the vizier was no exception. In order to perform his various and complex duties, the vizier needed to rely on a superb education, as well as previous experience of working in the government. Egyptian viziers were almost exclusively educated as scribes and were usually members of the higher classes.

During the Early Dynastic Period, the Old Kingdom, and much of the Middle Kingdom periods, the viziers were chosen from among the king’s closest relatives. The younger sons of the king were often appointed as viziers or high priests. In this way, the pharaohs sought to maintain control of the government and ensure the loyalty of viziers and other government officials.

Meet the Mysterious Imhotep, the Vizier Who Became a God

The 3rd dynasty Pharaoh Djoser is widely thought to be the first Egyptian King who successfully constructed a new type of monument: the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

It was thanks to Djoser’s vizier Imhotep that the Egyptians had been able to make a huge leap forward in monument construction. One generation separated the humble mud-brick mastabas of the Early Dynastic kings from the impressive pyramids of 3rd and 4th dynasty pharaohs.

– Architect, Priest, and Vizier: Imhotep Was the World’s First Known Polymath

Although little is known about Imhotep’s life, it is believed he was of common birth and advanced to the position of vizier thanks to his many talents and skills. Imhotep served as the High Priest of Ptah under the Pharaoh Djoser, as well as the King’s architect.

Imhotep is credited with having engineered the Step Pyramid and changing the traditional shape of royal tombs from rectangular-base mastabas to square-base pyramids. Imhotep had also been the first to use stone rather than mud bricks in royal tomb construction, thus ushering in a new era in Egyptian history – the Age of Pyramids.

Imhotep’s contributions were recognized by his contemporaries. Following his death, the Pharaoh showed him an unprecedented honor by allowing him to be buried beneath the Step Pyramid and had his name inscribed on the royal monuments, a privilege previously reserved only for monarchs.

Imhotep was eventually deified and was worshipped as the god of medicine. He may have contributed to the development of advanced mummification techniques that enabled the Egyptians to preserve the bodies of pharaohs.

Who Appointed the Vizier and How Powerful Were They?

Viziers were appointed by the pharaohs. They responded to the monarch alone and could be appointed and dismissed at his leisure. There appears to have been only one vizier until the New Kingdom period (c. 1570 – 1069 BCE) when two viziers were appointed, one for Upper Egypt and the other for Lower Egypt.

The custom of choosing viziers from among family members continued to be practiced throughout Egyptian history. When viziers were not chosen from among the king’s relatives or members of his immediate family, they were usually selected from among his trusted advisers. Imhotep stands out as an exception to this rule.

– Without the Vizier, the Pharaoh Could Not Rule Egypt

Egypt had reached the zenith of its power and wealth under the 18th and 19th dynasties of the New Kingdom. Territorial expansion and population growth made it imperative to divert more resources to administration, as well as appoint competent officials to oversee the day-to-day affairs of government.

Two viziers were appointed by the pharaoh and were equal in power and prestige. The viziers were second only to the pharaohs in regard to the power they wielded over Egypt. It was expected of them to be impartial, just, and law-abiding and comfort the concept of ma’at, which required of all Egyptians, regardless of rank, to uphold the truth and work together in harmony. The viziers wore long white robes that symbolized their purity and commitment to harmony and justice.

– The Pharaoh and the Vizier: A Perfect Symbiosis

It was not uncommon for viziers to serve several pharaohs. Young and inexperienced pharaohs often relied on their viziers to govern the country during their minority. Viziers also governed the country when the king was on a military campaign and played an essential role in maintaining law and order during times of war and strife.

Despite their great power, only a few viziers had attempted to usurp power, and even fewer had managed to become pharaohs. The great stability of Egypt’s government structure has its roots in the aforementioned concept of ma’at and the values of order and harmony that all Egyptians were required to uphold.

Egyptian Viziers Had Many Duties

The discovery of the tomb of Rekhmire in the Theban necropolis brought to light many previously unknown details about the duties of the vizier during the New Kingdom period. Rekhmire served as the vizier under two pharaohs, Thutmosis III (1479 – 1425 BCE) and Amenhotep II (c. 1425 – 1397 BCE).

His lavishly decorated tomb contains a full copy of the Installation of the Vizier, which describes the duties of the office, the method of selection, and how one was expected to behave while performing one’s duties.

– Viziers as the Defenders of the Downtrodden

According to the text inscribed on the walls of Rekhmire’s tomb, the main task of the vizier was to dispense justice and solve disputes. The duties of the vizier are best summed up in this excerpt from the inscription found in Rekhmire’s tomb:

“I defended the husbandless widow. I established the son and heir on the seat of his father. I gave bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, meat and ointment, and clothes to him who has nothing. I relieved the old man, giving him my staff and causing the old woman to say, “What a good action!” I hated iniquity and wrought it not, causing false men to be fastened head downwards.”

– Crime and Punishment in Ancient Egypt

As we saw above, one of the most important duties of the vizier in ancient Egypt was to punish the guilty. Law and order were important in ancient Egypt and the vizier had to ensure that everyone obeyed the law.

Punishment in ancient Egypt was usually quick and severe. Convicted criminals were sometimes drowned in the Nile, which meant they were never to receive a proper burial and not be able to enter the afterlife. It was the harshest possible punishment an Egyptian could receive.

All Egyptians, from a lowly laborer to the pharaoh himself, sought to attain the afterlife and spend eternity in the company of the gods. Wiping one’s name from memory meant to die a true death, to be forgotten. Consequently, this type of punishment would have been reserved for the worst offenders.

– The Vizier Served as the Pharaoh’s Chief Law Enforcer

In theory, the pharaoh alone was responsible for enforcing law and order and maintaining the harmony between Egypt and the gods that watched over the country and its people, but it became necessary for rulers to delegate their power. It was not until the New Kingdom period, however, that the vizier began to play a more important role in the government.

Pharaohs now ruled Egypt through their viziers, who were responsible for hearing criminal cases, overseeing public construction and the treasury, and controlling the nomarchs. A competent vizier coordinated the work of various government agencies and kept the country together politically, as well as economically. Without viziers, it would have been impossible to govern Egypt and maintain control over its large territory.

– The Army and the Vizier

Following the expulsion of Hyksos and the establishment of the 18th dynasty, pharaohs embarked on a series of military campaigns in Nubia, Libya, and the Levant, to expand and secure Egypt’s borders and its place as the preeminent military power in the Near East. Egypt had reached the peak of its territorial expansion during the reign of the warlike Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, who campaigned deep into Mesopotamia and conquered Syria.

Army generals were accountable to the pharaoh but had to report to the vizier regarding important military matters such as strategy and logistics. Little is known about the exact role the vizier played in military affairs. It is highly likely that the vizier acted as an intermediary between the pharaoh and his generals and received reports from generals and other officials stationed in far-off corners of the Egyptian Empire during the New Kingdom.

Viziers Who Defined Egyptian History

There have been many viziers in Egyptian history, but only a few of them left their mark on Egyptian society and whose names and deeds withstood the test of time. Imhotep is the first known vizier of Egyptian history, as well as the most famous one.

– Viziers Served Their Pharaohs, But Some of Them Became Kings in Their Own Right

King’s Khufu vizier, Hemiumu, was probably responsible for the construction of the Great Pyramid, but almost nothing else is known about him. Ptahhotep I served under the 5th dynasty Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi and is known for his work The Instructions of Ptahhotep, a collection of maxims listing the various virtues needed to live a good life in accordance with the concept of Ma’at.

The first known vizier who became a pharaoh in his own right was Amenehmat I. He served as the vizier under Mentuhotep IV and went on to succeed him on the throne and found a new dynasty. The end of the Middle Kingdom was marked by increasing political instability, the weakening of central government, and the invasion of the Hyksos. Viziers played a prominent role during the Second Intermediate Period.

The vizier Ankhu served under the 13th dynasty King Sobekhotep II and his heir Khendjer. He may have served as many as five kings. Ankhu was vizier during a time of political instability and is thought to have played an important role in maintaining continuity of rule.

– Ay: Akhenaton’s Vizier Who May Have Murdered Tutankhamun

Ay was a nobleman who rose to prominence during the Amarna Period and the reign of the enigmatic Pharaoh Akhenaten (c. 1353 – 1336 BCE). Ay retained his position during the turmoil that ensued after the death of Akhenaten. hen Akhenaten’s son Tutankhamon ascended to the throne, Ay was the de facto ruler of Egypt as the grand vizier.

According to one theory, the young Pharaoh had been murdered on the orders of his vizier Ay, but most Egyptologists consider that Tutankhamon died from natural causes. Ay succeeded Tutankhamon, even though he was not designated as his heir, and ruled Egypt for four years. He was succeeded by Horemheb, an experienced general who had the backing of the army.

The Office of Vizier Was Abolished When the Romans Annexed Egypt Into Their Empire

Viziers governed Egypt for thousands of years. The office continued to be filled by the very best men and survived even after ancient Egypt fell to foreign invaders. Viziers were chosen according to merit, but the great majority of them were of noble origins or pharaoh’s cousins or sons.

Ancient Egyptians expected their viziers to be impartial, responsible, selfless, and to uphold the concept of ma’at. A great majority of viziers throughout Egyptian history served their pharaohs and the people faithfully. Pharaohs would not have been able to build their grand monuments without the expertise of their viziers. Viziers were involved in almost every aspect of government.

The Slow Decline of Egypt as a Great Power

The 19th dynasty of the New Kingdom was when Egypt arguably reached the zenith of its power and prestige. Ramses II (1279 – 1213 BCE) fought the Hittite Empire at the Battle of Kadesh but is best known for many monuments he erected throughout Egypt. His vizier Khay enjoyed the King’s confidence and respect and was likely to have participated in the planning and the construction of numerous temples, monuments, and cities that Ramses commissioned during his long reign.

However, Egypt’s power declined towards the end of the 19th dynasty, and although Egypt had remained a wealthy country for centuries after Ramsess’ death, it fell to a succession of foreign invaders and ceased to exist as an independent country after the suicide of Queen Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE. Egypt’s annexation into the growing Roman Empire marked the end of a civilization that had existed for longer than three millennia.

Conclusion

Viziers played a crucial role in all aspects of government. Pharaohs ruled Egypt through their viziers, who had many responsibilities. The definition of vizier, according to Egyptologists, is the most powerful position in ancient Egypt after that of the pharaoh. Viziers had to:

  • Act in accordance with the law
  • Be impartial
  • Uphold the concept of balance and harmony known as ma’at
  • Enforce the pharaoh’s decrees and maintain law and order

Ancient Egyptian viziers were government officials who oversaw public projects, maintained law and order, appointed other officials, solved disputes, and received reports from generals. It is impossible to imagine ancient Egypt without the able viziers who helped build this great civilization.

5/5 - (17 votes)

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here