Menkaure

Menkaure is an odd combination of obscure and well known. He’s the builder of the third of the pyramids on the Giza plateau so we have a big monument to him and I’d imagine most people who know a little about Ancient Egypt know his name because of this. He was the penultimate king of the Fourth Dynasty in the Old Kingdom so he’s successor to Khafre (probably) and predecessor to Shepseskaf, reigning for two or three decades around about 2500 BCE – but really most “facts” about him turn out to be pretty nebulous once you start reading up on him.

Menkaure was perhaps the son of Khafre, and thus the grandson of Khufu – hence related to the builders of the other two pyramids at Giza. I say “perhaps” because nowhere is the relationship actually written down, the assumption hinges on his inheriting the throne when there were definitely sons of Khafre around who were in positions of power. And would be in a position to object if he was not a legitimate heir. We also assume it because the Egyptians went out of their way to present their kings as an unbroken line of father to son inheritance (despite all the evidence to the contrary in their long history) – so it’s a good default if you don’t have direct evidence otherwise, but it is an assumption. In fact some of the evidence to the contrary comes within the 4th Dynasty itself right around the time of Menkaure’s accession. There is an ephemeral king called Baka who was the son of Djedefre (who was a brother of Khafre who ruled before him) – he definitely seems to’ve ruled for a short time, but it’s not clear if he inherits from his father and thus precedes his uncle Khafre or if he rules briefly between Khafre and Menkaure.

Menkaure’s mother was probably a woman called Khamerernebty who is thought to be one of Khafre’s wives, backing up our assumptions about Menkaure being the son of Khafre. The evidence is fairly slim here, but she has an appropriate collection of titles: King’s Daughter of His Body, Great of Sceptre*, King’s Wife, King’s Mother. A flint knife was found in Menkaure’s mortuary temple which has the partial inscription on it of “King’s Mother K[…]” – which does rather suggest that she was his mother, and thus probably Khafre’s wife as I said and Khufu’s daughter.

*Great of Sceptre is a queenly title used in the Old Kingdom.

As you can see we have more genealogical data available for the 4th Dynasty that preceding ones (look at the paucity of information I could find for Hetepheres, for instance) but still not enough to bring clarity to the situation. It continues into Menkaure’s own family – he had two or three wives, none of whom are known for absolutely certain. But there can be some degree of confidence that one of his wives was a woman with the same name as his mother: Khamerernebty (she’s given the numeral II by Egyptologists whereas his mother is number I). The evidence here is not just a rather fine dyad statue of the two of them together but the rather more certain evidence of a son of Khamerernebty II called Khuenre who is titled Eldest King’s Son of His Body, and is buried in a cemetery associated with Menkaure’s pyramid – so this seems as close to certain as we’re going to get without a time machine or the sudden discovery of a cache of documents (i.e. not very certain).

Khuenre is interesting in another way – that title Eldest King’s Son of His Body is suggestive. And his mother seems a good candidate for a senior wife – her titles are like Khamerernebty I’s (only without King’s Mother) and the only colossal statue of a queen found from Old Kingdom Egypt is of her, as well as the dyad statue with Menkaure. So was Khuenre actually Menkaure’s heir? Certainly Miroslav Verner makes that speculation in his book “The Pyramids”, and goes on to suggest that Khuenre pre-deceasing Menkaure may’ve led to a succession crisis. And what we now call the 4th Dynasty doesn’t seem to last another decade after Menkaure’s death (although as always, it’s a bad idea to assume that the change of dynasty was at all noticeable to the people living through it). But Menkaure does seem to’ve been succeeded by a son – a man called Shepseskaf, whose mother we don’t know (only it doesn’t seem to’ve been Kharmerenebty II).

The transition from Shepseskaf to the beginning of the 5th Dynasty (Userkaf) is rather murky but may’ve involved more of Menkaure’s offspring – perhaps, it’s always perhaps in this story. Userkaf himself may be another son of Menkaure, although he may also be a descendent of another branch of the family. And a woman called Khentkawes is important in the transition as the mother of king(s) and perhaps a king herself and she may have been a daughter of Menkaure. The books I read were really split on this – one theory is that she’s Menkaure’s daughter & Shepseskaf’s sister/wife, another is that she was a wife of Menkaure, and Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton make no mention of any relationship between Khentkawes & Menkaure. Given how thoroughly their book “The Complete Royal Families” goes into every tiny piece of evidence in the jigsaw puzzle that is the Egyptian royal family this silence makes me inclined to doubt her relationship to Menkaure. But given her importance she must surely be a part of the extended royal clan at the least – this is a royal culture where power was kept in the family, after all!

Summing up – the family of Menkaure looks a bit like this: He is probably the son of Khafre and Khamerernebty I, and has several brothers who hold positions of power. He has two or three wives, one of whom was probably Khamerernebty II. The number of his children isn’t clear but it seems there were at least two sons, and perhaps a daughter or two. One of his son’s pre-deceases him but nonetheless he is succeeded by a son, and even though we change the dynasty number after that it seems plausible that the “new” dynasty were the same family as Menkaure.

Hathor, Menkaure, and a Nome Deity

So that’s his family … perhaps! Do we actually know anything at all about the man himself? Well, not really – there don’t seem to be any significant events from his reign for which records have survived through the millennia. We do have his pyramid complex, as a monumental record that once he was the most powerful man in Egypt. And we have an idea of how he wanted to be portrayed – the photo I’ve used to illustrate this article is one of the four surviving triad statues that were found in his Valley Temple (the fragments also found indicate there were more but how many more is unclear). Each of the statues shows Menkaure flanked by two deities – on his right standing shoulder to shoulder with him is Hathor and on his left is the somewhat smaller figure of a Nome* deity. Menkaure is confident and at ease with his divine company, with his muscular idealised body demonstrating his perfection as a man and a ruler.

*Ancient Egypt was divided into administrative regions called Nomes.

There are a couple of stories in Herodotus, but I don’t think we can even begin to think of these as actual events. Not only is it the case that Herodotus was more interested in telling a good story than recounting history, but he was also writing some 2000 years after Menkaure died so no-one he spoke to was doing more than telling fanciful tales. However they might give a bit of a flavour of how the man had been mythologised over the millennia (providing his Egyptian informants weren’t just telling the nosey foreigner random nonsense). Herodotus refers to him twice as a good king – pious and just. But the first time he goes on to tell a story about Menkaure’s only child, a daughter, dying perhaps by suicide after her father raped her – which doesn’t sound terribly good to me! The second time is as an explanation of why he died young – apparently an Oracle told Menkaure the Egyptians were fated to have 150 years of hardship which Khufu and Khafre had been providing but Menkaure was being too nice to his subjects so would die in 6 years time as punishment. But Menkaure figured out how to cheat the Oracle – he ordered torches burnt all night every night so that he could stay up (partying) and effectively double his life span! As I said, these are obvious fiction – and quite vivid in Herodotus’s text with elaborate details about the golden cow the daughter is buried in etc. However, they do give a flavour of a memory of Menkaure as a good king, not like the mythologising around Khufu the tyrant. Whether that’s true or not, we’ll likely never know.

This is part of the fascination of ancient history for me. That we can get so close to knowing about a real individual person who lived so very long ago – we can piece together these little pieces of information like a logic puzzle or a jigsaw puzzle. But we don’t have all the pieces and so we can only catch a glimpse of the outline – so near and yet so far from knowing this man from the deep past.


Resources Used:

David, Rosalie. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books, 2002.
Dodson, Aidan, and Dyan Hilton. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Fletcher, Joann. The Story of Egypt. Hodder, 2016.
Herodotus. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Edited by Robert B Strassler. Translated by Andrea L. Purvis. Quercus, 2008.
Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. Thames and Hudson, 2008.
Malek, Jaromir. ‘The Old Kingdom’. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw, New ed. Oxford University Press, 2003.
Romer, John. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin, 2016.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and Expanded ed. British Museum, 2008.
Verner, Miroslav. The Pyramids: Their Archaeology and History. Translated by Steven Rendall, Atlantic Books, 2003.

Ahmose II

Despite its own rhetoric Egypt has never existed in splendid isolation untouched by the outside world. There’s evidence of trade and cultural contact with the Middle East, for instance, way back before there was even really an Egypt. But it is possible to talk about the life of a lot of kings without really mentioning the outside world much – other than a brief nod to trade with here, or a conquest of there, or a letter to the king of somewhere else. By the Late Period, however, this really doesn’t hold true, the outside world can’t be ignored or glossed over. Take Ahmose II whose reign is shaped by the wider politics of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and even a lot of our information on him and his reign comes not from an Egyptian source but from Herodotus.

Ahmose II reigned from 570 BCE to 526 BCE and is the penultimate king of the 26th Dynasty, although we might as well call him the last one as his son only manages about 6 months on the throne. The boundaries of this dynasty are defined politically rather than by all the kings being the same family – Ahmose II is a usurper and in no way related to the previous kings. His mother is named on a statue of herself (pictured) and another inscription as Tashereniset. His father may have been called Taperu, but this is more shaky as it depends on a libation bowl inscribed for an Ahmose-sineith-Wahibre who may or may not be the same Ahmose as eventually takes the throne.

The King’s Mother Tashereniset

The first time our Ahmose definitely appears in the historical record is in the act of usurping the throne. It’s possible there’s an earlier reference to him in a graffito at Abu Simbel, which names an Ahmose as being in command of the Egyptian soldiers of an army sent to Nubia by Psamtik II in 592 BCE. If this is our Ahmose then he must surely have been in at least his late teens or early 20s when he was commanding troops in 592 BCE, and thus in his 80s when he died. Not outwith the bounds of possibility for sure and our Ahmose was definitely a military man, but there’s no hint of “living to a great age” in the books I read and I’d’ve thought that would be noteworthy.

So possibly a commander in 592 BCE, but definitely a general in 570 BCE. At this time Ahmose II’s predecessor (Apries) had sent his army on campaign against the Greek city of Cyrene in Libya where they suffered a disastrous defeat. This was the final straw for the Egyptian soldiers in the army, who were already unhappy with perceived privileges for the Greek mercenaries they fought alongside. Ahmose II was sent to quash the rebellion but instead joined it and was proclaimed Pharaoh. He defeated Apries in battle in 570 BCE, then again in 567 BCE when Apries returned at the head of a Babylonian army. This second time was final – Apries was either killed in battle or captured and then later killed, it’s not clear which. So you can see how right from the beginning outside forces drive events: Ahmose II takes advantage of Apries’s foreign policy stumbles, and sees off the subsequent foreign invasion as he consolidates his power.

Ahmose II reigned for 44 years, and Herodotus’s remark is: “in all of which time nothing very unusual had happened”. But he also takes the time to tell us stories of Ahmose II the heavy drinker and country bumpkin. In actuality the evidence suggests that Ahmose II was a rather good Pharaoh, and that Herodotus’s stories are probably the result of Greek annoyance with his taxation of their traders and a helping of snobbishness about his non-royal origin. Domestically this was a time of prosperity, and Ahmose II undertook an extensive building programme – including one of the early buildings dedicated to Isis on Philae. He also boosted the country’s economy by confining Greek trade to single city (Naukratis) where he could tax it more effectively – presenting it to the Greeks as giving them a city of their own as a base, and to the Egyptians as keeping the Greeks out of everyone’s way.

But in many ways this domestic prosperity didn’t matter much for Ahmose II’s legacy – it was the successes of other kings that shaped the second half of Ahmose II’s reign. Ahmose II cultivated close ties with the Greeks, initially as allies against the Babylonians who had form for military expeditions against Egypt (witness the Babylonian army that came with Apries). But the Babylonians themselves were soon more concerned with matters to their east as Cyrus the Great’s Persian Empire began to steamroll its way across the Middle East. Egypt then entered into an alliance with the Babylonians and the Lydians against this new threat, but when they were conquered Egypt still had her Greek friends to fall back on. Ahmose II did succeed in keeping the wolf from his gates for the rest of his life, but only just.

In terms of dynastic stability, if it had only been Egypt’s internal affairs that mattered then Ahmose II had done a pretty good job with that too – especially for a usurper. He had at least two wives: Nakhtubasterau (whose grave has been found) and Tentkheta (the mother of his heir, Psamtik III). And Herodotus also reports a wife of Greek origin from the city of Cyrene (although she’s mostly the subject of one of Herodotus’s colourful stories so I’m not clear if she really existed). He had an heir (Psamtik) plus a couple of spares (Ahmose, Pasenenkhonsu). He also probably had a couple of daughters – definitely Nitokris and possibly Tashereniset. The first of these was destined to fill the other major power role of Egypt of the time – she was the designated heir to the God’s Wife of Amun in Thebes.

Sadly once again Egypt’s internal affairs were not the most important events, and Ahmose II’s best-laid plans went agley (as Robert Burns would put it). Ahmose II died in 525 BCE, about 5 years after Cyrus the Great, and was buried as planned in his prepared tomb in the court of the temple of Neith in his capital at Sais. This tomb was still visible in the time of Herodotus, but nowadays it is completely destroyed and there is a small lake where the temple once was. Psamtik III took the throne, as planned, but at this point the Persians invaded – Cyrus the Great’s successor Cambyses II had had 5 years to get himself sorted out and ready to take the first opportunity to continue what his father had started. A transition of leadership was just what he was looking for, and the less experienced Psamtik III barely lasted 6 months on the throne. As part of digesting Egypt and fitting it into the Persian Empire Cambyses II abolished the role of God’s Wife of Amun, and so Niktokris didn’t go on to fulfil her intended destiny either. And Herodotus would have us believe that Ahmose II didn’t get the afterlife he was hoping for – he tells a story of Cambyses II having Ahmose II’s mummy exhumed, tortured(!) and burnt.

In another era Ahmose II might’ve ushered in a new golden age for Egypt, and a couple of the books I read did refer to this period as a final “renaissance” for the Egyptian state. But equally, in another era Ahmose II probably wouldn’t’ve managed to take the throne. He came to power via the failure of his predecessor to balance domestic and foreign policies, he kept the economy strong and the country independent through his trade and alliances with foreign powers, and after his death his dynasty and country fell to the enemy from the East that he’d kept at bay for so long.


Resources used:

“The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories” trans. Andrea L. Purvis, ed. Robert B. Strassler
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson

The Naming of Kings

The naming of Kings is a difficult matter, it isn’t just one of your holiday games … No, wait, that’s cats (and my apologies to T. S. Eliot) – but the naming and titling of an Egyptian king was also a rather complicated thing. Have a look at this one:

Horus ka nakht tut mesut. Nebty nefer hepu segereh tawy sehetep netjeru nebu. Bik nebu wetjes khau sehetep netjeru. Nesu bity Nebkheprure. Sa ra Tutankhamun heqa Iunu shema.

Or in English:

The divine power of kingship is incarnated in Strong Bull, Fitting of Created Forms who resides in the palace. He of the Two Ladies: Dynamic of Laws, Who Calms the Two Lands, Who Propitiates All the Gods. The Golden Horus: Who Displays the Regalia, Who Propitiates the Gods. The Dual King: The Lordly Manifestation of Re. The Son of Re: Living Image of Amun, Ruler of Upper Egyptian Heliopolis.

(Before I go on I should note I have followed Nicholas Reeves for the transcription & translation of the names, and James P. Allen for the translation of the Horus name title, the rest of the titles were fairly consistent across the books I looked at although the transcription varied in details. Hopefully in picking my variants I haven’t made too much of a mess of it!)

The English doesn’t help one recognise which king this is, but if you know even the least little bit about Ancient Egypt and you scan through the Egyptian you will have the sudden realisation near the end that “oh, it’s King Tut!”. And when I started to learn about Ancient Egypt I had no idea that Tutankhamun had quite so many more names than just that.

An alabaster vase decorated with hieroglyphs, including the Son of Re and Dual King names of Tutankhamun.
Alabaster vase with the Son of Re and Dual King names of Tutankhamun

There are five parts to the name, each of which has a title and a name that is unique to the king in question. The titulary develops over time, but by the Fifth Dynasty all five are in use even if sometimes we don’t know all the names for a given king. Taken all together the five names give some insight into the Egyptian ideology of kingship. Three of the names stress the king’s divinity (Horus, Golden Horus and Son of Re names) and two stress duality (the Two Ladies and Dual King names). Once the complete kit is developed we know that the king chose four of them (the first four) on his accession to the throne and the last one was his birth name (although that can change too, for instance Tutankhamun began life as Tutankhaten). It’s not clear who actually chose the names – the king himself? priests? courtiers? – and it probably varied depending on time period and the personal circumstances of the king. The names chosen can be mottos or statements of intent for how the king intended to rule, and they might change after significant events that the king wanted to emphasise – for instance once he’s established control over a re-unified Egypt Montuhotep II changes his Horus name to Sematawy which means “the one who unites the two lands”.

The first & oldest is the Horus name – for the early kings like Narmer this is the only name we have for them. It is written in a serekh with a falcon perched on top. The serekh is a schematic of a palace. The lower part of it is a depiction of the niched facade of an early palace building and the box that the name is written in is the ground plan of the palace. The falcon on top represents the god Horus, son of Osiris and the last divine king of Egypt in Ancient Egyptian mythology. This therefore links the king directly with his divine predecessor and with his seat of power, and Allen’s translation of it conveys those nuances (which is why I used it rather than just saying “The Horus:”). Tutankhamun’s Horus name is “Ka nakht tut mesut“. The first part of it (Ka nakht) is an epithet that New Kingdom kings use in their Horus names, and means Strong Bull or Victorious Bull. “Tut mesut” can be translated in a variety of ways (depending on how the grammatical forms of the two Egyptian words are interpreted), Reeves goes for “Fitting of Created Forms” and other interpretations are things like “Fair of Births” or “Perfect of Birth”. So there is a flavour of perfection, creation and birth to it, but it’s hard to know (even for the experts) what it conveyed to the people of his time.

The second part of the name is the Two Ladies name, the Nebty name. The two ladies in question are the protective goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt – the vulture Nekhbet and the snake Wadjet, respectively – and references the king’s descent from and protection by these deities. This name begins to be seen from the second half of the First Dynasty. It’s one of the less commonly found names and shows more variation for each king as well. Reeves gives three variants for Tutankhamun, none of which are found associated with the king when he was still using the name Tutankhaten. The main variant “Nefer hepu segereh tawy sehetep netjeru nebu” is translated as “Dynamic of Laws, Who Calms the Two Lands, Who Propitiates All the Gods” which can be seen as a reference to his returning the country to the old ways of religion after his predecessor Akhenaten’s reforms.

The other less commonly seen name is the third name, the Golden Horus name. It’s also the latest to appear, it’s not seen before the reign of Khafre in the Fourth Dynasty (the builder of the second largest of the pyramids at Giza). And it’s the least understood by Egyptologists – the books I looked at were reluctant to get more specific than suggesting that it has something to do with divinity and/or eternity as the flesh of the gods was said to be made of gold. As with the Nebty name Tutankhamun has multiple forms of this, the primary variant is “Wetjes khau sehetep netjeru” which means “(He) Who Displays the Regalia, Who Propitiates the Gods”. A similar theme to his Two Ladies name, so you won’t be surprised to learn that the Golden Horus name is also only seen after he’s changed his name to Tutankhamun.

The fourth name, the Dual King name, is the one which kings were most likely to be referred to with from the Middle Kingdom onwards. If there was any ambiguity the Son of Re name would also be used. These two are the ones that you find written inside a cartouche, which looks like an elongated version of the hieroglyph for eternity. It once represented the king’s dominion over the whole world, but in the Middle Kingdom it shifts to just being an indicator that this is a royal name and important royal women begin to rate cartouches. The title “nesu bity” is literally translated “He of the Sedge and Bee”, and in the earlier days of Egyptology it was translated as “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”. There is some correctness to this idea, as even for the Egyptians there was a sense that this title referred to the two major regions of the country. But it is more nuanced than that – for instance the two words (nesu and bity) can also refer to abstract/divine kingship and the mortal man who is this particular king, respectively. So more recently there has been a shift to translating it as “Dual King” which is vague enough in English to give less of a false impression. Tutankhamun’s Dual King name is “Nebkheprure” which can be translated as “The Lordly Manifestation of Re” – most Dual King names reference Re (even that of Akhenaten!).

And finally we come to the name that we recognise for any given king. The Son of Re name is the king’s birth name, and first begins to be written with the title Son of Re in the Fourth Dynasty which was a time when the cult of Re was in the ascendancy. As with other families the kings of Egypt tended to name their sons after recent respected ancestors – hence a string of Amenhoteps and Thutmoses in the 18th Dynasty, and the line of Pharaohs called Ramesses after the great Ramesses II. As I said above the Egyptians solved this ambiguity by mostly using the Dual King name, or both the Dual King and Son of Re names. Egyptologists have generally taken a different tack – they add a Roman numeral on the end of the Son of Re name, like we do for European monarchs’ names. And of course it’s now “stuck” like that because it has been the convention for so long. Which is a shame because I think it gives the impression that the Ancient Egyptian ideology of kingship is closer to our own Western cultural ideology than it necessarily is. “Tutankhamun” can be translated as “Living Image of Amun” but before year 4 of his reign he was known as “Tutankhaten“, i.e. “Living Image of Aten” – this name change shows very clearly how he stepped the country back from Akhenaten’s changes. Once he’s changed his name he also almost always adds the epithet “heqa Iunu shema” following Tutankhamun inside the cartouche. This translates as “Ruler of Upper Egyptian Heliopolis” which is a reference to Thebes & the cult centre of Amun.

So the naming of an Egyptian king is indeed a complicated thing, and so is translation (particularly from a dead language) so Egyptologists haven’t quite managed to reverse engineer it in all possible detail yet. But there does seem to be a consensus on what the flavour of the titles & names are even if the precise meanings aren’t always clear. The example of Tutankhamun also shows how the names chosen can provide a thematic statement for the reign – you can see that the king (or whoever chose the names he adopted around year 4 of his reign) was keen to stress his proper worship of the gods, and to align him with Amun and Amun’s cult centre. Which illuminates the history around him, and provides Egyptologists with an idea of just how quickly Akhenaten’s attempt to reform his nation’s belief system fell to pieces.


Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of the Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Unknown Tutankhamun” Marianne Eaton-Krauss
“The Complete Tutankhamun” Nicholas Reeves
“The Pharaoh: Life at Court and On Campaign” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson