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The cult of the reigning King in ancient Egypt

Like the Emperors of early imperial Rome, ancient Egyptian kings received formal worship during their lifetimes. However, they were mortal: this creates a duality, of divine eternal kingship and mortal body in human form.

Temples to the cult of the king at the burial place

At the burial place of each king, there is a place for the worship of that king, attested in architecture at least from the First Dynasty to the New Kingdom (about 3000-1070 BC).


First Dynasty, Second Dynasty
Old Kingdom
Middle Kingdom
New Kingdom
cult enclosures for each king buried at Abydos
pyramid complex for the cult of each king, as at Meydum
variations on the theme of the pyramid complex, as at Lahun
temples of kings on the West Bank at Thebes
UC 6620

Additional temples to the cult of the king

Other places of worship for the king would have included the palace, and secondary chapels in the precincts of temples to deities; in some reigns there were also major temples for the king constructed at several places in addition to the focus of the eternal cult at the burial place, most strikingly for Amenhotep III and Ramesses II.

Example of a chapel for the cult of the king (Hwt-nswt) in the precinct of the local main deity (Koptos) and a kingship temple connected with a palace (Gurob):

chapel of Nubkheperra Intef at Koptos
temple for the cult of Thutmose III
temple at Gurob

The lifespan of a temple to the cult of the king

Such temples would have had lives of varying length: there is evidence that the cult might be maintained, but the economic resources diminished, a century or two after the death of the king, as George Reisner found in his excavation of the temples in the pyramid complex of Menkaura at Gizeh. Each new king would have concentrated the resources of the land on their own cult, once the predecessor had been buried: therefore the cult probably enjoyed its peak during the lifetime of the reigning king, and its resources in land, equipment and sculpture were probably already being diverted in the immediately following reign.

Hymns to the King

An important literary expression of kingship cult is the Hymn to the King (in Egyptian dwA nswt). Many examples survive from the New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC), and there are depictions of such worship in the form of an official kneeling with arms raised before the name of the king; an example found at Memphis and dating to the reign of Saamun (Twenty-first Dynasty) is accompanied by a hieroglyphic inscription giving the phrase dwA nswt.

lintel found at Memphis

The ancient Egyptian expression of kingship seems not to distinguish in essence between the cult of the living and the cult of the dead king: in both stages of existence, this is the divine king. Therefore the depictions and inscriptions concerning the cult of the king cannot necessarily be dated directly from their contents. W. M. F. Petrie retrieved from the town site near Lahun a papyrus bearing hymns to King Senusret III; these are the earliest such hymns preserved in manuscript form. Their contents do not reveal whether they were to be sung in the presence, or lifetime, of the king, or in a festival or ritual involving the statues of that king in the temple for the cult of his father Senusret II at Lahun.

compare: Cult of kings after their death: the success stories


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