Priest Pe-Kher-Khons holding the shrine of Osiris

There were two kinds of clergy in ancient Egypt: 1) priests, female priestesses and singers of hymns, usually linked permanently with specific temples; and 2) lay priests, who performed duties like carrying statues and served for fixed periods of time. Priests were required to keep their entire bodies cleanly shaved. They shaved every third day because of concerns about lice and to be clean and pure as possible to conduct rituals. This is the reason why priests are pictured with bald headed and no eyebrows or lashes. Although priests conducted purification rituals with shaved heads, those that could afford them wore different kinds wigs held in place with perfumed beeswax.[Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato,,]

Priests linked with temples were the next most important class of people in ancient Egypt after the king. They too were sometimes regarded as gods. In the Late and Middle Kingdoms priests were selected by the pharaoh. By the New Kingdom there was a priestly class. Powerful priesthoods were based in Memphis and Thebes. The high priest of the god Amun wore a distinct leopard skin draped over one shoulder. Priests associated with Osiris sometimes wore cheetah skins draped over their shoulder.

Some priests became quite rich. They were enriched by wealth accumulated from land given to them by different rulers over the years. Wheat and barley and flowers and shrubs used in rituals and medicines were raised by peasants that worked temple land. These things were valuable. There are stories of corrupt and scheming priests, even ones that ordered people to be kidnaped or killed.

Priestesses were usually linked with goddesses. They usually had subordinate roles. They were regarded as part of the god's harem and known mainly for their dancing and sexual and music-making skills.Dr Joann Fletcher of the University of York wrote for BBC: “Other than housewife and mother, the most common 'career' for women was the priesthood, serving male and female deities. The title, 'God's Wife', held by royal women, also brought with it tremendous political power second only to the king, for whom they could even deputise. The royal cult also had its female priestesses, with women acting alongside men in jubilee ceremonies and, as well as earning their livings as professional mourners, they occasionally functioned as funerary priests.” [Source: Dr Joann Fletcher, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Priests and Magicians in Ancient Egypt

Dr Geraldine Pinch of Oxford University wrote for the BBC: Priests were the main practitioners of magic in pharaonic Egypt, where they were seen as guardians of a secret knowledge given by the gods to humanity to 'ward off the blows of fate'. The most respected users of magic were the lector priests, who could read the ancient books of magic kept in temple and palace libraries. In popular stories such men were credited with the power to bring wax animals to life, or roll back the waters of a lake. [Source: Dr Geraldine Pinch, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Real lector priests performed magical rituals to protect their king, and to help the dead to rebirth. By the first millennium B.C., their role seems to have been taken over by magicians (hekau). Healing magic was a speciality of the priests who served Sekhmet, the fearsome goddess of plague. |::|

“Lower in status were the scorpion-charmers, who used magic to rid an area of poisonous reptiles and insects. Midwives and nurses also included magic among their skills, and wise women might be consulted about which ghost or deity was causing a person trouble. |::|

“Amulets were another source of magic power, obtainable from 'protection-makers', who could be male or female. None of these uses of magic was disapproved of-either by the state or the priesthood. Only foreigners were regularly accused of using evil magic. It is not until the Roman period that there is much evidence of individual magicians practising harmful magic for financial reward.” |::|

Role of Priests in Ancient Egypt

priest relief

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: The priesthood of ancient Egypt has a far reaching and deep history, rooted within the traditions of Ancient Egypt. Unlike the orthodox priesthoods usually found within Western society, the role of the Egyptian priest or priestess was vastly different within the society as a whole. Rather than seek the divine and develop a rapport with the gods, the role of the priest was akin to an everyday job. For, as the pharaoh was seen as a god himself, the priests and priestesses were seen as stand-in's for the pharaoh; as it was the greater job of the priests and priestesses to keep Egyptian society in good order, as is the case with most theoretically based societies. The mystical attributes of the priests and priestesses take on a secondary role, when one considers the heightened role religion played within Egyptian society. Not only was religion a way to attain the ethereal and basic needs of the Egyptians, but it also served as a mechanism to order society, to create a hierarchy, and to preserve the culture for future generations. As such, the role of the priests and priestesses was both functional and mystical on both levels. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

“A priest or priestess in ancient Egypt was generally chosen by either the king, or attained their post by hereditary means. In either case, the priests who received their positions hereditarily and through the king were not set apart from mundane life. In fact, such priests were made to embrace the mundane life to keep Egyptian society functioning properly (and as stated above it was a job of fairly high status). Though the priesthood had started out simply, with relatively few temples, in the later dynasties the temples expanded into the hundreds. With such growth, a large bureaucracy was needed to keep the temples in good standing; and thenceforth, the small priesthood's of the Egyptians grew from an estimated hundred priests into the thousands, and with it came a priestly hierarchy. +\

“The daily life of a priest or priestess depended on their sex and also their hierarchical standing within the priesthood. Priests were often rotated from position to position within the priestly hierarchy and were integrated in and out of mundane society. This rotation system generally went, that a priest would enter into temple life one month, at three times a year. This rotation system had a direct connection to the often stringent purity rites of the priests. Regardless of what status the priest was, there were numerous taboos and tradition's a priest had to or could not partake of. Of these taboos and traditions, a priest or priestess could not eat fish (a food thought to be ascribed to peasant life), could not wear wool (as nearly all animal products were unclean), were generally circumcised (only common among the male priests), and it was not uncommon for priests to bathe three or four times a day in "sacred" purificatory pools. It was also not uncommon for the "oracle" tending priests (one of the most sacred positions), to shave off all of their body hair, partially to get rid of lice, but partially for purificatory functions. These "oracle" priests symbolically gave food to the statues of the gods, clothed the statues of the gods, sealed the temple chamber in the evening, and were known as stolists. As can be seen from the example of the stolists, the need for purity extended not only upon the mundane level, but also held true within the afterlife as well. Further, from such purificatory rites the priests were often times known as the "pure ones" regardless of status within the temples. +\

“In addition to the political administration, the priests and priestesses took on both magical and economic functions, however set apart from the hierarchy of priests are the lay magicians who supplied a commoners understanding of Egyptian religion. Through the use of magic and their connection to the gods, lay magicians provided a service to their community, usually consisting of counseling, magical arts, healing, and ceremony. Lay magicians who served within this last and final caste of the Egyptian priesthood belonged to a large temple known simply as "The House of Life". Laymen would come to "The House of Life" to meet with a magician, priest or priestess to have their dreams interpreted, to supply magical spells and charms, to be healed and to counteract malevolent magic, and to supply incantations of various types. Though the House of Life provided it's Laymen with many prescriptive cures for common ills, it was largely shrouded in mystery in ancient times. In fact, the library of The House of Life was shrouded in great secrecy, as it contained many sacred rites, books, and secrets of the temple itself which were thought could harm the pharaoh, the priests, and all of Egypt itself. Though the magicians of The House of Life, were seen as another step from the ceremonial duties of the priests, they were by no means less important, and as is evidenced by the presence of many magical wands, papyri text, and other archeological evidence, The House of Life took on a role direly important to the way of life of Ancient Egyptians.” +\

Organization of the Priest Caste of Ancient Egypt

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “The hierarchy of priests consisted of a milieu of offices and duties. At the top of the hierarchy of priests was the high-priest, also known as the sem-priest, and as "the First Prophet of the God". The high-priest was often very wise in years, and old. Not only did he serve as political advisor to the pharaoh, but he was also a political leader for the temples he belonged to as well. The high-priest was in charge of over-seeing magical rites and ceremonies as well as advising the pharaoh. Maintaining a fairly ceremonial position, the high-priest was often times chosen by the pharaoh as an advisor, however, it was not uncommon for a high-priest to have climbed through the ranks to his official status. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

Edfu Temple

“Below the high-priest were a number of priests with many specialized duties. The specialization of these second tier priests ran from "horology" (keeping an accurate count of the hours through the days, extremely important during the time of the sunboat worshippers, but also for agricultural reasons as well), "astrology" (extremely important as well to the mythology of Egypt as well as to the architectural and calendrical systems of Egypt), to healing. As is obvious by the specialization of the priests, the cycles of the cosmos were extremely important, as they decided when crops would be planted, when the Nile would wax or wane, and further when the temple rites were to begin in the morning. The result of these Egyptian priests studies can be seen in both the mythological studies of Egypt, as well as within the agricultural practices, which rival even the modern Caesarian Calendar still used within the western world today. +\

“One final position within the priesthood highly worthy of mention is that of the Scribes. The scribes were highly prized by both the pharaoh and the priesthood, so much so that in some of the pharaoh's tombs, the pharaoh himself is depicted as a scribe in pictographs. The scribes were in charge of writing magical texts, issuing royal decrees, keeping and recording the funerary rites (specifically within The Book of The Dead) and keeping records vital to the bureaucracy of Ancient Egypt. The scribes often spent years working on the craft of making hieroglyphics, and deserve mentioning within the priestly caste as it was considered the highest of honors to be a scribe in any Egyptian court or temple. +\

“Finally, worthy of mention, though there is considerable historical evidence telling of the role of priests within the priestly hierarchy, the status of the priestesses was at times equal if not mirror to that of the male priesthood. The female priestesses held the main function within the temple's of music and dancing. At Thebes, however, the chief-priestess of Amun bore the title of ‘god’s wife’; she was the leader of the female music-makers who were regarded as the god’s harem and were identified with the goddess Hathor, who was associated with love and music. In the Twenty-third Dynasty and afterwards such priestesses were practically rulers of the theocracy, their duties centering around the reverence of Isis, and many other female and male goddesses and gods. +\

Powerful and Corrupt Priests

Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia of the CNRS in France wrote: “New Kingdom sources provide more clues about the internal functioning of temples, including information on the social background of priests and on the conflicts of interest that took place among them. The organization of the nascent New Kingdom monarchy relied heavily on the integration of local elites through the mediation of temples, especially during its earliest steps, following the expulsion of the Hyksos. Sataimau of Edfu, for instance, was a scribe and priest who served at the temple of Edfu in the reign of Ahmose, the first king of Dynasty 18. He was, in fact, from an elite family closely connected to the monarchy and achieved career advancement with successive appointments to two significant posts in the temple. These were remunerated with part of the offerings presented to the sanctuary and with the income derived from the cult of a royal statue, including about 40 hectares of land (one hectare being roughly equivalent to 2.5 acres). [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ]

Priest of Banebdjedet

“His case is quite similar to that of Iuf, another official from Edfu, who lived between the reigns of Ahmose and Thutmose I. Iuf also performed cult activities for royal statues and was recompensed with offerings and land. Further to the north, at Gebelein, things were rather the same, as king Ahmose had endowed the temple of Hathor with revenue later disputed, in the time of Thutmose III, by a soldier. Hence the income, prestige, and influential social relations associated with temple prebends explain why priesthood —especially middle and high ranking functions —was reserved for members of the elite, to the point that it was often stated th at noblemen and their offspring, as well as military personnel, were to be recruited as personnel of the temples, with severe measures taken to restrict access to such coveted positions. In some cases, priests expressed their co ntempt towards potential candidates from a “lesser” social background, as in the case of a merchant’s son who wished to enter the priesthood.

“Alternatively, bribes were used as a means of joining the temple staff, to the point that royal decrees were periodically enacted in order to prevent this fraudulent practice. And it was not uncommon for former beneficiaries of prebends and temple fields to be dispossessed by force or see their rights usurped by others; there were cases in which officials occupying high positions in a temple were removed from office by royal decree as a result of their involvement in conspiracies, while their supporters were threatened with retaliation. Thus the Coptos decree of king Antef V mentions that a certain Teti, involved in conflicts with the king, was (along with his family) deprived of the priestly positions and income he had enjoyed in the temple of Min.

“According to the extent sources, in troubled times disruptions in the normal life of sanctuaries, and internal conflicts among their personnel, became common currency. In one case, simple cultivators had become wab-priests in the temple of Khnum at Elephantine, and the authorities felt it necessary to send their representatives in order to restore the temple and to relegate those priests to their former occupation. In another case, the installation of the high priest Menkheperra followed the displacement of an unnamed r ival and the exile to the Kharga Oasis of the defeated faction, who were later formally forgiven and recalled by Amun with the full agreement of Menkheperra. An oracular procedure from Karnak in the 22nd Dynasty records the fiscal abuses inflicted against the Theban lesser clergy by higher clergy and bureaucrats, perhaps in the framework of competing factions surrounding the rival high priests Osorkon (B) and Harsiese (B), the former apparently supported by the lower clergy and the latter backed by the local elite. Finally, the extensive Papyrus Rylands 9 describes the long-standing conflicts between a family of dignitaries and the priests of a small provincial temple, involving crimes, bribery, usurpation of property, the destruction of evidence, and the search for support from powerful patrons.

“From another perspective, a number of small archives provide a glimpse into the strategies exercised by priests and those who performed rituals to obtain income and strengthen their positions as members of a modest local elite. Several papyri mention, for instance, the affairs of Tsenhor, a female choachyte who performed funerary rituals on mummies, an activity that enabled her to accumulate wealth and to invest it in the acquisition of real property, slaves, and cattle. Other choachy tes were involved in leasing and cultivating land from temples, thus obtaining agricultural rents. Such modest local sub-elites are also visible in Ramesside papyri (the Wilbour Papyrus is the most famous example), when temple land a nd fields ascribed to th e cult of royal statues made it possible for hundreds of officials, priests, women, and wealthy farmer s to enhance their position and strengthen the influence of the king in the provincial sphere. To conclude, given the nature of mu ch of the documentary evidence preserved from ancient Egypt, activities related to temples provide a unique opportunity for us to analyze the strategies followed by actors from different social origins (provincial potentates, members of the court and royal family, local sub-elites, eve n farmers ) i n order to improve their condition, to increase their income, and to join useful networks of power and wealth for their own interests.”

Herodotus on Egyptian Priests

two priests, one with a papyrus roll, the other with a vase for libations

“Herodotus also wrote about the appearance of the priests. He noticed that the Egyptian priests had shaven heads, while priests from other lands kept their hair long. Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”: “The priests wear a single linen garment and sandals of papyrus:20 they may have no other kind of clothing or footwear. Twice a day and twice every night they wash in cold water. Their religious observances are, one may say, innumerable. But also they receive many benefits: they do not consume or spend anything of their own; sacred food is cooked for them, beef and goose are brought in great abundance to each man every day, and wine of grapes is given to them, too. They may not eat fish. The Egyptians sow no beans in their country; if any grow, they will not eat them either raw or cooked; the priests cannot endure even to see them, considering beans an unclean kind of legume. Many (not only one) are dedicated to the service of each god. One of these is the high priest; and when a high priest dies, his son succeeds to his office.” 38. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

On a priest-pharaoh Herodotus wrote:“The next king was the priest of Hephaestus whose name was Sethos. He despised and had no regard for the warrior Egyptians, thinking he would never need them; besides otherwise dishonoring them, he took away the chosen lands which had been given to them, twelve fields to each man, in the reign of former kings. So when presently king Sanacharib57 came against Egypt, with a great force of Arabians and Assyrians, the warrior Egyptians would not march against him. The priest, in this quandary, went into the temple shrine and there before the god's image bitterly lamented over what he expected to suffer. Sleep came on him while he was lamenting, and it seemed to him the god stood over him and told him to take heart, that he would come to no harm encountering the power of Arabia: “I shall send you champions,” said the god. So he trusted the vision, and together with those Egyptians who would follow him camped at Pelusium, where the road comes into Egypt; and none of the warriors would go with him, but only merchants and craftsmen and traders. Their enemies came there, too, and during the night were overrun by a horde of field mice that gnawed quivers and bows and the handles of shields, with the result that many were killed fleeing unarmed the next day. And to this day a stone statue of the Egyptian king stands in Hephaestus' temple, with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription to this effect: “Look at me, and believe.” 142. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“Thus far went the record given by the Egyptians and their priests; and they showed me that the time from the first king to that priest of Hephaestus, who was the last, covered three hundred and forty-one generations, and that in this time this also had been the number of their kings, and of their high priests. Now three hundred generations are ten thousand years, three generations being equal to a hundred. And over and above the three hundred, the remaining forty-one cover thirteen hundred and forty years. Thus the whole period is eleven thousand three hundred and forty years; in all of which time (they said) they had had no king who was a god in human form, nor had there been any such either before or after those years among the rest of the kings of Egypt. Four times in this period (so they told me) the sun rose contrary to experience; twice he came up where he now goes down, and twice went down where he now comes up; yet Egypt at these times underwent no change, either in the produce of the river and the land, or in the matter of sickness and death. 143.

Herodotus on the Tale of the Priestesses and the Doves

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”: “But about the oracles in Hellas, and that one which is in Libya, the Egyptians give the following account. The priests of Zeus of Thebes told me that two priestesses had been carried away from Thebes by Phoenicians; one, they said they had heard was taken away and sold in Libya, the other in Hellas; these women, they said, were the first founders of places of divination in the aforesaid countries. When I asked them how it was that they could speak with such certain knowledge, they said in reply that their people had sought diligently for these women, and had never been able to find them, but had learned later the story which they were telling me. 55. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“That, then, I heard from the Theban priests; and what follows, the prophetesses of Dodona say: that two black doves had come flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona; the latter settled on an oak tree, and there uttered human speech, declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there; the people of Dodona understood that the message was divine, and therefore established the oracular shrine. The dove which came to Libya told the Libyans (they say) to make an oracle of Ammon; this also is sacred to Zeus. Such was the story told by the Dodonaean priestesses, the eldest of whom was Promeneia and the next Timarete and the youngest Nicandra; and the rest of the servants of the temple at Dodona similarly held it true. 56.

“But my own belief about it is this. If the Phoenicians did in fact carry away the sacred women and sell one in Libya and one in Hellas, then, in my opinion, the place where this woman was sold in what is now Hellas, but was formerly called Pelasgia, was Thesprotia; and then, being a slave there, she established a shrine of Zeus under an oak that was growing there; for it was reasonable that, as she had been a handmaid of the temple of Zeus at Thebes , she would remember that temple in the land to which she had come. After this, as soon as she understood the Greek language, she taught divination; and she said that her sister had been sold in Libya by the same Phoenicians who sold her. 57.

“I expect that these women were called “doves” by the people of Dodona because they spoke a strange language, and the people thought it like the cries of birds; then the woman spoke what they could understand, and that is why they say that the dove uttered human speech; as long as she spoke in a foreign tongue, they thought her voice was like the voice of a bird. For how could a dove utter the speech of men? The tale that the dove was black signifies that the woman was Egyptian.”

Temple Estates in Ancient Egypt

Juan Carlos Moreno García of Université Charles-de-Gaulle wrote: “Alongside the estates of the crown, temples too possessed important estates that provided the agricultural produce needed for offerings or for the support of personnel in charge of the cult. The Royal Annals mention estates granted by the king to cults and temples scattered throughout the country. The beneficiaries of these donations usually included the workers who cultivated the fields, as well as the storage and processing centers (pr-Sna) linked to the fields. The early- 5th-Dynasty inscriptions in the tomb of Nykaankh at Tihna el-Gebel provide insight into the organization of the economic activities of a provincial temple. The local sanctuary, dedicated to Hathor, had been granted a field of 0.5 hectares by 4th-Dynasty king Menkaura, a donation that was confirmed by Sahura at the beginning of the 5th Dynasty. Nykaankh and his family performed the required rituals and were accordingly paid with the produce of that field. [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno García, Université Charles-de-Gaulle, France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, ]

“Sources from the 6th Dynasty show that temples were important economic centers and that their estates were usually exploited by the local elite, who thus became integrated into the economic, social, and political networks controlled by the palace. Royal donations to local temples continued throughout the Old Kingdom, as is recorded in the recently discovered Royal Annals of the 6th Dynasty. At the same time, the pharaohs built royal chapels in the local sanctuaries and provided them with the economic means necessary for their construction: Iy-Mery of el-Hawawish in Upper Egypt, for example, proclaimed in his autobiographical inscription that he never took away the grain that was in his charge, except for that which constituted the payments relating to the works on the Hwt-kA chapel of Pepy at Akhmim. Titles and inscriptions concerning the royal Hwt-kA, and even their architectural remains at Tell Basta, reveal that they were present in many provinces of both Upper and Lower Egypt, very often inside the enclosure of an existing temple. Their construction suggests that the king intervened in the internal affairs of the temples and could control their economic activities, as is further evidenced by the decrees from Coptos.

“The most detailed sources concerning the foundation, organization, and exploitation of a temple domain are the royal decrees from the temple of Min at Coptos, dating from the 6th Dynasty. Two of these decrees refer to the organization of a new domain granted to the local god: first, the location was chosen from a piece of land comprising some fields that were inundated on an annual basis; then, a storage and processing center was created in order to administer the domain, organize its work force, and raise taxes; finally, the domain was divided into plots and placed under the supervision of an administrative council comprising local governors, the high priest of the temple, and some officials.

“The role of the local governors consisted of assembling the work force necessary to cultivate the fields. Other clauses of decrees D and G specified that the estates enjoyed temporary tax exemptions. Such estates formed the economic basis of the provincial temples, and the recent discovery of 6th- Dynasty clay tablets at Balat, in Dakhla Oasis, shows that this kind of economic organization existed even at a remote locality in the Western Desert, hundreds of kilometers from the Nile Valley.

“As for temples in proximity to the capital, two important archives found at the Abusir funerary complexes of 5th-Dynasty pharaohs Neferirkara and Raneferef cast some light on temple resources. It seems that the temples’ main sources of income were other temples, especially that of Ptah at Memphis, as well as several royal institutions. Some fragmentary papyri suggest that these temples also possessed their own estates, but the role played by the royal residence (Xnw) and the royal house (pr-nzwt) appears far more important in the provisioning of temples near Memphis. In fact, the Royal Annals and the administrative papyri from the Old Kingdom show that the transfer of resources from the royal sphere to the temples was a well- established practice during the Old Kingdom. The titles borne by the officials of el- Hawawish also suggest that the crown transferred some estates to the local temple of Min. These measures do not imply, however, that the crown was losing resources and power for the benefit of the temples. The occasional tax exemptions granted to temples were temporary and revocable, and inscriptions like that of 6th-Dynasty official Harkhuf of Elephantine proclaim that both the temples and the royal estates formed networks where food and products were stored and kept at the disposal of the royal agents. The decrees of Coptos also enumerate the officials and the royal departments that usually requisitioned workers and taxes from the temples.”

Isis Temple

Temples and Land Tenure in New Kingdom Egypt

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “While real estate was granted to individuals by the state, individuals also turned property over to the management of temple estates by means of funerary endowments. The endowment of Si- mut, called Kyky, scribe and inspector of cattle in the stalls of Amun in the reign of Ramesses II, exemplifies the custom of the donation of personal property to temples by individuals who entered into contracts with temples for the deity’s protection. Si-mut’s act of endowment comprises a long inscription covering three walls of his Theban tomb and summarizes a legal contract. Not having any children or siblings to care for him in his old age and organize his funeral and mortuary cult, Si-mut donated all his worldly goods to the temple of Mut, likely in return for a pension that would enable him to live out the remainder of his days comfortably, secure in the knowledge that his obsequies would be carried out by the temple. Unfortunately, the lower part of the inscription that contains details concerning the endowment is poorly preserved. Nevertheless, it was by such benefactions that temples gained control over even more property, and more distant relations of the donor were excluded from any possibility of inheriting from the estate. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Papyrus Harris I attests the preponderant role of the temples as distinct economic entities in their own right, with authority over cultivation and landholding. This royal document enumerates the land- wealth of the temples of Amun, Ra, Ptah, and smaller less well-known temples: a total of 1,071,780 arouras, comprising some 13 to 18 percent of the available cultivable land. It is very likely that the temple holdings enumerated here were donations made by Ramesses III, with priority going to his own mortuary temple at Medinet Habu.

“Papyrus Harris I supports the idea that temples were an integral part of the state, yet not a branch or department of the state administration, providing legitimacy to the government in exchange for which the king granted them all necessities and then some. The separate but interlinked bureaucracies of temples and government assured the temples control of their own production but made it possible for the government freely to remit part of its own wealth to the temples. Temples commanded the labor of large numbers of royal subjects to till the land in various arrangements the temples themselves controlled. The cultivators of temple lands were themselves taxed by the state to provide for the temples, thus completing the circle that, in theory at least, connected temples, populace, and the state in a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Khamwese, Famous Priest and First Egyptologist

Khaemwise, a son of Ramses II, pursued a career in the priesthood of Memphis and devoted himself to the study of hieroglyphs and antiquities. He also designed the Serapeum, the catacomb for the sacred Apis bulls in the desert at Saqqara. As a result of his interests and activities, Khaemwise has been described as the first Egyptologist in history.

Dr Joann Fletcher wrote for the BBC: “Although the best known ancient Egyptians are usually pharaohs and queens, one of the most intriguing characters was a prince. The fourth son of King Ramses II by one of his chief wives Isetnofret, Khamwese (c.1285-c.1224 B.C.) was an influential figure in life. For a while he was heir apparent until he predeceased his long-lived father. He also gained a reputation for learning and magic which lasted for more than a thousand years, making him the ideal central character in the story of 'Death in Sakkara'. [Source: Dr Joann Fletcher, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“His name-translated variously as Khamwese, Khaemwese, Khaemwise, Khaemwaset-is written with the three hieroglyph symbols featured at various points in the game: the sunrise symbol is pronounced 'kha', the owl 'em' and the sceptre-like sign was here pronounced 'waysi'. Although his name actually means 'Manifest in Thebes', the religious capital in the south of Egypt, Khamwese seems to have spent most of his life at the ancient capital Memphis in the north. |::|


“Born around 1285 B.C., he was well-educated during his childhood and teenage years and chose a career in the clergy. As a priest of Ptah, the creator god of Memphis, he rose through the ranks, working as a sem-priest (a junior rank of priest) and eventually becoming high priest by around the age of 30. His priestly duties gave him access to the finest temple libraries in Egypt, and as he states himself, he was never happier than when reading the works of earlier times. Yet there was also a practical purpose to such antiquarian research, and by finding out about Egypt's previous 1,800 year history, he could reflect past glories on to the current pharaoh, his father Ramses II. |::|

“Khamwese's knowledge of the past also inspired him to study the monuments all around him at Memphis and its nearby cemetery at Sakkara, a vast necropolis of tombs and temples already over a thousand years old. Dominated by the great Step Pyramid of Djoser (c.2650 B.C.), it even attracted tourists in Khamwese's day, some of whom left appreciative graffiti recording their visit. Yet with many of these ancient buildings in states of varying disrepair or ruin beneath Sakkara's drifting sands, Khamwese began a programme of restoration, 'because he loved to restore the monuments of kings and make firm again what had fallen into ruin'. The finished tombs and temples were then inscribed with the name of the monument's original owner, the name of the current pharaoh, Ramses II, and a brief description of the work carried out, inscriptions which have been described as 'the largest museum labels in history'. |::|

“Khamwese also carried out work at Giza, restoring the Great Pyramid built by Khufu around 2580 B.C., and even undertaking excavations at the site. Unearthing a statue of Khufu's son Kawab, he records, 'It was the High Priest and prince Khamwese who was delighted by this statue of the king's son Kawab which he discovered', placing it in a chapel which seems to have acted as a kind of museum for his discoveries, 'because he loved the noble ones who dwelt in antiquity before him, and the excellence of all they made'. |::|

“Yet Khamwese was not the first to excavate or collect antiquities, and as early as c.1402 B.C., King Thutmose IV had excavated the millennium-old Sphinx from the sands of Giza. The next king, Amenhotep III (1390-1352 B.C.), had collected ancient artefacts and ordered the restoration of ancient sites 'after I had found them fallen into disrepair since days of old'. Even Amenhotep's infamous son Akhenaten seems to have had an eye on the past, with a 1,200 year old alabaster bowl made for Khafra, builder of Giza's second pyramid, found in his tomb at Amarna. Nevertheless, it is Khamwese with his all-round antiquarian interests who is known as 'the first Egyptologist'. As scholar John Ray has observed, 'the past fascinated Khamwese, and as a result, Khamwese fascinates Egyptologists, who see him as one of their own'. |::|

Khamwese and the Apis Bulls

Dr Joann Fletcher wrote for the BBC: “In his role as High Priest of Ptah, Khamwese's career was bound up with the cult of the Apis Bull. As the sacred animal of Ptah, the bull was believed to contain the god's spirit. Carefully selected at birth it was worshipped during its lifetime at Memphis. At death, the bull would be mummified and buried in its own underground tomb at Sakkara, within the area known as the Serapeum. [Source: Dr Joann Fletcher, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“One of the most important events during Khamwese's career was the death and burial of an Apis Bull around 1263 B.C. Following its mummification at Memphis, the lavish funerary ceremonies were led by Khamwese, dressed in his priestly robes, and accompanied by his father Ramses II. Scenes of father and son worshipping the bull were portrayed on the tomb walls, and the burial was also provided with the same lavish funerary goods which would have been part of a royal interment-jewellery, amulets and small figurines known as shabti figures, some of which would have been inscribed with the names of Khamwese and other courtiers keen to demonstrate their piety and devotion to the god. |::|

“When the next sacred bull died 14 years later, it was again Khamwese who oversaw its burial with a similar deposit of rich funerary goods presented by dignitaries of the time. Yet the prince decided to change the way they were buried and rather than having each one interred within an individual tomb, he initiated the building of a single underground catacomb with separate side chambers for each bull, each provided with a massive granite sarcophagus weighing up to 80 tons. He also built a new temple for the Apis cult above the catacomb, in which he set up these words: |::|

Apis bull

“'Oh you priests and dignitaries of the temple of Ptah, and every knowledgeable scribe, who shall enter this temple which I have created for the living Apis, and who shall see the things which I have done, engraved on the stone walls as great and effective! Never has the like been done before... . It will seem great to you, in contrast to the poor and ignorant work of the ancestors... . So remember my name, when decreeing future works-O Apis, great god, I am the sem-priest, Prince Khamwese!' |::|

“With this inscription read by successive generations each time a bull was interred in ever-extended catacombs over the next 13 centuries, it is perhaps no surprise Khamwese's name continued to flourish long after his death. This seems to have occurred around 1224 B.C. when he was around 60 years old, but unlike many of Ramses II's other sons, buried together in the recently rediscovered tomb KV.5 in the Valley of the Kings, Khamwese chose to be buried in the north, close to his beloved Apis bulls somewhere in the region of the Serapeum. |::|

“Over the centuries, as the catacombs fell from use and their ceilings collapsed, drifting sands completely covered the site until 1852 when French archaeologist Auguste Mariette rediscovered the Serapeum and began excavations. Using dynamite to speed up the pace of work, he uncovered part of the original catacomb built by Khamwese, and amongst a range of intriguing finds discovered sumptuous jewels inscribed with the names of both Khamwese and Ramses II. There were also shabti figures naming the Apis, and two gilded coffins containing the disarticulated remains of two mummified bulls, heavily coated with costly resins. In a third coffin he found similarly mummified remains and a face mask of beaten gold, which he believed to be the burial of Khamwese himself. |::|

“Yet as Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves has pointed out, 'despite the named jewels and an anthropoid mask, what Mariette found was probably not human at all, but an intact (if exceptionally decayed) bull-burial'. So with mystery surrounding his final resting place, it seems as if Khamwese still lies somewhere deep beneath Sakkara's drifting sands. |::|

Khamwese, the Magician

Dr Joann Fletcher wrote for the BBC: “With inscriptions proclaiming his abilities throughout Sakkara and beyond, it is perhaps no surprise that Khamwese's name was known long after his death, albeit in a somewhat altered form. With his priestly title of sem, sometimes pronounced 'setem' and later 'setne', this gradually transformed to create the semi-mythical character 'Setne-Khaemwese'. [Source: Dr Joann Fletcher, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

By the Ptolemaic Period a thousand years after his death, his reputation as a scholar had taken on epic proportions and as 'Setne-Khamwese' he had become a magician. The1% literate minority was long believed to possess special powers. Priests with access to ritual texts were often regarded as magicians, and with his own particular knowledge of literature stretching back to the beginning of Egypt's history, Khamwese would have been regarded as a very great magician indeed. |::|

“He even became the hero of a series of racy yarns, one of which opens with the prince contemplating hieroglyphs on a temple wall. Learning of the existence of the Book of Thoth, a magic text containing all the secrets of the universe, including how to resurrect the dead, Khamwese decided to find it. It was said to lie in the tomb of a long-dead magician, and after Khamwese locates the tomb, meets the magician's ghosts and engages in a long conversation, he takes the book for himself. The magician, wanting the book back, decides to punish him, and using the apparition of a beautiful priestess entices him to commit all manner of crimes to win her favours. As she disappears in a puff of smoke at the crucial moment, a naked Setne-Khamwese is left confused and humiliated, and realising resistance is futile, returns the book to the magician's tomb, his lesson learned. In a second story, his magical adventures continue when he visits the afterlife with his fictitious son Siosire and meets Osiris, Lord of the Underworld. After comparing the afterlife of the blessed with that of the damned, this moralistic tale ends with Siosire revealing his true identity as a magician from the past, reborn to rid Egypt of a malevolent Nubian sorcerer in a spectacular battle of magical wits. |::|

“Yet incredibly Khamwese's own reputation for magic continued into the 20th century and is based on his statue in the British Museum. This superb figure, measuring 1.46 metres and carved in an unusual conglomerate sandstone, shows Khamwese as high priest in the prime of life, striding forward with the standards of the gods. Believed to have been set up in the temple of Osiris at Abydos, the statue would have been created as a means for the living to give offerings to Khamwese's soul, although as recently as the 1930s, members of the Society of the Inner Light still regarded the figure to be 'oozing with magnetism' and a means by which they could contact unseen forces. As a result, Khamwese's statue, in the midst of the Egyptian sculpture gallery, became the focus of some unusual attention, and so seems the appropriate image with which to end the 'Death in Sakkara' game.” |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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