10 Things You Need to Know About Egypt’s Pharaohs

Image credit: Tertuli/CC0 Public Domain


10 Things You Need to Know About Egypt’s Pharaohs

Image credit: Tertuli/CC0 Public Domain

Did you know that ancient Egyptian rulers were actually called kings, and not pharaohs? Egyptian kings were the land’s political and religious leaders. They made laws and discussed military matters, and also performed rituals to honor the gods. The term “pharaoh” was first used as a label for the king only around 1450 BCE.

Much of the information about the pharaohs comes from monuments and structures built and imprinted with details about their reigns. Egyptians “wrote” or carved hieroglyphics (the Egyptian writing system) onto stone and these were well-preserved in Egypt’s dry climate. Egyptians also preserved bodies of their kings, and these well-preserved bodies or “mummies” also give a wealth of information about the rulers of ancient Egypt.

Discover more interesting fun facts about Egypt’s pharaohs in this article.

1. The ruler of ancient Egypt, regardless of gender, was always called a king.

Gender symbols
Gender symbols side by side, PD image.

Female rulers were not called a “queen”, as the ancient Egyptians had no word comparable to the term queen. The title of “king” was used to refer to a male or female ruler. The title of “pharaoh” was not Egyptian, but a Hebrew pronunciation of the Egyptian word per-aa, meaning “Great House”. The word pharaoh was actually first used to refer to the palace of the king, and not the ruler him or herself.

“Pharaoh” was used to describe the Egyptian ruler only during the beginning of the 18th dynasty, about 1450 BCE. Although the label “pharaoh” was never formally used as a king’s title, the term eventually evolved as a generic name for all ancient Egyptian rulers.

2. The total number of pharaohs is still unknown.

Question Mark
Question Mark by ryanmilani/CC BY 2.0

Scholars have not identified the exact number of Egyptian kings or pharaohs. Because of the division of Upper and Lower Egypt, the land sometimes had different kings at the same time. Little recorded history is available to identify the rulers during these unsettled periods in ancient Egyptian history. At present, we recognize about 170 pharaohs, although there were about 225 known names of Egyptian kings. The majority of Egyptian historians begin the count sometime in the third millennium BC, with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. Many historians assert that Menes was the first real king of Egypt, in 3100 BC. This was when the so-called Pharaonic Age began. The only definite information we have today about the lines of Egyptian kings is the fact that they ended with Cleopatra VII.

3. Only males were supposed to have the title of a pharaoh, until one woman declared herself to be one.

Hatshepsut, Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, c. 1473-1458 B.C. by Postdlf, GFDL.

Out of the hundreds of Egyptian kings, only four were women. The first one was Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was the daughter of King Thutmose I. She married her half-brother Thutmose II, who died young. The throne went to Thutmose II’s infant son, but being just a baby, his stepmother Hatshepsut acted as regent and handled the affairs of the state on behalf of Thutmose’s underage son.

Hatshepsut later declared herself king. Her being king, or pharaoh, was highly controversial, but Hatshepsut did everything to defend her legitimacy. She ordered portrayals of her in statues and paintings to be as a male. Hence, in some images she appears as a male pharaoh with a beard and large muscles.

4. Both male and female pharaohs wore false beards.

Hatshepsut's false beard
Large granite sphinx bearing the likeness of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, depicted with the traditional false beard, a symbol of her pharaonic power—Metropolitan Museum of Art. Author: Keith Schengili-Roberts/CC BY-SA 2.5

Have you noticed that in statues or monuments, pharaohs are often depicted as having long, tightly braided beards? The beards you notice were fake beards, though. Pharaohs wore fake beards to imitate the appearance of their god Osiris, who wore an impressive synthetic beard. By wearing man-made beards, they believed that they were able to obtain Osiris’ eternal reign. Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh, decided to honor this tradition, so she also wore false beard and dressed herself in masculine attire. The beard had to be synthetic because Egyptians valued cleanliness, and would keep their body tidy and their faces hair-free.

These false beards were hooked behind the ears and worn for state ceremonies. Beards with straight edge were mostly worn by living pharaohs. When pharaohs passed away, a false beard with an upward pointing curl would be placed over their coffin.

5. All pharaohs wore makeup.

Eye of Horus
The Eye of Horus, done in photoshop. Author: Jeff Dahl/PD Image.

Both male and female pharaohs wore makeup. They painted the eye area with black kohl from ground ores (metal-bearing mineral), not just for beauty but also to reduce light reflection. Aside from regarding beauty as holiness, they needed to be comfortable under the northern Nile Valley’s bright sunshine. They also believed that by lining their eyes with kohl and creating an almond-shape, their eyes would resemble the eyes of the god Horus (Egypt’s patron god). As such, the resemblance would enable them to protect themselves against evil spirits and eye diseases. Pharaohs also darkened their eyebrows and eyelashes, and they preferred to apply green or blue eyeshadow.

Male and female Egyptian rulers would color their nails and lips with henna, too. This henna dye was also used to decorate the hands and skin. Contrary to today’s practice, henna was used to stain the skin of royal males, and tattooing was a practice for servants and the lower classes.

6. The first female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, almost never made it to history.

Thutmose III and Hatshepsut
Hieroglyphs showing Thutmose III on the left and Hatshepsut on the right, she having the trappings of the greater role — Red Chapel, Karnak. Author: Markh/cc0

Hatshepsut was the first female pharaoh. Originally a regent of her step-son, who was too young to become a pharaoh, she proclaimed herself king. Many consider her to be one of the greatest pharaohs in the history of Egypt.

Most of Hatspehsut’s images and statues were destroyed several years after her death. One theory suggests that one of Thutmose III’s orders to get rid of the evidence of Hatshepsut’s rule in order to remove her example of an influential female ruler. It was only after 1822 that Egyptian scholars were able to decode the hieroglyphics on the walls of Deir el-Bahri, an Egyptian temple built by Hatshepsut’s architects. Hatshepsuts’s mummy was discovered in 2007 and is now housed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

7. Pharaohs married family members to keep the family bloodline pure.

Bust of Tutankhamun found in his tomb, 1922
DNA research on Tutankhamun suggested that his parents were brother and sister. Bust of Tutankhamun found in his tomb, 1922. Author: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/CC BY 2.0

Pharaohs married another family member to retain the sacred bloodline. Because the Egyptian kings took the role as mediator with the gods, they also claimed ancestry from the gods, and therefore this “divine” status had to be preserved.

8. Pharaohs were allowed to have more than one wife.

Concubines of the dead
Three “concubines of the dead”, small feminine statues that were placed in funerary equipments tombs of males. Terracotta, linen and clay; limestone. 17th-18th dynasty. Archeological Museum of Bologna (Italy), KS 3290; KS 1883; KS 290. Author: Khruner/CC BY-SA 3.0

Aside from having one or two major wives, a pharaoh was allowed to have several “minor wives” and many concubines. This enabled pharaohs to set up their dynasties and guarantee their line of succession. The official heirs, however, would only be the sons and daughters of major wives.

9. Pharaohs were usually overweight.

A carved stone miniature figurine depicted an obese female. www.wikimd.org

The mummified body of Hatshepsut that was found in 1997 presented a hugely obese woman who was bald at the front. Examinations of Hatshepsut’s mummified body revealed that she suffered from tooth decay during her lifetime, and her cause of death would probably have been cancer or complications from diabetes.

What could we expect from a diet that is high in sugar and carbohydrates? An Egyptian king’s meal would usually consist of honey, bread, beer and wine. Examined mummies indicate that many Egyptian rulers were overweight and unhealthy, and may have even suffered from diabetes.

10. Pharaohs spent their reigns preparing for their death.

The Book of the Dead – a guide to the deceased’s journey in the afterlife. By Jon Bodsworth, PD image.

Egyptians believed in the afterlife. It was important for Egyptians to prepare for the life after death. Pharaohs built tombs to be the homes of their dead spirits. The construction of their tombs or pyramids would begin as soon as they took the throne. Pharaohs built great tombs for themselves so they could still live well even in the afterlife.


To learn more about the Ancient Egyptians, visit:

Facts About the Pharaohs in 90 Seconds



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  1. The picture on Number 9 is super weird. Can you get a different picture? What if little kids saw the picture and told their teacher about it? Please change the photo soon!!!!


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