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Despotic Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs: Feared, Loved or Something Else?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laila El Baradei
May 13, 2021

Recently in Egypt, there was a huge celebration marking the transportation of 22 mummies of ancient Egyptian kings and queens from the old national museum in downtown Cairo, to another newly inaugurated museum displaying Egyptian civilization across the years. The mummies were mostly for kings and queens who were from the 18th and 19th dynasty; that is nearly 3,500 years ago when ancient Egypt realized the peak of its success and power. The event was covered live on national T.V. and discussed by international media; the main aim of which was to boost tourism. Following the event, there was renewed interest by all in ancient Egyptian civilization and pharaohs; what they had accomplished, what wars they had gone through, the magnificent monuments they had left behind and the still many unraveled secrets, as well as the overall mystery surrounding their time.

Although American public administration textbooks always point to Woodrow Wilson and his seminal research article in 1887 as the starting point for the scientific discipline of public administration, they never fail to mention that the practice of public administration, as opposed to the science, goes back to much earlier times, including that of the Ancient Egyptian and Chinese civilizations. After all, the ancient Egyptians, in building their colossal pyramids, had to deal with allocating resources, organizing work, keeping records, managing budgets, paying workers, following schedules and reporting on progress. History books mostly discuss the despotic rule practiced by the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, where absolute power is concentrated in the one individual Pharaoh and exercised over non-free people. Historians differ however in their analysis of why Egyptians citizens succumbed to that type of rule, and whether it was willingly or not. The following article tries to reflect on the different sides of the story.

It is interesting to note that inherited traditional knowledge in Egypt always refers to despots as Pharaohs. One common proverb usually cited in times of despair, or when anybody becomes too powerful, states, “Hey Pharaoh what made you so Pharaonic, I did not find anybody to curb my power.” Another proverb, still in use, states, “The one you thought of as Moses, turned out to be a Pharaoh.” Here again the understanding is that the Pharaoh is an evil person as opposed to the prophet Moses.

Ancient Egypt was governed by a monarchical type of rule, and the Pharaoh held the supreme political and religious power in the country. A Pharaoh owned all the land and controlled the irrigation system in an agriculture-based country dependent on the River Nile waters. The Pharaohs were mostly men, with very few exceptions, including that of Queen Hatshepsut, who had to stick on a fake beard and act like a man during part of her reign.

One interesting explanation for the correlation that exists between Pharaohs and despots has to do with both geography and agriculture. When people in Egypt stopped being hunters, started settling down beside the river Nile and cultivating the land, there were more opportunities for accumulation of resources by some. Once you had resources, you had the power to control others and get them to do as told. Because of the narrowness of the Nile valley and the spread of deserts all around, people who did not approve of the resulting power division had to stay put and comply, because there was no place else to go. This was one explanation for how despots were first created in Egypt and why citizens complied. No other place to go to!

On the other hand, the Pharaohs were also perceived as godly, so this was another reason for their perceived absolute and uncontested power. Some scholars seem to think that because of this perceived divine nature of the Pharaohs, people loved to obey them. In building the huge Giza pyramids, the workers may not have been coerced into laboring long and tedious hours, but on the contrary, it may have been a work of love for their deities, aka, Pharaohs.

There is also the psychological explanation related to the Stockholm Syndrome and falling in love with the despot as a self-defense mechanism, to make life more bearable. The term, although developed in the 1970s, obviously much later than ancient Egyptian times, may still be one explanation that comes to mind for why ancient Egyptian citizens stayed loyal to their ruling tyrants, and served them to the best of their abilities. Life is more tolerable if you convince yourself that you actually love your oppressor.

The question is not whether ancient Egyptians were despots or not, but rather why they managed to get away with it. I think it was a combination of factors. On the Pharaohs side it was all about power, control and taking on godly attributes. On the citizens’ side, their compliance was due to fear, love, worship and having no other place to go to. Plus, it was easier to submit to authority and find a justification later to maintain self-respect. Human nature is indeed complicated!


Author: Laila El Baradei, Ph.D. is a Professor of Public Administration at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. She is a regular contributor to PA Times Online. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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