Each pharaoh had a kingdom to rule and government ministers and officials together with an army and police force to help him rule. Overseeing the vast apparatus of the administration was his Vizier, the Pharaoh’s right-hand man.
In ancient Egypt, the role of vizier was perhaps the most powerful position in the kingdom after that of the pharaoh himself. In ancient Egyptian the tjati, tjat or djat, as the vizier was known headed the administration, overseeing finance, the military, agriculture, the judiciary and infrastructure in the form of roads dams and canals. Add in the vizier’s role in planning and constructing the king’s tomb and monuments and it is apparent how the vizier’s implementation of the king’s policies across the land surpassed the role of a simple advisor or counsellor.
To juggle these competing priorities, a vizier had to be well educated and knowledgeable about the inner workings of government agencies. The vizier was trained as a scribe and received an education in accountancy, architecture, law, history, agriculture, and the priesthood.
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Facts About The Vizier
- In ancient Egypt, the role of vizier was the most powerful position in the kingdom after that of the pharaoh
- Viziers served ancient Egyptian administrations for millennia
- Only two Egyptian viziers were women
- Played a key role in overseeing finance, the military, agriculture, the judiciary and infrastructure through roads, dams and canals
- A vizier had to be well educated and knowledgeable about the inner workings of government agencies
- Viziers were trained as a scribe and were educated in accountancy, architecture, law, history, agriculture, and the priesthood
- The most demanding of the vizier’s duties was overseeing construction of ancient Egypt’s vast monumental construction projects including the pharaoh’s palaces, pyramids and temple complexes
- Imhotep Djoser’s vizier personally designed and oversaw the construction of Djoser’s famous Step Pyramid at Saqqara
- Hemiunu, Khufu’s vizier planned and built Giza’s Great Pyramid.
The Vizier And Ma’at
Imhotep proved to be a rarity as viziers continued being chosen from among the king’s relatives or his trusted court advisors throughout Egypt’s history. Only two Egyptian viziers were women the 5th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom’s (c. 2613-2181 BCE) Nebet the mother-in-law of Pepi I and an unknown 26th Dynasty woman possibly Nitocris I one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Egypt’s history during its Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BCE).
In the New Kingdom period (c. 1570- c. 1069 BCE) two viziers served the king. One oversaw Upper Egypt and the other Lower Egypt. This was the age of Egypt’s empire when its administrative demands peaked. The two viziers enjoyed equal responsibility, prestige and power. The division of the vizier’s role also reflects the emphasis ancient Egyptians placed on balance and harmony.
The demands of the role required an individual who was honest, adhered to Egypt’s laws, judged fairly and impartially and placed a premium on reason ahead of emotion.
The vizier embodied the laws, which drew their power from Egypt’s universal concept of ma’at or harmony and balance as well as dispensing justice. The winged goddess Ma’at and her feather of truth personified ma’at. Even the office of vizier’s insignia was an amulet of Ma’at suspended on a chain. A vizier was expected to maintain ma’at just as the king was to ensure all Egyptian, from the highest aristocrat to the lowest peasant, enjoyed equal treatment under the law.
A Vizier’s Duties
One prominent New Kingdom vizier was Rekhmira who served the pharaohs Thutmose III (1458-1425 BCE) and his son Amenhotep II (1425-1400 BCE). Rekhmira achieved fame for his text Instruction of Rekhmira or Installation of the Vizier, which lays out the duties of the office, how a vizier should behave in performing his duties and the vizier selection process.
The most prominent of the vizier’s duties was overseeing construction of ancient Egypt’s vast monuments including the palaces, pyramids and temple complexes. In many instances, the vizier designed and planned their construction and directly supervised the building work. Imhotep personally designed and oversaw the construction of Djoser’s famous Step Pyramid at Saqqara while Hemiunu, Khufu’s (2589-2566 BCE) vizier was responsible for planning and building Giza’s Great Pyramid.
In addition to managing the judicial system and caring for Egypt’s needy, the vizier also had responsibility for maintaining the military and for his king’s construction projects. The general commanding the Egyptian army while ultimately accountable to the king in practicality he reported to the vizier on daily operational matters or campaigns. The vizier often selected a general and signed off on the general’s chosen subordinates.
Egyptians from across the country worked on a king’s monuments mainly during the months when the Nile flooded their fields. Communal building projects kept farmers employed and created work for skilled artisans, painters, and masons. Thus, the vizier was responsible for the work teams that built the Egyptian kings’ great tombs, temples, and monuments.
Throughout its long history, Egypt produced many notable viziers who made important contributions to the culture and left a lasting legacy. In many ways, a little of the immortality conferred by the vast royal temple complexes and imposing monuments rubbed off on the vizier as well.
Some such as Imhotep became almost as famous as their pharaoh. Imhotep was an exception to the common practice of selecting a vizier from the king’s family. He was a commoner and owed his immense success to his own extensive accomplishments and personal merit.
Imhotep himself was a polymath and architectural genius, who wrote medical treatises and advanced medicine with his view that disease was naturally occurring rather than a punishment for someone’s sins long before Hipporates. After his death, he was deified as a god of medicine.
Hemiunu a nephew of Khufu was responsible for overseeing the construction of the Giza’s Great Pyramid. To this day, Egyptologists and engineers struggle to explain how this colossal monument was built.
Ptahhotep I was vizier to the 5th Dynasty’s king Djedkare Isesi during the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE). He is best known for the important work of Egyptian literature, his The Instructions of Ptahhotep.
Amenemhat served the founder of Egypt’s 12th Dynasty Mentuhotep IV (c. 1997-1991 BCE) who later became king Amenemhat I (c. 1991-1962 BCE. He is credited with establishing Egyptian culture’s golden age.
Ankhu was vizier to the 13th Dynasty kings Khendjer and Sobekhotep II at the start of the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782-c. 1570 BCE). The 13th Dynasty produced weak and ineffective kings and Ankhu and his two sons who also became viziers essentially ruled Egypt when its kingship faltered.
Aperel served Amenhotep III (c. 1386-1353 BCE) and his son Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE). He took charge of Amenhotep III’s enormous building projects such as the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple.
Khay enjoyed the good fortune to be Ramesses II The Great’s 1279-1213 BCE) vizier. He was a firm favourite of the pharaoh who elevated him to a status equal to his own sons. Khay played an important part in managing the king’s massive construction program and overseeing official religious festivals as part of the pharaoh’s public profile
Continuity Of Office
The office of vizier continued to be filled by those thought to be the best men of their time right through to the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE), and Egypt’s annexation by Rome.
While the image of the pharaoh emerged as a symbol of ancient Egyptian leadership, for over 3,000 years the office of vizier managed virtually all aspects of the government and occasionally, as in the case of Ankhu, took over control and reigned as pharaoh.
Reflecting On The Past
Egypt’s famous tombs and monuments are identified with the pharaohs. However, without the impressive skills and expertise of the viziers, these remarkable archaeological wonders would not exist.
Header image courtesy: Einsamer Schütze [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons