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posted: 10/7/2013 10:58 AM

Ancient Egyptians were born into strict class structures

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  • On exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man is this rare limestone cartouche, a specialized oval drawing that indicates the writing of a royal name. This one refers to Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, believed by some to have led the country after his death. These royal names were almost completely lost to history as their cartouches were often destroyed by unhappy subjects.

      On exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man is this rare limestone cartouche, a specialized oval drawing that indicates the writing of a royal name. This one refers to Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, believed by some to have led the country after his death. These royal names were almost completely lost to history as their cartouches were often destroyed by unhappy subjects.
    Courtesy of the San Diego Museum of Man

 

You wanted to know

Students in Nancy Sullivan's sixth-grade class at Frederick Nerge Elementary School in Roselle asked, "In ancient Egypt, how were the Pharaoh and other important social classes chosen?"

Ancient Egypt, the North African kingdom dotted with pyramids and known for its active afterlife culture, existed over a period of more than 3,000 years.

This long-lived civilization was established before 3150 B.C. and ultimately declined about 300 B.C. when its leaders' failed attempts to stretch the boundaries into western Asia. This allowed the Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and Persians opportunity to dominate the land of the Pharaohs. Over time, the great Egyptian dynasties were nearly forgotten.

A stone the size of a door frame has provided much of what we know about the Pharaohs. Called the Palermo Stone, this carved fragment was discovered in 1866 and can be seen in the Italian city Palermo in Sicily. Engraved in hieroglyphics, the stone documents the names of most of the rulers, their mothers, and information on Egyptian warfare, taxes, statuary, ceremonies, certain buildings and the annual floods along the Nile.

"Ancient Egyptian society was highly organized, disciplined, and religious," said Margaret Hartnett, director of education and visitor experience at the San Diego Museum of Man.

The museum has a world-renowned collection of items from Amarna, Egypt's capital city during the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his Great Royal Wife Nefertiti around 1330 B.C. during Egypt's 18th dynasty. Nefertiti's successor was King Tutankhamen.

"The people of ancient Egypt were arranged in a strict class structure because they thought it would keep them strong," Hartnett said.

"People were not chosen for their class, but rather born into it. For example, the son of a farmer would be a farmer when he grew up, learning the trade from his father and then passing along his knowledge to his own son. The same would be true for scribes and craftsmen."

The word Pharaoh means "great house" or "palace" and was used during the later dynasties to address the king.

How were Pharaohs selected? "The succession for Pharaoh was a little different, as a Pharaoh would have many children but there can be only one Pharaoh," Harnett said.

"The Pharaoh was the leader of the ancient Egyptians and was not only the wealthiest and most powerful person, but was also thought to be a god," she said.

In most cases, only men were selected to lead Egypt. It is believed that Nefertiti became queen when her husband Akhenaten died.

Harnett described the complicated selection process.

"Usually, the new Pharaoh would be the first son of the Great Royal Wife. If she had no sons, the son of a lesser wife might be chosen by the Pharaoh as his heir and he would adopt him as co-regent to ensure his future power as god-king.

"If there were no sons at all, the Pharaoh would marry his daughter to a cousin or nephew who would become Pharaoh. Only occasionally would a particularly strong-willed queen become Pharaoh."

Harnett invites readers to learn more about ancient Egypt.

"Visit our exhibition to investigate the mystery of our headless mummy and to explore the glory of this great civilization."

See the museum website at www.museumofman.org.

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