The Vizier in Ancient Egypt
Second in authority only to the pharaoh, the office of vizier in ancient Egypt was a highly coveted position that existed at the very beginning of the Pharaonic period. Usually, this non-royal but prestigious position was bestowed upon a trusted family member in whom the pharaoh had great confidence.
Most often, the position was bestowed upon a male but a record of two female viziers have survived, Nebet in the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, and one in the 26th Dynasty. Evidently, Nebet held the title of vizier but her husband performed the duties of the office.
Installation of the Vizier
© Einsamer Schütze - Statue of Vizier Hemiunu
An ancient Egyptian text entitled the “Installation of the Vizier” was found in the tomb of the vizier Rekhmire and entails the duties of his office, including:
- The code of conduct
- The appointment
- Relationships and interfaces with other officials
Two similar texts exist, but they are incomplete; Rekhmire's transcript is the only complete description of the functions of this exalted office. Rekhmire's main duties involved overseeing the departments of:
Among these general duties, were the specific duties of sitting in the high court, recording trade, and acting as the pharaoh's seal bearer.
Ancient Egyptian viziers, because of their power, were expected to be law-abiding, impartial, and levelheaded. When a pharaoh was very young or was weak or otherwise incapacitated, it was the vizier who cohesively held the country together. Often, a vizier would maintain his office during the reign of several pharaohs, unless a pharaoh wanted to appoint his own vizier rather than use that of his predecessor.
Hieroglyphs often depict the viziers wearing long, white robes; these symbolized their purity of heart and spirit. A vizier in ancient Egypt did not generally attempt to supplant the pharaoh, due either to the vizier's code of ethics or the realization that it could endanger the balance of power that existed within the government.
Responsibilities of the Vizier
The vizier was administratively responsible for the day to day function of the kingdom, as well as overseeing special tasks and events. Although testing the water supply may seem mundane by today's standards, uncontaminated water was essential for the civilization to function. It was perhaps more important than today because the ancient Egyptians lacked an alternate water supply, so ensuring the potability of the water supply was one of the vizier's duties.
© Guillén Pérez - Tomb of Vizier Mereruka
All court officials reported to the vizier, including supervisors, tax collectors, scribes, and so forth. The vizier was responsible for checking the various treasuries for problems or discrepancies and inquiring of the pharaoh's condition on a daily basis. In essence, the vizier was the overseer of all matters of daily life, from maintaining civil order to ensuring that the pharaoh was well.
© Ashley Van Haeften - Letter to a Vizier
Most Important Viziers
There have been many famous viziers in history, but perhaps the most famous is Imhotep of the Third Dynasty. Not only was he chancellor to the pharaoh, he was high priest at Heliopolis, an engineer, a physician, and an architect. He was also an exalted philosopher who was posthumously given divine status and has been called the real father of medicine.
Imhotep's complete list of titles was:
- Chancellor of the King of Egypt
- First in Line After the King of Upper Egypt
- Hereditary Nobleman
- Administrator of the Great Palace
- Chief Carpenter
- Chief Sculptor
- Maker of Vases in Chief
© Olaf Tausch - The Step Pyramid, designed by Imhotep
Serving Thutmose III during the 18th Dynasty, from 1479 to 1425B.C., Rekhmire achieved fame in part because of his tomb, which contains detailed depictions of daily life in the New Kingdom. His tomb also contains his text “The Installation of the Vizier”, which provides insight into the full duties and responsibilities of a vizier and is the only such script known to exist.
Rekhmire served the pharaohs for more than 50 years, but appears to have fallen into the pharaoh's disfavor when Rekhmire was about 70 years old.
Some scholars speculate that Rekhmire was the pharaoh with whom the Israelites dealt at the time of the great plagues in Egypt; he was in command at that time because the pharaoh was away campaigning. Some stories say he released the Israelites. When the pharaoh learned of this, he was exceedingly displeased, thus Rekhmire's fall from the pharaoh's favor.
The son of a vizier, Ankhu served King Sobekhotep II and King Khendjer during the 13th Dynasty. He's thought to have been approximately 55 years old when serving under King Khendjer. Speculation is that he may have served as vizier to as many as five kings who ruled for only short periods.
The importance of the vizier in maintaining continuity of rule is evident during Ankhu's term; when several kings were deposed during a short time, the country could have fallen into chaos. It was the responsibility of the ancient Egyptian vizier to ensure that order remained.
With his wife Mereret, Ankhu fathered two sons, Lymeru and Resseneb, who also became viziers. Ahkhu had statues of his parents and himself placed in his tomb; the statue of his mother is one of only a few female statues in his tomb.
© Terry Feuerborn - Relief of Vizier Kagemni
Facts about the Role of Viziers in History
- Viziers in ancient Egypt served the ancient Egyptian civilization for millennia. They played a crucial role in all aspects of government and sometimes the government maintained order simply by the presence of the vizier.
- Although a prestigious role, it carried great responsibility and few were the functions in which a vizier was not involved.
- Ancient Egyptian viziers needed to be extremely intelligent, very knowledgeable and well educated, and of the highest moral character.
- They needed to be dedicated to serving others, humble, and to always have the best interests of their country at the forefront of their decisions.