March 11, 2024


I just find languages fascinating. Did the word or the thought come first? Who first put pen to paper? Undoubtedly Egyptian hieroglyphs must one of the oldest systems of writing and when we think of their world and time, the images of their pharaohs swirl around our imagination.

Just the word “pharaoh” conjures up an immediate image of a mysterious and powerful golden time of myth, legend and treasure. Nearly four thousand years later we are still today using more or less the same word “Pharaoh” in various modern languages, although in both German or French  the emphasis in each case is different. Thus, if I am trying to give a talk in either of these languages, I see the word and have an immediate moment of panic – but being English, it is probably not the only word I get wrong so perhaps I shouldn’t worry.

Ancient Egyptian rulers, however, were not always called “pharaohs”. Originally, their title was “king” whilst  the epithet “pharaoh” developed in the the 18th dynasty, which was, of course, that of Tutankhamun.

His golden death mask has become an icon: wherever you live in the world and whatever age you are, it instantly says an Egyptian Pharaoh. It has inspired many of us to become historians, tourists or the writers of books and films. stirring a sense of reverential wonder.

Tutankhamun was part of  a civilisation spanning five thousand years  and one which created everlasting, immense, architectural works of art. For example the Pyramid of Khufu (2869 BC) remains the  heaviest and perhaps most inspiring, enigmatic only remaining “Wonder of the World” today. But in order to build it, both language, writing and mathematics were needed. Otherwise there would be no process or order.

The word Pharaoh incorporates the hieroglyph for the “great house”  whilst the horizontal column suggesting great and high – columns.

  (pr-ꜥꜣ, “pharaoh”).

Nevertheless  epithet “nswr”  (to the right) just meaning the king, continued to be part of each pharaoh’s name.

A pharaoh’s role from his “great house” was to act as the intermediary between his people and the gods to promote harmony and repel the chaos that eternally threatened their world. It sounds very practical.

The door between this world and the next was more porous than ours today just as the concept of linear time in which we choose to live today was less present in ancient Egypt. The past and present were brought into one space  in the temples along with the wonders of the world and the warmth of the ever-present sun. Thus space was constructed in reality, formed the written words and inspired the culture.

A later pharaoh, Ptolemy I, built another wonder  of the  ancient world – the light house of Alexandria at Pharos on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea.

At the time, it was the tallest building in the world at 460ft high. A contemporary historian said its light shone out over 37 miles and was a “citadel of light”, an immense beacon that was both practical and symbolic. (It later collapsed in an earthquake).

Therefore as you can see, the word  “pharaoh”  travelled  through  time  resonating as the very word for the wondrous beacon of light.  Faro is the word for lighthouse in many Mediterranean languages or the name of a port – Faro.

The ancient Egyptians well  understood the symbolic significance of cultural inheritance, of how buildings and shapes interact with imagination and society, offering  values and dreams as well as  practical steps as to how to live well in this world and the next.

In a way, part of a pharaoh’s role  was to be a beacon  and the “mer” (the actual Egyptian word for a pyramid meaning “high place”) was to reach up and help brush aside the membrane between this world and the next.

It mattered to Ancient Egyptians as it matters to most of us today that we are not entirely forgotten when we die, that our names are still spoken and remembered. In ancient that would ensure future eternal life. The one minor pharaoh, however,  who was almost entirely forgotten by history until 1922 was Tutankhamun. Ironically, today, he is the one who is almost universally known.

Howard Carter likewise hoped his friend’s name, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, would not be forgotten by history, that his legacy was cherished. But he  was rather forgotten.

Hopefully, a few more people now may remember his name and his home whilst curiously,  you could say the 5th Earl  lived in a  “great house” which  built on a “high place”  – Highclere.