Symbols of Royal Power in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt
In ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, rulers were depicted on monuments, in reliefs, in the form of statues, and, in Egypt, in tomb paintings, with specific symbols identifying them as rulers.
In ancient Mesopotamia, early rulers were often depicted with bald heads, wearing long robes. In the south (Sumer) this tradition persisted, with Gudea (2120 BCE) depicted in a reverent position, but with his muscular right arm exposed to show his strength as ruler. Rulers of the Third Dynasty of Ur (2100 BCE) were portrayed in statues carrying a load of bricks on their heads as part of the ceremony of laying the first bricks in a temple-building project. Rulers were also shown as warriors leading their troops to victory in battle.
The Akkadian kings (mid-third millennium) were the first to be depicted with long beards as a symbol of their masculinity and strength. This image of the king became the norm in Babylonia. Later Babylonian kings wore a tall crown, whereas in Assyria kings sported a fez-shaped cap topped by a conical spike.
Another common image of the king was as obedient servant receiving the emblems of kingship—the measuring rod and ring—from a god. The most famous example is Hammurabi on the top of the stela on which his laws were written, receiving these emblems from the god of justice, the sun-god Shamash.
Egyptian kings were immediately recognizable as such on their monuments by several symbols. The most obvious was a crown—the White Crown of Upper Egypt, the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, the Double Crown, a combination of the White and Red that symbolized the king’s dominion over all of Egypt, or the round Blue Crown that has less clear symbolism. Another symbol of kingship was the uraeus, the symbol of Wadjit, goddess of Lower Egypt, depicted as a rearing cobra. It was also believed to represent the fiery Eye of the god Re that spit fire at the king’s enemies. In some periods, the uraeus was paired with the vulture head of the goddess Nekhbet of Upper Egypt, symbolizing the king’s rule over the entire country. Other distinctive symbols of the king were a striped head cloth called the nemes, the false beard, and a bull’s tail (alluding to strength) attached to the back of the king’s kilt.
The king was also identifiable by his scepters, the most common being the crook and the flail. The crook probably refers to his rule over his “flock” (humans and animals) and the flail, an agricultural tool, to his mastery over the crops and plants, hence the fertility of the land. Another distinctive feature of the kingship was the five parts of his name. His family name and his coronation name were enclosed in ovals called “cartouches,” the hieroglyph for “eternity,” that symbolized his eternal rule. The illiterate could even recognize these distinctive cartouches.
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"Ideology and Belief in Ancient Egypt: Kingship in Ancient Egypt." Digital Egypt for Universities: University College London. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
"Pharoah." Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
"Rod-and-Ring Symbol." Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
Research Associate, University of Chicago
1. What characteristics did Mesopotamian rulers want to symbolize?
2. What characteristics did Egyptian rulers want to symbolize?
3. What are some modern symbols of power, masculinity, and rulership?