The traditional names of the pharaohs have been known for a long time. However, in most cases, these are actually ancient Greek approximations of their original names. The real names of the pharaohs began to be unravelled in earnest only in the early 1800s, when the hieroglyphs were finally deciphered.
The king lists
The ancient Egyptians recorded their kings and ancestors on the walls of temples, monuments, and in tombs. These have been preserved over the milennia.
The king lists of antiquity
The Bible only mention the names of four minor pharaohs of the Late Period, otherwise the kings of Egypt are simply known as Pharaoh. Greek historians visiting Egypt in antiquity encountered the ancient Egyptian names of kings that were alien to them and approximated them into Greek. The main source for the knowledge came from the third century BC Egyptian priest Manetho, who composed his “History of Egypt” by melding material from the sacred temple archives, as well as popular traditions, legends and narratives. Most of the names of the pharaohs as we know them today originate from Manetho, or rather quotes from him preserved by historians writing several centuries later. The dynasties of Manetho provided the basic chronology of ancient Egypt.
It should also be noted that, inevitably, many kinds of errors and corruption naturally crept into the subsequent copies over the centuries, ranging from simple misunderstanding of the text to outright alterations and omissions. The quality and skill of the copyist also had a bearing on the quality and faithfulness of of the copy made. Manetho's preserved names were widely recognized and were the first point of reference for Champollion when deciphering new cartouches. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that the new science of Egyptology slowly began to reveal the original names of the pharaohs.
- 450 BCE
Herodotus of Halicarnassus
Herodotus’ Histories describes Egypt in detail and tells anecdotal stories of a number of pharaohs and mentions that the priests said that there had been about 330 kings in total.
- 275 BCE
Manetho of Sebennytos
Manethos’ Aegyptiaca, or the “History of Egypt”, covers all dynasties until the conquest of Alexander the Great. This is the foundation of the chronology of ancient Egypt.
- 65-72 CE
Plutarch references Manetho multiple times in Isis and Osiris; however, it is unlikely that the source was Aegyptiaca, but rather another work by Manetho. Plutarch visited Alexandria and Egypt to complete his education, and although it is unknown when he wrote the essay, it is generally thought to have been after his visit to Egypt. He does not mention any list of kings.
- 95 CE
The Roman–Jewish historian and military leader Flavius Josephus (c. 37-100 CE) mention of Manetho in the last decade of the first century. In the Antiquities of the Jews, and Against Apion he quotes from “the Egyptian born Manetho who translated Egyptian history from the priestly writings.” Josephus does not mention dynastic divisions, and only mention the names about of 25 rulers, most of them from the New Kingdom.
- 200 CE
Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160–240 CE) was an early Christian historian. He wrote Chronographiai, a history of the world in five volumes; from the birth of the Adam to his own time. The original has not survived, it is only known in fragments, primarily excerpts preserved by Eusebius and Syncellus.
- 325 CE
Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260–339 CE), was an early Christian historian. Around 310 CE wrote the Chronicle, a two-volume “Universal History” from the birth of Abraham up his own time. The original volumes in Greek are lost, but quotations preserved by later authors makes it possible to reconstruct most of it.
- 382 CE
An updated Latin translation of the Canons known as the Chronicle of Jerome was created by Christian priest and historian Jerome of Stridon around 382. The purpose of the work as a whole was partly to make clear the greater antiquity of Hebrew history relative to most others. Jerome's Latin version was well received. It quickly replaced Eusebius as the accepted chronographic standard.
- c. 400 CE
The Ancient Chronicle (Pseudo-Manetho)
There was also circulated a forgery claiming to be ancient Egyptian called the Old or Ancient Chronicle, describing 30 dynasties for 113 generations, comprising 36,525 years.
- c. 400 CE
The Book of Sothis (Pseudo-Manetho)
Also called the Sothic Cycle, attributed to Manetho but most likely a forgery used/composed by Panodorus of Alexandria. The sequence of kings is clearly not presented in chronological order.
- c. 400 CE
A forgery trying to gain credibility by using the famous Eratosthenes. Some of the names listed are found in Manetho and Herodotus, suggesting that there may be a common but corrupted source behind the list, but most names bear no resemblance to the namess on other king lists.
- 810 CE
Selected Chronography, a chronicle written by the Byzantine priest George Syncellus, is the primary source of our knowledge of the contents of Aegyptiaca, thanks to Syncellus’ preserved excerpts from Africanus and Eusebius’ chronicles. The original manuscript of Syncellus has been lost, and only later copies remain.
- 1100 CE +
None of the original books written by the authors above survive. They are only available in manuscripts from the 10th century or later, ehich are copies of copies separated from the originals by several centuries. With so many generations of texts, contamination of the originals is unavoidable; the only question is how much was corrupted or altered.
The hieroglyphs were still unreadable. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 played an instrumental role in the decipherment of the hieroglyphs, contains the same text written in three scripts: hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. Many scholars worked to solve the puzzle, slowly adding clues, until Jean François Champollion made a breakthrough in 1824. He used the Rosetta Stone inscriptions and his methodical study of demotic and hieratic from previous years to finally be able to decipher the hieroglyphs. The discovery opened the way to the reading of a wide range of texts on monuments and papyri, and it can be said that the field of Egyptology was born.