The king lists of Ancient Egypt

Chronological information about the rulers of Ancient Egypt is extremely scarce. The time span is enormous; Ancient Egypt vanished more than 2000 years ago, and the origin of the kingdom goes back to 3000 BC. There are three categories of king lists:

  • Monuments – inscriptions in a temple or tomb.
  • Annals – inscriptions of events on a year-by-year basis.
  • Archives – records on papyrus concerning earlier rulers.

The government and the priesthood kept records of previous kings for administrative, political and religious reasons. As time passes and new generations of administrators took over from the previous, it becomes increasingly likely that these documents may be lost, destroyed, or misplaced because they were written on papyrus, which is susceptible to deterioration. Papyrus does well in Egypt’s dry climate, but it is fragile and vulnerable insects and to both moist and dry conditions. The mere handling caused deterioration, especially if rolled and unrolled repeatedly. When discovered in modern times, the ageing process, as well as sudden exposure to moisture and careless handling, frequently caused irreparable damage to the fragile papyri.

The ancient scribes had to constantly make copies of the older text to preserve damaged or old brittle papyri. Hand-copying texts is a laborious process, and alterations are unavoidable, with the majority of them being unintentional. A handwritten text is nearly impossible to duplicate precisely; omissions of letters or entire words, misspellings, or incorrect grammar or syntax are common. The quality of the copy is influenced by the original text’s quality as well as the scribe’s competence and literacy. Scribes may also make their own corrections if they believe the original is incorrect, despite misreading the text. If the scribe was fluent in the language, they would be less likely to make copying mistakes.

The largest and most influential temples are likely to have kept their own records, while it is possible that there was a formal “master list” of ancestral kings. Most of the documents were likely lost over time as the prosperity of particular temples fluctuated over the ages. The Turin king list papyrus is the only such list that is still in existence today, and while being the most comprehensive list of ancient Egyptian kings, it is incomplete and in very poor condition.

The stone-inscribed rows of kings were organised for religious and political purposes: to honour venerated ancestors and to emphasise the legitimacy of the reigning king as the latest in a long line of rulers stretching back to the time of the gods, rather than for historical accuracy. Certain ancestors on the inscribed lists were intentionally excluded, and the varying names of some kings confirm that it could not have used the same source papyrus.

Table 1: The king lists of Ancient Egypt by number of kings
King list Dyn. Kings Remarks
Turin king list19223Royal Canon of Turin, (Turin, Italy)
Abydos Canon1976Temple of Seti I, Abydos
Karnak Canon1861Temple of Thutmose III, Karnak
Saqqara Canon1958Tomb of Tjunery, Saqqara (Cairo)
Abydos Table1930Temple of Ramesses II, Abydos
Royal Annals526Memphis?
Table of Qenhirkhopshef1917Karnak Temple Complex, (Marseille)
Ramesseum Canon1914Ramesseum Temple, Thebes
Tomb of Amenmose1912TT 19, Thebes
Medinet Habu Canon209Medinet Habu Temple, Thebes
Seal of Qaa18Tomb Q, Abydos
Tomb of Inherkhau207TT 359, Thebes
Giza writing board56Cedar wood and gypsum
Tomb of Netjerpunesut56Giza, central field, small mastaba.
Seal of Den15Abydos tomb T
Tomb of Sekhemkara55G 8146, Giza
Wadi Hammamat king list125Rock inscription, Wadi Hammamat
South Saqqara Stone64Erased annals, sarcophagus lid, Saqqara

Attempting to link an absolute chronology of dates in terms of our own calendar to this structure of listed kings is complicated by the fragmentary state of the king lists, as well as differences in the calendar used at various times. Surviving astronomical records allow us to determine absolute dates for certain events, corroborating that a certain king actually ruled at a certain date.

King lists of Antiquity

Greek historians visiting Egypt in antiquity were the first to share information about the Egyptian kings, but the accounts were incomplete and suffered by the transcription of the foreign Egyptian language into Greek. For example, Herodotus heard the priests talk about pharaoh Khufu, yet wrote down it as Cheops, which to his ears was the closest approximation. It should be noted that throughout the 2,500 years that followed Khufu's passing, the pronunciation of his name changed as the Egyptian language evolved. Due to the nature of the hieroglyphs, we can only speculate as to the precise names that the pharaohs were known by to their contemporaries.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty ushered in a new era of interest in ancient Egypt, repairing and restoring many of the ancient crumbling temples and monuments, while also building new ones over the next centuries. It also inspired an Egyptian priest named Manetho to address the many inaccuracies and misconceptions about the long history of the kingdom in his book Aegyptiaca (the History of Egypt), sourced from the three categories above; the original was probably the most complete source for the names of the kings ever compiled. We only have indirect knowledge of the original Aegyptiaca, and in subsequent centuries it was replaced by Epitomes (summaries). The extent to which the epitomes preserved Manetho’s original writing is unclear, but each subsequent hand-written copy undoubtedly introduced some further corruption of the original. The authors whose works have survived clearly only had access to epitomes of Aegyptiaca.