Egyptian History

by Alfred Wiedemann


Wiedemann, Alfred. 1884. Handbücher der Alten Geschichte. Vol. 1, Aegyptische Geschichte. Gotha: Perthes.

English translation of the original German text

Pages 72-79.

Fifth Chapter

The sources of the history of Egypt.

The sources which have been briefly sketched for the history of the Egyptians whose ethnographical and religious conditions have been sketched out in the preceding pages are divided into four major sections according to the language in which they are written or the time from which they originate: the Nationalistic-Egyptian, the Asian-Semitic, the Greek-Roman and finally into the modern sources. This classification is, therefore, also the basis of the following sections.

§ 14. Egyptian sources.

The sources of the Egyptian texts are the most important for historical research. They are, in essence, contemporary and free of recent revisions; at the same time, in great abundance, and what we now know of Egyptian history rests essentially upon them.

Historical texts found mainly on stone monuments in Egypt, on steles and on temple walls. The Papyri are less important for purely historical purposes; they usually contain religious or literary texts, such as stories, fairy tales, letters, which are of great importance for cultural history, but less for the political. Nevertheless, as we shall see, some Papyri are of fundamental importance.

We will not concern us with enumerating all the individual Egyptian sources.[1] Since these are all of a contemporary nature, this would be futile. On the other hand, it must be of interest to deal with the individual decrees of these sources from the outset. It will provide an opportunity to examine the value of each of these individual classes for historical research, to pursue their credibility, and thus to discriminate the material which will be truly useful for the restoration of the history of Egypt.

1) Royal lists. The lists of Egyptian kings, which are more or less inadequate to us from Egyptian antiquity, are for us the fundamental basis on which we can rebuild the order of the individual rulers. Their importance is especially great for the history of the Old and Middle Kingdoms; for the New Kingdom, only the first three are considered; after the Twenty-first Dynasty, there are no royal lists available. The longest and most important among our lists is:

a) The Royal Turin papyrus. This papyrus once contained a complete list of the Egyptian kings, beginning with the god-kings of the country and the sacred animals down to the time of the Hyksos, that is, until the Fifteenth and Sixteenth dynasties. The papyrus would be a definite chronological guide to the Egyptian history of the old periods, especially since the names of the individual rulers, the duration of their reigns in years, months, and days, were included.

The text was originally found intact, but during the transports to Turin it was broken down into 164 mostly small fragments, and the greatest efforts were needed to save and arrange at least part of these fragments, the value of which Champollion recognized already in 1824. Seyffarth earns the greatest credit for this rescue, who in 1826, glued the fragments, numbered them, and preserved them from total destruction.[2]

Since the beginning of Egyptian studies, the text has often been the object of scientific treatment, confirmed elsewhere. Deriving new facts from the papyrus and its precise figures, is impossible due to its poor preservation, only a brief note here and there. As to the list of kings, it is particularly important for the Thirteenth and Fourteenth dynasties, preserving the names in considerable completeness. For the older dynasties, just a few.

Like all Egyptian royal lists, the Papyrus of Turin introduces the kings with their first names, while the first and surname[3] appear in the inscriptions of the monuments. The Egyptian kings, with the exception of their titles, regularly recite two names, which are always enclosed in the monuments by cartouches or name rings. The first name is introduced by suten net “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”, the surname, by the words sa-Ra “son of the Sun”. In the literal meaning the first name places the king in a close relationship with Ra, the sun god. This is why Tutmes I is called Ra-aa-kheper-ka “Ra makes his person great.” Tutmes III: Ra-men-kheper “Ra made him permanent”, Ramses II: Ra-user-Maa setep-en-Ra “Ra made him strong in truth, he is approved by Ra,” Psammetich I: Ra-wah-ab “Ra forms his heart”, etc. These first names regularly lead the kings in the Middle and New Kingdoms; and are not yet available for a number of rulers. The surname is a simple surname, often used by private individuals in the same or similar form. In the earliest times, the designation of a property, such as Mena “the constant”, Khufu “the luminous,” Unas “being,” was generally chosen as the simplest form of name formation. Later on, one commonly took expressions by which the king concerned should be represented as a child or a gift of divinity, such as Tutmes “Thoth’s son,” Rameses “Son of Ra.” Amen-hetep “gift of Amon,” and similar forms.[4] This difference in the choice of surnames seems to indicate that the Egyptian kings were striving more and more to be the god-sent rulers of Egypt, and to promote the divine origin of their royal power.

The double designation of the kings often presents a considerable difficulty in the study of history, since we sometimes lack the means by which to decide which surname corresponds in each case to the first names given by the lists or other documents. For the Old Kingdom it is even more difficulty, as they frequently treated both names in the same manner, in contrast to the later periods, so that suten net sometimes appear before the surname, and sa-Ra before the first names. Only through studying the ever-growing material of the monuments can we gradually assign the corresponding rulers.

While the papyrus of Turin, as we have seen, can only be used for certain periods, as a result of its fragmentary condition, a series of stone inscriptions to be mentioned now have a far greater value, and therefore greater significance; there are:

Ed. note (2019): The rest of the chapter is omitted as it does not concern the Royal Canon.


  1. For the following, cf. Wiedemann, Gesch. Agypt., p. 2ff.; Questions in this paper will be briefly mentioned below.
  2. Publ. Lepsius, Ausw. ägypt. Urkunden, pl. 3–6, with the Verso: Wilkinson, The fragments of the hier. pap. at Turin, London 1851. — Cf. Seyffarth, Remarks upon an Egyptian History in London Literary gazette, July 1828, No. 600, p. 457ff. Birch, Transact. of Roy. Soc. of Liter. II, Ser. I, p. 203ff., London 1843. Champollion-Figeac, Rev. arch. 1850, p. 397ff. 461ff. 589ff. 653ff. de Rougé a. a. O., p. 559ff.
  3. That the Egyptian kings often had two or three names was noticed already by Syncellus, p. 63 A, 117 Dindorf.
  4. From these names, Lauth, Manetho, p. 87ff. and Krall, Maneth. History, p. 16f. To conclude that the oldest Egyptian history is a priestly construction were rightly rejected by Erman, Jahresber. der Morgenl. Studien, 1879, p. 173.
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