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What is a Vizier?

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
A vizier was a person who stood second to the Egyptian king, or pharaoh, and was in charge of administration, security, judgment and the safety of the pharaoh and the empire.

Advising the King

Are world leaders just smarter than the rest of us? In America, every child is told that he or she could be president some day. But how can that be when the leader of the free world has to understand the problems that their own people face as well as the issues and problems in the rest of the world? How does a world leader know when to wage war and when to negotiate? The president of the United States has advisers, called cabinet members, who offer advice and counsel on different subjects. This is common throughout the world today, but in ancient Egypt, the pharaoh (Egyptian king) had one main adviser, called a vizier, who handled all of the affairs of state and was second in command to the pharaoh himself. Just like our modern day leaders, pharaohs knew that it takes more than one person to run a government.

Vizier Kagmeni
vizier

How a Vizier Was Appointed

Throughout the pharaonic period, the pharaoh had ultimate power (that's why it was called the pharaonic period--pharaonic comes from pharaoh). He ruled absolutely and had the ability to overturn any decision he did not agree with. However, it was difficult for a single person to rule such a vast kingdom so he chose an executive who would act in his stead and make many decisions independently. In movies and books, the myth of the vizier is that he was a smiling 'yes' man (or, in rare cases, a woman), but this is far from the truth. The pharaoh was often absent, so the vizier handled most of the day-to-day decisions. A vizier is a little like the general manager of a major sports team--the owner is in technically the one calling the shots, but team owners are always off socializing and running other businesses, so the GM is the one who handles the day-to-day operations of the team. If there are issues or problems, most players go to the GM first, and then he or she decides if the owner needs to become involved. Viziers operated the same way--they were the ones who were there, all day, every day, to deal with the daily issues.

In the early years of the pharaonic era, viziers were chosen in two ways. If the pharaohs liked and trusted them, new viziers were sometimes chosen from the families of prior viziers, in the same way that European kings and queens are in line for the throne. At times, a line of vizier succession would stretch for five or more generations. Other times, viziers were chosen from among the followers of the pharaoh. Usually the vizier was a loyal follower of the pharaoh who possessed certain desirable skills and was placed in the position by the pharaoh.

Most of the time, despite a vizier's immense power, he did not ascend to the position of pharaoh. But it did happen, most notably in the case of Amenemhet, who was the vizier to Mentuhotep IV before he supposedly wrested control of Egypt for himself. Ramses, a pharaoh made famous by the Biblical story of Joseph, was a vizier before he was pharaoh.

Ramses
Ramses

The Rules of Conduct

All advisers must adhere to a set of rules created to help them use their power wisely. In the United states and most other nations, we have laws governing what people in government can and cannot do and detailing how they are supposed to act as representatives of government. The vizier's code of conduct was called the Rekhmire (after the first vizier to whom it was given) or Regulation laid upon the vizier Rekhmire.

Portion of the Code of Rekhmire
ramses

The Rekhmire was laid down by the pharaoh and reminded the vizier to whom he was to be loyal. One passage told the vizier that he was to forget himself and only advocate for the king. He was to listen and show favor to no one else no matter what position that person held. He was, as the document says, 'copper enclosing the gold of his lord's house.'

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