The Corruption of the Priesthood of Amen

Our talk about the taxation of Egyptian farmers and the lack of taxation of temple lands sparked my interest.  This got me thinking about the growing power, and eventual corruption, of the temples and priests that was mentioned.  I did some research and found that the corruption spanned many rulers, all of which had some part in the increasing power of the temple and priesthood of Amen.

To start, Amen-Re was considered the true father of the pharaoh, which helped legitimize the power the pharaohs held over Egypt.  The priests held a large amount of power with the general public, which they preserved by appearing as defenders and guardians of the oppressed people.  The kings tried to limit the power of the priests of Amen to simply religious affairs.  This was holding order until around 1498 BC, when Hatshepsut took control.

Hatshepsut was the only legitimate heir from the line of Amenhotep (his granddaughter, actually).  To become king, her half-brother Thutmose II became her husband.  When Thutmose II died, Hatshepsut took control; Thutmose III was still young and in the care of the priests of Amen (he was originally supposed to become a priest himself).  As time passed, many chose sides.  There were those who believed a woman could not be king and supported Thutmose III.  Hatshepsut also had her supporters, the priests of Amen.  To legitimize her claim to power, Hatshepsut had them declare her Pharaoh (the first woman to do this) and was from then on depicted with the masculine attributes of pharaohs.  Her supporters reaped the rewards of her power; the First Prophet of Amen became the administrator of the temple’s wealth, head of all the gods’ priests in Upper and Lower Egypt, and prefect of Thebes and vizier.  Hatshepsut also built the stunning temple Deirdre el Bahri, along with other smaller chapels.  This is where we see the priesthood and temples gaining undue power.

While Hatshepsut was ruling Egypt, Thutmose III had become head of the army, and eventually took control back from his mother.  His rule saw many conquests with much accompanying wealth.  This wealth was first distributed to the warriors/soldiers, then the priesthood of Amen took their share, and in the end not much was left for Pharaoh.  As their wealth and power increased, the power of the king decreased.  The priests were now starting to push the king out of power, turn him into a figurehead and maybe try to get rid of the position all together.  But still Thutmose III enlarged the temple’s landholdings and added to the Amen temple at Karnak.

A couple of pharaohs later (Amenhotep III) the worship of the red disc of the sun, Aten, gained popularity and followers.  When Amenhotep III died, his son was brought up devoted to Aten, not Amen.  As Pharaoh, Amenhotep IV’s name was changed to Ahkenaten and the funding to the temples of Amen subsequently stopped.  The wealth, land, and slaves that belonged to the temples were most likely seized by the king.  There was still a large public following of Amen, however, and the temples were eventually rebuilt by Ahkenaten’s son-in-law.  The co-regent also returned all of the confiscated wealth to the priesthood.

This corruption of the priesthood of Amen was fostered by many pharaohs, and it certainly did not end with Ahkenaten’s son-in-law.  While it appeared to come to a head in Hatshepsut’s time, the pharaohs before her are just as responsible.  Or perhaps it was an inevitable occurrence, with the state religion being so closely tied with the power of the Pharaoh, and so adamantly followed by the people in many aspects of their daily lives.