In distant antiquity, before longstanding, independent eras came into use (such as the Seleucid, Christian, Himyarite, or Muslim eras), people dated by the individual year, naming each year after a significant event occurring in it. A longer timespan was that of the reign of a ruler, and beyond that of rulers in succession. For a local (or wider) “state” administration to be able to refer back in time for fiscal, ritual, propaganda, or historical purposes, it soon became necessary to keep lists of the succession of named years and of the successive monarchs through whose reigns the series extended. Such practices underlie the lists of year-names of kings in early Mesopotamia (Sumerian to Old Babylonian times); and such a document as the Palermo Stone in Egypt (for the first five dynasties); the latter, when intact, displayed several registers of rectangles—one for the events of each year—grouped under headings naming each successive king whose years they were. This was the oldest form of the full king list.

In later Old Kingdom Egypt, and most other places, the practice changed to one of numbering the years of each individual ruler. Then full king lists simply list the names of successive kings with the number of years that each had ruled. In the ancient Near East, this produced the Sumerian King List and the various king lists for Babylonia and Assyria. In Egypt, the major parts of only two such lists survive: the Turin Canon of Kings (from the later nineteenth dynasty), and the Epitome, or summary list, of kings and dynasties with reign lengths and totals, excerpted from the History of Egypt written by Manetho in the third century BCE, a millennium later. Rarely, these briefly include other details about a given ruler (as in Mesopotamia). Neither king list gives only names and year numbers, but each has its own internal subdivisions. Broken into numerous fragments (not all of which can be convincingly rejoined), the Turin Canon of Kings is inscribed on the back of a papyrus, the front of which was originally used to record tax receipts from several districts in Egypt. Officers of wells and a fort named after Ramesses II are listed (their names are now lost); no later royal name occurs. From right to left, in accord with the direction of the Hieratic script, these tax returns originally occupied six pages (the present-day “columns” 1–8; I, II, III, IV + V, VI + VII, and VIII). On the back of the papyrus, turning it around through 180 degrees, there were originally eleven columns listing the reigns of gods, of other divine beings, and of kings, down to the end of the Second Intermediate Period. In columns IX and XI only the upper parts are probably correctly placed; the supposed lower parts and column X cannot yet be reconstructed with conviction. It is just possible that the eighteenth dynasty and the founders of the nineteenth originally occupied the lower part of column XI (assuming fragment 163 belongs elsewhere).

King Lists

King Lists. Relief of a king list, from Abydos. (Courtesy David P. Silverman)

Column I may have had an introduction, followed by the reigns of the gods (the first three, Ptah, Re and Shu, are now lost but are attested in Manetho), and then by other divine beings, and (in col. II) by the Glorious (or, Blessed) Spirits, and the Followers of Horus. All these primeval, legendary epochs (with reigns sometimes running into thousands of years) were in practice ancient Egypt's equivalent concept for our modern notion of prehistory, or the Predynastic epoch. Then come what we today term the “historical dynasties,” which we conventionally number as did Manetho a thousand years after the Turin Canon was written. The divisions observed in the Turin list are fewer and broader. The heading (II:10) “[?House of] King Mene(s) …” opens a continuous list of rulers corresponding to the First to Fifth Dynasties of Manetho, and a now lost total of kings and years reigned. Then follow what we (after Manetho) call the Sixth to Eighth Dynasties, followed by their own total (IV: 14–15), and apparently by a grand total (IV: 15–17) for the entire span of the First to Eighth Dynasties (our Early Dynastic or Archaic period and the Old Kingdom). Then eighteen rulers (so totaled) correspond to Manetho's Ninth plus Tenth Dynasties (First Intermediate Period). The Middle Kingdom of today's histories is represented (V:11–VI:3) by two separately totaled groups of kings that correspond to Manetho's Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties. A new heading (VI:4) introduces a very long series of rulers that certainly includes the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasties of Manetho, to the end of column VIII, bringing us well into the Second Intermediate Period. The chaotic collection of fragments that makes up columns IX–X includes very broken and obscure names (some perhaps semilegendary), plus a fragment from the Fifteenth, or Hyksos, Dynasty of Manetho, and kings with foreign names (fragment 123) of a similarly Levantine origin. Finally, the upper part of column XI would seem to correspond to a line of Theban kings contemporary with the Hyksos, breaking off before the final, famous Seventeenth Dynasty kings (Sekenenre, Kamose) whence sprang the victorious Eighteenth Dynasty and Egypt's New Kingdom and empire. Throughout, after each royal name, there is given the king's length of reign (often now lost), in years, months, and days; in the first two dynasties (ending in the third), lifespans of rulers are also given. For occasional fuller formulae, such as “he reigned/acted for (such a period),” no single overall explanation has as yet been convincingly offered. When compared with first-hand monuments and documents of some of the kings concerned, various figures in the papyrus appear to be correct; others, however, appear to be contradicted by original evidence—the Canon is not infallible. Many figures cannot yet be checked, and many more are lost. As for rulers, it is clear that the Turin list is sometimes incomplete: it has only six kings for the Seventh/Eighth Dynasties, where the Abydos list has fifteen rulers, while in the Second Dynasty there may be too many (by erroneous duplication). Even so, combined with original documents plus Manetho, the Turin Canon is a valuable aid for chronology before the New Kingdom. Drafted on the back of a discarded tax return, it can hardly be called an official document; but its contents clearly derive from older and “official” sources.

A thousand years later, an Epitome was compiled from Manetho's History of Egypt. This divides up the long line of kings into thirty royal houses or “dynasties,” after the “prehistoric” epoch of gods, demigods, and other entities. The Second Persian Occupation of Egypt was added as a “Thirty-first Dynasty,” possibly to link with Alexander the Great and the Ptolemies. The Epitome's normal usage is to give the following information: (1) the number of the dynasty; (2) the number of its kings; (3) their reputed place of origin (not necessarily the same as their capital city); (4) their names and reigns, but not in all cases (omitted in the Seventh–Eleventh, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Twentieth and partly in the Twenty-second); and (5) the total years for the dynasty. Manetho's dynasties represent a much greater degree of subdivision than does the Turin Canon. In some cases, this may be carried too far—the Seventh–Eighth and Ninth–Tenth were almost certainly single units. Larger cumulative year totals are included after each dynasty from the Second to the Eighth and after the Eleventh, the end of Manetho's book I, comparable with the fewer such periodic totals in the Turin Canon. But in his book II, only a final total appears for its Twelfth to Nineteenth Dynasties, and in book III there is a similar final total for the Twentieth to Thirty-first Dynasties. For Manetho's Epitome, we are dependent on the recensions of Africanus (c.220 CE) Eusebius (c.320 CE), and George the Syncellus (c.800 CE), usually, but not always, in descending order of accuracy. Much earlier, Josephus (first century CE) cites a few extracts from Manetho's history and series of New Kingdom rulers. Such is the impact of almost five centuries of repeated recopying between Manetho's day and that of Africanus at the earliest, that the regnal and dynastic figures now present in our extant sources for Manetho vary widely in their quality, from great accuracy (corresponding very closely to the firsthand monumental data) to totally corrupt nonsense. In between these extremes lie figures whose units are correct, but in which the tens have been “inflated” by one or more tens of years (more rarely, “deflated” in the same way). When used and tested critically against original and older sources, however, a fair proportion of the data in Manetho can often be utilized in determining or confirming reign lengths of kings. And from the Eighteenth Dynasty onward, we possess no other such compilation.

A second group of documents may be termed “ritual summary king lists.” These can give a considerable sequence of kings with certain omissions, such as the obscurer rulers in the intermediate periods, or proscribed rulers such as Queen Hatshepsut and the Amarna kings. They do not include regnal years or other details. Nevertheless, such long sequences are true lists, derived from full lists but serving cultic purposes, as the reigning king's official royal ancestors. The first document here is the “Table of Kings” engraved under the image of Thutmose III in the Karnak temple of Amun at Thebes (now in the Louvre). Thutmose III offers to sixty-two kings (thirty-one each to left and to right), seated in four registers on three walls. There is no overall chronological sequence, but specific groups of rulers are in order (as with the Sixth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Dynasties). Many rulers from the Thirteenth to Seventeenth Dynasties occur, possibly because of their being Theban kings who wrought benefactions for the god Amun.

The second group of documents is also monumentally carved in stone. In his great memorial temple at Abydos, Sety I shows himself offering to the names of seventy-six kings in two rows (still all intact, ending with his own name), in straight chronological order, omitting the Ninth, Tenth, and Thirteenth to Seventeenth Dynasties, Queen Hatshepsut, and the Amarna kings. Ramesses II includes a similar (but damaged) list in his own temple nearby, simply adding his own name to the whole. In each case, the tableaux are part of the rites of the royal ancestors, a roll of all kings who preceded the reigning pharaoh. In imitation of his royal masters, the learned lectorpriest Tjunuroy included a similar two-row tabulation of rulers in his own tomb-chapel at Saqqara (now in the Cairo Museum). Except for numbers 13 to 22 (erroneously given in straight sequence), the fifty-eight rulers (four names are lost) are engraved in retrograde order, from Ramesses II back to the late First Dynasty (no room for more).

This is no accident but rather reflects the usage current in the actual rite of invoking past kings in the daily temple rituals and rituals for festivals, which is preserved for us in our third group of documents, surviving ritual papyri. In the relatively well-preserved IX Chester Beatty Papyrus, for example, King Ramesses II invokes his ancestors, beginning with himself and his father and grandfather, then proceeding backward through the Eighteenth Dynasty to its predecessor Kamose, two kings of the Middle Kingdom, and in summary “all the kings of Upper and Lower Egypt.” Such lists could, of course, be drawn from full lists of the Turin Canon type in the “House of Life” or ritual research wing of temple libraries.

Retrograde cultic king lists were not unique to Egypt. In thirteenth-century BCE Ugarit in North Syria, we have a retrograde list of more than thirty kings of Ugarit, running back from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century BCE; one segment of the famous Assyrian king list (first millennium BCE) also had a retrograde section, based on the ancestry of Shamshi-Adad I. In the early days of Egyptology in particular, the Abydos and Saqqara lists served as a useful outline sequence of principal rulers to help interpret the sequences of the Turin fragments, to link up with the dynasties of Manetho, and to form a basic framework for kings met with on the newly discovered monuments.

Finally, we have a crowd of lesser documents that are not true king lists, but mere “king groups.” Minor collocations of only three or four kings' names (with or without other royalties) are omitted here.

At the Ramesseum and Medinet Habu, their memorial temples in Western Thebes, Ramesses II and Ramesses III both include scenes of the festival of Min, showing portable statuettes of themselves and their predecessors being carried in the great procession. Ramesses II has a full retrograde sequence from himself back through to the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty (excluding Hatshepsut and the Amarna kings) and thus of the New Kingdom, plus Nebhepetre Montuhotep as founder of Theban greatness and thus of the Middle Kingdom, and Menes, as founder of the dual monarchy and in principle (for us today) of the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom. Ramesses III updates his set of predecessors but abbreviates it to himself, his father Setnakhte, and the last “legitimate” Nineteenth Dynasty predecessor Sety II, adding only Merenptah and Ramesses II before him. Much later, under Ramesses IX, the temple archivist Imiseba includes the cartouches of twelve kings in a scene of the bark-shrine of Amun, in two rows and a column. The bottom row, retrograde, had Nebhepetre Montuhotep II as Theban founder, plus Sekenenre and Wadjkheperre Kamose and the Eighteenth Dynasty founder Ahmose I. Above these, the series in the upper row continues with Thutmose II and III, and Amenhotpe II, then Setnakhe, founder of the Twentieth Dynasty. He is followed (in the end column) by his successors Ramesses III, IV, VI, and probably VII or IX. Remarkably, the later Eighteenth and entire Nineteenth Dynasties were not selected for inclusion.

Kings honored in private tomb chapels appear in Theban tomb 19 of Panehsy, whose two rows of royalties include the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties down to Sety I (with the usual exclusions); Tomb 2 of Khabekhnet, with Nebhepetre, and late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Dynasties; Tomb 359 of Anherkhau, with Montuhotep II, early Eighteenth Dynasty, and his own king, Ramesses IV. One offering table of Paneb lists ten kings from Nebhepetre, Senwosret I, and all the accepted New Kingdom kings to Sety II; one of Kenhirkhopshef has an untidy listing of Nebhepetre and the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties down to Ramesses II.

Other minor documents include a fifth dynasty palette with six Old Kingdom royal names; a Middle Kingdom graffito in the Wadi Hammamat, naming three kings and two princes (as if kings) of the fourth dynasty; and the West Theban ostracon Cairo Cat. 25,646, naming the usual New Kingdom list from Ahmose I to Ramesses II, among other minor pieces. None of the foregoing three groups (or any of the minor bits omitted here) contributes much to establishing the chronology of Egypt; their main value is as witnesses to the importance of the kingship in Egyptian religious life.



  • Fairman, H. W. “The Kingship Rituals of Egypt.” In Myth, Ritual and Kingship, edited by S. H. Hooke, pp. 74–104 (esp. 100–104). Oxford, 1958. Important study for Egyptian kingship as related to temple rituals, not least those that include “king list” elements.
  • Gardiner, Alan H., ed. Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum. 3d Ser. London, 1935. Official publication of the Chester Beatty Hieratic papyri II-XIX, with translations, including the “king list” element in festival temple-rituals (cf. pp. 90–97).
  • Kitchen, K. A. Ramesside Inscriptions Translated and Annotated: Translations. Vols. 1–2. Oxford, 1993–1996. These include translations of the Sety I king list at Abydos (Vol. I), and of the Turin Canon and Ramesses II king list at Abydos (Vol. II).
  • Kitchen, K. A. Ramesside Inscriptions Translated and Annotated: Notes and Comments. Vols. 1–2. Oxford, 1993–1998. These two volumes provide bibliographies and commentary for the translations cited above.
  • Kitchen, K. A. “The King List of Ugarit.” Ugarit-Forschungen 9 (1977/78), 131–142. English publication of the retrograde king list from Ugarit, including comparisons with the Egyptian and Mesopotamian king lists.
  • Redford, Donald B. Pharaonic King-Lists, Annals and Day-Books. Mississauga, 1986. The major work on the whole subject of the nature, history and function of Egyptian king lists, and other related compositions (annals, etc.)
  • Waddell, W. G., ed. Manetho. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1940. The standard edition of the works of Manetho in Greek text with English translation.

Kenneth A. Kitchen