I have been fascinated with Ancient Egypt since I was about six years old. My great aunt had a coffee table book full of pictures of artifacts housed within the British Museum. From the moment she showed me the Egyptian collection — the bold colours, the tomb paintings, the intricately carved sculptures — I was in love.
I wanted to know who they were, these people whose images had survived in temples and tombs, thousands of years after their lives had ended. I dove into the mythology, learning the stories of Isis, Osiris, Anubis and Nut, and from there learned of the great Pharaohs and Queens: Ramses, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Tutankhamun.
As I got older I found it very interesting, seeing how their images changed over time. A young pharaoh might be shown wearing one type of headdress when portrayed in his father’s temple, and a completely different one in his own. Were the crowns indicative of age or of rank? And what about the cobra circlet that is so often associated with Egyptian royal women? Did they really wear that, or was it something that Hollywood came up with?
As it turns out, those cobra crowns actually were something that was worn. The circlet was known as a seshed, and was a style that was common as a base for the crowns of both male and female royalty. They were primarily constructed of gold or silver, and studded with gems or coloured glass. The rearing serpent at the front of the crown was called the uraeus, a symbol of the goddess Wadjet, one of the guardian deities of the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs.
For Egyptian pharaohs, there were three crown variations that were most common: the deshret, the hedjet, and the pschent.
The deshret crown was the red crown of Lower Egypt. It resembles a tall pillbox hat at the front, extending to a tall peak in the back. A symbol of Horus, it was worn by the Pharaoh’s heir when he came of age and was crowned as co-regent. Though no surviving examples of the deshret crown remain today, experts believe that it was constructed of woven fibers like flax, straw, palm leaf, and reeds, and dyed its signature red colour.
The hedjet was the crown of the elder Pharaoh, and was the symbol of Upper Egypt. It resembled a large bowling pin worn atop the head. Representations of the vulture goddess Nekhbet also depict her wearing the hedjet, as she was the protector or the pharaohs. Like the deshret, there are no surviving examples of the hedjet crown. It is theorized that it too was woven from reeds and flax, possibly with a leather covering stretched over the frame.
The pschent, or sekhemti crown was a merging of these two styles, with the bowling pin-like hedjet seated inside the red deshret crown. This was the crown of united Egypt, worn by the ruling pharaoh from the time that the Elder Pharaoh passed on, until such time when his own heir was crowned co-regent. It often featured both the rearing cobra of the uraeus, as well as the golden head of a vulture, to represent Nekhbet and Wadjet, the guardians of the pharaohs.
These three are the most commonly depicted styles in Ancient Egyptian temple and tomb paintings. However there are variations of these styles that were reserved for battle, or were strictly for ceremonial purposes.
The style that majority of the world is familiar with is the nemes crown, as seen featured in the funerary mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Anchored to the uraeus, it was made of striped cloth with two decorative panels that fell over the shoulders and framed the face. In Egyptian funerary masks, the back of the crown is bound with a number of gold ring, each one representative of a solar year of the pharaoh’s life. Tutankhamun’s mask had nineteen rings. A statue of Tuthmosis IV had thirty-two.
Fun fact: tut’s mask was not originally made for him. He died so young and so unexpectedly that none was ready for him. The face and the nemes crown are separate sections that have been joined together. The facial section was originally intended for a woman, as indicated by the pierced ears, and the beard that symbolized kingship was added later.
Pharaohs of the New Kingdom (16th to 11th century BCE) are often depicted wearing the blue khepresh headdress into battle. Representations of this style show it to be textured, which could mean that it was made of a specific kind of cloth, or perhaps was heavily beaded, or woven in the manner of the pschent crown.
Another variation that is seen in paintings is the atef crown. This was was mostly ceremonial, and was predominantly featured in paintings of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. This style added a pair of large ostrich feathers to the side of the white hedjet crown. This was seen as a link to Ma’at, the goddess of truth and cosmic balance. Pharaohs sometimes wore this crown for ritual purposes.
Variations of feathered crown have appeared in temple and tomb paintings of many Egyptian royal figures, both male and female. For Egyptian queens, feathers were particularly common as part of a crown that was popular after the 13th dynasty, which featured a pair of spiraling cow horns that framed a sun disk, a reference to the goddess Hathor.
The most commonly depicted crown of Egyptian queens is the vulture headdress, which resembles a golden bird with swooping wings that framed the queen’s face. This style associated the queen not only with the protection of the goddess Nekhbet — who was not only a representative of the pharaoh’s power, but a goddess of childbirth as well — but with Mut as well, another vulture goddess who was also the patron of motherhood, declaring her not only the mother of the heir to the throne, but mother and protectress of Egypt as a whole.
Another crown variation was introduced by Queen Nefertiti, chief wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, during what is now known as the Amarna period. Their rule was a complete departure from that of previous pharaohs. Everything from the traditional art style to the very religion of the kingdom was changed, so it only followed that Nefertiti would choose a crown that would be entirely unique to her. Her crown appears to be a variation of the blue khepresh crown, widening slightly as it extends upwards, and ending with a flattened top.
As no physical examples of any of these crowns have been found in the tombs excavated thus far, it is assumed that they were passed down from pharaoh to pharaoh, rather than having new ones made each time a new ruler was crowned.