The High Steward Amenhotep

Continuing his series of articles about individuals who influenced events in Egypt during their lifetimes, Wolfram Grajetzki now turns his attention to one of the most important members of Amenhotep III’s court in Memphis.


Memphis was the main city of the country in most periods of ancient Egyptian history. From here it was easy to sail up the Nile to southern Egypt and to reach all parts of the Delta via the different branches of the river. It is no surprise that modern Cairo is not far from Memphis. The region is simply the best from which to rule the country. In the New Kingdom, Thebes became an important city, but from the earliest times there were also royal palaces at Memphis; one wonders whether Thebes was always more a symbolic capital, while the real power centre was in Memphis. Most state officials and the king were buried at Thebes, but even this changed over time, and under the Eighteenth Dynasty king Amenhotep III (c.1390-1352 BC), many prominent officials had their tombs at Saqqara, the cemetery of Memphis. The most important people buried there were several viziers.

A statue of High Steward Amenhotep found at Abydos (held by the British Museum in London)

The vizier was the highest state official, perhaps comparable to a modern prime minister. From the late Middle Kingdom onwards, two viziers were in charge: one for Upper and one for Lower Egypt. The latter had his residence at Memphis, where he was also buried. Another important official attested at Memphis was the ‘Overseer of the Seal’. The Overseer of the Seal Nehesy was in office under the ruling queen Hatshepsut (c.1479-1458 BC). He was involved in her famous Punt expedition and was buried at Saqqara. The Overseer of the Seal Meryra lived under king Amenhotep III and was the educator of the prince Sa-atum, perhaps a brother of Amenhotep III. Meryra was also buried at Saqqara, and is known from two reliefs from his tomb, now in Vienna.

A third important official at the royal court in Memphis was the ‘High Steward’, who managed the estates that supplied the palace and the royal court with food. Under Amenhotep III, there were two high stewards in charge, one in Upper Egypt, with his residence in Thebes, and one in Lower Egypt, with his residence in Memphis. The best-known high steward under Amenhotep III at Memphis was a certain Amenhotep, again buried at Saqqara.

In fact, there were three important officials at the royal court under king Amenhotep III who shared the name of the king. They are easy to identify due to their different titles, but anyone unfamiliar with the ancient Egyptian title system might easily be confused. The most famous one is certainly Amenhotep, son of Hapu. He was heavily involved in royal building works and was later even worshipped as a god. He had a huge funerary chapel at Thebes close to the cultivation, and an actual burial place high up in the Theban mountains. A second important Amenhotep was vizier and is also known from his huge, but sadly much destroyed, funerary complex at Thebes, which is now under excavation and restoration by a Spanish mission. The third Amenhotep was the high steward who is the focus of this article.

Amenhotep’s titles and office

Amenhotep, also called Huy (Huy is a common short version of Amenhotep), was one of the most powerful officials in the reign of king Amenhotep III. The number and quality of objects belonging to the High Steward Amenhotep is outstanding, providing evidence for his wealth and power. Amenhotep came from an influential family. His father Heby was Mayor of Memphis, his brother was the famous Vizier Ramose, known from his well-preserved Theban tomb chapel where the High Steward Amenhotep is also depicted. However, the sibling relationship to Ramose is not firmly established. Amenhotep’s mother was a woman called Tjutjuia.

Meryra and prince Sa-atum (from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna).

Amenhotep bore many important titles. His main office was high steward, often in inscriptions written in full as ‘High Steward in Memphis’. Amenhotep was also ‘King’s Scribe’, a common title for high state officials in the New Kingdom. The title might indicate that these scribes were trained at a palace school. Amenhotep was also ‘Overseer of All Craftsmen of the King’, evidently a title related to building works; and he was ‘Scribe of the Recruits’, perhaps a position he held as young man, before being promoted to high steward.

Two statues

Amenhotep is especially well known from two statues, one found at Memphis and one in Abydos; both are covered with long inscriptions providing unique information about Amenhotep, but also about the reign of Amenhotep III.

The quartzite statue found in Memphis shows him sitting on the ground in a scribal position. The head is missing. The texts covering the statue start with the proud statement that the statue was given by the king to Amenhotep and placed into the king’s funerary temple at Memphis. The text goes on to report how Amenhotep came as a young man to the royal court and how the king appointed him to the post of high steward. Amenhotep describes that he became wealthy and received many servants and cattle. According to the text, he did ‘every right thing’ and was promoted to build the funerary temple of the king at Memphis, which was located, according to the inscription, west of the huge Ptah temple. The text describes details of the funerary temple. Its doors were made of cedar wood and adorned with gold from the desert. Next to the temple was a lake that was adorned with trees from the best woods of the divine land. Amenhotep further reports that he reached old age and was finally ‘united with his tomb’.

A statue of Amenhotep from Memphis, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Thus, one important fact we learn from the inscription is that Amenhotep was put in charge of building the funerary temple for Amenhotep III at Memphis. King Amenhotep III had his tomb and one funerary temple at Thebes. The funerary temple there is well known from the two colossal statues that still stand there, known as the colossi of Memnon. However, the king erected a funerary temple at Memphis, too, with the name Nebmaatra-khenmet-Ptah, ‘Nebmaatra is united with Ptah’. Nebmaatra was the throne name of Amenhotep III. Egyptian tombs always have two parts. There is a chapel above ground for the cult of the deceased and an underground burial chamber. The burial chamber was sealed forever, but the chapel was open to everyone for making offerings to the dead. These two elements were, for most of Egyptian history, part of the same building complex. However, in the New Kingdom, kings carved their tombs into the Valley of the Kings, and the chapels were built as huge funerary temples some kilometres away from the actual burial. A number of kings went even further, erecting chapels and funerary temples not only at Thebes but also at other places, such as in Memphis, as in the case of Amenhotep III. High Steward Amenhotep’s text reports that the king appointed priests to this temple, as well as labourers, fields, and cattle that he had ‘brought from every land’. The long text ends with statements about how Amenhotep treated other people:

I was a man just and equitable upon earth. I gave bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty. I did that which pleased men and that which the gods praised.

(translation following Gardiner)

A stela of Amenhotep from his Saqqara tomb (held by the Museo Egizio in Florence).

The block statue found at Abydos is made of granite, and shows Amenhotep crouching on the ground. The statue is well preserved. A long text can be found on the front with wishes to take part in rituals and festivals at Abydos. Abydos was the main cult centre for the underworld god Osiris and, in order to ensure an afterlife, many officials placed statues and stelae at Abydos to take part – at least symbolically – in offerings and festivals.

Amenhotep’s burial

A model scribal palette of Amenhotep, from his Saqqara tomb. Image: public domain, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The tomb of High Steward Amenhotep was found around 1821 or 1822 at Saqqara, but we only have short, and not very informative, reports on the discovery made by Giuseppe di Nizzoli (1792/4-1858), Chancellor of the Austrian Consulate in Egypt. Not much can be gained from the reports about the tomb’s architecture. The location of the burial is now lost. However, it seems that the tomb was not very far away from the cultivation. According to the old description, the burial consisted of two shafts leading to two underground chambers. In one chamber was found a crisply carved stela showing Amenhotep and his son Ipy. The stela is now in Florence.

The chamber was otherwise undecorated. Underground burial chambers are often just plain rooms with no paintings or reliefs. The fact that his chamber contained the stela points again to the wealth of Amenhotep, who could afford such a special arrangement. In the burial chamber proper, there was (and perhaps still is) a granite sarcophagus. Its lid was smashed, and the excavators did not try to remove it from the chamber. The chamber also contained a granite canopic box (now in Leiden), canopic jars (now in Florence), and the remains of further burial equipment, such as several model scribal palettes.

The palettes are life-size, but there are no holes for ink nor for the stylus. The models of scribal palettes are remarkable. Evidently, they were made for the burial, but it is also notable that Amenhotep had several of them. They clearly confirmed his ability to read and write, and might relate proudly to his title ‘King’s Scribe’. Not much can be said about the chapel. It was probably a free-standing building made of mud bricks, with some elements in stone. There was definitely a stela – it was found reused as building material in a Coptic monastery – and there was probably a small pyramid at the back. The pyramidion (the small, decorated peak of the pyramid) has been found. Pyramids in the Old and Middle Kingdom were reserved for the kings. In the New Kingdom, kings were buried in the Valley of the Kings in a hidden location, without a pyramid. Pyramids became common for non-royal people who could afford monumental tombs.

Ipy, son of Amenhotep

Amenhotep had a son called Ipy, who was also high steward and followed his father in office. Both are depicted on the stela from the Tomb of Amenhotep, where both bear the title ‘High Steward’, indicating that they may have been in office at the same time, perhaps when Amenhotep was old and needed support from his son. Amenhotep is no longer attested after the 31st year of King Amenhotep’s reign, and must have died around this time. His son Ipy is again known from many documents. He is the writer of a letter to king Amenhotep IV, dated to the latter’s fifth year, saying, ‘everything is well’. In the following year, Amenhotep IV would change his name to Akhenaten and move his capital to Amarna. Ipy continued his career under Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten, becoming main steward under the king. Ipy is known from his tomb at Amarna and had a house in the new capital. The house has not yet been located, but the inscribed lintel of its entrance door has been found. After the death of Akhenaten, the capital moved under Tutankhamun again to Memphis. Ipy was still in charge as high steward, and was finally buried at Saqqara. His tomb was never found, but there are several objects and reliefs known that probably came from there. Perhaps the most amazing artefact is a stela, now in the Hermitage, which shows Ipy in front of Anubis. The colours are well preserved. The execution of the relief is superb and clearly shows the style of Tutankhamun’s reign.

The stela of Ipy, now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Image: Netelo, CC BY 4.0 via Wikicommons

It is not known when Ipy died, but it must have been under king Tutankhamun. Ipy was in office for at least 30 years – a long time. His successor has not been identified with certainty. There are two further officials known with the title ‘High Steward’ who lived during Tutankhamun’s reign. The most famous one is Horemheb, who was a general, too, and later became king. The other is Iniuia, who is known from his small, but well decorated, tomb chapel at Saqqara.

Wolfram Grajetzki, a regular contributor to AE, is Honorary Senior Research Associate at University College London/University of Pisa.

C William Hayes (1938) ‘A writing-palette of the Chief Steward Amenhotep and some notes on its owner’, in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 24: 9-24.
A H Gardiner, in W M F Petrie and G A Wainwright (1913) Tarkhan I and Memphis V, pp.33-36.

All images: © Wolfram Grajetzki, unless stated otherwise