The Turin Kinglist, also known as the Turin Royal Canon, is a unique papyrus, written in hieratic, currently in the Egyptian Museum at Turin, to which it owes its modern name.
It is broken into over 160 often very small fragments, many of which have been lost. When it was discovered in the Theban necropolis by the Italian traveller Bernardino Drovetti in 1822, it seems to have been largely intact, but by the time it became part of the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, its condition had severely deteriorated.
The importance of this papyrus was first recognised by the French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion, who, later followed by Gustavus Seyffarth took up its reconstruction and restoration. Although they succeeded in placing most of the fragments in the correct order, the diligent intervention of these two men came too late and many lacunae to thus important papyrus still remain.
Written during the long reign of Ramesses II, the papyrus, now estimated at 1.7m long and 0.41m high, comprises on the recto an unknown number of pages that hold a list of names of persons and institutions, along with what appears to be the tax-assessment of each.
It is, however, the verso of the papyrus that has attracted the most attention, as it contains a list of gods, demi-gods, spirits, mythical and human kings who ruled Egypt from the beginning of time presumably until the composition of this valuable document.
The beginning and ending of the list are now lost, which means that we are missing both the introduction of the list -if ever there was such an introduction- and the enumeration of the kings following the 17th Dynasty. We therefore do not know for certain when after the composition of the tax-list on the recto an unknown scribe used the verso to write down this list of kings. This may have occurred during the reign of Ramesses II, but a date as late as the 20th Dynasty cannot be excluded. The fact that the list was scribbled on the back of an older papyrus has been seen by some as an indication that it was of no great importance to the writer. Perhaps it was a text that needed to be copied in a scribes’ school by way of exercise?
We are also left in the dark as to what source or sources our laborious scribe used to write down the list. Did he simply copy an already existing papyrus? And if so, for what reason? And what has happened to the original? How was that compiled? Or did the scribe, probably having access to the archives of the temples, compile the list himself, using ancient tax-notes, decrees and documents? The latter possibility seems the less likely and would infer that the Turin King-List is indeed a unique document.
There are several other lists that enumerate the predecessors of a king, such as the lists in the temples of Seti I and Ramesses II at Abydos -to name but two-, so what makes the Turin King-List so exceptional? The other lists, although very valuable for the study of Ancient Egyptian chronology as well, are nothing more than an enumeration of some of the "ancestors" of the current king. Often the current king, or one of his contemporaries, is seen in adoration before the cartouches or representations of the king’s "ancestors". The current king is in fact represented as the good heir who pays respect to his long line of "ancestors". The word "ancestor" can not be taken literally, as the current king was in no way a descendant of most of his predecessors. Such lists had a more cultic and political reason for being, for indeed they confirmed that the current king was the rightful heir of the kings that had ruled Egypt for many centuries. These cultic lists are more a subjective choice of predecessors than an actual enumeration of all kings: they will in most cases include kings such as Menes and Mentuhotep II, for they have played a pivotal role in the history of Ancient Egypt. Other, less important kings, usurpers or kings that were considered to be illegitimate, such as the kings connected to the Amarna-revolution, were omitted from the lists.
The Turin King-List, on the other hand, does a lot more than simply list some kings: it groups them together and it mentions the duration of their reigns. What’s more, it even takes note of some kings that are omitted from the cultic lists, such as the otherwise quite unpopular Hyksos! Despite the fact that it begins with an enumeration of gods, demi-gods, spirits and mythical that were supposed to have ruled Egypt before the reign of Menes, it was not a cultic list and it does not serve the purpose of showing the current king as the good heir to his “ancestors".
The king list of the Turin Kinglist was originally divided over an unknown number of columns or sheets, of which only 11 remain. Columns I to V comprised 25 or 26 lines of text, column VI at least 27 and columns IX and X at least 30. The increasing number of lines as the Canon reaches its end seems to indicate that the scribe realised that he would not have sufficient space on his papyrus to write down all the royal names known to him in 25- or 26-line columns.
Most lines give the name of a particular king, written in a cartouche, followed by the number of years he ruled, and in some cases even by the number of months and days. The number of years credited to some kings of the 1st and 2nd Dynasty is so high, that, in those particular cases, they are most likely not correct. It has sometimes been postulated that this high number of years does not reflect the length of a reign but the age at which the king died. Although this possibility cannot entirely be overruled, it is strange that the writer should choose to note the age of a king in one case and the length of his reign in another. I would rather suspect that the scribe mistook the year-labels of early kings as representations of different years, whereas it is likely that several labels actually referred to the same year.
For the kings of the first three dynasties, a name is written in a cartouche as well, despite the fact that cartouche-names were not used prior to the rule of the last king of the 3rd Dynasty, Huni. The cartouche-name used for these kings is often similar to the names used for the same kings in the cultic king-lists, but they are quite different from the Horus-name by which they were known officially during their reign. The relationship between the Horus-names of these early kins and the names use din the Turin King-List is not certain: for the later 1st Dynasty kings, the name in the kinglists seems to be based on their Nebti-name, but how the earlier kings of the 1st Dynasty and all kings of the 2nd and 3rd Dynasties got their names is not known.
The kings are grouped together logically based on the city where they took up residence. These groups do not (entirely) correspond to the dynasties into which the kings were placed by Manetho. This indicates that the notion of dynasties was not present or fully developed before the 19th or 20th Dynasty.
Most groups comprise a line of summation that totals the number of years that this particular group has ruled. These summations are sometimes written on 1 line, sometimes divided over 2 lines and sometimes written in 1 line that is so long that it encroaches the next column. In some cases a group is introduced by a heading. The fact that there are far less headings than summations may rather be the result of the fragmentary state of the Canon than an inconsistency on the part of the scribe who wrote or copied the list.
Despite its incomplete and fragmentary nature, and despite the fact that the placing of the fragments has been contested from time to time, the Turin King-List is one of our most important sources of knowledge about the chronology of Egypt between the 1st and 17th Dynasty.