When we think of the Queens of Egypt the seductive allure of Cleopatra or Nefertiti’s enigmatic bust typically springs to mind. Yet the story of Egypt’s Queens is more complex than popular stereotypes would have us believe.
Ancient Egyptian society was a conservative, traditional patriarchal society. Men dominated key positions of state from the Pharaoh’s throne to the priesthood, to the military man had a firm hold on the reigns of power.
Nonetheless, Egypt produced some formidable queens such as Hatshepsut who reigned as a co-regent with Thutmose II, then as regent for her stepson and later ruled Egypt in her own right, despite these social constraints.
Facts About Ancient Egyptian Queens
- Queens were encouraged to focus their energy on serving the gods, providing an heir to the throne and managing their households.
- Egypt produced some formidable queens such as Hatshepsut who reigned as a co-regent with Thutmose II, then as regent for her stepson and later ruled Egypt in her own right, despite these social constraints
- In ancient Egypt women and queens owned property, could inherit wealth, held senior administrative roles and could defend their rights in court
- Queen Hatshepsut’s reign lasted for over 20 years during which time she dressed in male clothes and wore a false beard to project masculine authority to placate the public and officials who did not approve of a female ruler.
- Queen Nefertiti, the wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaton, is thought by some Egyptologists to have been the driving force behind the cult of Aten the “one true god”
- Cleopatra was also known as “The Queen of the Nile” and was of Greek rather than Egyptian lineage
- Queen Merneith’s tomb contained subsidiary burials of 41 servants, pointing to her power as an Egyptian monarch.
Ancient Egyptian Queens And The Power Structure
The ancient Egyptian language has no word for “Queen”. The title of King or Pharaoh was the same as a man or a woman. Queens were shown with a tightly curled false beard, a symbol of royal authority, as were Kings. Queens attempting to rule in their own right faced considerable opposition, particularly from senior court officials and the priesthood.
Ironically, it was during the Ptolemaic period and the decline of the Egyptian Empire, that it became acceptable for women to rule. This period produced Egypt’s most famous Queen, Queen Cleopatra.
At the very heart of Egyptian culture was their concept of ma’at, which sought harmony and balance in all aspects of life. This elevation of balance also infused Egyptian gender roles including that of the queen.
Polygamy And Egypt’s Queens
It was common for Egyptian kings to having multiple wives and concubines. This social structure was intended to secure the line of succession by producing multiple children.
A king’s chief wife was elevated to the status of “Principal Wife”, while his other wives were the “King’s wife” or the “King’s wife of non-royal birth.” The Principal Wife often enjoyed significant power and influence in her own right in addition to a higher status than the other wives.
Incest And Egypt’s Queens
An obsession with maintaining the purity of their bloodline saw incest widely practised amongst Egypt’s kings. These incestuous marriages were only tolerated within the royal family where the king was considered to be a god on earth. The gods set this incest precedent when Osiris married his sister Isis.
An Egyptian king could select his sister, cousin or even his daughter as one of his wives. This practice extended the idea of ‘Divine Kingship’ to include the notion of a ‘Divine Queenship.’
Rules of Succession
Ancient Egypt’s rules of succession decreed the next pharaoh would be the eldest son by the “King’s Great Wife”. Should the principal queen lack sons, the title of pharaoh would fall on a son by a lesser wife. If the pharaoh did not have any sons, the Egyptian throne passed to a male relative.
If the new pharaoh happened to be a child less than 14 years of age as was the case with Thutmose III, his mother would become Regent. As the ‘Queen Regent’ she would conduct the political and ceremonial duties on behalf of her son. Hatshepsut’s reign in her own name began as a queen regent.
Royal Titles Of The Egyptian Queens
The titles of Egyptian queens and leading women amongst the royal family were incorporated into their cartouches. These titles identified their status such as Great Royal Wife,” “King’s Principal Wife,” “King’s wife,” “King’s wife of non-royal birth,” “King’s Mother” or “King’s Daughter”.
The foremost royal women were the King’s Principal Wife and the King’s Mother. They were granted elevated titles, were identified with unique symbols and symbolic dress. The highest status royal women wore the Royal Vulture Crown. This comprised a falcon feather headdress with its wings folded around her head in a protective gesture. The Royal Vulture Crown was graced by a Uraeus, the Pharaohs of Lower Egypt’s rearing cobra symbol.
Royal women were often shown in tomb paintings holding the ‘Ankh’. The Ankh was one of ancient Egypt’s most potent symbols representing the aspects of physical life, eternal life, reincarnation and immortality. This symbol connected the highest ranked royal women with the gods themselves and reinforced the “Divine Queenship” concept.
Egyptian Queens Role As “God’s Wife of Amun”
Initially, a title held by non-royal priestesses who served the Amun–Ra, the royal title “God’s Wife of Amun” first appears in the historical record during the 10th Dynasty. As the cult of Amun gradually grew in importance, the role of “God’s Wife of Amun” was conferred on the royal queens of Egypt to counter the political influence of the priesthood during the 18th Dynasty.
The origins of the title “God’s Wife of Amun” grew out of the myth around the divine birth of a king. This myth credits the king’s mother with being impregnated by the god Amun and anchors the concept of Egyptian kingship being a divinity on earth.
The role required the queens to participate in sacred ceremonies and rituals in the temple. The new title gradually overtook the traditional title “Great Royal Wife” thanks to its political and quasi-religious connotations. Queen Hatshepsut adopted the title, which was hereditary with the title passing on to her daughter Neferure.
The role of “God’s Wife of Amun” also conferred the title of “Chieftainess of the Harem”. Thus, the Queen’s position within the harem was positioned as sacred and thus unassailable politically. This merging of the divine and the political was designed to underpin the concept of ‘Divine Queenship.’
By the time of the 25th Dynasty elaborate ceremonies were staged to marry the royal women holding the title of “God’s Wife of Amun” to the god Atum. These women were then deified upon their death. This transformed the status of the Egyptian Queens conferring on them an eminent and divine status, thus giving them substantial power and influence.
Later, invading rulers used this hereditary title to consolidate their position and elevate their status. In the 24th dynasty, Kashta a Nubian King compelled the ruling Theban royal family to adopt his daughter Amenirdis and confer upon her the title “Wife of Amun.” This investiture linked Nubia with the Egyptian royal family.
Egypt’s Ptolemaic Queens
The Macedonian Greek Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE) ruled Egypt for nearly three hundred years following Alexander the Great’s death (c. 356-323 BCE). Alexander was a Greek general from the Macedonian region. His rare combination of strategic inspiration, tactical daring and personal courage enabled him to carve out an empire at the precocious age of just 32 when he died in June of 323 BCE.
Alexander’s vast conquests were subsequently divided amongst his generals. One of Alexander’s Macedonian generals Soter (r. 323-282 BCE), took Egypt’s throne as Ptolemy I founding ancient Egypt’s Macedonian-Greek ethnic Ptolemaic Dynasty.
The Ptolemaic Dynasty had different attitudes to their Queens than the native Egyptians. Numerous Ptolemaic queens ruled jointly with their male brothers who also acted as their consorts.
10 Important Queens Of Egypt
1. Queen MerNeith
MerNeith or “beloved by Neith,” First Dynasty (c. 2920 BC), wife of King Wadj, mother and regent of Den. Claimed power upon the death of King Djet her husband. MerNeith was Egypt’s first female ruler.
2. Hetepheres I
Snofru’s wife and mother of the Pharaoh Khufu. Her burial treasures consist of furnishings and toilet articles including razors made of pure gold layers.
3. Queen Henutsen
Wife of Khufu, mother of Prince Khufu-Khaf and possibly the mother of King Khephren, Henutsen had a small pyramid built to honour her beside Khufu’s great pyramid in Giza. Some Egyptologists speculate Henutsen may also have been Khufu’s daughter.
4. Queen Sobekneferu
Sobekneferu (r c. 1806-1802 BC) or “Sobek is the beauty of Ra,” came to power following the death of Amenemhat IV her husband and brother. Queen Sobekneferu continued building Amenemhat III’s funerary complex and initiated construction at Herakleopolis Magna. Sobekneferu was known to adopt male names to complement her female to reduce the criticism of female rulers.
5. Ahhotep I
Ahhotep I was both the wife and sister of Sekenenre’-Ta’o II, who died in battle fighting the Hyksos. She was the daughter of Sekenenre’-‘Ta’o and Queen Tetisheri and mother to Ahmose, Kamose and ‘Ahmose-Nefretiry. Ahhotep I lived to the then extraordinary age of 90 and was buried at Thebes beside Kamose.
6. Queen Hatshepsut
Queen Hatshepsut (c. 1500-1458 BC) was the longest reigning female pharaoh of ancient Egyptian. She reigned in Egypt for 21 years and her rule brought peace and prosperity to Egypt. Her mortuary complex at Deir el-Bahri inspired generations of Pharaohs. Hatshepsut claimed her father nominated her as his heir prior to his death. Queen Hatshepsut had herself depicted wearing male robes and with a false beard. She also demanded her subjects address her as “His Majesty,” and “King.”
7. Queen Tiy
She was a wife of Amenhotep III and the mother of Akhenaten. Tiy married Amenhotep while he was around 12 years old and still a prince. Tiy was the first Queen to have her name included on official acts, including the announcement of the Kings’ marriage to a foreign Princess. A daughter Princess Sitamun also married Amenhotep. She was widowed at 48.
8. Queen Nefertiti
Nefertiti or “The beautiful one has come” is renowned as one of the ancient world’s most powerful and beautiful queens. Born c.1370 BC and possibly died c.1330 BC. Nefertiti bore six princesses. Nefertiti fulfilled a critical role during the Amarna period as a priestess in the cult of Aten. Her cause of death remains unknown.
9. Queen Twosret
Twosret was the wife of Seti II. When Seti II died, Siptah his son took the throne. Siptah was too ill to rule Twosret, as “Great Royal Wife”, was co-regent with Siptah. After Sipta died six years later, Twosret became Egypt’s sole ruler until civil war interrupted her reign.
10. Cleopatra VII Philopator
Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra’s two elder sisters seized power in Egypt. Ptolemy XII, their father regained power. After Ptolemy XII’s death, Cleopatra VII wed Ptolemy XIII, her then twelve-year-old brother. Ptolemy XIII ascended to the throne with Cleopatra as co-regent. Cleopatra committed suicide at 39 after the death of her husband Mark Antony.
The Last Queen Of Egypt
Cleopatra VII was the last Queen of Egypt and its last pharaoh, bringing to an end over 3,000 years of an often glorious and creative Egyptian culture. As with the other Ptolemaic rulers, Cleopatra’s origins were Macedonian-Greek, rather than Egyptian. However, Cleopatra’s superb language skills enabled her to charm diplomatic missions through her command of their native language. ]
Cleopatra’s romantic intrigues have overshadowed her accomplishments as Egypt’s pharaoh. The legendary queen has suffered from history’s tendency to define powerful female rulers by the men in her life. Yet, her diplomacy deftly danced on a sword’s edge as she strove to maintain Egypt’s independence in the face of tumultuous and eventually insurmountable external threats. Cleopatra has the misfortune to govern Egypt during a period of economic and political decline, which paralleled the rise of an expansionist Rome.
Following her death, Egypt became a Roman province. There was to be no more Egyptian Queens. Even now, Cleopatra’s exotic aura created by her epic romances continues to fascinate audiences and historians alike.
Today Cleopatra has come to epitomize the sumptuousness of ancient Egypt in our imagination far more than any previous Egyptian pharaoh, save perhaps the boy King Tutankhamun.
Reflecting On The Past
Was the highly traditional, conservative and inflexible nature of ancient Egyptian society partly responsible for its decline and fall? Would it have endured longer had it properly harnessed the skills and talents of its Queens more effectively?
Header image courtesy: Paramount studio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons