Women of the Crown

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Editor: Stuart A. Kallen
Date: 2013
Pharaohs of Egypt
Publisher: ReferencePoint Press, Inc.
Series: Ancient Egyptian Wonders
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 12
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 60

Women of the Crown

Life and death in ancient Egypt closely revolved around the rise and fall of the Nile, the passing of the seasons, and the rhythms of the Sun, the Moon, and the planets. Egyptian religion was centered on the forces of nature ruled by female deities, including Isis, Hathor, Maat, and other goddesses. Archaeologist Joann Fletcher describes Egypt as “a culture that believed the whole universe was a balance of male and female, a duality which was essential for the continuity of life and gave balance to all things. And the very symbol of cosmic order was a female deity, Maat, whose presence prevented the forces of chaos from overwhelming the order that only she could maintain.”27

Because of this belief women played a large role in Egyptian religion. One of the most common careers for women during pharaonic times was the priesthood, and nearly every temple had a high priestess. Women acted alongside men at religious festivals, ceremonies, funerals, and other events.

The status women enjoyed in religious matters carried over to other aspects of Egyptian society. Women had the same legal and economic rights as men, according to ancient manuscripts. Egyptian women could sign a variety of contracts and buy and sell private property, including slaves, land, livestock, and servants. This situation was very different in Greece, where women had few rights. Describing Egypt in 440 BC, Herodotus was shocked upon seeing women “attending market and taking part in trading whereas men sat at home and did the weaving.... [The] Egyptians themselves in their manner and customs seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind.”28

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In addition to trading, women were shown in artistic depictions working as sailors, farmers, artisans, and laborers. And although the majority of government officials were men, women served in Egypt’s vast bureaucracy as overseers, governors, and judges. Two women were viziers, or prime ministers, the most powerful office below that of pharaoh. Although ancient Egypt was a moneyless society, ancient records show that working women were paid with the same trade goods, livestock, and rations of grain, beer, and vegetables as men.

The King’s Mother

Most Egyptian women were wives and mothers, and one of the most important titles in ancient Egypt was mwt nswt, or “the king’s mother.” This title was given to the pharaoh’s senior wife, who was also the queen. Although pharaohs had many wives, and some were more important than others, there was only one queen. Her main duty was to provide the pharaoh with many children, especially male heirs.

Lives were short in ancient times, and pharaohs often died when their sons were too young to serve. In such cases the king’s mother was named a coregent, ruling as a pharaoh until the designated heir was old enough to take over. Sometimes a king’s mother acted as pharaoh for an extended period.

The First known mother of a king to assume the role of coregent was Merneith. She was the senior wife of Djet, a First Dynasty pharaoh. When Djet died, Merneith ruled as a coregent for an unknown length of time with her son Den. When Merneith died she was buried in Abydos. Her tomb is as large as those of the other pharaohs, indicating she was of equal status. In addition, a royal seal found in Den’s tomb includes the name Merneith on a register of First Dynasty kings.

The mother of the Old Kingdom’s Sixth Dynasty pharaoh Pepi II, named Ankhesenpepi II, also ruled as a coregent. Pepi was only about six years old when he became pharaoh. One of the only three known images of Pepi is a small alabaster statue that depicts the young boy in full pharaonic regalia sitting on Ankhesenpepi’s lap.

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Nitocris Drowns Her Enemies

Pepi II is said to have ruled for at least 90 years. After his long reign, Egypt was faced with a crisis over succession. His son was already very old, and his reign lasted only about one year. The gender of Egypt’s next pharaoh, Neitiqerty Siptah, is shrouded in mystery. The pharaoh’s name references the female war deity Neith, whose symbol was a shield crossed with arrows. Both Manetho and Herodotus referred to Neitiqerty Siptah by the Greek name Nitocris. Herodotus says Ni-tocris was a woman who ascended to the throne upon the murder of her brother, whom he fails to name. Although her anonymous brother’s enemies proceeded to make her pharaoh, Nitocris avenged his death with an elaborate plot in which they were drowned in the waters of the Nile. According to Herodotus,

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Egyptian scribe Manetho stated that as early as 3000 BC it was understood that a woman could hold the kingly office of pharaoh.

[Nitocris] constructed a very large chamber under ground, and... she invited those of the Egyptians whom she knew to have had most part in the murder, and gave a great banquet. Then while they were feasting, she let in the river upon them by a secret conduit of large size.... [When] this had been accomplished, she threw herself into a room full of embers, [committing suicide] in order that she might escape vengeance.29

The Pharaoh’s Regalia

Some Egyptologists doubt that Nitocris really existed since there is scant proof other than writings created several millennia after her purported reign. This is not true in the case of Queen Sobekneferu (also written as Nefrusobek), whose reign is documented in ancient texts and artwork. Sobekneferu was the royal daughter of the pharaoh Amenemhat III, who came to power near the end of the Middle Kingdom’s Twelfth Dynasty.

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Women of Violence

Female Egyptian deities were known for violence and de struction. It was believed the war goddess Neith could destroy the world by making the sky collapse. Sekhmet, whose name means “Powerful Female,” was an astonishing beauty who could turn into a killer lioness on a moment’s notice. In this form she hunted humans for sport, earning a second name—the Lady of the Red Linen—that symbolized the blood-soaked clothing of her slaughtered enemies. As archaeologist Joann Fletcher writes, mortal Egyptian women were also known for their fierce deeds:

The Egyptian acknowledgment of the female capacity for violence was not... restricted to goddesses. In a range of artistic representations, female town dwellers stab invading male soldiers, a female pharaoh fires arrows at a male opponent, Hatshepsut carries a mace when still a queen, [the royal wife] Tiy attacks the enemy as a sphinx, and Nefertiti executes prisoners with her scimitar.... Some women were threatening enough to be listed as enemies of the state; Hatshepsut is named “She Who Will Be a Conqueror”; whilst the earlier Queen Ahhotep rallied Egypt’s troops and was buried with full military honors and splendid weapons. Indeed, stone maces and daggers have been discovered in female graves dating back to... 3100 BC.

Joann Fletcher, The Search for Nefertiti: The True Story of an Amazing Discovery. New York: William Morrow, 2004, p. 192.

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One life-size sculpture depicts Sobekneferu in female clothing but wearing the regalia of a male pharaoh, including a kilt and a striped head cloth called a nemes. In addition, her name is written on her belt buckle in the manner of male pharaohs. Another sculpture shows Sobekneferu in a man’s coronation cloak and a headdress that features the pharaonic symbol of two vultures surrounding a protective cobra.

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Did You Know?

Queen Tawosret was a female pharaoh who came to power around 1198 BC. She was the last known pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty and ruled for less than one year.

Sobekneferu’s rule was short, slightly less than four years, but her name lives on at one of Egypt’s most amazing mortuary temples. Sobe-kneferu’s father initiated construction at the remarkable pyramid complex at Hawara, which was called the labyrinth by Herodotus. The structure features hundreds of underground rooms and galleries—Herodotus put their number at 3,000—connected by intricate maze-like passageways. The roofs, floors, and walls are all exquisite white marble and are filled with carvings of countless Thgures. The labyrinth ends at Amenem-hat III’s pyramid, which rises 240 feet (73m) above the courtyard. The pharaoh died before his pyramid was completed, but his devoted daughter Sobekneferu finished the structure. In the royal tradition, Sobekne-feru’s name was carved into every block laid on the pyramid, making her inscriptions more numerous than her father’s. The female pharaoh later oversaw construction of her own pyramid south of Dahshur.

Hatshepsut Governed the Land

The queen of all ancient Egyptian queens, Hatshepsut, was the daughter, wife, and possibly the granddaughter of pharaohs. She became pharaoh during the Eighteenth Dynasty, circa 1473 BC, but she had a circuitous path to the throne. Hatshepsut’s rise to power began when her father, Thutmose I, died without producing a male heir with his principal wife, Ahmose. The pharaoh did have a son, Thutmose II, who was born to a secondary wife. Before Thutmose II could be crowned pharaoh sometime around 1493 BC, he needed to have a stronger tie to the royal bloodline. In typical pharaonic style, he entered into an arranged marriage with the fully royal Hatshepsut, his half sister who was probably a teenager at the time.

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Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh who ruled Egypt for about 20 years, left a legacy in stone. A colossal statue of Hatshepsut, wearing the symbol of pharaonic powerthe false beardguards her tomb at Deir el-Bahri near the Valley of Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh who ruled Egypt for about 20 years, left a legacy in stone. A colossal statue of Hatshepsut, wearing the symbol of pharaonic power—the false beard—guards her tomb at Deir el-Bahri near the Valley of the Kings.

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It is unclear how old Thutmose II was at the time of his marriage, but as a royal heiress Hatshepsut was able to take advantage of her position. She had herself named “god’s wife of Amun,” an important religious and political title that made her the highest-ranking priestess in the powerful Amun cult.

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Did You Know?

The huge obelisks that Hatshepsut installed at Karnak were covered in costly sheets of gold so bright that they reflected sunlight to the far bank of the Nile.

Like his father, Thutmose II fathered only a daughter with his wife. The pharaoh’s son and heir, Thutmose III, was produced with a secondary wife, Isis. Thutmose II died soon after his son was born, sometime around 1479 BC, and the infant fiutmose was named coregent with Hatshepsut, his stepmother. According to ancient texts, however, Hatshepsut ruled alone: “[She] governed the land, and the Two Lands [Upper and Lower Egypt] were under her control; people work for her, and Egypt bowed the head.”30

Like Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut dressed in male regalia. She appeared at events wearing a man’s crown, kilt, and scepter. She even tied on the traditional false beard. Reliefs made at the time show the queen in a kilt, striding forward and reaching out as a king would do. This differed from conventional art, which showed female figures standing passively, arms at their sides, feet together, and legs covered with ankle-length dresses. Reliefs also showed Hatshepsut performing rituals that had been conducted by male pharaohs for hundreds of years. They include making offerings, celebrating festivals, spearing fish in marshes, trampling foes, and beating enemies over the head.

A Long, Prosperous Reign

Unlike previous female pharaohs whose reigns lasted only briefly, Hatshepsut maintained power for about 20 years. She followed the policies of previous pharaohs, maintaining Egypt’s sprawling empire. Ancient texts state that she captured rebel chiefs in Palestine and sent the army to Nubia, where towns were pillaged and foes were slaughtered. The queen sent workers into the Sinai to mine turquoise and copper and imported great quantities of fragrant frankincense and myrrh from Punt, a mythical land said to have been located on the Red Sea coast.

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Egypt prospered under Hatshepsut’s rule, and she used the kingdom’s wealth to build a tremendous funerary temple. It was located on the west bank of the Nile beneath the cliffs at Deir el-Bahri near the Valley of the Kings. Like so many pharaohs before her, Hatshepsut used this shrine to proclaim her divine family heritage. On a series of wall panels at her temple, Hatshepsut claims she is the daughter of Amun. Her divine birth was a result of the night her mother, Ahmose, spent with Amun, who disguised himself as the pharaoh. The final panel in the story shows Queen Ahmose holding the infant Hatshepsut in front of four goddesses who acted as midwives. The inscription immodestly states that

[Hatshepsut] became more important than anyone else. What was within her was godlike; godlike was everything she did; her spirit was godlike. Her majesty became a beautiful maiden, blossoming out. The goddess Uto, at this moment, applauded her divine shapeliness. She is a woman of distinguished appearance.31

Hatshepsut was one of ancient Egypt’s most productive builders, and her temples and monuments can be seen today throughout Egypt. One of her major projects stands at Karnak, across the Nile from her funerary temple. The queen enlarged the Precinct of Mut and installed two of the tallest obelisks in the world. One remains standing, but the other broke in half and fell to the ground.

Hatshepsut’s Death

When Hatshepsut’s trusted adviser, Senmut, died around 1462 BC, she reinstated Thutmose III as a coregent. On one scene at a Karnak temple, the two are depicted wearing identical crowns and kilts, both holding a king’s scepter in their right hands. Although the date of Hatshepsut’s birth is unknown, she was probably no older than 45 when she died during the twenty-second year of her reign around 1458 BC. There is speculation that Thutmose III poisoned her so he could finally become the sole pharaoh of Egypt. This remains unproved, but there was a concerted effort to destroy any mention of Hatshepsut’s reign in the decades after her death. Her images and inscriptions were chiseled off temple walls. At Deir el-Bahri dozens of statues of the queen were disfigured, dumped into a quarry, and buried. At Karnak there was a failed attempt to build walls around the giant obelisks she erected.

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Egyptologists speculate that Thutmose III was trying to rewrite history by removing Hatshepsut from the royal record. However, Fletcher believes Thutmose III held no animosity toward his stepmother and the destruction was undertaken by “the puritanical kings of the 19th dynasty who did the same to monuments of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.”32 Whatever the case, no one could erase the fact that Hatshepsut was the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Egyptian history.

The Last Queen of the Nile

Hatshepsut might have held great powers, but her fame pales next to ancient Egypt’s last reigning queen, Cleopatra VII. Unlike previous queens, Cleopatra was not Egyptian. She was descended from the long line of Greeks whose Ptolemaic rulers had governed Egypt for nearly three centuries. The story of her rise and fall constitutes one of the greatest dramas of the ancient world.

Cleopatra was 18 years old when her father, Ptolemy XII, died in 51 BC. In his will Ptolemy XII named Cleopatra a coregent along with her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII. To ensure the strength of the royal bond, Cleopatra and her brother were married. Early in Cleopatra’s reign drought and famine brought great suffering to Egypt. People came to believe the gods had deserted Cleopatra, and the drought was her fault. Public opinion turned to favor her brother, and by 48 BC relations between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII had shattered. Both raised armies that fought one another in a bloody civil war. Cleopatra lost and was temporarily banished from Egypt.

During this era Egyptian rulers were forced to provide food and pay taxes to the Roman Empire, which was much more powerful and influential than Egypt. This was meant to keep the Romans from invading Egypt. Cleopatra came to believe she could return to the throne if she enlisted the help of the 52-year-old Roman general Julius Caesar. Cleopatra offered to supply Caesar’s army with grain and ships in exchange for his military support. To seal the deal she became Caesar’s mistress.

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Julius Caesar leads Cleopatra back to the throne of Egypt, as depicted in this seventeenth-century painting. Cleopatra came to power with Caesars help and gained acceptance as Egypts rightful pharaoh, but she also has the distin Julius Caesar leads Cleopatra back to the throne of Egypt, as depicted in this seventeenth-century painting. Cleopatra came to power with Caesar’s help and gained acceptance as Egypt’s rightful pharaoh, but she also has the distinction of being Egypt’s last pharaoh.

In 47 BC Caesar ordered Roman soldiers to destroy Ptolemy XIII’s forces. The pharaoh was captured and drowned in the Nile. Although Cleopatra triumphed over her brother, Egyptians were the losers. Four hundred Roman troop ships sailed up the Nile, and the Roman legions took control of Alexandria. To prevent a rebellion against her rule, Cleopatra tried to make amends. She embraced ancient pharaonic traditions, dedicated a temple to the goddess Hathor, and promoted the cult of Isis, one of the most popular Egyptian deities of the time. Cleopatra took to appearing in public in the holy dress of Isis and also adopted a Horus name. By choosing a Horus name, Cleopatra indicated she revered and respected one of the oldest symbols of divine rule.

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Many Egyptians came to accept Cleopatra as their rightful pharaoh, but she soon left her kingdom. In 47 BC the queen had a child with Caesar named Caesarion, or “Little Caesar.” The following year she traveled to Rome, where she lived with Caesar for two years until he was assassinated on March 15, 44 BC. Within a month Cleopatra returned to Egypt, where she elevated her three-year-old son, Caesa-rion, to pharaoh, renaming him Ptolemy XV.

Death and Immortality

Cleopatra still needed Roman support to maintain her rule, so she formed an alliance with Mark Antony, another powerful general. The two were married in 37 BC, and together they had three children. Antony and Cleopatra worked to set up a vast Roman-Egyptian empire that they hoped would be ruled by their sons someday. However, the Roman leader Octavian had other plans.

Octavian overthrew Mark Antony and seized power in Rome in 31 BC. Cleopatra sought to establish a relationship with him, but her offers were refused. The Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC, forcing the defeated Antony to flee to Alexandria. Antony mistakenly thought Cleopatra had committed suicide. He was so saddened by this that he killed himself, falling on the blade of his sword. Ten days later the last queen of Egypt was about to be arrested by Octavian’s men. Legend has it that Cleopatra allowed herself to be bitten by an asp (cobra). The venom killed her.

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Did You Know?

Between AD 1540 and 2011 the deeds of Cleopatra provided inspiration for five ballets, 45 operas, 77 plays, and at least seven movies, prompting critic Harold Bloom to call the queen the world’s First celebrity.

In ancient Egypt the asp was said to be the minister of the sun god. The bite of the asp was thought to bestow immortality and divinity. Whether or not Cleopatra was actually bitten by an asp, she certainly was immortalized. For more than 400 years after her death, Cleopatra was worshipped by a religious cult in Rome. Her life has been dramatized by playwright William Shakespeare and portrayed in film by Elizabeth Taylor.

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The name Nefertiti means “the Beautiful One Who HasCome” in Egyptian. And although ancient paintings show Nefertiti to be a great beauty, she was also a powerful queen, married to Akhenaten, the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh. Akhenaten created controversy by promoting the heretical concept of a single god, Aten. Nefertiti was the pharaoh’s partner in this religious reformation, which began around 1350 BC. Around 1340 BC Akhenaten announced Nefertiti’s new position as coregent. In the aftermath, Nefertiti was depicted in poses and regalia only used by male pharaohs.

After only two years as coregent, Nefertiti disappeared from view. Some believe she split with Akhenaten and was banished from the royal palace. Others think Nefertiti adopted the man’s name Smenkhkare and continued to rule as coregent with her husband. The conventional view is that the queen died from the plague epidemic that was sweeping through the kingdom at the time. Today an ancient lifelike bust of Nefertiti resides in Berlin’s Neues Museum, providing a haunting image of a mysterious female pharaoh from long ago.

Cleopatra’s son by Caesar, King Ptolemy XV, was murdered at the age of 17 by Octavian’s forces. The Romans were now in control of Egypt, and the age of the pharaohs was over. After 3,100 years, the ancient hieroglyphic phrase ankh djet, or “living forever,” could no longer be applied to pharaohs of Egypt.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6586200018