The Life of Royal Women

In the smaller boat on the canal to the harem in Gurob, she relaxed. Entering into the Fayum, the fields were so green, and palm trees were everywhere. The trip up the Nile from Per-Ramses, the royal residence of her husband, King Ramses II, had been long and tiring. Not that she needed for anything, or had been left alone, as her two favorite court ladies-in-waiting were sent along to take care of her. Everything they needed had been loaded aboard the large riverboat. It was odd to leave the residence, although her husband was very old now, and she hadn’t seen him in some time. Such a large family he had, and other queens were so much more important than her. Her son, even almost twenty years later she still thought of him. What would her life have been like had her son lived and grown up to take the throne and rule as the king of Egypt?


Just as royal women in all time periods and civilizations, ancient Egyptian royal women were special and undoubtedly had much more comfortable and secure lives than average ancient Egyptian women. Their importance, of course, was based on the fact that they were related to the king. The king’s mother was the most important royal woman of all, because she was the medium who passed on the king’s legitimate right to rule. The ancient Egyptian king ruled as a god on the earth, both representing the sun god, Ra, and being his son. The sun god appeared to the king’s wife in the guise of her husband and impregnated her. This situation is hinted at in certain titles and symbols, but by the Eighteenth Dynasty (1550–1295 BCE) of the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BCE), there are actually two divine birth scenes known. Perhaps the most famous is that of Queen Hatshepsut in her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari on the West Bank of ancient Thebes. The other birth scene is that of the slightly later king Amenhotep III and is in the temple of Luxor on the East Bank of Thebes.

Hatshepsut’s divine birth scene is done in relief decoration on the south wall at the back of the second terrace of her funerary temple. The scene shows her mother, Queen Ahmose, sitting on a bed with the god Amun-Ra, and two goddesses sit below, holding their feet. Amun-Ra was a composite solar god, who combined a Theban god Amun, with the sun god of Heliopolis, Ra. Amun-Ra was the most important deity of the New Kingdom and was considered the father of the king. In the scene, the god Amun-Ra holds the ankh symbol, the sign of eternal life up to the queen’s nose, for her to breathe in, while he also places an ankh symbol in her hand. Then, there is a scene of the god Khnum forming the figure of Hatshepsut on a potter’s wheel, along with her ka, or soul. In the next scene, the Queen Ahmose, looking pregnant, is led by goddesses into the birthing room, and then at last, Hatshepsut and her ka are carried in to be presented to all the assembled gods, as the daughter of Amun-Ra, the future king of Egypt.


The king’s wife was probably the most important royal woman after the king’s mother, because hopefully she would produce his son and heir to the throne. Because of the importance of having a successor, the king of Egypt was polygamous and had many wives. In ancient times, many women died in childbirth, and many more children died before the age of five. The king could marry both within the royal family and women who were not royal. At certain times, such as in the early Old Kingdom (2686–2125 BCE) and the Middle Kingdom (2055–1650 BCE), we know that the king married his sister or half-sister, probably a practical way to keep power and rule within his family line. Marrying a sister also had mythological backing, because the god Osiris, who had been the king of Egypt in the mythical past, had married his sister, Isis, and they produced a son, Horus, who succeeded his father and ruled Egypt. Every human king of Egypt was considered to be a manifestation of Horus. According to the Heliopolitan myth of creation, Ra created the first brother and sister pair of deities, Shu and Tefnut, and they created the next sibling pair of deities, Geb and Nut, who created Osiris and Isis. So, the son of Osiris and Isis, Horus, was the great-great-grandson of the sun god Ra and son of the king of Egypt, Osiris. The myth, power, and stature of both these great gods back the position and legitimacy of the ancient Egyptian king.

Lana Troy pointed out in her 1986 study of Patterns of Queenship in Ancient Egyptian Myth and History that “kingship is a manifestation of the power of the creator, placed in the context of the role of mortal sovereign” (Troy 1986: 2). Since the creator god, Ra, created by himself, he must be androgynous, a mixture of male and female characteristics. As such, kingship, the power of the creator on the earth, must also be both male and female. The king’s female relatives, therefore, represent the female half of kingship. In other words, kingship and queenship are the two halves that form divine rule over ancient Egypt.

The role of royal women was based on that of the goddess Hathor, who in mythology could take different forms and be the mother, the wife, or the daughter of the son god, Ra. Hathor was the mother of the young son of the sun, at the same time that she herself was the daughter of the sun god. The generational mother-daughter continuum “functions as the mediator for the transition of the male element from father to son” (Troy 1986: 23). This interpretation explains sibling marriages in the sense that the king would not so much be marrying his sister as he is marrying the female half of his father’s renewal and regeneration, and therefore continuing and carrying it on.


Royal women had titles that reflected their position and status, and many of these titles have been preserved because they were included in inscriptions carved in stone in their tombs. In the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom, royal women could have mastaba tombs, rectangular tombs build of limestone blocks with a chapel in the structure of the tomb, and the burial in a chamber underneath, or they could also have small pyramid complexes. By the New Kingdom, they have rock-cut tombs at Thebes, and beginning with the Nineteenth Dynasty (1295–1186 BCE), the queens are buried in the Valley of the Queens, in the south end of the West Bank at Thebes.


The king’s mother had the basic title of “king’s mother,” often written out in the form “mother of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt.” She also held the title “god’s daughter,” which referred to her father, the deceased king, although this title was only used in the Old Kingdom. Another title only given to the king’s mother was “anything she says is done for her,” which clearly states the importance and respect she was given. The king’s mother wore a vulture headdress, something like a cap, as a symbol of her position. It had the head of a vulture protruding out over her forehead, like the uraeus, the rearing cobra, over the forehead of the king. Vulture feathers spread down the side of her head, along with the legs of the vulture. The talons of the vulture wrapped around the hieroglyphic sign shen that has the meaning “to surround” in the sense of protecting. The vulture’s tail feathers go down the back of the woman’s head in statuary, but when shown in carved relief, they protrude horizontally, like the vulture’s head at the front.

Goddesses are often shown with vulture headdresses in the Old Kingdom, so the king’s mother might have this symbol because of its connection with divinity; the title “god’s daughter” might have entitled the king’s mother to wear a divine headdress. Another reason for the king’s mother to take on the vulture headdress is that the ancient Egyptian word for mother was mwt, which is written with the hieroglyphic sign of a vulture. The word for vulture is also mwt. In the Middle Kingdom and after, all royal women could wear a vulture headdress, so it becomes the symbol of a goddess or royal woman, in general.

A depiction of a king’s mother from the early Middle Kingdom, wearing a vulture headdress, a symbol of her position and importance. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Another type of evidence that shows the importance of the mother of the king is that her son could place a statue of his mother in a chapel that he set up for a cult of his statue, to receive offerings, or he could set up a ka-chapel, or a “soul”-chapel, just for his mother, where she would receive offerings to sustain her afterlife forever. The king would issue a decree granting that a certain amount of land, an estate or a farm, belonged to the ka-chapel, and none of the land, its workers or its animals, could be taxed or taken away or interfered for any reason. See the text of one of these decrees later as Primary Documents.


The king’s wife, of course, had the basic title “king’s wife,” or also “king’s wife whom he loves,” as well as a number of other titles that changed through time. A standard short sequence of Old and Middle Kingdom queen’s titles, following “king’s wife,” were usually “the one who sees Horus and Seth,” “great of affection,” and “great of praise.” The “one who sees Horus and Seth” title is a statement of the fact that the queen is allowed to see the king in divine form, which is what happens when she is impregnated by the god.

In the early New Kingdom, the main and most important queen takes the title “King’s Great Wife,” which makes her status very clear, and from what we can say she is always the king’s first wife. It is also her oldest son, if she has one, who is first in line to take the throne after his father. The queen can also be called “Lady of the Two Lands,” which seems to be parallel to the king’s title of “Lord of the Two Lands.” Undoubtedly, the king’s wife had court and religious responsibilities and needed to accompany the king at particular rituals and appearances. It is difficult to say what actual positions or responsibilities a royal wife had other than what would be expected in any family.

By the New Kingdom, the queen has her name in a cartouche, just like the king. A “cartouche” is the word given for the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic sign of a cord or rope around something to protect it magically. It is the shen sign discussed just earlier, which the talons of the vulture hold in the vulture headdress of the king’s mother. The cartouche surrounds and protects the royal name. The New Kingdom queen wears what is standard from now on: the vulture headdress, a modius, or a flat-topped crown, with two long plumes set in it. The queen can also have a uraeus instead of a vulture head over her forehead. By the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the queen could wear a sun disk and two horns on her head, exactly what goddesses wear as well. The queen also holds a fly whisk in her hand, which from this time on can only be held by the queen.

There are a number of titles, perhaps better called epithets, that are given to the queen in the New Kingdom, such as “sweet of love” and “lady of charm.” Some of them first appear in the titulary of Queen Neferu, the sister and wife of King Mentuhotep II in the late Eleventh Dynasty. Neferu is called the “lovable possessor of charm” and “pleasing in the columned hall by the smell of her fragrance.” Perhaps the most elaborate of these epithets is one given to Queen Nefertiti, the wife of King Akhenaten: “the one who pacifies the Aten with a sweet voice, and in her two hands are the sistra.” A sistrum, singular, is an instrument that is associated with the goddess Hathor and shaken in religious rituals giving off a rustling, calming sound.


The daughters of the king receive the title “king’s daughter,” which can also be stated as “king’s daughter whom he loves” or “king’s daughter of his body,” which emphasizes that she is really his offspring, as well as “king’s eldest daughter,” or her title could have all these phrases and be “king’s eldest daughter of his body whom he loves.” Other than that, a princess in the Old Kingdom could be a priestess of the goddess Hathor or Neith, as could nonroyal women, or even be a priestess of her father, the king. This position would probably entail making offerings to the goddesses and to a statue of the king, perhaps in a daily ritual or on festival days. These priestess titles disappear after the Old Kingdom. In fact, before the beginning of the New Kingdom, priestess titles have disappeared for all women, royal or not.

There is one religious position held by queens, however, that started at the beginning of the New Kingdom. King Ahmose (1550–525 BCE), the first king of the Eighteenth Dynasty, gave his wife, Ahmose-Nefertari, who was also his sister, a position equal to a high priest at the temple of the god Amun-Ra at Karnak. The title the king gave her was “God’s Wife of Amun,” meaning that she was the earthly wife of the god. In carrying out the responsibilities of her position, Ahmose-Nefertari first purified herself in the sacred lake that was inside the temple complex of Karnak and then, along with the male high priests, went to the sanctuary to carry out the daily rituals for the god Amun.

The king also endowed her with property, which would have included farmlands with workers and animals, making her a very wealthy woman. Ahmose-Nefertari eventually passed this position on to Queen Hatshepsut when she was married to her half-brother, King Thutmose II. Hatshepsut later gave the position to her own daughter, Neferure, but she died rather young, and the important title seems to have stopped. Much later, in the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty (747–656) of the Late Period, the position of God’s Wife of Amun becomes very important again at Thebes, where the God’s Wife of Amun, either the king’s sister or daughter, was an extremely powerful person.


Part of the king’s palace or royal residence was called the ipt or harem, where all the female members of the royal family lived along with all their children. Calling this family residence, a harem, however, should not be understood as a place of seclusion that was guarded and forbidden. It was probably guarded, as the king’s palace was, and may have been forbidden except for occupants and their servants but certainly had nothing to do with eunuchs, or veils, or hiding women away. As the king could have different residences, there would have been a number of harems in different locations. There were also, as will be discussed later, harems that were separate institutions of their own.

Harems were for women as well as any of their children. The part of the harem specifically for children was called the kap, and nonroyal children, particularly sons of important officials, would be raised there along with the royal sons and daughters. The kap also seems to have included a school, as it would have been important for royal and elite children to be literate. Growing up in the kap is how a young boy from an elite family would start his career in service to the king, as being part of the royal family would make him loyal and devoted to them. There were also young boys from areas outside of Egypt, but controlled by Egypt, who were raised in the kap so that they became loyal to Egypt rather than their homeland. This seems to be a practice that began in the reign of Thutmose III (1479–1425 BCE) in the Eighteenth Dynasty. He ordered the rulers of the tribes in Nubia and the cities of Syro-Palestine to send their sons to be raised in Egypt, and when a ruler died, his Egyptianized son was sent to take his place. This guaranteed continued Egyptian political control over these areas.

In the Fourth Dynasty (2613–2494 BCE) of the Old Kingdom, all the most important officials were men who belonged to the royal family, particularly the kings’ sons. They were always the viziers and the “overseers of all the works of the king” and filled the other positions that were the most powerful. This situation changes with the following Fifth Dynasty (2494–2345 BCE), when high officials began to be chosen from nonroyal men. It is also the first time that there is evidence that a royal daughter married outside the royal family. The oldest daughter of King Userkaf (2494–2487 BCE) at the beginning of the Fifth Dynasty, Princess Khamaat, was given in marriage to the High Priest of the god Ptah, Ptahshepses. The autobiography that Ptahshepses had inscribed in his tomb describes how he was raised in the kap in the royal harem. After this time, it became common for a princess to marry into an elite family, as this practice seems to have become one of the ways that the king was assured loyalty and devotion from his high officials.

Royal females marrying outside the royal family stops with the end of the Old Kingdom, however, and particularly in the following Middle Kingdom, if a princess did not marry her brother, who was the king, she did not marry at all. Why marriage became restricted like this needs much more research about the status of royal women at that time, but it appears that the Middle Kingdom was going back to the practices of the early Old Kingdom, the Fourth Dynasty, when the king emphasized his divinity and power, the royal family was very much on a different level than everyone else, and royal princesses did not marry outside of the royal family.


There are mentions of the ipt, or “harem,” of the king in Old and Middle Kingdom texts, but there is no archaeological evidence of a harem, until the New Kingdom reign of Amenhotep III. At this time, the name for harem has changed to per khenret, “the house of the harem.” There is evidence for a palace of King Amenhotep III (1390–1352 BCE), at Malqata, on the West Bank of Thebes, which includes living quarters for women as well as a separate palace just for his main queen, Great Queen Tiye. In the residential part of the palace, the king has a throne room, with private rooms behind it, including a bedroom and bathroom. On both sides of the columned hallway leading to his throne room are four separate small apartments, which one would assume belonged to female family members. Each of the small apartments has a small entrance hall, off the main columned hallway, a square throne room with four columns, and behind that, two small rooms, a bedroom and a bathroom. There was also a long, narrow room for each apartment, a kind of dressing room, designed to hold boxes with personal possessions and clothing. The ancient Egyptians did not have cupboards and closets, and everything was put into wooden boxes, about the size of a standard modern cardboard box. These boxes, often beautifully inlaid or painted, opened from the top and were used to keep jewelry, toiletries, and clothing.

The palace, as all nonreligious structures, was constructed out of bricks, plaster, and wood, not stone, which was used for temples and tombs, and was meant to last for eternity. Stone was used in the palace for thresholds, column bases, and in bathrooms or slabs on which to set water jars—in other words, places that would have a lot of wear and tear. Enough of the painted plaster from the interior of the palace was found by excavators to be able to reconstruct what the main hallway must have looked like. The columns were wood, cut to look like lotus stalks, and painted blue-green. The plaster on the pavement of the hall was painted much the same color but with ripples like a lake, and fishes were painted on it. There was a black-and-red-patterned dado on the lower part of the wall, and on the upper part, figures of royal women held up offerings in the direction of the king. The wooden ceilings were plastered over and painted with a long line of repeated depictions of the vulture goddess Nekhbet with wings spread out, as if the goddess was flying toward the king on his throne. The main colors throughout the entire hallway were blue, red, and yellow. In the smaller apartments, fragments of plaster were found painted with pictures of calves leaping among plants and birds flying up out of flowers. The decoration was designed to show a world of living creatures and plants flourishing under the rays of the sun and therefore also in the presence of the king, who was the sun god on the earth.


At the site of Gurob, Mi-Wer in ancient Egypt, in the Fayum, remains were found of a harem that was established in the reign of King Thutmose III in the Eighteenth Dynasty and used till the reign of King Ramses II in the later Nineteenth Dynasty. It is a harem that is completely separate from a royal residence and functioned by itself. Excavations show that there were two rectangular residential structures parallel to each other and surrounded by a wall. Nearby there were workshops, a small settlement, and a cemetery. From the fragments of papyri found at the site, it appears that the women in the harem were weaving very fine “royal linen.” There is also archaeological evidence that backs that up. Textile fragments, “spindle-whorls, spinning bowls, and loom equipment,” have all been discovered there (Picton 2016: 240). The names and titles of the officials at the harem, the “overseer of the harem,” the “deputy of the harem,” and the “servant of the harem,” all of whom were male, have also been found. The Mi-Wer documents mention a similar harem at Memphis, although it has not yet been discovered, and there is evidence for the titles of an official for a harem at Thebes as well. There were objects found at the Mi-Wer site with the names of Queen Tiye and her husband Amenhotep III, so she may have lived there for some time. Queen Tiye’s famous head make from dark wood, now in the Berlin Museum (21.834/17852), came from the site of Mi-Wer.


In the New Kingdom, beginning with the reign of King Thutmose IV (1400–1390 BCE), it became common for the ancient Egyptian king to request a wife from a Near Eastern ruler. It was a way of bettering foreign relations and keeping the peace, with the caveat that it was a one-way exchange; the king of Egypt never sent one of his female relations to marry a foreign ruler. The first of these marriages seems to have been between Thutmose IV and the daughter of the ruler of Mitanni, in northern Mesopotamia. The marriage is attested in a later letter from the ruler of Mitanni and the Egyptian king. After that, these foreign marriages become more common and are substantiated by much better evidence.

In year ten of his reign, King Amenhotep III married a princess from Mitanni, the area which is now northern Syria. She became his second official wife, after his Egyptian “King’s Great Wife,” Tiye. The announcement of the marriage was inscribed on a commemorative scarab, of which there are a number of copies. The translated text can be read as a Primary Document below. The most amazing part is that the princess, named Gilukhepa, arrived with an entourage of 317 attendants, servants, and ladies-in-waiting. There must have been an extensive harem building just for this one wife, although no archaeological evidence has been found that would shed any light on this woman’s life in Egypt. There is only a letter from her brother, Tushratta, when he was king of Mitanni, late in the reign of Amenhotep III, that he had sent his sister jewelry (Ziegler 2008: 235).

In year thirty-four of his reign, King Ramses II (1279–1213 BCE) married a princess from the land of Hatti in ancient Anatolia, or Turkey, and gave her the title “King’s Great Wife.” He also gave her an Egyptian name, Maathorneferura, which translates as “she who beholds the falcon king, visible splendor of Ra” (Kitchen 1982: 89). A stela was carved in stone at the temple of Abu Simbel to commemorate the marriage, and there are several small objects that have been found with the name of this queen. It appears that in later years, Maathorneferura lived at the harem in Mi-Wer, because a papyrus found there refers to the fact that the king of Hatti sent linen to her at Mi-Wer (Picton 216: 234).


The harem at times must have had numbers of royal wives, all of whom, if they had a son, would have wanted him to be his father’s successor. For example, around the pyramid complex of King Pepy I (2321–2287 BCE) of the Sixth Dynasty are seven small pyramid complexes for women who were his wives. There also could have been other wives. That means, at least seven different but related families would have been in the harem, just from those women. King Pepy I complained to his close and loyal official, Weni, that one of his queens had unsuccessfully conspired against him, and he wanted Weni to be very discreet and investigate the matter. Weni explains this in the autobiography in his tomb, but he mentions the queen only with a title and does not give her name. Weni does not give details of what happened, but clearly the problem was taken care of.

Much later, in the reign of Ramses III (1184–1153 BCE) in the Twentieth Dynasty, a rather large conspiracy was put together to assassinate the king, led by a minor wife in the harem, named Tiye. There is a papyrus in the Turin Museum, known as the Turin Juridical Papyrus, that contains a complete record of the conspirators’ trial. Thirty-seven people, along with the minor queen and her son, Pentaweret, were found guilty. Those thirty-seven people got the death penalty, and the son was allowed to “die by his own hand,” or commit suicide, but the text does not say what happened to his mother; presumably, as part of the royal family, she received the same punishment. Scholars have always been divided over what may have happened to the king, because the Juridical Papyrus never says what happened to him, although the conspirators mention magic and poison, and one of the guilty men was the king’s personal physician. Did Ramses III die in the assassination attempt or sometime later? Finally, in 2012, the mummy of Ramses III had a CT scan done. This showed that under the linen collar that was always wrapped around the king’s throat, his throat had been cut completely through back to his cervical vertebrae, killing him instantly.


Nefertari, the main queen of King Ramses II of the Nineteenth Dynasty, was one of only two queens of ancient Egypt who were deified while they were alive. The other was Queen Tiye, the “King’s Great Wife” of King Amenhotep III in the Eighteenth Dynasty. The earliest depiction of Nefertari is of her and her husband in his first year of reign, although there is inscriptional evidence that she was his wife before he was crowned the king. We don’t know anything about her origins, although her brother, Amenmose, was the mayor of Thebes, so they must have been from an elite family.

Nefertari held a number of titles that hint at her importance. Her main title was “king’s great wife whom he loves,” and she was also called “beloved of Mut,” who was the divine wife of the god Amun-Ra. She was also called “mistress of the two lands,” a title that goes back to the Middle Kingdom, and also “wife of the strong bull,” which, of course, reflects her husband’s status.

Nefertari gave birth to four sons, the first of whom was the firstborn son of Ramses II, Amenherkepeshef. He died as a young boy and was buried in the Valley of the Queens near where his mother’s tomb was built. His three brothers also died before being able to take the throne, as their father, Ramses II, lived into his mid-eighties, twice the average life span in ancient Egypt. Ramses II had a second great wife, Iset-Nofret, and it was her son, Merneptah, who finally succeeded his father as king. It is clear that Iset-Nofret was not as important as Nefertari, as she never had a temple built for her, and she was not shown depicted with Ramses II, but Nefertari always was. She was depicted in the Luxor Temple, at Karnak, and also at the Ramesseum, the mortuary temple of Ramses II. Nefertari also had two daughters that we know of, Meryetamun and Nebettawy. Nefertari must have lived in the royal residence at Ramses in the Eastern Delta, but virtually no evidence of her has been discovered there.

Ramses II built two rock-cut temples at Abu Simbel in Lower Nubia, deifying himself as the god Ra in the large, main temple and deifying his wife, Nefertari, as Hathor in the smaller temple. The temple of Ramses II is exactly twice as big as the temple for his wife. On the façade of her temple, however, her standing figures are as big as the ones of her husband standing with her. The temples were built and decorated by the king’s regnal year twenty-four, and the royal family traveled from Ramses to Abu Simbel, about a thousand-mile trip, for the ceremonies opening the temples. But Nefertari is not depicted in the reliefs carved at Abu Simbel for this occasion. Ramses II is shown with their daughter, Meryetamun, instead of Nefertari. Perhaps the queen was not well, or perhaps she had already passed away.

Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of the Queens is probably the most beautiful queen’s tomb from all of ancient Egypt. It was very badly damaged by rainwater and flooding over the years, as well as being used for numerous burials in later times. The tomb was excavated by Ernesto Schiaparelli of the Turin Museum in 1904, and the wall paintings were restored and repaired by the Getty Museum, from 1986 to 1992. Nefertari was not a king, so she could not have the same religious texts and depictions in her tomb that her husband could have in his tomb. Instead, the painters who did her tomb used inscriptions and pictures from the Book of the Dead that paralleled the inscriptions and scenes that a king would have. The tomb is on two levels; the lower level where her sarcophagus was present was symbolic of the Duat or the underworld, the realm of Osiris. The upper level represented the Achet or the horizon with the spells that would have the queen transform into a being who could live eternally.

Schiaparelli found Nefertari’s damaged granite sarcophagus in the tomb, along with broken pottery jars and wooden furniture. There were thirty-four wooden shabti figures with her name incised on them, a pair of sandals, and two fragments from a mummified leg. In 2016, the leg fragments were scanned and studied. They were judged to belong to an adult female of about forty years of age, which fits about how old Nefertari would have been when she died. In fact, forty was considered old in ancient Egypt. It is assumed from this fact, and the fact that the mummification of the fragments had been very well done, that they probably belong to Neferteri.


From earliest times in ancient Egypt, the king’s mother was acknowledged as a particularly important person. Some of the kings listed on the Palermo Stone, which is inscribed with annals of the kings of Egypt from the First Dynasty (3000–2890 BCE) through to the middle of the Fifth Dynasty, have their mothers’ names written right after theirs, which is a reflection of their status. When Manetho wrote his history of Egypt, Aegyptiaca, in the time of Ptolemy II, he added in comments and information along with the king list that he compiled. For the Second Dynasty (2890–2686 BCE), Manetho wrote that women could be king. This much later comment on early Egypt reflects the fact that when the king’s son was very young, his mother ruled in his name until he was old enough to rule by himself. Scholars don’t know at what age ancient Egyptians considered a child old enough to rule alone but probably around ten to twelve years old. Undoubtedly, there were numerous times when the person functioning as king must have been a woman.


The earliest example known of a mother ruling for her young son was the king’s mother, Meretneith, who lived in the First Dynasty (3000–2890 BCE). She was the mother of King Den, who ruled when her husband King Djet died, and her son, Den, was still a young boy. The evidence for this family relationship is based on the fact that Meretneith is named as the mother of Den in the Palermo Stone, and her position as regent for her son seems to be clear by the fact that she was included, with her title “king’s mother,” in a list of king’s names on a clay sealing found at Abydos. Meretneith’s tomb was constructed next to that of her husband, Djet, in the royal cemetery at Abydos where only the kings of the first two dynasties were buried. Her tomb was also just northwest of that of her son, Den, and clay sealings with his Horus name were found in her tomb. Like the other royal tombs in the cemetery, Meretneith’s tomb had two large stelae with her name on them, set up on the east side of her tomb. There was one difference between her stelae and those of the kings; she did not have her name in a serekh or palace façade design. The serekh façade is a decoration representing the walls of the king’s palace and surrounded the Horus name of the king, expressing that “Horus is in the palace.” Meretneith did not have a Horus name; her son did, and so her stelae were not decorated with a serekh façade.

Meretneith’s burial chamber was cut down into the ground and measures about thirty by twenty-three feet, with eight small, rectangular rooms, probably storage magazines, going all around it. This structure was then surrounded, except on the south corner, by forty-one subsidiary burials. The number of subsidiary tombs is fewer than those around the earlier royal tombs built, but perhaps because Meretneith was technically not a king, she had fewer. These subsidiary burials only appear around the royal tombs of the First Dynasty, and then they stop. They appear to have been human sacrifices, as they are almost all young men in their twenties. They may have been killed to go into the afterlife with the king and continue to serve him. There is no evidence from their skeletal remains as to why they might have been put to death. Like all the other royal tombs at Abydos, Meretneith’s tomb also has a separate funerary enclosure, “funerary fort” farther north at Abydos, where rituals and ceremonies of kinship would have been carried out. The enclosure accepted as hers only has slight remains of two of the walls and some of the subsidiary burials. Like the king’s tomb, sacrificial burials were also at their “funerary fort.”

This evidence for Meretneith’s life and her position is not extensive, especially because there is no evidence for her daily life or actions or thoughts. The archaeological and inscriptional evidence is so important, however, because it is the first time there is any kind of glimpse into the members of an early ancient Egyptian royal family, and in particular, evidence of the role of a female member of the royal family.


Evidence is a little more substantial for Ankhenespepy II, a king’s mother of the Sixth Dynasty. She was one of two sisters from Abydos, in Upper Egypt, whom King Pepy I married. They were the daughters of an elite provincial couple. The marriages have been described as an attempt by King Pepy I to seek out a new base of power with provincial dignitaries who were not from the traditional elite families of the Memphite area, because there had just been an unsuccessful harem conspiracy against the king. It has been suggested, as well, that Pepy I was trying to marry the daughters of trusted and devoted provincial officials, who may also have been related to the king.

Both sisters had the name Ankhenespepy, “May Pepy live for you.” Egyptologists refer to the two women as Ankhenespepy I and II. It is often assumed that their names were given to them at the time of their marriage, but there are several examples of nonroyal women with the same name, so it is possible that they were birth names. It is also not clear if the king married them at the same time or separately. Ankhenespepy I apparently married the king first, as she had a son who was older than the son to whom Ankhenespepy II gave birth. Ankhenespepy I’s son, Merenra, becomes the king first, and when he dies, Ankhenespepy II’s son, Pepy II, becomes the king. This situation is known because it is explained in an inscription found at Abydos, on a stela belonging to the sisters’ brother, Djau, who was a vizier in the middle of Pepy II’s reign.

After a reign of twenty to twenty-five years, King Pepy I passed away, and his son, Merenra, born to Ankhenespepy I, succeeded him. King Merenra seems to have had a somewhat short rule of perhaps ten years, and then his younger brother, Pepy II, son of Ankhenespepy II, takes the throne. King Pepy II is said to have been six years old when he took the throne, and so his mother, Ankhenespepy II, ruled for him as the regent. A visual statement of her position as regent can be seen in the alabaster statuette in the Brooklyn Museum (39.119), which portrays the queen sitting on a throne with her young son, the king, sitting sideways on her lap with his feet on a second throne, perpendicular to his mother’s.

Ankhenespepy II wears a vulture headdress, which in the Old Kingdom signified the queen mother. A small hole above her forehead once held a vulture’s head, undoubtedly added in gold, and traces of the vulture’s wings can be seen covering her hair. The throne block on which the king puts his feet carries a vertical inscription with his throne name, followed by “beloved of Khnum.” This same phrase is written before the name of his mother. The reference to the god Khnum would seem to suggest that the piece came from a temple or chapel at Elephantine, at the border with Nubia, where the cult of Khnum was located, although the provenance of the piece is not known.

There is more evidence for the regency of Pepy II’s mother from an inscription at the quarry of Maghara in the Sinai, dating to the fourth year of Pepy II. The complete titulary of the king is given, along with the titles of his mother, who is named both king’s mother and king’s wife. Her name is followed by a small figure of the queen, who seems to be holding a lotus in one hand and an ankh symbol in the other.

There is no evidence as to how long Ankhenespepy II lived, but when she died, she was buried in a pyramid complex by the pyramid of her husband, Pepy I, in south Saqqara. Her pyramid was much smaller than that of her husband but the largest of the seven queens’ pyramids built by Pepy I’s pyramid. It was discovered in the year 2000 in the southwest corner of the king’s complex. A massive, seventeen-ton, red granite lintel from a doorway into the pillared court of her mortuary temple had been found already. The inscription on the lintel gives her name and title of king’s mother on the left side and the name of Pepy II’s pyramid on the right. To hold the title “king’s mother,” her husband, the king, had to die so that the son was king. This means that Ankhenespepy II’s pyramid complex was built or at least finished under her son’s reign.

Damaged blocks from her mortuary temple have been reassembled into a scene of Ankhenespepy II standing on a skiff and pulling on papyrus stalks in a ritual connected with the goddess Hathor. This type of ritual was restricted to royalty. Ankhenespepy II stands in the boat with her legs apart, not in a way a woman is usually shown in ancient Egyptian art. Legs apart is a male stance, and the king’s mother has undoubtedly been given this stance to hint at the fact that she fulfilled a male role in ruling for her son.

Ankhenespepy II’s complex has an antichambre carrée, normally a space found only in kings’ pyramid complexes. It is a square chamber with one central pillar that was always decorated with scenes of gods and goddesses, or divine processions, greeting the king. This is one more hint at the fact that this woman was like a king.

A dark stone sarcophagus was found in the burial chamber with some bones and linen wrapping still in it. The bones, mostly long bones, were those of an older adult female and so very likely belonged to the queen herself. The walls of her burial chamber were covered with Pyramid Texts, with the hieroglyphs retaining traces of green color. Pyramid Texts are spells to aid the king in reaching the afterlife and living forever. They were first put in the pyramid of King Unas at the end of the Fifth Dynasty. Ankhenespepy II’s Pyramid Texts are the first ones put into the pyramid of a queen. Once again, this shows the fact that she was like a king and that her son wanted her honored in that way.


Much later in ancient Egyptian history, in the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom, a queen named Hatshepsut acted as regent for her husband’s son by another wife. Hatshepsut was a royal princess, who had married her brother, Thutmose II. Her husband had another wife, who was not from the royal family, and she bore him a son, also called Thutmose. Thutmose III seems to have been a baby when his father, Thutmose II, died. Hatshepsut served as the regent and, as a contemporary inscription says, “conducted the affairs of the country.” For a period of possibly two to seven years, Hatshepsut was content with being regent, and then she took a crown name, in other words, a king’s name, and became co-regent with Thutmose III.

Co-regencies were fairly common in ancient Egypt and an accepted way for a king to guarantee that his son and heir would get the throne. The son would be crowned and become king with his father so that two men were actually the king. When the father died, there was no question about the son’s position, because he was already king. This is what Hatshepsut did; she became a co-regent. It would seem that this situation, an older female becoming co-regent, must have had the backing of both the royal family and the highest officials in the administration. In fact, most of the officials had served Hatshepsut’s father, Thutmose I, and were probably completely loyal to her.

There is some evidence that at the beginning of her kingship, Hatshepsut was depicted with a mixture of clothing and symbols of a queen and a king. Then, probably for state purposes, a change was made, and she was depicted with a male physique and male clothing. It was clear, of course, to everyone that she was actually a woman. Some inscriptions have confusion in the pronouns used, if should it be “he” or “she.” One of the officials who went on the military campaign in Nubia with Hatshepsut says in one of his tomb inscriptions, “I followed the good god, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, may she live! I saw when he overthrew the Nubian bowmen” (Redford 1967: 57).

From all the evidence we have, it appears that Hatshepsut was a very effective and able ruler. She carried out an extensive building program at the temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak, including setting up two obelisks. There is evidence that she carried out a military campaign in Nubia. She sent an expedition to the land of Punt to bring back myrrh, incense, and other exotic goods. Her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari is enormous and beautifully decorated and had been filled with statuary of her as king.

A statue of Hatshepsut as king at her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari on the West Bank of Thebes. (Ignasi Such/Dreamstime.com)

She and her stepson ruled together for twenty-two years, by which time, by ancient Egyptian standards, Hatshepsut would have been quite old. Based on scans that were done on her mummy, her bones were riddled with cancerous lesions. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Thutmose III might have tried to get rid of his stepmother/co-regent, and in fact, the lengthy and successful reign that Thutmose III went on to have after she died was probably based on the strong and stable country that she left him to rule.


Nefertiti, whose name means “the Beautiful One Has Come,” married King Amenhotep IV, son of Amenhotep III (1390–1352 BCE), of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Rather than staying and ruling from the capital, Memphis, in the north of Egypt, Amenhotep III lived on the West Bank of the Nile at ancient Thebes, at a palace complex called Malqata. We don’t know if Nefertiti was related to her husband’s family, but we do know the name of her wet nurse, which was Tiy, and that the high official Ay, who seems to have been related to the maternal family of Amenhotep IV, was the husband of Tiy.

Amenhotep IV spent five years at Thebes and in that time built eight structures dedicated to the Aten, the physical disk of the sun, who became his new god. During this time, Nefertiti gave birth to two daughters and also was depicted as important in serving the cult of the Aten. Blocks preserved from one of the structures built for the Aten that was called the Hwt Benben, or the temple of the sacred benben stone of the sun god, shows Nefertiti, rather than the king, making the offerings to the god, along with her oldest daughter, Meritaten. Other very interesting blocks found at Karnak show Nefertiti alone in a chariot, driving it behind the chariot of her husband. This is the very first time there is evidence for any female to have had anything to do with chariots.

Then, in year five, the king changes his name to Akhenaten, “the one who is useful for the Aten”; closes Karnak Temple; and moves to an empty area in middle Egypt, now referred to as Amarna, or Tell el-Amarna. In a matter of a few years, Akhenaten had built a new city to the god Aten, where he stayed and ruled for about twelve years, until his death, probably in regnal year seventeen. Some scholars think that Nefertiti is the person who ruled after him for a year or two, using the name Neferneferuaten. Then, the boy Tutankhaten becomes king, and Amarna is deserted, as the royal court returns to Memphis, and the new, young king changes his name to Tutankhamun.

In the time at Amarna, Nefertiti gives birth to four more daughters. However, by regnal year fourteen, two of the daughters have died. There are many more scenes in private elite tombs at Amarna of Nefertiti driving her own chariot, and her daughters are also shown in chariots, but they have female attendants with them, and the chariot has a male driver. Nefertiti’s famous bust that is in the Berlin Museum was found in the private workshop of the artist Thutmose at his villa in the south of Amarna. The queen is depicted wearing her very unusual high, flat-top blue crown, which might have been her way of having a crown matching her husband’s royal blue war crown. It is not known when Nefertiti died. She seems to have had a tomb cut for her in the wadi at Amarna, but there is no evidence of a burial.


King Pepy I (2321–2287 BCE) of the Sixth Dynasty issued this decree at the time of his heb sed festival, celebrating thirty years of reign. It was found at the temple precinct of the god Min, at Coptos in Upper Egypt, and is now in the collection of the Cairo Museum. It is inscribed on a rectangular stela. In a scene at the top, the god Min faces the king, who extends an offering to him. The king’s mother, Iput, stands behind the king, wearing the vulture headdress. The inscription makes clear that no one, even those attached to the royal residence, can take anything from or tax this chapel belonging to her. The text of the decree, slightly damaged in two places, reads as follows:

The Coptite nome, Coptos, the King’s Mother Iput’s ka-chapel: I have ordered to exempt this ka-chapel ///// people, large and small cattle, ///// any messenger who goes south on any business, My Majesty does not allow any burden to the ka-chapel, nor does My Majesty allow the “Following of Horus” to burden it. My Majesty ordered to exempt this ka-chapel. My Majesty does not allow to press for any payments for the (royal) residence from this ka-chapel.

Source: Goedicke, H. Königliche Dokumente aus dem Alten Reich. Wiesbaden, 1967, p. 43, fig. 4. Translated by Lisa Sabbahy from the hieroglyphic copy.


This text was inscribed on large, commemorative scarabs issued by King Amenhotep III (1390–1352 BCE), to be sent around the country and proclaim his marriage to the daughter of Shutarna, the ruler of the land of Mitanni, which was called Naharin in ancient Egypt. Six copies of this scarab are known. The top line of the inscription states that it is year ten of Amenhotep III’s rule and gives his full titulary as king. Then it continues with the name and parents of his first and “great king’s wife” Tiye and then announces the arrival of his foreign wife and her attendants.

Great king’s wife, Tiye, may she live! The name of her father is Yuya, the name of her mother is Thuya. The wonders that were brought to His Majesty, may he live, may he prosper, may he be healthy! The daughter of the Great One of Naharin, Shutarna, (named) Gilukhepa. The best of her harem: 317 women.

Source: de Buck, A. Egyptian Readingbook. Leiden, 1948, p. 67, 2–5. Translated by Lisa Sabbahy from the hieroglyphic copy.

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