The Royal Harem


Beware of the woman who is a stranger in your town. Do not stare at her as she goes by, and avoid sexual intercourse with her. Such a woman, away from her husband, is like deep water whose depth is unknown.

Prudent advice from the New Kingdom Scribe Any

The harem is a concept largely unknown in both ancient and modern western culture. However, the image of the exotic Turkish-style seraglio, a secluded and closely guarded pleasure-palace filled with scantily dressed concubines idling away their days in languid preparation for their sultan’s command, has become an integral part of our western fascination with the mysterious east, a fascination which stretches from the temptingly decadent orientalist paintings of the nineteenth century along the Road to Moroccoand beyond. Most inappropriately, it is this vision of a haven of oriental hedonism and secret sensual delights which has heavily influenced our interpretation of the evidence for and against the role of the harem in Egyptian society.

Early excavators fully expected to find Ottoman-style harems in Egypt and so find them they did, ruthlessly classifying almost all single and otherwise unexplained females as either concubines or courtesans in need of male protection. On this shaky basis of dubious identifications and outright guesswork the concept of the wildly polygamous Egyptian society grew to become firmly entrenched in the public imagination, influencing the interpretation of new archaeological finds. It is only in the past few years that egyptologists, aided by new archaeological, linguistic and anthropological research, have come to realize that their understanding has been seriously warped by these preconceived ideas and ingrained assumptions. We now know that there was no direct Egyptian equivalent of the traditional seraglio described above and no widespread tradition of either polygamy or concubinage; the royal harem of the pharaohs certainly did exist, but as a very different place to the high-class brothel of our imagination.

If you wish to retain the friendship of the household which you enter either as a master, a brother or a friend, whatever you do, beware of approaching the women.

Old Kingdom scribal advice

Although the overwhelming majority of Egyptian men remained monogamous, officially restricting themselves to one wife at a time, all householders could find themselves in the position of providing a home for a varied assortment of unmarried or widowed sisters, daughters, aunts, mothers-in-law and mothers. Consequently, the private women’s quarters of any sizeable household or palace could reasonably be classified as a harem, the term being used in its modern sense to refer to either the group of ladies or to their accommodation without any necessary implication of sexual bondage. The king, in his role as head of the royal family, had the duty of supporting a relatively large group of queens, princesses and concubines together with their numerous children, nurses and personal attendants. This group of women constituted the royal harem.

Unfortunately, we do not know how the Egyptians themselves referred to these households of women. During the Old and Middle Kingdoms the term ipet nesut was used to describe a vague but obviously female-based royal institution. This term is now conventionally translated as ‘Harem of the King’, although the exact meaning of ipet is by no means certain and it may well prove equally valid to interpret the ipet nesut as the ‘Royal Women’s Quarters’, the ‘Royal Apartments’ or even the ‘Royal Granary’ or the ‘Royal Accounts Office’.1 Following the traditional translation, various male officials have been identified as ‘Overseer of the Harem’; as this identification rests solely on the interpretation of the word ipet, it may be incorrect. In a similar fashion, the ladies of the royal court who bore vague and non-explicit titles such as ‘Royal Ornament’ or ‘Sole Royal Ornament’ have conventionally been interpreted as royal concubines. However, this is a translation which again reflects the preoccupations of the early egyptologists; it is now clear that the ‘Sole Royal Ornaments’ were eminently respectable First Intermediate Period ladies who were often also priestesses of Hathor, while the more general title of ‘Royal Ornament’ was used to describe the ladies-in-waiting attached to the 13th Dynasty court.

The earliest direct evidence for an entourage of women ‘belonging’ to the monarch is provided by the subsidiary burials which are associated with the royal tombs of the Archaic Period 1st Dynasty at Abydos. These graves were allocated to men and women who had been closely attached to the king in a personal and subservient capacity, rather than to high-ranking court officials and ministers. They therefore include servants and minor mortuary priests, together with dwarfs, favourite dogs and, of course, favourite women.2The number of subsidiary burials accompanying each monarch varied but was invariably large; for example, the burial-complex of King Djer included the graves of over three hundred associated retainers. Ninety-seven private stelae have survived from Djer’s secondary burials, and it is striking that seventy-six (78 per cent) of these graves were occupied by women. Many of these ladies had been interred with high-quality grave-goods suggesting that they had been people of some importance in court circles; it is by no means a foregone conclusion that they were all royal concubines.

Unfortunately, most of the subsidiary burials have been badly plundered and their human remains dispersed, so that in many cases it is now only the names and rather vague titles carved on the surviving gravestones which give an indication of the sex of the interred. We therefore have no scientific evidence to suggest how the occupants of these graves met their end. It may be that as the king made detailed preparations for his own death he also made provision for his loyal retainers, allocating plots of land for their subsidiary graves and thereby ensuring that, at the end of their natural lives, they could be interred in the shadow of their master’s far more impressive tomb. Alternatively, it must be considered at least possible that the graves were dug for servants who were either killed or forced to commit suicide following the death of their master. Professor Emery, the excavator of the subsidiary graves around the Sakkara burial associated with Queen Meryt-Neith, had the opportunity of observing the position of some of the human remains as the graves were opened, and he remarked that:

No trace of violence was noted on the anatomical remains, and the position of the skeletons in no case suggested any movement after burial. It would therefore appear probable that when these people were buried they were already dead and there is no evidence of their having been buried alive. The absence of any marks of violence suggests that they were killed by poison prior to burial.3

The harsh tradition of automatically sacrificing loyal retainers and even wives following the natural death of their master or husband is one which is occasionally found in strongly feudal and patriarchal societies both ancient and modern. Indeed, the now illegal Indian custom of suttee, which requires a widow to throw herself on to her husband’s blazing funeral pyre, is still surreptitiously practised in remote parts of rural India today. The most relevant contemporary parallel to the archaic Egyptian burials comes from Mesopotamia. The Sumerian Royal Cemetery of Ur has been dated to approximately 2650 BC. Here, both kings and queens shared magnificent tombs with their personal attendants and a wealth of treasure, while the associated burials included a mass grave, now known as the Great Death Pit, which yielded the bodies of six men and sixty-eight elegantly dressed women. All these courtiers had apparently entered their grave willingly, taking poison to the accompaniment of music provided by the musicians whose fingers were still resting on their harp strings four thousand years later. The Sumerian Royal family, like the Egyptian, enjoyed semi-divine status and was perceived as the mortal parallel to the heavenly gods. It would appear that their servants and attendants were happy enough to exchange a certain earthly existence for the chance to continue to serve their gods in the next world.4

Although it is possible that either voluntary or involuntary human sacrifices were made during the Archaic Period, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this wasteful tradition extended into the Old Kingdom. However, the Old Kingdom monarchs did continue the custom of maintaining a relatively large group of women attached to the court, and the more important of these women, the principal wives, daughters and mothers of kings, were eventually buried in the subsidiary tombs constructed around the royal pyramids. Herodotus believed, incorrectly, that at least one Old Kingdom princess had earned the wealth to build her own pyramid:

The wickedness of King Cheops reached such a pitch that, when he had spent all his treasures and wanted more, he sent his daughter to the brothels with orders to earn a certain sum for him – how much, I don’t know. She earned the money, but at the same time she asked each of her clients to give her one stone as a contribution towards building a monument which would perpetuate her own memory. With these stones she eventually built the pyramid which stands in the middle of the three which are in front of the great pyramid.

More direct evidence for the existence of the Middle Kingdom royal harem comes from Papyrus Boulaq 18, a day-book which lists all the business undertaken by the 13th Dynasty court at Thebes and so provides us with details of the composition of the immediate royal household at that time. Thanks to this document we know that the king’s personal entourage was made up of eight to thirteen male court officials plus the royal family (one queen, one prince, three king’s daughters and nine king’s sisters) together with the ‘house of nurses’: nineteen nurses and associated groups of children. All these high-ranking ladies were crammed together in rather basic accommodation within the royal residence, generally occupying a stark suite of rooms built around a courtyard close to the king’s private quar ters. This lack of ornate or richly decorated apartments was typical of all Egyptian palaces. Throughout the Dynastic age it was customary for the court to move around the country on long tours of inspection and, consequently, the royal palaces were not necessarily designed for permanent occupation. Instead, they were built to be used as short-stay rest houses and the fact that most were named ‘Mooring Place of Pharaoh’ accurately reflects their rather sporadic occupation. Only the New Kingdom palace at Amarna seems to have been intended for a more settled family life.


Fig. 29 Sculptor working on a statue of Queen Meresankh

By the beginning of the New Kingdom the royal harem had expanded to encompass a far wider range of women, including numerous concubines and secondary wives of foreign origin. Polygamous royal marriages had always been acceptable in Egypt but during the New Kingdom, perhaps due to greater foreign influence, there was a clear increase in the number of royal brides, with a corresponding increase in the number of royal children. The long-lived King Ramesses II, who died when over ninety years old, was perhaps unusually well-blessed; he proudly claimed to have fathered at least seventy-nine sons and fifty-nine daughters by various women – all of these would have spent at least their earlier years within the crowded harem. At this time the phrase per khenret was used to denote a community of women; per clearly means house, but khenret, which is generally translated as harem, is highly similar to the words used to mean prison and fortress. All three words seem to come from the same root, meaning ‘to restrain’, hinting, perhaps misleadingly, that there may have been an element of compulsion about membership of the royal harem. An alternative suggestion, that khenret should be translated as ‘establishment of musicians’, is still the subject of intense debate among egyptologists.5

A miracle brought to His Majesty Kirgipa [Gilukhepa], the daughter of the prince of Nahrin Sutarna, and the members of her harem, some 317 women.

Marriage scarab of Amenhotep III

The kings of Egypt did not like to use their women as pawns in tactical marriages with neighbouring monarchs. When the King of Babylon, whose daughter was married to Amenhotep III, requested an Egyptian princess for his own harem he was curtly told ‘Since the days of old, no Egyptian king’s daughter has been given to anyone.’ In contrast, they had absolutely no objection to welcoming foreign women into their own household when it suited their diplomatic ambitions. Marriage with the daughter of a neighbouring monarch ensured that the two kings became relations, and therefore friends, strengthening alliances and reducing the chances of conflict. Consequently, although diplomatic royal marriages were unknown during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, from the time of Tuthmosis IV onwards there was a slow trickle of foreign princesses entering Egypt in order to marry the king. These women travelled to their weddings with large dowries and considerable numbers of female attendants. They were received with all due pomp and ceremony and were then established in the harem-palace, where they took an Egyptian name and the honourable title of secondary wife6 before sinking into obscurity.

Gilukhepa, a princess of the Asian kingdom of Mitanni, was sent by her father to marry King Amenhotep III. Their marriage agreement was the subject of a lengthy diplomatic correspondence which was fortuitously preserved on clay tablets in the Amarna state archives, while their eventual union was commemorated on the marriage scarab quoted above.7 Amenhotep was clearly happy with the new addition to his household, for several years later he started to negotiate for the hand of Tadukhepa, another princess of Mitanni, the daughter of King Tushrata and the niece of Gilukhepa. In these new marriage negotiations Tushrata stipulated that his daughter should be acknowledged as a principal queen and ‘Mistress of Egypt’, providing a huge dowry to support his daughter’s claim. In return, Amenhotep presented his new father-in-law with an even larger amount of gold. Unfortunately, the elderly groom died soon after the marriage contract was completed and his entire harem, including Tadukhepa, Gilukhepa and the daughter of the King of Babylon, was transferred to his son and heir, the future King Akhenaten.

Then His Majesty saw that her face was beautiful, like that of a goddess. The daughter of the prince of Khatti was beautiful in the heart of His Majesty. He loved her more than anything else… He had her named Queen Maatnefrure.

King Ramesses II on meeting his Hittite bride

Over a hundred years later, a Hittite princess left her home to become the bride of the 19th Dynasty King Ramesses II. The distant Hittite kingdom had entered into a diplomatic treaty with Egypt in Year 21 of Ramesses’ reign, with both sides pledging to respect each other’s territory and agreeing to act as allies in the event of attack from a third party. To mark the onset of cordial relations between the two lands Ramesses wrote personal letters to both the Hittite King Khattasulis and his queen, Pudukhepa, while the Queen of Egypt, Nefertari, also sent formal letters to the Hittite court. After years these friendly relations were still in place, and to add strength to the alliance Ramesses married the daughter of Khattasulis and Pudukhepa, giving her the Egyptian name of Maatnefrure and uniquely, for a foreigner, allowing her to assume the title of ‘King’s Great Wife’.

The large increase in the numbers of royal women and their associated households now made it logistically impossible for the entire harem to travel around the country with the court. Instead, a select band of women accompanied the king, and permanent harem-palaces were built to house the surplus ladies and their retinues. These harem-palaces were independent, both physically and economically, of the main royal residence. The archaeological site of Medinet el-Ghurab, lying near the village of Kahun, is the best surviving example of such a harem-palace. This settlement, known in ancient times as Mer-Wer, was founded during the reign of Tuthmosis III and remained in constant use until the Late New Kingdom.8 It consisted of a group of mud-brick buildings contained within an enclosure wall. Included in the complex was a central block of living rooms and lofty pillared halls, several narrow storerooms, and even a small mud-brick temple, while extensive cemeteries were situated in the nearby desert sands. Although it was primarily home to a community of women, their children and their servants, men were by no means barred from Mer-Wer, and we know that at least eleven male administrators were seconded to the harem-palace throughout its life. These administrators, who were married men rather than eunuchs, were not guards but scribes and accountants charged with the task of helping to control the considerable business interests of the royal women. As the New Kingdom Wilbour Papyrus confirms, Mer-Wer quickly became an important financial institution, owning all the surrounding land and its crops and with clear rights over the labour of the local peasant farmers.

Beware of loyal subjects who do not really exist! For you will not be aware of their plotting. Trust neither a brother nor a friend and have no intimate companions, for they are worthless.

Extract from the Instructions of King Amenemhat I

Mer-Wer, situated at the mouth of the Faiyum, was obviously isolated from the main centres of Egyptian government. Was this an attempt to provide a stable background for the royal women and their children, away from the bustle of the court? Or should it be interpreted in a more sinister light, as a deliberate attempt to keep royal women out of political life? Certainly the harem-palace, housing ambitious royal wives and their even more ambitious sons, always had the potential of becoming a focus of civil unrest and political intrigue. Treason within the royal household was a very serious matter which was generally hushed-up by government officials as it contradicted the official doctrine of divine kingship. However, we do know of three palace plots which at different times threatened the stability of the country. The first and possibly the least serious of these occurred during the 6th Dynasty rule of King Pepi I. The long autobiography carved in the tomb-chapel of the official Weni tells how the deceased, a favourite of the king, had been asked to adjudicate in a top-secret case of unrest within the women’s quarters. We are not told of the outcome of this trial, although we do know that Weni received royal assistance with the furnishing of his tomb as a reward for his loyal services to the throne:

When there was a secret charge in the royal harem against Queen Weretkhetes, His Majesty made me hear the case alone, without any judge or vizier, because I was firmly planted in His Majesty’s heart and in his confidence. I put the matter in writing, together with an Overseer, even though I was merely an Overseer of the Tenants myself. Never before had anyone in my position heard a secret of the royal harem, but His Majesty asked me to hear it because he regarded me as worthy beyond any official of his, beyond any noble of his and indeed beyond any servant of his.

The theme of royal assassination forms the basis of the 12th Dynasty Instructions of King Amenemhat I to his son Senwosret I, in which the spirit of the king speaks directly to his successor, begging him to be aware of the potential treachery of his disloyal subjects. Experts originally believed that this piece had been composed by the king himself in the wake of an unsuccessful coup, but it is now thought to have been written by the royal scribe Khety following the assassination of Amenemhat in his thirtieth regnal year. The rhetorical questions ‘Has any woman previously raised troops? And has rebellion previously been raised in the palace?’ strongly imply that this was a plot hatched within the harem. Precise details of the fatal assault upon the king are included within the text, and it is made clear that he was killed by those whom he had previously trusted while alone and off his guard:

It was after supper and night had fallen. I was lying on my bed and resting, for I was very weary. As I began to drift into sleep, the very weapons which should have been used to protect me were turned against me… Had I been able to seize my weapon I would have beaten the cowards back single-handed. But no one is strong at night. No one can fight alone, and no success can be achieved without a helper.

Equally serious was the 20th Dynasty intrigue which threatened and possibly ended the life of Ramesses III. The 20th Dynasty was a period of sporadic civil unrest with high inflation leading to a succession of wildcat strikes in the Theban necropolis. The internal discontent was made worse by constant troubles along the western border and a spate of abortive invasions by the so-called ‘Sea Peoples’ who attempted to enter Egypt via the Mediterranean coast. A group of conspirators led by the royal concubine Tiy and the supervisor of the harem, Paibekkamen, attempted to capitalize on the mood of dissatisfaction by inciting a national uprising with the ultimate aim of placing Tiy’s son Pentawert on the throne. The plot was hatched in the ‘harem of the accompanying’, presumably the small harem which escorted the king in his travels, and involved many trusted officials including the deputy overseer, six inspectors and even the wives of the doorkeepers. We don’t know whether or not the conspirators succeeded in assassinating Ramesses III,9 but we do know that the planned national uprising failed and that Ramesses IV, the rightful heir to the throne, became the next king. The leaders of the plot were caught and sentenced to death either by execution or suicide, while the more minor participants had their noses and ears cut off.

The Prince of Nahrin had only one child, a daughter. He built for her a house whose windows were seventy cubits from the ground. He sent for all the sons of all the Princes of Syria, and said to them ‘Whoever leaps up and reaches my daughter’s window shall have her as a bride…’

From the New Kingdom Tale of the Doomed Prince

Although all Egyptian kings were polygamous, routinely marrying several women and maintaining a succession of royal concubines, only one wife was chosen from the harem to act as the official queen-consort and be the acknowledged queen of Egypt. Her name and image were linked with those of the king in the official records, she was the mother in the royal nuclear family and it was her children who would rightfully inherit the throne. The secondary wives and mistresses played a far more peripheral role in court life; although their presence added to the monarch’s prestige and, we must assume, provided him with an interesting diversion, they only became important at times of national crisis when the consort was unable to provide the king with a suitable son and heir.

Unfortunately, we have no idea how the principal queen was selected although it is clear that, as a general rule, the honour went most often to ladies of royal birth. Indeed, at least during the 18th Dynasty, the queen was often a full or half-sister of the king. However she was chosen, the ‘Great Royal Consort’ or ‘Great King’s Wife’ was undoubtedly the most important woman to reside within the royal harem. In private, she was likely to be a lady of considerable personal wealth and breeding who was able to use her feminine influence over one of the most powerful monarchs in the ancient Near East. In public, she was set apart from other wives as the companion and consort of a semi-divine ruler, and the potential mother of future semi-divine kings. Her political position was reinforced by her numerous honorary titles and by the granting of impressive privileges, such as the right to write her name in a cartouche10 or the right to be buried in a pyramid, which were otherwise reserved for the king alone. Given that the pharaoh was accepted as a living god, it is not surprising that the role of the queen-consort became very closely identified with several goddesses, principally Hathor and Maat, hinting at a divine origin for the queen herself and offering a further link between the secular and the sacred aspects of the monarchy.

It is very frustrating that we have virtually no information concerning either the private lives or the public duties of the queens of Egypt, and consequently no real understanding of the perceived role of the queen-consort. Although we can see that the queen’s titles, her official regalia and even her religious affiliations slowly evolved as the Dynastic period progressed, we can only draw the most tentative of conclusions from this combined evidence.11 We can see that the queens of the Old Kingdom, who did not adopt a standard diadem or crown, often served as priestesses for the cult of Hathor. This Hathoric tradition had died out by the end of the 11th Dynasty and the later Middle Kingdom queens, who are seldom mentioned in any official capacity, were rarely associated with any particular cult. Where they are depicted, these shadowy ladies wear a distinctive headdress of two tall feathers. The queens of the New Kingdom emerged from this relative obscurity as fully formed personalities wearing a complex range of royal insignia apparently intended to stress the links between the potentially divine queen and the gods. These New Kingdom queens did not as a rule serve as priestesses although the queenly title of ‘God’s Wife of Amen’ became very important at this time. By the Late Period, queens were again functioning as priestesses, but the suggestions of a connection between the queen and the gods had become somewhat muted.

Official illustrations almost invariably present the queen as a dutiful wife providing loyal but entirely passive support for her husband. In the approved Egyptian tradition the queen was literally expected to stand by the king, and indeed Queen Merytre, consort of the New Kingdom ruler Tuthmosis III, earned high praise as ‘one who is never absent from the side of the Lord of the Two Lands’. This essentially inactive role is constantly reinforced by the numerous scenes which show the queen observing her husband as he performs a royal duty, just as non-royal tomb scenes depict more humble wives watching their husbands at work. In the vast majority of these scenes the queen is totally static. She keeps her hands by her sides and, although she may carry an ankh sign symbolizing life or a sistrum to stress her link with Hathor, she has no formal role to play at the official function. It is not until the 18th Dynasty that we see a queen actually shake her sistrum, while only in very specialized and female-orientated scenes such as those depicting royal births, or those included on the walls of her tomb, do we see the queen acting independently of her husband.

The individual queens of the turbulent and unsettled Archaic Period are now very remote figures, better known for their funerary monuments than their deeds. However, four prominent women have emerged from the mists of historical obscurity to suggest that royal females played a far more prominent role in the unification of their country than the present dearth of evidence would suggest. Three of these women (Neith-Hotep, Her-Neith and Meryt-Neith) bear names compounded with that of the goddess Neith, the patron deity of the town of Sais in the Nile Delta, and this strongly implies that all three may have been born into prominent northern families; an important distinction at a time when Upper and Lower Egypt were still very much separate entities. One of these women, Queen Meryt-Neith, may have been a queen regnant rather than a queen-consort; the evidence for and against her reign is therefore considered in detail in Chapter 7.12

Queen Neith-Hotep may well have been the first queen-consort of the newly unified Egypt; the evidence recovered from her tomb certainly suggests that she was an important element in 1st Dynasty political life. We know that in spite of her northern name Neith-Hotep was buried at the southern site of Nagada, where her enormous tomb (measuring over 53 × 26 metres) contained objects inscribed with the names of both King Aha and his predecessor, King Narmer. Aha has been very tentatively identified as King Menes, the traditional unifier of the country, while we know that Narmer was a highly successful southern warrior king. It is perhaps not stretching the available evidence too far to suggest that Neith-Hotep, a princess from the north, was married to the southerner Narmer in order to add strength to his ambition to rule over both north and south. Aha, or Menes, would therefore be the son of both Neith-Hotep and Narmer, and a man with an impeccable right to claim the throne of a united Egypt. This suggestion of a dynastic marriage is supported by a decorated mace-head recovered from Hierakonpolis which shows Narmer participating in an unidentified ceremony while wearing the distinctive crown of Lower Egypt; this may well represent the celebration of his marriage with Neith-Hotep. History shows that such calculating alliances are certainly not unknown and, for example, some 4,500 years after Neith-Hotep’s marriage King Henry VII followed exactly the same line of reasoning when he married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of his defeated enemy, in order to emphasize his right to the throne of England and Wales.

The following queen-consort, Her-Neith, has been tentatively identified as the wife of the 1st Dynasty King Djer, the successor of Aha. Although we know little about her life, Her-Neith’s large and impressive Sakkara tomb is of considerable architectural and historical importance as it consists of a traditional rectangular mud-brick superstructure built over a pyramid-like mound of earth which is itself faced with brick. Experts disagree on the precise implication of hiding one tomb-type within another, but it is at least possible that this represents a rather unsatisfactory attempt to combine the tumulus-style burial mounds of the south with the linear tombs of the north, again hinting at a dynastic marriage between the two warring provinces. The last queen-consort of the Archaic Period, Queen Nemaathep, has also left little trace in the archaeological record. We know, however, that she was the wife of the last king of the 2nd Dynasty, Khasekhemwy, and was required to act as regent for her young son Djoser, the first king of the 3rd Dynasty. In recognition of her services Nemaathep was accorded the prestigious title of ‘Mother of the King’, and she was later worshipped as the ancestress of the kings of the 3rd Dynasty.

The queens of the Old Kingdom, living under more settled conditions, played a less obtrusive role in matters of state than their Archaic Period predecessors. The most prominent Old Kingdom consort was probably Queen Ankhes-Merire, the second wife of the 6th Dynasty King Pepi I. She acted as regnant for her son Pepi II who succeeded his half-brother to the throne at six years of age. Ankhes-Merire was actually the full sister of the first wife of Pepi I, also named Ankhes-Merire, who was the mother of his immediate successor Merenre. These sisters were the daughters of a local hereditary prince named Khui and, although not themselves of royal blood, they clearly belonged to an influential family as their brother Djau eventually became vizier of Egypt. Tradition decrees that the Old Kingdom ended with the rule of the Queen Regnant Nitocris.

With the exception of the 12th Dynasty Queen Regnant Sobeknofru, we know surprisingly little about the lives of the individual queens of the Middle Kingdom. This sudden disappearance of women from royal statuary and art coincides with a definite decrease in higher-ranking female job titles, and lends weight to suggestions that the women of the Middle Kingdom were expected, or forced, to play a far less conspicuous role in public life than had hitherto been accepted. Our main evidence for the queens of this time therefore comes from the royal burials. As in the Old Kingdom, the queens and princesses of the Middle Kingdom were traditionally interred close to their king, and the impressive 11th Dynasty funeral temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep at Deir el-Bahri appears to have been fairly typical in including provision for the burial of six royal ladies, including a five-year-old girl, in addition to his two queens. The sarcophagi recovered from two of these subsidiary tombs have provided us with a series of delightful reliefs showing events in the daily life of the royal women; these include the performance of the daily toilette and preparations for a dinner party.13

By the 12th Dynasty the more important royal women were allocated their own small pyramids, and the pyramid-complex of Senwosret I at Lisht provides us with a good example of a king providing for the proper burial of important royal females. The major pyramid, a small dummy pyramid which also belonged to the king and part of the main mortuary temple were all surrounded by a stone wall. Nine much smaller pyramids allocated


Fig. 30 The pyramid-complex of Senwosret I

to female members of the royal household were built around the outside of this wall, each having its own small mortuary temple, offering chapel and enclosure wall. The whole, together with the entrance to the main mortuary temple and a cloistered court, wasenclosed by a substantial mud-brick outer wall. Seven of the female pyramid owners are now nameless, but we know that the two remaining tombs belonged to the principal queen, Neferu, and a princess named Itakayt.

During the New Kingdom, queens became more visible than they had ever been before, with an increasing emphasis being placed on both the individuality of each queen and the divinity of the role of the queen-consort. Queen Tetisheri, the commoner wife of the 17th Dynasty King Sekenenre Tao I, was the first of a succession of particularly forceful consorts which extended to include the queens of the 18th Dynasty, a remarkable group of women who managed to play a prominent role in the political life of the country at a time of economic and military expansion. These 17th and 18th Dynasty consorts were accorded more titles than their predecessors, becoming more firmly associated with the goddess Hathor in her role as both a divine consort and the mother of a king. At the same time, depictions of Hathor and Isis show them starting to wear the traditional queen’s regalia of uraeus, double feathers and vulture crown, so that the precise distinction between the mortal queens and the immortal goddesses becomes deliberately blurred.

This increasing prominence encouraged early egyptologists, already heavily influenced by the fallacious theory of a matriarchal origin for the Egyptian state, to speculate about an 18th Dynasty tradition of female royal descent with the right to rule being passed directly along the female line. Under this system it would not be enough that the rightful king should be the son of the previous monarch; he had to reinforce his claim to the throne by marrying the heiress who was ideally a daughter of the previous king and queen-consort and therefore either his full or half-sister. Through this predestined marriage the heiress transmitted the right of kingship to her husband-brother, herself becoming the principal queen. This so-called ‘heiress-princess’ theory neatly explained away all the complexities of 18th Dynasty royal family life, and had the added attraction of providing an explanation for the brother–sister and father–daughter incest which was otherwise both unnatural and abhorrent to early egyptologists. However, it is now largely discredited as being based on incorrect assumptions.14

We now know that by no means all of the principal queens of the 18th Dynasty were of royal descent, and that the sons of these less exalted unions were not in any obvious way handicapped by their non-royal mothers. Indeed, the consecutive kings Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis II and Tuthmosis III all had non-royal mothers while Queen Tiy, daughter of the commoners Yuya and Thuyu and ‘Great Wife’ of Amenhotep III, was widely respected both at home and abroad throughout the reigns of both her husband and her son. Nevertheless, all evidence suggests that although a blood-tie with the royal family was not a prerequisite of queenship, it was a relationship which was fully exploited whenever it occurred. Titles such as ‘King’s Daughter’ or ‘King’s Wife’, indicating a close relationship with the ruler, were certainly very important. They had a definite cumulative effect, with a succession of royal titles conveying increasing prestige. Therefore, the woman who started out in life as a mere ‘King’s Daughter’ and progressed to become ‘King’s Sister’, ‘King’s Wife’ and finally ‘King’s Mother’ was undoubtedly a powerful lady. These titles expressed the relationship of the woman with the kingship rather than an actual monarch, so that when the dowager queen Ahmose-Nefertari was described as ‘King’s Daughter’ during the reign of her son (Amenhotep I), the king in question was her royal father.

… His sister was his guard… The mighty Isis who protected her brother, seeking him without tiring, not resting until she found him… She received his seed and bore his heir, raising their child in solitude in an unknown hiding place…

New Kingdom hymn to Osiris

The prevalence of brother–sister marriages within the New Kingdom royal family, a custom in obvious contrast to contemporary non-royal marriage patterns, appears to have been an attempt to reinforce the links between the royal family and the gods who themselves frequently indulged in brother–sister unions. Often, the gods were forced to make their incestuous matches through an undeniable lack of eligible marriage partners; for example, when Geb (the earth) wished to reproduce the only available female was his sister Nut (the sky). Together they produced Isis, Osiris, Nephthys and Seth. Isis and Osiris again had little choice but to mate with each other, while some legends state that Nephthys and Seth also married. Since Osiris had married Isis, albeit for a very practical reason, it was considered highly suitable that the king should follow the divine example and marry his sister. This custom certainly had the additional benefit of restricting entry to the royal family, thereby preserving the purity of the dynastic line, preventing the dissipation of the royal estates and reducing potential squabbles over the succession. It also provided a suitably royal husband for the higher-ranking princesses who, by tradition, were not married into foreign royal families but who may not have wished to marry an Egyptian man of less rarefied descent.

Four queen-consorts of the 18th Dynasty are worthy of special consideration as powerful women who had a profound influence on the development of the Egyptian state, while two further queens, Hatchepsut and Nefertiti, are discussed in Chapter 7. Queen Ahhotep was the first of these dominant consorts. She was the wife, and possibly the sister, of King Sekenenre Tao II and the mother of Ahmose, the southern warrior who defeated the Hyksos and founded the 18th Dynasty. She appears to have been a clever and courageous woman who had a profound influence on her son; in a curious stela recovered from Karnak Ahmose urged all his people to give due reverence to his mother as she had at one time rallied all the troops of Egypt and so prevented civil unrest from spreading throughout the land. Ahhotep lived to be at least eighty years old, and was given a magnificent burial by Ahmose. Her tomb was excavated at the end of the nineteenth century, and her mummy is now housed in Cairo Museum.

The succeeding queen-consort, Ahmose Nefertari, ‘King’s Daughter’ and ‘King’s Sister’, was the wife and possibly niece of Ahmose, the mother of the succeeding pharaoh Amenhotep I and the granddaughter of Tetisheri; the mummified bodies of both these ladies show that they shared a family tendency towards unfortunately prominent front teeth. After her death she became the patron goddess of the Theban necropolis, an unprecedented honour reflecting her exalted position. She was eventually worshipped as the ‘Mistress of the Sky’ and ‘Lady of the West’.

All the words which I have spoken to your father, your mother knows them. No other person knows them, but you can ask your mother, Tiy, about them.

You know that I lived on friendly terms with your husband, and that your husband lived on friendly terms with me. You know, just as my messenger knows, the words that I have written and spoken to your husband, and the words which he has written back to me. You yourself know best all the words which we have spoken together. No one else knows them.

Letters of condolence written by King Tushrata of Mittani to the new King Akhenaten and the Dowager Queen Tiy on the death of Amenhotep III

Queen Tiy – ‘Like Maat following Re, she is in the following of your Majesty’ – was the wife of Amenhotep III and the mother of his successor Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten. She was not herself of royal blood, but came from a prominent and wealthy Egyptian family who lived at Akhmim on the east bank of the River Nile opposite the modern town of Sohag. Despite the suggestions of some early egyptologists, there is no proof at all that Tiy was not a native Egyptian although it is just possible that her father Yuya was of foreign extraction as his name is unusual and does not have a consistent Egyptian spelling. Yuya bore the prestigious titles of ‘God’s Father’, ‘Prophet of Min’ and ‘Overseer of the Horses’ while Tiy’s brother or half-brother Anen was a Second Prophet of Amen and her mother, Thuyu, was a well-respected lady. Both Yuya and Thuyu were eventually buried in a rock-cut tomb in the Valley of the Kings; a very great honour for a non-royal couple.

Although Amenhotep III maintained a considerable number of women in his harem, including Gilukhepa, Tadukhepa and the daughter of the King of Babylon who were mentioned earlier, Tiy remained a powerful figure throughout her husband’s reign. She had a very high public profile, being the first queen to be regularly depicted with her husband and the first queen whose name was constantly linked with that of her husband on official inscriptions. Her obvious political skills were widely recognized both within and outside Egypt, and Tushrata’s letters of condolence quoted above indicate just how widely the queen’s influence had spread. Throughout her life Tiy collected numerous titles; she was even, uniquely, represented in the tomb of Kheruef as a female sphinx trampling two female enemies (one Nubian and one Asiatic) underfoot. Although the sphinx was not an unusual motif in Egyptian art, this was the first time that a queen-consort had been shown in a typically (male) kingly role, while the depiction of female rather than male enemies is also highly unusual. Tiy, who was always closely identified with Hathor and who was the first queen to adopt the cow horns and sun disc in her headdress, gradually became regarded as the female counterpart of the semi-divine king, until eventually a temple was dedicated to her at Sedeinga in Nubia, the complement to her husband’s temple at nearby Soleb.

Amenhotep III and Tiy had four daughters – Sitamen, Henuttaneb, Isis and Nebetah – whose images are frequently depicted alongside those of their mother and father. Sitamen is even accorded the title of ‘Great King’s Wife’, and it is possible that she eventually became one of her father’s wives. In contrast the two sons of the marriage, Tuthmosis and Amenhotep, were rarely depicted in association with the king. Tuthmosis, the elder son, died young, and it was Amenhotep IV who succeeded his father to the throne.

My husband has died and I have no son. But you, so they say, have many sons. If you would give me one of your sons I would make him my husband. I could never select one of my servants and make him my husband.

Letter written by the widowed Queen Ankhesenamen to King Suppiluliuma of the Hittites

The last of these remarkable 18th Dynasty queen-consorts was Ankhesenamen, wife and possibly half-sister to the boy-king Tutankhamen. Ankhesenamen, who was originally named Ankhesenpaaten, was the third of the six daughters born to King Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, and therefore a granddaughter of the great Queen Tiy. She appears to have enjoyed a very happy if brief married life, and as a typically loyal Egyptian wife she is shown supporting her husband in several conventional scenes, either watching him vanquishing the traditional enemies of Egypt or handing him arrows as he shoots in the marshes. After Tutankhamen’s untimely death, however, the teenage queen was faced with a constitutional crisis. As she had no children and neither she nor her husband had a living brother, there was no obvious and undisputed legal successor to the throne. Ankhesenamen did not attempt to follow the precedent set by Hatchepsut and rule Egypt alone. Instead, she wrote an extraordinary letter to King Suppiluliuma of the Hittites, explaining her predicament and begging for a suitable husband who would automatically become the next pharaoh. Not surprisingly, Suppiluliuma was highly suspicious of this unprecedented request. However, control of Egypt was too rich a prize to dismiss without further inquiry, and so he despatched an ambassador to ascertain whether or not Ankhesenamen was in earnest. A young prince did eventually set out to be married; unfortunately the groom was murdered on the way to his wedding, provoking a small war between the two countries. The husbandless queen eventually married the commoner Ay, a former general and ‘Overseer of all the Horses of His Majesty’ and sank into relative obscurity. Her new husband became the next pharaoh of Egypt.

The queens of the succeeding dynasties were far less conspicuous than their 18th Dynasty predecessors, and only the wives of the 19th Dynasty King Ramesses II managed to make any real impact on Egyptian history. Ramesses had many wives, including his younger sister Hentmire, but his chief queen was Nefertari, who is featured on the temple of Hathor built by her husband at Abu Simbel. Although Nefertari was given the title ‘Great Royal Wife’ so was the Lady Istnofret, so we have the very unusual situation of having two major royal consorts at the same time. Nefertari bore Ramesses his eldest son Amen-hir-Khapshef and his daughter Meryt-Amen, while Istnofret produced his second son Ramesses, his elder daughter, Bint-Anath, and his twelfth son Merenptah, who eventually succeeded his father to the throne. Both Nefertari and Istnofret were buried in the Valley of the Queens; Nefertari’s painted tomb is acknowledged to be a particularly fine one.

Over the years Ramesses’ domestic arrangements grew even more eccentric as his two Great Royal Wives were succeeded by their daughters Meryt-Amen and Bint-Anath; the title ‘Great Royal Wife’ seems to have had a very literal meaning, and we know that Bint-Anath bore her father at least one daughter. A third ‘Great Wife’ was appointed in Year 34 when Maatnefrure, the daughter of the King of the Hittites, was also made a principal wife; at roughly the same time Maatnefrure’s sister married Ramesses II and joined the royal harem. Meryt-Amen either died or fell from grace, and her place was taken by Nebet-Tawy who was yet another of Ramesses’ daughters – this time by an unknown woman – the last of the Princess-Queens.


The one queen’s title which became very important towards the end of the Dynastic era was that of ‘God’s Wife of Amen’, a title which should not be confused with the less specific accolade of ‘God’s Wife’ which had been used by several royal women during the Middle Kingdom. The god Amen and his influential Theban priesthood first came to national prominence during the Middle Kingdom. At the start of the New Kingdom they managed to consolidate and extended their power, ensuring that the victorious defeat of the Hyksos invaders became attributed to the direct intervention of Amen. It was at this time that the title God’s Wife of Amen was first employed, lasting in popular use for a period of approximately eighty years. The title reflected the mythological idea that the mothers of kings were impregnated by the god Amen; this reinforced the dogma that the king was indeed the son of Amen. The God’s Wife was not originally, as might be supposed, a young virgin dedicated to the service of the state god. Instead, the title was awarded to high-ranking ladies in the royal family – not always women of royal birth but usually the wife, mother or eldest daughter of a king. Its rarity shows that it was regarded as a position of some distinction and, indeed, several queens used it as their only or major title. The first 18th Dynasty holder of the title was Ahmose Nefertari, and contemporary illustrations show her dressed in a distinctive, short, Middle Kingdom-style wig and archaic-looking clothes, performing a range of public religious duties including processing in public with the priests of Amen. In return for her efforts, she received a generous endowment of land. The title slowly declined in popularity at the end of the 18th Dynasty.

During the troubled Third Intermediate Period Egypt was effectively split into two independent provinces; much of the north was ruled by the royal family living at Tanis in the Nile Delta while the south remained under the control of the influential High Priests of Amen based at Thebes. In a repetition of the north–south diplomatic marriages seen during the Archaic Period, it became customary for northern princesses to marry the High Priests of Amen, an arrangement which allowed the northern kings to assert a degree of long-range control over the wealthy and powerful Theban priesthood. The role of God’s Wife of Amen was revived at this time and conferred on an unmarried daughter of such a union who was formally consecrated to the service of the god. The position was now politically very important as the current God’s Wife held theoretical control over all the estates owned by Amen; rather than attempt to remove the powerful priests, the kings had sought to trump their influence by appointing a higher-ranking God’s Wife. Naturally, it was important that such a political figurehead should remain a virgin as the insecure kings could not risk the establishment of a new and powerful dynasty.

Year 4 of Apries, 4th Month of Shomu, day 4. The God’s Wife of Amen, Niacin, the justified, was raised up to heaven and united with the sun’s disk, the divine flesh being merged with him who made it.

Stela, Cairo Museum

Following the breakdown of relations between the north and the south the system of diplomatic marriages was abandoned. The title God’s Wife of Amen was, however, too important to lose, and it was continued and handed down to successive kings’ daughters by adoption, a useful means of ensuring that the position was always held by a politically suitable woman. The most famous God’s Wife of this time was Nitocris, the daughter of the Late Period King Psammeticus I, who held the position for over sixty years, using her influence in the south to help her northern family. By this time the nature of the position had obviously changed. The God’s Wife was now a very powerful figure who dressed in the uraeus and other royal insignia, was accorded regal titles and who even wrote her name in a royal cartouche. With the help of trusted stewards and a large bureaucracy she controlled a political office of immense wealth and prestige, including the ownership of over 2,000 acres (about 810 hectares) of fertile land in both Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta. Indeed, the God’s Wife eventually took over all the duties of the male First Prophet of Amen becoming, under her more popular title of Divine Adoratrice, one of the most influential women in the country. Locally, her influence exceeded that of the king in the north. Ankhnesneferibre, the daughter of Psammeticus II and niece of Nitocris, was adopted as Nitocris’ successor eight years before her death; she was also created ‘First Prophet of Amen’, an honour not accorded to the other God’s ‘Wives’. Unfortunately Ankhnesneferibre proved to be the very last God’s Wife of Amen, as the tradition was discontinued during the period of Persian rule which started during her ‘reign’.

The Royal Succession: Tuthmosis I to Tutankhamen


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