Female Kings


The Heiress, Great in the Palace, Fair in the Face, Adorned with the Double Plumes, Mistress of Happiness, Endowed with Favours, at hearing whose voice the King rejoices, the Chief Wife of the King, his beloved, the Lady of the Two Lands, Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, may she live for ever and ever.

Titles of Queen Nefertiti

The Egyptians held remarkably consistent theories about kingship which remained generally unvaried from the beginning of the Old Kingdom until the Late Period, a time span of well over two thousand years. The monarch was the absolute head of all aspects of Egyptian secular life, and his word was law. His most obvious tasks, as administrator and defender of his country, were to protect his people, to maintain internal and external security and to preserve order and the general status quo. This is the aspect of kingship which perhaps approaches closest to our own perceptions of the term. In times of peace the king was held responsible for ensuring that all went well within Egypt, that the harvest was collected and sufficient food stored, that the impressive building projects continued and that the civil service functioned efficiently, overseeing the operation of the taxation and legal systems. In times of war he was expected to lead his troops bravely into battle, successfully defending his land against invaders and routing traditional enemies with spectacular victories. To help him achieve these ends the king employed a large and efficient bureaucracy and an equally large and efficient army, surrounding himself by loyal and trusted advisors who were often members of his immediate family.

The importance of the pharaoh was not, however, limited to the performance of his secular obligations as the nominal head of a well-organized civil service and army; that was a function which could be done by any competent official. It was the very presence of a recognized king on the throne of Egypt which ensured the stability of the country. Maat, a broad concept which may be translated literally as justice or truth, was the term used by the Egyptians when referring to the ideal state of the universe.1 Maat had been established at the beginning of the world but was not permanent and could never be taken for granted; chaos or disorder was always lurking as an ever-present threat to stability. The king was personally responsible for the operation and maintenance ofmaatthroughout the land, and indeed this formed an essential part of the contract drawn up between the king and his gods. The gods established the king on the Horus throne and endowed him with ‘life, stability and dominion’. They also controlled all natural phenomena, ensuring that the Nile continued in its annual inundation cycle and that the sun never failed to shine. In return, the king pledged to rule Egypt wisely, establishing temples for the gods and making sure that the offering tables were well provisioned with offerings. Thus was maat established. In lawless or kingless times the coming of a ruler would bring maat or order, while conversely there could be no maat without a pharaoh on the throne. The Egyptians could no more conceive of their country surviving without a king than they could imagine their agriculture surviving without the annual inundation.


Fig. 31 The goddess Maat

How the gods rejoice – you have strengthened their offerings. How the people rejoice – you have established their frontiers. How your forebears rejoice – you have enriched their offerings. How Egypt rejoices in your strength – you have protected her customs.

From a Middle Kingdom cycle of hymns to King Senwosret III

The king of Egypt was no mere mortal, he was a god incarnate. His divinity was universally and unquestioningly accepted by both himself and his people, and he was treated by all as the living embodiment of the god Horus and the son of Re or Amen-Re. He was divinely appointed by the gods, was the high priest of every temple in the land and, by observing the required daily rituals, he provided an earthly link between his people and the more inaccessible deities. This acceptance of divine kingship played an important part in the maintenance of stability throughout the Dynastic period. It both confirmed the absolute right of each monarch to the throne and reinforced the strength of the royal line by stressing the need for the correct dynastic succession. The survival of the kingship was seen by all as vital to the maintenance of the good relationship between Egypt and its gods, without which the country would founder, while the divinity of the monarch had the added bonus of making the king head of all religious practices, thereby preventing individual religious factions from gaining too much power. However, it was clearly understood that the king’s divinity was not absolute; he was subordinate to his fellow gods and did not himself hold their miraculous powers. He was expected to show them due respect, and the piety of the king was considered essential for a prosperous and successful reign: as Queen Hatchepsut wrote in an attempt to stress her divine links with her god-father Amen, ‘I am in very truth his daughter who serves him and knows what he ordains.’

Throughout the Dynastic period the position of king of Egypt was always perceived as a man’s role. There seems to have been no specific ban on women succeeding to the throne but, with the exception of Manetho who records a King Binothris of the 2nd Dynasty during whose reign ‘it was decided that women might hold kingly office’, nowhere is it even briefly admitted that such a possibility could arise. The traditional stately duties of diplomat, soldier and priest were by convention masculine duties; any intentional disturbance of this natural order would certainly be going against maat. If, as often occurred, the king nominated his successor as his co-regent before his death, it would be seen as extremely unreasonable for him to select a daughter in preference to a son, particularly as the tradition of royal brother–sister marriages could involve the promotion of a wife above her husband. One of the practical aspects of polygamous royal marriages was to ensure that each king enjoyed the optimum circumstances in which to beget at least one male heir.

I know that I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.

Queen Elizabeth I rallying her troops at the approach of the Spanish Armada

There are few societies which will allow a woman to accede to the throne in preference to a man. Nor have there ever been many such societies. The handful of women who have been permitted by their communities to rule have generally been tolerated because of the absence of a suitably qualified male candidate and they have therefore been perceived as acting, at least ostensibly, on behalf of a male relative. There have certainly been powerful women in the histories and legends of past societies – for example, the Greeks Antigone and Clytemnestra and the Romans Livia and Agrippina – but these women were exceptional, often forced beyond their normal circumstances to act in an atypical and unfeminine manner. Even in countries where the monarch is merely a figurehead and not expected to make important decisions of state, kings are regarded as the norm, queens regnant a deviation from the norm. Thus, in almost all the monarchies of present-day Europe the first-born son succeeds to the throne, automatically taking precedence over his elder and possibly more suitable sisters; although this may be regarded by some as unfair it is nevertheless accepted by all the countries concerned. The ability to rule, no matter how nominally, is almost universally perceived as a male attribute, and in this respect females are definitely accorded a secondary role in the royal family. The explanation for this blatant discrimination is usually found within the society’s interpretation of the function of kingship and its view of the proper role of women.

As a general rule societies accord women the right to rule at times when there is no clear male heir to the throne, although in a well-established royal family this situation is less common than might be imagined: in England, for example, only six queens in the past five hundred years have inherited either their father’s or uncle’s crown.2 Women are also accorded the right to assume positions of leadership at times of national unrest or disturbance, often replacing or avenging a deposed or murdered husband, son or father. Although royal women are generally consigned to a passive role and are expected to act via men, such strident behaviour in a good cause generally meets with the approval of society. In almost all cases ruling queens come from within the existing royal family. Non-royal men have managed to claim thrones by aptitude, cunning or force, but this is virtually unheard of for non-royal women who rarely have either access to wealth or control over troops.

Only three remarkable women are definitely known to have ruled Dynastic Egypt as kings, each one taking the throne, as might be expected, under highly unusual circumstances. Three further women may have acted as queens regnant, although the evidence relating to their reigns is both flimsy and inconclusive in all three cases. The biographies of Queens Meryt-Neith, Nitocris, Sobeknofru, Hatchepsut, Nefertiti and Twosret are given below.3 Unfortunately, our understanding of all six women is very patchy. Only Hatchepsut reigned for long enough to make a clear impact on the archaeological and historical record; unluckily she also made a strong impact on her people to the extent that much of the evidence relating to her rule was deliberately effaced and destroyed after her death. The earliest putative queen regnant, Meryt-Neith, ruled at the start of the Dynastic age and is known principally from her funerary monuments, while the memory of her 6th Dynasty successor, Nitocris, has become entangled with many romantic myths and legends to the extent that the truth behind her reign is difficult to ascertain. The remaining two queens, Sobeknofru and Twosret, ruled only briefly at times of civil disruption and were followed by periods of near anarchy, leaving us with few monuments and written records with which to reconstruct the events of their reigns. The Egyptian king lists have provided some confirmation of the surviving archaeological evidence relating to these ladies while later historians, such as Manetho, Herodotus and Strabo, have all made interesting, if occasionally rather unlikely, contributions to our understanding of their reigns.

Two important facts connect these six queens: they were each queen-consort and therefore probably of royal blood and, with the possible exception of Meryt-Neith, as far as we are able to tell, they each failed to produce a son. All six women, no matter how dominant their personalities, must have had the support of male members of the establishment. Three of the queens followed a very similar career track. Nitocris, Sobeknofru and Twosret all took the throne during periods of disruption when maat was absent from the land and there was no obvious male successor, and all three reigned for less than three years before being followed by periods of lawlessness and a change of dynasty. History has generally regarded these three reigns as brave attempts to perpetuate the royal succession against all odds. Hatchepsut’s long rule is more of a puzzle as she proclaimed herself co-ruler with the acknowledged heir to the throne at a time when there was no clear or obvious need for a woman to assume power. The reasoning behind this action is now obscure. She is, however, the only queen regnant whose solo rule was not followed by a period of lawlessness. Queen Nefertiti presents us with even more of a conundrum. There is no incontrovertible evidence that she ever ruled Egypt but several intriguing clues hint that she may have been a co-regent with her husband either under her own name or under a name which has also been attributed to a young prince. Between them the stories of these six women contain elements of intrigue, mystery, power and death.

Queen Meryt-Neith – 1st Dynasty

We have no direct proof that Meryt-Neith ever ruled as king, and she is not included on any of the surviving king lists. However, Meryt-Neith lived at the very dawn of Egyptian history, a time whose written records are both sparse and somewhat obscure. There is certainly a strong body of circumstantial evidence which suggests that she may have actually taken the throne; evidence which, if related to a man, would surely be accepted as confirmation of her reign.

The problem of Meryt-Neith first came to light in AD 1900 when Petrie, excavating an impressively spacious tomb included among the burials of kings at the royal necropolis of Abydos, recovered a large carved funeral stela. This bore the name ‘Meryt-Neith’ and, although it lacked the customary royal Horus name, was unquestioningly accepted as a male king’s funerary stela. On the basis of this evidence Meryt-Neith was identified as a king, possibly the third ruler of the 1st Dynasty. Only later did it become apparent that the name is actually female, literally meaning ‘Beloved of [the goddess] Neith’, and that the hitherto unremarkable king was, in fact, a woman. Instantly, on the basis of cultural expectations rather than sound archaeological evidence, Meryt-Neith was re-classified as an unusually powerful queen-consort.

We now know that Meryt-Neith was provided with an additional funerary monument at the northern royal burial ground of Sakkara. Here she also had a solar boat which would enable her spirit to travel with the god of the sun in the Afterlife, an honour normally reserved for the king. The curious custom of building two tombs, one in Lower Egypt close to the capital of the newly unified state and one in Upper Egypt, the homeland of the ruling dynasty, was peculiar to the early kings of Egypt; although logic dictated that they could only ever be interred in one tomb they seem to have felt the need to have two funerary monuments, one serving as an actual tomb and the other as a dummy tomb or cenotaph.4 At the moment Meryt-Neith is the only woman known to have been commemorated in this way, and this again strongly suggests that she may well have been a ruler or at least a co-regent rather than a consort. Following contemporary custom, each of her tombs was surrounded by the subsidiary graves of at least forty attendants while a further seventy-seven servants were buried in a neat U-shape – presumably around three sides of a now-vanished building – near her Abydos monument. The attendants buried at Sakkara were all interred with objects symbolizing their trade, so that the shipbuilder was provided with a model boat while the artist was buried with several pots of pigment.

Queen Nitocris – 6th Dynasty


Fig. 32 Cartouche of Queen Nitocris

Nitocris presents us with exactly the opposite problem to that posed by Meryt-Neith. Tradition records that the good and beautiful Queen Nitocris was the first woman to reign as king over Egypt, and many fantastic and romantic legends have become entangled around her name. However, although selected details of her life were preserved by the historians Manetho and Herodotus, and despite the fact that her name is clearly included among the Old Kingdom monarchs of the Turin Canon, there is no definite archaeological evidence to show that a Queen Nitocris ever existed. She has left us no inscribed monuments, and has no known tomb. Experts are generally divided over her life, some declaring her to be a true king, while others classify her as a mere legend.

The 6th Dynasty King Pepi II is reputed to have ruled Egypt for over ninety years. His long reign was marked by a gradual decline in the stability of the country and when, following his death, there was no obvious successor to his crown, there was a phase of general unrest which eventually degenerated into the unruly First Intermediate Period. During this unstable episode the throne was occupied by a succession of little-known kings with very short reigns – a clear indication that all was not well within Egypt. TheTurin Canon records that ‘Nitokerti’ was the second or third of these kings after Pepi II, reigning for precisely ‘two years, one month and a day’ at the end of the 6th Dynasty. Manetho describes Queen Nitocris as ‘the noblest and loveliest woman of her time, rosy-cheeked and of fair complexion’. Confusing his Queen Menkare-Nitocris with King Menkaure of the 4th Dynasty, he believed that she had completed the construction of the third pyramid – presumably at Giza – and had at the appropriate time been entombed within it. He assigned to Nitocris a reign of twelve years. Eretosthenes, translating Nitocris’s name into Greek as ‘Athena is victorious’, allotted her a shorter reign of six years.

The Queen’s much admired rosy complexion (rhodophis in Greek) has led to a certain amount of confusion between Nitocris and a beautiful but infamous courtesan of the 26th Dynasty; a woman named Rhodophis or Dorchia who lived in the Egyptian city of Naukratis. Many improbable stories have been transferred from Rhodophis-Dorchia to ‘Queen Rhodophis’. One such Cinderella-like tale recorded by Strabo tells us how, while the beautiful Rhodophis was bathing in the Nile, an eagle snatched away her discarded sandal and flew with it to the royal residence at Memphis. The king was sitting in the palace gardens as the bird passed overhead, and the sandal dropped from the eagle’s grasp directly into his lap. On examining the sandal the king became so enchanted by its delicate shape and perfume that he at once started a nationwide search for its owner. Eventually Rhodophis was discovered at home in Naukratis and was given a royal escort to Memphis. There the impetuous king fell head over heels in love with his beautiful subject and at once made her his wife. After her death the grieving king buried his queen in a great pyramid. A second and considerably less romantic legend affirms that the evil Queen Rhodophis haunts the third Giza pyramid, appearing naked and beautiful to drive demented all who are unfortunate enough to behold her.

Herodotus, for once more down-to-earth than Strabo, was scornful of those ignorant enough to believe that a woman of Rhodophis’ alleged profession could ever become rich enough to build herself a pyramid, but rather wistfully reflected that ‘Naukratis seems somehow to be the place where such women are most attractive.’ Of Queen Nitocris he wrote:

After Menes there came 330 kings whose names the priests recited to me from a papyrus roll. Included in these generations were eighteen Ethiopian kings and one queen, a native of the country; the rest were all Egyptian men. The name of the queen was the same as that of the Babylonian princess Nitocris.

He then recounted the tradition of the tragic and dramatic death of the queen, which may be summarized as follows:

Nitocris was the beautiful and virtuous wife and sister of King Metesouphis II, an Old Kingdom monarch who had ascended to the throne at the end of the 6th Dynasty but who had been savagely murdered by his subjects soon afterwards. Nitocris then became the sole ruler of Egypt and determined to avenge the death of her beloved husband-brother. She gave orders for the secret construction of a huge underground hall connected to the River Nile by a hidden channel. When this chamber was complete she threw a splendid inaugural banquet, inviting as guests all those whom she held personally responsible for the death of the king. While the unsuspecting guests were feasting she commanded that the secret conduit be opened and, as the Nile waters flooded in, all the traitors were drowned. In order to escape the vengeance of the Egyptian people she then committed suicide by throwing herself ‘into a great chamber filled with hot ashes’ and suffocating.

Queen Sobeknofru – 12th Dynasty

The life of the next Egyptian queen regnant, Sobeknofru, is far better documented than that of Nitocris, but there are still unfortunately large gaps in our knowledge of her reign. We know that Sobeknofru held power briefly as the last ruler of the 12th Dynasty, ascending to the throne in approximately 1789 BC


Fig. 33 Cartouche of Queen Sobeknofru

and ruling, according to the Turin Canon, for a period of precisely three years, ten months and twenty-four days. The 12th Dynasty had been a period of over two hundred years of Egyptian peace and stability, presided over by one of the longest continuous royal lines ever to rule Egypt. However, Sobeknofru’s short reign occurred in a far less secure political climate; the succeeding confused and badly documented 13th Dynasty heralded the end of the Middle Kingdom and a rapid decline into the disorder of the Second Intermediate Period.

We are told by Manetho that Sobeknofru was a royal princess, the sister of her predecessor, King Amenemhat IV. This suggests that she was the daughter of the previous king, Amenemhat III, and indeed a stone block recovered from his pyramid at Hawara specifically mentions this fact. It is not clear whether as a royal princess she was married to her brother the king: a ‘Queen Tanefru’, also a daughter of Amenemhat III, whose name appears in regal cartouches and who bears the title ‘King’s Wife’, was possibly the consort of Amenemhat IV but, as the two names are very similar, it may be that they belong to the same woman, or perhaps to royal sisters. Although blocks have been recovered engraved with the names of both Sobeknofru and her father it is unlikely that these two monarchs ever shared a co-regency. Nor was Sobeknofru ever a co-regent of Amenemhat IV, who had himself been a co-regent of Amenemhat III and who had enjoyed a brief and unremarkable solo reign after his father’s death.

The reasons behind Sobeknofru’s ascent to the throne are now lost to us. There have been suggestions of a dramatic feud within the Royal family, with Sobeknofru plotting successfully to wrest power away from her male relations. However, it would be far more realistic to assume that there was no more suitable male claimant to the throne, and that Sobeknofru was required to become king in an attempt to continue her dying royal line. There are certainly no indications that her role as pharaoh was resented, and she has never been regarded by later historians as a usurping or scheming woman as were both Hatchepsut and Twosret. Indeed, Sobeknofru seems to have been perfectly acceptable as a female ruler, and is recorded as a female monarch in the major king lists. A number of statues of the queen, recovered from Tell Daba in the Nile Delta, clearly show her as a lady dressed in woman’s clothing and, again unlike Hatchepsut, she appears to have made no effort to be portrayed symbolically as a man. The end of Sobeknofru’s reign is obscure, although it is generally assumed that she died a natural death while in office. It is possible that she owned one of the two badly ruined pyramids at the site of Mazghuna, not far from the other 12th Dynasty pyramids.

Queen Hatchepsut – 18th Dynasty


Fig. 34 Cartouche of Queen Hatchepsut

Amen, Lord of Thrones of the Two Lands caused me to rule the Red Land and the Black Land as a reward. No one rebels against me in all my lands… I am his daughter in very truth, she who serves him and knows what he ordains. My reward from my father is life-stability-dominion on the Horus-throne of all the living, like Re forever.

Obelisk inscription of Queen Hatchepsut

Princess Hatchepsut, the eldest daughter of King Tuthmosis I and his consort, Queen Ahmose, was born into a time of unprecedented Egyptian wealth and prosperity. Unfortunately, this was also a time when the royal family was being plagued by a shortage of sons. Tuthmosis I was not himself of royal birth and his mother, the Lady Senseneb, was always known by the simple descriptive title of ‘King’s Mother’. He had achieved his dramatic rise to power by becoming a general in the army of his immediate predecessor, Amenhotep I. Amenhotep, impressed by his soldier’s obvious abilities and lacking any more suitable heir, selected him to become the next pharaoh. To add strength to Tuthmosis’ position he married him to his daughter, Ahmose, and announced a formal co-regency with his new son-in-law. In due course of time, Tuthmosis became the sole ruler of Egypt.

Sadly, the sons of Tuthmosis and Ahmose all died in infancy and, like Amenhotep before him, Tuthmosis I was forced to look outside the immediate royal family for a successor. He chose a young man also named Tuthmosis, his natural son by a concubine named Mutnofret, and married him to his daughter Hatchepsut, thereby reinforcing his son’s right to inherit the throne. Mutnofret may herself have had royal blood in her veins as she was possibly the daughter of Amenhotep I and therefore either the full or half-sister of Queen Ahmose. Much later Hatchepsut was to distort the sequence of these events, claiming that Tuthmosis I had actually associated himself in a co-regency with his daughter with the intention that she should eventually become king. It seems highly unlikely that this was ever the case, particularly as contemporary monuments show that Hatchepsut continued to receive only the lesser titles of princess and queen-consort after her father’s death. Her public announcement of the co-rule was apparently an attempt to explain and reinforce her hold on the throne; indeed, her reign is characterized by her constant need to justify her actions both to her people and for posterity.

Tuthmosis II followed his father to the throne and, as his consort, Hatchepsut became queen. She appears to have behaved in a modest and totally conventional manner throughout the new king’s short reign, accepting the standard titles of ‘King’s Daughter, King’s Sister, God’s Wife and King’s Great Wife’ and allowing herself to be portrayed lending wifely support to her husband. She even started to build herself a suitably discreet consort’s tomb in an out-of-the-way area to the south of Deir el-Bahri on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes. Hatchepsut was clearly a dutiful wife, and bore her half-brother two daughters, Neferure and Meritre-Hatchepsut, although she had no son. Once again there was no legitimate male heir to the throne and, like his father before him, Tuthmosis II was forced to turn to the son of a concubine for his successor. Isis, the mother of Tuthmosis III, was later described by her son as ‘King’s Great Wife, Mistress of South and North, Great Heiress, God’s Wife and King’s Mother’ but there is no evidence that she was ever a principal wife of equal status with Hatchepsut.

Having ascended into heaven Tuthmosis II became united with the gods. His son, having succeeded in his place as king of the Two Lands, ruled upon the throne of his father while his sister, the God’s Wife Hatchepsut, governed Egypt and the Two Lands were under her control. People worked for her, and Egypt bowed her head.

Recorded by the government official Ineni

The young Tuthmosis III succeeded to his father’s throne under the direct supervision of his stepmother and aunt, the formidable Dowager Queen Hatchepsut. He does not appear to have felt the need to consolidate his position by marrying either of the two royal princesses, and it would appear that his right to rule was widely recognized. Hatchepsut herself accepted the

accession of her young stepson, and throughout the first year of the new regime she was content to remain the dutiful and inconspicuous ‘God’s Wife and Great Royal Wife’. However, towards the end of his second regnal year she was starting to develop a higher profile; by his seventh year she had acquired definite power, had announced herself co-regent and had been crowned as a king of Egypt. The construction of her massive mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri and the building of a more suitably regal tomb started at about this date. From this period onwards Hatchepsut is uniquely depicted both as a conventional woman and, in an attempt to symbolically emphasize her kingly role, as a man wearing men’s clothing and accessories down to the artificial beard: her royal title, however, almost always has the feminine ending attached and there is no suggestion that she ever actually dressed up as a man. There is no confusion over Hatchepsut’s sexuality as there is over the heretic King Akhenaten, and no suggestion that she was either a lesbian or a transvestite.

We have no idea what suddenly caused Hatchepsut to defy convention and proclaim herself a king, and speculation on this subject has been rife. Was it simple greed, or a lust for power on the part of the queen? Was she unwilling to accept that as the daughter, sister and wife of a king she could be passed over in favour of her stepson? Was there some unrecorded national emergency, or was the young Tuthmosis III initially too weak to rule alone? Did Tuthmosis hate his stepmother, or welcome her help? The fact that Hatchepsut was content to share her kingship, however nominally, with her stepson, and the indications that Tuthmosis accepted this co-regency even when he had reached an age to rule alone, hint that the whole situation was far more complex than is often supposed. The conventional explanation, that Hatchepsut was a woman hungry for power, is certainly unconvincing. If this was the case why wait so long to seize power? And how did she manage to attract the steady support which she undoubtedly received? It is certainly one of the greatest puzzles of Egyptian history that the rightful king, Tuthmosis,


Fig. 35 Hatchepsut as a man

who might have been expected to react angrily and decisively to Hatchepsut’s unprecedented activities, seems to have accepted the new situation, appearing content to remain in the background and ruling alone only after his stepmother’s death. Two major but opposing views may be suggested to explain this conundrum, but the truth almost certainly lies somewhere between these two extremes.

The conventional and most widely held belief is that Tuthmosis did not like the situation but was incapable of doing anything about it. As he came to the throne as a young and inexperienced boy he may well have needed the support and advice provided by the queen; by the time he grew old enough to resent his loss of authority the reins of power were firmly gathered in Hatchepsut’s obviously capable hands. If Hatchepsut controlled the treasury and had the full support of the civil service Tuthmosis would have been powerless against her. The desecration of Hatchepsut’s monuments after her death has often been taken as indirect proof of Tuthmosis’ hatred of his co-regent. However, archaeological evidence indicates that this defacement may not have occurred until at least twenty years after Hatchepsut’s death, a long time for Tuthmosis to hold his grudge before taking action.

The second explanation is that Tuthmosis did not feel that he had any grounds for complaint against his stepmother. He may even have actively welcomed Hatchepsut’s guidance at a time when he was too young to rule alone effectively, and may have preferred to show his gratitude by waiting for her death rather than demoting her when he came of age. After all, although there were well-established precedents for co-regencies these invariably ended with the death of one of the partners, not with an abdication, and Tuthmosis could have reasonably expected to outlive his aunt and then enjoy a solo reign. Hatchepsut clearly made no attempt to depose Tuthmosis from the throne or to have him permanently put out of the way, and this suggests that she did not regard him as a threat to her security. Although contemporary illustrations almost invariably depict Hatchepsut as the dominant partner taking precedence over her co-ruler, Tuthmosis was always scrupulously accorded his correct royal regalia and, indeed, towards the end of the joint reign the two rulers are shown acting almost as equals. Certainly it would seem that Tuthmosis could have attempted to put an end to the situation had he so wished. He was by no means a weak or ineffectual man as his performance as pharaoh later proved.

Then His Majesty said to them, ‘This daughter of mine… I have appointed as successor upon my throne. She shall sit on this marvellous dais. She shall direct the commons in every sphere of the palace. It is she who will lead you. Obey her words and unite yourselves at her command.’

Text carved on the wall of Hatchepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri5

A number of what can best be described as propaganda texts – records full of self-justification – survive to provide an official explanation of Hatchepsut’s unprecedented assumption of power.


Fig. 36 Hatchepsut being suckled by the goddess Hathor

These texts stress both her relationship with her earthly father, the pharaoh, and her divine link with the gods, emphasizing over and over again her temporal and spiritual right to rule. The most explicit of these is the record of her ‘divine birth’, preserved on the wall of her Deir el-Bahri temple. Here, in a series of cartoons and brief captions, Hatchepsut reveals to the world that she is actually the natural daughter of the great god Amen, who had predestined his child for the crown. Amen, cunningly disguised as Tuthmosis I, is shown visiting Queen Ahmose in her chamber where, in an appropriately restrained scene, he fills her nostrils with the breath of life. The resulting pregnancy of the queen is made discreetly obvious, and the god Khnum is shown modelling the body and soul of the infant Hatchepsut on his potter’s wheel, promising her anxious father Amen, ‘I will shape for you your daughter…’ Hatchepsut’s miraculous birth, and the goddess Hathor’s introduction of the baby to the proud father, are made clear. Finally Hatchepsut is presented before all the gods, who accept her as a future king of Egypt. A filial devotion to the god Amen was emphasized throughout Hatchepsut’s life: ‘I am truly His daughter, the one who glorifies Him.’

I was promoted before the companions, knowing that I was in Her favour. They set me to be the chief of Her house; the Palace – may it thrive in health in prosperity – was under my supervision. I was the judge of the whole land and the Overseer of the Granaries of Amen, Senenmut.

Part of a long text of self-justification carved on the base of a statue of Senenmut

Hatchepsut must have been supported in her rule by many loyal male civil servants, several of whom had already served under her father and her husband. The enigmatic ‘Steward of Amen’ Senenmut stands out as being the most important and able administrator of this period.6 Originally a man of relatively low birth who started his career in the army, Senenmut remained a bachelor and devoted his life to Hatchepsut’s service. His precise relationship with the queen is unclear, although he seems to have been accorded unusual privileges for a non-royal male and it is difficult to determine exactly how much of his meteoric rise to prominence was due to his personal relationship with the widowed queen. He certainly made an impact on the bureaucracy, managing to acquire at least twenty important secular and religious posts in the course of his varied life, and his titles attest his role as effective controller of the state finances. He himself rather immodestly claimed responsibility for the construction of the most important of the queen’s monuments at Thebes, although there is no proof that he was actually an architect. He is most frequently depicted in what was probably one of his most prestigious roles, as tutor to the young Princess Neferure, heiress presumptive to the Egyptian throne. Egyptologists originally believed that Neferure, ‘Lady of the Two Lands, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt’, had died in childhood, but new evidence suggests that she probably lived to survive her mother, and may even have been the first ‘Great Wife’ of her half-brother Tuthmosis III.

Senenmut managed to acquire enough wealth to build himself two expensive tombs, a relatively conspicuous gallery tomb at Gurnah and a more secret and secure chamber near the northern edge of Hatchepsut’s temple courtyard where he intended to be buried; a number of ostraca show that he actually diverted the workmen away from the official temple-project to build the latter. He seems to have either fallen from grace or died before the end of Hatchepsut’s reign, and he was never interred in his splendid but unfinished tomb. The memory of Senenmut was persecuted after his death, when the majority of his reliefs and statues were defaced and his tomb was desecrated. This destruction may have been ordered by Hatchepsut as the result of the bitter quarrel which ended their relationship, although it may equally well have been performed by those who later damaged Hatchepsut’s monuments in the same way.

The general emphasis of Hatchepsut’s long reign was on civil affairs, particularly on an intensive programme of building which included the restoration of temples and the erection of impressive monuments, all high-profile activities calculated to recall Egypt’s former glories and to install confidence in her people. As the gods themselves had instructed their daughter, ‘You shall refound the land, you shall repair what is in ruins in it, you shall make your chapels your monuments.’ There was a diminution in military activity at this time, possibly due to the fact that the female Hatchepsut would have been unable to physically lead her troops in battle without creating a certain loss of confidence, but trade flourished and there was a memorable Egyptian expedition to the exotic and far-away land of Punt during her Year 9. Full details of this mission, and the wondrous sights encountered, have been preserved as a wall-scene at Deir el-Bahri, where the curiously tall round huts of the natives, the comical appearance of the ruler of Punt and his amazingly fat wife and the marvellous goods brought back to Egypt, are all faithfully recorded. There is further evidence for a punitive expedition in Nubia towards the end of the reign, and it may well be that the lack of evidence for military campaigns may be giving a misleading impression of Egyptian insularity at this time.

We do not know how Hatchepsut’s long rule ended, although it seems likely that she died a natural death aged between fifty-two and seventy-two in her twenty-second regnal year. There is certainly no evidence to suggest that she was either murdered or in any way deposed by her co-ruler. Signs of her reign were destroyed after her death when an attempt was made to efface both her name and her memory, one of the worst punishments that could be inflicted on a dead pharaoh. Her portraits and cartouches were defaced and her monuments were either destroyed or re-named. This was, however, by no means an attempt at complete obliteration, and the destruction seems to have been conducted in a rather haphazard way. Hatchepsut’s name was omitted from all the king lists, which record the


Fig. 37 Hatchepsut (now erased) with Tuthmosis I

simple succession of Tuthmosis I, II and III, and only Manetho preserved the memory of a female ruler named Amensis or Amense as his fifth sovereign of the 18th Dynasty.

Queen Nefertiti – 18th Dynasty


Fig. 38 Cartouche of Queen Nefertiti

As my heart rejoices in the Great Royal Wife and her children, and old age be granted to the Great Royal Wife Neferneruaten-Nefertiti, living forever in these millions of years, she being in the care of the pharaoh. And old age be granted to the Princess Meretaten and the Princess Meketaten, her children, they being in the care of their mother the Queen.

Amarna Boundary Stela

Nefertiti is the one queen of Egypt whose appearance is familiar to us today, thanks to the fortuitous preservation of the carved and painted head which now has pride of place in the Berlin Museum. We can therefore see that, as her name ‘A Beautiful Woman has Come’ implies, she was a strikingly attractive lady with a calm and slightly ironic smile. It is tempting to imagine that Nefertiti is perhaps having a private laugh at the attempts still being made by egyptologists to gain a sensible understanding of her confused life and even more enigmatic death.

Nefertiti rose from obscure origins to become the chief wife of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, the fifth king to succeed Hatchepsut. Given the 18th Dynasty fondness for incestuous royal marriages it is likely, but not proven, that she would have belonged to a minor branch of the royal family. The rule of the new king began in a conventional enough manner with Amenhotep succeeding his father to the throne in about 1358 BC, and we have enough surviving portraits of the new king and queen to see that they behaved very much in traditional royal style with Nefertiti acting as a passive support to her husband. However, a short time into his reign Amenhotep appears to have undergone a dramatic and sudden religious conversion which led him to completely reject the well-established gods of his country in favour of an obscure monotheistic religion requiring worship of the power of the sun, or the Aten. Amenhotep was not a man to do things by halves and, although the concept of one god who was the sole creator of all things must have been very strange to his fellow Egyptians who were used to worshipping a multitude of deities with different attributes, soon his entire court was also venerating the Aten. The king himself stressed his conversion by changing his throne name to Akhenaten, ‘Spirit of the Aten’, and it is under this name that he has become infamous as Egypt’s first and last ‘heretic’ king.

We have no idea of the part that Nefertiti played in her husband’s dramatic change of faith. However we do know that she accepted the new state religion with all the zeal of a recent convert; not only did she expand her name to the rather cumbersome Neferneruaten-Nefertiti – literally ‘Beautiful are the Beauties of the Aten, A Beautiful Woman has Come’ – but she was seen to participate enthusiastically in the new religious ceremonies, taking a highly prominent role which a less unconventional queen might more properly have left to her husband. Indeed, as the cult of the Aten developed, the royal couple themselves became gradually more and more involved not just as worshippers but as objects of worship, until all three received the regular prayers of the faithful with the king and queen continuing to acknowledge the superior power of the Aten. The ambitious building of a new capital city, Akhetaten or ‘Horizon of the Aten’ (present-day Amarna), sited well away from the cult centres of Amen and the other displaced deities,reinforced the dominance of the new religion and reduced the power of the old established priesthoods which were based in the traditionally important cities.

At this time there was a striking change in the type of clothing worn around the court. In all previous phases of Egyptian history there had been a clear distinction between the garments worn by men and those worn by women. However, during the Amarna period there was a curious blending of styles with both Akhenaten and his queen adopting long unisex pleated gowns. If contemporary illustrations are to be believed, Nefertiti occasionally wore hers completely unfastened to display all her womanly charms. The more fashionable ladies of the court completed their toilette by donning short masculine-style wigs based on the curly haircuts worn by Nubian soldiers. This change in fashion was accompanied by a radically different approach to art, with the rigid conventions of the preceding centuries being discarded in favour of a more free and easy naturalistic style. Informal Amarna scenes of the royal couple relaxing as they play with their little daughters in the palace gardens are some of the most charming vignettes of Egyptian daily life to have survived the ravages of time.

There was a definite blurring of sexual identities in this new-style artwork. The convention of portraying women with lighter skin was dropped, and the formal regal pose of the king, which showed a most powerful and masculine aspect intended to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies and inspire the confidence of his people, was abandoned. Many of the statues of Akhenaten depict him as sporting the traditional accessories of kingship, the crook and flail, crown and beard, but he is portrayed as a virtual hermaphrodite, with a curiously feminine face, well-developed breasts and what appear to be good child-bearing hips. Why the king should have allowed himself to be immortalized in a way that seems perversely calculated to strike fear into the hearts of his people while inspiring his enemies is not clear. It may be that this was actually how the poor man looked, in which case he must


Fig. 39 Queen Nefertiti

have been suffering from some medical disorder, although it is worth remembering that he did father six daughters with Nefertiti, and she was by no means the only woman to bear his children. It has been suggested that at least some of the more sexually ambivalent statues actually represent Nefertiti in the role of the goddess Tefnut, although this would not quite explain why she was carrying the royal regalia and, indeed, why there should be so many statues of the queen and so few of the king. It may even be that Akhenaten was attempting, under the influence of his new religion, to deliberately and symbolically depict in himself both masculine and feminine aspects of nature. The mummified body of Akhenaten, which could go a long way towards answering some of these fascinating questions, has never been properly identified and would appear to have been destroyed.

Nefertiti was clearly a woman to be reckoned with in matters of state and religion. Queens and dowager queens had always played an important part in royal life and were often included on monuments supporting their husband or son, but Nefertiti was accorded a far higher profile than her predecessors, being depicted at all times by the side of her husband and taking an active role in proceedings rather than simply looking on. She gradually grew in status until she was regularly shown wearing a monarch’s blue crown and performing tasks normally reserved for the king, and she was even illustrated in the ritual act of smiting the foes of Egypt, a traditional male role hitherto exclusively reserved for the pharaoh. To all intents and purposes it would appear that Nefertiti was regarded as co-regent with her husband, although this was never formally announced. The reasons behind her rise to prominence are unknown. Was she a scheming woman able to impose her will on her husband? Or did her unique role owe more to the change of religious thought which perceived her as a parallel to Tefnut, the wife and daughter of the sun god?

Although the life of Nefertiti presents us with some intriguing problems, it is with her death that we meet the true enigma. The last clear view that we have of the queen is of her weeping over the lifeless body of her thirteen-year-old daughter, Meketaten, who died in childbirth in Year 14 of her father’s reign. After this family tragedy Nefertiti fades out of the picture. The obvious inference is that she died at this time and was buried in the


Fig. 40 Cartouche of Smenkhare

normal manner, although it is surprising that Amarna does not furnish any reference to her demise as we would expect her obviously doting husband to be devastated by such a loss. Nefertiti’s mummified body has never been recovered. Alternatively, she may have continued her life as before, retiring from prominence at the death of her husband a few years later. A third, and slightly less plausible explanation, is that she somehow fell from grace and retired to live out the remainder of her life in relative seclusion. However, archaeologists do not necessarily favour the obvious solutions to their problems, and the far more dramatic suggestion has been made that Nefertiti may, from this point onwards, have become officially known as Akhenaten’s co-ruler, the enigmatic Prince Smenkhare.

There is some evidence that towards the end of his life Akhenaten followed royal tradition and took as his co-regent his heir, Smenkhare. The identity of this shadowy young man is obscure, although he may have been either the king’s younger brother or his son by his favourite secondary wife, the Lady Kiya. The identification of Smenkhare with Nefertiti is based on the fact that he appears for the first time in the archaeological record at precisely the moment that Nefertiti disappears. If Akhenaten had wished to make his wife co-ruler would he have considered it necessary to ‘convert’ her into a man first? There is the dubious parallel of Hatchepsut assuming male attire as pharaoh, although this was a symbolic transvestism and there is no evidence that Hatchepsut wanted to be regarded as anything other than a woman. The actual evidence relating to Smenkhare is both scanty and ambiguous, although it does appear that a person of that name did exist. A damaged illustration once believed to represent Smenkhare and Akhenaten relaxing together is now widely accepted as showing Nefertiti with her husband, the artistic conventions of the time making the precise identification of the genders difficult. Smenkhare did not follow Akhenaten to the throne and so may be presumed to have died before his mentor. The body of a royal young man of this period, which was recovered encased in a coffin originally intended for a high-born woman, has been tentatively identified as that of Smenkhare, although as it has suffered from both desecration and unbelievably bad excavation, this is now unprovable. As with many aspects of egyptology, the theory that Queen Nefertiti may have become Prince Smenkhare is one which waxes and wanes in popularity as new shreds of evidence come to light.

Queen Twosret – 19th Dynasty


Fig. 41 Cartouche of Queen Twosret

The final female king known to have taken the throne of Egypt, 250 years after the reign of Hatchepsut, was Queen Twosret, who took full advantage of a period of near-anarchy at the end of the 19th Dynasty to seize power for herself. The 19th Dynasty had started well as a time of relatively stable and effective rule following the religious disruptions at the end of the 18th Dynasty, and had flourished during the prosperous and well-documented reign of Ramesses II when the completion of great monuments and the success of extensive foreign campaigns had confirmed the presence of maat throughout the land. Following the deaths of Ramesses and his son and successor Merenptah, law and order disintegrated and there was a confusing succession of brief and badly attested pharaohs. Contemporary documents use standard phrases to record a time of turbulence and unrest and there are vague allusions to a war although this may simply be a reference to the internal conflicts. Trouble in the Theban necropolis – a standard indication of weak rule – was endemic at this time, with bribery, theft, and even murder rife among the chief workmen. Unfortunately, this period of disruption, which provided the typical conditions necessary for the emergence of a female ruler, has left few royal documents, and we are left with tantalizing glimpses of palace plots and intrigues which we may never be able to fully understand.

Merenptah was almost certainly succeeded on the throne by his son Seti II. Seti ruled for only six years and died in middle age to be succeeded in turn by his young son Ramesses Siptah who also ruled for only six years, for some unknown reason changing his name to Merenptah Siptah part way through his reign. Although Siptah was Seti’s son and principal heir his mother was not the ‘King’s Great Wife’ Twosret but a relatively unimportant secondary wife named Sutailja who appears to have been of Syrian origin. Twosret was therefore the new king’s stepmother. There is no evidence that Twosret herself ever bore a child, and it certainly seems inconceivable that she would have tolerated Siptah taking the throne had she a rival son of her own. The origins of Queen Twosret are somewhat obscure; she did not bear the title of ‘King’s Daughter’ and was possibly not of royal blood. In her tomb she is accorded the title ‘Mistress of all the Land’, a courtesy which she would have received as the consort of Seti II.

As might be expected from a young boy, Siptah was a weak and ineffectual monarch who left few monuments and who was soon forgotten after his early death. His weakness may have had a purely physical cause as examination of his preserved mummy, which has one distorted foot and an atrophied lower leg, suggests that he suffered from either a club foot or, more likely, the after-effects of childhood polio. Throughout his short reign Siptah was guided, or controlled, by his forceful stepmother, who gradually took over the role of consort and joint ruler. Whether Twosret actually married her young stepson in order to increase her power by becoming queen-regent is not clear; paintings in her tomb show her standing behind Siptah in a typical wifely posture as he offers a dedication to the earth god, Geb. Siptah’s name has, however, been erased from the tomb and that of Seti II substituted, and it would appear that, after the death of Siptah, Twosret preferred to be associated with the memory of her prestigious first husband rather than her less than impressive stepson.

There was another dominant character playing an active part in the struggle for power at this time. The ‘Great Chancellor of the Whole Land’, Bay was a shadowy figure with an Asiatic name whose unique title emphasized his great influence over the boy-king. He was depicted standing behind his ruler’s throne in an unusually important position for a non-royal person, and was even allowed the high honour of a tomb built near to that of his master in the Valley of the Kings. The epithet ‘Who Establishes the King on his Father’s Throne’, attributed to Bay in two inscriptions, hints at Bay’s role in maintaining the young king in his somewhat precarious position of authority while resisting the growing ambitions of the queen. It would appear that Bay ultimately failed in his mission to restrict Twosret’s power, as he faded mysteriously out of the political scene during Siptah’s fourth year of rule.

Following Siptah’s untimely death a wave of civil unrest swept through the country. With no obvious male successor to the throne, Twosret was able to take full advantage of the chaos to extend her rule as co-regent and hold on to the crown, reinforcing her claim by adopting the full titulary of a male King of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is clear that she did achieve her ultimate ambition and reign alone for a brief period; she counted the years of Siptah’s co-regency together with hers while distinguishing the rule of her husband, Seti II. Twosret’s highest preserved year date is Year 8, while Manetho records that a ‘King Thuoris, who in Homer is called Polybus, husband of Alcandara, and in whose time Troy was taken’ ruled for seven years at the end of the 19th Dynasty. As Siptah ruled for at least six years, Twosret may have enjoyed a solo reign of less than two years. There is very little archaeological evidence for her brief rule, although her name has been found as far afield as the Nile Delta, the turquoise mines in Sinai, and even Palestine. Her major monuments are her tomb and a funerary temple which she started to build to the south of the Ramesseum but which was never completed. The end of Twosret’s reign is shrouded in mystery, and we do not know whether she was deposed or indeed whether she died a natural death. She was succeeded by the obscure pharaoh Sethnakht, the founder of the 20th Dynasty.

Twosret was clearly a forceful woman with a driving personal ambition which allowed her to rise from relatively humble origins to the highest position in the land, despite the considerable handicap of her sex. Perhaps the best indication of her character is given by a consideration of her decorated tomb, which the Theban workmen began to prepare in the Valley of the Kings either at the end of Seti’s reign or at the start of Siptah’s rule, an unprecedented honour for a queen who should have expected to be interred in the neighbouring Valley of the Queens. The tomb was initially a relatively modest construction, but as Twosret gained in power she gradually extended and improved her tomb, until at the height of her power it had truly become a resting place fit for a king. The building work was never completed, but it is clear that the various building phases correspond closely to the various stages of Twosret’s political life. Unfortunately Twosret was not able to enjoy the luxury of lying in her tomb undisturbed; her successor Sethnakht usurped the tomb and attempted to efface both her name and her image from its walls. We do not know what happened to her body, although a mummy in Cairo Museum has been attributed to Queen Twosret.

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