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Women achieved greater power in ancient Egypt than in any other ancient culture and were the equals of men in almost every area of life.
While the best known of all the Egyptian queens is Cleopatra VII, other women had held power long before she came to the throne. In fact, it’s theorized that Egypt gained stability by allowing periods of rule by women. Many of these future queens started as influential wives, or king’s daughters, and later became the chief decision maker in the land.
Often, female pharaohs took the throne during times of crisis, when hope for male leadership was lost, but oftentimes the men who came after these queens erased their names from the formal list of monarchs. Regardless, today these women continue to be remembered as some of the strongest and most significant female figures in history. Here’s a look at the queens of Egypt from the Early Dynastic period to the Macedonian and Ptolemaic times.
Legend has it that in the late 4th millennium BCE, the warrior Menes joined the two separate sections of Upper and Lower Egypt and established the first dynasty. He was crowned as king, and his wife Neithhotep became the first queen of Egypt. There is some conjecture that she may have ruled alone during the Early Dynastic period. Neithhotep was also described as the Consort of the Two Ladies, a title which may be the equivalent of King’s Mother and King’s Wife.
The name Neithhotep was associated with Neith, the ancient Egyptian goddess of weaving and hunting. The goddess had a powerful connection with queenship, so several queens of the first dynasty were named after her. In fact, the queen’s name means the goddess Neith is satisfied. Some scholars believe that the queen also ruled Egypt on behalf of young son Aha.
One of the earliest embodiments of female power, Merneith ruled during the first dynasty, around 3000 to 2890 BCE. She was the wife of King Djet and mother of King Den. When her husband died, she ascended the throne on behalf of her young son and ensured stability in Egypt. Her main agenda was the continuation of her family’s dominance, and to establish her son in royal power.
In the past, sacrificial burials were a power display and a sacred ritual, in the belief that the victims would accompany the dead king into the afterlife. In order to protect her son’s kingship, Merneith violently dispatched close family members who might claim the throne. Some of the sacrificial victims were likely rival wives and their sons who could have been chosen as king instead.
Merneith couldn’t claim the title of pharaoh and is only described as a King’s Mother. Still, her tomb was initially thought to belong to a king when it was first discovered, having it in the same lineup of great monarchs of the first and second dynasties. It’s believed that her son had thought she deserved the kingly honor, so she was buried like a king.
In the 4th dynasty, Hetepheres I became the queen of Egypt and bore the title Daughter of God. She was the wife of King Snefru, the first to build a true or straight-sided pyramid in Egypt, and mother of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. As mother of the mighty king, she would’ve been highly honored in life, and it’s believed that the cult of the queen was maintained for generations to come.
While her rise to power and details of her reign remain unclear, Hetepheres I was the eldest daughter of Huni, the last king of the 3rd dynasty, suggesting that her marriage with Snefru allowed a smooth transition between the two dynasties. Some speculate that she may also been her husband’s sister, and their marriage consolidated his rule.
One of the queens of the Pyramid Age, Khentkawes I was the daughter of King Menkaure and wife of King Shepseskaf who ruled around 2510 to 2502 BCE. As a Mother of Two Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt, she was a woman of considerable importance. She had given birth to two kings, Sahure and Neferirkare, the second and third kings of the 5th dynasty.
It’s believed that Khentkawes I served as regent of her infant son. However, her splendid tomb, the Fourth Pyramid of Giza, suggests that she reigned as a pharaoh. During the initial excavation of her tomb, she was depicted sitting on a throne, wearing the uraeus cobra and holding a was scepter. The uraeus was associated with kingship, although it wouldn’t become standard queen’s attire until the Middle Kingdom.
In the 12th dynasty, Sebeknefru took the Egyptian kingship as her formal title, when there was no crown prince to take the throne. Daughter of Amenemhat III, she became the closest in line of succession after her half-brother died, and ruled as full pharaoh until another dynasty was ready to rule. Also spelled Neferusobek or Sobekneferu, the queen was named after the crocodile god Sobek.
Sebeknefru completed her father’s pyramid complex at Hawara, now known as the Labyrinth. She also completed other building projects in the tradition of earlier monarchs, and built several monuments and temples at Herakleopolis and Tell Dab’a. Her name appeared on official king lists for centuries after her death.
Ahhotep I was the wife of King Seqenenre Tao II of the 17th dynasty, and ruled as a queen regent on behalf of his young son Ahmose I. She also held the position of God’s Wife of Amun, a title designated to a female counterpart of the high priest.
By the Second Intermediate Period, southern Egypt was ruled from Thebes, located between the Nubian Kingdom of Kush and the Hyksos dynasty that ruled northern Egypt. Queen Ahhotep I acted as a representative in Thebes, guarding the Upper Egypt.
While her son Ahmose I was fighting against the Nubians in the south, Queen Ahhotep I commanded the military successfully, brought back her fugitives, and put down a rebellion of Hyksos sympathizers. Later, her son the king was regarded as the founder of a new dynasty because he reunified Egypt.
In the 18th dynasty, Hatshepsut became known for her power, accomplishment, prosperity, and clever strategizing. She first ruled as a queen while married to Thutmose II, then as regent to her stepson Thutmose III, who ended up being the Napoleon of Egypt. When her husband died, she used the title God’s Wife of Amun, instead of King’s Wife, which likely paved the way to the throne.
However, Hatshepsut broke the traditional roles of queen regent as she assumed the role of king of Egypt. Many scholars conclude that her stepson may have been fully capable of claiming the throne, but was only relegated to secondary role. In fact, the queen ruled for more than two decades and depicted herself as a male king, wearing the pharaoh’s headdress and false beard, in order to sidestep the issue of gender.
The Deir el-Bahri Temple in western Thebes was built during Hatshepsut’s reign in the 15th century BCE. It was designed as a mortuary temple, which included a series of chapels dedicated to Osiris, Anubis, Re and Hathor. She built a rock-cut temple at Beni Hasan in Egypt, known as Speos Artemidos in Greek. She was also responsible for military campaigns and successful trade.
Unfortunately, Hatshepsut’s reign was regarded as a threat to the men who came after her, so her name was removed from historical record and her statues were destroyed. Some scholars speculate that it was an act of vengeance, while others conclude that the successor only ensured that the reign would run from Thutmose I through Thutmose III without female dominance.
Later in the 18th dynasty, Nefertiti became a co-ruler with her husband King Akhenaten, instead of being just his consort. Her reign was a critical moment in Egypt’s history, as it was during this time that the traditional polytheistic religion was changed to monotheistic worship of the sun god Aten.
In Thebes, the temple known as Hwt-Benben featured Nefertiti in the role of priest, leading the worship of Aten. She also became known as Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti. It’s believed that she was also regarded as a living fertility goddess at the time.
The queen of Macedonia and Thrace, Arsinoe II first married King Lysimachus—then later married her brother, Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt. She became Ptolemy’s co-ruler, and shared all the titles of her husband. In some historical texts, she was even referred to as the King of Upper and Lower Egypt. As married siblings, the two were equated with Greek deities Zeus and Hera.
Arsinoe II was the first Ptolemaic woman to rule as female pharaoh in Egypt, so dedications for her were made at numerous places in Egypt and Greece, renaming entire regions, cities and towns in her honor. After the queen’s death around 268 BCE, her cult was established in Alexandria and she was remembered during the annual Arsinoeia festival.
Being a member of a Macedonian Greek ruling family, Cleopatra VII almost doesn’t belong on the list of Egyptian queens. However, she became powerful through the men around her and ruled Egypt for almost three decades. The queen was known for her military alliances and relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and for actively influencing Roman politics.
By the time Cleopatra VII became the queen in 51 BCE, the Ptolemaic empire was falling apart, so she sealed her alliance with Roman general Julius Caesar—and later gave birth to their son Caesarion. When Caesar was murdered in 44 BCE, the three-year-old Caesarion became a co-ruler with his mother, as Ptolemy XV.
In order to reinforce her position as a queen, Cleopatra VII had claimed to be associated with the goddess Isis. Mark Antony became the apparent of Caesar’s authority, and the queen needed him to protect her crown and maintain Egypt’s independence from the Roman Empire. The country became more powerful under Cleopatra’s rule, and Antony even restored several territories to Egypt.
In 34 BCE, Antony declared Caesarion as the rightful heir to the throne and awarded land to his three children with Cleopatra. In late 32 BCE, however, the Roman Senate stripped Antony of his titles and declared war on Cleopatra. In the Battle of Actium, Antony’s rival Octavian defeated the two. And so the last queen of Egypt committed suicide with the bite of an asp, a venomous snake and a symbol of divine royalty.
There were many queens throughout Egypt’s history, but some became more significant for their accomplishments and influence, while others only served as placeholders for the next male to take the pharaoh’s throne. Their legacy gave us insight on female leadership, and today’s world could learn from their example.