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It can be argued that women achieved greater power in ancient Egypt than in many other ancient cultures 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 ascended the throne. In fact, some of Egypt’s longest periods of stability were achieved when women ruled the country. 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 Ptolemaic times.
Legend has it that in the late 4th millennium BCE, the warrior Narmer joined the two separate lands of Upper and Lower Egypt and established the first dynasty. He was crowned 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, and some historians have suggested she may have been an Upper Egyptian princess, and instrumental in the alliance that enabled the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is not clear, however, that it was Narmer who she married. Some Egyptologists point at her being the wife of Aha, and the mother to king Djer. 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‘.
One of the earliest embodiments of female power, Merytneith 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 as regent queen on account of her son being too young, and ensured stability in Egypt. Her main agenda was the continuation of her family’s dominance, and to establish her son in royal power.
Merytneith was believed at first to have been a man, since William Flinders Petrie discovered her tomb in Abydos and read the name as ‘Merneith’ (He who is loved by Neith). Later finds showed that there was a female determinative next to the first ideogram of her name, so it should be read Merytneith. Along with several inscribed objects, including many serekhs (emblems of the earliest pharaohs), her tomb was filled with sacrificial burials of 118 servants and state officials who would accompany her in her journey during the Afterlife.
In the 4th dynasty, Hetepheres I became the queen of Egypt and bore the title Daughter of God. She was the wife of King Sneferu, 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 is firmly believed to be the eldest daughter of Huni, the last king of the 3rd dynasty, suggesting that her marriage with Sneferu allowed a smooth transition between the two dynasties. Some speculate that she may have 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 on her forehead 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, Sobekneferu 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 pharaoh until another dynasty was ready to rule. Also called Neferusobek, the queen was named after the crocodile god Sobek.
Sobekneferu 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 Heracleopolis and Tell Dab’a. Her name appeared on official king lists for centuries after her death.
Ahhotep I was the wife of King Seqenenre Taa 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 reserved 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 for Seqenenre in Thebes, guarding the Upper Egypt while her husband fought in the north. However, he was killed in battle, and another king, Kamose, was crowned, only to die at a very young age, which forced Ahhotep I to take the reins of the country
While her son Ahmose I was fighting against the Nubians in the south, Queen Ahhotep I commanded the military successfully, brought back 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 became known in modern times as 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 the exclusive 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 coruler 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 the Macedonian Greek ruling family, it could be argued that Cleopatra VII does not belong on a list of Egyptian queens. However, she became powerful through the men around her and ruled Egypt for more than two 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. After the death of Caesar, Mark Antony, one of his closest supporters, was assigned the Roman Eastern Provinces, including Egypt. Cleopatra 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 legend goes, 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 served simply as placeholders for the next male to take the pharaoh’s throne. Their legacy gives us insight into female leadership and the extent to which they had could act independently in ancient Egypt.