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January 15, 2017

The Ruling Women of Ancient Egypt

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Ancient Egyptians held women in very high esteem. Spouses of the Pharaohs were called God's Wives and when they were Queens in their own right they were worshiped just like their male counterparts.

This is very evident in the case of Queen Hatshepsut, who had her own temple in Deir el-Bahri in the city of Luxor. It is one of the most beautifully constructed temples in the world, a must-see for visitors to Egypt.

Hatshepsut lived from 1500-1458 BCE and reigned for 21 years, longer than any other female ruler of Egypt. Her time on the throne was both peaceful and productive, a period when many monuments were built.

But the title of the most beautiful and powerful among the queens of ancient Egypt belongs to Nefertiti; in fact, her name itself means “the beautiful one has come.”

Her striking statue at the Cairo Museum is among the most famous of all Egyptian artifacts and replicas of it can be found in museums and homes the world over.

Nefertiti lived from about 1370 to 1330 BCE, dying rather young (by modern standards) around the age of 40. Scholars say she may have been assassinated because of her radical religious belief that people should not worship her, as had been the Egyptian custom, but instead revere the “One Creator, the One true God” of the universe.

Nefertiti was also unconventional as a mother. Egyptian queens were expected to bear sons, but she was the proud and loving mother of six daughters.

Ancient Egyptian women, whether royalty or commoners, were allowed to own property and hold high official positions. They could also inherit wealth and defend their rights in a court of law.

Although scholars are divided over exactly when she ruled, Queen MerNeith of the First Dynasty (34th through 30th centuries BCE) was buried sometime during the 29th century BCE with 50 officials, indicating her great power as a ruler.

Even if they know little or nothing about the history of Egypt’s queens, most people recognize the name of Cleopatra, born in 69 BCE. Her life was the subject of a popular 1963 movie, starring the legendary Elizabeth Taylor in the title role.

Cleopatra was known as “Queen of the Nile” and was Egypt’s last ruler before it became a Roman province in 30 BCE.

After much drama, conflict and romance between her and Roman politician and military leader Mark Antony (83-30 BCE), Cleopatra committed suicide at the age of 39. Their tragic story also became the inspiration for one of William Shakespeare’s most powerful plays.

The detailed depictions of style, clothing and makeup found in the wall décor of ancient tombs show that early Egyptians placed a high priority on beauty, appearance and health, for women and men alike.

Their criteria included meticulous personal hygiene and grooming, cultivating a fit body through sports and exercise, and adorning themselves through cosmetics, jewelry, luxurious clothing, and even elaborate wigs and headpieces.

Perfume and toiletry items were so highly valued that they have been found in tombs alongside gold, priceless gems, and ceramics. Hairy bodies were not considered desirable, so the wealthy often shaved their bodies and heads.

They bathed frequently in a soda solution and used henna to dye their skin, nails and hair. Royal women always had female attendants on hand to assist with their daily grooming rituals.

In recognition of personal beauty, both physical and moral, many ancient Egyptian royals were given descriptive titles. For example, a female ruler called Sobek who reigned during the brief 12th Dynasty (from 1806-1802 BCE) was given the official title Queen Sobekneferu, meaning “Sobek is the beauty of Ra.”

Another important female ruler of ancient Egypt, whose reign spanned the end of the Old Kingdom and beginning of the First Intermediate Period, was Queen Neithikret, who is thought to have risen to power around 2148-2144 BCE.

Female royals were educated at court, for these places were the best universities of the ancient world.

Marital partnership between husbands and wives was highly regarded, as was motherhood, and these relationships are depicted in detail on the walls of temples.

Although nudity was not a typical expression of ancient Egyptian culture, sexuality was conveyed through dress and gesture. It is known that male circumcision was practiced and that breast-feeding and child-rearing were honored as life-giving acts. Temple wall murals even depict how childbirth was carried out.

In keeping with their advanced education, female members of the royal family were fully involved in important decisions and exercised considerable intellectual autonomy.

When the Hebrew prophet Moses brought the teachings of monotheism to the Egyptian court, the reigning Pharaoh rejected the new religion, but his wife accepted it.

Although ancient Egyptian women were so highly regarded, few rose to achieve the status of sole rulers. Nevertheless, some went to great lengths to strengthen their claim to the throne and all played a significant role in the rich layers of their country’s long and colorful history.

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