Nefertiti – c.1370 – 1330 BCE – Amarna, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Her face is one of the most well known in history and her striking beauty has been praised for thousands of years. But Queen Nefertiti was a lot more than just pretty. Together with her husband she instigated a religious revolution, founded a city, modernised Egyptian art, and may have ruled as Pharaoh herself for a time.

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As is the case with many Egyptian women, little is known about Nefertiti’s life before her marriage to Amenhotep IV. What is known is that the royal couple were radicals. They put themselves at odds with the Egyptian establishment by worshipping Aten, the sun disk, over all other Gods, turning their backs on Egypt’s polytheistic religion. Five years into Amenhotep’s reign, they both changed their names becoming Akhenaten and Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti (perfect are the beauties of Aten, the beautiful one has come).

“Nefertiti Standing-striding Berlin” by Photo: Andreas Praefcke – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The couple were not satisfied simply changing the nations belief system. Their next move was even more unusual, as they relocated the entire royal court from Thebes to a newly built city in the desert, Akhetaten (now known as Amarna). Akhetaten became the centre of the cult of Aten, with several open air temples and an enormous palace, from which Akhenaten and Nefertiti ruled during Egypt’s most prosperous era.

Turning a centuries old system on its head was an enormous undertaking, and Nefertiti proved herself to be an expert at PR. She left her mark everywhere. Never before had the face of a ruler been shared so widely – in fact Nefertiti appears in carvings twice as often as her own husband, the Pharaoh. In some images, Nefertiti is surrounded by her six daughters; in others she is shown smiting her enemies. She took up a string of titles including; Great of praises, Sweet of Love, Lady of All Women, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. Even her distinctive tall cap-crown was designed to flatter her beauty, following the lines of her face. She was a Queen who wanted to be known to her people.

Art changed entirely during this period – the images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti are unlike any other ancient Egyptian portraits, in that they are a clear attempt at realism. While the tradition was to portray the royal family as tall, lean, androgynous beings, like the Gods, images of Akhenaten present an extremely unusual looking man. He has a large jaw and cleft chin, spindly arms and a pot belly. Queen Tiye, his mother, has

“Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

visible age lines on her face. Nefertiti is the most striking of all, and her angular face and cylinder crown have become iconic symbols of ancient Egypt in western consciousness.

There is strong evidence that in year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign, Nefertiti was elevated to co-regent, ruling alongside her husband with all the power of a Pharaoh. Though Royal wives had wielded power before, Nefertiti’s rise was unprecedented. In fact, it is believed that she outlived her husband and ruled alone, as the mysterious Pharaoh Neferneferuaten (who may also be Nefertiti’s daughter, Meritaten). If this is the case, it means that Nefertiti ruled three years into her stepson, Tutankhamun’s reign.

It was during Tutankhamun’s short reign that Amarna was abandoned and Thebes reinstated as the capital. The cult of Aten was disbanded and even art reverted back to its traditional style. Akhenaten was branded ‘the Heretic King’ and the new world that he and his Queen had fought to create was abandoned in the desert.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley

On Wikipedia:


In fiction:

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Tiye – c.1398 – 1338 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Queen Tiye continued the tradition of powerful Great Royal Wives and elevated the role further by extending her reach into diplomacy and foreign relations.

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Tiye (pronounced ‘tee-ay’) was only eleven or twelve when she married King Amenhotep III. He likely married her in order to strengthen his tie to

“Queen Tiy N2312 E25493 mp3h8764” by Rama – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 fr via Wikimedia Commons

the royal lineage. Though Tiye’s father was a high-ranking priest, it was her mother, Tjuyu, who was most probably royalty. Tjuyu was involved with a number of religious cults and held a variety of mystical titles.

Tiye and Amenhotep soon became a serious power couple. While he is recognized as having been a great statesman, Tiye was his confidante and most trusted advisor in all things. From brokering marriages for their seven children to managing requests for Egypt’s gold from other nations, Tiye’s seal is found on a number of documents from the time.

“Ägyptisches Museum Berlin 027” by Einsamer Schütze – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Intelligent, strong and fierce, Tiye was respected not only at home but by foreign dignitaries visiting the Egyptian court. Leaders from bordering kingdoms were happy to deal directly through her and was the first Egyptian queen to have her name recorded on official acts.

Amenhotep devoted shrines and temples to his formidable wife, and she was worshipped as a Goddess in parts of Nubia during her lifetime. She would have been in her late forties when Amenhotep died and her son, Amenhotep IV, later Akhenaten, ascended to the throne.

There is evidence that Tiye continued to advise her son, as she lived until at least twelve years into his reign. She is mentioned in a number of letters to outlying kingdoms, demonstrating her political influence.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Khan Academy video: ‘Portrait head of Queen Tiye with a crown of Two Feathers

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Hatshepsut – 1508 – 1458 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

“I never slumbered as one forgetful, but have made strong what was decayed. I have raised up what was dismembered.”

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Princess Hatshepsut was born to rule. As the only child of the Pharaoh and his Great Royal Wife, Hatshepsut had the strongest claim to the throne and during her father’s reign held the important office of God’s Wife. Her name meant Foremost of the Noble Ladies and by the time she was fifteen the princess was an experienced and capable administrator.

There was only one problem; she was not a man. When her father Pharaoh Thutmose I died, Hatshepsut was obliged to marry her younger half-brother, whose mother was a minor wife of the Pharaoh. Still, the teenage Queen took an active role in the affairs of the Kingdom, knowing that it was only through marriage to her that Thutmose II was King at all.

“Thutmose III and Hatshepsut” by Markh – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Thirteen years into his reign, Thutmose II died of an illness. He and Hatshepsut had a daughter, Neferure, together, but it was his son Thutmose III, who he fathered with a secondary wife, who would inherit the throne. However, Thutmose III was very young and would need a regent to run the kingdom until he reached maturity. With her royal bloodline and wealth of experience, thirty year old Hatshepsut was the logical choice. Two years later, she declared herself King of Egypt.

Pharaoh Hatshepsut ruled Egypt for over twenty years in her own right, and is regarded as one of the most successful of Egypt’s rulers. While her father had spent his reign at war with the Hyksos in the Nile Delta, Hatshepsut maintained a largely peaceful foreign policy and took the opportunity to establish important trade routes, building the wealth of her dynasty.

She oversaw expeditions to the land of Punt, bringing frankincense and myrrh to Egypt for the first time. The frankincense she used for kohl

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut by Ian Lloyd - lloydi.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut by Ian Lloyd – lloydi.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

eyeliner, and the myrrh trees were planted in her extensive funeral complex at Deir el-Bahri. Her mortuary temple was to become the envy of all Pharaohs who followed her, and is now the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.

Hatshepsut, like her father, was an extensive builder. The wealth brought into Egypt from her international trade routes was put towards funding hundreds of construction projects, grander than any of her predecessors, raising the standard of Egyptian architecture. So much statutory was produced that today every major museum in the world contains at least one statue built by Hatshepsut.

To assert herself as Pharaoh, rather than a Queen, images of Hatshepsut portray her with all of the traditional symbols and regalia of kingship – including the khat headcloth, shendyt kilt and false beard. There is no indication that Hatshepsut dressed as a man, and it is thought that in statues and carvings she is depicted in this way so that there can be no doubt she is Pharaoh.

Meanwhile, her step-son Thutmose III was also Pharaoh, in title only. Though he had little power over the empire, Hatshepsut appointed him head of her armies. There is no indication that Hatshepsut’s leadership was ever challenged, and until her death Thutmose III remained in a secondary role quite amicably. As head of her powerful armies, he would have had the power to overthrow her at any time, and clearly never chose to.

It is true that towards the end of his own reign Thutmose III began to remove Hatshepsut from historical records, chiseling her name and images away from stone walls, leaving obvious gaps in artwork. Her statues were also torn down or disfigured and buried in a pit that would not be discovered for many centuries.

It’s not clear why Thutmose chose to do this, especially as he did not seem to take issue with Hatshepsut during her rule. One theory is that he was simply doing what he believed to be correct at the time – as at the time it was not considered possible for a woman to be Pharaoh, he may have been attempting to return her to her place as his co-regent.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Hatshepsut: from Queen to Pharaoh Metropolitan Museum of Art 

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge

The Hatshepsut Trilogy by Patricia O’Neill

Ahmose Nefertari – 1562 – 1595 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

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This Egyptian Queen was a woman with many titles. As the daughter Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao and Ahhotep, she was named Ahmose Nefertari (the most beautiful born of Iah), and given the titles Hereditary Princess, King’s daughter.

“Ahmes Nefertari Grab 10” by Ausschnittbearbeitung NebMaatRe. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

With even more influence than her formidable mother Ahhotep, Ahmose Nefertari redesigned the position of Great Royal Wife. The eldest girl of a number of siblings, she married her brother Ahmose when he became Pharaoh, as was Egyptian custom, taking on the further titles Great King’s Wife, God’s Wife of Amun and Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. She and her husband became the royal couple who founded the Eighteenth dynasty.

Though Ahhotep, as King’s Mother, would have taken precedence over Ahmose Nefertari at court, King Ahmose bestowed not only titles (including Great of Grace, Great of Praises and United with the White Crown) upon his wife, but important positions and responsibilities.

The King purchased the office of Second prophet of Amun in order to gift his wife with the lands and goods associated with the role, making her independently wealthy. The Queen was also given the position of Divine Adoratrix, which gave Ahmose Nefertari more responsibilities than any Queen before her, putting her in charge of the administration of all temple properties, estates and treasuries.

Ahmose Nefertari had at least three sons and once her husband died it is possible that she (like her mother) was regent for her son Amenhotep I (adding King’s Mother to her list of titles). She likely lived to the old age of

“Ahmes nefertari2-2” by http://www.africamaat.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

70 and when she died her son made her a Goddess. Ahmose Nefertari was worshipped for generations under her final title: Mistress of the sky, Lady of the West.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

The Life and Afterlife of Ahmose NefertariVirginia Laporta & Graciela Gestoso Singer

On Wikipedia:

Ahhotep I – c.1560 – 1510 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

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It is 1563 BCE and Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao has died a violent death. Whether on the battlefield or by assassination, he receives an axe to the head only a few years into his reign. As Pharaoh Kamose is crowned his successor, Tao’s widow and sister takes charge of her children.

Ahhotep I (meaning the Moon is satisfied) was one of the most influential of the Great Royal Wives, the first dominant consort of Egypt. She also bore the titles Associate of the White Crown bearer and King’s Mother. Pharaoh Kamose did not live much longer than his predecessor, and five years after the death of her husband, Ahhotep saw her son Ahmose ascend to the throne along with her daughter, Ahmose Nefertari, who became his wife.

It is likely that Ahmose was very young, and that Ahhotep served as regent for her son during his childhood. It is evident that Ahmose had a great respect for his mother, whom he describes as a powerful woman and fearless leader on a stela in Karnack:

“She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt… She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters; she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.”

“Ahhotep” via Wikimedia Commons

These statements appear to describe a time at which Ahhotep rallied troops and played some important role in the defense of Thebes – perhaps following the death of her husband.

It is not clear when these events took place, but it is known that she was buried with a ceremonial axe, golden dagger and military medals. These items are unusual in the grave of a queen, and may be there to commemorate Ahhotep’s successful campaign.

Queen Ahhotep is mentioned as living during the reign of Amenhotep I, her grandson, and again during the reign of Thutmose I, her great grandson. This indicates that she lived much longer than many other Egyptians of the time, outliving almost all of her children.


References:

Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Hatshepsut: from Queen to PharaohMetropolitan Museum of Art

Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley

On Wikipedia:

Amat Mamu – c. 1750 BCE – Sippar, Babylonia

Mesopotamia

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Amat Mamu lived an unusual life by the standards of her era. She was a nadītu priestess in Babylonia who worked as a scribe.

It is likely that Amat Mamu was from a noble or even royal family. As women were not able to receive inheritance from their fathers, their only income was from their dowry which, if they became nadītu, they were not allowed to pass on to another man.

We do not know if nadītu were expected to remain unmarried and celibate, but the word nadītu means ‘the fallow’, indicating they were not expected to have children. These women inhabited convent-like enclosures called Gagum’s, where they lived apart from men.

The freedoms afforded to Amat Mamu in this position were significant. The nadītu lived unlike any other women of their time; they did not marry and were financially independent. They were granted the ability to enter into business contracts, borrow and lend money as well as own property. As a result, many of these women were active merchants and tradeswomen.

“Sumerian MS2272 2400BC” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Amat Mamu herself chose to become a scribe (writer) for her temple, which was a popular vocation among the nadītu; she was one of eight scribes in her gagûm. It is from the records kept on cuneiform tablets that we know her name. Also, we know that she had a long life and her career as a writer spanned the reign of three kings.

Ancient Babylonians attributed the gift of writing to a goddess and the earliest writing tablets (4th millennium BCE) come from a temple where nadītu lived – suggesting that Amat Mamu was part of a lineage traceable to the origins of the written word.


References:

Order, Legitimacy and Wealth in Ancient StatesJanet Richards & Mary Van luren

Who’s Who in the Ancient Near East – Gwendolyn Leick

Sacred Prostitutes – Johanna H. Stuckey

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

She Wrote on Clay by Shirley Graetz: a historical fiction novel about a young woman who becomes a Nadītu in ancient Sippar with the ambition to be a scribe – Amat Mamu is a minor character.

Shibtu – c.1771 BCE – 1761 BCE (reigned) – Mari, Syria

Ancient Syria, Syria

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Shibtu was a princess of the kingdom of Yamhad (now Aleppo, Syria) when she was married as part of a tactical alliance to King Zimrilim. His connection with her family allowed the king to take back his own Kingdom of Mari, with Shibtu as his queen.

As was the case with many kings of the ancient Middle East, Zimrilim was often away on military campaigns, expanding his territories and defending his borders. While he was away, Shibtu proved that she was a capable politician and leader, handling the administration of the kingdom and regularly corresponding with her husband.

Tablet of Zimrilim in the Louvre (source)

The clay tablets found at Mari exchanged between Shibtu and her husband are evidence of a loving marriage and a strong political partnership. The letters are often administrative in nature, including reports on the state of the city as well as military and intelligence briefings.

Personal letters were also exchanged, including one notifying the king of Shibtu’s having given birth to twins. Shibtu’s letters reflect deep affection for her husband and concern over his health and wellbeing during his campaigns. Zimrilim, likewise, sent letters back updating her on his battles and whereabouts, and instructing her on the running of the city.

Letter from Shibtu to Zimrilim:

I have asked my questions about Babylon. That man is plotting many things against this country, but he will not succeed. My Lord will see what the god will do to him. You will capture and overpower him. His days are numbered and he will not live long. My Lord should know!


References:

On Wikipedia:

Khuwyt – c.1960 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

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Khuwyt was a musician who lived and worked during the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt. She is known from a carving in the tomb of a Vizier (court official), where she is portrayed playing a harp and singing. She is identified as ‘Chantress Khuwyt, daughter of Maket’.

Many musicians (though not all) in ancient Egypt were women, and the position was open to people from all walks of life. Khuwyt may have been a noble woman whose father paid for her training, a member of the King’s harem, or even a slave from Nubia.

She likely danced, as well as sang, performing complex acrobatic movements in time to the music. She would have worn a thick black wig over her own hair, and painted her eyelids with kohl. Many musicians and dancers performed nude or wearing very little, but if Khuwyt did wear clothes, she would have dressed in a very thin, almost transparent white dress.

Musicians of Amun, Western Thebes.

Musicians of Amun, Western Thebes.

Music played an important part in ancient Egyptian culture, and musicians attended religious ceremonies as well as parties and festivals.

Music was considered an art form, and so talented musicians were held in high esteem, and in some cases could move up the social scale.


References:

Kelsey Museum page on music in Egypt

Details of the Chapel in which Khuwyt is mentioned

On Wikipedia:

Sobekneferu – c.1806 BCE – Faiyum, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

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The original Queen of the Nile…

The last pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom, a golden age for Egypt, was Sobekneferu; Egypt’s first known female king. While Merneith had ruled on behalf of her son over a millennium earlier and queens (king’s wives) often had some administrative powers, Sobekneferu is the first woman to rule with the title of Pharaoh (king) in her own right.

She was the daughter of pharaoh Amenemhat III, whose greatest achievement was the construction of a man-made lake in Faiyum. The lake brought prosperity to the area by channelling the floods from the Nile into a reservoir. For this reason Amenemhat became closely associated with the crocodile-headed god of the Nile, Sobek.

A cult of crocodile worshippers developed around Faiyum, leading the Greeks to later name the area Crocodilopolis (Crocodile City).

Sobekneferu means ‘the Beauties of Sobek’ – cementing this family’s close ties with the city.

Amenemhat was succeeded by his son, Amenemhat IV, who was either Sobekneferu’s brother or step-brother. When Amenemhat IV died he left no children to inherit the kingdom, leaving to position open for Sobekneferu.

Unusually, Sobekneferu never took the title ‘King’s Wife’, so was probably not married to Amenemhat IV. There is very little explanation at all for how she rose to power, but there is evidence of a few shrewd political moves on her part.

She consistently emphasised her right to rule by associating herself with her father

Egyptian crocodile head from the Walters Art Museum (source)

rather than her brother, and was likely the reason Amenemhat III was deified (made a god) in Faiyum– being the daughter of a god meant that her right to rule was sacred.

Though she only ruled for four years and died childless, Sobekneferu is included on all later king’s lists in Egypt. This indicates that unlike many other female rulers, later historians considered Sobekneferu a legitimate pharaoh.

See also: Only three other women ruled Egypt as pharaoh’s in their own right. They are Hatshepsut, Tausret and Cleopatra VII.


Notes

The title Queen did not have the meaning it had today, but meant ‘the wife of a king’. There was no specific word for a female ruler in ancient Egypt, so women who did rule, like Sobekneferu and Hatshepsut, took the title of King.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley

On Wikipedia: