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Incredible Ancient Egyptian Queens

Say “Ancient Egypt” and what comes to mind? Pyramids, pharoahs, possibly Brendan Fraser waving a cat at a mummy – definitely something you think of is going to involve the monachy and leaders in some way. Most people have heard of Tutankhamun and Ramses the Great but what about their female counterparts? As it turns out, Egypt had a great tradition of queens and female leaders all through its history. Women could also hold the title of “Pharoah” as it was a name which encompassed the monarch’s roles as head of state and as a religious leader. Here are some of the most influential, interesting and well-known Queens from Ancient Egypt. 

Sobekneferu

Statue of Sobekneferu, Pharaoh of Egypt
Statue of Sobekneferu, Pharaoh of Egypt

The first widely acknowledged female Pharoah of Ancient Egypt was Sobekneferu who also went by the pretty cool nickname “The Crocodile Queen”. Crocodiles were highly revered in ancient Egypt and, in fact, Sobekneferu was named after Sobek, the crocodile god. She ruled as a Pharoah for nearly 4 years starting in around 1760 BC. Taking on a role that was male-dominated in a time and culture where women were thought of as inferior was no mean feat. Sobekneferu wasn’t even first in the line of succession but her older sister died before her father did, as did her husband…who may also have been her brother. Hey, no judgement. Accepting the challenge head on, Sobekneferu ruled as a true Pharoah, adopting the regalia and symbols used at the time. She did not try and present herself as a man, however, and was referred to as a female in contemporary accounts. There have even been artifacts uncovered which show her wearing things like crowns which she had customised to combine the  traditionally male and female symbols which maybe shows she was going for a gender-neutral angle.  Although her reign was short, Sobekneferu left her mark on the world by finishing her father’s huge mortuary temple complex at Hawara which contained thousands of rooms. This was located – where else? Outside Crocodilopolis. Yes, that was a real place and still exists today as “Faiyum”, about 100km (62 miles) southwest of Cairo. Not only has her own burial place never been found, Sobekneferu also died without an heir, leaving her as a true original.

Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut, meaning “Foremost of Noblewomen” is not only regarded as one of the most successful female Phaorahs of the ancient era but one of the most successful Phaorahs full stop. She was also the longest-ruling female Pharoah, clocking in at over 20 years as leader. Born the daughter of Thuthmose the First in around 1508 BC, her route to the top started early when she married her half-brother at around the age of 12. She also snagged the title of “God’s Wife of Amun” which gave her some political power and also an eleveated position in religious circles as Amun was one of ancient Egypt’s most important gods. Her husband, Thuthmose the Second, died, leaving her as regent to her stepson, Thuthmose the Third. This incarnation of Thuthmose was only a young child at the time so Hatshepsut took her chance and, after ruling in his place for seven years, unceremoniously booted him out of the line and declared herself Pharoah. Like Sobekneferu before her, Hatshepsut was referred to as a female in contemporary accounts but unlike previous female Pharoahs, she chose to have herself depicted in full male regalia, including the false beard. With a canny eye on consolidating her almost unprecedented position, Hatshepsut married her own daughter to her step-son, the disgruntled and potentially troublesome Thuthmose the Third. She also declared herself semi-divine by proclaiming that she was the real-life daughter of Amun and it seems that nobody argued with this. 

Hatshepsut oversaw vast construction projects including her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari which was so impressive, future kings chose to be buried near it and the area eventually became known as the Valley of the Kings. Her temple also depicts another of her achievements, an expedition to Punt, a trading partner thought to be roughly where modern day Somalia is now. The fact that Hatshepsut could mount an expedition at all shows how well Egypt was doing during her reign as she had a fleet of ships built specially for the journey. As well as boat loads of luxurious goods, she even brought back trees from Punt and had them successfully planted in what is thought to be the first international tree transplant operation.

Unfortunately, after her death in 1458 BC, her successor, Thuthmose the Third, that pesky grudge-holding stepson, more or less had her erased from history. It wasn’t until the 19th Century when French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion noticed a discrepancy between the gender signifiers and images of Hatshepsut that her role as a gender-busting Pharoah was brought to light. 

Nefertiti

Nefertiti

You’ve probably heard her name before but what was the big deal about Queen Nefertiti? Well, her name means “The Beautiful One Has Come” so there’s that but there was more to her than just being a beauty for the ages. Born around 1370 BC, her origins are pretty mysterious and it’s inconclusive as to whether she was already of royal lineage, whether she was one of the Egyptian elite or even whether she was from Egypt at all. She became the chief wife of Pharoah Akhenaten and, in a noble but ultimately unsuccessful try at having a male heir, she gave birth to six daughters. 

You’re probably familiar with the fact that the Ancient Egyptians worshipped many gods but Nerfertiti and her husband decided that monotheism was the way to go and instituted the worship of Aten only, a god represented by the disk of the sun. Images show Aten, Nerfertiti and Akhenaten as a divine triad. This effectively abolished the role of existing priests, making Nefertiti and her husband the direct link to Aten. Nefertiti can be seen in ancient images making offerings and sacrifices to Aten, roles that were only usually reserved for priests or even the Pharaoh himself so it’s clear that she was a hugely influential person during Akhenaten’s reign. 

Despite the religious turmoil that this change caused, Egypt became incredibly wealthy during this period and Nefertiti and her husband created a new capital city, Amarna, which quickly became a thriving place. 

Like her beginnings, her end is also up for debate. Theories abound as to what might have happened to her, from being murdered for her religious beliefs to becoming Pharoah herself under a new name after her husband’s death. Whatever the truth actually is, Nefertiti is one Egyptian queen who has made a lasting impression all the way through to the present. 

Ankhesenamun

Ankhesenamun
The seated figure to the right is Queen Ankhesenamun, King Tut’s half-sister and wife.

If there was a title for most unfortunate Egyptian Queen, it would probably go to Nefertiti’s third daughter, Ankhesenamun. Born to the controversial Pharoaoh Akhenaten, she married the famous boy-king Tutankhamun in 1334 BC when she was 13 and he was about 9. If that wasn’t creepy enough by modern standards, he was also her half-brother. Nevertheless, the couple brought stability and relief to Egypt, ending previous Pharoah Akhenaten’s push for monotheism by restoring the Egyptian gods to their rightful places. Their marriage seemed to be happy although it was marred by two stillbirths, no doubt as a result of the royal families’ penchant for inbreeding, therefore leaving no direct descendants. The mummified remains of these two daughters were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. 

We all know that King Tut died young so Ankhesenamun was left a widow in her early 20s. The rest of her life was not incest-free, however. At some time before his death, her father had tried to conceive a son with all of his three oldest daughters. The plan failed and at least one daughter died in the process. There is evidence that Ankhesenamun was even married to her father for a short period in a bid to secure their family line. After his death and Tutankhamun’s, who stepped up next in line to marry Ankhesenamun? That’s right, her grandfather, King Ay. Understandably, Ankhesenamun was not a big fan of this idea and wrote to a Hittite king and military rival to propose marriage with one of his sons. It was all agreed but, somewhat suspiciously, the prince and all his party were murdered at the Egyptian border. There was no stopping power-hungry Ay who ascended to Pharoah at the age of about 70 by dint of marrying the young queen Ankhesenamun. 

No-one knows for sure what happened to Ankhesenamun after this but she is thought to have died sometime between 1325 and 1321 BC as no further mention is made of her. This means she was married to at least 3 Pharoahs and possibly even 4 in her short life before dying before the age of 30. 

Cleopatra

Cleopatra
“Queen-cleopatra” by Eslam17 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

No list would be complete without the most well-known queen and last ruling Egyptian pharoah, Cleopatra. Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra, or Cleopatra the 7th Philopator, to give her her full title,  entered an Egypt that was already well under the Roman thumb. After her father, Pharaoah Ptolemy 12 died, Cleopatra became co-ruler with her younger brother. Egypt was paying tributes to Rome at the time and General Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, aka Pompey, was appointed as a guardian over Cleopatra and Ptolemy the 13th. 

Cleopatra was regarded as intelligent, politically astute and charming. She spoke several languages, including Egyptian which, weirdly, none of her previous family members had learned. After ruling for a year, she decided to seize the reins of power for herself and removed her younger brother’s name from all official documents and currency. He reacted badly to this and a few years later tried to overthrow her. Egypt and Rome clashed with Pompey being murdered in Alexandria as he tried to escape Rome’s civil war. Julius Caesar ended up taking control, causing Cleopatra’s brother to make a speedy exit and leaving the way clear for her to resume what power was left. She impressed Caesar by meeting him after being smuggled through to him in a large sack or, as legend has it, rolled up in a rug. After her “ta-da!” moment, the two quickly formed an alliance in more ways than one and in 47 BC, Cleopatra had her first child, a boy named Caesarion, or Ptolemy Caesar. 

That was also the year that her brother died in the Alexandrian war in a failed attempt to take back power again. The outcome of this was that Cleopatra was now co-regent with her even younger brother, Ptolemy 14th. As he was only about 11 at the time, it doesn’t appear that he had any role in the ruling of Egypt so Cleopatra carried on as though he wasn’t there. She moved to Rome to live with Caesar but he was assassinated a couple of years later so back to Egypt she went. When she got there, her younger brother Ptolemy 14th died of poisoning in what was clearly the world’s largest coincidence. Clearly. 

Who should pop up next on the radar but Roman general, Mark Anthony. Cleopatra had been taking notes on how the Romans operated and in a show of wealth that her fading kingdom didn’t really possess anymore, she successfully dazzled Mark Anthony and notched up a second Roman leader on her bedpost. She ended up having three children with him and they reportedly married but this was the beginning of the end as Mark Anthony was already married and even though his wife didn’t seem to mind all that much and even took care of Cleopatra’s children after their parents’ deaths, his brother-in-law, Octavian, was really put out. After finding out that Mark Anthony’s will would basically give Cleopatra the Roman Empire, Octavian declared war. 

After losing his final battle and having heard that his love, Cleopatra was already dead, Mark Anthony stabbed himself but guess what? Birthing the very essence of a Shakesperean ending, she wasn’t dead! The lovers were reunited in time for Mark Anthony to die in her arms. Cleopatra knew that she wanted to go out as a queen and not a slave to Rome so eventually succeeded in taking her own life at the age of 39. Poison was involved but it’s debated as to whether she managed to convince a snake to bite her or not. Egypt became part of the Roman Empire and Cleopatra was its last ever Pharoah. Honestly, you could make a movie about this.

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