8 Greatest Female Rulers of Ancient Egypt
When it came to women’s rights, ancient Egypt was centuries ahead of its contemporaries. In ancient Egypt, if a female royal was strong-willed and determined, it was absolutely acceptable for her to rule as regent for a child-king or even in some cases rise to throne of the land. The chief priests of the land may have frowned slightly at such an occurrence, but with a bit of political acumen the female rulers of ancient Egypt were able to beat the patriarchy into line so to speak. After all, this is the same ancient Egypt that had strong reverence for goddesses like Isis, Nephthys, and Bastet. In some accounts, the war goddess Neith, one of the oldest Egyptian deities, was seen as the deity who created everything in the cosmos. She was the kind of deity that you wouldn’t want to upset, as her wrath knew no bounds. In the same vein, female Egyptian rulers like Nefertiti and Hatshepsut wielded immense influence, with their achievements dwarfing many of their male counterparts.
In the article below World History Edu presents (in descending order of might) the 8 most powerful female personalities of ancient Egypt.
Female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1507–1458 BC) was initially the Great Royal Wife of pharaoh Thutmose II. In that role, she helped her husband consolidate his reign over Egypt. She also began to exert some level of influence in Egypt’s foreign relations.
Upon the death of Thutmose II, who by the way was also her brother or half-brother, Hatshepsut was appointed to serve as regent to her nephew/stepson, Thutmose (later Thutmose III) who was at the time around three years old. Hatshepsut would stay regent for some time until after very well-planned political machinations in the court she crowned herself co-pharaoh. Aside from being the chief wife of the previous pharaoh, Hatshepsut asserted her claim to the throne as the only surviving child of Thutmose I and his great royal wife Queen Ahmose.
In the 20 or so years that she reigned over all of Egypt, there was hardly any resistance to her rule. She also developed very cordial relationship with her nephew and heir, Thutmose, who served as the head of her military. Hatshepsut ensured that Thutmose received the best form of military and civil education in order to prepare him for his future role as pharaoh.
Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s greatest achievement came when she organized and financed a massive trade expedition to the Land of Punt. The expedition, which came around the tenth year of her reign, is famed for opening trade routes to east. It’s been said that about 5-7 ships sailed from Egypt’s coast to the east. On board those ships were diplomats, merchants and royal officials from Hatshepsut’s court. After securing a trade deal with the Land of Punt, the expedition came back with many gifts, including over two dozen myrrh trees, hand-sewn clothes, and frankincense.
During her reign over Egypt, she became famous for her numerous building projects across the land. She is credited with carrying out massive expansion works at the temple of Amun at Karnak. She also constructed twin obelisks in front of the Temple of Karnak. At the time, the two obelisks were considered the tallest in the world. Perhaps the most famous building project was the temple she built at Beni Hasan.
Those feats and many more others are some of the reasons why she is considered the most famous female ruler of ancient Egypt. Her reign is credited with laying solid foundation for her successor, Thutmose III, who would lift Egypt to its highest height, militarily and economically.
By her husband, Hatshepsut gave birth to a daughter called Neferure. After becoming pharaoh, she passed on her title ‘God’s Wife of Amun’ to her Neferure. Unlike fellow female pharaoh Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut depicted herself as a man in artworks by wearing male pharaoh clothes as well the traditional false beard, which is a symbol of her pharaonic power.
Queen Tiye (also known as Tiy or Tiyi, 1398-1338 BC) of the New Kingdom was the Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep III (c. 1390-1353 BC), ninth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. She is most famous for helping her husband preside over a very prosperous Egypt.
Her father Yuya was a non-royal member and very wealthy merchant and landowner from Akhmim in Upper Egypt. Tiye’s mother, Thuya, on the other hand, was a noblewoman who served in a number of important temples in the land. By her husband, Tiye is said to have given birth to many children, including Akhenaten, the future pharaoh who tried to force his people into a monotheism. Some scholars have stated that King Ay, Tutankhamun’s successor, was Queen Tiye’s brother.
Owing to her influence in the king’s court, a number of temples and buildings were built in her honor, most famously the temple in Nubia, where she was worshiped as the manifestation of the goddess Hathor-Tefnut. Amenhotep also honored her with an artificial lake.
Queen Tiye must have exerted considerable amount of influence all throughout her husband’s reign. This is supported by the colossal statue of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, which shows the royal couple with equal height. She also featured many times beside her husband on several artworks of the era. And even after her husband’s death, Queen Tiye carried on playing an leading role in the royal palace by providing counsel to her son Amenhotep IV (later Akhenaten).
Born in 69 BC to the Ptolemaic family (descendants of Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek general and associate of Alexander the Great) that ruled Egypt, Cleopatra VII Philopator is most famous for being the last active pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt. And unbeknownst to many people, Cleopatra was not even an Egyptian, she was Greek instead.
At just 18 years old, Cleopatra became co-ruler of Egypt, first with her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, and then later with her younger siblings, including Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator and Ptolemy XIV Philopator. She also briefly ruled with her son Ptolemy XV Caesarion.
During Caesar’s Civil War (49-45 BC), Cleopatra and her co-ruler Ptolemy XII had a big fallout, with her brother supporting Julius Caesar’s biggest rival, Roman general and statesman Pompey the Great. A defeat at the hands of Caesar forced Pompey to flee to Egypt, where he was betrayed and killed by Ptolemy XIII.
In brutal struggle for power, Cleopatra, with the support of her lover Julius Caesar, came out the victor while her brother perished at the Battle of the Nile in 47 BC. The romantic affair between two of the greatest rulers in the world at the time – Cleopatra and Caesar – produced a son called Caesarion (later Ptolemy XV Caesar). From then onward, Cleopatra was seen as the client queen of Rome. Following the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC, she would go on to appoint her young son as co-pharaoh of Egypt.
Cleopatra would, however, go against Octavian (later Augustus Caesar), Caesar’s adopted son and heir. She lent her support to Octavian’s rival Mark Antony. She was also romantically involved with Antony. So strong was their love that after Octavian had obliterated their forces at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, the two committed suicide. She is said to have downed a concoction of poison.
Queen Cleopatra’s death in 31 BC effectively brought an end to Ptolemaic Egypt, as control of the kingdom moved into the hands of the Roman Empire.
Growing up, she received very sound education. She was not just fluent in her native language Koine Greek but also the Egyptian language. She could also speak Latin, Ethiopian, Hebrew, and Parthian, among others. As queen, she was a big promoter of art and literature.
The fact that she was romantically involved with Caesar and Mark Antony, two very influential generals and statesmen of Rome, meant that she wielded considerable influence on the political scene in Rome.
Nefertiti was a famous and very influential queen consort of the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt. A daughter of a senior court official Ay (later pharaoh Ay), Nefertiti married Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV), the infamous heretic pharaoh and Aten god-devotee. She and her husband had about six daughters, including Meketaten, Meritaten, and Ankhesenamun. The latter two went on to become queens of Egypt as they were married to Pharaoh Smenkhkare and Tutankhamun respectively.
Today, her iconic bust, the Bust of Queen Nefertiti, might just be the most famous archeological unearthing from the land of Egypt. However, Queen Nefertiti was not only famous for her beauty. In her time, she is said to have held incredible amount of influence in her husband’s royal court. Nefertiti also showed her loyalty to the Akhenaten all throughout his quest to turn Egypt into a monotheistic culture. For her support, she and her husband were tagged as heretics, especially by Theban priests, who were sour by the king’s decision to strip them off their political and religious influence in Egypt.
There are some scholars and Egyptologists that state Nefertiti and Akhenaten may have ruled as equals for some time. This point is supported by artworks that show the royal couple standing side by side. In that role, she must have featured heavily in state affairs, including meeting and corresponding with foreign dignitaries. In some paintings, she was shown riding a chariot, something only reserved for rulers of Egypt. And in some paintings, she can be seen wearing the pharaoh’s crown. This suggests that she might have ruled in her own right at some point. Perhaps during the years between Akhenaten’s reign and Tutankhamun’s reign.
The mother of the powerful Egyptian king Ahmose I, Ahhotep I was a very influential female figure who helped in the reunification process of Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt. Her son, Ahmose I, famously drove the Hyksos rulers in north out of Egypt. Ahmose also pushed back a number of Nubian tribes that had encroached into Egyptian territories during the dark years of the Second Intermediate Period (1782 – c. 1570 BC).
Queen Ahhotep I was known as “God’s Wife of Amun” or “Associate of the White Crown Bearer” by virtue of her marriage to Seqenenre Tao, a powerful Theban ruler and the father of Ahmose I. Ahhotep even ruled the territories of Thebes during Ahmose I’s minority years.
Unlike Queen Hatshepsut of the 18th Dynasty, female king Sobekneferu did not try to portray herself as a male ruler. Sobekneferu, whose reign lasted from around 1760 to 1756 BC, was shown in statues with full Egyptian royal regalia and poses, dispelling any doubts about her rulership and gender.
Hailing from the 12th Dynasty, Sobekneferu was probably the chief royal wife of King Amenemhat IV, the seventh king of the 12th dynasty. Upon the death of her half brother-husband, she ascended to the throne and ruled in her own right. She was crowned pharaoh likely because there was no male heir to Amenemhat IV.
Known as the last ruler of the 12th dynasty, Sobekneferu was the daughter of King Amenemhat III. It’s been said that she used her lineage to her father to cement her claim to the throne. She would then reign for almost four years.
Sobekneferu was most likely the first female ruler of the Middle Kingdom. Thus, she was the first female ruler since Nitocris of the Old Kingdom. Sobekneferu’s name suggests that she was heavily associated with the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek. This means that she was the first female ruler of Egypt to adopt Sobek’s name. Her abrasive nature was probably the reason why she chose to associate herself with Sobek, a god that symbolized the might of the pharaoh. Her name ‘Sobekneferu’ when translated comes out as “The beauties of Sobek”.
It’s been stated that she did not make any attempt to follow the traditions of male rulers. She chose not to even dress a man. Depicted with full royal regalia and royal poses in painting and statues, she described herself as a female Horus, the Egyptian falcon god of the sky. Such complete disregard for tradition made some royal courtiers sabotage her reign. This and many other problems that she inherited doomed her dynasty. Following her death, the heirless ruler was succeeded to the throne by Sobekhotep I (c. 1802-1800 BCE) or Wegaf, who is generally considered as the founder of the 13th dynasty.
Neithhotep was probably the wife of Narmer (also known as Menes), the first ruler of a unified Egypt. This will mean that Neithhotep is the first known ancient Egyptian queen. The marriage between Narmer and Neithhotep was arranged as a way for Narmer to consolidate his reign over the two Egypts – Upper and Lower Egypt. Narmer hailed from Upper Egypt, while Niethhotep was a princess from Lower Egypt.
Like many Early Dynastic Period (32nd Century BC- 29th century BC) and Old Kingdom (27th century BC- 22nd century BC) Egyptian figures, Neithhotep’s exact time period, i.e. date of birth and death, is hard to determine. Scholars, however, state that this powerful Egyptian woman was a member of the royal family of the First Dynasty (c. 3155 – c. 2899 BC). She was the chief royal wife of the King Narmer, the Egyptian monarch who brought Upper and Lower Egypt under his rule. Considering the fact that she lived 5,000 years ago, details about Queen Neithhotep’s life and family history are very scanty. For example, with the scholars and archeologists not hundred percent certain whether King Narmer and Hor-Aha are the same, it’s possible Neithhotep was the wife of Hor-Aha instead.
There are some scholars that state that Queen Neithhotep was the mother of Hor-Aha. This would mean that her husband was King Narmer.
What is abundantly clear is Neithhotep stepped in to fill the shoes of Narmer for a brief period following the death of Narmer. She acted as the regent until Hor-Aha reached the age of maturity. She would have made sure that Hor-Aha received all the necessary training and education – both in civil and military matters – to make him an effective king of Egypt. When her mastaba (i.e. a flat-roofed, rectangular tomb) was unearthed in the late 19th century, some members of the archeological team developed the theory that she might have been Narmer’s successor judging by the enormous size of her tomb. The fact that her name was placed in a royal serekh made this inaccurate notion appear more credible. Serekh was primarily used to indicate the names of ruling Egyptian monarchs.
One of Neithhotep’s greatest achievements came when she gave the order for an expedition team to mine ore and other precious minerals.
Her name ‘Neithhotep’ translates to “Neith is merciful” or “Neith is satisfied”. As stated in the introduction, Neith was a powerful Egyptian goddess of hunting, war and even creation. it was not uncommon for important female royal figures of the early first dynasty to be associated with the goddess Neith, who was also a patron deity of Lower Egypt.
Other epithets of Neithhotep include “Consort of the Two Ladies” and “Foremost of the Women”.
Merneith of Old Kingdom
Another very powerful Old Kingdom female ruler was Queen Merneith, the chief royal wife of King Djet and mother of King Den. Similar to Neithotep, Merneith also had her name placed on a royal serekh. Merneith’s husband, King Djet, was the great-grandson of Neithotep.
She most likely served as regent of Egypt during the minority years of her son and future pharaoh Den. Some scholars claim that Merneith instead succeeded her husband Djet to the throne. It’s however unclear how long she might have reigned as pharaoh. But it’s been estimated that her rule came in the mid-30th century.
The location of her tomb at a place commonly reserved for male rulers of Egypt gives some bit of support to the claim that she may have been a full-fledged pharaoh. The sheer size of her tomb also suggests that she wasn’t a mere royal wife of King Djet, instead she might have ruled Egypt alone in her own authority.
There is a seal which was found in King Den’s tomb showing a list of first dynasty Egyptian rulers. Interestingly, Merneith’s name appears on the list as “King’s Mother”.
Read More: Top 10 Most Powerful Egyptian Goddesses