Homepage Timeline Maps A-Z index Learning

Women near the king

See Robins 1993 and Troy 1986

Proposition: in ancient Egypt there is no royal family, only the divine intervention of placing a manifestation of the sun-god to rule on earth ('king'), and the consequent physical contact between human beings and that divine solar presence. This emanation of the sun-god is male, with few exceptions throughout Ancient Egyptian history. Between 3100 and 332 BC there are five women who appear to have held the same position as the male ruler in formal presentation or burial place: Merytneit (First Dynasty), Sobekneferu (Twelfth Dynasty), Hatshepsut (Eighteenth Dynasty), and Tausret (Nineteenth Dynasty). In the Egyptian language there is a word for king, but no word for queen. The women in the vicinity of the king took the explicit titles 'king's wife/mother/daughter' or, more rarely, 'king's sister'. These positions use terms of kinship, but are steeped in mythical imagery expressed in life, in their costumes, headgear and titularies, and in death, in their place and manner of burial and cult.

At Lahun, Guy Brunton and Flinders Petrie uncovered one remarkable survival illustrating the exceptional position of the women near the king - the burial of the king's daughter Sathathoriunet, in the pyramid complex of king Senusret II. The find was divided between the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and the excavators: after exhibition in University College London, the exported share was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where it is displayed, and has recently been exhaustively reanalysed.

The Lahun papyri mention resources allotted to or deriving from the domain of the king's daughter Neferuptah. This is probably to be identified with the pyramid complex found by Habachi in 1936, where Nagib Farag excavated the intact burial chamber in 1955. Her name is written in a cartouche, symbol of sovereignty. A possible sister, Sobekneferu, became ruler either alongside Amenemhat III, or his successor Amenemhat IV, or perhaps ruled alone. Her reign marked the end of the Twelfth Dynasty in later kinglists: it is often said that this marks the end of the family line, but these ritual positions revealed in formal writing do not provide enough data to reconstruct family trees. The reasons for and nature of her rule are unknown, but it marks a moment of exceptional participation by a woman in divine kingship over Egypt.


Copyright © 2000 University College London. All rights reserved.