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Ancient Egypt

3f. Women of Ancient Egypt

Liz Taylor as Cleopatra
The actress Elizabeth Taylor portrayed Cleopatra in the 1963 Hollywood movie named after the famous Egyptian queen.

Women in ancient Egypt were ahead of their time. They could not only rule the country, but also had many of the same basic human rights as men.

One of the first women to hold the rank of pharaoh was Hatshepsut, who began her rule in about 1,500 B.C.E. Hatshepsut took care of her people and built temples to the gods as well as other public buildings. Egyptian custom dictated that a pharaoh, who was considered a god, could not marry a mortal. As a result, pharaohs chose spouses from within the royal family. Her husband, Thutmose, was her half brother.

Nefertiti was another Egyptian ruler. She married Amenhotep IV, who preached and supported monotheism, or the belief in only one god.


Queen Nefertiti on her chariot
Found in the chapel of Merya at Armana, this drawing depicts Queen Nefertiti accompanying her husband, the pharaoh Akhenaton, from the royal palace to the temple. Because of exceptionally high status, Nefertiti rode in her own chariot.
The Hereditary Princess,
Great of Favor,
Mistress of happiness,
Bust of Nefertiti, the Queen of Egypt
The bust of Nefertiti, the Queen of Egypt, is legendary for its beautiful and mysterious depiction of the queen during the Amarna period. This portrait was sculpted in the workshop of Thutmose in Akhet-Aton.
Gay with the two feathers,
At hearing whose voice one rejoices,
Soothing the heart of the King at home,
Isis
The Egyptian goddess Isis was one of the most important deities of the ancient world. Originally the goddess of motherhood and fertility, Isis became the mother of all gods and was worshipped throughout Egypt until the 6th century C.E.
Pleased at all that is said,
The great and beloved wife of the King,
Lady of the two lands, Neferfefruaten Nefertiti,
Living forever.
Amenhotep IV, poem about his wife, Queen Nefertiti

Cleopatra became the most famous of Egypt's female leaders. She was extremely intelligent, and ambitious and spoke several languages — she even studied astronomy. At 18, she became queen of Egypt.

Romance and Tragedy in Cleopatra's Court

Cleopatra constantly battled jealous, ambitious people who wanted to kill her and occupy her throne. For a time, she was removed from power and banished. She sought help from Julius Caesar, the leader of the powerful Roman Republic.

When Caesar visited Alexandria, a large Egyptian city, Cleopatra saw her chance. She could not even enter the city to see Caesar because her jealous brother hired spies to kill her on sight. Craftily, she sneaked into the city rolled in a carpet. She was brought to Caesar, and the two developed a relationship. The couple had a son named Caesarion, and Caesar helped her recapture the throne. The relationship ended abruptly when rival Roman rulers murdered Caesar in the Roman Senate.

I'm Dying to See You

When Marc Antony became leader of Rome, he too, fell in love with Cleopatra. The two had children and together ruled the most powerful empires of the Mediterranean. Eventually, a rival defeated Antony's armies, and Antony drew a sword on himself in despair. As he was dying, he wanted to see Cleopatra one last time. He died in her arms. Later, Cleopatra killed herself by placing a poisonous snake on her chest. The greatest political soap opera of the age was now over.

The Rights Stuff

These were examples of elite Egyptian women. But what about the common folk? A woman's role as mother and wife still came first in Egyptian society. Some professions in which women worked included weaving, perfume making, and entertainment.

Egyptian women could have their own businesses, own and sell property, and serve as witnesses in court cases. Unlike most women in the Middle East, they were even permitted to be in the company of men. They could escape bad marriages by divorcing and remarrying. And women were entitled to one third of the property their husbands owned. The political and economic rights Egyptian women enjoyed made them the most liberated females of their time.

On the Web
Early and Later Ptolemaic
Cleopatra was effectively the last pharaoh of Egypt, reigning from 51 B.C.E. until her apparent suicide in 30 B.C.E. when the future emperor Octavian annexed Egypt as a Roman province. Read about her relationships with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, her adventures in Rome, and recent discoveries of artifacts related to Cleopatra and her reign.
Women in Egypt: Egyptian Queens and Pharoahs
Women ruled in a style all their own, demonstrated through these online essays from the art history department at Sweet Briar College. Fabulous images of Egyptian sculpture supplement readings in which it is shown that matriarchal lines can be traced from the Fourth Dynasty in 2470 B.C.E. through the reign of Cleopatra, 2,440 years later.
Women in Egypt: Matrilinity in New Kingdom Egypt
Some historians argue that the Egyptian royal line was matrilineal rather than patrilineal. Things sometimes got a little complicated under this system, as this essay explains.
The Egyptian Economy and Nonroyal Women: Their Status in Public Life
Egyptian women were able to own land, had job opportunities, and were given great respect by the men surrounding them. So even ordinary women had some ability to affect ancient Egyptian society, according to a Brown University professor. Although his online lecture is detailed and lengthy, the reading is not difficult, and he presents a great amount of valuable and interesting information.
Women and Gender in Ancient Egypt
Artifacts spanning 4,000 years tell the story of women in ancient Egypt at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Both the hieroglyphics of the upper classes and excavated sites of the lower classes offer clues about the roles of women. Gender issues influenced facets of Egyptian life from religion to fertility and mortality.
Hatshepsut: The Queen Who Would Be King
Hatshepsut, born in the 15th century B.C.E., was the first woman to rule Egypt. In order to rule successfully and gain the support of the public, she had to take on many "kingly" characteristics, For example, in all surviving depictions of Hatshepsut, she is shown wearing traditional male garb, including a false beard. Her tactics worked, and she ruled Egypt for 20 years. Read more about Hatshepsut, her accomplishments, and her legacy on this extensive and attractive website by a devoted enthusiast.
Menkaure and His Queen
On January 18, 1910, a statue of a pharaoh standing next to a woman was unearthed. It was determined that the pharaoh in the statue was Menkaure, but questions about the identity of the woman he's standing with still remain. Was she a dutiful, submissive wife, or a powerful leader? This thorough website, presented by an art history professor, offers some interesting insight into the mystery surrounding the statue.
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