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Royal Women

Royal mothers, wives and daughters derived their status from their relationship with the king. Kings had many wives and royal families were large. The most prolific was Rameses II, who had eight wives and over a hundred children. To keep the royal bloodline pure, kings often married within their family, a sister or half sister, for example. In a few cases, they married their daughters, although it is not clear whether or not these marriages were true conjugal unions.

CMC S98-3568; CMC PCD 2001-309-014       Drawing: Nancy Ruddell

(Left) The nobleman Hunefer and his wife with arms raised in praise of the gods.
(Right) Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, pregnant with her daughter
Hatshepsut, is led to the birthing room by the gods.

The status of royal women is evident in Egyptian art. One of the oldest royal insignia worn by queens is the vulture headdress. The vulture's wings and body were spread over a tightly fitted cap, and the head jutted out at the front. The uraeus (cobra) head could be substituted for the vulture head. Both the vulture and the cobra served to protect the wearer from harm. They were the most characteristic marks of kingship and may have also been, by association, a symbol of divine queenship.

Another royal symbol worn by women from the thirteenth dynasty onward was a pair of falcon plumes mounted on a circular support. Similar double-feather headdresses were worn by Min, the fertility god, Amun, the creator god, and Hathor, the powerful goddess who controlled the cycles of nature. Like deities and kings, royal women are seen holding symbols such as the ankh (symbol of life), the sistrum (rattle) and the menit necklace.

Girls born to royal wives were given the title "king's daughters" to distinguish them from those of non-royal wives. Royal wives were called the king's principal wives to distinguish them from the others, although the principal wife was not always of royal birth. An example is Queen Tiy, the wife of Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun's grandfather. Daughters of foreign kings were sometimes wed to the pharaohs in diplomatic marriages. Not all these women had children by the king, however. Many were engaged in spinning, weaving and other household duties within the various palaces throughout Egypt.

Little is known about the queens, but there are exceptions. Ahmose-Nefertari, the wife, and sister, of the first pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty, King Ahmose, became a very powerful queen. She was the first in the history of Egypt to be given the title of God's Wife. When her son died, there was no obvious heir to the throne, so an army general, Thutmose I, became king. Upon his death, his son, Thutmose II, ruled with his half sister Hatshepsut. When he died, Hatshepsut took command and ruled Egypt as a pharaoh for 20 years. This was the first time a woman wielded such power and influence over the affairs of the state.

CMC S97-10697; 
PCD 2001-272-070 CMC S97-10692; 
PCD 2001-272-065
Temple built by Rameses II to honour Hathor and Nefertari. Statues of Rameses dressed as Horus and Nefertari dressed as Hathor.

Nefertari, the beautiful wife of Rameses the Great, was an exceptional woman who played an important role in state and religious affairs. Loved by her people, she was called "mistress of two lands", a title normally reserved for the king, the "lord of two lands". She died in her late forties and was buried in a magnificent house of eternity in the Valley of the Queens. The portraits on the walls of Nefertari's tomb depict her as an elegant and radiant young woman. The tomb's dazzling paintings, a world treasure, have been restored by The Getty Conservation Institute because they had been damaged by centuries of water seepage.

CMC S98-3534; 
PCD 2001-283-029 CMC S98 3523; 
PCD 2001-283-038
The goddess Isis leads Queen Nefertari in the land of the gods. Nefertari wears a vulture headdress, which identifies her as a royal wife. Nefertari makes an offering to Isis. She is wearing a white robe in the New Kingdom style with a red belt tied at a high waistline.

During the Graeco-Roman period, Cleopatra VII was the most illustrious queen. Since the rulers of this period were of Macedonian (Greek or Roman) descent, they are not included in the list of Egyptian rulers of the pharaonic era.

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