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Beauties, Not Beast

Although gender stereotypes have long been proven wrong by ancient Egyptian women, many today still regard men as the superior gender. Society's reduction of women has often restricted them to just conceiving and managing household duties. This inevitably leaves them out of the possible succession candidates list. Hence, it is really important for them to seize any opportunities present to rise to power. A few exemplary ancient Egyptian female rulers like Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut and Twosret, not only managed to rule like any other pharaoh, but also successfully capitalise the power given for impactful contributions.



  Figure- Neithsabes/ Statue of Sobekneferu /30 March 2007

Figure- Neithsabes/Statue of Sobekneferu/30 March 2007

Ruling at the end of the twelfth dynasty, was Sobekneferu, a name which translates into “the beauty of Sobek (Egyptian crocodile god)”. Sobekneferu was unique as she was the first female pharaoh of Egypt to be universally accepted by her subjects and by recent historians(p.5). Her father was Amenemhat III, who ruled from c.1860 BC to c. 1814 BC. She succeeded her brother-husband Amenemhat IV in c.1785 BC. Sobekneferu came into power because of the early death of her husband and the lack of a proper heir to the throne. She ruled only for four years, but her name appeared in the Turin Canon, which is a list of compiled “kings” of Egypt (Shaw, p.170). Despite her short reign, evidence suggest that she contributed to several temples and structures built during her time as pharaoh (Shaw, p.170).

Sobekneferu’s contributions:

Sobekneferu completed her father’s tomb at Hawara and built temples at Tell Dab’a and Herakleopolis. As ancient Egyptians considered that a good ‘king’ would build many temples, buildings and tombs to mark the successes of their reign, this could be her attempt to prove herself as a good ruler. She might have also contributed to building her father’s ‘Labyrinth’ (Shaw, p.171). Since her rule did not last for a long time, not much is known about her reign. Her tomb has not been found yet. A headless statue of her and a cylinder seal with an inscription of her cartouche name, both portraying male and female characteristics are displayed in the Louvre and British museum today (Shaw p.170). This may have been done deliberately to appease those who question a female ruler (Shaw p.171). Sobekneferu’s name and rule might have also inspired one of the most successful female pharaohs, Hatshepsut (p.106).   

Flinders Petrie/Sobekneferu’s cartouche name/4 November 2013


The longest, best-known female ruler to reign in Egypt with the authority of a Pharaoh, Hatshepsut reigned as a male. She was most commonly known to have expanded Egypt’s economy through trade, leading the economy to prosper under her rule. Born into royalty, Hatshepsut was the daughter of Thutmose I (1520-1492 BCE) and Ahmose. At the age of 12, she was married to Thutmose II with her father’s demise

Shortly after, Thutmose II passed on as well, Hatshepsut was put in a position where she was to co-rule together with her stepson. It was definitely a unique occurrence at the time but Hatshepsut made it work and did so quite admirably.To keep tradition alive, Hatshepsut set about commissioning building projects, such as her temple at Deir el-Bahri, and sending out military expeditions.

Don McCrady, At the Temple of Hatshepsut (10 Feb 2012). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Hatshepsut’s contributions

Having commissioned hundreds of construction projects, one of Hatshepsut’s more significant construction initiatives was the ‘Temple of Karnak’. The temple restored the original precinct of Mut that was previously ravaged during the Hyksos occupation. It was also personal as it lined-up with carved stones that accurately depicted significant events in her life.

She also brought into effect the construction projects at the West Bank of the Nile River. The entrance was an exquisite location at the time but also a relatively secure area. This change in location allowed greater deterrence of potential tomb raiders and significantly contrasted where the pyramids were typically located.
Glenn Ashton,  Obelisks of Hatshepsut and Thutmose I at the temple of Karnak, 18 March 2012, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

During her reign Hatshepsut also attained several military victories over Nubia, the Levant, and Syria as ruler. She greatly invested her efforts in construction, architecture, and military expansion. This led to an increase in employment and her people thrived under her reign.

All evidences seem to portray Hatshepsut as a caring ruler who was merely there to fulfil her royal duties. However, her plots to attain greater power were not known by many. As her determination to rule grew during co-ruling, she began to strategize her plans for the throne. The best evidence for her power struggle was none other than her arrangement of her daughter’s marriage with Thutmose III.


John D. Croft, Image of Twosret (11 Mar 2007). CC BY-SA 3.0


Among these female rulers, Twosret is by far the most determined and ambitious female ruler. Despite coming from a humble background (p.25), her strong desires for the throne was much comparable to Hatshepsut’s. What differentiates Twosret was her much earlier planning to succession! Surprisingly enough, her ploy may have begun even before the demise of her royal husband, King Seti II. Her  adorning tomb had certainly revealed much, given the state of technology back then! Failing to produce a heir, left Siptah the only qualified successor. Having harboured great ambition for power, Twosret quickly took on the role of regent took on the role of regent to control his power. Not being satisfied with just co-ruling, Twosret’s hunger for the queen title may have prompted her to marry Siptah. Such speculations arose with the discovery of her intimate tomb portrait with her stepson. Always on the guard of her royal power had inevitably aroused suspicion of her involvement in Chancellor Bay’s death (p.25). Her continuous struggle for power eventually ended with Siptah’s premature death. As news of a lack of male successor spread, rebellion struck and Twosret could easily assumed the throne.

Twosret’s contributions

Unfortunately, Twosret was overthrown by Setnakht (p.26) in less than 2 years. During her reign, her main contributions were beautifying her tombs and attempting to finish building a Mortuary near Ramesseum. Besides these, her name was discovered in Sinai which suggested an expedition was conducted under her rule.

Twosret’s path to the throne and reign was probably not smooth, nevertheless, her determination and planning gave her the recognition for her existence and contributions.

As illustrated through various female rulers’ reign, it is evident that women are equally capable at ruling. A woman’s capability is perhaps dependent mainly on her willingness to seize the opportunities present and capitalise upon it. Hopefully, this helps to debunk any gender superiority myth. Hence, it is important to study women in power in Ancient Egypt beyond their reign and contributions.

Having deeper insights in female pioneers’ contributions can improve gender role.

The contributions of ancient Egyptian female rulers still resonates today. An article published in the Frontiers in Psychology argued that “profound knowledge of the historical contributions of Ancient Egyptian female pioneers can improve today’s gender role in Egypt and Middle Eastern countries.” Thus, this marks the importance of studying women in power in Ancient Egypt beyond their reign and contributions to the Egyptian empires but also the evolution of the empowerment of women in Egypt.

With that, we hope that women too can enjoy equal treatment, just like men