Thursday, 30 October 2014

Egypt's Lost Queens

Above: Nefertari, a Great Royal Wife of Ramesses the Great.

Professor Joann Fletcher, Honorary Visiting Professor in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, recently explored in a fascinating and engrossing television documentary the lives of Egypt's lost queens. Everyone has heard of Cleopatra, last pharaoh of Egypt, a charismatic and alluring woman so stunningly, if melodramatically, portrayed in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Professor Fletcher, however, preferred to look at the lives of other powerful female queens. Her documentary revealed the inspiring and considerable power and authority such women wielded in Ancient Egypt.

Nefertari, as depicted in the image of the tomb wall above, was one such woman. She was one of the Great Royal Wives, or principal wives, of Ramesses the Great, who was himself celebrated and recognised as one of the greatest and most powerful pharaohs of the Egyptian Empire. Nefertari's name means 'the beautiful one has come'. Her birthdate is unknown, and she died around 1250 BC. She was possibly related to Pharaoh Ay, and married Ramesses before he became pharaoh, bearing him at least four sons and two daughters. Her eldest son, Amun-her-khepeshef, was Crown Prince and Commander of the Troops. Nefertari first appeared as the wife of Ramesses II in official scenes during the first year of his reign. She is depicted behind her husband in the tomb of Nebwenenef, high priest of Amun, as Ramesses elevates Nebwenenef to position of High Priest of Amun during a visit to Abydos. 

Furthermore, Nefertari is a central presence in the scenes from Luxor and Karnak, two cities in Ancient Egypt. Her roles as mother and goddess are highlighted, as she is depicted leading the royal children and appearing at the Festival of the Mast of Amun-Min-Kamephis. But it was her role as consort of the Pharaoh that was most frequently emphasised in statues. The small temple in Abu Simbel was dedicated to her and the goddess Hathor. Her prominence at court can be discerned in cuneiform tablets from the Hittite city of Hattusas, in which she corresponded with the king Hattusili III and his wife Pudukhepa. Nefertari sent gifts to Pudukhepa and referred to her as 'my sister' and 'Great Queen of the Hatti land'. She later appeared in the inaugural festivities at Abu Simbel in year 24. Following her death, she was buried in tomb QV66 in the Valley of the Queens.

Above: Temple of Nefertari at Abu Simbel.

Nefertiti was another remarkable female ruler in Ancient Egypt. She was the chief consort of Akhenaten, Pharaoh of Egypt. They have usually been associated with a religious 'revolution', in which only one god, Aten (the sun disc), was worshipped, in contrast to previous practice. With her husband, Nefertiti arguably reigned during the wealthiest period in the history of Ancient Egypt. Scholars currently debate whether Nefertiti reigned herself briefly as Neferneferuaten after the death of her husband and before Tutankhamun's accession. Her titles included: Hereditary Princess; Great of Praises; Lady of Grace; Sweet of Love; Lady of the Two Lands; Main King's Wife; Great King's Wife; Lady of All Women; and Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. 

Above: Nefertiti.

Nefertiti was born circa 1370 BC and died circa 1330 BC. Her parentage is not known with certainty, although some have theorised that she was the daughter of Pharaoh Ay. She had six daughters with Akhenaten, although the date of their marriage is unknown. Nefertiti appeared in many scenes, in Thebes for example, supporting her husband, worshipping the Aten. In other scenes, she assumed the prerogative of the king in smiting the enemy, while captive enemies decorated her throne. The emergence of the cult of the Aten changed Egypt's polytheistic religion to a religion perhaps best described as a monolatry (the depiction of a single god as an object for worship), or henotheism (one god who is not the only god). 

Many theories have existed about Nefertiti's death. Traditionally, she was thought to have vanished from the historical record around Year 14 of her husband's reign, with no mention of her thereafter. Explanations included a sudden death (possibly from a plague sweeping the city), or a natural death. During her husband's reign, she enjoyed unprecedented power and authority. Possibly she became co-regent by the twelfth year of Akhenaten's reign, and was therefore equal in status to the Pharaoh. Some now believe that she was the ruler Neferneferuaten and so may have exerted influence on the younger royals. Possibly, then, her influence and also life ended around the third year of Tutankhamun's reign (1331 BC). Others believe that her husband continued to rule alone until the last years of his reign, with his wife by his side, and therefore the rule of the female pharaoh Neferneferuaten must be placed between Akhenaten's death and Tutankhamun's accession.

Regardless of when she died, Nefertiti's mummified body has never been found. Joann Fletcher suggested in 2003 that the Younger Lady, one of two female mummies inside the tomb of Amenhotep II in the Valley of the Kings, may have been Nefertiti's mummy. Egyptologists have dismissed Fletcher's claims, however, by noting that ancient mummies are almost impossible to identify without having DNA. Nefertiti's conclusive identification is impossible given that the bodies of her parents and children have never themselves been identified. Others have questioned whether the mummy is even female. Despite this controversy, Nefertiti remains iconic. After Cleopatra, she is the second most famous Queen of Ancient Egypt in the Western imagination.

Above: Hatshepsut. 

Hatshepsut was another extraordinary female ruler in Ancient Egypt. Her name means 'foremost of noble ladies'. She was born about 1508 BC and died 1458 BC, aged around fifty. She was the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. She officially ruled jointly with Thutmose III, and was the chief wife of Thutmose's father, Thutmose II. Hatshepsut was daughter of Thutmose I and his primary wife Ahmes. Egyptologists tend to regard her as one of the more successful pharaohs since she ruled longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. 

Hatshepsut enjoyed several major accomplishments during her lifetime. Firstly she established the trade networks that were disrupted during the Hyksos occupation of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period (1650-1550 BC). She also oversaw preparations and funding for a mission to the Land of Punt, an Egyptian trading partner known for producing and exporting gold, aromatic resins, wild animals, ivory, ebony, and blackwood, and was known in some cases as 'the land of the god'. Her foreign policy has often been seen as having been peaceful, although she may have led military campaigns against both Nubia and Palestine. 

Hatshepsut has also been recognised as one of the most prolific Ancient Egyptian builders, for she commissioned hundreds of construction projects throughout both Upper and Lower Egypt. She employed the great architect Ineni, who had worked for her father, husband, and for the royal steward Senemut. A remarkable quantity of statuary was produced during her reign, meaning that, today, almost every major museum in the world has Hatshepsut statuary. She had monuments constructed at the Temple of Karnak, and restored the original Precinct of Mut, the ancient great goddess of Egypt, at Karnak that had been ravaged by the foreign rulers during the Hyksos occupation. Obelisks were ordered to celebrate her sixteenth year of rule, while she built the Temple of Pakhet at Beni Hasan. The masterpiece of her building projects was a mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. 

In comparison with other female pharaohs Hatshepshut's reign was longer and more prosperous. She is generally recognised to have been successful in her warfare and inaugurated an era of peace that lasted for some time. She brought great wealth to the empire and re-established international trading relationships. 

The experiences of Nefertari, Nefertiti and Hatshepsut, alongside the more famous Cleopatra, suggest that these female pharaohs should not be seen as 'lost'. They were authoritative, powerful women who wielded tremendous influence in their own lifetimes. This influence can still be discerned and appreciated today, in for example visiting their mesmerising building projects.

Above: Colonnaded design of Hatshepsut temple.

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