Learn About the Female Pharaohs

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The Unusual Women Rulers of Egypt

Egyptian sculpture of Hatshepsut with a ceremonial beard
Egyptian sculpture of Hatshepsut with a ceremonial beard. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

The rulers of ancient Egypt, Pharaohs, were almost all men. The evidence for a few women Pharaohs is sketchy at best. Here is a list of the women most commonly thought to have served as Pharaoh, or to have assumed the power of the Pharaoh as a regent. I've put them in reverse chronological order, with the last Pharaoh of Egypt -- who was a woman -- first in the list. But don't miss the rest at the end of the list.

Should we call them "Pharaohs"?  It's the common word we use for rulers in Egypt, though the word didn't come into use until the 18th dynasty (so after most of these women, and most of the men we've called pharaohs, lived).  The word probably derives from "great house" or the royal palace.

02
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Cleopatra VII

cleopatra relief
Bas-relief of Cleopatra and Caesarion, Temple of Hathor, Dendara in Egypt. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Ptolemy (~ 51-30 BCE)

The last Pharaoh of Egypt, daughter of Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra VII became Pharaoh when she was about 17 years old. She had no son at the time; she married a much younger brother.

Cleopatra tried to keep Egypt's independence during a time of Roman domination by allying herself romantically, matrimonially, and militarily with Roman commanders Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. She had a son, Caesarion, supposed to be fathered by Julius Caesar, for whom she was regent. When she died, Egypt's rule passed into the hands of Rome.

The Ptolemies were descendents of a Macedonian general of Alexander's army. During the Ptolemaic dynasty, several other women named Cleopatra and Berenice served as regents.

There is not known to have been a female pharaoh in Egypt for more than a millennium before Cleopatra.

More >> Cleopatra, Egyptian Pharaoh

Also: Cleopatra in Pictures

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Cleopatra I

King Antiochus III
Tetradrachm of King Antiochus III the Great of Syria. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

She was the consort of Ptolemy V Epiphanes of Egypt. Her father was Antiochus II the Great, a Greek Seleucid king.  Her mother was Princess Laodice of Pontus, a first cousin of Antiochus as daughter of his father's sister, also named Laodice. Laodice's father was Mithridates II of Pontus, an area in what is now Turkey which had been colonized in ancient times by Greeks, and which had become part of the Persian empire.  

The marriage of Cleopatra I to Ptolemy V was part of a peace negotiation with her father. The Egyptians called her "the Syrian."

They were married in 193 BCE and, because the Ptolemy tradition was for the ruler to marry his sister, she was given the title of sister. Ptolemy appointed her as vizier in 187.  Ptolemy V died in 180 BCE, with his son by Cleopatra I his heir -- and so Cleopatra I was appointed regent for her son, and ruled as sole ruler until her son came of age.  She even minted coins with her image, and with her name taking precedence over that of her son.  Her name preceded that of her son in many of the documents between her husband's death and 176 BCE, apparently the year that she died.

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Tausret (Twosret, Tausert, Tawosret)

Papyrus from 19th dynasty, Egypt, depicts mother giving birth, helped by servants and midwife
Papyrus from 19th dynasty, Egypt, depicts mother giving birth, helped by servants and midwife. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Nineteenth Dynasty (~1194-1186 BCE)

Tausret was chief wife of Seti II. When Seti II died, Tausret served as regent for his son, Siptah (Rameses-Siptah, renamed at some point Menenptah Siptah). Siptah was likely the son of Seti II and a minor wife, so Tausret was his stepmother. There is some indication that Siptal may have had some disability. He died about six years into his reign, and Tausret seems to have served as Pharaoh for two to four years, using kingly titles for herself. The founder of Dynasty 20 took over her tomb, and her successors replaced Tausret's name and image with that founder's. It was a time of civil unrest and there are few clear records, so the story isn't completely clear. A mummy at the Cairo museum is said to be hers.

Tausret is mentioned by Homer as interacting with Helen around the Trojan War events.

Bibliography

Richard H. Wilkinson, editor.  Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt. 2012.

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Nefertiti

Bust of Nefertiti
Bust of Nefertiti. Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

Eighteenth Dynasty (~1336 BCE?, with her husband ~1353-1336 BCE)

The claim that Nefertiti ruled after the death of her husband, Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV), is based on the theory that she assumed the name Smenkhkare after his death. Even if she did not rule, during her husband's reign she was accorded more honor than usual for a Great Wife, and is sometimes depicted as a co-equal officiant at ceremonies.

More >> Nefertiti

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Hatshepsut (Maatkare)

Sphinx with Hatshepsut's Face
Sphinx with Hatshepsut's Face. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Eighteenth Dynasty (~1472-1458 BCE)

Widow of Thutmosis II, she ruled first as regent for his minor stepson and heir, and then as Pharaoh, a female Horus. Her titles include "King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Maatkare, Daughter of Re."

She is depicted in a fake beard and with the objects that a Pharaoh is usually depicted with, and in male attire, after a few years of ruling in female form. She reported herself heading up a military campaign and going on a journey to the Land of Punt. She disappears suddenly from history, and her stepson may have ordered the destruction of images of Hatshepsut and mentions of her rule.

More >> Hatshepsut

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Ahmose-Nefertari

Ahmose-Nefertari, Egyptian wall painting
Ahmose-Nefertari, Egyptian wall painting. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

Eighteenth Dynasty

Wife and sister of the dynasty's founder, Ahmose I, and mother of the second king, Amenhotep I, Ahmose-Nefertari served as co-regent during her son's minority and co-regent with her grandson Thuthmosis I during his minority.. Her daughter, Ahmose-Meritamon, was the wife of Amenhotep I.  She has a statue at Karnak, which her grandson Thuthmosis sponsored.  She was the first to hold the title of "God's Wife of Amun."

She is often depicted with dark brown or black skin. Whether this is about ancestry from Nubia or whether this is a symbol of fertility is contended by scholars.

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Ashotep

Ahmose I, son of Ashotep, and husband and brother of Ahmose-Nefertari
Ahmose I, son of Ashotep who was regent for him, and husband and brother of Ahmose-Nefertari who was regent for their son. DEA/G. Dagli Orti/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Eighteenth Dynasty

Mother of the founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty and New Kingdom, Ahmose I, himself the pharaoh who defeated the Hyksos (foreign rulers of Egypt). Ahmose I credited her in an inscription with holding the nation together during his minority, when she seems to have been regent for her son.

09
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Sobeknefru (Neferusobek or Nefrusobek or Sebek-Nefru - Meryetre)

Mirror of Sat-Hathor Yunet, 12th Dynasty
Mirror of Sat-Hathor Yunet, 12th Dynasty. DEA/A. Jemolo/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Twelfth Dynasty (~1787-1783 BCE)

She ruled Egypt for a few years. She was the daughter of Amenemhet III and half-sister of Amenemhet IV and, perhaps, also his wife. She claimed to have been co-regent with her father. The dynasty ends with her reign, as she apparently had no son. Titles found with her image include Female Horus, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Daughter of Re.

There are some now-headless statues of her that remain, and other artifacts and mentions in the archaeological record. She was depicted in female clothing but wearing male objects related to kingship, and was sometimes referred to in terms using the male gender, perhaps to reinforce her role as Pharaoh.

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Neithhikret (Nitocris or Neith-Iquerti or Nitokerty)

Sixth Dynasty (~2148-44 BCE)

She is known only through a story in Herodotus and several brief mentions of her name elsewhere, but there is no other historical or archaeological evidence for her existence, much less ruler-ship. She is mentioned on one king list (Turin) and not another (Abydos). If she existed, she lived at the end of the dynasty, may have been married to a husband who was not royal and may not even have been a king, and probably had no male offspring.

She may have been the daughter of Pepi II. In Herodotus, she is said to have succeeded her brother Metesouphis II upon his death, and then to have avenged his death by drowning his murderers and committing suicide.

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Ankhnesmeryre II or Ankhesenpepe II or Ankh-Meri-Ra

Sixth Dynasty

She may have served as regent for her son, Pepi II, who was about six when he assumed the throne when Pepi I (her husband, his father) died.

A statue of Ankhnesmeryre II as nurturing mother, holding the hand of her child, is in the Brooklyn Museum. 

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Wife of Djedkare-Izezi

Fifth Dynasty

In the 1950s, a mortuary temple was excavated, though the excavation remains unpublished. Reportedly, royal insignia were found related to the wife of Djedkare-Izezi. She may have had no son and ruled as king. But the temple was destroyed so completely that the details are not clear, and her name cannot even be identified.

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Khentkaus

 Fourth Dynasty

Titled "King's Mother" and "God's Daughter," Khentkaus was characterized in an inscription as the mother of "Two Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt," presumably Sahure and Neferirke, Fifth Dynasty. She may have served as a regent for a time. She seems to have been daughter of Menkaure, or of Hordjedef, son of Khufu. She was married to Shepseskhaf (Dynasty 4) or Userkaf(Dynasty 5). Khentkaus is said to have married a priest and her sons inherited and initiated the fifth dynasty. In an inscription she may have a kingly title -- but there may have been two women of the same name, and a later regent of the same name may be confused with the earlier queen, their stories conflated.

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Nimaethap or Ni-Maat-Heb

Pyramid Of Djoser
Pyramid Of Djoser. Archive Photos / Getty Images

Third Dynasty

Nimaethap (Ni-Maat-Heb) was identified as "King's Mother" of Djoser, who was probably the second king of the Third Dynasty, the builder of the step pyramid at Saqqara. She may have served as regent for him.

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Meryt-Neith or Merytneith or Merneith

 First Dynasty (~3000 BC)

Wife of Djet, Mother of Den. Her tomb is with the tombs of other First Dynasty Pharaohs, she was buried with honors usually used for kings including a boat to travel to the next world, and her name is found on a seal with the names of other First Dynasty Pharaohs. But on that seal, her symbol is that of a King's Mother and the other names have the sign of Horus, for a Pharaoh. So perhaps she was a regent, but the evidence is not clear.

More >> About Meryt-Neith

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Learn About the Female Pharaohs." ThoughtCo, Aug. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/profile-of-female-pharaohs-3528392. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, August 7). Learn About the Female Pharaohs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/profile-of-female-pharaohs-3528392 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Learn About the Female Pharaohs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/profile-of-female-pharaohs-3528392 (accessed September 22, 2017).