Much of the popular history of Ancient Egypt is characterized by the image of a pharaoh, often presented as men. What about the women rulers, and who was the first?
Sobekneferu’s Claim to the Throne
Sobekneferu (also Nefrusobk, Neferusobek, Sobekkara) ruled as king of Egypt from 1760-1756 BCE and was the last King of the 12th Dynasty (1938-1756 BCE). Her name means “beauties of Sobek” and relates to the crocodile god. The kings of the 12th dynasty had made Fayoum their economic and religious center, and it was here where crocodiles were worshipped and cared forThe structure of Egyptian royalty was undoubtedly meant for men. The Pharaoh was seen as the earthly manifestation of the male god Horus, and it was normal and expected that the king would be succeeded by his eldest son. However, fate would have it that every so often, this system failed, and a woman found herself on the throne of Ancient Egypt.
Sobekneferu’s father was Amenemhet III; however, it is unclear which of his wives was her mother. With her father’s death, the throne passed to her (maybe half) brother, who by this time was getting on in life. Some have claimed that her brother was also her husband; however, the evidence for such a claim is somewhat hazy.
When her brother died without an heir, the throne was left empty. By blood, Sobekneferu was the closest in line to the throne and therefore took her brother’s place. She took on royal titles and ruled as king. However, she never used the title “king’s wife,” which would have implied she married her brother.
When she was made pharaoh, Sobekneferu went through the customary naming ceremony and was given five names as used by pharaohs. At this time, she chose the reference to the crocodile-headed god, Sobek. Sobek was linked to pharaonic power as well as military prowess and fertility.
It seems she had an elder sister named Neferuptah, who was groomed to rule. However, she died before Amenemhet III, so the throne passed to the girls’ brother. It seems that Amenemhet III was prepared to have a female heir in this case.
The evidence for this comes from the cartouche, which was invested around Neferuptah’s name. This would have been an action reserved for kings alone. She was also presented with titles used by a king’s wife, although she never married a king. Unlike her sister, we know that Neferuptah was buried with her father in his burial chamber. Unusually, she was never reburied in her own pyramid, located not far from there.According to the Turin canon, Sobekneferu reigned for three years and ten months. It states that while on the throne, she extended Amenemhat III’s funerary complex in Hawara (or the Labyrinth as named by Herodotus). It also says that she oversaw building work at Herakleopolis Magna.
The First Female Pharaoh? Marble bust of Cleopatra VII, via Altes Museum, BerlinSome claim there were a handful of female pharaohs prior to Sobekneferu. One of the earliest was Merytneith (1st dynasty). It is thought that she was the wife of Djet and acted as regent for her son, Den, in his early years. While this gave her some ruling authority, it did not actually make her ruler in her own right, as Sobekneferu was.Another rival to the claim of being the first female pharaoh is Khentkaues I (4th dynasty). On the doorway of her tomb in Giza, there is written a title which can be translated to either “Mother of Two Kings” or “King and Mother of a King.” There are also images of her that show her in king-like poses and even wearing a false beard!
Like Merytneith, it is possible that she ruled when her son, Sahure, was too young to rule himself, possibly alongside Userkaf (founder of the 5th Dynasty). She was also commemorated in the pyramid of Khentkaues II, but her name cannot be located in a royal cartouche. Furthermore, most modern lists of Egyptian rulers do not include Khentkaues either.
Depictions of Sobekneferu
Her reign is memorialized today in a collection of depictions of Sobekneferu. These include some monuments and artifacts, as well as five statues and fragments from the mortuary temple of Amenemhat III. There is also a Nile inundation record as well as scarabs, seals, and beads.She linked herself to her father, Amenemhet III, in many of her monuments. One example is the depiction of a serekh (essentially a royal crest) which shows Amenemhat III holding the ankh (the hieroglyph meaning life) to Sobekneferu. This seems to depict the legitimacy of Sobekneferu’s claim to the throne. Some scholars have interpreted this image as depicting a co-regency between the two.Three statues without heads have been discovered in Fayoum and are thought to be Sobekneferu. One depicts her, much like the crown mentioned above, in elements of both male and female dress.
While many of the images show her wearing male clothing, there is no evidence that she was trying to pretend to be a man. Most of the time, she used female suffices in her titles. Despite this, some scholars have argued that in wearing male clothing, she was attempting to pacify those who criticized her rule as a woman. Meanwhile, others have gone as far as to argue that she saw her own gender as an embarrassment and was attempting to hide it.
In answer to these arguments, Carolyn Graves-Brown, Joyce Tyldesley, and Gae Robins have all argued that it was simply her desire to be seen as a traditional pharaoh that drove her to such choices, and it, in fact, had nothing to do with her gender. In order to adhere to traditional aspects of being a pharaoh, she was forced to adhere to male markers because pharaohs before her had only ever been male.