YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Searching for the Shadows of Ancient Women That Still Lurk in Egypt's Sun


The Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, the four colossal statues of Ramses II at Abu Simbel and the Valley of the Kings--these tombs and temples, all dedicated to men, are the sights most visitors to Egypt want to see. When I went there on a tour with the British Museum this spring, I wanted to see them too--and knew that a man had something to do with almost every other notable sight in Egypt. After all, ancient Egypt was a man's world, with male pharaohs and scribes who wrote, on stelae and papyri, the male-centered history of the civilization that sprang up along the Nile 5,000 years ago.

If you want to know how Egyptian women lived many millenniums ago, you've got to look hard and persevere. So I kept nagging my guide, a female curator from the British Museum, to make sure we visited the diminutive "queens' pyramids" that stand in the late afternoon shadow of Cheops' tomb at Giza. With any luck, I'd even climb into one, because three queens' pyramids--for Cheops' mother, Hetepheres, and two of his wives, Henutsen and Meryetes--were opened for touring last year.

Technically, it's incorrect to call these ladies queens; they were "kings' wives," which only goes to show how sexist the ancient Egyptians were. According to their beliefs, Tut and the Ptolemies weren't just kings, they were gods, who kept harems, married polygamously and fathered offspring like flies (Ramses II sired 100 children, and those are just the ones history records). To make matters worse, it was common for a new pharaoh to establish his legitimacy by marrying a royal heiress--which often meant his sister, half-sister or mother. It doesn't seem as if this custom was followed by commoners, but vivid friezes on the walls of tombs indicate that the average married man could play around as much as he pleased.

I don't expect 20th century sensitivity and political correctness from ancient Egyptian men, but the whole situation rankled until I started checking into what we do know about ancient Egyptian women. Medical texts suggest that they sometimes practiced contraception, using honey, crocodile dung and ground acacia tips to retard sperm. Apparently they also believed that miscarriages could be prevented by blocking the vagina with an ancient tampon, known as an Isis-knot.

Most of what we know about these women comes from the tombs of kings and noblemen (leaving the lives of commoners something of a mystery). Highborn women were often depicted with their mates, as in the charming statue of Katep and Hetepheres (dating from 2500 BC) in the British Museum. Hetepheres is one of my favorite ancient Egyptian women. In the statue, she has a proprietary arm around her husband, Katep, and her generous curves and pudgy cheeks are a far cry from that sylph-like model of female perfection, Nefertiti, whose bust in Berlin's Charlottenburg Palace Egyptian Museum continues to inspire women to live on salad and Slim Fast.

Some years ago, archeologists digging around the pyramid field at Giza found a cache that belonged to Hetepheres, including jewelry, furniture and other items she'd have needed in the afterlife. They also found a chest that contained her tightly wrapped, mummified internal organs, which she'd need as well. You can see bracelets and anklets that belonged to her in the Jewelry of Ancient Egypt room in the Cairo Museum, an amazing display of baubles including items worn by other royal wives and princesses.

There, I particularly coveted a tasteful gold diadem owned by the 12th Dynasty princess Sit Hathor, found at the Lahun pyramid south of Giza (though the Metropolitan Museum in New York has the best collection of Sit Hathor's jewelry), and a knockout necklace made of carnelian and feldspar beads with falcon-headed clasps belonging to Princess Nefruptah around 1900 BC. Judging from their jewelry, these royal women did pretty well for themselves. Generally they lived together in queens' palaces, which became centers for textile production. Others, who became the favorites of the pharaoh, lived on their own estates and, in the afterlife, in their very own tombs.

One such was Hatshepsut, the daughter of Thutmose I and wife of Thutmose II (her half-brother). When her husband died, he was succeeded by the boy-king Thutmose III (the child of Thutmose II and a concubine), with Hatshepsut serving as regent. But hieroglyphic carvings suggest that she didn't put up with that state of affairs for long, because by 1473 BC she took the title of king, claiming that her ward's pedigree wasn't as pure as her own. Bas-relief carvings in the Cairo Museum show her dressed as a man, and the terraced temple she built at Deir el-Bahri is one of the grandest of all, with reliefs that document the accomplishments of her 25-year reign (though many of these were edited out by subsequent pharaohs in an effort to obscure the fact that a woman had once worn the crown).

Hetepheres' tomb at Giza isn't as impressive as Hatshepsut's Deir el-Bahri temple. It's a pyramid 35 feet high, with a passageway leading from the north face into the now-empty chamber where her mummy was interred. I went down, stopping beneath millions of tons of stone to consider that Hetepheres' pyramid is bigger than the two next door for Cheops' wives. This suggests that she may have held a special place in the pharaoh's heart. You've got to love a son like that, and wonder whether ancient Egyptian women really had it so bad after all.


For more information, read "Women in Ancient Egypt" by Gay Robins (British Museum Press, $26).

Los Angeles Times Articles