WOMEN WHO REIGNED AS PHARAOHS
Apart from Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, whose careers are described elsewhere in this web site, the record is too murky to produce a definitive list of women who reigned as pharaoh. There are some who probably ruled, but might not have, and there are some who probably did not, but might have. The names of the possible women pharaohs are listed below along with the evidence that supports the claim that they did indeed rule Egypt.
MERNEITH (1st Dynasty)
Here is the evidence:
A cluster of tombs belonging to first dynasty pharaohs was found at Abydos. Each consists of a large underground chamber lined with mud bricks. Surrounding it were rows consisting of small rooms for the burial of retainers dispatched to serve their monarch in the next world. All had been plundered. One of these tombs had a stela bearing the name Merneith, with no title or other information. It is tempting to dismiss the stela as a coincidence but all of the tombs and known pharaohs have been matched. If it is not her tomb the mystery is even deeper.
She also has a tomb at Saqqara alongside those of other 1st Dynasty monarchs.
A seal bears her name along with the names of other Pharaohs.
This is not much to go on, but it will have to do. Above the other names on the seal is the Horus symbol signifying a pharaoh. Above her name are the symbols for the title King’s Mother. Nowhere do we find any of the symbols used to designate a reigning Pharaoh, but why else would her name appear with that of other rulers. She must have been a very remarkable woman to be granted the privilege of a tomb in the royal burial grounds at Abydos and at Saqqara.There is certainly sufficient evidence to prove the existence of a very prominent queen bearing the name Merneith. Whether that is enough to prove she ruled as Pharaoh is another question. It should be noted that Merneith is normally a male name. The female equivalent would be Merytneith (and in some English language books that is how her name appears). We know she has to be a woman because she bears the title King’s Mother. Based on the length of the reigns of her husband Djet and her son Den, it is not impossible to believe that she served as regent for an infant son until he reached maturity, but we just do not know.
ANKHESENPEPI II (aka. ANKHNESMERYRE II) (6th Dynasty)
Pepi I married two sisters both named Ankhnesmeryre. (Ankhesenpepi is another version of the same name. The second of these two women bore the son we call Pepi II. This son had a particularly long reign (some say over 90 years) and was only 6 years old when he came to the throne following the sudden death of an older brother. Ankhesenpepi II may have acted as his regent possibly assisted by her brother, Djau. Evidence of her rule is inconclusive. A picture was found in the Sinai that depicts her wearing a Uraeus, but the identification has been disputed.
NITOCRIS: (6th Dynasty)
The Turin Canon mentions her name and Manetho said of her that she was braver than a man, the most beautiful of women, and fair skinned with red cheeks. Herodotus says that a group of conspirators assassinated the king and installed his sister, Nitocris, on the throne instead. She had a large underground chamber built and then invited to dinner in it all the men she believed to have been involved in the murder of her brother. She then committed suicide by throwing herself onto burning embers. No archeological evidence of her reign has ever been found. If she did rule her reign marked the end of the 6th dynasty and the Old Kingdom.
SOBEKNEFRU (12th Dynasty)
Amenemhet III ruled successfully for some 45 years, greatly expanding the agricultural potential of the Faiyum, and extending his influence into Nubia, the Sinai and Syria. He was the last great ruler of the twelfth dynasty. His successor was a son or grandson named Amenemhet IV, who ruled for some 8 or 9 years.
Sobeknefru was a half sister of Amenemhet IV. Some have suggested that she was his wife and other that she was a rival, but there is no evidence to support either contention. It is possible that she began as regent for an infant son before claiming the throne in her own right.
Unfortunately we know very little about her beyond the fact that she really did reign, albeit only for 3 or 4 years. Manetho mentions her in his list of Egyptian rulers and she also appears in the Turin Canon. A Nubian Nilometer is dated to the 3rd year of her reign and a cylindrical seal bears her name and title. Three headless statues of her were found in the Faiyum, and a part of Amenemhet III’s Labyrinth can be attributed to her.
Manetho reported that it had been decided some time in the 2nd Dynasty that a woman could be king, but it clearly posed problems for the Egyptians. They were accustomed to think in terms of opposites: light and dark, good and evil, order and chaos, male and female. One could not very well have one without the other. A king needed a queen, but what was to be done with a reigning queen? If she were married one might presume her husband would become king; if she were not, where was the male component---the opposite without which nothing could exist. In the English language it is easy enough to find gender neutral terms for every situation. The word monarch, for example refers to a crowned ruler but does not specify sex. There are no gender neutral words in the Egyptian language. On cannot refer to a person, title or office without revealing gender.
Sobeknefru seems to have been uncertain as to how to resolve this problem. Some artifacts bear female titulary and others male. One of the statues show her wearing a male kilt over a female shift. Unfortunately none show her head and since neither her mummy nor her burial place has been found we have no way of knowing what she looked like.
HATSHEPSUT (18th Dynasty)
Since the heir of Tuthmosis II, a son by a harem-girl named Isis, was too young to rule on his own, the old king's Great Wife, Hatshepsut became the regent. Gradually she began to play down her role as regent until she finally declared herself to be the Female Horus and official ruler of Egypt. See Hatshepsut---The Female Horus for further information.
TWOSRET (19th Dynasty)
When Seti II died, his Great Royal Wife, Queen Twosret, became regent for her husband’s son by a Syrian concubine. The son suffered from a deformed left leg, possibly the result of polio. When the child died there was apparently no other male heir so she simply assumed the full titles of Pharaoh and continued to rule in her own name as she had before in the name of her stepson. She acted as regent for six years and ruled in her own name for only two more. The history of these years is very murky. The record speaks of an official named Bay who called himself “chancellor of the entire land” and who further claimed to have “established the king on the throne of his father”. While the formalities were modeled on those of Hatshepsut it is unlikely that she ever exercised much power.
The decline of central authority had already begun in the reign of Ramesses III. By Twosret's reign civil unrest was all too common. She began construction of a mortuary temple to the south of the Ramesseum but never finished it. She was originally buried in KV 14, but her mummy was moved. The Cairo Museum has a mummy that might be hers but it has never been positively identified.
CLEOPATRA VII (Ptolemaic Dynasty)
She was a Greek, not an Egyptian, but she ruled Egypt at a time when Rome was struggling to become the dominant power in the Mediterranean World. Cleopatra, one of the most famous women of all time, tried to find a balance between independence and co-operation with Rome. While she failed, there was certainly lots of drama in the attempt. See Cleopatra for the full story.
An inscription over the door to the tomb of Khentykaues I declares that she was the mother of two kings. Her image shows her in a regal pose with a false beard, and the text can quite legitimately be translated as "king and mother of a king", leading some to suggest she served as regent for one of her sons. Her name never appears in a cartouche.
Ahhotep I was the mother of Ahmose. There is a stela at Karnak praising her for guarding Egypt, looking after her soldiers, pacifying Upper Egypt and driving out the rebels. Her deeds appear to go well beyond what was normal for an ordinary King's Great Wife, leading some to wonder if she might have served as regent for her son Ahmose when he first came to the throne.
It has also been suggested by some that Ahmose-Nefertari acted as regent for her young son, Amenhotep I. This is based on little more than the length of his reign and the fact that a brother had been named heir apparent about five years earlier.
A minority of scholars have suggested that Nefertiti ruled as Pharaoh for a couple of years after the death of her husband Akhenaten. This Website remains unconvinced and so her name is not included in the list of Women Pharaohs. Notes on her life can be found at Nefertiti---Partner in Akhenaten's Religious Revolution, and a review of the argument about her status as Pharaoh can be found at Did Nefertiti Share Akhenaten's Throne?