The notion of liberated, powerful women in Egypt is not just a modern idea. The position of women in Egyptian society was unique in the ancient world. Women enjoyed the same legal, economic and social rights as Egyptian men and when the historian Herodotus visited ancient Egypt, he was so surprised by this equality that he wrote of the Egyptians, “they have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind’’.
Occasionally a woman ruled in her own right. The only female to rule Egypt as a full pharaoh in a period when Egypt was strong was Hatshepsut (18th Dynasty c.1473-1458 BC) She ruled during the early part of the 18th Dynasty, an exciting time known as the “Golden Age of Egypt”.
Hatshepsut was the daughter of Thutmose I and Queen Ahmose. Upon the death of her father his son Thutmose II succeeded him and he married his stepsister, Hatshepsut, in order to preserve the royal blood line. When Thutmose II also died, his son Thutmose III became Pharaoh. However, as he was a minor, Hatshepsut stepped in as his guardian and a co-regency was formed. Eventually Hatshepsut took full control and appointed herself Pharaoh.
In order to legitimise her role she used a number of strategies, including having herself depicted as a man. During her very successful 15-year reign Hatshepsut’s trade expeditions were trail-blazing and her building work was on a scale that had never been seen before. She initiated a number of impressive projects, including her superb funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari and several structures at Karnak and Luxor Temples. Another remarkable achievement was the transportation of two huge granite obelisks on the River Nile from Aswan to the Temple of Karnak.
Hatshepsut Temple at Deir el-Bahari
Hatshepsut mounted at least one military campaign but perhaps her greatest achievement was the expedition that she arranged to the Land of Punt, which is recorded on the walls of her mortuary temple. Amongst other things it shows ebony, ivory, incense, gold, perfumes and exotic animals being brought back from Punt, believed to have been located near the Red Sea and present-day Somalia. Hatshepsut also devoted herself to administration, the encouragement of commerce and trade.
Nefertiti statue in Berlin
One of the most mysterious and powerful women in ancient Egypt was Nefertiti (18th Dynasty c.1336 BC), the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaton. The couple reigned for 17 years towards the end of the Amarna period and had six daughters. Nefertiti was actively involved in her husband’s revolutionary policies and is often shown wearing kingly regalia and officiating at his side. It is believed by some that after the death of Akhenaten she ruled independently. Nefertiti is best known for her painted sandstone bust, which was rediscovered in 1913 and became a global icon of feminine beauty and power.
Throughout the history of ancient Egypt, there were more than 100 documented female doctors. These women were well learned and highly respected in their fields, with images appearing on tomb walls and hieroglyphics about them etched onto steles. Female physicians in Egypt studied obstetrics, and were also known to have been instructors at Egyptian medical training schools.
Among the most significant and important physicians (male or female) of her time was Peseshet. According to inscriptions on a stela found in an Old Kingdom (approximately 3100 – 2100 BC) tomb, she was known as an “overseer of doctors”, meaning that she was not only a physician in her own right, but she was also the supervisor and administrator of an entire body of female physicians.
Another remarkable female physician from ancient Egypt was Merit Ptah. She also holds the distinction of being the first woman known by name in the history of the field of medicine. She practised medicine nearly 5,000 years ago and was immortalised by her son on her tomb as “the chief physician”.
The legendary Cleopatra, from the Ptolemaic era (332-30 BC) is well-known to this day thanks to Shakespeare’s tragedy, Anthony and Cleopatra and the 1963 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. Cleopatra (c 51 BC) was not of true Egyptian lineage. Descended from Macedonians. she was born to Ptolemy XII in 69 BC and came to the throne when she was just 17 years old in 51 BC.
Cleopatra became the most famous of Egypt’s female leaders. She was extremely intelligent and ambitious and spoke several languages — she even studied astronomy. It is thought that she ruled jointly with her father, then after he died, with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII. Cleopatra captivated Julius Caesar when he came to Alexandria and in order to assume sole power over Egypt she asked for his help, which he willingly gave. However, their relationship was doomed and when her liaison with Mark Anthony, another powerful Roman, also ended disastrously, Cleopatra, also known as the “Queen of the Nile”, famously committed suicide in 30 BC. Cleopatra was the last female to be called pharaoh.
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in Cleopatra
Our last illustrious woman lived in Alexandria and is the first woman to be recognised as a mathematician and scientist. Hypatia (355 or 370 – 415/416 AD) was the daughter of the mathematician Theon, the last professor at the University of Alexandria, who tutored her in maths, astronomy, and philosophy. She became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in about 400 AD. According to accounts left by Socrates Scholasticus (c. 379-450), a contemporary of Hypatia, she was a charismatic teacher who attracted the best students from Asia, Africa, and Europe. They were drawn to her intelligence, her legendary beauty, and her reputation as an oracle.
Rachel Weisz played Hypatia in Agora
Hypatia would have had daily access to the great Library of Alexandria and its 500,000 resources and it seems clear she took full advantage of it. She is now considered a symbol for feminists and an inspiration in modern times.
Today, women account for 49 per cent of students enrolled in universities and higher education institutions and are very visible as judges, politicians, doctors and professors in modern Egyptian life, with all treated as equal members of society.