National Geographic November 2018
Throughout human history, powerful women have been called many things: bitches, witches, regents, and seductresses. Female rulers – revered and respected – are a rare phenomenon. Except, that is in ancient Egypt, where they governed regularly, repeatedly and with impunity.
With meticulous research and rich storytelling, renowned UCLA professor of Egyptology Kara Cooney unveils the stories of six remarkable power brokers: Merneith, Neferusobek, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret and Cleopatra. Over the course of thousands of years, Cooney reveals these female pharaohs controlled the authoritarian Egyptian state as rulers, often petitioned be citizens to hold their country together and keep the peace.
And yet many of their stories have been papered over. The ancient Egyptian government, forward thinking though it was, sought to wipe away the contributions of these trailblazing women, removing their names from king lists, monuments, and shrines. But through decades of archaeological discoveries, historians have been able to piece together this unusual circumstance of female power and the intricacies in which it was employed; Merneith’s rule as regent for a son too young to ascend the throne; Hatshepsut’s turn to androgyny to transform into an all-powerful ruler; Nefertiti’s plan to realign her country after her husband had thrown it into disarray; and Cleopatra’s strategic sexual alliances that secured her place in history as the country’s most celebrated queen.
This provocative narrative is unlike any Egyptian history you’ve ever read. Through these six lives, Cooney examines how Eqypt’s queens ruled, why they were erased from history, and how their reigns may govern our own perception of leadership today. In a time when a woman’s place in politics has never been more controversial, she shines a piercing light on why female power has seldom been allowed through the ages – and why it matters now more than ever.
Thank you firstly to TLC Book Tours and National Geographic for sending me a copy of this book to review.
As the description indicates this is a book about women rulers in Ancient Egypt. For me this book was a highly accessible read about Ancient Egypt, focussing on six women who did rule, although only allowed this role through circumstance and male alliance. That is not to say they didn’t do it well, because they did, particularly when noting the pyramid structure of the society with 1 ruler – the Pharoah at the top. Starting this book I was expecting something different – a period of time in Ancient Egypt under Female rule… that is not what this book is, but rather a very interesting study of Eqyptian women ruling when circumstances allowed or required them to.
I’ve been to Egypt a couple of times, a country I wanted to visit from a very young age, fascinated by the Pyramids and wanting to see them I travelled round Egypt in my twenties, following the course of the Nile. Steeped in History and with landmarks familiar from books and television, it was every bit as exciting and wonderous as I had hoped it would be. And my interest has remained.
This book explores the circumstances in which these six women came into power – as regent or at the end of the Dynasty when there is no heir, or via their husbands. The role of Harems in producing Kings and the impact of Incest is also discussed. And the women themselves – who were they and what was their role, how did they get there and what did they leave behind?
This book also highlighted, sadly how little progress has been made in terms of equality for women and towards an egalitatarian society. I was struck that in the most part, in Ancient Egypt, women ruled when no one else could or as a trusted female regent until the next male King came of age. Power was afforded to women through men. The author draws parallels to the perception of women today and language used to curb powerful women, and in similar fashion it seems Eqyptian Queens pale in comparison to their male counterparts in history, in some cases almost disappearing.
For anyone interested in Ancient Egypt, or even thinking of visiting Egypt this book is fascinating, detailed yet highly readable, providing a useful foundation of knowledge about this fantastic civilisation which would be complemented by visiting some of the breathtaking locations talked about – The Temple of Millions of Years – pointed out to me as the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut when I was en-route to the Valley of the Kings, Karnak Temple, the Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids of Saqqara.
This book has reignited my interest in Ancient Egypt – of course I would like to visit again and I would love to know more about these female rulers, frustratingly information is limited but that said, I would jump at the chance to hear Kara Rooney speak on this most interesting of subjects.
About the Author
Kara Rooney is a professor of Egyptology at UCLA. her academic work focuses on death preparations, afterlife beliefs and gender studies. She is currently investigating coffin reuse during the Bronze Age Collapse, allowing her to examine funerary objects in dozens of museums around the world, including the Eqyptian Museum in Cairo, the Louvre in Paris, The British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She appeared as a lead expert in the popular Discovery Channel special The Secrets of Eqypt’s Lost Queen and is the creator and host of Discovery’s Out of Egypt. Her book The Woman Who Would be King was published in 2014. She lives in Los Angeles.