Category Archives: Women in Ancient Egypt

Cleopatra: The Last Pharaoh of Egypt

By: Alexandria Kinias

Ruler of one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world and lover of both the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar and his loyal general Mark Anthony, Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.) was no ordinary queen. The aura of glamour that surrounded her life was only rivaled by her alleged dramatic suicide, after her military defeat, which may or may not have involved an asp. Even without a face left behind to identify her, her legend had flamed the imagination of writers and poets who immortalized her name for two millennia. Her death marked the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty and Hellenic Egypt fell into the hands of the Romans who killed her son with Julius Caesar, Caesarion. A legend, she was indeed.

There are very limited historical records of Cleopatra’s life. Therefore most of what is known about her has been fictionalized and consequently has not been accurate. Cleopatra who was bred to rule was depicted by historians as a promiscuous enchantress rather than an intellectual politician who spoke five languages.

Ptolemaists were Greeks not Egyptians. They were given Egypt to rule by Alexander the Great, yet they followed in the footsteps of their predecessors. They worshiped the ancient Egyptian gods and adopted their culture and traditions. Under their rule that lasted 275 years (305-30 B.C.), Alexandria became a cultural beacon.

Ancient Egyptian women enjoyed more rights and better status than their peers in neighboring lands. The throne of Egypt was adorned by several women along the various dynasties. Cleopatra, a hybrid of both cultures, was blessed to be born in this part of the world and had several role models to look up to. She was not only the richest woman in the world, but was also allowed to rule at a time when women elsewhere were viewed as nothing but baby makers.

At the age of eighteen Cleopatra ascended the throne of Egypt together with her ten years old brother Ptolemy XIII. Three years later she dropped his name from official documents, removed his face from the coins and went to war against him. At the age of thirty five, Cleopatra had formed an Eastern Mediterranean Empire that included Cyprus, Libya, Lebanon, Syria and coastal Turkey. Four years later she was defeated by Octavian and took her life.

Unfortunately, Cleopatra’s power and competence in ruling her empire, her wealth, command and influence in shaping the history of the ancient world had been reduced in contemporary literature to a feminine role of a seductress.Elizabeth Taylor’s played her role in the movie which carried the queen’s name. The extravaganza of the production, the beauty of Liz Taylor, her sixty five costumes, one of which was made of 24-carat gold cloth and the love scenes between her and Rex Harrison and Richard Burton affirmed the seducing image that writers had portrayed.

Fifty years after the production of Elizabeth Taylor’s movie, Hollywood is getting ready for another Cleopatra. Angelina Jolie was chosen to play the role of the Egyptian Queen. In an interview with the Telegraph, Jolie said that Cleopatra has been very misunderstood. “I thought it was all about the glamour, but then I read about her and she was a very strong mother, she spoke five languages and she was a leader.” Jolie’s movie will be based on the Stacy Shiffer’s book, Cleopatra – A life.

In her book Schiff described Cleopatra, “she convinced her people that a twilight was a dawn and — with all her might — struggled to make it so.” Enchanted by her character, Jolie wants her performance to portray the queen not as a sex symbol, but as a politician, a strategist, and a warrior. All the earlier books about Cleopatra were written by men. Jolie’s movie will be the first story written by a woman.

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Women of Ancient Egypt

By: Alexandra Kinias

For thousands of years, the warm golden rays of the sun shined over the glorious Egyptian civilization that flourished on the banks of the river Nile. The Egyptians excelled in medicine, astronomy, architecture, agriculture and sciences, but what made their civilization phenomenal was that women were respected and cherished. Ancient Egyptian women enjoyed more rights and better status than their peers in the neighboring lands, and as insane as it sounds, they enjoyed more rights than their contemporary daughters. Indeed the society had its flows, but there was never gender discrimination, but rather a social class one. It might not be a coincidence that the ancient Egyptian civilization thrived because of its women’s status; after all no society had sustained prosperity without giving its women their rights and freedom.

It was not uncommon for sailors who glided down the crystal blue waters of the Nile with their boats to see the Egyptian women working in the fields, washing clothes, bathing or just strolling with their friends at sunsets after a long working day, adorned with their accessories and enjoying the summer breeze. Women had no restrictions on their freedoms. But it was not only the social aspect of their lives that women enjoyed. Whatever existed between  heavens and earth was equally distributed and enjoyed by both men and women of ancient Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians left enough evidence in the form of court documents and legal correspondence to show that men and women within each social class stood as equals in the eyes of the law. Women could own and sell property and slaves, borrow money, sign contracts, initiate divorce, appear in court as a witness, serve on juries, testify in trials, inherit equal shares from their deceased parents as their male siblings, and disinherit their ungrateful children.

Egyptians cherished their women and their families. That was a source of their happiness. However, women were free from the dominance of their fathers and brothers before marriage and their husbands’ after. They were not forced into a marriage.  Once married, women maintained their independence.  The husband’s role was never to become her legal guardian as women kept their financial independence. The husband had the authority to manage his wife’s assets, if she agreed, but it was known that it belonged to her. If the marriage failed, a woman had the freedom to divorce and terminate the marriage at her will. When the divorce was finalized, her property returned back to her and she collected her share of the community property, or what is known today as a divorce settlement. Once divorced, a woman had the freedom to return to her father’s house or to live by herself if she chose to.  Being divorced was not a stigma and it was not uncommon for a divorced woman to remarry. Premarital sex was accepted, but once married, couples were expected to be faithful to each other. And other than the kings who had several wives, polygamy was not allowed.

Ancient Egyptian women were active and held prominent roles and important jobs. Lady Nebet was appointed as Vizier – the right hand ‘man’ of the pharaoh.  Throughout Egyptian history,  Queen Merytneith, Nitocris, Sobeknofru, Hatchepsut, Twosret ruled as Pharaohs. The circumstances of their ruling were uncommon, but none-the-less, no documents ever emerged that these queens were opposed by their subjects because of their gender. Queen Nefirtiti who never ruled was  an influential wife and supporter of her husband King Akhenaton. It was not unusual for a wife to represent her husband if he was away and take charge of his business until he returned. Women of high social standard with no jobs were encouraged to take religious positions in the temples as priestess for certain god or goddess.

Like most ancient societies, illiteracy rate was high in ancient Egypt, but there was evidence that those who had a chance learned how to read and write and that included women. After all the ancient Egyptians had the goddess Seshat as the ‘female scribe’ and was not the only goddess. Out of the major thirty deities the ancient Egyptians worshiped, twelve were goddesses.

Seven thousand years later,  women in Egypt are facing a lot of challenges.  Today  they are still struggling with  issues that were granted to their ancient mothers . The skies above are very gloomy and cluttered with clouds. The minds are becoming very foggy with confusion,  but I have no doubt that the sun would shine again on the women of Egypt. They just have to work hard for it.

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