When Egypt was ruled by women

In the Bronze Age, societies around the world were dominated by men. Even today, in most parts of the world, this tradition holds true. There are some exceptions in the developed world, particularly in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, but even in the Americas, a woman has yet to take the lead.

So how did it happen that women came to rule ancient Egypt, everywhere? UCLA professor Kara Cooney explores this question in her book, “When Women Rule the World.” His statement, thankfully, is accessible to the general reader, unlike many academic voices on the subject. In fact, I found it mesmerizing. For those interested in digging deeper, she also provides nearly 60 pages of notes and scholarly citations.

The last time a woman ruled Egypt was two millennia ago. This was the time of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Cleopatra ruled Egypt. He was brought to life for me by Hollywood in an eponymous film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I have heard that a new biopic is being made about him. Volumes have been written about Cleopatra, including a recent book by Stacy Schiff.

I first heard about Egypt in grade school in Sukkur. We visited the ruins of Mohenjodaro. I learned that it was the contemporary civilization of Egypt that built the Great Pyramids at Giza near Cairo.

My curiosity was piqued. Who was the pharaoh? Hollywood once again helped in the film, the ten Commandments, This brought Ramses II to life. Some said that he was the pharaoh who is mentioned in the Muslim scriptures.

In the mid-1980s, I had my first contact with some of the ancient Egyptian remains at the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose. He also had several fake relics, including a Rosetta Stone. But there was no evidence that women ruled Egypt.

The opportunity to visit Egypt finally came in November 1996. I checked out the pyramids at Giza and went to Alexandria where I visited the port and Roman ruins. There was no trace of Cleopatra’s grave. I went to Alexandria for the second time in September 2009. Once again, I could not find any evidence of his grave. It is waiting to be discovered.

There is no doubt that she was present. Kara Kony tells us that she was the sixth queen to rule Egypt. The first was Merneth who ruled Egypt about 5,000 years ago. Given that date, it is difficult to find much evidence of his reign, other than “a mess of architectural funerary evidence, punctuated by hieroglyphic inscriptions”, which is often indecipherable as Egyptian writing was in its early stages. Apart from being a pioneer for women’s governance, she has not left much of a legacy.

Centuries later, she was followed by another woman, Neferusobek, who ruled as head of state without any male accompaniment. His major achievement was that “he protected his land in times of distress.” His name was preserved by the Egyptians in their list of kings; He was “not considered heretical or unworthy” by reason of his gender.

Then came the famous Hatshepsut. She ruled ancient Egypt for more than two decades, longer than any other female ruler. “He had a foundation of ideological, political, economic and priestly support.”

He used a new tool to empower himself: the “politico-divine revelation,” a tool that would be used by many others in history including Constantine of Rome and Ayatollah Khomeini of present-day Iran. When she died, she was buried with all due respect to her royal status, as evidenced by archaeological finds in the Valley of the Kings.

Then came Nefertiti. His limestone sculpture kept in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin has immortalized his beauty. If the bust is an accurate depiction, Connie says, it must have been amazing to watch. But there was more to her than her beauty.

His rule is just beginning to be understood. Egyptologists are locked in a heated debate about its changing nature, identity and role. Her tomb has not yet been found and Connie tells us that until she is found, she will “be known only for the beauty in Berlin iconography, not for the restoration of traditional Egyptian religion.”

Her husband, Akhenaten, a religious zealot, caused great damage to Egypt. After his death, Nefertiti began to work hard to correct the disastrous decisions he had made, leaving Egypt almost in ruins. She was a consensus builder who adopted many perspectives and reached out to the Egyptians in the spirit of housing. She was not an authoritarian ruler, as has been done by many in history.

The next queen of Egypt was Tavosret, who began her life during the latter half of the 67-year reign of Ramses II, or Ramses the Great. By the time she became queen, Egypt had become globalized, filled with the Levant, Syria, and other far-flung peoples. She is unique in that she seizes power by force, and refuses to share it with a male partner. He commissioned statues of himself, which depicted him as a statue of a woman, but wearing a masculine slit like that of Ramses II.

His reign was too short for him to sum up anything. She knew she was not Hatshepsut, but she ruled confidently. After her demise, Egypt would not see another female ruler for another thousand years.

Egypt was constantly under attack by the Assyrians, followed by the Babylonians, Persians and Alexander the Great. Eventually, Egypt fell under the Greeks. The Ptolemaic dynasty of Macedonia ruled Egypt for three centuries, the longest in Egyptian history.

The last ruler of that dynasty was Cleopatra, known as the Cunei drama queen. In her decision, she stood head and shoulders above the five former queens.

His affairs with Caesar and Antony after the former’s assassination are as documented in history as they are in literature. For political reasons more than sentimental reasons, she fathered children out of wedlock with both men, hoping to ingratiate herself with the Roman nobility, on whom the Egyptians depended for financial survival.

Unfortunately for him and for Egypt, his partnership with Antony ended a year later, when their combined forces were defeated by Octavian at the Battle of Actium. He and Antony committed suicide and was apparently buried in a tomb somewhere near Alexandria, which is being searched.

With the death of Cleopatra, an era in Egyptian history came to an end. No woman will ever rule Egypt again.

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