When: 14th century BC, 18th Dynasty
No woman of Ancient Egypt is as recognisable as Nefertiti, thanks to the 1912 discovery of her exquisite limestone bust. The Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep IV (later Akhenaten), her name means ‘a beautiful woman has come’, but she was much more than this. She took an active role as the kingdom reached the height of its power and wealth, and was a partner in a major religious revolution, replacing the traditional gods with a single deity, the sun disc Aten. In the art of the period, Nefertiti stands as her husband’s equal – and it is possible she ruled alone after his death.
When: First century BC, Ptolemaic Dynasty
A name synonymous with seduction, scandal and suicide, Cleopatra ranks as one of the most famous pharaohs. As a teenager, she became co-regent with her brother and quickly sought absolute power, which brought her in league with the Roman Empire. She seduced Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony, with whom she got dragged into a civil war against Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus. After a heavy defeat at Actium, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony killed themselves, leaving Egypt to the Romans.
When: 16th century BC, 17th Dynasty
Much about Ahhotep’s life is still grounds for speculation, yet a stela (slab) offers a clue. Dating from the time of Ahmose I – who might have been her son – it gives thanks to Ahhotep for putting down a rebellion. “She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt … she has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters, she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.”
When: 12th century BC, 19th Dynasty
On the death of her husband, Seti II, Twosret acted as regent to the child-king Siptah. His death a few years later allowed her to declare herself as pharaoh. Details are hard to come by about her two-year reign, which coincided with the sacking of Troy, and it is unknown whether her death came during a civil war or if it sparked one. Either way, Twosret was destined to be the final pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty.
When: 26th century BC, Fourth Dynasty
Her tomb has been called the ‘Fourth Pyramid of Giza’. With a main hall, inner chapel, burial chamber, solar boat and a pyramid city of streets and houses, it certainly is fit for a pharaoh. Inside, Khentkawes I sits on a throne, bearing a sceptre and the royal symbols of a rearing cobra and a false beard. Yet this may all be propaganda, as much of Khentkawes’ life remains a mystery.
When: 14th century BC, 18th Dynasty
While never actually a pharaoh, Tiye was Ancient Egypt’s most influential figure behind the throne. The near 40-year reign of her husband Amenhotep III was a time of peace and prosperity, with Tiye as his most trusted adviser – the Amarna letters show how well respected she was. After his death, Tiye then became a strong presence for her son, the religious radical Akhenaten.
When: 19th century BC, 12th Dynasty
Unlike some of the other pharaohs we’ve covered here, Sobeknefru did not rely on being portrayed as a man to assert her position during her four-year reign. She was named after the crocodile-headed god Sobek, a protector of pharaohs. While she died without an heir, the pharaohs of the 13th Dynasty kept the ‘Sobek’ name.
When: 13th century BC, 19th Dynasty
Ramesses II took many wives and had more than 100 children, but his Great Royal Wife Nefertari was his favourite of them all. Named ‘Sweet of Love’, ‘Bride of God’ and ‘The One For Whom the Sun Shines’, she exerted significant sway on his 66-year reign and, as she had been educated and could read and write hieroglyphics, even became a diplomatic figure. As a sign of their love, Ramesses built her a temple next to hisat Abu Simbel. Her tomb is one of the largest in the Valley of the Queens.
When: 15th century BC, 18th Dynasty
Ancient Egypt’s most powerful woman knew that the best way to augment her authority was to be seen with male attributes – which is why statues of Hatshepsut show her with muscular arms and wearing a false beard. In her seventh year as regent for her stepson, Thutmose III, she made the unprecedented demand to be co-ruler. Adopting the title of pharaoh, Hatshepsut oversaw a peaceful period, in which she expanded trade and launched hundreds of building projects, her masterpiece being the splendid mortuary temple at Deir el Bahari. Even Thutmose’s attempts to erase her from history could not quash her remarkable achievements.
When: 30th century BC, First Dynasty
Records suggest that Merneith took power in her own right nearly 5,000 years ago – which, if true, makes her the first female pharaoh. Her name appears on a seal listing the early pharaohs (although it may just be naming her as a mother of kings) and her tomb contained artefacts usually reserved for rulers, such as a boat. When discovered in 1900, archaeologists confidently announced they had just found a tomb of a man.