These ancient artifacts honor Egypt's powerful queens

It wasn't uncommon for women to rule—to an extent—in this highly advanced civilization.

For centuries, the men of ancient Egypt have been the center of attention, but today women rule over ancient Egypt. A new exhibition, “Queens of Egypt,” at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., highlights the unique ways women wielded power in the land of the pyramids. With more than 300 ancient Egyptian artifacts on display—from shabtis from Queen Nefertari's tomb to statues depicting the leonine goddess of battle, Sekhmet—the exhibit shows the myriad ways that ancient Egyptians worshiped and respected fierce female leadership. (Attend a "Queens of Egypt" event.)

Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptology at the University of California in Los Angeles, provides insight into this phenomenon in her recently published book When Women Ruled, an inspiration for the new exhibit. Her examination of female power profiles six ancient leaders—Merneith, Neferusobek, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret, and Cleopatra—and the existing power structure that enabled them to rule thousands of years ago.

Cooney says that it wasn't out of respect for gender equality that women were tapped to rule. Often queens were tasked with protecting the throne for young male princes who were still too young to make decisions. Their steady hands could guide the nation as a way to transition power without shaking up the status quo of the patriarchy. "Indeed, when there was a political crisis, the ancient Egyptians chose a woman time and again to fill the power vacuum—precisely because she was the least risky option," Cooney wrote in a recent article for National Geographic.