In times of trouble, ancient Egypt often looked to its female rulers to restore and maintain power. From Hatshepsut to Cleopatra, women ruled, and ruled well, along the Nile. Some of the first wielded their power rebelling against a brutal occupation. These strong leaders came to power, helped drive out the invaders, and gave birth to a new, stronger dynasty.
The Hyksos invade
Ancient Egypt fell to invaders in the late 18th century B.C., an event described by Egyptian scholar Manetho more than a millennium after it happened. Egypt had been conquered by invaders, a people Manetho called the heqa khasut, foreign rulers—a term that later evolved into the Greek “Hyksos.” Thought to originate from an area in modern-day Israel, the Hyksos arrived on the scene during Egypt’s 13th dynasty.
Egyptian rulers were able to hold them off until about 1650 B.C., when the Hyksos, growing more militarily powerful, captured the ancient royal city of Memphis in a decisive victory that brought Egypt’s Middle Kingdom to an end. Writing in the fourth or third century B.C., Manetho described how the Hyksos overwhelmed Egypt:
Suddenly from the regions of the East, invaders of an obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land. They easily seized it without striking a blow; and having over-powered the rulers, they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of the gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility.
The Hyksos controlled the north, but a separate dynasty was growing in the south, centered in Thebes and guided by powerful queens. (See also: Archaeologists uncover more than 800 tombs from the Middle Kingdom.)
Ruling Egypt as its 15th dynasty, the Hyksos occupied swathes of northern and central Egypt for the next century. Far to the south, however, parallel dynasties—the 16th and the 17th—were established, formed in part by the original rulers of that area, who saw themselves as the continuation of native Egyptian power.
The southern city of Thebes served as the base of the Egyptian challenge to the Hyksos. The city sat on the banks of the Nile, more than 400 miles south of the modern city of Cairo. The kings of the 16th dynasty survived as vassals of the Hyksos, but the 17th dynasty began to fight back with the help of three women, all queens of Thebes: Tetisheri, daughter Ahhotep, and granddaughter Ahmose Nefertari. (See these artifacts that honor Egypt's powerful queens.)
The contributions of these women are less well-known than the queens who follow, such as Queen Tiy (Amenhotep III’s wife) and Nefertiti. Because of these queens’ partnerships with their husbands and their ability to rule as regents, the Egyptians were able to strike back against the Hyksos and retake their cities in the north around 1521 B.C. After these three queens, a new kingdom would dawn, led by some of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs: Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, and Amenhotep III.
Making a matriarchy
The Hyksos king Apophis I ruled the north from the city of Avaris in the Nile Delta. During this time, Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao II ruled in the southern, Theban lands. Seqenenre Tao launched a campaign to challenge the Hyksos rule and was backed by many, including his own mother, Queen Tetisheri.
A forthright, shrewd woman who wielded great influence over her son, Tetisheri was the matriarch of a great Egyptian family beginning with her son Seqenenre Tao and daughter Ahhotep, a woman whose long life was also destined to have a major impact on her nation. (Discover how ancient Egypt relied on female leadership in times of trouble.)
As was common royal practice for the time period, Ahhotep and Seqenenre Tao, sister and brother, married each other. Having inherited a decisive, tenacious spirit from Tetisheri, Ahhotep also supported her husband’s fight against the Hyksos occupation in the north. But his fight was to be short-lived. Seqenenre Tao died as a result of wounds received in battle with the Hyksos. Analysis of his mummy, found at Deir el Bahri in the 19th century and now held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, shows that Seqenenre Tao’s skull bore signs of ax wounds in the neck and in the forehead as well as a shattered cheekbone. The impacts appeared to be have been inflicted by a narrow ax blade typical of the Hyksos. (Explore how priests and pracitioners made mummies in ancient Egypt.)
Despite the death of the king, the war against the Hyksos continued. The next king, Kamose—perhaps a son of Seqenenre Tao and Ahhotep—continued the rebellion against the Hyksos. Like his predecessor, Kamose would die on the battlefield just three short years after his accession.
Enter Queen Ahhotep
His successor was Ahmose, the young son of Ahhotep and Seqenenre Tao II. Historians believe that Queen Ahhotep reigned as regent during this time since her son was too young to rule officially. Thebes needed strong leadership at this moment, and Ahhotep proved up to the challenge. Menaced by the Hyksos to the north, Ahhotep faced a threat from the south as well. Nubia had forged an alliance with Hyksos, creating a threat to Thebes on two sides. Already rattled by internal revolts, the queen was forced to reckon with problems on several fronts to defend the kingdom.
The details of Ahhotep’s regency are sketchy in places (and there is still considerable confusion over her and her son’s relationship with another queen named Ahhotep II). Evidence exists for the important role Ahhotep played in continuing with the anti-Hyksos campaign, even as Thebes faced dangers from the south. Military honors were found among her grave goods. A large stela in the temple at Karnak describes Queen Ahhotep’s significance:
She governs vast numbers of people and cares for Egypt wisely; she has attended to its army; she has looked after it; she has forced its enemies to leave and united dissenters; she has pacified Upper and Lower Egypt and made the rebels submit.
The pharaoh also took the care to honor his grandmother Tetisheri by building a cenotaph to her in Abydos, the center of the cult of Osiris, the god of the afterlife.
By the time he was ruling as pharaoh, Ahmose was able to complete the campaigns started by his mother and others before her. Around 1521 B.C., he captured Memphis and the Hyksos stronghold of Avaris. With Ahhotep maintaining control in Thebes, Ahmose seized gold-rich territories in Nubia to the south, and then he returned north to drive the Hyksos from the Egyptian border, beyond the Sinai. After a century of turmoil, the first king of the 18th dynasty ruled, at last, over a reunited Egypt. (Read more: How Egyptian pharaohs delivered divine justice from beyond the grave.)
From queen to goddess
Following tradition, Ahmose took his sister as his wife. Like the matriarchs preceding her, Queen Ahmose Nefertari was well prepared to rule because she had witnessed firsthand the hardships involved. As a young princess, she had witnessed her father’s death in the offensive against the Hyksos, her brother and husband’s ascension to the throne as a child, her mother’s regency, and her family’s victory over the foreign invaders.
From her mother she inherited the strength and energy needed to rule as queen, supervising the transition to the period of peace and harmony from wartime. As an intimate counselor to her husband, Ahmose Nefertari played a leading political role in the building of a reunified Egypt during their son Amenhotep I’s reign, consolidating the family’s rise from a southern to a united dynasty. (Learn which other royal families practiced incest.)
Ahmose Nefertari came to play an important role in Egyptian religion. She was given the title “Wife of the God,” which reflected her privileged position among the priests of the god Amun in Thebes. Reflecting the rise in Theban influence, Amun—until then a regional deity—was becoming the most powerful god in the whole of Egypt. The bestowal of this title, confirming the queen’s political and religious power, is described on the so-called Donation Stela, which was erected in the Temple of Amun in Karnak.
The stela served as a legal document that established the role the queen was to play in the temple, together with a large donation of land and goods by Pharaoh Ahmose to the queen and her heirs. The function of the new title was priestly, which gave her high social standing and, more important, allowed her to participate in the lives of the gods, thus giving her divine protection against danger.
Ahmose Nefertari was also notably involved in monitoring and supervising construction. Her name is on texts recording the opening of mines and quarries, whose wealth would underwrite the achievements of the 18th dynasty. Together with her son Amenhotep I, she was traditionally regarded as the patron of what is today known as Deir el Medina, the village for craftsmen working on the construction of royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Wife and Mother Both
According to the Egyptian myth of Kamutef, every night the sun god inseminated Nut, the goddess of heaven. Every morning, she gave birth to him again in a process of daily renewal. Nut is therefore both the mother and wife of the sun. In royal mythology, the pharaoh hoped to achieve renewal in a similar way to the myth, in which mother and wife were conceptualized identically.
In the course of her long life, she had witnessed the expulsion of the Hyksos and the reigns of many kings, including her grandson, Thutmose I. When she died, Egypt was plunged into a period of national mourning. Later, she was deified. She became the inspiration for later powerful women of the 18th dynasty, such as Hatshepsut, whose military exploits and cultural monuments mark one of the pinnacles in ancient Egypt’s long story.