The ancient Egypt you know is a lie. It’s a golden, glittering myth created by Hollywood as an excuse to parade Elizabeth Taylor around draped in gold and makeup. The ancient world could not have been so divorced from the Egypt of my youth: dusty, hot, poor and filled with people who aren’t white.
One exhibit in DC this year is setting the record straight.
The National Geographic Museum is hosting an exhibit on the Queens of Egypt in DC until September 2, and Nat Geo researchers have taken a more nuanced approach to discussing women rulers in ancient Egypt.
The way ancient Egypt exists in the collective Western imagination is not actually how it existed at all. According to National Geographic Egyptologist and author of When Women Ruled the World, Kara Cooney, real life in the ancient world was extraordinarily hard.
“The reality was very different,” Cooney says. “We’re talking about people with a much darker skin color to be sure – people of a North African descent – and a place that, while opulent for a few, was much more real for others in terms of a hard life: constant labor, farming, parasites, diseases, life expectancy at the age of 30.”
The myth probably started with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. For all of his contributions to literature, the Bard portrayed Egypt as little more than a place to get a tan and cheat on your wife.
So even though there was more to life in ancient Egypt, at least we are right in feeling empowered by its female rulers. Right? Well, it’s more complicated than the “You go, girl” mentality we tend to adopt when talking about Egypt’s queens.
Although some women were able to attain the highest positions of power in Egypt, they still ruled and existed within a rigid, unforgiving patriarchal society. Many queens were simply holding the throne until the rightful king – a son, nephew or brother – was old enough to assume it.
And while each queen ruled differently – facing different challenges, accomplishing different goals and failing in different ways – their entire existence as a ruler was in service of a system that would hand power to the appropriate male as soon as he was old enough.
“There were some women who could surmount the obstacles in their path of being a woman in a patriarchal society, but there was not one woman who was a feminist who was going to move the system in a different direction,” Cooney says. “There was no way of thinking in that way in the ancient world.”
The West likes to think of Cleopatra as the most empowered of queens – even Cooney describes her as the least traditional. But her relationships with Roman warlords, which long ago captured the Western man’s imagination, were intended to solidify her power. And by getting involved with Rome, she invited their violence and civil war into Egypt, Cooney says.
“She’s brought herself into that realm so one can ask: is that Cleopatra knowing she needs a man, a male presence by her side, and looking to the strongest man in her political arena and getting herself in trouble by drawing a target on her back?”
The fact that Cleopatra is the queen cemented in our minds is quite revealing. Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled Egypt from 1479-1425 BC, was arguably the most successful queen.
Hatshepsut assumed the throne as regent on behalf of her infant stepson after her husband’s death. After just five years, she was crowned pharaoh. She was such a successful ruler that she was often depicted with masculine features, including a beard as a symbol of her power.
According to Cooney, the queens we can name tell us a lot about how we treat women in power. The ones who succeed have their womanhood erased. The ones who fail are immortalized as a warning against vice and promiscuity.
“One succeeded and one failed. One is forgotten and one is remembered. And I like those comparisons. They’re very useful for us to see what we do to the female who is a failure. [We] make her a cautionary tale. And what do we do to the [successful queen]? Just erase her.”
If learning about the queens of ancient Egypt with all their complexities and flaws sounds more interesting than watching Elizabeth Taylor make eyes at white men for four hours, then check out the National Geographic Museum’s Queens of Egypt exhibit.
The exhibit is open daily until September 2 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12 and can be purchased online or at the museum until 5 p.m. Learn more about the exhibit at
National Geographic Museum: 1145 17th St. NW, DC; 202-857-7700; www.nationalgeographic.org