The queens of the late 17th and early 18th Dynasty appear through the mists of time to’ve been formidable women, involved in the running of the kingdom that their husbands were re-unifying. They were also much longer lived than their male counterparts and so provided the continuity necessary to keep the family in power. Ahmose-Nefertari’s 70 or so years meant that she saw the reigns of at least 5 different kings, and was an active participant in at least two of them.

She was born in the early 16th Century BCE around 1570 BCE, possibly in the brief reign of her grandfather Senakhtenre Ahmose. He was a king of the 17th Dynasty (in the Second Intermediate Period) and really only ruled in Thebes. His son, Seqenenre Tao, began the process of reunifying Egypt which was taken up after his death by his son (or brother) Kamose, his wife Ahhotep and finally the job was finished in the reign of his son Ahmose I who is considered the first king of the 18th Dynasty. Ahmose-Nefertari was married to Ahmose I and she outlived not just him but their son Amenhotep I – she didn’t die until early in the reign of her son-in-law Thutmose I in around 1505 BCE.

During these fairly turbulent times the ruling clan believed firmly in keeping power in the family – Ahmose-Nefertari’s parents were both children of Senakhtenre Ahmose and his Great Wife Tetisheri. Ahmose-Nefertari herself was a full sister of her husband Ahmose I, and it seems likely that their son Amenhotep I was also married to one of his sisters. As well as simplifying the power structure at court this would’ve had theological justifications – it mirrors the relationships between the gods from whom all kings are supposed to be descended. A new pantheon for a rebirth of the Egyptian state.

Ahmose-Nefertari’s brother-husband came to the throne around the age of 10 after the deaths of both his father and brother (or uncle) during the wars against the Hyksos rulers of Lower Egypt. Their mother Ahhotep was regent for him at the beginning of his reign and kept the momentum going in the fight against the Hyksos. This is not a situation like that of Hatshepsut and her stepson – when Ahmose I becomes an adult he rules in his own right – but Ahhotep is still the preeminent woman in the court and it’s not until after her death that Ahmose-Nefertari becomes more visible.

Statuette of Ahmose-Nefertari

Along with the titles that define her by her relationships to the men of her family (King’s Daughter, King’s Sister, King’s Great Wife, King’s Mother) Ahmose-Nefertari holds significant religious and political titles of her own. She is, like her mother before her, Mistress of Upper & Lower Egypt – a mirroring of one of the king’s titles. She also holds multiple titles in the priesthood of the cult of Amun, which gave the royal family some control of and presence in this politically significant cult. The three titles she held were Divine Adoratrice, 2nd Prophet of Amun (deputy high priest, in effect) and God’s Wife of Amun. It’s not clear from what I read whether Ahmose I created this last title for her or whether she inherited it from her mother (who would then have been the first). It is clear that she regarded this as one of her most important titles: she used it more than any of her other titles, including King’s Great Wife. The role of the God’s Wife of Amun was as a female counterpart to the high priest – in rituals she would play the part of the god’s consort. The title was passed down from queen to queen during this period and reinforced the mythology of the 18th Dynasty which depicted each king as the son of Amun (who was supposed to impregnate each queen by impersonating her husband). Later in Egyptian history it acquired a different significance – in the Late Period each God’s Wife of Amun was a virgin daughter of a king instead of his wife.

Ahmose-Nefertari and Ahmose I had at least 5 children – 3 daughters and two sons. The eldest of their sons, Ahmose-ankh, was named crown prince but sadly predeceased his father. This meant that when Ahmose I died in his thirties his heir, Amenhotep I, was young and so Ahmose-Nefertari followed in her mother’s footsteps by being regent for the new king. And she transitions from this to acting in place of his consort for the rest of his reign – it seems his sister/wife died young and even though there may’ve been another wife she was not family or Great Wife.

Amenhotep I died both young (like his father) and childless (unlike his father). Which does rather make one wonder about what recessive genetic traits were coming to light because of these full sibling marriages! One of the books I looked at tried to argue that the fact that Pharaohs married other women who weren’t their sisters as well meant that “the line was not enfeebled”, but given that the heirs were the product of the incestuous relationships that doesn’t really hold water. And even though the Egyptians would have no conception of the dangers of inbreeding the royal family was nonetheless forced to bring in some new blood at this point due to the lack of a male heir. Thutmose I appears to’ve been an outsider, who was then married to a sister of Amenhotep I to provide legitimacy for his reign. Ahmose-Nefertari remained matriarch through this transition too, presumably still providing continuity and stability despite her advancing age.

When Ahmose-Nefertari finally died she is thought to’ve been buried with her son Amenhotep I. They had a joint mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri which has almost entirely vanished now – a few remnants and stamped mudbricks have been found but nothing substantial. It’s unclear where their tomb originally was – there’s a case to be made for a tomb at Dra Abu el-Naga, and a case to be made for KV39 in the Valley of the Kings. Either way their bodies were moved along with many other royal mummies during a period of state-sanctioned tomb robbery – the kings & queens were re-wrapped and re-buried at TT320 at Deir el Bahri where they were found in modern times. An enormous coffin labelled as Ahmose-Nefertari’s was found there – it is 3m in height even without the detachable pair of plumes that are its headdress! Inside were two mummies – one of these still enclosed in a cartonnage outer layer was assumed at first to be the woman herself, but turned out to be Ramesses III. The other has no identifying labels but is assumed to be Ahmose-Nefertari. If so, she was in her 70s when she died and was a fairly small woman by modern standards (being about 5′ 2″ in height). The mummy appears to still have quite a lot of hair – but this is mostly false, braids added by the embalmers so she has a full head of hair in the afterlife. Rather gruesomely when unwrapped in 1885 her body appeared to putrefy before the eyes of the horrified onlookers and she was reburied briefly in the grounds of Cairo Museum! This cured the “putrefaction” which was more likely a consequence of remaining natron paste on the mummy being exposed to damp air than anything happening to the body itself.

Ahmose-Nefertari had another, rather less gruesome, afterlife as well. She was one of the few Egyptian queens who was deified after death, and she was worshipped along with her son Amenhotep I as the patron deity of Western Thebes for several centuries. She and her son are credited with founding the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina and so were particularly favoured deities there – perhaps the most important ones for this community. There is no hard evidence that they did found the village – it certainly seems possible, but the earliest inscribed mudbricks date to Thutmose I’s reign. As a goddess she’s often depicted with a black face – this is almost certainly symbolic rather than literal (particularly if the mummy in her coffin is hers, as that woman shows no sign of Nubian origins). Black is a colour the Egyptians associated with fertility – the colour of the soil left behind after the Nile flood had renewed the land. And Ahmose-Nefertari (as a goddess of the necropolis and those who worked in it) was associated with resurrection.

As so often in ancient history this is more of a skeleton of a biography than a fully fleshed out picture, there must be so much she saw and did that we’ll never know.

Resources used:

“An Ancient Egyptian Case Book: Intriguing Evidence that Undermined Incredible Headlines” Dylan Bickerstaffe
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“The Complete Valley of the Kings” Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt” Steven Snape
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

The One Who Unites the Two Lands

If you’ve been to Luxor to see the ancient sites, then you have almost certainly been to see Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. While there you may not’ve paid much attention to the ruins of a temple just to the south – certainly I didn’t the first time I visited, and I don’t think tourists are allowed to go and walk round it. But that temple was one of the reasons Hatshepsut put her temple where she did, and that temple’s terraced design formed the inspiration for her own more elaborate version. This was a deliberate association of herself with the great king Montuhotep II who reunified Egypt and was venerated alongside Narmer and Ahmose I as one of the three founders of the state.

Montuhotep II was born around 4000 years ago at the end of what we nowadays call the First Intermediate Period, and the Egyptians themselves saw as an era of disorder and disunity. Following the reign of Pepi II at the end of the Old Kingdom the central government of Egypt began to disintegrate and the country splintered with each region operating autonomously. Although at first these local rulers paid lip service to the idea that they were ruled by an overall king by the time Montuhotep was born this was not even nominally the case, and new powers were jockeying for the title. In Lower Egypt the House of Khety had taken control, governing from their home base of Herakleopolis. In Upper Egypt Montuhotep’s predecessors, three generations of rulers called Intef, had done the same from their home base of Thebes.

Ruined columns of the temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri.
Mortuary Temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri

The local war god worshipped at Thebes was called Montu, and Montuhotep means “Montu is satisfied” – and our king certainly did his best to live up to that name. Given the length of his reign (50 or so years) he must’ve taken the throne in his teens or early 20s, and all seems to’ve been quiet for the first 14 years. In Year 14 of his reign he took advantage of the rebellion of a province to his north (called This, which includes the town of Abydos) to make his move. Having crushed the rebellion he then swept north with his armies and eventually defeated the House of Khety at Herakleopolis itself. The timeline other than the turning point of Year 14 isn’t entirely clear. There’s evidence of unrest rumbling on for a while, so it wasn’t a single campaign and done. Certainly by Year 39 he feels he has completed the job – at some point before this (probably when he celebrated his jubilee) he changed part of his royal titulary to reflect that. His Horus name is changed to Sematawy which means “the one who unites the two lands”.

Montuhotep II’s reunification of the land ushered in a new golden age of high culture in Egypt. During the fragmentation of the country art styles in the regions had diverged from each other, and early reliefs from Montuhotep II’s time (including some of the decoration of his mortuary temple) are in a local Theban style. The Old Kingdom style of art had survived in the Memphite region, where the capital had been in that period. As part of asserting his legitimacy as a continuation of the Old Kingdom Montuhotep II employed artisans from Memphis on his own building projects and over his reign both styles merge with the Memphite style coming to dominate. As well as a return to a sophisticated and unified art style there is also a increase in historical documentation surviving from his reign and an increase in building projects throughout the country.

A fair amount is known about Montuhotep II’s family, mostly from burials within his mortuary temple complex although also from other sources. We know that he was the son of Intef III* and Iah, and we know the names of several wives although only one child. His chief wife was his sister Neferu who appears to’ve died early in his reign. The other senior wife was called Tem, and she had the title of “Mother of the Dual King” – this means that Montuhotep II’s successor (Montuhotep III) must’ve been her son. There are also six other female burials in Montuhotep II’s mortuary complex. Three of these women were definitely wives: Ashayet, Henhenet (who died in childbirth) and Sadhe. One was definitely not: a child of 5 or 6 years old called Mayet. And two who might also have been wives or concubines: Kawit and Kemsit. Montuhotep III is the only known child of Montuhotep II – which is one of those cases where one needs to remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Records of royal children are often patchy, particularly of sons until they are adults. And we only have evidence of Montuhotep III because he rules after his father, not during his childhood.

*Although Gae Callendar, writing in “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw, is less sure of this – she feels he makes too much fuss about his father being Intef III for it to’ve been that straightforward.

As well as Montu other gods were also important to Montuhotep II. The women buried in his mortuary complex all have titles that call them Priestess or Prophetess of Hathor, as did Montuhotep II’s mother. And Hathor was behind his choice of site for his mortuary complex – she was thought to dwell as a cow in the Western Mountain at Thebes. So Montuhotep II’s tomb and temple were situated so that he would spend eternity in the embrace of Hathor. The temple also faces towards Karnak across the Nile – the temple of Amun. I think the evidence for his support of the cult of Amun is circumstantial but it is known that this is the period when the cult begins to rise.

Another god that was important to Montuhotep II was ‚Ķ himself. There’s evidence Montuhotep II was, unusually, deified in his own lifetime – the only one of the three founder kings who achieved that. It may be that this was a key part of reasserting central control over the newly reunified kingdom. During the First Intermediate Period local rulers had begun justifying their authority as having been handed to them by this god or that god rather than from the king. So by setting himself up as a god Montuhotep II fit neatly into this new narrative for propaganda purposes. He was also to be worshipped after his death as a god – which doesn’t seem so unusual to us because that became the standard situation in the New Kingdom several hundred years later. But he took it further than had been the previous norm. And his self-deification appears to’ve stuck, despite his relative lack of name recognition in the modern day. There is evidence that later Middle Kingdom rulers venerated him, erecting statues of themselves in his temple precinct or dedicating objects to him. Hatshepsut clearly felt the association with him would enhance her status. Even into the 20th Dynasty there are private tombs which have inscriptions celebrating him as a founder of Egypt.

In many ways Montuhotep II is the archetypal Pharaoh – great war leader; bringer of peace, prosperity and order from chaos; a god to his people. Montu must indeed have been satisfied with this monarch.

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Ancient Egyptian Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold and Kei Yamamoto
“A History of Ancient Egypt Volume II: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson