Egypt: The Queens of Egypt's 4th Dynasty

The Queens of Egypt's 4th Dynasty

By Pete Vanderzwet

A statue of Menkaure and his wife, probably Khamerernebty II, shown very

The status of women in ancient Egypt was unrivaled throughout the course of ancient history. From the earliest records of documented history in Egypt, we find that women occupied a position of power and relative equality that exceeds the status of the female sex in many parts of the world today. And yet, while fulfilling such a vital role in society, we know very little about them concerning who they were as people. In the case of the queens of the 4th Dynasty, only the bare minimum of research has been undertaken, most notably by Dr. George Reisner during his excavations at Giza in the early and middle 20th century. However, his conclusions in many cases leave much to be desired, and the subjects of the true nature of their genealogical relationships and personal biographies have only been approached by a select few. Through the analysis of archaeological and inscriptional evidence, the author will attempt to provide a more concrete understanding of the royal women of this so very important period in Egyptian History.

The Chair of Hetepheres I from her tumb

Hetepheres I was probably married to Snefru, the father of Khufu, during the second half of the reign of Huni, the last king of the 3rd Dynasty. Almost certainly the mother of Khufu, her exact genealogical relationship to her husband has caused some speculation. According to Michael Rice, Hetepheres I was the sister to her husband and was thus one of the most powerful and significant figures of ancient Egypt at the time, circa 2600 BC. Understandably, the most well known of her offspring was the king responsible for the construction of the Great Pyramid, King Khufu. However, she did produce other notable offspring, such as her eldest daughter. This daughter, for whom a name cannot be found, was married to Ankhaf, possibly a son by Snefru and a minor wife. This presents a problem for the researcher as one would expect Khufu to have married this sister to strengthen his claim to the throne. However it is possible that no such union was required to ensure political legitimacy, or that the daughter was serving another role as a high priestess or the like and was thus unavailable to Khufu for marriage. Nonetheless, George Reisner has theorized that the occupant of one of the small pyramids located next to Khufus pyramid, labeled GIa, was also a daughter of Hetepheres I and a wife of Khufu, thereby consolidating Khufus power within the royal family.

An inscription found on the back of a chair discovered in the tomb of Hetepheres I gives her the title of: Mother of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Follower of Horus, Guide of the Ruler, Favourite one, She whose every word is done for her, the daughter of the gods body, Hetepheres. This passage allows Egyptologists to properly assign her the title of chief wife because the titles Follower of Horus and Guide of the Ruler are solely reserved in the 4th Dynasty for a woman of such social ranking.

Fine Jewelry from the tomb of Hetepheres I

Queen Hetepheres I probably died during the reign of her son, Khufu, and, as it is thought by some, was originally buried in an undiscovered shaft tomb at Dahshur. However, even by this time in Egyptian history tomb robbing was starting to become a serious issue and warranted the posthumous removal of goods and remains from her tomb there to Giza, where her tomb could be better looked after during the construction of Khufus pyramid. The discovery of her tomb was actually made by accident. A member of the team from the Harvard-Boston expedition led by George Reisner setup a tripod and noticed it sinking into the ground. Inside, an empty sarcophagus was found but in a concealed niche they discovered an alabaster canopic box containing residue from the mummification process. Due to the fact that no tomb attributed to Hetepheres I has yet been found at Dahshur, Dr. Mark Lehner suggested that the shaft tomb found by Reisner and his team at Giza was indeed the original burial place of the Queen. Until such a tomb is found at Dahshur and undeniably attributed to Hetepheres I, the mystery of whether or not she was actually reburied there first will remain unsolved. While very little information of a biographical nature can be gained from the tomb and its contents, the remarkable nature of the funerary equipment contained therein sheds enormous light on the material wealth and manner of furniture beautification for women of high ranking in the kings court during the 4th Dynasty.

Queen's Pyramid GIa at Giza

The above proposed occupant of GIa is believed by others to be Queen Mertiotes, one of the major wives and possibly chief wife of Khufu. Reisner believed that Mertiotes was a concubine in the harem of Snefru that had been passed on to serve out the same role under the reign of Khufu. However, as suggested above, it seems now that Queen Mertiotes was no mere concubine, but rather a powerful political figure closely tied to King Khufu. The actual identity of this woman and the location of her final burial place is a subject of some debate and speculation. She is referred to as the mother of prince Kawab on a fragment from his chapel, and in addition she is generally believed to be the mother of Hardjedef, Meresankh, and Mertiotes. While it is believed by many that Queen Mertiotes was indeed buried in GIa, the northernmost of the three small pyramids on the east side of the pyramid of Khufu, a limestone false door from the mastaba of a woman named Mertiotes, presumably a popular name for the period, was published by Mariette who described the tomb as being located on the Plaine de Gizeh. Published by Brested, the false door was translated as saying:

Kings wife, his beloved to Horus, Mertityotes: beloved of the Favourite of the Two Goddesses; she who says anything whatsoever and it is done for her. Great in the favour of Snefru; Great in the favour of Khufu, devoted to Horus, honoured under Khafre, Mertityotes .

As Dr. Hassan notes, this is interesting. If this Mertityotes is the same individual as the Mertiotes attributed by Kawab in his chapel to be his mother, then it would seemingly be impossible for her to have been buried in GIa. While it was not unheard of for women of such high social standing to be privy to the ownership of more than one tomb, the above quoted text from the false door of the mastaba references that she had lived through the reigns of Snefru and Khufu, and was honored in the court under King Khafre. If the mastaba represented an earlier tomb that was discarded in favor of GIa, there should be absolutely no mention of King Khafre. Like Queen Hetepheres I before her, the tomb of Queen Mertiotes brings with it more questions, however interesting, than answers. Perhaps, with continuing excavation being undertaken at Giza, a clearer picture of this queen and her mysteries will emerge. For example, Dr. Mark Lehner, who is currently working at Giza, has voiced an opinion that GIa represents the tomb of Hetepheres I, rather than Mertiotes, whom he believes was actually entombed in GIb.

Queen's Pyrmaid GIb at Giza

Herodotus mentions in his histories, although not by name, that Henutsen, another queen of the fourth dynasty, was prostituted by Khufu in order to provide the king with more resources to construct his pyramid. Although this account is undoubtedly riddled with error and falsehood, it has nevertheless stood through time to tarnish the reputation of the queen and her king. Even in modern publications it is often felt necessary to refute this claim and clear the name of both Henutsen and Khufu.

Queen Henutsen was the third wife of Khufu and mother of his eventual successor, Khafre. In addition, she was also probably the mother of Khafkhufu I, and possibly also of Minkhaf. She is generally believed to be the mother of Khafkhufu I due to the proximity of her pyramid, labeled GIc, to his mastaba. However, just to further confuse things, new research is now shedding doubt on when GIc was built, and by whom.

Pyramid GIc at Giza

In 1858, during Mariettes investigation of the grounds of the surrounding mastabas in the eastern cemetery there was found what has become generally known today as the Inventory Stela. Its relevant portion reads: and he (Khufu) built a pyramid for the kings daughter Henutsen, beside this temple. This temple was the temple of Isis, most predominately used during the Saite 26th Dynasty and not contemporary with the reign of Khufu. As noted by Janosi, pyramid GIc was not part of the original plan in Khufus complex. Its southern side follows the south side of the neighboring mastaba attributed to Khafkhufu I, rather than the southern side of the pyramid of Khufu, as would be expected. German Egyptologist Dr. Rainer Stadelmann believes that this double mastaba of Khafkhufu I was actually built for none other than King Khafre before he became king, when he was known by his former name. If this is true then GIc was probably built by Khafre for Queen Henutsen, the queen of Khufu, who had by this time risen to the status of Queen Mother.

Probable depiction of Queen Henutsen, mother of Khafkhufu I

In the mastaba of Khafkhufu I, a figure of the prince is followed by a female figure wearing an interesting dress with a shoulder strap over her right shoulder and a starched peak on the left shoulder, a dress similar to that worn by Hetepheres II in the tomb of her daughter Meresankh III. The text in front of that woman reads: His mother who bore him, she who sees Horus and Seth, great of affection. It is interesting to note here that Hetepheres II was also given the title She who sees Horus and Seth, Great of Affection. Was this dress unique to one who held this title?

Meresankh III

Regardless of when and by whom GIc was constructed, both the archaeological and textual evidence listed above casts little doubt on the probable ownership of the small pyramid, Henutsen, Queen of Egypt, wife of King Khufu and mother of the king responsible for the second great pyramid at Giza..

Hetepheres II was a daughter of Khufu and Queen Mertiotes, and was probably born some time between the last year of Snefru and the twelfth year of Khufu reign. Hetepheres II was married to Prince Kawab, the legitimate heir to Khufus throne. By this prince she had a daughter named Meresankh III, who would later grow up to marry King Menkaure. Meresankh III died before her mother and was buried in a mastaba built for her, in which she is shown with Queen Hetepheres II.

For unknown reasons, Prince Kawab died shortly before he was to be made king of Egypt. Speculation over the cause of his death has been rampant, with some dramatic claims made that Djedefre, Khufus successor, killed the prince in order to secure the throne. Nonetheless, Queen Hetepheres II, upon being made a widow, we believe, married none other than Djedefre himself and rose to power as the chief wife of the new king of Egypt. King Djedefre died rather suddenly himself, before his pyramid at Abu Rowash could be completed, and was succeeded by King Khafre, who was favored by some of the other powerful princes in the kings court. Hetepheres II made peace with the new king and lived to a wonderful old age of 70, dying at the end of the 4th Dynasty under the reign of Shepeskhaf. By Djedefre she had another daughter named Neferheteperes, who may have been the mother of King Userkaf of the 5th Dynasty. If this is so, then the kings of the fifth dynasty were in actual fact the legitimate heirs to the 4th Dynasty throne and descendants of King Snefru.

An enhanced reproduction of Hetepheres II with her

In the early 20th century much was made over the ancestry of Hetepheres II. A relief from the tomb of her daughter, Meresankh III, depicts the queen with blonde hair. However, closer inspection reveals that she was not a natural blonde, but rather the owner of a unique and, we can speculate, much coveted blonde wig. This portrait prompted George Reisner to speculate that she was the fair haired Libyan woman who legend had said was married to Khufu.

Queen Hetepheres II was entombed at Giza during the reign of Shepeskhaf, in the great double mastaba of her first husband, Kawab, to rest with him for all eternity.

Meresankh III was the great-granddaughter of Meresankh I and the granddaughter of King Khufu. Daughter to Prince Kawab and Hetepheres II. Both are depicted in her tomb and, even though Kawab died before reaching the throne, the title of kings daughter of his body is there inscribed. Upon making peace with Khafre after the death of her second husband Djedefre, Hetepheres II married off Meresankh III to Khafre, possibly to firmly reestablish a sense of credibility to her name, and further strengthen her line to the kingship. By King Khafre, Meresankh III had four sons named Nebemakhet, Neussere, Duare, and Khenterka. In addition, the two had three daughters that were depicted in statues found by George Reisner during his excavations there, but only a small, unnamed young daughter is depicted in the tomb paintings. Dr. Selim Hassan has suggested that Meresankh III may have married King Menkaure after the death of Khafre, and that the small child depicted in the paintings is that of Khentkawes, a significant Queen, and possibly even a King, who will receive attention below. While George Reisners efforts at Giza and contributions to Egyptology are almost unmatched, this is a typical example of his habitual speculation, as there is no concrete evidence indicating that Meresankh III married Menkaure, nor has anyone yet been able to establish the genealogical history of Khentkawes.

According to an inscription in the tomb of Meresankh III, the queen died in the first year of an unnamed king. Dunham and Simpson suggest that this may have been during the first year of Menkaure, which would significantly reduce the possibility of Reisners speculation that the small child depicted in her tomb is actually Khentkawes. Rather, it is more likely that this unnamed child is Shepsetkau, depicted in the tomb of Nebemakhet, one of Meresankh IIIs sons, and there listed as his sister. The above mentioned inscription in the tomb of Meresankh III does give further information relating to religious practices of the 4th Dynasty, however. It is mentioned that while she died in the first year of an unnamed king, she was not buried until 272 days later. This is a significant piece of information as it relates to the researcher the approximate amount of time the Egyptians found necessary to complete the mummification and mortuary process in the 4th Dynasty.

Scientific forensic analysis of the remains found in her tomb, undertaken by Dr. Douglas Derry, suggest that Queen Meresankh III was about five feet and one half inch tall, and aged between 55 and 60 at the time of her death.

Khentkawes I's tomb on the Giza Plateau

The final queen to be given attention here left behind one of the most impressive and imposing structures on the Giza Plateau. During the poorly understood period of transition between the 4th and 5th Dynasties, a woman by the name of Khentkawes came into the picture. Probably the daughter of King Menkaure, the identity of her mother is less securely understood. In this period of confusion, Khentkawes became a connecting link between the old Snefru lineage of the 4th Dynasty, and the newly emerging sun kings of the 5th Dynasty. The late Dr. I.E.S. Edwards believed that she was married to Shepeskhaf, while some Egyptologists like Dr. Selim Hassan believe she was the chief queen of Userkaf or Sahure. However, it is unusual for any of these kings to be identified with Queen Khentkawes as it was typical for the royal wife to be buried near her husband. Userkaf was buried at Saqqara, and Shepseskaf was buried at South Saqqara in his unique Mastabat Faraun. Sahure was buried at Abusir. Khentkawes was buried at Giza, just east of Menkaures pyramid in the old quarry of King Khafre.

According to Selim Hassan, on the red granite door jambs from her tomb she is described as: King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mother of the king of Lower Egypt, Daughter of the god, Every good thing which she orders is done for her. While Junker also believed that Khentkawes ruled Egypt in her own right, Edwards gives another translation which he describes as philologically tenable. He thought that Khentkawes was the mother of not one but two kings of Egypt, but did not rule in her own right. While the queen is indeed shown in bas-relief seated on a chair, holding the flail, wearing the vulture diadem, and outfitted with a ritual beard, Khentkawes name did not appear in a cartouche, nor did her name appear on any king list. This was a mystery that resulted in two opposing sides in Egyptology; one supporting the idea that Khentkawes did indeed rule as a king in her own right at he end of the fourth dynasty, the other firmly refuting the claim based on a possible mistranslation of the title. Then, in the late 1970s, new sources were found at Abusir when a Czech team found the small pyramid complex of Khentkawes II. This Khentkawes was at least one generation younger than the former. However, Egyptologists were astonished to find that the newly discovered tomb reported that the second Khentkawes bore the same titles as the former. Thus it had been established that Hassans translation of the texts found at Giza were, although grammatically correct, in error. Khentkawes had not ruled Egypt in her own right, but both she and the queen later named after her would go down in Egyptian lore for their high involvement in the political drama surrounding the end of the 4th Dynasty and birth of the 5th Dynasty. Almost 1000 years later a scribe or group of scribes would sit down and mythically recall their history in the story recorded in the papyrus Westcar. There, some Egyptologists maintain that the name Rudjedjet is a pseudonym for none other than this dramatic female character of the late 4th Dynasty.

The tomb of Khentkawes II at Abusir

The number of books written on the queens of Egypt would fill libraries to overflowing. The amount of television hours dedicated to them would probably fill a years worth of watching. However, all this attention to the queens of Egypt seems to be dedicated to the likes of Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Nefertari and Hatshepsut. While these more well known queens played important roles in history and their actions may be more news worthy, the hundreds of lesser known queens of Egypt, only a few of which the author has mentioned above, deserve attention as well. The queens of Egypts 4th Dynasty made changes and affected the outcome of Egypts history to such a degree that without them, those later queens that television and the public in general has so rightly fallen in love with may not have existed in the first place. They too deserve a place in our heart and they too deserve the dedicated academic study that has so often been applied to the more grandiose figures of Egyptian history.

See also:


  • Dunham, Dows. The Egyptian Department and its Excavations. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts. 1958.
  • Dunham, D. Simpson, W.K. The Mastaba of Queen Mersyankh III. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1974.
  • Edwards, I.E.S. The Pyramids of Egypt. England: Clays Ltd, 1993.
  • Hassan, A. The Queens of the Fourth Dynasty. Cairo: SCA Press, 1997.
  • Herodotus. Histories II, commentary, Lloyd.
  • Reisner, G.A. Mycerinus: The Temples of the Third Pyramid at Giza. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1931.
  • Rice, Michael. Whos Who of Ancient Egypt. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Shaw, Ian. Nicholson, P. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. New York: Abrams Inc. 1995.
  • Simpson, W.K. The Mastabas of Kawab, Khafkhufu I and II. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts. 1978.
  • Smith, W.S. Inscriptional Evidence for the History of the Fourth Dynasty. JNES XI (1952).
  • Verner, M. The Pyramids. New York: First Grove Press, 2001.