Sobekneferu: The First Certain Female King of Egypt

Sobekneferu The First Certain Female King of Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

A stela from the tomb of Meryneith at Abydos

Undoubtedly, the structuring of Egyptian royalty was meant to focus upon a male king, who was considered to be the earthly manifestation of Horus, a male god. Normally, a king would be succeeded by his senior surviving son, but every so often in Egyptian history, a woman rose to power, sometimes acting as regent for a young son, but at other times taking the throne completely, as in the case of Hatshepsut. However, Hatshepsut was not the first nor the last woman to rule Egypt. In fact, the last ruler of a pharaonic Egypt is frequently considered to be Cleopatra, prior to Egypt's fall into Roman hands.

Perhaps the first woman to wield executive power in Egypt was Merytneith, a probable wife of Djet who acted as regent during her son's (Den) early years. However, few claim that she was a king in her own right.

So who was the first woman to rule Egypt? The earliest candidate for an actual female king of Egypt is Khentykaues I, who lived at the end of the 4th Dynasty. Her unusual tomb is located at Giza, and on its granite doorway is recorded a set of titles that can be read either as "Mother of Two Kings" or "King and Mother of a King". In support of the latter title is her image, which was altered to show her in a kingly pose, including a false beard.

The tomb of Khentykaues I at Giza, sometimes called the

Khentykaues I may have ruled during the youth of her presumed son, Sahure, possibly in conjunction with Userkaf, the founder of the 5th Dynasty. However, despite the fact that she was apparently considered the ancestress of the 5th Dynasty and was commemorated in the mortuary chapel at Abusir of Khentykaues II, the wife of Neferirkare and mother of Reneferef (and probably Nyuserre Ini), her name has never been found in a royal cartouche. It should be pointed out that most modern lists of Egyptian kings do not include Khentykaues I as a ruler.

A more mysterious candidate for the first female king of Egypt is recorded many centuries later in the work of the Egyptian Historian, Manetho. He, in an obvious error known to us today, says that Nitokris built the third pyramid. Herodotus also mentions Nitokris, telling us that she killed hundreds of Egyptians to avenge the king, her brother, whom his subjects had killed. She accomplished this by constructing a huge underground chamber where she invited to a banquet all those she knew to be responsible for her brother's death. Then, when the banquet was underway, she let the river in on them through a concealed pipe. Afterwards, in order to escape her punishment, she was reported to have flung herself into a room full of embers. Interestingly, Herodotus does not ascribe the third pyramid at Giza to this woman, but rather to another female courtesan of the 26th Dynasty.

Inscriptions at the entrance to a chapel with Khentykaues' confusing title

Nitokris is actually a Greek rendering of the Egyptian name Neitaqerti, and in the Turin king-list, which can be dated to the 19th Dynasty, this Egyptian name appears on a fragment that seems to belong to the late 6th Dynasty portion of the papyrus. Initially, many scholars linked this name to the legendary queen. However, work on linking the misplaced parts of the papyrus during the mid 1990s has suggested that the Nitokris cartouche is actually part of the titulary of a clearly male king named Siptah. Furthermore, it has also been suggested that "Neitaqerti" is actually the result of a faulty transcription of the prenomen, "Netjerkare", which was assumed by a king on his accession.

This would fit nicely with the only other kings-list, at Abydos, that covers the period. It places a "Netjerkare" in exactly the right spot, though it is clear that by the early 19th Dynasty, when both lists were compiled, that there was some confusion that resulted in a "Neitaqerti" being inserted in some historical documents concerning the period after Pepi II, though no others. This does give us one possibility for the link between Nitokris and the third pyramid at Giza. Three reigns after Pepi II, the Abydos list records a King Menkare, a name which is very close to Menkaure, the actual 4th Dynasty builder of the third pyramid at Giza. Given Manetho's claim that the third pyramid belonged to Nitokris, a transformation from Menkaure to Menkare to Neitaqerti could be used to suggest that the prenomen of Neitaqerti was Menkare. It is also possible that the Giza pyramid female connection might actually be with the tomb of Khentykaues I, the size of which has sometimes led to its being called the "fourth pyramid" at Giza.

It should be note, however, that several sources list Nitokris (Nitiqret) as a king of Egypt, including the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Aidan Dodson's Monarchs of the Nile and Nicolas Grimal's A History of Ancient Egypt. However, it should be noted that each of these sources appears to rely completely on Manetho and the kings-lists. Other evidence for her rule is practically nonexistent, and there is no contemporary trace of a King Nitakris (the English term "queen" can mean both a female king and the wife of a king, but in Egyptian the terms for the two are completely distinct). Hence, her rule is very suspect.

Seal with cartouche of Queen Sobekneferu

It is not until the end of the Middle Kingdom that we find, for the first time, clear evidence for a female king of Egypt. Her name was Sobekneferu (Nefrusobk, Neferusobek, Sobekkara). The name 'Sobekneferu' means, "The beauties of Sobek", the crocodile god. The rulers of the 12th Dynasty established a religious and economic center in the Fayoum where the crocodiles were nurtured and worshipped.

During the prosperity and innovations of this period, it is possible that Amenemhat III may have even contemplated a female as his heir. A daughter of the king named Nefruptah was invested with a cartouche around her name, something never before done for anyone other than a king, and she was given titles often used by a king's wife, though apparently she was never married to a king. After her death, she was first buried in her father's burial chamber, but was then reburied in her own pyramid some two kilometers away.

A fragmentary statue believed to be that of Queen Sobekneferu

However, she did not succeed Amenemhat III. After Amenemhat III's death, Amenemhat IV came to the throne, but he died early and was succeeded on the throne by a woman named Sobekneferu, who was presumably a sister of Nefruptah. She may have been the wife and sister of Amenemhat IV as well. Sobekneferu apparently ruled for only some four years, but is known from a number of monuments and artifacts, including five statues, fragments relating to the mortuary temple of Amenemhat III at Hawara, scarabs, seals and beads, as well as from a Nile inundation record. This latter document from the Nubian fortress of Kumma relates a poor flood of some 1.83 meters, and dates to Sobekneferu's last year.

Usually, the queen uses feminine titles, but several masculine ones were also used. Three headless statues of the queen, discovered in the Fayoum, and a few other items contain her name. In one damaged statue of the queen of unknown origin, the costume she wears is unique in its combination of elements from male and female dress, echoing her occasional use of male titles in her records. In another intriguing statuette of the queen now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the queen wears a sed-festival cloak and a most unusual crown, which may have resulted from an attempt to combine unfamiliar iconographic elements of male and female rulers. She contributed to Amenemhat IIIs Labyrinth, and also built at Herakleopolis Magna.

Generally, Sobekneferu is known as the last Egyptian king of the Middle Kingdom, prior to the confusion of the Second Intermediate Period. She is the last ruler prior to the New Kingdom to appear in the offering lists found at Abydos and Saqqara, which suggests some kind of posthumous verdict that separates her from the kings who followed her with equally short reigns.

Nothing is known of Sobekneferu's death or burial. Some have suggested that her burial might be one of the pyramids at Mazghuna, but this is very unlikely. Thus, one of the most powerful women of early world history final destiny remains a mystery to us.

See Also: The Queens of Egypt Parts I, II and III






Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


Les Livres De France

None Stated

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas



None Stated

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Seventy Great Mysteries of Ancient Egypt, The

Manley, Bill (Editor)


Thames & Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05123-2