The rulers of ancient Egypt, the pharaohs, were almost all men. But a handful of women also held sway over Egypt, including Cleopatra VII and Nefertiti, who are still remembered today. Other females ruled as well, although the historical record for some of them is scant at best—especially for the first dynasties that ruled Egypt.
The following list of ancient Egypt’s female pharoahs is in reverse chronological order. It begins with the last pharaoh to rule an independent Egypt, Cleopatra VII, and ends with Meryt-Neith, who 5,000 years ago was probably one of the first women to rule.
Cleopatra VII (69–30 B.C.)
Cleopatra VII, the daughter of Ptolemy XII, became pharaoh when she was about 17 years old, first serving as co-regent with her brother Ptolemy XIII, who was only 10 at the time. The Ptolemies were descendants of a Macedonian general of Alexander the Great’s army. During the Ptolemaic dynasty, several other women named Cleopatra served as regents.
Acting in the name of Ptolemy, a group of senior advisers ousted Cleopatra from power, and she was forced to flee the country in 49 B.C. But she was determined to regain the post. She raised an army of mercenaries and sought the backing of Roman leader Julius Caesar. With Rome’s military might, Cleopatra vanquished her brother’s forces and regained control of Egypt.
Cleopatra and Julius Caesar became romantically involved, and she bore him a son. Later, after Caesar was murdered in Italy, Cleopatra aligned herself with his successor, Marc Antony. Cleopatra continued to rule Egypt until Antony was overthrown by rivals in Rome. Following a brutal military defeat, the two killed themselves, and Egypt fell to Roman rule.
Cleopatra I (204–176 B.C.)
Cleopatra I was the consort of Ptolemy V Epiphanes of Egypt. Her father was Antiochus III the Great, a Greek Seleucid king, who conquered a large swath of Asia Minor (in present-day Turkey) that had previously been under Egyptian control. In a bid to make peace with Egypt, Antiochus III offered his 10-year-old daughter, Cleopatra, in marriage to Ptolemy V, the 16-year-old Egyptian ruler.
They were married in 193 B.C. and Ptolemy appointed her as vizier in 187. Ptolemy V died in 180 B.C., and Cleopatra I was appointed regent for her son, Ptolemy VI, and ruled until her death. She even minted coins with her image, with her name taking precedence over that of her son. Her name preceded that of her son in many of the documents between her husband’s death and 176 B.C., the year that she died.
Tausret (Died 1189 B.C.)
Tausret (also known as Twosret, Tausert, or Tawosret) was the wife of the pharaoh Seti II. When Seti II died, Tausret served as regent for his son, Siptah (aka Rameses-Siptah or Menenptah Siptah). Siptah was likely the son of Seti II by a different wife, making Tausret his stepmother. There is some indication that Siptal may have had some disability, which perhaps was a contributing factor to his death at age 16.
After Siptal’s death, historical records indicate that Tausret served as pharaoh for two to four years, using kingly titles for herself. Tausret is mentioned by Homer as interacting with Helen around the Trojan War events. After Tausret died, Egypt fell into political turmoil; at some point, her name and image were stripped from her tomb. Today, a mummy at the Cairo Museum is said to be hers.
Nefertiti (1370–1330 B.C.)
Nefertiti ruled Egypt after the death of her husband, Amenhotep IV. Little of her biography has been preserved; she may have been the daughter of Egyptian nobles or have had Syrian roots. Her name means “a beautiful woman has come,” and in the art from her era, Nefertiti is often depicted in romantic poses with Amenhotep or as his co-equal in battle and leadership.
However, Nefertiti vanished from historical records within a few years of assuming the throne. Scholars say she may have assumed a new identity or may have been killed, but those are only educated guesses. Despite the lack of biographical information about Nefertiti, a sculpture of her is one of the most widely reproduced ancient Egyptian artifacts. The original is on display at Berlin’s Neues Museum.
Hatshepsut (1507–1458 B.C.)
Widow of Thutmosis II, Hatshepsut ruled first as regent for his young stepson and heir, and then as pharaoh. Sometimes referred to as Maatkare or the “king” of Upper and Lower Egypt, Hatshepsut is often depicted in a fake beard and with the objects that a pharaoh is usually depicted with, and in male attire, after a few years of ruling in female form. She disappears suddenly from history, and her stepson may have ordered the destruction of images of Hatshepsut and mentions of her rule.
Ahmose-Nefertari (1562–1495 B.C.)
Ahmose-Nefertari was the wife and sister of the 18th Dynasty’s founder, Ahmose I, and mother of the second king, Amenhotep I. Her daughter, Ahmose-Meritamon, was the wife of Amenhotep I. Ahmose-Nefertari has a statue at Karnak, which her grandson Thuthmosis sponsored. She was the first to hold the title of “God’s Wife of Amun.” Ahmose-Nefertari is often depicted with dark brown or black skin. Scholars disagree on whether this portrayal is about African ancestry or a symbol of fertility.
Ashotep (1560–1530 B.C.)
Scholars have little historical record of Ashotep. She is thought to have been the mother of Ahmose I, the founder of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty and New Kingdom, who defeated the Hyksos (foreign rulers of Egypt). Ahmose I credited her in an inscription with holding the nation together during his rule as a child pharaoh when she seems to have been regent for her son. She may also have led troops in battle at Thebes, but the evidence is scant.
Sobeknefru (Died 1802 B.C.)
Sobeknefru (aka Neferusobek, Nefrusobek, or Sebek-Nefru-Meryetre) was the daughter of Amenemhet III and half-sister of Amenemhet IV— and perhaps also his wife. She claimed to have been co-regent with her father. The dynasty ends with her reign, as she apparently had no son. Archaeologists have found images that refer to Sobeknefru as Female Horus, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, and Daughter of Re.
Only a few artifacts have been positively linked to Sobeknefru, including a number of headless statues that depict her in female clothing but wearing male objects related to kingship. In some ancient texts, she is sometimes referred to in terms using the male gender, perhaps to reinforce her role as pharaoh.
Neithhikret (Died 2181 B.C.)
Neithhikret (aka Nitocris, Neith-Iquerti, or Nitokerty) is known only through the writings of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. If she existed, she lived at the end of the dynasty, may have been married to a husband who was not royal and may not even have been a king, and probably had no male offspring. She may have been the daughter of Pepi II. According to Herodotus, she is said to have succeeded her brother Metesouphis II upon his death, and then to have avenged his death by drowning his murderers and committing suicide.
Ankhesenpepe II (Sixth Dynasty, 2345–2181 B.C.)
Little biographical information is known about Ankhesenpepe II, including when she was born and when she died. Sometimes referred to as Ankh-Meri-Ra or Ankhnesmeryre II, she may have served as regent for her son, Pepi II, who was about six when he assumed the throne after Pepi I (her husband, his father) died. A statue of Ankhnesmeryre II as nurturing mother, holding the hand of her child, is on display at the Brooklyn Museum.
Khentkaus (Fourth Dynasty, 2613–2494 B.C.)
According to archaeologists, Khentkaus has been characterized in inscriptions as the mother of two Egyptian pharaohs, probably Sahure and Neferirke of the Fifth Dynasty. There is some evidence that she may have served as regent for her young sons or perhaps ruled Egypt herself for a brief time. Other records suggest she was married either to the ruler Shepseskhaf of the Fourth Dynasty or to Userkaf of the Fifth Dynasty. However, the nature of records from this period in ancient Egyptian history is so fragmentary as to make confirming her biography impossible.
Nimaethap (Third Dynasty, 2686–2613 B.C.)
Ancient Egyptian records refer to Nimaethap (or Ni-Maat-Heb) as the mother of Djoser. He was probably the second king of the Third Dynasty, the period during which the upper and lower kingdoms of ancient Egypt were unified. Djoser is best known as the builder of the step pyramid at Saqqara. Little is known about Nimaethap, but records indicate that she may have ruled briefly, perhaps while Djoser was still a child.
Meryt-Neith (First Dynasty, approx. 3200–2910 B.C.)
Meryt-Neith (aka Merytneith or Merneith) was the wife of Djet, who ruled around 3000 B.C. She was laid to rest in the tombs of other First Dynasty pharaohs, and her burial site contained artifacts usually reserved for kings—including a boat to travel to the next world—and her name is found on seals listing the names of other First Dynasty pharaohs. However, some seals refer to Meryt-Neith as the mother of the king, while others imply that she herself was a ruler of Egypt. The dates of her birth and death are unknown.