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Exhibition Spotlights Women Who Were Queens of Egypt at Grimaldi Forum Monaco

MONACO.- Although endless exhibitions have been devoted to the subject, the Grimaldi Forum Monaco is going one unprecedented step further by being the first to turn the spotlight on those women who were Queens of Egypt through a 4000m² exhibition.

The exhibition curator, Christiane Ziegler has collected together nearly 250 incomparable exhibits to illustrate the subject exhibits loaned by the world's most important museums in Cairo, New York, Berlin, Munich, London, Turin, Moscow etc and of course by the Louvre, where until May 2007 Ms Ziegler ran the prestigious Egyptian antiquities department.

The spectacular display is designed by François Payet, who recreated Imperial Saint Petersburg for the Grimaldi Forum's 2004 exhibition chronicling the city's history from the reign of Peter the Great to that of Catherine the Great.

The story unfolds theme by theme as visitors advance through the exhibition. Although the function of Egypt’s queens changed over the centuries, some features were unvarying: the status of women, the status of the royal family, women's living environment, their religious role, the symbols used in portrayals of them. These are the themes around which the main sections of the exhibition are built.

But exhibition curator Christiane Ziegler also wanted to spotlight major figures such as Hatshepsut, Tiy, Nefertari and Cleopatra. They have found their place in the exhibition, along with the mythical aspect of Egypt's queens that still sets us dreaming.

The exhibition starts with Cleopatra, the most popular Egyptian queen although she was actually of Greek origin. From the mythical image of Cleopatra now so familiar from films and advertising we move on to the historical figure revealed by archaeology and documents. The exhibition ends with another queen, less familiar to the general public: Queen Tausert whose tomb can now be visited in the Valley of Kings. She was the inspiration for Théophile Gautier’s well-known novel The Romance of a Mummy.

Between these two, the exhibition takes visitors on a fabulous journey of discovery through Ancient Egypt and the many facets of its royal women. First, their social status. Their titles were based on their relationship to the reigning king: they were called “mother of the king” or “wife of the king”; in some cases a pharaoh gave the title of “wife of the king” to a daughter, otherwise princesses were “daughters of the king”. Visitors are shown how the pharaoh’s close links with several generations of women probably derive from Egyptian mythology, the mother/wife/daughter association being a symbol of perpetual creation. Thus the Egyptian queens played a fundamental role in the renewal of royal power and in the pharaoh’s survival in the afterlife.

We then enter one of the most famous harems, at Gurob. Christiane Ziegler has entrusted this section to her assistant Marine Yoyotte, who is writing a doctorate thesis on the subject. The king had many secondary wives, some of whom were foreign princesses taken in marriage to strengthen alliances with neighbouring powers. Most of the royal household’s women and children lived together in institutions usually referred to as harems. A harem was both a centre of social activity and an economic hub, by no means shielded from the turbulence of political life. Echoes of palace plots hatched there from the age of the pyramids on have come down to us through the centuries.

The next section focuses on the image of the queen. Portrayals of queens extol their beauty according to an aesthetic ideal that varied from one era to another. With very few exceptions the queens are shown in the bloom of youth, the luxury and refinement that surrounded them reflected in their clothing, an abundance of jewellery and the toiletry items with which they enhanced their beauty. Like the pharaoh, the queen mother and the pharaoh’s “great royal wife” were distinguished from common mortals by symbols borrowed from the gods.

The exhibition then shows the queens’ religious role. Scenes of worship show queens performing rites alongside their pharaohs; using all their charms to please the gods, they shake sacred musical instruments rhythmically to create sounds pleasing to divine ears. Their presence reflects a theology in which the royal wife is truly the “other half” of the pharaoh, guarantor of balance in the world. We discover the particular importance of the queens and princesses known as “divine adoratrices of the god Amun”. These priestesses of Amun in Thebes became increasingly important over time. In the first millennium BC they were the primary religious authority and possessed considerable wealth. At that period they took a vow of celibacy and the succession was passed down by adoption; each conqueror appointed his daughter to this strategic position. Lastly, some queens, including Ahmes Nefertari whom we meet here, were deified after death. Nefertari was worshipped during the time of the Ramses, mainly on the left bank at Thebes. She was often worshipped in the company of her son, Amenhotep I.

Did the queens exert a real influence on the governance of the country? This is the theme of the next section in the exhibition, addressed through several examples. Queen Tiy’s royal husband Amenhotep III seems to have listened to her advice and she conducted diplomatic correspondence with the greatest sovereigns of her time. Aahhotep, mother of Ahmose, probably acted as regent during a time of political upheaval. Hatshepsut is one of the few queens to have held absolute power, adopting the titles and appearance of a pharaoh. The Nubian example of the Kandakes, or “black queens”, of Meroe in modern Sudan shows that during some periods there was genuine power-sharing in the Nile valley.

I . The myth: Cleopatra
In the Western imagination, the Queen of Egypt is incarnated in Cleopatra. Why has she remained the most famous of all? The Romans have handed her story down to us in which all the ingredients of success are combined: love, power, wealth, dramatic death….Numerous artists have elaborated on this theme, taking inspiration from Pharaonic models popularised by scientific publications, but often situating the scenes in a dreamed Orient. Even today, the cinema, advertising and comics successfully exploit this mythical figure.

Paradoxically, however, the best-known Queen of Egypt is a Greek descendant of Alexander’s generals. She is heir to a long line of attested sovereigns from the end of the fourth millennium before Christ - at the time when the Pharaonic institution was born. Very few of the Queens of Egypt are familiar to the public: Hatchepsout, Nefertiti, Nefertari, etc. Cleopatra was the last Queen of Egypt and also the last Pharaoh, since she exercised personal power, which was very rare for women.

II . Mother, Wife or Daughter of the King: The Status of the Queens of Egypt
The title of Queen is composed in relation to the reigning king: she is “mother of the king” or wife of the king.” Some “daughters of the king” (a title we would translate as “princess”) were given the title “wife of the king” by their father. All belong to this female galaxy surrounding the Pharaoh in which each daughter of the king can become wife and sister of the king, then mother of the king. Clearly, the Pharaoh’s intimate ties with several generations of women of the royal family must be sought in myths: the mother-wife-daughter association was conceived as a symbol of perpetual creation. For this reason, the Egyptian queens played a fundamental role in the renewal of royal power and in the survival of the Pharaoh in the beyond.

II.1.The Mother of the King
She has a very important place, is often seen at his sides and benefits from a specific cult. This major role appears starting from the time of the pyramids. At this time, theologians worked out the dogma of the divine nature of the sovereign, born of the union of a god with a woman. This is what is reported in a tale from the Westcar papyrus narrating the birth of three kings whose father is the sun god Rê and the mother a mere priestess: this wonder inaugurated a new dynasty. In the New Empire, the scenes of the theogamy sculpted on the walls of the temples (Deir el Bahari, Luxor, etc.) show the union of the queen and the god Amon who comes to visit her by borrowing the appearance of her husband, then the birth of the new king born of this mystical marriage.

II.2.The Grand Royal Wife
“She who sees Horus and Seth.” She is the mother of the heir prince. In principle, there is only one at a time. She can be seen beside the sovereign for the purpose of performing rites: sister or daughter of the king (problem of incest and of consanguine marriages). It is now known that royalty was not handed down by women, even though consanguine marriages strengthened the throne. According to the epoch and to personalities, the grand wife was more or less influential, and many of them remain unknown to us.

Example: Nefertari, grand wife of Ramses II, to whom a small temple in Abou Simbel was consecrated.

III . Secondary Wives, Harems and Concubines
Many Pharaohs married princesses of foreign origin, thus strengthening alliances with their neighbours. A rich treasure of gold plate coming from the tomb of three secondary wives of Thoutmosis III bears witness that they bore names of Syrian origin. Documents from the New Empire, the Annals of Thoutmosis III and diplomatic correspondence from Amarna show that a large number or oriental women – daughters of the Pharaoh’s vassals – were delivered to the Court as a pledge of their country’s loyalty. They were accompanied by an army of servants. There were thus a great number of women in the king’s entourage. What became of this multitude or women? The grand wives no doubt lived in the capitals with the Pharaoh. Queen mothers and grand wives had rich domains at their disposal with their own personnel. It is probable that favourites benefited from similar endowments. And most of the women in the household were grouped together in institutions customarily known as “harems.” In our contemporary acceptance, the term is not suitable, but we shall use it for want of a precise translation. Judging by older examples, the “harem” (ipet nesout) formed the private apartments of the king. Contrary to what might be imagined, it was not a place of reclusion for eunuchs and concubines. Queens, princes and princesses lived there freely in the company of ladies of the Court or as “royal ornaments” together with an army of servants, nannies, private tutors, hairdressers and musicians who lived there with their families. The harem of Gourob was also an economic centre where linen was weaved and where wood, ivory, earthenware and vividly coloured glass were worked.

It was also in the harem that, from the time of the pyramids, plots were woven, echoes of which have been handed down to us. The gamble was to conquer power.

IV . The image of the queen: feminine beauty and divine attributes
Representations of queens exalt their beauty in keeping with an ideal that changed over the epochs. Aside from very rare exceptions, they are portrayed in the bloom of youth in keeping with a convention peculiar to all Egyptian art. The luxury and refinement with which they are surrounded can be seen in the clothes, numerous jewels and toilet articles intended to enhance their beauty.

Like the Pharaoh, the mother of the king and his “royal grand wife” are distinguished from the rest of humanity by emblems borrowed from the gods. They wear the neret crown (vulture remains), the cobra-ureus, the double feather and the sign of life ankh, marking their divine aspect. Do these attributes simply reflect the exceptional intimacy shared by the women of the royal family with the sovereign, son of the gods? Or do they demonstrate that there existed a feminine counterpart to the divine concept of Pharaonic royalty? It is the latter aspect that has been brought to light by recent studies.

V .The Religious Role
Cult scenes frequently show queens performing rites alongside the Pharaoh. Using their charm to conciliate the gods, they wave musical instruments about rhythmically: sistrums and sacred rattles whose music pacified and thrilled the divinities; the menat, whose rows of pearls banging together produced a rustling sound soothing to divine ears. Offered to the gods, these objects were a token of renewal and strengthened the seduction of their owner, which the texts describe as “mistress of the sistrum,” “lady of the menat” and “whose pure hands hold the sistrum to charm her father Amon with her voice […].” A major religious event was the feast of Sed or royal jubilee. The rare representations that have been kept of bas reliefs in Thebes and in Soleb for Amenhetep III, another series in Bubastis for Osorkon III, grant an important place to the Grand royal wife. Thus, Tiy appears there behind her husband Amenhetep III “like the goddess Maât before the god Rê,” the texts tell us. The comparison between the royal couple and the divine couple that presided over the creation of the world is strengthened several years later in the Amarnian epoch during which the beautiful Nefertiti is omnipresent with Akhenaton: in religious scenes where the cult seems to be co-celebrated by the king and the queen accompanied by their daughters; in official scenes where the couple receives homage from foreign countries; in scenes from private life where the royal couple is shown tenderly embracing or exchanging a kiss. The ostentatious demonstration of love that unites the couple here takes on a universal value and becomes a manifestation of the creative energy of the demiurge – a token of renewal of the terrestrial world.

V.1. Queens or princesses: the divine worshippers
Whether queens or princesses, the divine worshippers of the god Amon saw, their importance grow with time. Priestesses of Amon and of Thebes, they represented the principal religious authority during the first millennium and owned considerable wealth. They were then sworn to celibacy and succeeded one another by adoption, each conqueror placing his daughter in this strategic position.

V.2. Deified queens: example – Ahmes Nfertari
Evocation of this queen to whom a cult was devoted during the epoch of Ramses, mainly on the left bank of Thebes. She is often worshipped in the company of her son, King Amenophis I.

VI . The Counsellor: example – Queen Tiy
Queen Tiy has a personality out of the ordinary. Her rather disdainful pout and her wilful expression give charm to a number of her statues. She is included in numerous monuments in the company of her husband, Amenophis III. A lettered queen (an ex-libris from papyri having been included in her library), she maintained diplomatic correspondence with the greatest sovereigns of her time. A temple was dedicated to her in Sedeinga in Nubia as a counterpart to the one erected in Soleb for Amenophis III. Having outlived her husband, she stayed in the new city of Amarna where she is shown in bas reliefs sharing the life of Akhenaton and Nefertiti.

VI.1. The Queen Regent: example – Queen Iahhotep
Amosis, sovereign founder of the 19th dynasty, exalts the merits of his mother, Iahhotep. The text, inscribed on a stele of the temple at Karnak, sheds light on the decisive role played by the queen when Amosis was quite young: beyond doubt, his mother exercised the regency during a troubled period. Archaeology confirms the written tradition: in the tomb of Iahhotep I, discovered during the 19th century, were included gold pendants in the form of flies – supreme reward ordinarily reserved to the most valorous combatants.

VI.2. The monarch: example – Queen Hatchepsout
She is one of the rare sovereign women to have exercised absolute power, borrowing the titles and appearance of the Pharaoh.

VI.3. Sharing of power
The Nubian example: the “candaces” or “black queens” of Meroe (Sudan)

VII . Epilogue: The novel of the mummy
Few tombs of queens have been found, and most of them have been pillaged. The only funerary trousseaux that remain intact are those of Hetepheres, mother of Cheops, which, it seems, were buried once again in the vicinity of the grand pyramid, and of Iahhetep I, whose sarcophagus was discovered by Mariette on the left bank of Thebes. However, archaeologists have unearthed burial places of concubines and of secondary wives: the princesses of Illahun and of Dachour in the Middle Empire; Thoutmosis III in the New Empire. Nefertari’s tomb with magnificent painted décor has revealed only insignificant vestiges. Thus, it’s vain to try to reconstitute the furniture of a queen’s tomb. We prefer to conclude with a reference to Queen Taousert, whose tomb was found in the Valley of the Kings and which inspired Théophile Gautier for his famous “Novel of the Mummy.”

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