Sobekneferu was an Egyptian king who ruled between 1806 and 1802 BC. She is widely credited with being the first woman to take the title of king, and to rule the kingdom alone.
Family background and succession
Born to Pharaoh Amenemhat III during the last decades of the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom era, Sobekneferu was one of at least three siblings in line to the throne. Her brother Amenemhat IV reigned after his father’s death, but he died young and left no heir.
The role of king might well have gone next to Sobekneferu’s older sister Neferuptah, had she not died at a young age; when the young woman was buried, her name was inscribed within a royal cartouche and she was celebrated with a pyramid at Hawara. Yet there is no record of her assuming the throne. Instead, that distinction passed to the younger sister, Sobekneferu.
Sobekneferu, King of Egypt
Her name means ‘the beauty of Sobek’, after the crocodile god. At the time of her reign, crocodiles were an important symbol of reverence and the city of Faiyum (later named ‘Crocodilopolis’ by the Greeks) was a hub of social, economic and religious importance during the Twelfth Dynasty.
Between 1806 and 1802 BC, Sobekneferu took sole control of the Egyptian throne. Other females had served as leaders through previous dynasties, but they had always acted alongside male rulers, or on behalf of them. Sobekneferu was the first woman who took on the title of pharaoh, or king, and served as head of state. In records referring to Sobekneferu, male and female titles are used interchangeably.
Was she really the first female ‘king’ of Egypt?
Hatshepsut was once described by historian and Egyptologist James Henry Breasted as “the first great woman in history of whom we are informed”. Indeed, for many years archaeologists and scholars presumed she had been the first woman to lead Egypt. However, modern research has uncovered many more tales of women who reigned in Ancient Egypt, including mothers who acted as regent and leader while their sons were underage.
Sobekneferu stands out as the first woman to reign in her own right, rather than as a co-ruler or acting agent for another. Breadsted is right in his assessment: while women held prominent positions for centuries before the civilisations of ancient Egypt were formed, history has always tended to favour the stories of men. It seems the problem we are trying to combat with this blog has existed for many millennia!
End of reign and death
The Turin Canon of Egyptian royal hierarchy puts Sobekneferu’s reign at exactly 3 years, 10 months and 24 days. She died in 1802 BC, leaving no children to inherit her throne – and no surviving siblings either. Her death therefore ushered in the end of the Twelfth Dynasty, with the Thirteenth Dynasty widely accepted as starting when Sekhemre Khutawy Sobekhotep I assumed the throne. This period saw a far weaker Egypt emerge, being merely a shadow of the one Sobekneferu had lived in and ruled over.
Evidence of Sobekneferu’s life
A tomb in Mazghuna has been identified as belonging to Amenemhat IV, Sobekneferu’s brother. Close to this is a similar complex, dated slightly later, which could belong to the female king. A scroll from that time describes a pyramid at a place named Sekhem-Neferu, which could be the final resting place of the deceased monarch.
There are also several statues thought to be of Sobekneferu: certainly they are of a daughter of Amenemhat III. Most are without heads, making identification difficult. They portray a woman wearing noble clothing, with a mix of male and female attributes.
There was one statue which survived until the 20th century (pictured), located for many years at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. Unfortunately it was lost during World War II, and now only pictures and casts of the original remain. The British Museum also holds Sobekneferu’s royal seal, and inscriptions still in situ in Egypt make reference to events during her reign.
Though women ruling nations was not unheard of before Sobekneferu, she was the first Egyptian woman to rule on the same terms as her male counterparts. This made her something of a trailblazer: for the following millennium and more, many females reigned under birthright or marriage as pharaoh, or king. Sobekneferu herself had little impact on the history books, but she paved the way for powerful female monarchs who followed her – including Nefertiti, Hatshepsut and of course, Cleopatra.
Image via Wikipedia.org