When the Greeks ruled Egypt in the first century B.C., they stressed education for both royal boys and girls. Cleopatra and her sisters received the same education as their brothers in case one of the girls would rule Egypt. Living in the city of Alexandria, home of a great library, Cleopatra had access to the best teachers and great works of literature.
First, young Cleopatra chanted the Greek alphabet. When she successfully learned the alphabet, she traced its letters on a wooden tablet. Teachers then gave her difficult words to read aloud so she would learn syllables. Like children today, Cleopatra knew Aesop’s fables well. Sometimes teachers in the first century B.C. assigned a tale to their students and asked them to retell it aloud. Public speaking skills were highly regarded at the time, and historians have remarked on Cleopatra’s ability to speak well in front of others.
As Cleopatra grew up, she decided that she would also learn to speak and read Egyptian. Amazingly, there is no record of previous Greek rulers of Egypt learning the language of the people they governed. This was probably because Egyptian writing was so complex. Cleopatra, however, did not want to rely on others to interpret what the Egyptians were saying.
Historians state that Cleopatra learned languages easily; one says that she could speak nine of them. Ancient historian Plutarch said that “It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another.” By receiving a good education, Cleopatra communicated easily with other rulers when she became queen of Egypt.
Although the Egyptian empire did not completely crumble under the leadership of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs, the Amarna period beginning with the pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1353-1335 BC) was nevertheless characterized by a combination of diplomacy and neglect towards its neighboring territories. As a consequence, Egypt’s influence in the more remote regions it owned declined. Seti I (ca. 1306-1290 BC), however, introduced a new style of foreign relations during his reign in the early Nineteenth Dynasty. For example, battles were fought to extend Egypt’s sphere of influence in Syria. Seti wanted the people in his territories to see the might of the pharaoh rather than simply telling them to behave through letters as some of his predecessors had done. Seti’s campaigns were designed to reassert Egypt’s control over her empire and to retake areas that Egypt had lost to her enemies.
Shortly after his second year as pharaoh, he accomplished something his more famous son, Ramesses II, could not. During the reign of the pharaoh Tutankhamen, the city of Kadesh was lost to the people of Hatti, known as the Hittites. Seti, seen at Karnak in his role as an archer, successfully defeated the enemy at Kadesh. The Hittites did not mount a good offense to the attack on Kadesh, most likely because a major part of the Hittite army at the time was involved in a border dispute with the Assyrians to the east. In fact, the king of the Hittites does not appear in the battle scenes which show Seti regaining Kadesh. Instead, an ultimately ineffective combination of Syrian and Hittite soldiers was sent to meet the pharaoh’s challenge. Nevertheless, the Hittites did try to put up a fight after their losses. The scene on the battle relief at Karnak is described as “the vile land of the Hittites, among whom His Majesty…made a great heap of corpses.” In battle Seti is “a mighty bull, with sharp horns, stout-hearted, who smashes the Asiatics and tramples the Hittites; who slays their chiefs as they lie prostrate in their blood; who enters into them like a blast of fire.” The next scene illustrates the return march to Egypt with prisoners from the campaign.
Kadesh remained under Egyptian control for a short time; however, it eventually reverted to the Hittites without any military challenge from Egypt. Seti had the same problem with Syria as his predecessors—Syria was too far away from Egypt for him to maintain consistent control over the area. As the Hittites regained control over much of Syria, the stage was set for a future confrontation between Seti’s son, Ramesses II and Hatti’s new king. In the meantime, the Hittites and the Egyptians entered into a period of cold war, mainly because of Seti’s pride. Egypt did not actually need Kadesh—it had no supplies or overland trade routes that were vital to the country’s survival–but the king viewed retaining Kadesh as a matter of honor. As a result, although he would later reopen trade with other former foes, Seti refused to trade with the Hittites.
Although it is somewhat understandable that historians have devoted much attention to the achievements of Seti’s extremely long-lived son Ramesses II, Seti I deserves more than a just few paragraphs in the history books.
The religious titles and duties held by ancient Egyptian women seemed to give them status in their society. Yet many religious duties were closed to women. Except in extreme cases of emergency and one takeover by female pharaoh Hatchepsut, pharaohs were always male; this had important consequences for religious Egyptian women. The pharaoh stood atop the Egyptian hierarchy in government as well as religion. Since the pharaoh was considered half god and half man, he functioned as an intermediary between the gods and the people and he was also the only official priest of all the gods. Women could never aspire to the rank of chief priest, but they held other respected positions such as priestess. Although large numbers of women in the Old and Middle Kingdoms served as priestesses of the goddess Hathor, their role remained limited. For example, priestesses carried out rituals and feasts, but unlike male priests, did not hold administrative positions. The priestesses were the wives of important officials—mayors, senior civil servants—positions only held by men. Ultimately, priestesses owed their position not to their abilities or religious faith, but to their husbands.
Another title women held in ancient Egyptian religion was God’s Wife of Amen, the main god of the ancient Egyptians. New Kingdom queens did not tend to serve as priestesses but they often held the title of God’s Wife of Amen. By the beginning of the New Kingdom, the title was handed down to kings’ daughters. In contrast to the priestesses of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the God’s Wife of Amen wielded considerable power. On the one hand, she occupied a respected religious position. Her power is described from a scene in one of Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s chapels: “She [the God’s Wife of Amun] is shown leading a group of male priests to the sacred lake of the temple for the ritual purification before entering the temple courts. They then proceeded to the sanctuary of the god where Hatshepsut as king performed the ceremonies in front of Amun with the god’s wife of Amun in attendance.” The God’s Wife of Amun was clearly the most powerful female religious figure at that time, since it was very unusual for a woman to lead male priests in their rituals and even more unusual for a woman to enter the inner sanctuary of a god. On the other hand, the God’s Wife of Amen also occupied an administrative position. For example, she controlled acres of land. Despite her privileges, the role of God’s Wife of Amen was limited—women could only acquire it by being a king’s daughter.
In addition to the titles of priestess and God’s Wife of Amen, ancient Egyptian women also became professional mourners and songstresses. The profession of mourner was open only to women. They were hired to express grief at funerals by beating their breasts, tearing at their hair and wailing. The fact that this position was reserved for women suggests that only women were capable of this kind of excessive grief which would be incompatible with the man’s role in Egyptian society.
Women of high birth had another option in religious life of the New Kingdom—they could become songstresses. This office gave considerable respect to its bearer. The title shemayet or chantress was the most common one for elite women in the New Kingdom. For example, every woman of status at Thebes was a “chantress of Amen.” This was not a position that any woman could acquire without a wealthy husband. The job of the songstresses was to please the gods and goddesses and to communicate with them but not much is known about their duties. Considering the positions of priestess, God’s Wife of Amen, and professional mourners, the temple songstresses probably had no more authority in this male-dominated society than they did.
Recommended books: Daughters of Isis by Joyce Tyldesley and Silent Images by Zahi Hawass
Egyptian goddesses portrayed women’s passive role in the community. Each goddess, regardless of her popularity or the power she sometimes exerted, reinforced the Egyptian female ideal who bore children and obeyed her husband. One goddess who fit the description of the ideal woman was Isis. The myth of Isis says that when the god Seth betrayed her husband Osiris and tore him to pieces, Isis and sister Nephthys gathered his remains and made Osiris whole again. Isis conceived a son named Horus with the resurrected Osiris. As a mother and a wife, Isis was particularly important to women. Isis was frequently invoked to protect children because she used her magical powers to hide her newborn son Horus in the marsh away from the jealous Seth. Isis and Horus were also frequently called upon to ensure a safe delivery for a woman in labor. Prayers and spells such as “For speeding up the child-birth of Isis” could be recited during a difficult delivery. Clearly Isis must have possessed great magical powers to resurrect her husband and protect her child, yet she still conformed to the ancient Egyptian feminine ideal.
Although occasionally less benevolent than Isis, the goddess Hathor also acted the part of the model Egyptian woman. Hathor was the goddess of love and music who was often depicted as a cow because of her role as a nurturer and provider. The importance of Hathor was emphasized by her identification with royalty. The pharaoh could be identified with many gods, but he was often referred to as the son of the sun-god Re. As his wife, the queen wore the sun disc and horns of Hathor, who was the daughter of Re. Though the queen was the woman most directly associated with Hathor, ordinary people could call on Hathor for protection. One mother invoked Hathor to be present at a birth: “Rejoicing, rejoicing in heaven, in heaven! Birth giving is accelerated! Come to me, Hathor, in my fine pavilion, in this happy hour.” Hathor’s powers, like those of Isis, were used to protect women. Although these powers were vast, they never directly impacted the male worlds of politics and war.
The ancient Egyptians viewed many of their goddesses as potentially good as well as potentially evil. Hathor could be either benevolent or destructive. The popularity of the nurturing version of Hathor reflected society’s idealized woman, but the Egyptians realized that even the nurturing mother could become violent. Goddesses were not always cast in traditionally feminine roles. Hathor’s destructive counterpart was Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of war and sickness. When the god Re wished to destroy mankind he sent Sekhmet to carry out his wish. He later changed his mind but Sekhmet refused to stop, relishing the destruction she was causing. Re checked Sekhmet by getting her drunk and mankind was saved. Significantly, a male god stops Sekhmet’s plans, suggesting that regardless of her powers, no woman can override the wishes of a man.