Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt is a collaboration between Richard Wilkinson, who is Regent’ Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Director of the Egyptian Expedition at the University of Arizona, and some of the most recognizable names in current Egyptology.
Written for a general audience, but with all the details a specialist looks for in a good book, Tausret is one of those books that will teach you about Egyptology while entertaining you with an adventure. But it’s not the sort of swashbuckling adventure you might get with, say Belzoni. It’s more of a detective story, spread out over a lot of detectives.
The first chapter—Foremost of Women—looks at the historical context in which Tausret and her reign must be considered. What were the traditional roles of queens in Egypt and how did that evolve over time? What was a “pharaoh” and how did that differ from a “king” in a more general sense? To understand how not just one, but at least three powerful women in Egypt’s long history came to be called pharaoh requires an understanding of what Egypt’s Number One political and religious figure meant to the ancients.
The selection of Joyce Tyldesley to author this chapter deserves a “well done” all of its own. Em Hotep readers, being the Egypto-Literati that you are, are well familiar with Dr. Tyldesley from her biographies of Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra, as well as her more general work—Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt. Dr. Tyldesley’s formidable knowledge base sets the tone for the rest of the book very aptly, and Dr. Wilkinson’s choice of her to locate Tausret’s place in the broader history of Egyptian women was astute.
After a brief discussion of the institution of queenship in ancient Egypt, Dr. Tyldesley takes us into a more detailed treatment during some of the major epochs—Predynastic, Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom—with special attention given to the divisions of the New Kingdom Period, and closes with the Ptolemaic. Before Tausret, we are introduced in turn to the other two women known to have been called Pharaoh: Sobeknefru of the Middle Kingdom Period and Hatshepsut of the brilliant Eighteenth Dynasty. We also become acquainted with some of the other powerful women of the Eighteenth as well as the Ramesside years, as these were the women whose stories led directly to Tausret and her day.
By looking at the evolution of both kingship and queenship in ancient Egypt we get an idea of how female regents were often called upon to fill roles traditionally associated with their male counterparts, such as rallying the troops during times of war. Beginning with Queen Ahhotep at the end of the Second Intermediate Period, and the inauguration of the new office of God’s Wife of Amun at the dawn of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the New Kingdom would be a time of expanded (although not entirely unprecedented) power for royal Egyptian women. Seeing her in this context, we come to an understanding of how Tausret felt no only entitled, but obliged to step into the role of pharaoh.
The second chapter goes specifically into the life and reign of Tausret and tightens the focus on her time and place in an Egypt that was increasingly becoming a part of a larger world. Written by Gae Callender, whose work with the Nineteenth Dynasty and Tausret in particular informs the chapter from beginning to end, the chapter opens with a convincing (I believe) case for Tausret being referenced in Homer’s Odyssey in the person of “King” Thuoris (Polybus in Homer) whose time and length of reign coincide with those of Tausret.
From there Dr. Callender plunges us into the entanglement of Amenmesse’s challenge to Seti II’s succession to the throne. This quarrel, which seems to have divided even the workers of Deir el-Medina against one another, foreshadows other plots to come. We next review the reign of Siptah, who for a variety of possible reasons was placed under the charge and regency of Tausret. There are a lot of potential reasons for why queens were often placed into the position of co-regent, with the assumption that queens would not become a contender to the throne being chief among them. As we have seen, and will see again, that didn’t always work out the way the various committees had planned it, and a variety of unseen circumstances can complicate even the best contingencies.
Cue Chancellor Bey’s theme music…
Bey is a character unto himself, larger than life and beyond the scope of this review. Having risen from the ranks of scribe and royal butler, Bey was a self-described “foreigner from that northern land.” Did he actually hail from the Near East, or was he simply making a tongue in cheek reference to not being a part of any Theban clique? We are not sure. But he claimed to have made the pharaoh (Siptah) who he was, and managed to insert himself into the royal family as a third wheel between Tausret and her young charge.
Did Bey, a commoner by birth, see the co-regency as an opportunity to slip in and inaugurate a new dynasty? Somebody eventually would, but it wouldn’t be Bey. He seems to have outstayed his welcome and was executed by Siptah. Or Tausret. You’ll have to read the book. The rest of the chapter is devoted to tracing Tausret’s assumption to the Throne of the Two Lands after the untimely death of Siptah.
Tausret’s reign would last at least eight years, possibly as many as eleven, and in many ways mirror those of Sobeknefru and Hatshepsut. Dr. Callender examines these, as well as the many ways in which Tausret was unique. I was personally intrigued to learn that the story of Tausret, Siptah, and Bey was more Shakespearean than we had originally imagined. What begins as part of an epic closes for Siptah and Bey as a tragedy, and begins Tausret’s romance with Egypt.
Chapter Three examines Tausret’s story from the perspective of her monuments. Written by Catherine H. Roehig, Curator of Egyptian Art at the Met, this chapter begins with an examination of Tausret’s tomb (KV14) which is amazing for many reasons, not the least of which is its location in the Valley of the Kings. This fact adds to the picture of a Lady Pharaoh whose rule was generally accepted by her people, at least during her lifetime.
Dr. Roehig goes on to examine the interpretation and implications of Tausret’s statuary and her depiction in the Temple of Amada in Nubia, which again attests to the extent of her rule. We return briefly to her tomb (it gets its own chapter a little later) which went through its primary building phase when Siptah was subordinate to Tausret, and her iconography makes the dynamics of this relationship subtly clear in various ways, which are explained.
The rest of Chapter Three is given over to tombs, temples, and treasures whose motifs depict Tausret in her roles as both regent and ruler. A recurring theme, and one which convinces me that Tausret was a strong character who maintained her personal identity even as she was presenting a strong front for her people (and against her plotters), is her insistence on being portrayed in all her femininity. “Had she ruled as long as Hatshepsut, perhaps her images would have taken on the aspect of the ideal Egyptian king—a young man in the prime of life. Maybe not” (p. 66). Having survived the dramas of Amenmesse and Bey, I just don’t see Tausret giving one unnecessary inch—and to be sure, there would have been a few she had to give—of her identity over for the sake of appeasing powerful men.
Chapter Four is dedicated entirely to Tausret’s fantastic tomb, one of the largest in the Valley of the Kings. Written by Hartwig Altenmuller, whose excavations in the Valley of the Kings includes both Tausret’s and Bey’s tombs, this chapter takes us more deeply into Pharaoh Tausret’s Palace for Eternity. With KV14 we find that the more we learn about how to read an ancient Egyptian tomb, the more we learn about Tausret and her peers. We recently learned, for example, that Tausret was the Great Royal Wife of Seti II, not Siptah, and knowing these details are important in not only tracing familial and political relations, but with setting accurate dates.
Tombs tell stories, and sprinkled among the sacred iconography we find personal details both explicitly and implicitly revealed. Even the graffiti and the purposeful defacement which followed her reign fill out the personal and national biography of this remarkable pharaoh. Dr. Altenmuller traces out the construction history of Tausret’s tomb and what that tells us about her standing during different phases of her career. In the end, we see how that age-old Egyptian tradition of tomb appropriation, in this case by Ramesses III, helped not only legitimize her successor, but the dynasty that followed.
The final chapter, The “Temple of Millions of Years” of Tausret, was written by Dr. Richard Wilkinson himself, and as Director of the Egyptian Expedition, rightly so. Like the perfect rug in a favorite room, Chapter Five ties it all together and brings us up to date. We start by catching a few things Petrie missed in his original survey of the site, and how a casual dismissal here and there can “sidetrack generations of archaeologists.” Incidentally, it also shows that ‘Nothing to see here’ can sometimes conceal amazing things.
The story of Tausret’s temple and its discovery is not one of treasure hunters hauling up masterpieces of statuary, or narrow beams of torchlight reflecting back gold. It is the tale of dedicated researchers and their students, of piles of backfill sifted through varying gauges of screen, and hours in the sun and dust marking out trenches passed over by millennia of traffic. People like Flinders Petrie are revered for their foundational contributions to the field, and deservedly so. But even the areas such masters have proclaimed tapped may in fact contain volumes of history waiting to be recorded. The gradual, methodical revelation of Tausret’s temple is an example of why the book on any site can never be considered closed.
Dr. Wilkinson’s book does close, however, with an afterward by him and Catherine Roehig.
Although Tausret’s reign seems to have ended abruptly and to have been followed by the usurpation of her tomb and the destruction of her temple, the queen’s name lived on—if tenuously—in later texts. But resurrection of the memory of Tausret would not occur for another three thousand years.
Research continues and we have not learned all that there is to learn from this site. I very highly recommend this volume for your collection, especially if you are, as I am, interested in the history of women from all levels of ancient Egypt’s social strata.
If you want to contribute directly to the Tausret Temple Project’s work, you can do so by purchasing the companion volume, The Temple of Tausret: The University of Arizona Egyptian Expedition Tausret Temple Project, 2004—2011, directly from the university, at the link provided below. This is a separate book which provides a summary of the expedition’s work with the temple and includes a CD ROM with additional material. The proceeds from this book help fund the Expedition’s ongoing work.
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2012. All rights reserved.