Ahhotep – Egypt’s Forgotten Warrior Queen

The darkest days of Egypt tested the country’s women as much as its men. Seqenenre, Kamose, and Ahmose are all well-known for their struggles against the Hyksos invaders, and we have detailed them here. One woman, however, stood in the gaps often left by her husband and sons. Multiple times, Queen Ahhotep was the only one standing in the way of Egypt’s demise. Could this woman be a warrior and a mighty ruler, capable of keeping the Hyksos (and other nefarious agents) at bay during a moment of crisis?

Background

We have already discussed the Hyksos invasion of Egypt and why it succeeded. Seqenenre Tao, who rose the standard of revolt against the hated Hyksos, met death in battle. Kamose saw success. His campaigns were the first time in nearly a century that the Egyptians proved themselves capable of standing up to the Hyksos invaders. Yet, flush with his triumphs, Kamose died in the third year of his reign. His successor, his younger brother Ahmose, was only a 10-year-old boy when he came to the throne of Egypt.That meant that at this critical juncture, the Queen Mother, Ahhotep, ruled the country as regent.

How could a mere woman be able to hold the tide of the Hyksos and their southern ally, the Kushites?

Ahhotep, The Warrior Queen

Unfortunately, the records from the 10 years between Kamose’s death and the start Ahmose’s personal rule (the years of Ahhotep’s regency) are cloudy. Nevertheless, there is a stela which speaks volumes about her achievements. We quoted it before and will again:

The king’s wife, the noble lady, who knew everything, assembled Kemet. She looked after what her Sovereign had established. She guarded it. She assembled her fugitives. She brought together her deserters. She pacified her Upper Egyptians. She subdued her rebels, The king’s wife Ahhotep given life.

What had her Sovereign established? This translation probably means the army that Seqenenre created or augmented. “She has looked after her soldiers,” would be another way of translating that stela.

These are unique descriptions for a queen. Hatshepsut would depict herself as a warrior in the typical scenes that began with Narmer, but she ruled as a king. Ahhotep never had such ambitions (or in a more negative interpretation, never had an intention of usurping her charge’s throne). She was a woman and never assumed male roles and responsibilities in the way Hatshepsut did.

Extraordinary events must have taken place, then, for Ahhotep to get such a description.

It seems likely that a rebellion broke out in Theban territory as a result of the power vacuum following Kamose’s death. The Hyksos would have been happy to sponsor one and they must have played a role in supporting it. Ahhotep subdued this rebellion and pacified Upper Egypt, most of which was controlled by Thebes. This was likely the reason why the hostilities between the Hyksos and Egyptians came to a lull during the decade of her regency. She sent a strong message to her enemies. Her victory must have been swift and decisive. It is doubtful that Ahhotep actually took to the battlefield, but she must have taken quick action and had an ability to pick capable officers.

She also must have restored morale within the dejected Egyptian army. It would have been hit after suffering the loss of its leader Kamose, who reversed almost a century of humiliation. Swift victory has a way of lightening the mood. Her fugitives and deserters might or might not have been treated with leniency. The famous treaty between Ramesses II and the Hittites 300 years later suggests that they may not have been treated as badly as one might imagine:

If a (man flees from the country of Reamasesa, the Great King, king of the country of Egypt), or two men, or three men, and if they come (to Hattusili, the Great King), the king of the country of Hatti, my brother, then Hattusili, the Great King, king of the country of Hatti, my brother, has to take hold of them and to order them to be taken to Reamasesa, the Great King, the king of the country of Egypt, because Reamasesa, the Great King, king of the country of Egypt, and Hattusili are brothers. As for their crime, it should not be imputed; their language and their eyes are not to be pulled out; their ears and their feet are not to cut off; their houses with their wives and their children are not to be destroyed.

Perhaps those fugitives would get punished later, but there is a surprising sense of fairness here. The language on Ahhotep’s stela, like “assembled” and “brought together,” doesn’t suggest harsh treatment, either. Recall, the Egyptians weren’t exactly hesitant to describe severe punishments to enemies of the king. Perhaps Ahhotep offered terms to fugitives and deserters to get back into her good graces if they would swear their loyalty and fight for her. In the war against the Hyksos, Egypt needed every capable man.

Unless we uncover more documentary evidence, we won’t know for sure, but it doesn’t seem likely that Ahhotep executed the deserters and fugitives, or treated them harshly. That the stela distinguishes between them and the rebels is telling.

Either way, Ahhotep successfully stabilized the situation and sent a message that gave Apophis, the Hyksos king, some pause. Both fronts quieted and Ahmose’s minority enjoyed an undeclared truce between the Egyptians, Hyksos, and Kushites.

By the time Ahmose came of age, he was fully prepared to resume the war on good terms for Egypt. This is the biggest testament to the warrior queen’s success. She had successfully guided her country through a vulnerable decade.

Ahhotep
Ahhotep’s Sarcophagus

Ahhotep, the Queen Mother

Ahmose’s majority and personal rule meant the end of his mother’s regency, but she still played a vital role in Egyptian politics. After Ahmose defeated the Hyksos, he turned his attention south to their ally, the Nubian Kingdom of Kush. During the 12th Dynasty, Egypt controlled Nubia up to the Nile’s Second Cataract. Ahmose intended to restore Egyptian control to that point and then some. He began the reconquest that Thutmose I and Thutmose III would complete decades later.

The reconquest of Nubia wasn’t easy. The Egyptians needed to fight many hard campaigns there. One particularly tough opponent in Nubia, an Egyptian who hated the new dynasty, earned the name “Teti-en,” or “Teti the Handsome.” To quote Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, he must have been a particularly formidable foe to earn such a title, since the Egyptians usually just liked to degrade their enemies with epithets like “that fallen one.” It gives a sense of how thorny the rebellions in Nubia were to the early 18th Dynasty.

During one of these campaigns in Nubia, unrest broke out in Thebes. A group of Hyksos sympathizers seems to have attempted a coup. The Queen Mother was likely put in charge of the city in her son’s absence, and much as before, she quashed this disturbance. For her role in this, Ahmose awarded her a golden fly necklace, which was a reward for military valor.

Many of Ahhotep’s other grave goods are of a military nature as well, including a ceremonial dagger and battle axe. These grave goods are unique for a woman and suggest how truly pivotal Ahhotep was to Egypt’s liberation.

Ahhotep grave goods

The Golden Years of the Warrior Queen

Ahhotep survived her son Ahmose and lived into advanced age. She remained an important figure in the reign of her grandson, Amenhotep I. Past him, she acted as steward to the queen (another Ahmose) during the reign of Thutmose I. She died sometime afterward, after an extraordinary life which we wish we knew much more about. Unfortunately, her mummy was probably destroyed by the 19th century archaeologists in Egypt, but her name and glory survive 3,500 years later.

Not many people can say that they did everything wanted and needed to do in one lifetime. Ahhotep did, under the most trying circumstances imaginable. In our own dark time, with people looking for hope, Ahhotep is a good role model. You might secure your own glory by doing what she would do.

You can find many other good role models, spanning 5,000 years, in Lives of the Luminaries.

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