Queen Sobekneferu: The First-Known Female Pharaoh of Egypt
Egypt during the era of the Middle Kingdom was widely prosperous. However, that all came to a halt when King Amenemhat IV suddenly passed away. Now plunged in a state of chaos, a new leader arose. And she was a female. Her name was Queen Sobekneferu.
Sobekneferu’s rise to the throne was unusual. This was mostly because she was a woman who lived in patriarchal society. Despite the opposition and circumstances, was the Crocodile Queen and first known-female pharaoh able to save Egypt and restore it to its former glory?
In the article below, WHE explores the history, reign, and notable accomplishments of Sobekneferu.
Family History & Birth
Sobekneferu was born during the age of the Middle Kingdom (1937-1759 BC). She was the daughter of King Amenemhat III and an unknown mother; however, her mother could have either been Aat and Khenemetneferhedjet II, who were the wives of the king.
Other variations of Sobekneferu’s name include Sobekkara, Neferusobek, and Nefrusobk. Her name, Sobekneferu, which is most likely the most popular variation, means “The beauties of Sobek.” Sobek was the crocodile god who in some myths is believed to be the creator of the Nile River.
It’s no surprise that she was named after the crocodile god, as the rulers during the 12th Dynasty had established the city of Fayoum as a center for all religious and economic activities. Many Egyptians living in the city raised crocodiles and revered them as the earthly manifestation of the crocodile god Sobek.
Sobekneferu had other siblings, including sisters Neferuptah and Hathorhotep, as well as a brother, Amenemhat IV. It is believed that the king groomed Neferuptah in preparation of her one day succeeding him after his death. Also, it was likely that Amenemhat IV was his grandson instead of his direct child. Hathorhotep’s direct lineage to the king was also unclear.
When Neferuptah died, the king named Amenemhat IV as his heir. Many historians remain unclear on the state of the relationship between Sobekneferu and Amenemhat IV. Although they were likely to be siblings, it was also possible that they married at some point. Back in ancient Egypt, incestuous marriages were very much common, as royal families desired to keep their lineage and power within the same bloodline.
Rise to Power
By the time of Amenemhat III’s death, Egypt was a prosperous kingdom and that continued after his heir, Amenemhat IV succeeded him. But the new king would only rule for nine years before his death. He had no male heirs and Sobekneferu was the only surviving member with the strongest claim to the throne.
However, it’s likely the first female king’s ascension to the throne might have been a little calculated. Two kings who later ruled in the 13th Dynasty, Sobekhotep I and Sonbef, were believed to have been the children of Amenemhat IV since they shared the second name “Amenemhat.” Therefore, it is likely that Sobekneferu might have forcefully taken the throne.
The Reign of the Crocodile Queen: Achievements & Major Opposition
Sobekneferu’s ascension to the throne following the death of her brother/husband Amenemhat IV made her the first-known female king of Egypt. Ever since the prehistoric era, no woman had ever been made full ruler over all Egyptians. In fact, the Egyptians believed that only men could rule because they believed male rulers were the physical depictions of Horus, the falcon god of the sky. Her ascension was therefore a monumental feat.
She was the first woman to receive the title “Pharaoh”, which set her apart from other female rulers who had ruled before her. Sobekneferu was also the first-known ruler who was connected to Sobek.
The untimely death of Amenemhat IV had plunged Egypt into a state of emergency. In ancient Egypt, it was common practice for women to take over the affairs of the state while a search for the next male ruler took place. These positions of power were usually temporary.
By the time Sobekneferu had assumed the throne, the Middle Kingdom was fast deteriorating. Previous leaders like her father and grandfather, Senusret III had developed and expanded Egypt. Senusret III had embarked on military campaigns in Nubia and Syria-Palestine. Amenemhat III was also equally successful, if not more than his father. He constructed several monuments, developed Fayoum, and oversaw numerous mining missions. The former king also built two pyramids.
Sobekneferu had some big shoes to fill as pharaoh. Though there aren’t many records of her contributions towards Egypt, it’s likely that she oversaw the construction of a pyramid in Mazghuna. It’s also likely that she was deified by the rulers of the 13th dynasty.
However, not many people were pleased with the idea of a female ruler, believing that her rise to the throne had disrupted the patriarchal system. They also believed that Sobekneferu’s claim to the throne had offended the goddess Ma’at, who is the Egyptian goddess of balance and order.
Nonetheless, Sobekneferu proved herself to be an effective leader. She strengthened Egypt’s foreign relations and protected her kingdom from natural disasters, as well as enemies. She also continued works on her father’s mortuary pyramid located in Fayoum.
Read More: How Ancient Egypt Treated Women
Sobekneferu ruled for four years until her death. Her passing marked the end of the 12th Dynasty. Scholars believe that she was likely succeeded by Sobekhotep or Wegaf.
Artifacts, scarabs and other ancient Egyptian items discovered all show that Sobekneferu had indeed ruled over Egypt. It is possible that she was buried in Mazghuna.
Pharaoh Sobekneferu was known for wearing royal regalia designed for male kings. She also called herself the “Son of Ra.” But despite these male titles and clothes, she still maintained her femininity.
The remains of a statue of the Crocodile Queen can be found at the Louvre in Paris, France. Although it is only of her torso, it’s design is much different from her other female contemporaries and has a more feminine look. This indicates that Sobekneferu did not lose sight of her womanhood.
Fun Facts about Female Kings of Ancient Egypt
- Sobekneferu’s ascension to the throne of Egypt was an unprecedented one. This was because women were rarely allowed to sit on the throne. As advanced as the ancient Egypt was when it came to women’s rights (i.e. compared to their contemporaries), it was still a deeply patriarchal society. Women were allowed to serve as queen regents all right, nurturing their young male wards until they reached the age of maturity; however, it was very rare for them to hold executive power in the land.
- The first-known queen regent was Merytneith (also known as Meritneith), the wife of Pharaoh Djet of the First Dynasty. Queen Merytneith, whose name was associated with the fiercesome Egyptian goddess Neith, served as regent during her son’s (Pharaoh Den) minority years. She most likely wielded enormous power in that period, but she did not cease the throne to become pharaoh.
- Among the few women that became pharaohs of Egypt, Queen Hatshepsut is undoubtedly one of the most famous. The wife of Thutmose II, Hatshepsut is credited with overseeing the construction of many magnificent buildings, as well as sanctioning a trade and diplomatic expedition to the Land of Punt, an ancient African empire located around the Horn of Africa.
- Then there is also Cleopatra VII of the Ptolemaic era who ruled from around 51 BC to 30 BC. Cleopatra had become embroiled in a series of relationships with some of Rome’s most powerful generals and politicians – i.e. Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Her relationship with the latter marked her downfall. In 30 BC, the two lovers committed suicide after their forces were vanquished by Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), the heir and adopted son of Julius Caesar. Octavian went on to incorporate the land of Egypt into Rome’s growing empire. As result, Cleopatra is generally considered not just the last of her dynasty but the last ruler of ancient Egypt.
- Unlike Pharaoh Hatshepsut of the 18th Dynasty and Queen Khentykaues I of the 4th Dynasty, Queen Sobekneferu never tried to hide the fact that she was a woman ruler. She did not wear any false beard, a royal symbol of Egyptian kings. Neither did she dress like a male pharaoh. In some unearthed statues, Sobekneferu did however use some male titles to consolidate her power.
- It’s been said that ancient Egyptians often allowed a female member of the royal family to ascend the throne, especially when they are no immediate male heirs or when the heirs were still young, in times of crisis. It was believed that a female king could help restore balance to the land.
- It was also often the case that the successors to a female king practiced the habit of wiping the female ruler’s name from the historical archives. This was seen in the years following the reigns of Sobekneferu and Hatshepsut.
Read More: Greatest Female Rulers of Ancient Egypt