Where are the female pharaohs in French museums?

Sesostris III in 2014 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, Toutânkhamon in 2019 at the Grande Halle de La Villette in Paris, Ramsès II in the same place currently and until September 6, 2023: the Egyptian pharaohs are regularly honored in France, in grandiose exhibitions. When it comes to talking about Egyptian sovereigns, on the other hand, the situation is more nuanced. Besides for Cleopatra, celebrated in 2014 at the Pinacoteca de Parismajor events around the queens of Egypt remain rare in the French cultural landscape.

We must first distinguish the queens of Egypt from the sovereigns. Indeed, the term “pharaoh” does not exist, the five Egyptian women to have assumed supreme power are also called “pharaohs”, or “queen-pharaohs”. In parallel, many queens marked the history of ancient Egypt as great royal wives, therefore wives of a male pharaoh. This is the case of Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten, or of Nefertarimarried to Ramses II.

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Women with exceptional powers

These women exercised power each in their own way and thus left their mark on the destiny of the country. “The question of an exhibition devoting all these women really deserves to be asked, therefore believes Florence Quentin, Egyptologist and author of Grand Sovereigns of Egypt. The royal feminine sphere has been studied only recently, whereas since the beginning of the XXe century, there are a plethora of books and exhibits on male pharaohs.

According to the specialist in ancient Egypt, it is necessary to revalue the heritage of these women. Nefertiti, for example, was associated in an unprecedented way with the throne. She was involved in all ceremonies, took care of diplomacy, had her own palace and her own staff, and even celebrated her own rites.

Other great royal wives had acquired exceptional power, particularly as advisers to their husbands or their sons. This is the case of Ahmes-Nefertaryfirst queen of the New Kingdom (–1580-around –1077), married to Ahmose Iis. She invents the title of “divine wife of Amun” (or “divine adorer”) and has a college of priestesses or even land. After the death of her husband, she becomes the gray eminence of her son.

As for the five women who assumed the supreme function, their reigns often remain unknown. “They always took advantage of a moment of dynastic uncertainty to slip into the interstice of power, it was not easysays Florence Quentin. For example, when there was a moment of wavering or the absence of a male heir. Moreover, if the power is transmitted from the pharaoh to his son, no text prohibited a woman from reigning.

Oblivion and broken monuments

Neferous person, Hatchepsout, DimensionallyTaousert and finally Cleopatra: they ruled the Egyptian empire but are today, for the most part, forgotten in history. “The problem is that they did not reign long, except for Hatshepsut who held power for twenty-two years. [de –1479 à –1457 environ, ndlr]deciphers Florence Quentin. She was a great builder, with a very peaceful and very prosperous reign.”

Hatshepsut’s record is rich: scientific expeditions, renovation and construction of temples, like that of Deir el-Bahari… But after his death, his successor destroyed his representations as pharaoh, erasing his memory and part of his legacy. “Hatshepsut left a trace as important as that of the male rulers, but her monuments were destroyedexplains the researcher. Concerning Cleopatra, there is not much to exhibit, her monuments collapsed with Alexandria. As for the other pharaohs, they have also been erased.”

Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is the best preserved in Deir el-Bahari (Thebes). | Vyacheslav Argenberg via Wikimedia Commons

The same goes for Mérytaton or Taousert, whose monuments have been smashed, just like their image. “These destructions partly explain why there are fewer remains concerning these queen-pharaohs., pose Florence Quentin. Often, the following pharaoh wrote his name instead of that of his predecessor, the male pharaohs were also victims of this phenomenon. But I also have the impression that we did not accept that these women reigned.

If Ramses II is so celebrated when these queen-pharaohs very often remain in the background, it is indeed linked to the remains that remain or not, according to Vincent Rondot, director of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities of the Louvre Museum. “The sometimes tenuous documentation that we have left of these queen-pharaohs is a question of gender, he says. This is linked to the fact that they are exceptions, that their reigns are most often short and therefore that the documents they leave are fewer.

According to him, these women who come to power in troubled times also rule over an economically less powerful Egypt. On the contrary, Ramesses II ruled the country sixty-six years, at a time when Egypt was the largest empire in the region, accumulating considerable wealth and pursuing a very ambitious architectural policy. He was thus able to cover the country with monuments in his name.

“Hatshepsut had her funerary temple built, but – extraordinary as it was – it is the only monument that makes her reputationtraces the Egyptologist. Concerning Ramesses II, it is as well Abu Simbel what his colossi in Memphis or that its capital in the Nile delta… It’s everywhere! It is not comparable, there is infinitely less heritage left by the few female pharaohs.

Ramses II dedicated many monuments to Memphis and adorned them with colossi in his glory. | Diego Delso via Wikimedia Commons

“Fewer things exist, but we have also studied them less”

Florence Quentin also maintains that the genre occupies a predominant place in the lack of exhibitions about the sovereigns of Egypt. She describes a vicious circle: “There are fewer documents about them, so they have been less studied, are the subject of fewer publications and fewer exhibitions, etc. I also think that there are gaps in the archeology or in the study of what has been found. Admittedly, fewer things exist, but they have also been studied less.”

Because if the inheritance is thinner, it exists despite everything. Already concerning the great royal wives like Nefertiti, whose bust remains famous todayor Nefertari, to which a temple is dedicated to Abu Simbelas well as the most prestigious tomb of the valley of the queens. “We have a lot of stelae, statues, representations of the great royal wiveslists the Egyptologist. As much as for kings, since they always accompany the pharaoh. Every time he’s there, so are they.”

The bust of Nefertiti remains particularly famous. | Arkadiy Etumyan via Wikimedia Commons

As for the queen-pharaohs whose heritage is more sparse, this remains relative. The Louvre has the torso of a statue of Neferousobek or even a stele attributed to Cleopatra representing her as a pharaoh. Shattered statues of Hatshepsut have been reassembled and are now on display au Metropolitan Museum from New York or the Cairo Museum. Merytaton for his part would have left thousands of objects, which we have long believed to belong to… Tutankhamun.

A statue of Queen Neferousobek exhibited in Berlin in 1914. | Hedwig Fechheimer via Wikimedia Commons

This queen-pharaoh, who seems to have reigned before him, would indeed have prepared a rich funeral kit, hastily recovered from the early death of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun. Much of the funerary furniture which today makes the legend of this king, including his famous maskwould thus have been usurped from this queen-pharaoh. “The Tutankhamun exhibition in Paris presented marvels. However, it should be remembered that the objects of the Treasury actually belong to a womanemphasizes Florence Quentin. But as the specialists are not certain of the queen in question and that the name of Tutankhamun is more sold, they are attributed to him.

According to Vincent Rondot, head of the Louvre Museum’s Egyptian antiquities department, this trousseau could eventually help trace the queen’s fate. And “In absolute terms, it would be possible to reuse certain objects to evoke this queen in the context of an exhibition dedicated to Egyptian sovereigns”.

An exhibition far from impossible to mount

Many pieces related to these Egyptian pharaohs therefore exist and are at the center of cultural events. “There weren’t many exhibits about the queens and rulers of Egypt, yes, but there were.recalls Florence Quentin. Only, not in France. But it is proof that there would be enough elements to make an exhibition around them. Hatshepsut was entitled to a major exhibition in New York in 2006; 250 works from museum collections around the world have been brought together to celebrate the queens of Egypt in Monaco in 2008; in 2012-2013, Nefertiti was highlighted in an exhibition in Berlin.

“There would be enough pieces to mount an exhibition, but they would have to be collected by borrowing from many museums, in Egypt in particular, observes Vincent Rondot, however. It would be an extremely difficult exhibition to set up and extremely expensive: the law is strict in Egypt regarding loans and you have to pay for the works you borrow. If the exhibits Toutânkhamon and Ramses II were able to see the light of day, it is because they were entirely organized by the Egyptian authoritieswho own all of the exhibited works, and therefore do not depend on loans.

However, the curator of the exhibition “Pharaoh of the Two Lands”which was held at the Louvre in 2022, does not exclude the possibility of an event around the Egyptian queens organized by the museum, recalling the one around Ramses II welcomed in Paris in 1976. “A good exhibition depends on the expectations of the public of course, but above all on the state of research and on a curator who decides to take this subject of the queens of Egypt head on. All topics are welcome.”

“The feminine dimension of power interests less”

For Florence Quentin, if no major exhibition has taken place in France on this theme for all these years, it would be because “the French are fascinated by the glory of the male pharaohs and the prestige of these beings who embody absolute power, and focused on them”. “When you put Ramses’ name on a poster, people come. The feminine dimension of power interests less.

The Egyptologist, however, evokes several hypotheses to feed this potential exposure, from Egyptomania to the current heritage in fiction, like the controversial documentary about Cleopatraor the representation of Nefertiti in pop culture.

“I think there would be a very nice exhibition to do, not on a single queen, because we may not have enough, but on the great rulers and queens of Egyptshe continues. I understand that you need catchy names like Nefertiti or Cleopatra, and I am convinced that with a beautiful photo, a beautiful statue, the exhibition would be as successful as the one dedicated to Ramses.

Source: Slate.fr by www.slate.fr.

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