Many women played a huge role throughout the history of ancient Egypt, including in politics. More often than not, attention is given to queens such as Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, Nefertari, and others. However, there are little-known royal women whose stories should also be given that same attention due to their incredible achievements as rulers.
In fact, history says that a number of Egyptian queens were able to assume the throne and rule independently. One of such queens was Khentkaus I. Born circa 2550-2520 BC, Khentkaus I, also referred to as Khentkawes I, lived during the Fourth Dynasty, the Old Kingdom. Researchers say she may have ruled Egypt as a regent for her son or in her own right.
According to historian Selim Hassan, Khentkaus I was King Menkaure’s daughter, and she inherited the throne from her husband and half-brother King Shepseskaf. She later married one of the priests called Userkaf, who became the first king of the Fifth Dynasty. Khentkaus I gave birth to two sons with King Userkaf. Their names were Sahure and Neferirkare Kakai.
Khentkaus I would establish a 35-meter tall pyramid for herself in Giza per the tradition of Fourth Dynasty kings. But she changed the architectural style of the pyramid, as stated by Hassan. Not far away from the pyramid is a city for priests established by Khentkaus, who also built a fence around the pyramid and its attachments.
Since the discovery of her burial complex at Giza in the 1930s, historians and archaeologists have been intrigued by her story. Archaeologists found in the 1930s that a remarkable tomb once believed to have been the final resting place of the last king of the 4th Dynasty, Shepseskaf, turned out to be the tomb for Khentkaus I. It was constructed near the Valley Temple of Menkaure’s funerary complex at Giza.
Khentkaus I’s large burial enclosure at Giza was formerly thought to be an unfinished pyramid and it comes with a solar boat, a chapel, granaries and a water tank. On the granite doorway to the valley temple of her tomb is her image showing her seated on a throne wearing the vulture diadem and Ureas, with a short ritual beard while holding in her hand a Hetes Scepter. All are royal emblems worn by kings of Egypt, according to history.
Her image also comes with an inscription/title that continues to baffle many. Her strange title, mw.t nsw-bi.tj nsw-bi.tj can be translated in two possible ways: ‘Mother of two Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt’ or ‘Mother of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt and King of Upper and Lower Egypt’.
According to ancient-egypt.org, the latter translation suggests that Khentkaus at one point took up the office of king herself. “This has caused some speculation about her role at the end of the 4th Dynasty and the possibility that she may have been the otherwise unattested Thamphthis who Manetho has recorded as last king of the dynasty. In this case, she would be the oldest attested queen to have used the title King of Upper and Lower Egypt,” ancient-egypt.org writes.
Based on her title, some historians also say that she was the mother of two kings. As mentioned above, Khentkaus married Userkaf, the founder of the 5th Dynasty, and they had two children. Those two children — Sahure and Neferirkare — were Userkaf’s two immediate successors. To some historians, Khentkaus may have survived at least until into the rule of Neferirkare for her to be able to be called ‘Mother of Two Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt’.
In the 1970s, confusion arose after Czech archaeologists discovered a pyramid in Abusir, Egypt, belonging to another Queen Khentkaus. She had the same title as Khentkaus I. She was also portrayed wearing the same royal attire as Khentkaus I.
Later, it was discovered that this second Queen Khentkaus was the wife of Neferirkare and mother of Neferefre. As Ancient Origins wrote, “the two women were in reality a generation apart.” As time went on, the royal woman discovered at Abusir was identified as Khentkaus II.