The Forgotten Female Pharaoh

There's a saying: "Behind every great man is a great woman." But sometimes in history, it should be, "Behind every great woman is a great man."

Older generations of historians and archaeologists often assumed that powerful women were little more than puppets. Each one of them had a man pulling her strings. Every Queen Elizabeth had her Robert Dudley. Every Hatshepsut had her Senenmut.

In the case of Pharaoh Twosret, she had her Bay. Twosret (also spelled Tausret) was the wife of the 19th Dynasty pharaoh Seti II. No, not the father of Ramses the Great. The other Seti, the one only Egyptologists remember.

Twosret, image by John D. Croft (source)
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Seti II ruled for six years before he died, leaving as his heir a young prince named Saptah. But Saptah was just a little boy, and the son of a Syrian concubine to boot. He also had a deformed leg. Seti's chief wife, Twosret, acted as regent for the boy. She was helped out by an official named Bay, who also happened to be a Syrian.

Bay was apparently a very powerful man, and it is often thought that he was probably the real power behind the throne. When Saptah died after reigning six years, Twosret became pharaoh in her own right. According to the traditional theory, Bay continued to hold a high position. In fact, Twosret may not have become pharaoh without Bay's explicit approval.

If any of this sounds familiar, that's because it is. Hatshepsut, the most famous female pharaoh, was a queen who became regent for her stepson Thutmose. Like Thutmose, Saptah was the son of a minor wife and was a child when his father died. Like Hatshepsut, Twosret became pharaoh. Like Hatshepsut, Twosret had the help of a powerful and enigmatic man.

And like Hatshepsut, Twosret's relationship with this man has long been the subject of lewd speculation. Did Bay perhaps sleep his way to the top? Some speculate that Bay and Twosret were lovers, and that Twosret was a clueless pawn controlled by the Svengali-like Bay. Hatshepsut and her official Senenmut were also the subjects of such scandalous gossip, even within their own lifetimes.

In reality, these theories have more to do with sexist assumptions than with solid historical evidence. Attacks on the sexuality of powerful women are very common. They put women in their rightful place, being dominated by men.

Twosret and Bay could have been lovers. As an unattached Egyptian woman, and a ruler at that, Twosret was theoretically free to sleep with any man who caught her fancy. But the reality may have been much more complicated. Although Egyptian women enjoyed remarkable freedom, they were still not equal to men, and taking a lover may have discredited her authority. Workmen drew obscene sketches of Hatshepsut and Senenmut in, shall we say, compromising positions. Clearly some Egyptians did not approve of non-marital relationships between powerful women and their male advisors, even if they weren't actually lovers. It's also possible in theory that Twosret was actually a weak woman who was nothing more than a pawn for her lover's ambitions.

Bay, image by John D. Croft (source)
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There's just one problem with the lover theory, apart from its blatant sexism. We now know that the ambitious Bay was executed on Pharaoh Saptah's orders in the fifth year of his reign.

Who made this decision? Saptah was 15 or 16 at the time, old enough to make such a choice. On the other hand, his stepmother had been a major player throughout his entire reign. It's reasonable to assume that it was a joint decision.

Saptah himself died not long after, at the age of 16 or so. The young king suffered from a clubbed foot as the result of polio, and there is no evidence of foul play. The sickly boy probably died of natural causes and Twosret assumed the throne in the absence of a suitable male heir. She ruled for only a year or two. Civil war broke out at the end of her reign or shortly after her death.

A new portrait of Twosret emerges from the facts. Far from being a weak woman who submissively obeyed her ambitious lover, Twosret was actually an independent leader who ruled in her own right. Like the earlier female pharaoh Sobekneferu she failed to hold the country together, but instead of passively following orders she actively gave them. Twosret is truly the forgotten female pharaoh.

Shaw, Ian, ed. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Callender, Gae. "The Cripple, the Queen & the Man from the North." KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt 17.1 (2006): 49-63. Print.


  1. Re the obscene workmen's sketches: there is just one that some people think may represent Hatshepsut and Senenmut. It's very crude (in both senses of the word); John Romer (who, like Bob Brier, is not really an Egyptologist) claims that the figures are wearing distinctive headgear, but they are not. Nearby is another crude sketch that seems to show two male kings--not a king and a commoner--about to have an encounter. Because these graffiti are located in an unfinished tomb near the great temple of Deir el-Bahri, overeager interpreters have leaped to the conclusion that they must have historical significance. The late Egyptologist Marek Marciniak believed that the first sketch, because of its position on the wall, was done several generations after the reign of Hatshepsut. Identifying such crude drawings with historical figures is rather like identifying a male in the Turin Erotic Papyrus with Paneb, Chief Workman of Deir el-Medina. It's not impossible, but the evidence is simply not convincing.
    As for Tausert and Bay, there's no evidence that they had a sexual relationship. Zero. Zip. Nada. One might imagine that Bay could have made himself temporarily indispensible to royalty--that they put up with him because they had to. He boasted, in his inscriptions, of having placed Siptah on the throne. I think he may have said so once too often to these descendants of Ramesses II. The lewd speculation you mention is the property of a small number of modern scholars and hobbyists. It certainly isn't responsible scholarship, and if I found such a statement on an exam paper, I'd be reaching for my red pen!

  2. Anonymous (would love to know your name, it's so much more personal that way!), I would love to know your reasons for believing that John Romer and Bob Brier are not "real" Egyptologists. Both of them are accepted as such by the mainstream Egyptological community. If you only consider Egyptologists to be people with degrees specifically labeled "Egyptology," you'd have to accept a number of bogus New Agers as Egyptologists. Some of them (such as Tamara L. Siuda, the founder of so-called Kemetic Orthodoxy) do have Egyptology degrees, yet they are hardly reputable scholars. Howard Carter never received a formal Egyptology degree, yet I can't think of anyone who would say he was "not really an Egyptologist"!

    Although I believe that the graffito is indeed a tomb worker's depiction of Hatshepsut and Senenmut, I (and many Egyptologists who hold the same opinion) do not believe that it is automatic proof that they were lovers. Regular people then as now might have liked to joke and speculate about the private lives of the higher-ups, but of course they were not actually privy to the details of Hatshepsut's private life.

    I agree that Tausert and Bay never had such a relationship, which is exactly what I argue in this post. I agree that it's not responsible scholarship, but I doubt you need to worry about reaching for your red pen, since it's an outdated theory and a modern student is unlikely to argue in favor of it!

    I appreciate your comment. I regret that I am currently unable to continue my formal studies in Egyptology, so any scholarly interaction is very welcome.

  3. QUEEN TWOSRET was a MISERABLE FAILURE as a PHARAOH! During her brief reign,( and that of her predessor PHARAOH SIPTAH ), barbarian LIBYAN tribes crossed the western border of EGYPT and settled in the western and central parts of the DELTA, killing Egyptians and pillaging Egyptian towns. To the east barbarian tribes known as the SEA PEOPLES attacked and burned the city states of CANAAN to the ground. The Egyptian Empire there being lost ! The weak,vascillating and totally incompetant QUEEN TWOSRET FAILING COMPLETELY to stop these invaders! Recent scholarship indicates that TWOSRET was OVERTHROWN IN A REVOLUTION led by a general named SETHNAKTE who then became PHARAOH and managed to restore some order in EGYPT. It was his son, the great RAMSES III that managed to EXPEL the LIBYAN and SEA PEOPLES invaders and restore EGYPT to greatness.

    1. I wish to make one major correction. The Libyan invasion occurred later under Ramses III and not under Queen Twosret.

    2. @S.L. STEVENS : Hi. Did you purchase the 2012 book - the first book I believe that was exclusively written on Pharaoh Queen Twosret ( Tausert ) ?!
      The book is called " TAUSRET Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt. " by Richard Wilkinson.
      The book is an excellent read but it has, in my opinion one failing. The author doesn't stress the fact that it was TAUSRET who lost the Egyptian Empire in Canaan with thousands of people killed and many towns and villages burned to the ground by the attacking Sea Peoples.
      Wilkinson and the other Egyptologists who contributed to this book write only that QUEEN TAUSRET " lived in troubled times " and that the Empire " was being attacked by pirates. "
      By the way, I wish to make one major correction. Egypt was NOT attacked by the Libyans during the time of PHARAOH QUEEN TAUSRET, but later during the time of PHARAOH RAMSES III.
      How is your book coming along ?

    3. Hi NECHOII. Yes, I do own the Tausret book, though I need to reread it. Based on what I remember from it, I don't think it's fair to blame Tausret for the loss of the Canaanite provinces. I think a lot of it had to do with the long reign of Ramses the Great, which led to the decline of the Egyptian Empire. The decline of the Old Kingdom started during Pepi II's 94-year reign. And the Middle Kingdom also declined following Amenemhet III's 46-year rule. I think that when a king rules for so long, the country's success is built almost entirely on him, and when he dies the rug is pulled out from under everyone. I think Tausret did the best she could with what she had.

      My book is coming along quite well, thanks for asking! I have about 210 pages and expect to be done with the first draft sometime in the next 2 months.

  4. Wow, you're certainly passionate about this topic, Nechoii.

  5. @S.L. STEVENS : Yes, I am - LOL ! Did you manage to get hold of a copy of RAMESSES III The Life and Times of Egypt's Last Hero by Eric H. Cline and David O. Connor ( 2012 ) I highly recommend it. RAMESSES III is my favourite Pharaoh followed by NECHO II. When you were in EGYPT, did you ever visit the fascinating temple of MEDINET HABU which was built to honour PHARAOH RAMESSES III ?
    Did you finish your novel ?

  6. Hi Necho, I'd love to get ahold of Cline and O'Connor's book. Unfortunately, a $90 book just isn't in my budget right now. :P But I definitely plan on checking it out from the library.