The Last Pharaoh of Egypt’s 19th Dynasty
Born: Ancient Egypt
Died: c.1190 BC, Ancient Egypt
Also Spelled: Twosret or Tausret
Tawosret was one of a handful of women to ever become Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt in her own right. Over a four-thousand-year timespan, the only women ever confirmed to have ruled as Pharaoh were Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut, and Tawosret. A fourth woman, Nitocris, may have ruled as pharaoh but her story has no definitive archaeological documentation to back that up. Other queens such as Merneith, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra VII may have ruled as regents for another male or were simply incredibly powerful queens alongside their husbands, but they never attained the title of Pharaoh.
Tawosret ruled at the end of the nineteenth dynasty. She was a descendant of Ramses II, better known as Ramses the Great, but how exactly they were related is unknown today. She could have been his granddaughter or even great-granddaughter, but again we simply don’t know for certain.
After Ramses’ death, he was followed by his son Merneptah, and then his grandson Seti II became Pharaoh. By then, Seti was old and frail (his grandfather, Ramses, ruled for approximately sixty-seven years! By the time Merneptah became Pharaoh he was older as well). Seti had a queen close to his own age and grown sons, but in Ancient Egypt part of the job of Pharaoh was proving you were still full of life and able to repopulate the land through children. This explains why Merneptah was only one of Ramses’ fifty sons (and supposedly fifty daughters as well). So, while Seti was old, married, and had grown children, his family wasn’t complete yet. Upon ascending the throne, Seti married Tawosret, who was most likely a teenager by this point in her life.
Seti II’s time on the throne was short and fraught with numerous issues. Almost immediately upon being named Pharaoh, Seti was challenged by a man named Amenmesse, who may have been Seti’s son (but much like everything else you’ll read here, this is unknown for certain). Amenmesse, for whatever reason, thought he could rule Egypt better than Seti. The two ruled Egypt as opposing Pharaohs for several years, with Seti’s power concentrated in the North and Amenmesse’s in the South. Finally, Seti II was able to vanquish Amenmesse and retake control of the entirety of Egypt. How he managed to do this is, unsurprisingly, unknown.
With Amenmesse out of the way, Seti II invited another crisis in to his empire with the introduction of a foreigner named Bay. Later documentation stated Bay was from Syria, but…do I even have to say it at this point? Scholars don’t know his true heritage other than to say he wasn’t Egyptian. Bay was also very bad news. He headed to Southern Egypt with the goal of bringing the lands there back under the control of Seti’s throne and removing any support for the now defunct Amenmesse. Bay did more than support the Pharaoh however. He also had his own name inscribed on temples, began building his own tomb in the Valley of the Kings (which was a huge slap in the face to Egyptian society), and basically proved to the Egyptians as a whole that he was a huge d***. No one liked him, let’s just leave it at that.
Seti II died in his sixth regnal year. There is no evidence that Tawosret gave birth to any children in this time, but she wasn’t about to disappear by the wayside either. With Seti dead and Bay holding the reigns of power in the background, another Pharaoh soon took the throne. This one was a boy, maybe a young teenager but no older than that, named Siptah.
Where Siptah came from or who his parents were is, once again, unknown. We do know he was extremely unwell, had a club foot, and was the least likely candidate for Pharaoh in generations. His story may sound reminiscent of another boy king, Tutankhamun a dynasty before. But while the now famed King Tut was the actual son of the previous Pharaoh, where Siptah came from or what gave him the right to be king of Upper and Lower Egypt is anyone’s guess.
Even more surprisingly, Tawosret was named as Siptah’s regent. A regent was someone who co-ruled until, in this case Siptah, came of age and was able to rule in his own right. At the same time, Tawosret was also elevated to the position of God’s Wife of Amun, the most powerful priestess position in the empire. The two positions may seem to go hand in hand, but this is actually a contradictory statement for Tawosret’s time period. The regent usually ruled side by side the Pharaoh, meaning in the same city, but for Tawosret she had to choose one or the other. The capitol at the time was in Lower Egypt to the North while the priesthood for Amun was in Upper Egypt to the South. This leads Egyptologists to believe she most likely stayed close to Siptah in the north and probably only used her position as priestess as a title, and didn’t actually practice in the temples to the south.
However, even more confusingly, Tawosret also left behind no evidence she ever actually ruled as regent in the traditional capacity either. Instead, it seems she retained the title of regent, but all the power of the throne was transferred to the aforementioned and much reviled Bay. Eventually, after five years of Siptah’s rule as Pharaoh, Bay died.
No one was sad to see him go. In fact, it seems lots of Egyptians actually celebrated Bay’s death. Carvings from this time period give the credit for Bay’s death to the Pharaoh, Siptah. However, at this time Siptah was still just a young teenager (maybe fifteen or so) and probably had little to do with Bay’s execution. Instead, most historians believe Tawosret who actually carried out the ending of Bay’s life. Whatever the case, Bay was dead and Tawosret was finally free to secure the reigns of power for herself.
As soon as Bay was dead, all of the carvings and markings dedicated to him were destroyed. His tomb was defaced and his memory mocked. As I mentioned above, no one was sad to see him go. Which just goes to show how ruthless the Egyptians could be when given the chance.
One year later, Siptah too was dead. Now, seeing as he was a fairly sick kid to begin with, its entirely possible he died of an illness or other issue when he was probably seventeen at the oldest. However, some believe Siptah’s death was far from natural. Instead, the finger has been pointed for thousands of years at Tawosret. Her involvement seems even more pertinent given that Siptah’s name was erased from all monuments soon after his death His tomb was defaced and the artifacts inside were destroyed. All of this can be interpreted as evidence of Tawosret trying to secure her own path to the throne.
By removing all mention of Bay and Siptah both, Tawosret was trying to reshape history. Unlike the women who ruled as Pharaoh before her, Tawosret was not the sister or daughter of a king. Her only link to the throne was her short marriage to Seti II, which produced no children as evidence of their union. Her position within the royal family was weak by Egyptian standards, but the link was still there. Remove Siptah and Bay’s memory and that link becomes just a bit stronger.
Around this time, Tawosret also changed her name to the more bada** Tawosret-beloved-of-Mut. Mut is a creation goddess in the Egyptian pantheon remembered for her bloodthirstiness and loyalty to the king. By linking her name to this particular goddess, Tawosret was warning her enemies to stay back, stand down, or face her wrath. Tawosret also began to change her public image. She had her royal tomb recarved to reflect her new status as Pharaoh and began to show herself as wearing men’s clothing in her statuary. Her transformation had officially begun.
Unfortunately, Tawosret wasn’t given the time to gather her strength and become a great Pharaoh like Hatshepsut before her. After only two or four years of rule, Tawosret was removed from the throne, and violently.
Tawosret claimed her rule had encompassed the six years of Siptah’s reign, plus the few years of her own sole rule. This meant Tawosret liked to tell people she had been Pharaoh for eight or ten years, depending on which evidence you believe. She was the first woman in Egyptian history to take the kingship out of pure ambition for her own self. Sobekneferu was the only member of the royal family left when she took the throne, and Hatshepsut ruled as regent for her stepson before he seemingly stepped aside for her, allowing her to rule in her own right for the rest of her life and then stepping up after she died. If Nitocris’s story is to be believed, she was also the last member of her family left standing. This wasn’t the case for Tawosret. Remember how I mentioned Ramses II had fifty sons and fifty daughters? Seti II, Tawosret’s husband, had several children as well, as did Merneptah before him. This meant there were arguably dozens of other members of the royal family still packing the court. Sure, they didn’t have the same direct lineage Tawosret was claiming, but they were still members of the royal family. When Tawosret seized power for herself, she denied it to her second, third, and fourth male cousins. And this made her many enemies, unsurprisingly.
Tawosret was violently removed from the throne by Setnakhte, the man who would found Dynasty 20. Most historians believe he was one of those extraneous descendants of either Ramses II or Seti II. We don’t know how he got rid of Tawosret, or even how she was killed, but Setnakhte did remove her from power, and eventually oversaw her death as well. Surviving evidence makes it seem as though Tawosret caused a second civil war in her own lifetime; that Setnakhte wasn’t able to rid himself and Egypt of her until his own second year on the throne.
Setnakhte wasn’t through with just having Tawosret killed however. He also stole her royal tomb she had redecorated a few years before. The royal tomb decorators worked quickly; plastering over Tawosret’s image and replacing it with Setnakhte. However, three thousand years later, today those plaster covers have started to flake away, and Tawosret’s image as Pharaoh shines through once more. Shoddy workmanship maybe; or maybe its just Tawosret finally getting her own revenge on Setnakhte in the end.
The most interesting part of this story, however, is what didn’t happen to Tawosret. When Hatshepsut died, her stepson, Thutmose III, removed or covered over her name and replaced it with his own. He had clearly respected his stepmother in life, but understood the need to protect his own lineage after her death. And so, Hatshepsut’s name was wiped out. However, this didn’t happen to Tawosret. There is no evidence her statues were destroyed or her name removed from temple walls. In the Manetho King List, Tawosret’s name was shifted to a male form (Thouoris), but she was still listed. Far from being erased, Tawosret’s name lived on. Her reign may have been short and largely uneventful in the grand scheme of Egyptian history, but somehow, someway, Tawosret ensured she would be remembered three millennia after her death.
In the early 2000’s, the University of Arizona funded an expedition to reexamine Tawosret’s mortuary temple that she built between the temples to Ramses II and Merneptah. The site was originally excavated by a team under the leadership of Flinders Petrie (though he himself was not actually there for the dig), but this excavation left much to be admired. While the new dig by U of A were able to uncover the fact that much of the temple was seemingly completed in Antiquity, the site was later torn apart to be reused in other sites across Egypt. To date, Tawosret’s mummy, if it still exists, has not been positively found or identified.
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Located In My Personal Library:
When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara Cooney
When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara Cooney