The Royal Harem

August 1, 2017

What's a king without his queen(s)? For this week's Thutmose Tuesday, we'll be taking a look at the royal harem, a facet of ancient Egyptian court life that took on a particular significance during the New Kingdom. Every 18th Dynasty king (save Hatshepsut) had a harem, including our old friends Thutmose I, II, III, and IV. Far more than simply a pleasure palace, the royal harem served a variety of political purposes, helping to ensure Egypt's political stability both at home and abroad.

 

Royal polygamy in ancient Egypt was endorsed not for religious reasons, but for practical ones: with high infant mortality rates, the more women the pharaoh slept with, the greater the chance he had of producing a viable male heir. At any given time in the 18th Dynasty, a king would have at least two wives, and would also entertain various concubines. For instance, Thutmose I had two major wives that we know of, Ahmose, the mother of Hatshepsut, and a secondary wife named Mutnofret, the mother of his heir Thutmose II. Similarly, Thutmose II was married to Hatshepsut, mother of his daughter Neferure, and to a minor wife named Iset, the mother of his successor Thutmose III. Within the royal harem existed a rigid hierarchy, with title-holding royal women at the top of the food chain (i.e. King's Great Wife, King's Daughter), and secondary/minor wives and concubines farther down. Both Ahmose and Hatshepsut were Great Wives of the earliest Thutmoside pharaohs, meaning that their male offspring would have been be first in line for the throne. Because Mutnofret and Iset gave birth to male children that survived to adulthood and Ahmose and Hatshepsut did not, this hierarchy had to be disregarded and the offspring of these two minor wives became heir apparent.

 

While some of the secondary wives in a Thutmoside harem were native Egyptian (typically chosen from high-ranking Theban families connected to the Amun priesthood or royal family as an act of appeasement), some of the women hailed from foreign lands like Mittani and Nubia. Three minor wives of Thutmose III, Menwi, Merti, and Menhet, are believed to have been Syrian princesses.The leaders of these countries would send one or more of foreign princesses to Egypt to join the pharaoh's harem, a token of their goodwill towards the king and a symbol of peace between their nations. Interestingly, while 18th Dynasty pharaohs gladly welcomed such tribute, they never offered to send any Egyptian princess abroad in return.

 

Archaeological evidence of what life was like in a New Kingdom royal harem is sadly limited. We do know that a typical harem would have been constructed of painted mudbrick, its buildings arranged around a central courtyard. The complex would have housed not only the pharaoh's wives but other female members of the royal family as well, such as the King's Mother and King's Sister. The maids and servants of the pharaoh's wives would have also resided in the harem, along with the soldiers who guarded the wives and the pharaoh's youngest children. While it served a variety of useful purposes, the harem could also be a breeding ground for political unrest and dissension. At least one 19th Dynasty pharaoh, Ramesses III, was assassinated in a plot hatched by a few of his minor wives in the harem, and evidence suggesting similar plots against other rulers have been discovered by Egyptologists. While no such assassination plots occurred during the reigns of the Thutmoside pharaohs, the harem was still an integral and vastly powerful instiution in the ancient Egyptian royal court.

 

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