Daughters of the Nile

Coinciding with the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, a major exhibition Daughters of the Nile: women and society in ancient Egypt opens in Madrid (Spain). Its curator, Nacho Ares, invites us on a journey into the past to learn about the role of women in the world of the ancient pharaohs.


The Pharaonic civilisation was characterised by being a very sophisticated society for its time. Women played roles and enjoyed various rights unknown in other contemporary cultures, or even in more advanced and later societies, such as Greece or Rome. The most obvious proof of this is easy to see: women had their own identity; they could acquire possessions, inherit, disinherit or divorce, and, above all, they could occupy the highest positions in the country’s administration and the State.

The lid of the coffin of a priestess. Polychrome wood, New Kingdom, Eighteenth Dynasty (1570-1293 BC). Image: Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid (inv. no. 15218).

However, although this reality is what we see in documents and works of art, where women are shown in positions identical to those of men, Egyptian society was still governed by a strict social hierarchy, which meant that many women in the lowest strata of society could not make use of these rights.

A statue of Nepeh-Ka and his wife Wahit. Limestone, New Kingdom, Eighteenth Dynasty (1570-1293 BC). Image: Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim (inv. no. PM 2972).

The Daughters of the Nile exhibition is divided into five sections that examine some of the most attractive fields of research of the pharaonic world. The first of these, Women in Ancient Egypt, offers an overview of what life was like for women in pharaonic antiquity, from the Predynastic Period (in the fourth millennium BC) to the Graeco-Roman Period (almost 2,000 years ago). Some of the works of art on display in this section are outstanding and unique, such as a sculptural group of the noble Nepehka and his wife Wahit, dating from the Old Kingdom (c. 2300 BC) from the Museum of Hildesheim (Germany). Nepeh-Ka is depicted dressed in a linen kilt and wearing the characteristic wig of this period. His left leg is slightly forward. We do not know the meaning or reason for this characteristic pose in Egyptian sculpture, which later passed into the Greek world with the kouroi and korai. Some scholars have proposed that it may be a representation of the beginning of the journey to the Nether World, although the position is also seen in sculptures in contexts that have nothing to do with the funerary world. To the left of the male figure is the woman Wahit, holding her husband’s left arm in a gesture of companionship. She has both feet together fixed to the ground and wears a characteristic tight-fitting white linen dress and a wig on her head. This type of representation shows the attachment between the man and the woman in the family unit. We do not know if this sculpture was originally polychromed, as there is now no trace of colour, but it is likely that it was. Men were mostly depicted with reddish-colour skin and women in ochre or yellow – standard colours that are continuously repeated throughout the history of Egyptian art until almost the end of its days.

A talatat block from Amarna possibly depicting Nefertiti. Limestone, New Kingdom, Eighteenth Dynasty, reign of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten (1350-1334 BC). Image: Museo egipcio de Melilla, (inv. no. 5987). Partly reconstructed

This first section, Women in Ancient Egypt, takes a look at a cross-section of the social strata in which women played a leading role, from those of the lowest status, such as peasant women, to the high ladies of the court. To bring us closer to this more human vision of the whole, objects from everyday life are exhibited, such as vases, combs, palettes and ointment pots; representations on ceramics, and sculptures, reliefs, and tomb paintings that offer a very vivid idea of the multiplicity of trades and positions that they held.

A gold octadrachm of Berenike II of Egypt, in the name of Arsinoë II (246-221 BC). Image: Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid (inv. no. 2016/31/1)
A bas-relief head of a queen wearing the vulture headdress. Limestone, New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC). Image: Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Direzione Regionale, Musei della Toscana, Florence.

Moving on in our tour of the most emblematic works in the Daughters of the Nile exhibition, we come to the second area, focusing on Royal Women: queens, great royal wives, wives incorrectly called ‘secondary’, and princesses. The role of women in royalty is vital to understanding the succession to the throne. Except in circumstances where a family dynasty was left without male heirs (in which case the throne passed to the military official or nobleman charged with carrying out the burial of the last pharaoh), Egypt’s double crown passed through the bloodline of queens. Interestingly, there was no word for ‘queen’ in the Egyptian language. The king’s consort was called the ‘Great Royal Wife’ if they were the principal wife of a pharaoh, while other ‘queens’ or ‘secondary wives’ were simply known as ‘King’s Wife’.

A coffin containing the mummy of a young woman. Polychrome plastered wood, Roman Period (second century AD). Image: University/Museum Collection Centre, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, on loan to Roemer und Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim (inv. no. Abdua: 22116 and 22117)

We all remember important women in the history of ancient Egypt such as Tiy, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Nefertari, and the last pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra VII. Many of them have their place in this exhibition. The most popular of all – Cleopatra and the family of the Ptolemies – are represented by several pieces on display. The exhibition includes a gold octodrachm of Arsinoë II and Berenike II (third century BC) and a silver denarius of Mark Antony and Cleopatra (first century BC), both from the collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid.

A Hathor-head column capital. Limestone, Late Period (664-332 BC). Image: Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, (inv. no. 1885).

In addition, the Egyptian Museum of Melilla and the Egyptian Museum of Turin loaned several talatat (that is, small blocks of stone used for the construction of walls) with representations of Queen Nefertiti (c. 1350 BC) and some of her daughters.

Nefertiti, the wife of the so-called heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, is shown wearing the characteristic blue headdress well known from the famous portrait bust, which can be seen in the Neues Museum in Berlin. The National Archaeological Museum in Florence (Italy) has loaned an extraordinary relief of a queen, dated to the New Kingdom (c. 1200 BC), in which we can see the classical royal headdress of this period, consisting of the vulture goddess – the female royal symbol – spreading her golden wings over the queen’s black wig.

A statue of the hippopotamus goddess Taweret. Limestone, Late Period (664-332 BC). Image: Museu Egipci de Barcelona. Fundació Arqueològica Clos (inv. no. E 269)
A statuette of a nursing Isis. Copper, Late Period (664-332 BC). Image: Museo egipcio de Melilla (inv. no. 5667)

The fundamental role played by priestesses is celebrated in a section entitled Goddesses and Temples, which explores the complex and difficult world of religious beliefs in the land of the Nile. Of equal importance to their male counterparts were the female divinities such as Hathor, Bastet, Sekhmet, Taweret, Meretseger, and especially Isis. In the form of the nursing Isis, she was the archetype of the woman who protects the newborn child and represented maternal love.The nursing Isis left a significant mark on later religions such as Christianity, where she is replaced by images of the Virgin Mary with Jesus Christ as a child.

The cartonnage of Kaipamau. Plastered and polychrome cloth, Third Intermediate Period, Twenty-second Dynasty (945-715 BC). Image: Archaeological Museum in Zagreb (inv. no. R. 68).

One of the most spectacular works in the entire exhibition features in this section: the Kaipamau coffin and cartonnage from the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb (Croatia). It is a very beautiful work dated to the Twenty-second Dynasty (c. 1000 BC) on which we can see the image of Kaipamau, with the titles of Nebt Per (‘Mistress of the House’) and, notably, ‘Chantress of Amun’, one of the most important priestly titles held by women in ancient Egypt.

A shabti of Queen Henuttawy I. Polychrome faience, Third Intermediate Period, Twenty-first Dynasty (c. 1050 BC). Image: Musée Royal, Mariemont (inv. no. Dép. RW.2012-042).

The fourth section in the Daughters of the Nile exhibition is entitled From Death to Eternity. A large number of funerary pieces makes for an attractive display, highlighting one of the most studied and popular areas of Egyptian art. Here we can see collections of shabtis, amulets to protect the deceased on their journey to the afterlife, canopic vessels to protect the mummified viscera of the deceased, and many other objects that help to take the visitor on the complex, dangerous and dark journey that ancient Egyptians travelled to reach the world of Osiris.

A replica of the Tomb of Sennedjem. Private collection of Wolfgang Wettengel (Germany). [Original: New Kingdom, Nineteenth Dynasty, reigns of Sety I and Ramesses II (1291-1212 BC). Deir el-Medina, Thebes (TT 1)]. Image: courtesy of Wolfgang Wettengel.

The exhibition also includes a life-size reproduction of the Tomb of Sennedjem, TT1 in Deir el-Medina, which was excavated and published by Eduardo Toda, the Spanish vice-consul in Cairo between 1884 and 1886.

In the same area there is an impressive ‘immersive experience’, which takes us into a simulation of the burial chamber of Queen Nefertari (c. 1250 BC), created from a digital replica of her tomb excavated in the Valley of the Queens. She was the ‘Great Royal Wife’ of Ramesses II, “for whom the sun shines”, as we can read from the inscription on the façade of the temple built for her at Abu Simbel.

An ‘immersive experience’ of the burial chamber of Queen Nefertari.

The climax of Daughters of the Nile, is a section called Egyptomania, which offers a reflection on the role of women in ancient Egypt as seen through modern eyes. The Art Nouveau and Art Deco Museum, Casa Lis in Salamanca (Spain), has loaned some of its most representative pieces of jewellery and objets d’art, including the ‘Egyptian Goddess’, by Marius Ernest Sabino, made of pressed and opalised glass (1930) and ‘The Dancer of Thebes’ by Claire J. R. Colinet, made of ivory, bronze and black marble (1920).

‘The Dancer of Thebes’ by Claire J. R. Colinet. Ivory, bronze and black marble, 1920. Image: Museo Art Nouveau y Art Decó, Casa Lis. Fundación Manuel Ramos Andrade, Salamanca (inv. no. 00069-C.069).

Daughters of the Nile covers almost four thousand years of history, offering a perfect overview of the role of women in ancient Egypt in art, daily life, the funerary world, and religion, through almost three hundred physical and digital works of art. The exhibition, held at Palacio de las Alhajas in Madrid, runs until 31 December 2022. For more details, visit hijasdelnilo.com

Nacho Ares is a Spanish Egyptologist, historian, writer, and historical broadcaster. He is co-curator of the Daughters of the Nile exhibition together with Esther Pons, Director of the Egyptian Collection at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid.
Daughters of the Nile is sponsored by EULEN to commemorate the 60th anniversary of its founding by David Álvarez, a pioneer and promoter of Spanish culture, art, archaeology and collecting. It features almost three hundred works of art loaned from more than thirty European museums and private collections.