This week’s Women Crush Wednesday is a special one! She is the first woman for whom there is confirmed proof that she reigned as Pharaoh over all of Egypt. Her name is Sobekneferu and she ruled at the end of the 12th dynasty of the Middle Kingdom.
Sometimes her name is written as Neferusobek, instead of Sobekneferu. That is because her name is written with the nefer sign in front of the name of the crocodile god Sobek. In the Egyptian language, even if the name of a god is at the end of a word or phrase, it must always be pronounced first out of respect for the god. Her full name means “The Beauty of Sobek.”
Sobekneferu was the daughter of Amenemhat III. She may have also been the sister of Amenemhat IV, but this claim was from Manetho’s Aegyptiaca, which is not a complete or accurate source. Amenemhat IV was the son and heir of Amenemhat III, and he apparently died without a male heir.
There has been some speculation of how she was related to Amenemhat IV by scholars. Since the majority of her monumental works associate her with Amenemhat III, scholars believe she was only the stepsister of Amenemhat IV. Sobekneferu also never adopted the title of “King’s Sister,” which further supports this theory.
Sobekneferu had an older sister named Neferuptah, who was next in line after their half-brother. Her name was enclosed in a cartouche and she had her own pyramid at Hawara. But she died at an early age, probably before she even rose to the throne. This put Sobekneferu as next in line for the throne.
Sobekneferu probably ruled for about four years, circa 1806 to 1802 B.C.E. As I said before, she is the first confirmed female ruler of ancient Egypt. Some earlier Egyptian women are known to have ruled (for example, Neithotep and Merneith of the 1st dynasty), but there is no definite proof that they ruled in their own right. According to the Turin Canon Papyrus, which is a New Kingdom primary source that lists the rulers of Egypt and their reign lengths, Sobekneferu ruled for 3 years, 10 months, and 24 days.
During her reign, she made additions to the funerary complex of Amenemhat III (her father) at Hawara. Multiple fragments of the mortuary temple are inscribed with her name, including this piece of a column which included the end of the text saying, “…monument to her for her father, forever.”
Another column was found that depicted the serekhs of Amenemhat III and Sobekneferu. A serekh is a Predynastic and Old Kingdom version of a cartouche that depicts a falcon bird. This associated the king with the god Horus. Here, the serekh of Amenemhat III is giving an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, to Sobekneferu, implying that she was a legitimate ruler through him. It is especially interesting because she is labeled as the female Horus.
Sobekneferu may have also built a sanctuary at Heracleopolis Magna, though she most likely added onto a previous structure of Senusret III.
There is also a Nile graffito at the Nubian fortress of Semna that dates to her reign. It states that the Nile flood, or inundation, rose to a height of 1.83 meters in Year 3 of her reign. And finally, an inscription found in the Eastern Desert records, “Year 4, second month of the Season of the Emergence” of her reign.
Four cylinder seals have been found bearing her name and her royal titulary. They are all located at the British Museum (one being EA 16581). Cylinder seals are small cylinders that are engraved with either inscriptions or figurative scenes. These can be rolled in wet clay to create an impression, such as signing a document. Here her Horus name, Nebty name, Gold Horus name, and nomen are listed with an epithet of Sobek, Lord of Shedyt.
She died without an heir and her death concluded Egypt’s 12th dynasty and the Middle Kingdom.
Only a few of her monuments have been discovered. Many headless statues of her have been preserved.
Three statues of her were found in 1941 in Tell el-Dab’a in the Delta. They were all headless. The first depicts Sobekneferu kneeling, offering something to a god. The second and the third depict her sitting on a throne, though the second was in much better condition. In this statue, her feet are seen crushing nine arches, which represent the nine enemies of Egypt. (Click through the photos to read more about them and their surviving inscriptions.)
This fragmented statue of her is located in the Louvre (E 27135). It is made out of red sandstone and depicts the chest and waist of the Queen. There is a pendant around her neck that looks very similar to pendants carved on statues of Senusret III and Amenemhat III. Her cartouche is carved on her belt, which helps identify this fragment. This statue also shows a mix of male and female characteristics. She wears both a female sheath dress and a male kilt overtop of it. She is also clearly wearing a nemes headdress. This is not to suggest that she was pretending to male, because is always uses female suffixes on her title. This may have just been a way to pacify critics of her rule or as a desire to represent herself as a traditional pharaoh.
One statue of her head is known. It was purchased by the Egyptian Museum Berlin (no 14476) in 1899, but it was lost in WWII (it is unclear if it was stolen, destroyed, or literally lost). It is now only known from photographs and plaster casts. It was 14 cm high and made of greywacke. The face of the woman shows signs of age, which helps date it stylistically to the Late Middle Kingdom.
Recently, it has been concluded by Egyptologist Biri Fay that this head would have fit on a lower part of a royal statue discovered in the Temple of Taharqa in the Nubian fortress in Semna.
This piece is currently located at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (24.742) and is 21.4 cm tall. The chair that Sobekneferu sits on contains a sema -tawy sign. This is a motif of a lotus and a papyrus plant being tied together and it a symbol of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. This sign is typically only used with Egyptian royalty, particularly the pharaoh, so it can be presumed to depict Sobekneferu.
Now, unfortunately, even though Sobekneferu is the first confirmed female ruler, this is all we really know about her. Her reign was short and thus she probably did not have time to build a pyramid or funerary complex, as was typical of Middle Kingdom royalty.
There is some speculation that she may have planned or been buried in a pyramid complex in Mazghuna, south of Dahshur. There are the ruins of two pyramids here, both of which are of similar layout and completely uninscribed. Since the southern complex has been tentatively attributed to Amenemhat IV, the northern pyramid could have belonged to Sobekneferu. A papyrus from Harageh dating to her rule mentions a place called Sekhemneferu, which could have been the name of her pyramid.
The North Mazghuna Pyramid was either built in the late 12th or early 13th dynasty. It was unfinished and no royal inscriptions have been found. It was rediscovered in 1910 by Ernest Mackay and excavated the following year by Flinders Petrie.
The superstructure of the pyramid was never started, but it was most likely intended to be larger than the Southern Mazghuna pyramid. The substructure of the pyramid, otherwise called the hypogeum, is a twisting path, changing direction six times. The entrance is on the north side of the pyramid and has a staircase leading down to a square chamber. This then leads to another staircase and the first quartzite blocking stone. These stones were intended to fend off tomb robbers, but many of these stones were not put into place, probably because construction was abandoned.
After that two other chambers are connected by a passage with another blocking stone. After the third chamber, there is a stairway and an antechamber. This room leads to the burial chamber, which was partially covered by an inverted V-shaped ceiling. The chamber was entirely filled by a huge sarcophagus lid, made out of a 42-ton quartzite slab. This was never fitting into the chamber. There was another room behind the burial chamber, whose function is unknown.
All exposed quartzite had been painted with red paint and sometimes decorated with vertical black stripes. Typically pyramid complexes had a few associated buildings, including a mortuary temple, a causeway, and a valley temple, none of which were found in this case. One portion of the causeway has been discovered, but again construction may have been abandoned early on in the building process.
Though we do not know much about Sobekneferu or her burial, she is still extremely important to our understanding of Egyptian history and the role of ancient Egyptian women!
Statue at the Louvre – Wiki Commons Public Domain
Statue at Berlin – Wiki Commons (Hedwig Fecheimer)
Cylinder seal, drawn by Flinders Petrie – Wiki Commons (Flinders Petrie)
Interior of Pyramid – Wikimedia Commons (I, Bakha)
Drawing of the pyramid – Wikimedia Commons (Lespsius)
Plan of Pyramid – https://egyptphoto.ncf.ca/mazghuna.htm
Ruins of Pyramid -https://famouspharaohs.blogspot.com/2017/08/the-pyramid-of-sobekneferu.html
Column, inscriptions, statues – Flickr (Juan R. Lazaro)