Tawosret, also written as Twosret, is recorded as the last known ruler of the 19th dynasty. Her story although relatively unknown is one of political manoeuvring, assassination plots, and a woman who made it to the throne by behaving “…more like a competitive male player than any female king in Egypt had yet seen.” This post looks at her story, the men around her, and her rise to power.
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We don’t know when Tawosret was born, possibly towards the end of Ramses II’s 67-year reign which ended in 1213 BC. Nor is her parentage known for certain, she never claimed to be a King’s daughter or sister, Kara Cooney suggests, “…she was likely just one of many daughters of Ramses II’s 50 or so named sons” with some sources suggesting she was the daughter of Merenptah.
Tawosret, became the second wife of Seti II, sometime after 1190 BC, despite already having a wife and grown children was “…expected to create new offspring, to stock his harem with children and future heirs” now that he was king. For this he needed a younger wife, and Tawosret was given the title the Great Royal Wife. We can only imagine how the two queens co-existed, Takhat, Seti’s first wife, had experience but Tawosret had youth and beauty on her side.
Seti’s reign was not accepted by everyone, and Egypt entered a period of civil war between Seti and Amunmesses, who some Egyptologists believe was one of Seti and Takhat’s grown sons. They suggest Amunmesses was angry at losing his chance at power. Whatever the cause, Amunmesses declared his rival kingship within Seti’s first year, perhaps spurred to action when rumours of Twaosret’s pregnancy began to spread. The conflict lasted a few years, until Seti’s larger military forces defeated Amunmesses. There are many unanswered questions about what happened to Amunmesses after his defeat, but Seti wasted no time in launching a ‘campaign of erasure and reinscription’ putting his name onto all the cartouches, statues, and reliefs that Amunmesses had carved in Thebes during his short reign. Although this was often done so poorly that “…Egyptologists can still see traces of the old name underneath.” Although he was victorious, the vast number which rallied to support Amunmesses, Seti knew he needed to keep an eye on the southern region. This is when a man named Bay appeared and was given the title the Great Overseer of the Seal of the Entire Land, Kara Cooney describes his role as “…a money man, a kind of Egyptian chief financial officer who doled out wealth and thus influence.”
Given her position as the Great Royal Wife, Tawosret knew dynastic continuation was needed to avoid further conflict, and that it was down to her and her ability to produce a son. As such it’s likely she spent as much time as possible with her husband attempting to make that happen. However, there is no record of any sons being born to them. As such, when Seti II died in 1197 BC, Egypt faced a leadership crisis. His successor, king Siptah was not only a child, he was also disabled with clubfoot which some sources suggest stemmed from cerebral palsy. Siptah’s His parentage is unknown, it’s thought his father could have been either Seti or Amunmesses; what is certain is Tawosret was not his mother, and yet, somehow she was chosen to act as his regent.
Around the same time, she was named God’s Wife of Amun at Thebes, a position once held by Hatshepsut, and about the same time she moved from the harem palaces of Pi-Ramses in the North down to her own bastion of power at Thebes in the south. Although Twaosret held the title “The Great Noblewoman of Every Land,” and was accepted by the people as Siptah’s regent, it was Bay who was calling the shots. By making Tawosret high priestess as it gave the “…appearance of keeping to traditional ways of ancient Egyptian rule…” Tawosret was likely only in her early twenties at the time, so we can imagine it must have been easy for Bay to exploit her inexperience and use her as his political tool.
Although to Bay, Tawosret was nothing more than a means to acquire power, Egyptian culture demanded he pay the proper respect, and as whenever he had his image depicted in a public temple such as those in Abu Simbel, at Amada, even in the Valley of the Kings, he put Tawosret’s image alongside him. Some have interpreted these mirror images of Bay and Tawosret “…as representative of a political partnership, presuming complicity on the part of Tawosret and even assuming a sexual relationship between the two.” However, Kara Cooney suggests its “… our first clear example of a royal female manipulated as a pawn for power by an outsider.” But as Tawosret would prove, she was more than a pawn to be used by Bay.
A text found in a workman’s village of Deir el Medina, which dates to Year 5 of Siptah’s reign, tells us “Pharaoh, life, prosperity and health, has killed the great enemy, Bay” although it gaveno details of how he was killed. Whilst Siptah was given the credit, most agree it would have been Tawosret who had ordered his death, having found a way to gain supporters to free herself from his control. He was not popular with the people and orders quickly went out to have him erased from temples throughout Egypt. This left Tawosret free to educate Siptah how she saw fit, even if he had almost reached maturity. However, less than two years later, Siptah was dead. His cause of death is unknown, whilst it is possible he died of natural causes, the people of Egypt and many modern Egyptologists suspect Tawpsret had a hand in his death.
There are no surviving accounts which tell us how Tawosret felt about Siptah, however, immediately after his death she gave the order that all the references to the young king were removed and replaced with images of her husband, Seti II. Kara Cooney, suggests;
“Tawosret was now publicly claiming her status as a female king, justifying her ability to take the throne as the previous Great Royal Wife of the dead king Seti II on monuments throughout Egypt.”
This created a new royal lineage for herself, one that completely removed King Siptah and went straight from Seti II to herself as female sovereign. This set her apart from queens who had come before her, as did not share the power with any male partners. She took the name; Tawosret-Beloved-of-Mut, a shout-out to Amun’s bloodthirsty and violent consort resident at Thebes. Having taken the throne, she enlarged her tomb in the Valley of Kings by cutting it deeper into the mountainside and adding the Book of the Amduat and the Book of Gates; both of which were not meant for queens. She ordered the images in her tomb to be modified, adding the king’s blue crown carved onto her head, and ordered a Temple of Millions of Years for herself at the edge of western Thebes. She also commissioned new statues of herself as king. Her new royal names are preserved on the surface of that one remaining statue, found by archaeologists near Heliopolis in the vicinity of modern-day Cairo.
Her rule is listed as lasting seven years but that includes the almost six year reign of her predecessor, Siptah which was assumed into her reign. Tawosret’s solo rule was more likely, between one and two years from 1191 to 1189 BC, however, excavations carried out by the University of Arizona on her memorial temple, ‘The Temple of Millions of Years’ at Gournah suggest the temple was completed and functional during her reign and that Twosret started a regnal year 9, which means that she had two and possibly three independent years of rule, once one deducts the nearly six-year reign of Siptah. Despite her youth, she reigned as king only two to four years after the death of the young Siptah.
Although still young and of childbearing age, Tawosret had no children, which might have been her intention when she took kingship. Nor are there any records of her re-marrying, as any “…sexual-romantic partner of King Tawosret would have been looked upon with great suspicion…” As she had no children, the next king would not be her son.
The circumstances of Tawosret’s death are unknown, but Egyptologists believe “…she was removed from power violently because her rule was seen as illegitimate.” This is supported by a stela from Elephantine which tells us,
“The land had been in confusion…[the great god] stretched out his arm and selected his majesty in life, prosperity, health from among the millions…Fear of him seized the hearts of combatants before him; they fled like sparrows with a falcon after them.”
After her removal she was replaced by Setnakht, whose name meant “Seth Is Mighty,” the founder of Dynasty 20. Despite being removed from power, Tawosret’s name was never intentionally removed, nor were Tawosret’s monuments intentionally destroyed. She was never erased from history, she continued to be mentioned in contemporary texts with her name in a cartouche during the reign of Ramses VI.
Tawosret was the “…product of disastrous and apocalyptic times, teetering on the brink of collapse, not of her own overreach.” Her reign came after that of two weak rulers, although of age Seti II spent more time trying to secure his reign than actually ruling, and her Siptah was feeble and ineffectual. Yet, Tawosret bares the blame for the collapse of the dynasty. After her rule there would be no female king until the Ptolemaic Dynasty over a thousand years later.
Tawosret lived through a civil war, took power back from the mercenary Bay, and went on to hold the highest position in the land, albeit for a short time and yet her story is not as well known as it deserves to be. She is remembered not for her successes, her ability to create her own destiny, and her strength of character. As a woman she took advantage of small opportunities available to her and made her way to the top. Instead she is remembered for failing and tainted by the suspicion of ‘violent acts’. Blamed for the failings of the men who came before her.