Pharaohs: traffic of princesses for the harem

In ancient Egypt, the harem was not only the place dedicated to the sensual pleasures of the ruler. This institution bringing together wives, mistresses and concubines also played a decisive role in the foreign policy of the pharaonic state.

“Ramses in his harem”. By Jean Jules Antoine Lecomte du Noüy
“Ramses in his harem”. By Jean Jules Antoine Lecomte du Noüy

In ancient Egypt, everything that touched the person of the pharaoh was meticulously codified and ritualized. Starting with his closest family: his wives with their different statuses — main wives, secondary wives, favorite, concubines — and his children came under the institution of the royal harem; his sisters and his mother did not fail to stay there too, if only more occasionally.

The royal harem was installed in a part of the royal palace or in the palace complex, as in Thebes or in Akhetaten, the capital of Akhenaten. It could also be established in an independent construction, as in Memphis or Merour, near modern Gurob, where an arm of the Nile flows into Lake Fayoum. Merour’s harem comprised two rectangular mud-brick buildings, one for living quarters, the other for outbuildings. A temple and a necropolis were annexed to it.

Alongside these fixed harems, there was also a traveling harem with a crew, so that the pharaoh’s companions could follow him comfortably during his many trips. Moreover, it was an opportunity to levy, in passing, taxes on the cities that had the honor of hosting it.

Ritual orgies in honor of Hathor

The term harem should not be reduced to what it covers in the Eastern cultures from which Egyptology borrowed it. More than a simple annex to the palace, cut off from the outside world, where fat odalisques killed time under the supervision of surly eunuchs, it was a complex institution, a “legal person” so to speak, inserted into the multiple economic cogs of the pharaonic state. Attached to him was an essentially male administration, under the leadership of a director of the harem. It was also attached to labour, buildings, herds, real estate, estates and arable land, sometimes located at a good distance, and fisheries, in particular at Merour because of its proximity to the very fishy Fayoum lake. It could be a place of production, especially of textiles and clothing, thanks to the weaving workshops supervised by women.

Many were the women who resided in the harem awaiting the favors of their lord and master. The ideology gratifies the pharaoh with extraordinary capacities. During the festivals of Hathor, which culminated in ritual orgies, he had to behave as “a young erect copulatory man, who delights the harem with his sexual performances”. Nice program, strongly encouraging to move from theory to practice. Admittedly, there were pharaohs who were not very inclined towards the fairer sex. Pepi II, for example, preferred the rough but exhilarating coat of his whitened general under the harness. But most naturally took advantage of the advantages of the position and the good opportunities it offered them.

Because the temptations were not lacking. The taboo of consanguinity not weighing much in the royal family, the pharaohs could unite with their collaterals, sisters, nieces, aunts. Some even maintain that they sometimes married their daughters, which is not definitively established. In general, the elite of society, sniffing out a good deal, was not reluctant to put at their disposal their daughters and wives, then promoted to “king’s ornaments”.

“As a result of the “temptations” of the harem, the pharaohs could boast of abundant offspring. Like Ramses II, who had no less than 85 children.”

Some representations of the harem let us glimpse alluring beauties perfecting themselves in the handling of the lute and the harp, and deploying their grace in agile dances. What more eloquent evocation of a queen dedicated to the approval of the pharaoh than these epithets qualifying Nefertiti: “the one with the beautiful face, pretty with the double feather, mistress of joy, to hear the voice of which one rejoices, mistress of grace, whose love is great, who has a way of being which delights the master of the two countries [the pharaoh]”? Let’s not hide it: many pharaohs cheerfully celebrated the pleasures of the flesh. Even the very religious Akhenaton, whom one would have imagined obsessed with more spiritual concerns, and at the very least fulfilled to have Nefertiti as his wife, had taken to running the guilledou. We can easily guess the consequences of these sexual facilities: the pharaohs often gloried in abundant offspring. For example, Ramesses II had no less than 40 girls and 45 boys.

Political marriages

If the pharaohs multiplied wives, mistresses and concubines at will, it was not only by drawing on the abundant local resources, but also thanks to the practice of diplomatic marriage. By virtue of a firmly established custom, especially under the New Kingdom, the pharaoh sealed or confirmed the bonds of friendship — very often, in fact, of vassalage — which united Egypt to foreign states, cities or chiefdoms. , by claiming one of their daughters for a wife from their sovereigns as soon as they acceded to power, and also each time the political situation demanded a gesture. Exemplary case, Ramses II twice married Hittite princesses in order to consolidate peaceful relations painfully assured after a long conflict. Several stelae were erected in the temples to inscribe these two events in the history of Egypt.

Amenhotep III chooses another way to “mediatize” his marriage with Giloukhepa, the daughter of Shouttarna II, king of Mitanni. He had a special series of scarabs issued which bore a long text relating with what pomp and solemnity she had been received in Egypt. Other series had been issued to celebrate his hunting exploits. So, whether the game was a princess or lions, Amenhotep III was definitely a famous hunter! Moreover, during the reign of this pharaoh, which marks the height of Egyptian power, no less than 356 foreign women were part of the royal harem. Their children or their brothers were welcomed there too. They received an Egyptian education as “children of the Kap”, the institution in which they rubbed shoulders with the children of the royal family and the palatine elite. Sometimes they returned to their country of origin to occupy the throne of a deceased father. Egypt’s foreign policy would, of course, greatly benefit from this.

A lovesick widow

If the pharaoh felt entitled to request wives from foreign sovereigns, the reverse was not true, at least in principle. Thus, Amenhotep III delivered a scathing refusal to King Kadasman-Enlil I of Babylon, who had had the audacity to ask him for the hand of one of his daughters: “As far as we go back — he decided — , a Pharaoh’s daughter was never given in marriage to a foreigner. By insulting the Babylonian, the pharaoh was insulting the future. Some time later, a widowed queen of Egypt — Nefertiti or Ankhesenamon, wife of Tutankhamun, we are still debating this — begged a Hittite king to send her one of his sons to fill her solitude: sic transit gloria mundi. In addition, the Bible reports that Solomon would have married a daughter of Pharaoh.

We tend to believe a priori that the pharaonic harem must have been a hotbed of intrigue. It was indeed the case. Despite the reluctance specific to political correctness imposed by ideology, the echoes of dark affairs hatched there have reached us. At the beginning of the 6th dynasty, under Pepi I (2289–2255 BC), a queen, whose name remains unknown, was brought to justice. If Amenemhat I, the first pharaoh of the twelfth dynasty, is so bitter in the teaching attributed to him, it is because he had to face a sedition born in the harem, which he denounces as unheard of: women previously recruited henchmen? Is it from inside the palace that the rebels are rooted out? That his close friends, whom he had nevertheless pampered, plotted against him illustrated the black ingratitude that marks the human condition.

A millennium later a conspiracy arose again in the harem, the kingpin of which was a wife of Ramses III named Tiyi — not to be confused with the illustrious wife of Amenhotep III. She was thinking of placing her son Pentaour on the throne, while the pharaoh’s choice had fallen on another of his sons. Tiyi had been able to rally the other women of this institution and an important part of its administration to her cause, in addition to very strong supporters outside in the ruling elite and among specialists in grimoires. A long debate has opposed Egyptologists on the outcome of the plot, because the documents that relate it are written in such a way as to cast a euphemistic veil over facts deemed unspeakable. A recent examination of the mummy of Ramses III revealed that he had indeed had his throat cut…


3100–3000 BC. J.-C.
During the Protothini period, some clues suggest that women in the sovereign’s entourage had a special status.

1490–1436 BC. J.-C.
Thutmose III built the harem of Merour in a strategic location, near a port on an arm of the Nile flowing into Lake Fayoum.

1412–1402 BC. J.-C.
Thutmose IV marries a daughter of Artatama I, king of Mitanni, to consolidate the peaceful relations established after years of war.

1402–1364 BC. J.-C.
Amenhotep III marries Giloukhepa, daughter of the king of Mitanni, and celebrates the event by emitting scarabs.

1364–1347 BC. J.-C.
Akhenaten perpetuates the practice of diplomatic marriage. The foreign princesses are installed in the harem of Akhetaton.

1255 BC. J.-C.
Ramses II consolidates, by his marriage with the daughter of Hattousili III, the peace treaty with the Hittite kingdom, which put an end to a long conflict.



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