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These UNESCO Monuments Celebrate the Women of Ancient Egypt

By Gulnaz Khan

Mar 10, 2020

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Situated in ancient Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Hatshepsut honors the namesake queen known for her prosperous and peaceful reign.

Photo by Tomasz Czajkowski/Shutterstock

Situated in ancient Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Hatshepsut honors the namesake queen known for her prosperous and peaceful reign.

Here’s where to venture beyond the pyramids and learn the legacies of powerful Egyptian queens and goddesses.

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When it comes to women’s rights, ancient Egypt was ahead of its time. Gender did play a role in Egyptian society—men, for example, commonly occupied positions of authority, while women were relegated to household duties—but women were seen as the equals of men in most other aspects of life. Ancient Egypt’s women owned property, participated in the legal system, and were free to marry and divorce as they pleased. Some even ruled entire kingdoms, such as Cleopatra VII, the last ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt (323–30 B.C.E.) before it was conquered and annexed by RomeLikewise, male and female deities were highly revered in ancient Egyptian religion, and both genders were believed to play vital roles in maintaining the “cosmic order.”

The legacies of ancient Egypt’s powerful, leading women live on at their tombs and temples, many of which are now protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites. (Archaeologists, however, are still searching for the tomb of queen Cleopatra VII and her lover, Roman general Mark Antony.) Here’s where to retrace the footsteps of ancient Egypt’s most extraordinary queens and goddesses.

The Temple of Isis honors the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility, healing, and magic.

Temple of Isis

Agilkia Island, Aswan

In ancient Egypt, the fertility goddess Isis represented the ideal wife and mother—she protected the sick and taught women how to weave, cook, and ferment beer. During the reign of Ptolemy II (285–246 B.C.E.), the Temple of Isis was built on Philae, a Nile River island downstream from Aswan, a city in southern Egypt. The site honored the goddess; her husband, Osiris (god of the dead); and their falcon-headed son, Horus the Young (a powerful sky god). Illustrations of several Egyptian myths cover the temple walls, but when early Christians arrived in Egypt during the Byzantine era (330-1453 C.E.), they defaced many of the “pagan” images and carved Coptic crosses into the walls.

In 1960, after the construction of the Aswan High Dam threatened to submerge the Temple of Isis underwater, UNESCO launched a campaign to dismantle and rebuild the sacred site on higher ground. Between 1976 and 1980, almost 50,000 sandstone blocks were carefully moved from the original site and reassembled on Agilkia Island, a smaller island just north of Philae. In 1979, the Temple of Isis was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list as part of a collection of multiple Nubian monuments near Aswan (a 1.5-hour flight from Cairo). Admission costs $11 and visitors can only reach the temple by boat; a 10-minute ride from the marina (located about 20 minutes from central Aswan) costs approximately $10 each way.

The Temple of Hathor is a monument to the ancient Egyptian goddess of the sky.

Temple of Hathor

Dendera Temple, Qena 

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It’s fitting that this monument dedicated to Hathor, ancient Egypt’s goddess of the sky, is listed as a UNESCO Astronomical World Heritage site, a title given to places that commemorate humankind’s study of astronomy throughout the ages. The temple, one of the best-preserved in Egypt, was constructed as part of the Dendera Temple complex during the Ptolemaic period (305–30 B.C.E.) and completed during the reign of Roman emperor Tiberius (14–37 C.E.). Astronomical calendars and constellations decorate the roof of the site’s hypostyle hall (a high-ceilinged room supported by several rows of pillars), and each distinctive column is topped with a massive carving of Hathor’s head. In a small chapel above the main temple, early 19th-century archaeologists discovered the famous Dendera Zodiac, a circular bas-relief featuring an outer ring with 36 divisions representing the 360 days of the Egyptian year and an inner circle filled with constellations and zodiac signs. (Historians believe the ceiling sculpture may have portrayed a map of the universe.)

In 1820, French antique collector Sébastien Louis Saulnier hired an antiquities thief to remove the astronomical carving with saws and gunpowder; today, the original is on display in Paris’s Louvre Museum, while a replica covers the ceiling at the Temple of Hathor in Egypt. The Dendera Temple complex is located about 45 minutes from Luxor’s main tourist hub in the city of Qena. It’s best to book a guided day tour with round-trip transportation between the Dendera Temple and Luxor. Visitors can choose from several group and private options, and most prices range from $40 to $140 per person depending on the duration of the tour.

Vibrant portraits inside Nefertari’s Tomb depict ancient Egyptian goddesses guiding the golden-crowned queen into the underworld.

Nefertari’s Tomb

Valley of the Queens, Luxor

Around 1250 B.C.E., Pharaoh Ramesses II buried his “favorite” wife, Nefertari, in the Valley of the Queens, an elaborate necropolis on the west bank of the Nile that includes more than 90 tombs built for royal wives and children. Although Nefertari was not a reigning queen like Cleopatra or Hatshepsut, she wielded significant influence in political and military affairs: It’s thought that she played a notable role in maintaining an important peace treaty between the Hittite and Egyptian empires, which was established during Ramesses II’s rule (and is considered the first international agreement in human history). Today, Nefertari’s crypt is known as the “Sistine Chapel of Egypt” because of its exquisitely preserved 3,000-year-old paintings, which are embellished with verses from the Book of the Dead (an ancient collection of mortuary texts) and represent the queen’s journey into the afterlife.

A series of descending chambers in the tomb feature vibrant portraits of Osiris, god of the dead, followed by ancient Egyptian goddesses Neith, Isis, and Hathor, who are shown guiding a golden-crowned Nefertari into the underworld, symbolizing the queen’s elevated status among mortals. Nefertari’s sarcophagus, which was looted in antiquity, originally rested in the final chamber underneath a dark blue ceiling covered in gold stars. General admission to the Valley of the Queens costs about $7, and a 10-minute visit to Nefertari’s tomb costs an additional $90. (Visitor traffic is limited to prevent damage to the site—even guides cannot accompany you inside.) Statues and monuments to Nefertari can also be found at several sites across Egypt, such as the Abu Simbel and Karnak Temples. 

Chapel of Sekhmet

Karnak Temple Complex, Luxor

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Stretched across more than 247 acres on the east bank of the Nile River, the Karnak Temple Complex (commonly referred to as Karnak) was the main center of worship in Thebes, one of ancient Egypt’s royal capitalsPharaoh Sesostris I began building Karnak in the 20th century B.C.E., although most of the remaining temples, obelisks, and pylons date to the New Kingdom (1539 to 1075 B.C.E.). Known as Ipet-Isut, or “Chosen of Places,” the colossal site is packed with architectural and artistic wonders, most of which are dedicated to ancient Egypt’s divine Theban Triad: the sun god Amun, his consort Mut, and their son Khonsu. But tucked away in a small chapel within the complex, one of Karnak’s lesser-known sanctuaries honors the leonine goddess of war, Sekhmet. Inside, a life-size granite statue of Sekhmet depicts the ancient lion-headed goddess holding an ankh (a looped cross) and a lotus flower to symbolize life and rebirth. The easiest way to find it is by asking a temple guard to show you the way. Tickets to Karnak cost approximately $13 on-site. 

In the Temple of Hatshepsut (part of the UNESCO-listed Theban Necroplis), detailed paintings celebrate the ancient queen’s reign defined by trade and development.

Temple of Hatshepsut

Theban Necropolis, Deir el-Bahri

Situated below the steep, sunbleached cliffs of Deir el-Bahri in the Valley of the Kings, the stepped Temple of Hatshepsut honors one of Egypt’s most remarkable queens. When Hatshepsut’s husband, Thutmose II, died in 1479 B.C.E., she acted as regent for her three-year-old stepson Thutmose III, who was heir to the throne but not yet able to rule. Around the seventh year of her reign, Hatshepsut had amassed enough power to adopt the full authority and title of a male pharaoh. She coruled Egypt with Thutmose III until her death in 1458 B.C.E.; she was buried near the Valley of the Kings on the Nile River’s west bank. Throughout the Temple of Hatshepsut, detailed reliefs and paintings celebrate the Egyptian ruler’s prosperous reign, a peaceful era defined by trade and nationwide building projects and development. After Hatshepsut’s death, Thutmose III defaced many of her statues and monuments—historians suggest he may have wanted to erase a female from the line of kings—but when archaeologists deciphered the hieroglyphics on her temple in 1822, they pieced together her story. Entrance to the Temple of Hatshepsut costs about $9 per person. 

How to see Luxor’s ancient Egyptian sites in one trip

Nefertari’s Tomb, the Chapel of Sekhmet, and the Temple of Hatshepsut are all located within the ancient city of Thebes, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Luxor, Egypt (about an hour flight from Cairo). A five-day Premium Luxor Pass allows entrance to all of Luxor’s archaeological ruins, which include the Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, and Theban Necropolis (the site of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens). Premium Luxor Passes are sold for $200 per person at the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities in Cairo, as well as from the ticket office at Luxor’s Karnak Temple. Bring a copy of your passport, a passport photo, and a student ID, if applicable. 

>>Next: Egypt Opens 105-Mile Hiking Trail in the Red Sea Mountains

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