Dig Days:

A Tribute to Mrs Mubarak

By Zahi Hawass

Zahi Hawass

In 1993, I was contacted by Dr Farkhunda Hassan and asked if I would put together a book about the role of women in Ancient Egypt. The book was to be presented by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak at the Women's Conference scheduled to be held in China later that year.

Mrs Mubarak wanted to convey the fact that women enjoyed a privileged status during the time of the Pharaohs. Many were more empowered than women of the 20th century. Women in Pharaonic Egypt were entitled to inherit property and divorce their spouses, and also held important positions in society. Many were doctors, and there is even evidence of a woman judge. Women also had a large measure of influence on the building of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, as well as being involved with astronomy, calculating the position of the ancient monuments, advising the Pharaoh on the forces of nature and how to maximise crop productivity. Tomb paintings from the Old Kingdom show women overseeing the carving of statues which were placed on the walls of the tombs of deceased family members.

I was initially apprehensive about writing the book, knowing that Mrs Mubarak is a graduate of the American University in Cairo (AUC) and that she would expect nothing less than a text which reflected the high standard of excellence she demands of herself. This would require an enormous amount of research in a field that was not the focus of my doctorate in Egyptology, i.e. the archeology of the Old Kingdom. Up until that point in 1993, I had concentrated my academic and field work on discovering and analysing the amazing culture which had produced the Pyramids for which Egypt is renowned the world over.

Luckily, I had the time to devote myself to the project. After the initial research on the status of women in Ancient Egypt, it was clear that there was an underlying methodology defining their role. It appears that in most cases women worked closely with men, but in positions that permitted only a few, i.e. four, to assume the actual function of ruler. In addition to this period, women occupied influential roles in society from pre-dynastic times, right through the late period before Christianity. My research indicated that men were unable to rule without women, as the legitimacy of the Pharaoh, in part, came from his relationship with the women in his family.

The Osiris myth is an important indicator of the status of women in ancient times. After his death at the hands of his hateful brother Seth, it was Osiris's wife Isis who restored him to life. Osiris was revived to such an extent that he was able to sire a son, Horus. Isis taught Horus to rule, and his representative on earth, the Pharaoh, brought order to the world. Through her actions, Isis allowed the ancient life of the gods to be continued on earth, which in turn affected the quality of the Pharaoh's terrestrial existence. In an interesting postscript to the Isis story, Horus avenged his father's death by killing his uncle Seth. This myth is evidence of the fact that Egypt would never have achieved its glorious status without Isis.

The main point here is that research and field work turned up new information about women and their influential role in Ancient Egypt. Much of this material had never been published, which meant it was a chance to publish information about court life and the rights of women for the 3,000 years during which Egypt was the centre of the world.

The book was entitled Silent Images: Women in Pharaonic Egypt. The Ministry of Culture published the work and Mrs Mubarak took it to the International Women's Conference in China. AUC later republished the book in English, and it was also published in Italian and Japanese. Mrs Mubarak was the inspiration and director of a project which resulted in a book that is considered an important work in the field of Egyptology. This month the Arabic edition of my book will appear under the title The Lady of the Ancient World.

Thank you Mrs Mubarak for the inspiration.

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