Bettany Hughes on the secrets of Ancient Egypt's stereotype-busting women

Historian Bettany Hughes
Historian Bettany Hughes

Thick, curly, strawberry blonde hair. Not what you’d expect on the head of a 3,400-year-old mummy from Ancient Egypt. But when I watched as the lid of the golden coffin of Tutankhamun’s great-grandmother was gingerly lifted, that gorgeous coiffure is what struck me first – after the smell.

Buried for 34 centuries in the Valley of the Kings, Tjuyu’s coffin is still pungent with resin (plant extracts mixed with frankincense ), used to help preserve the noblewoman’s tiny body, and bitumen – to seal the coffin. Egypt’s embalmers did a great job, the ancient matriarch is smiling on her journey to the afterlife –  minus one mysteriously missing toe.

I came face to face with Tjuyu on my quest to understand Ancient Egypt as it was actually experienced by the ancient Egyptians for a new documentary series. A place where women as well as men, commoners as well as pharaohs had a cogent part in the story of civilisation. Because this really was a culture where both sexes could make their mark.

Ancient Egyptian women had rights under the law. They could own land. Many were literate. Tjuyu – who, I noted, when her mummified face stared back at me, passed her high cheekbones and overbite to her more famous great-grandson, Tutankhamun – commanded power in court.

Not officially a queen (despite being mother to one – Tiye), she held many influential roles, including Chief of Entertainers and Superintendent of the Harem. Ancient Egyptian potency wasn’t all pharaohs and phallic obelisks.

3,400-year-old Ancient Egyptian Tjuyu, the great-grandmother of Tutankhamun who held many official roles, though was not a Queen

Egypt is the “gift of the Nile” – as Herodotus put it 2,500 years ago – so to find Egypt’s neglected women, I travelled the river from Alexandria to Sudan.

I was on the trail of Hatshepsut, the stereotype-busting female pharaoh. With a touch of an Egyptian Gentleman Jack (Anne Lister, currently being played by Suranne Jones on the BBC), Hapshetsut is often portrayed in male dress – including a fine, Pharaoh's beard. She was smart and a strategic reformer – the brains behind Egypt’s Golden Age.

Her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri, across the Nile from Luxor, was an architectural trendsetter. On her tomb, she is described as “Mistress of All Lands”. But climbing above her temple, we investigated intriguing evidence that hints at the challenge of being a she-king.

High up the rock face, at the back of a workman’s cave, is a smutty graffito, showing the female royal bending over and, well, you can guess the rest. Hatshepsut’s sexual partner could be her right-hand man, Senenmut, who, contemporaries gossiped, was her lover. That tricky climb to see the ancient erotica comes with a serious health warning: it’s perilous. Our camera tripod went crashing down the mountain. If the cameraman had followed, I doubt he’d have lived to tell the tale.

Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut's funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri, which became an architectural trend-setter

We regularly had to take our lives in our hands. Slipping down into the bedrock 100m inside the partially excavated tomb of Pharaoh Senwosret at Abydos, I really thought I was going to die. Oxygen levels are dangerously low and, with over 90 per cent humidity, it was hard to breathe – we were all drenched with sweat. Having found the 50-ton granite blocks concealing Senwosret’s burial, we were happy to get back to the desert surface.

Another day, when our boat got stuck on a sandbank, we all ended up in the Nile – bilharzia and all. But it felt important to throw myself into these experiences to unlock the secrets of the female potentates: despite the fact I’m surrounded by women archaeologists , TV history-adventures have typically been owned by (male) Indiana Jones-types.

After hitchhiking on the back of a policeman’s motorbike into the desert at Al-Minya, I met one Dr Mervat who had made it her mission to rescue the blue lotus from extinction. The flower was the ancient Egyptian’s party drug of choice. It was described as smelling like “the sun god Ra’s sweat” (a compliment) and the flowers were steeped in oil, wine, beer, or simply smoked.

The Blue Lotus, Ancient Egyptian’s party-drug of choice, was described as smelling like ‘the Sun God Ra’s sweat’

One research team has recently identified the blue lotus as having both mild psychotropic and aphrodisiac qualities. Just smelling A single bloom – cut straight from the water by Dr Mervat – was a pretty heady experience. Ancient Egyptian women in particular are portrayed in tomb paintings and on temple walls up and down the Nile, sniffing deep and long from the lotus. Blue lotus-bliss would certainly have been part of Cleopatra’s life experience.

Richly-perfumed, she was famous for throwing wild parties with stimulants galore on offer. Exploring one of her hangouts, the Temple of Dendera, I managed to talk my way past the security guards up on to the roof, where the Ptolemaic ruler had set up a secret night shrine to honour the birth of Caesarion – her son by her lover Julius Caesar.

Far more than just a seductress, Cleopatra was also a scientist; the temple below is thick with detailed astronomical scenes. Standing on the high roof, as night fell, buffeted by a hot, North African wind, I could imagine Cleopatra looking out over the Nile and its fertile banks, revelling in her world-beating power.

Hapy, the ancient god of the Nile, depicted at Dendera with Cleopatra, is typically shown with breasts – symbolism that demonstrated how the life-giving gifts of Egypt’s river artery come only when the power of both female and male was combined.

The Nile has long nourished women and men alike. On the Nile and the magical, river-island Temple of Philae, Florence Nightingale was so inspired that she resolved to follow  her calling in nursing. Agatha Christie imagined Death on the Nile while travelling on the SS Sudan – the steamboat that still plies the river, and whose chief steward welcomed me and my crew on board for hibiscus cocktails.

Along the 900-miles of bank, local women called out, inviting us to share tea. Hawkers latched on to our wooden dahabiya, selling their wares. One had a pink, sequinned kaftan featuring the head of Nefertiti – Tutankhamun’s stepmother, a beauty, mother of  (at least) six and ancient power-broker. The Nile is a dynamic place to uncover not just stories of the dead, but of the lives of Egyptian women, ancient and modern.

The Nile: – Egypt’s Great River with Bettany Hughes starts tonight on Channel 5 at 9pm