ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian institutions: The harem
The royal harem
    The Old Kingdom xnr
    The beginnings of the royal harem
    The New Kingdom institution
    Harem conspiracies
Women's quarters
The harem of the god Amen

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The harem in ancient Egypt

The royal harem

    The harem (also harim), xntj,[1]   xnr,[2] and the like, was an ancient Egyptian institution. The word 'harem', originally an Arabic term meaning 'forbidden place' [4] denoting the women's quarters in the palaces of the Ottoman rulers, was adopted by the Egyptologists for an administrative institution catering to the needs of royal women and their children.

The Old Kingdom xnr

Singers (Hs.t) and dancers from the harem of the acacia-temple (xnr-n-jAm.t)
Tomb 31, Saqqara, Old Kingdom [23]

    But the meaning of the word was wider. In the sources the xnr and its inhabitants, also called xnr or xnr.t, are mentioned in different contexts. In the mastabas of the Old Kingdom the singing of the ladies of the harem is frequently referred to, e.g. in the tomb of Shepsi-pu-Min the harem belonged to the mortuary foundation of the deceased:
Singing (or music making), xb-dancing and jbA-dancing by the ladies of the harem of his mortuary foundation for the kA of Hatia.
Tomb of Shepsi-pu-Min, Akhmim [5]
These singers and dancers were supervised by women overseers bearing titles like sHD-n.t-xnr.t and jm.jt-rA-xnr.[6]

The beginnings of the royal harem

    Since protodynastic times the pharaohs appear to have had multiple wives, ensuring their succession. Djer's tomb at Abydos was surrounded by tombs of women, supposedly his minor wives. Apart from their obvious reproductive role they may have been used to strengthen political bonds between the king and regional nobles,[7] just as during the New Kingdom the pharaohs entered into international alliances with the Great Kings of the time and accepted the protestations of loyalty of the kinglets of the Levant, by adding their daughters to their harems, an important tool in dynastic politics.
    Towards the end of the Old Kingdom, the king's main wife headed the harem.[7] The king's children were brought up in the harem, and at times the offspring of royal favourites and foreign hostages [8] were educated with the little princes. Ptahshepses was one of those lucky children to get such an education, presumably among the best in the kingdom, and becoming friends with royalty at an early age:
/// /// /// [in] the time of Shepseskaf; whom he educated among the king's children, in the palace of the king, in the privy chamber, in the royal harem; who was more honored before the king than any youth, Ptahshepses
Inscription of Ptahshepses, reign of Niuserre [9]

The New Kingdom institution

musicians_in_the_palace_of_aye Women musicians in the palace. Tomb of Aye at Akhetaten.[10]

    As little has survived of the ancient palaces, one can just suppose, that usually they were part of the royal palatial complexes [8] and of the Mooring Places of Pharaoh, the rural pieds à terre where the kings and their harems in the suite sojourned occasionally. But the harems were important economic institutions in their own right. The domain of the harem, the pr-xnr [3], owned large estates [13] where cattle was grown and textiles were produced,[7] and received generous allowances from the state treasury.[8] At times the harem even had the power to raise revenues on its own, an authority used excessively on occasion, until Horemheb restricted it in his Great Edict.[11]
    Few harems have been identified as such. Inscriptions found at Gurob point to the ruins of Mer-wer as remains of a harem, an apparently independent estate founded during the reign of Thutmose III which was still active during the Late New Kingdom. Rather than a hotbed of unbridled royal passion, its main role may have been that of a retirement home for elderly wives and concubines.[12] Another harem must have existed at Memphis, but no remains have been found.[8] At Akhetaten foundations of a palace, the so-called North-palace, similar in outlay to the one at Mer-wer were uncovered south of the private palace [14] and it is thought, that they were those of a harem.[8] Written sources also mention harems at Malkata and Thebes, but archaeology cannot determine their exact locations.[15]
    Royal harems were not exclusively populated and run by women. As early as the reign of Thutmose III the Gurob harem was administered by male officials among them the deputy supervisor Usermaatra-em-heb and Iy, the overseer of the royal harem. Lesser positions, such as that of servant of the harem, were also filled by men. One of these servants was Djarwy, whose stela has survived. The harem of Ramses III, which caused him so much trouble, also employed men and a number of the conspirators were harem officials.

Harem conspiracies

    Some of the inhabitants of the royal harem were just one step away from wielding real power, perhaps not directly in their own name, but as mother of a pharaoh their influence could be far-reaching. Becoming involved in political intrigues and championing one's own offspring must have been a constant temptation, above all for the second tier wives, whose children had smaller chances of accending to the throne than those of a Great Wife. But at times some harem ladies crossed the lines and plotted the violent overthrow of the king. The oldest known instance of criminal behaviour by a queen occurred during the Old Kingdom, when the official Weni was given the task of investigating and judging one of the queens of Pepi I:
I heard being alone with (only) the chief judge and the vizier, in every private matter /// in the name of the king, of the royal harem and of the six courts of justice...When legal procedure was instituted against the queen, Imtes, his majesty caused me to enter, in order to hear the case alone...Never before had one like me heard the secret of the royal harem, except that the king caused me to hear it...
Inscription of Weni, reign of Pepi I
    Amenemhet I may have fallen victim to a harem cabal, if the Tale of Sinuhe is based on historical fact,[16] but the best documented harem conspiracy was the one hatched by one of the royal wives, Tiye, against Ramses III, with the intention of raising her son Pentawere to the throne. The plot was uncovered and the conspirators, among them ladies of the harem and officials, were punished, as is described in the Judicial Turin Papyrus, but the king died shortly after the outbreak of the rebellion, possibly a consequence of the assassination attempt.

The women's quarters, the jp.t

    Most Egyptians, even many of the the noble and rich who could easily afford to keep a number of wives, were monogamous, but quite a few women lived in the larger households, be they partners, relatives or servants of one kind or another. These women had their own living space, the jp.t,[18] which at times is also referred to as harem. The majority of the women living there were not the wives or concubines of the householder, but rather the female servants subject to the rule of the Mistress of the House.
    The jp.t-nsw.t, jp.t-nswt, the women's appartment of the king, is known since the Old Kingdom, but the exact role it played is not quite certain. Unlike the New Kingdom pr-xnr the jp.t-nswt was apparently just part of the palace and had no economic independence. It was inhabited, among others, by servants such as the 5th dynasty woman called Nefer-seres who was looking after the king's entertainment:
Her foundation brother, the supervisor of singers of the palace of Nimaatre made this tomb of her mortuary foundation for her, as she was with the king in the residence and the women's quarters of the king (jp.t-nswt) for her daily complete provision, the Sole Ornament of the King, his beloved, overseer of musical performers (xnr) of the king, overseer of entertainment, Nefer-seres.
Mastaba of Nimaatre, 5th dynasty, Giza [19]
    This royal harem was under the supervision of the king's wife, as is suggested by the title of Steward of the Harem of the King's Wife (jm.j-r'-pr-n-jp.t-Hm.t-nswt ).

The harem of the god Amen

...Amen-Re-Kamutef who is at the head of his harem (jp.t), the great god in Djeme, beautiful of countenance, sweet of love.
Ptolemaic temple at Deir el Medina [22]
    Another kind of harem, the jp.t,[21] was the congregation of virgin priestesses, serving the god Amen as ritual priestesses, singers and dancers. They were under the supervision of the God's Wife, who also bore the title of Head of the Harem.[17] Ahmose I began the erection of the Southern Harem of Amen at Luxor which was finished after his death.[20] From there the god would set out on his annual processions.
[1] MdC transliteration xntj, Wb 3, 307
[2] MdC transliteration xnr Wb 3, 297.8-14, cf. xnr Wb 3, 295-296.7, 'to lock', 'to lockup', 'to restrain'
[3] MdC transliteration pr-xnr, Wb 3, 297.3-7
[4] from harama, 'be prohibited'. Concise Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press 1999, p.649
[5] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Achmim  => Felsgräbernekropole von El-Hawawisch => Felsgräber => Quadrate H, I, J und K => Grab H24 des Schepsi-pu-Min/Cheni => Pfeilerraum => Nordwand => westlicher Teil => Alltagsszenen => 3. Register von oben: Tanz- und Musikszene => Szenenbeischrift
[6] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website:  => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften: Grabinschriften => Sakkara => Unas-Friedhof => Grabkomplex des Mehu => Texte aus dem Mehu-Grab => Mittelraum => Ostwand => Texte
[7] Bunson 1991, p.157
[8] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, pp.118f.
[9] Breasted, Part One, §257
[10] Lepsius 1897, Abth. III. Bl. 106
[11] Kemp 2005, p.306
[12] Kemp 2005, p.288
[13] Bard & Shubert 1999, p.63
[14] Bard & Shubert 1999, p.933
[15] Ziegler 2008, p.78
[16] Bunson p.26
[17] Bunson p.153
[18] MdC transliteration jp.t, Wb 1, 67.13-68.6
[19] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website:  => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften: Grabinschriften => Gisa => Central Field (PM III, 230-293) => Mastaba des Nimaatre => Opferkammer der Nefer-seres => Eingang => Türlaibungen => rechte Laibung (Nord)
[20] Grimal 1994, p.200
[21] MdC transliteration jp.t, Wb 1, 68.2
[22] After a transliteration and French translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Leuven Online Index of Ptolemaic and Roman Hieroglyphic Texts, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven => Deir el-Medina => sanctuaire => décoration intérieure => paroi sud - moitié ouest => 2e reg => 1e scène: jri.t snTr qbH => Amon-Rê
[23] Lepsius 1897, Abth. II, Bl.101
Bard & Shubert 1999
Breasted 1906
Bunson 1991
Nicolas Grimal, A history of ancient Egypt, Wiley-Blackwell, 1994
Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: anatomy of a civilization, Routledge, 2005
Lepsius 1897
Shaw & Nicholson 1995
Christiane Ziegler, Queens of Egypt: From Hetepheres to Cleopatra, Somogy Editions d'Art, 2008


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