Tuesday, December 07, 2010


Cleopatra may not have been ancient Egypt's only female pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty -- Queen Arsinoë II, a woman who competed in and won Olympic events, came first, some 200 years earlier, according to a new study into a unique Egyptian crown.

After analyzing details and symbols of the crown worn by Arsinoë and reinterpreting Egyptian reliefs, Swedish researchers are questioning Egypt's traditional male-dominated royal line. They suggest that Queen Arsinoë II (316-270 B.C.) was the first female pharaoh belonging to Ptolemy's family -- the dynasty that ruled Egypt for some 300 years until the Roman conquest of 30 B.C.

While researchers largely agree on Arsinoë's prominence -- she was deified during her lifetime and honored for 200 years after her death -- the new study suggests she was in fact an Egyptian pharaoh with a role similar to the more famous Hatshepsut and Cleopatra VII.

One of the great women of the ancient world, Arsinoë was the daughter of Ptolemy I (366-283 B.C.), a Macedonian general under Alexander the Great who later became ruler of Egypt and founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty to which Cleopatra belonged. With a life marked by dynastic murders, intrigue, sex and greed, Arsinoë may have been the most outstanding of Cleopatra's female predecessors.

Married at the age of 16 to Lysimachus of Thrace, a 60-year-old general of Ptolemy I, Arsinoë earned great wealth and honors during her time in Greece. When, 18 years later, Lysimachus died, she married her half-brother, Ptolemy Keraunus. The marriage then ended abruptly after Keraunus killed two of Arsinoë's three sons. Arsinoë then returned to Egypt and married her brother King Ptolemy II, her junior by eight years.

Put on a level with the ancient goddesses Isis and Hathor, Arsinoë was considered a god during her lifetime and was honored for 200 years after her death at 45. A special shrine, the Arsinoëion, was built in her honor at Alexandria, and a festival, the Arsinoëia, was created for her.

Found in at least 27 variations, Arsinoë's symbolic crown was later worn by Ptolemaic queens Cleopatra III and Cleopatra VII and also used as a template
by several male Ptolemy descendants.

"This profound study opens a new field of research and shows that the other Ptolemaic queens, especially the Cleopatras, tended to imitate Arsinoë II in their iconographic elements," Mona Haggag, professor of classical archaeology at Alexandria University, Egypt, told Discovery News.

According to Carole Gillis, associate professor at the department of archaeology and ancient history at Lund University, Sweden, the study is important as it reveals that the Queen wore the crown in her own lifetime, in public view, with its symbols clearly understandable for everyone.

"This Queen was indeed a living King," Gillis told Discovery News.



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