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Incest, Murder and Power: Egyptologist to Discuss Rise of Ancient Female Rulers

Dr. Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA, is ready to talk about ancient coffins, power struggles, and the political machinations that put six female pharaohs on the throne.
Dr. Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA, is ready to talk about ancient coffins, power struggles, and the political machinations that put six female pharaohs on the throne.
Photo courtesy of Kara Cooney

Dr. Kathlyn (Kara) Cooney has traveled around the world and back in time, on archaeological excavations in Egypt, investigating ancient burial practices and documenting almost 300 coffins, including those found in Cairo, London and Vatican City collections.

But it was her knowledge about the 19th and 21st dynasties of Egypt, with her focus on female rulers in a patriarchal society, that got Dr. Cooney noticed by National Geographic. Cooney's first book, The Woman Who Would Be King, came out in 2014 and the publishers asked her to expand on the curriculum she has been teaching as professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA.

The resulting new book, When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt, is full of shadowy stories of murder, incest, political power plays and enough intrigue to satisfy even the most jaded reader.

The book releases October 30 and Cooney — who grew up in Houston — is returning to the Bayou City, courtesy of Society for the Performing Arts, for a lecture and presentation titled When Women Ruled the World: Egyptologist Kara Cooney.

She'll warm up the crowd with a discussion about those coffins (including some that were used more than once), then jump into the anthropological reasons why society distrusts female power before launching into the main event: an exploration into the lives of six remarkable female pharaohs.

There's Cleopatra, who eliminated her siblings (with the help of daddy and her lover) and capitalized on her sexuality; Neferusobek, the first female king; and Nefertiti, who did a complete reboot and totally reinvented herself. What unites these stories, and those of three other female rulers, is that they all attained power because of some kind of crisis, though they each stepped in to heal a different kind of breach.

"[Cleopatra] actually removed the technique of holding power that the Ptolomese had used for generations: uncle married niece, brother married sister. The Ptolomese liked to have two persons on the throne. Cleopatra discarded all of that, she had her brothers removed, her sisters removed." Cleopatra was the architect of her family's demise and, though she tried to rebuild by having children with Roman warlords (Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius), the 300-year reign of the Ptolemaic dynasty ended with her.

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Neferusobek also was the last of her dynasty. "She had no children. She was married to her half or full brother; she could have been a product of generations of incest," says Cooney, about the practice of holding on to money and power by not marrying outside the family. Even though she had no children, she was allowed to serve until her death. "There was a belief in the divinity of a king, and she was the daughter of a king."

Cooney tells us that Nefertiti translates to the beautiful one has come. "She actually moved into roles as co-king alongside her husband and maybe sole king after his death. She changed her name and she walked away from her beauty and went for a more masculinized power. She walked away from that version of herself," adds Cooney.

This event also serves as the inaugural Nat Geo Night for SPA Education, which means an ancient Egypt-themed photo booth has been set up in the lobby for pre-show pics. Parents and educators will want to check out the TEKS-aligned study guide with activities (spell your name in hieroglyphics), worksheets and links to amazing National Geographic photography.

When Women Ruled the World: Egyptologist Kara Cooney is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. November 10, Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 713-227-4772, spahouston.org/performances/egyptologist-kara-cooney, $45 to $65.

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