The Turkish word harim (Arab., “forbidden, inviolable”) refers to the part of a palace where the women and their resident personnel lived in seclusion. They were under the authority of the ruler, but within the harem existed a hierarchical order, the top of which was the sultan's mother. A woman treasurer was responsible for the management of the harem. At the next rank are the sultan's favorite, then his sisters and daughters. The favorite who bore the first son to the sultan became his first spouse; he could have four. Women slaves assumed higher rank if they bore the sultan's children. Women enjoying privileged status had their own household and income; the highest in rank owned palaces within the domain of the harem. Within the harem itself, the crown prince had his own harem. The work was done by numerous ordinary slaves and servants, watched over by eunuchs. The struggle for position was carried out through intrigue, and succession was often linked to murder.

Judging from administrative titles and texts, it seems that the institution of the harem in ancient Egypt was structured in a similar way. The Egyptian harem residents, however, were not cut off from public life, and there is no evidence for the presence of eunuchs in the royal harem or private household.

In the Old Kingdom, several queens of the kings Khufu, Pepy II, and Teti possessed smaller subsidiary pyramids. These are depicted in the cult areas of the kings' pyramids. In the Middle Kingdom, shaft tombs were built for certain queens and princesses. Behind the tomb-temple of Montuhotep I in Deir el-Bahri are burials of six young royal women who bore the titles “king's wife,” “sole royal ornament,” and “priestess of Hathor”—h1s that tie them to the cult of the king as living god (Min), as Sabbahy (1997) discusses. Nearby are the tombs of Queen Tem, mother of Montuhotep II, and his sister and queen Neferu.

Near the pyramid of Amenemhet I in Faiyum are nine small pyramids for the royal ladies, the pyramid of the queen being larger than the others. After the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty, the queens and princes of the New Kingdom, as well as the princesses and favorites, were buried in the Valley of the Queens. They had their own area, separate from the king, who was buried in the Valley of the Kings. However, the queens could participate in the cult for the dead in the mortuary temple of the king. An exception is the huge family mausoleum for the fifty-two sons of Ramesses II in the Valley of the Kings, not far from his own tomb.

The costly maintenance of a harem was possible only for a king, but well-to-do private persons might have more than one wife, or several concubines, as we see in representations in private tombs of the Middle and New Kingdom. Simpson (1974) gives several examples that document polygamy in Egypt. In the wall paintings of the tomb of the nomarch Khnumhotep II (nineteenth century BCE), in Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt, two wives are represented, but only one, Kheti, bears the titles “mistress of the house” and “his beloved wife” and is depicted the same size as Khnumhotep. The second wife is the same size as the children and is not featured in such a prominent position as Kheti. The first of the boats on the “journey to Abydos” is occupied by the sons of the monarch; female persons sit in the cabin of the second boat, labeled by the inscriptions as the mistress of the house Kheti, the (female) children of the nomarch, and women—one of them his second wife—who also bore him children. Neither the spouse nor any concubines of a private person had property that would require administration.

The oldest Egyptian term that is usually translated “harem” is ipt, found on imprints of a cylinder seal from the first dynasty in the tomb of King Semerkhet, which mentions the “cellar of the weaving workshop of the ipt.”

One must keep in mind that “harem” does not mean simply concubines, but the community of women and children who belong to the royal household but live in separate apartments or buildings, having their own income, as we can see in administrative documents from the New Kingdom.

The term ipt nswt, which first appears in Old Kingdom inscriptions, according to Del Nord seems “to denote the private quarters of the [king's] palace in which lived the queen(s?), the royal children and certain favored nonroyal children” (1975), but this does not imply a harem.

From archaic times up to the Middle Kingdom, we see the word ipt written only as a phonogram, with rare examples of the phonetic complement found in writings of the New Kingdom. The hieroglyph seems to depict a kind of a simple vaulted building, or sometimes a carrying chair of similar appearance. David Lorton (Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 11, 1974: 98–101) tries to find evidence that ipt means “counting-house,” and ipt nswt, “royal counting-house.” This view is shared by William A. Ward (1986), but he admits that “royal counting-house” does not always make sense in the given contexts, and that “royal apartment” or sometimes “royal granary” would be more suitable.

From the Old Kingdom, the term ḫnr stands for a group of women formerly defined as “the harem and its inhabitants”; it is etymologically derived from “restrain, confine.” There are various spellings: the earliest form in the Old Kingdom is ḫn(i) without phonetic complement for the ending, but from the sixth dynasty on it is written ḫnr. Bryan (1982) therefore prefers a connection to the older form ḫni “to keep rhythm” and ḫnw/i(t) “musician.” These women are headed by the imjt rʒ ḫnr “(female) overseer of the ḫnr,” a title that is also held by royal women. From inscriptions of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, we know about their activities as dancers and singers, mostly in connection with the funerary estate and religious performances in temples for Bat, Hathor, Horus, Onuris, and Min. Therefore the translation “musical performers” has been suggested by Nord (1981), and “troupe of singers and dancers” by Ward (1986) for the Old to Middle Kingdoms. The latter would like to have it understood exclusively in this sense, as he denies the existence of harem women in earlier periods.

The female title ẖkrt nswt (“ornament of the king”) or ẖkrt nswt wʿtt (“sole ornament of the king”) is attested already for the fifth dynasty and was commonly used beginning in the Herakleopolitan period. It is a title of honor used for princesses and for women of high social status, often those married to courtiers and priests. Ward defines these women as “ladies-in-waiting” who could also belong to the queen's household. Their actual origin is in most cases not indicated, and perhaps we may assume that they came from a lower social class and were chosen because of their beauty or outstanding talents like singing and dancing to be educated for the king's court. Their esteem at court made them suitable for marriage to distinguished men, who were thus bound more closely to the king's court and hence could further their careers. Their descendants also had better chances for a career at court. The women were by no means just concubines of the king. Wall paintings in private tombs of the New Kingdom in Thebes depict them as graceful girls with magnificent diadems. Some of these “ornaments of the king” were accorded burial by the king, even in the Valley of the Queens.

Another word for female is nfrwt (“the beautiful ones”). Like the ẖkrt nswt, they have been associated with the cult of Hathor. “The beautiful ones” is a term used for young girls who have not given birth yet, according to Papyrus Westcar. Lana Troy (1986, p. 78) explains the difference between ẖkrt nswt and nfrwt as a distinction between age groups. One could consider the nfrwt as novices. This would make sense in the title imj rʒ ḫnrwt n nfrwt (“overseer of the ḫnr of the beautiful ones”), which once belonged to Khesu the Elder from Kom el-Hisn, a priest of the Hathor temple in the twelfth dynasty. He also bore the titles imj rʒ ḫnrwt and ḥri tp nfrwt (“chief of the beautiful ones”); ḫnrwt is the group of women, and nfrwt the specification.

Boys as well as girls were educated together with the royal children at the king's court, in the harem. They held the title ẖrdw n kp (“children of the kap” or “pages”). Kap is a part of the palace—a school or nursery. During the eighteenth dynasty, a great number of officials connected with the king's court were educated there. At the time of the Ramessids, the title “children of the kap” was no longer in use.

During their first years, royal children were kept in the care of the wet-nurse, royal nurse, and chief royal nurse. The nurses were held in high regard. Several of these ladies were wives or mothers of high officials. The royal ornament, chief royal nurse, and wet-nurse of Queen Nefertiti became the wife of the vizier and later king, Ay. In the Middle Kingdom even men could bear this title, indicating that it does not designate only the feeding and rearing of babies but also education and teaching.

In the New Kingdom, the importance of the harem increased. Women and children of high rank who were taken as spoils of war and brought to Egypt also lived in the harem. Diplomatic marriages between Egyptian kings—such as Amenhotpe III and Ramesses II—and foreign princesses were frequently arranged to guarantee peace. These women became secondary queens and brought along with them rich dowries and their own retinues. The Mitanni princess Giluchepa, who was sent to Amenhotpe III, came with 317 women, the “chief women of the ḫnrw.” In this period, harem women were also bequeathed: after the death of Amenhotpe III, the Mitanni princess Taduchepa was passed on to the harem of his successor, Amenhotpe IV.


Harem. Ramesses III depicted with women of his harem, twentieth dynasty. This is a copy of a relief from the Eastern Gate of the temple of Medinet Habu.

The royal harem was an autonomous institution with its own administration. Like the royal household and temples, it received regular revenue from taxes of the city in which its permanent residence was situated. When the harem was traveling, supplies were provided by the local mayors in cities it passed through. The harem owned agricultural land, cattle, and manufacturing workshops such as mills and weaving centers. The mills ground grain for the households of the king and the queen. It is likely that fabrics for the entire royal household were produced in the weaving workshops of the harem—above all, the finer textiles such as royal linen. Foreign women also worked there, especially Syrians, whose weaving was in great demand on account of its magnificent colors and patterns.

Beginning in the New Kingdom we find the term pr ḫnrt or pr ḫnty—a variation derived from the confusion of two similar Hieratic signs—which appears to mean “household of the harem” as an administrative unit; compare pr, “household” of the king, queen, princes, and royal children. The highest administrative official was the imi rʒ ipt nswt “overseer of the royal harem,” a title attested as early as the fourth dynasty from private tombs in Giza. He held a position of exceptional trust, as demonstrated by additional titles that indicate special proximity to the king: “master of the secrets,” “sealbearer of the king,” “sole companion.” In the Middle and New Kingdoms, the title “tutor of the royal children” is sometimes added. He had access to the harem and may also have been an overseer of the queen's household. His sphere of activity is sometimes indicated by the title “overseer of the royal harem of the household of the harem of Memphis,” “of the household of the harem of Ghurob,” or “of the household of the harem in the suite.” Among the accused persons listed in the Turin Judicial Papyrus, besides the “overseer of the royal harem,” are several other officials of the household of the harem ḥr šmsw (“in the suite”). This was the harem that accompanied the pharaoh on his journeys, a small group of carefully selected persons along with their staff.

Next in rank was the idnw n pr ḫnr or idnw n pr ḫnrt (“deputy of the household of the harem”), likewise specified as located in Memphis, Ghurob, or with the suite. Actively engaged in administration were the “scribes of the royal harem,” “royal scribes of the household of the harem,” and “scribes of the treasury of the household of the harem.” A frequent title in the New Kingdom is rwḏ n pr ḫnrt (“inspector of the harem”). Persons bearing this title were also associated with the harem in the suite; together with the sš wḏḥw (“scribe of the table”), they were responsible for the purveyance of food.

The gates of the harem quarters were guarded by the rmṯ pʒ sbʒ n pr ipt or sʒw n ipt nswt (“doorkeepers of the king's harem”). The term sʿšʒ seems to indicate a kind of palace guard distinguished by the flat club made of leather which he held in his hand. Fischer (1978) gives a plausible explanation for the shape and material of this special club, based on various representations in New Kingdom tombs of high officials and on temple walls. These guards were monitors who ran ahead of the king and queen at public appearances. Their special task was to clear the way and keep the crowd at a proper distance.

The talatat blocks from the temple of Amenhotpe IV (Akhenaten) in Karnak offer a good illustration of the public appearance of the king with his family and retinue. We always see the same order: king, queen, and children of the king. The officials who are seen bowing next to the palanquins, carrying the children of the king, or near ladies holding fans in their hands are, as the inscriptions indicate, the overseer of the king's harem, inspectors of the harem, and the sʿšʒ (guards or police).

As we know from a few archeological finds, the king's harem, though considered a part of his palace-household, was housed in a building of its own. Papyri from the times of Amenemhet III and Senwosret III, found in Illahun, mention several persons connected with the harem and thus prove the existence of a harem in the neighborhood of this town, the capital of that period. A large palace enclosure near Illahun, discovered by Flinders Petrie before 1890, indicated that the oasis of Faiyum was later a popular place of residence for the royal family. There are the remains of a small city and a small temple from the time of Thutmose III (1490–1439 BCE) within an enclosure wall. Two large rectangular complexes are situated lengthwise, parallel to each other. Both are divided by corridors into two parts. The northern part, with its column bases and doors partially cased with stone, is the more stately building. This corridor may have separated the chambers of the queen and her court from the rest of the harem. The parallel southern building, which has the same partition, contained the harem's housekeeping areas. Artifacts such as jewelry, cosmetic articles, children's toys, tools from the weavers' workshops, a statuette of the chief of weavers Lady Teye, pottery, fragments of furniture, and rings inscribed with royal names (one with the bezel in the shape of a cartouche with the prenomen of Sety II), confirm that these buildings were inhabited at least up to the nineteenth dynasty, and to some extent up to the time of Ramesses III (twelfth century BCE). Kemp (1978) gives a list of objects bearing names and titles of officials from the royal harem at Medinet el-Ghurob. Tombs of male and female residents were found in the vicinity, among them a large one belonging to Ramessu-nebweben, a Ramessid prince.

The great residential area of Amenhotpe III (r. 1410–1372 BCE) in Malqata on the west side of Thebes, with its huge artificial lake, exhibits several residential palaces. The center of the king's palace is a large columned hall with a throne and several apartments, the latter probably designated for the most important concubines. The queen had her own palace next to the king's and arranged in similar fashion, but smaller. Remains of wall paintings were also found there. Additional palaces and villas were designated for the successor to the throne, Akhenaten, for princes and princesses, and for foreign princesses and their households; it is likely that his parents-in-law Yuya and Tuya were also quartered there.

In Tell el-Amarna, the residence of King Akhenaten (r. 1372–1355 BCE) in Middle Egypt, we also find public quarters and living quarters with a private palace for the king, as well as palaces for the royal family and for their entourage. The so-called north palace may well have been the main residence of Akhenaten's oldest daughter Meritaten, who became the “great royal wife” after the death of Nefertiti. The women's wing is divided into the southern and northern harems, furnished with gardens and ponds. Walls and pavements were painted, depicting flowers, fruit stands, pools surrounded by vegetation, and animals. Bound enemies were painted on the pathways of the halls. In addition, the walls and columns were decorated with colorful faience inlay.

Outside the capital, the kings also had palaces in other towns, which surely included a private palace and a harem. The small palaces near the mortuary temples in western Thebes may serve as a model. These are situated at the first court of the temple and have a “window of appearance” for ceremonial presentation. On the topmost levels of the High Gate of Medinet Habu, the towerlike structures of the front entrance in the enclosure wall of the mortuary temple of Ramesses III, private rooms were decorated with reliefs and paintings depicting the king surrounded by girls and princesses.

Through a few texts preserved from the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, we may learn directly or indirectly about intrigues within the royal harem in connection with the succession to the throne. Since it is known that the kings often had several wives, conflicts readily arose if the crown prince was not officially designated by the ruling king. For the Old Kingdom, there is a hint of a plot against Pepy I, planned by Queen Weret-imtes. Weni, who made his career under the kings Teti, Pepy I, and Antyemsaf, informs us in an autobiographic inscription in his tomb at Abydos about a secret investigation in the royal harem against the queen. He points out that he was the confidant of the king, the only one to enter the harem and to “hear the secrets of the royal harem.”

Amenemhet I, the first king of the twelfth dynasty, who ruled for almost thirty years, appointed the crown prince, Senwosret, as coregent in his twentieth year of rule. Based on the Instructions of Amenemhet and the Story of Sinuhe, it is assumed that the king was murdered as a result of a harem plot (see Volten 1945). Assassination is mentioned in the Instructions of Amenemhet, but this is a propaganda text that was written at the time when Senwosret I was already the absolute ruler, undoubtedly to justify his coregency.

Likewise considered to be propaganda texts are papyri that tell about the trial of persons who planned the murder of Ramesses III. The principal defendant was the secondary queen Tiy, who wanted to place her son Pentewere on the throne. At the same time, a revolt was supposed to take place outside of the palace. Ramesses IV, the successor to the throne, conducted the investigation. The jury was composed of fourteen officials. Twenty-eight persons were sentenced to death, and others were allowed to die by their own hand, among them Pentewere. A few of the investigating judges, who had connections to the persons accused, were punished by having their noses and ears cut off. Ramesses III died during the trial at an age of sixty-five in his thirty-second year of rule, but not as a result of this harem plot. There were no injuries found on his mummy—just a high degree of arteriosclerosis, which probably led to his death.

The propaganda text, which was written during or before the accession of Ramesses IV to the throne and was posted publicly in the temple area of Medinet Habu, was supposed to confirm that Ramesses III had designated his son Ramesses to be his successor.


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  • Fischer, Henry George. “Notes on Sticks and Staves in Ancient Egypt.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 13 (1978), 20.
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  • Simpson, William Kelly. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 60 (1974), 100–105.
  • Smith, Ray Winfield, and Donald B. Redford. The Akhenaten Temple Project I: Initial Discoveries. Warminster, 1976. Reliefs represent the pharaoh, his family, the entourage, and officials of the royal household.
  • Smith, W. Stevenson. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. 2d rev. ed., edited by William Kelly Simpson. New Haven and London, 1981. Plans of towns and palaces, with photos of wall paintings and other decorations, especially of the palaces of Amenhotpe III at Malqata and of Akhenaten at Tell el-Amarna.
  • Troy, L. Patterns of Queenship in Ancient Egyptian Myth and History. Uppsala, 1986.
  • Tyldesley, Joyce. Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt. London, 1994.
  • Volten, Axel. Zwei altägyptische politische Schriften: Die Lehre für König Merikarê (Pap. Carlsberg VI) und Die Lehre des Königs Amenemhet. Analecta Aegyptiaca, 4. Copenhagen, 1945.
  • Ward, William. A. Essays on Feminine Titles of the Middle Kingdom and Related Subjects. Beirut, 1986. Social status of nonroyal women during the Middle Kingdom, interpreted by their titles and those of their husbands. Special chapters concisely discuss words and titles that were translated as “harem” or thought to be connected with the harem, with the conclusion that harems or concubines did not exist in the Middle Kingdom, at least as recognized institutions.
  • Whale, Sheila. The Family in the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt: A Study of the Representation of the Family in Private Tombs. Sydney, 1989. Families of the upper classes as represented in the private tombs; the question of concubines and polygamy is considered.

Elfriede Haslauer; Translated from German by James Goff