The pharaohs had dozens of wives and concubines. These lived together with other women of the royal family in the so-called Jeneret House, an exclusive institution of ancient Egypt that is very far from the image that is usually associated with the so-called harems.
Pharaonic Egypt is often noted for its uniqueness and unique customs. One more example of this is an institution that is not known in any other culture, the Per Jeneret or Casa Jeneret, and that in fiction is commonly called “harem”; an incorrect term since, in many respects, it was a place totally opposed to the concept of harems.
The Jeneret House was the complex where the Pharaoh’s women and relatives lived, but all resemblance ends there.
It was not a place for the sexual pleasure of the monarch, but a sophisticated and powerful institution with educational, diplomatic and economic functions; and its inhabitants – strictly women, with the exception of the workers – could be counted among the most privileged of ancient Egypt.
A palace in feminine
It should be said in the first place that in the Jeneret House lived not only the pharaoh’s wives and concubines but also many of the women and girls who had kinship ties with the royal family:
Daughters, nephews and nieces, aunts, cousins, sisters and sometimes even his own mother; as well as the male children of these, including the children of the king regardless of whether they were of a Royal Wife or a concubine.
The Jeneret House could thus be defined as a true micro-palace for women and it was undoubtedly the most important and powerful women’s institution in the country.
A big difference with the harem is that it was not a place of confinement, but a place of residence: its inhabitants could go out – albeit with an escort – and receive visits from outside, and it was not forbidden to other people.
In fact, it was possible that the king’s high dignitaries married women who lived in House Jeneret, thus becoming related to him and strengthening ties of loyalty.
The operation of this institution was autonomous, with its own officials and productive and educational structures: It had land for cultivation, fishing and hunting, workshops for the manufacture of luxury goods and a school where the children of the elite were trained.
For an Egyptian child, this was surely the perfect place to grow up, sheltered from the dangers of the outside and with the best training possibilities, since the pharaoh’s children were educated there.
The king’s wives
Although the women of the Pharaoh also lived in the Jeneret House, many did not even get to know him: marriage was a bureaucratic procedure that could be closed even without the presence of the spouses, so a link for political purposes did not imply that the spouses should know each other, much less intimate.
The women of the king could have two titles: that of Great Royal Wife or simply that of Royal Wife.
Only the former exercised the functions of a queen, lived in the pharaoh’s palace and their children were the first in the line of succession; for that reason they used to be only one – generally a sister or cousin of the pharaoh himself.
The other Royal Wives – also called secondary ones – lived in the Jeneret House with their children. These could be the result of political alliances or concubines for which the pharaoh felt a special predilection to the point of elevating them to the dignity of wives.
It must be considered that a common way to seal alliances with foreign kings was to send one of the monarch’s daughters to live in Egypt and contract a symbolic marriage with the pharaoh, which did not require a married life.
These women were often one of several Royal Wives, and House Jeneret provided a comfortable place to make the fate of being a token on the board of diplomacy less sad.
In addition to the wives, there were also numerous women who had no formal link to the king.
Among them, two groups stand out: on the one hand the nurses, in charge of taking care of the sons and daughters; and on the other, the “beloved of the king”, which are the ones that best fit the concept of concubines.
However, they were not necessarily lovers, but could have other functions such as entertaining the pharaoh by playing instruments during banquets.
A busy life
But what was life like for women in Jeneret House?
Many of them had an occupation in the workshops of the complex, generally dedicated to the production of royal linen – the most exclusive in the country, which could only be purchased by the high priestesses or the ladies of the nobility -, cosmetics or luxury items.
They also received specialized lessons, mainly music and dance for the rites (in fact the name Per Jeneret could be translated as “house of music”) but also in whatever subject they felt a preference for, since they had a legion of specialized teachers. .
Since they could dispose of their own assets, many spent their time managing their lands and businesses, such as producing wine, beer or barley, raising livestock or trading.
There is also evidence of several Great Royal Wives who resided for some periods in the Jeneret House and from there were actively involved in the politics of the kingdom, especially in matters of foreign diplomacy; but secondary wives, on the contrary, had no political role.
Since the complex had large grounds, they could engage in physical activity and swimming; the less active could entertain themselves with hobbies such as senet, a popular board game.
Boys and girls were surely the ones who most enjoyed life in that female micro-kingdom, although they were not idle either since they had to attend to their education.
The male children of the pharaoh also received military, religious or administrative instruction since if they did not succeed their father they could end up occupying positions in the army, in the clergy or in the court.
The education in the Jeneret House was of the highest level, so it also educated the princes of allied or subjected countries: this had the double function of having valuable hostages and of cultivating loyalty in them and if possible appreciation for Egypt.
A golden cage?
From a current perspective, Casa Jeneret could be considered as a golden cage, despite the relative freedom enjoyed by its inhabitants.
However, in the context of ancient Egypt it was a privileged place: not only did it guarantee a comfortable, safe and luxurious existence in a country where life was very hard and life expectancy very short, but it was also the most conducive from which women could gain power and wealth.
Elite education and the ability to manage their properties and businesses provided facilities that were generally not available to ordinary women.
The situation was undoubtedly more difficult for foreign princesses who were sent away from their countries as part of a political alliance.
Even so, despite their longing, the situation could end up offering them better prospects than in their homeland, since Egyptian society is generally considered the most egalitarian for women that existed in the ancient world and even in more recent times.
In many cases the pharaoh did not even consummate the marriage and they could lead an independent life in House Jeneret.
It was certainly not a paradise, since rivalries between the most ambitious wives to place their children on the throne were the order of the day; however, extreme cases such as conspiracies and poisonings were probably the exceptions that have been recorded and not the norm.
The Jeneret House was a very important institution for the kingdom and the Pharaoh, through his inspectors and guardians, took care that it did not become a source of problems, especially considering that his own relatives lived in it.
Source: Abel de Medici, National Geographic