Polygamy existed in virtually all societies in the world… till it didn’t. Sexual monogamy is not enforced in most countries that have monogamy laws. The entire premise behind monogamy is one man and one wife (at a time, at least). Why did these laws come about? The most obvious answer that comes to my mind is not a moral one, but a practical one. Legalised polygamy naturally and inevitably leads to population growth.
In the ancient world, polygamy was largely practised by rulers. The common man and woman mostly remained monogamous. Whenever I hear stories such as King so and so had… Alright, let’s just go with Ramses. King Ramesses II had eight wives and Nefertari was his favourite. The story will then continue to say something to the extent of, “She was very different compared to women of her time because she was educated.” The Empress or Chief Wife had a special skill or some form of education that made her stand out compared to other women of that era.
Nefertari is one of the best known Egyptian queens. She was highly educated and able to both read and write hieroglyphs which was a very rare skill at the time. She used these skills in her diplomatic work, corresponding with other prominent royals. Not much is known of her beyond what was discovered in her tomb.
If you’re a student of history, architecture or archeology, there are buildings that these kings built as monuments–usually tombs, mind you–to house their wives’ remains. I loved you and here’s proof of that as you journey into the afterlife. These tombs were usually elaborately designed. Ramesses II constructed a temple in his wife’s honour to let the world know how much she meant to him. Nefertari’s political legacy was probably that of an advisor and diplomat.
Abu Simbel in Southern Egypt is the site of the two temples built by the Egyptian king Ramses II (reigned 1279–13 BCE). Just to the north of the main temple is a smaller one, dedicated to Nefertari for the worship of the Goddess Hathor. It is adorned with 35-foot statues of the king and queen. Her lavishly decorated tomb, QV66, is one of the largest and most spectacular in the Valley of the Queens. In the temple, she is stylised as an incarnation of the Goddess Hathor, a high honour for the role she played as a Mother.
Based on the evidence that has been unearthed and excavated about these historical eras, we continue to have in our possession these monumental temples which stand tall as a testament to their love. Engraved on these beautiful buildings are epithets which proclaim, “I loved you so much I built this building in your memory.” Ramesses II also romantically addressed Nefertari as ‘The one for whom the sun shines’.
My cynicism tends to creep in. Well, if he did have so many wives, how many of them were neglected and how many of them did he actually spend time with? It is the classic tale of a leader who had a harem full of women who he could turn to and picked only one. I have always felt a sense of sadness when I read such stories.
It’s all too easy to posthumously spin such tales when in actuality we have no idea what actually happened or what their relationship was like. Our stories only ever fit the archetypes that we know.
But that he built a building for her, speaks volumes regarding how much he loved her. Even when we go to these buildings today, thousands of years later, we are still struck by a sense of awe and inspiration. We wonder at the marvels of architectural heights that are achieved through the construction of these buildings. We still don’t know how they did it or what technology they utilised to achieve these feats.
In the ancient era, in particular, people would build these temples in alignment with cosmology because they believed in the connection between the stars and humanity. The cosmic world and our world became interlinked through these construction projects. It was through the Cosmic Force that we were born and where we would ultimately return.
But every time I read stories about polygamy, especially when it extends to eight wives or even whole harems, a part of me just feels uneasy. We can’t look at the ancient world through modern eyes, but a part of me still feels uneasy. There are examples in history of female leaders, which are far less common–like Draupadi or Cleopatra–where they had more than one spouse or lover. If you read about the circumstances of the marriage or the union, it doesn’t seem to be a happy one.
Marriages in the ancient era were arranged. The king may or may not have had an option regarding who he wanted to marry. It was commonplace for marriages to take place for the purpose of political alliances and not for love. It could also be concluded that if Ramses II had that many options, then his feelings for Nefertari must have been genuine. She must have been someone truly special to him.
Out of all the wives, this was the only one he built monuments for. She was a Chief Wife. The silence regarding her political legacy may not have been that she did not have one; but mostly that she was not thrust into the limelight. It could have been a personal choice. Even today, many wives of wealthy businessmen choose privacy over fame. Or it could simply be due to a lack of evidence.
Nowadays, with monogamy laws, people tend to be more discreet about their indiscretions. Perhaps we are less tolerant of such unions or maybe we continue to tolerate such shortcomings if you have the status of being the main partner. It’s all very individual and who is to judge? As far as the law is concerned, especially in secular societies, you only get one spouse at a time. End of story.
In my view, there are practical reasons for this. It all comes down to state-sanctioned family planning. When a population grows large, the impetus and necessity to beget children begins to go down. Family size naturally gets smaller. As populations begin to age, the state then starts encouraging people to have more kids. Monogamy is what keeps a population at a rate where we only ever replace ourselves and maybe a little extra, but not too much more than that.
As an architectural testament, however, having buildings such as these, they’re beautiful. Building monuments that survive such a long time, it’s all beautiful. Ramses II may have built it for his Beloved Queen Nefertari, although all they found of her was a thigh bone. Most of her is no longer here, but the building is still here, enduring the tests of time. The temples survive, long outlive their original purpose and continue to have a pull and draw over the imagination of people. It’s amazing and astounding.
As a concept and as an idea, this idea of polygamy, especially the impact that such a decision has on a woman’s life–it’s difficult for us to draw any conclusion on what their relationship was like. I don’t see it as a choice that would have created much happiness within the palace halls. We hear a lot about cousins and siblings trying to kill each other. This is not just fiction. These things happen. We have these themes that come up throughout history when we talk about royal families and bloodlines. It’s all very primal.
The buildings are still beautiful. Once the architects pass on and the civilisation dies, the ownership of these buildings is transferred to the museums and to the heritage board and whoever is wise enough to take care of it and preserve it for generations to come.
Perhaps the romantic in me wants to believe that their love was stronger than death. May they be reunited in this lifetime and every lifetime.