Egypt. Land of the pharaohs. Land of kings. But one woman defied tradition and became “The King Herself.”
Hatshepsut. Born at the beginning of the golden age of Egyptian power and influence, the New Kingdom. She was born a princess, daughter of the pharaoh Thutmose I. And in typical ancient Egyptian royal fashion, she was wed to her half-brother Thutmose II, around the age of 12, whereupon she became queen.
When Pharaoh Thutmose II died in 1473 BC, probably while still in his twenties, Queen Hatshepsut became regent for her stepson, the infant Thutmose III, as was tradition. Queens had been acting as regents when male heirs were too young to rule for centuries. It was a time-honored tradition. And in early monuments, young Thutmose III is depicted in the conventional way – as an adult king – with his stepmother as regent, dressed in queenly garb, standing respectfully off to the side.
But within seven years, Hatshepsut appears in monuments and stone carvings dressed fully as a king, complete with flail, crook, and a pharaoh’s false beard. She had taken on the full role and title of king, pharaoh, and “Daughter of Re.” Thutmose III, who by this point may have been old enough to rule, was relegated to something like a vice-pharaoh, and Hatshepsut went on to rule Egypt for 21 years.
Why did she do it? Nineteenth century and early twentieth century Egyptologists frowned upon Hatshepsut, claiming she was a “usurper” and a “deviant” whose ambition drove her to steal her stepson’s throne. But more recently, scholars are of the mind that she may have had political motives. There may have been a threat from another branch of the royal family, they surmise, and Hatshepsut may have been acting in good faith to protect the throne for her stepson.
And it also must be noted that Hatshepsut herself was of true royal blood, a descendent of the pharaoh Ahmose, while her husband (and half-brother) was the child of an adopted king. Her steward referred to her as “the king’s firstborn daughter.”
Firstborn. But also, daughter. As with most ancient civilizations – and indeed, most civilizations of any kind – Egypt was patriarchal. Women did not rule. The kingship was passed down from father to son, not father to daughter, firstborn or otherwise. The religion of Egypt stated explicitly that the role of pharaoh could not be carried out by a woman. The pharaoh was meant to be a god, not a goddess.
How did Hatshepsut resolve this issue of gender? It seems that she “sidestepped” the issue completely by depicting herself as a male king – which gave rise to some of those 19th and 20th century Egyptologists calling her a “deviant.” In monuments and murals she wears the pharaoh’s headdress, shendyt kilt, and false beard. She is portrayed with large muscles and without any female traits at all. This is all thought to be a form of ancient propaganda, as the average Egyptian of the day would rarely actually glimpse the pharaoh, only see his (or her) image on stone carvings and monuments displayed throughout the cities.
And so she ruled. As a woman. And she ruled well.
Chip Brown writes, “She seems to have been more afraid of anonymity than of death. She was one of the greatest builders in one of the greatest Egyptian dynasties.”
She is perhaps most famous for the construction of the Temple of Deir el-Bahri, located in western Thebes, where she was meant to be buried. The temple is considered one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world and is on the itinerary of just about every tourist who visits Egypt today.
Hatshepsut also built and renovated shrines and temples and obelisks all over the Egyptian empire, from the Sinai to Nubia.
She was also known for extending the trading networks of an already flourishing Egyptian economy. Perhaps best known is the trading expedition she sent to Punt, a land near modern-day Eritrea. The expedition brought back glorious riches to Egypt – incense, gold, ebony, ivory, and leopard skins. Such an expedition would not only garner great wealth for the empire, but also prestige and cultural pride.
Hatshepsut died in her mid-40s, probably around the year 1458 BC. She was buried along with other pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings in the hills beyond her temple of Deir el-Bahri.
Her stepson Thutmose III ruled for thirty years after her death, proving to be an avid builder like Hatshepsut and also a great military leader. He is also know for his eradication plan; eradication of any traces of his stepmother’s reign. He had images of her as king removed from temples and monuments she had built. Because of this, little was known of Hatshepsut until 1822 when inscriptions on the walls at Deir el-Bahri were decoded and read.
Today, you can find Hatshepsut in one of the two Royal Mummy Rooms at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where she lies side-by-side with her extended family of other New Kingdom pharaohs.
Plaques in Arabic and English proclaim her to be “Hatshepsut, the King Herself.”
“Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”
– Hatshepsut’s inscription, on an obelisk at Karnak