My fascination with Egyptology has been reignited thanks to research for a new novel (one of the best perks of writing is researching what you want to learn about) and I have been reminded of the extraordinary story of Hatshepsut, the woman who became a pharaoh.
Hatshepsut is possibly the first great female leader in recorded history. She was the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty of Ancient Egypt (living from approx 1508-1458 BC) and is regarded by Egyptologists as one of the most successful pharaohs in all of Egypt’s history. As the daughter of a powerful king, she was born into power, but she was also born into a culture that demanded male leadership. She was married at 12 years of age to Thuthmose II and became ‘queen’. In fact, there was no word for queen in ancient Egypt, only something that translates as ‘King’s Great Wife’. Below this role were minor wives and below them, concubines.
Hatshepsut outlived her brothers and her much older husband Thutmose II, who passed away after 20 years of marriage. At 32, the widow Hatshepsut was in a unique position to rule Egypt as ‘queen’, and it was a role she took on with great success. She was a strong and popular ruler, successfully leading Egypt through a time of great prosperity.
Nonetheless, in time Egypt wanted a king. Tradition demanded it. So Hatshepsut gave them one – by donning the traditional false beard and robes of the pharaoh.
Hatshepsut, the woman who was queen, successfully became king.
The people of Egypt knew Hatshepsut was a woman, of course, and she made no bones about it. Even the name Hatshepsut means ‘Foremost of Noble Ladies’. But Egypt accepted her sudden transformation from woman to (male) king without challenge. She was even depicted in the art of the time variously as a woman and as a man. Monuments and busts of her (like the one above) show a beautiful woman wearing the traditional beard of pharaoh. During Hatshepsut’s long reign, thought to be just over 20 years, she constructed some of the most important and beautiful monuments ever made, including 2 great granite obelisks which were each 97 feet high and a massive 350 tonnes (the largest ancient obelisk still standing is one of hers), and her beautiful mortuary temple Deir el-Bahri (pictured above). Documentation also suggests that she personally led military campaigns into Nubia and Punt.
Had Hatshepsut remained the only female to ever rule Egypt, (she wasn’t) we could still say that Ancient Egypt had more female rulers than many modern countries have, America included. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the prejudices of many Victorian and Edwardian era Egyptologists led them to suggest that she could not really have been the ruler of Egypt at all. Some suggested that her much younger stepson, as co-regent, did all the hard work. American archaeologist Herbert Winlock (Born February 1, 1884 – Died January 26, 1950) also suggested that it must have been her close ally Senenmut, a commoner rumoured to have been her lover, who actually ruled, because she could not have achieved what she did ‘without the assistance of a high stewart’.
As the essay ‘The Queen Who Would Be King’ at The Smithsonsian online explains: ‘The widowed queen of the pharaoh Thutmose II, [Hatshepsut] had, according to custom, been made regent after his death in c. 1479 b.c. to rule for her young stepson, Thutmose III, until he came of age. Within a few years, however, she proclaimed herself pharaoh, thereby becoming, in the words of Winlock’s colleague at the Metropolitan, William C. Hayes, the “vilest type of usurper.” Disconcerting to some scholars, too, was her insistence on being portrayed as male, with bulging muscles and the traditional pharaonic false beard—variously interpreted by those historians as an act of outrageous deception, deviant behavior or both. Many early Egyptologists also concluded that Hatshepsut’s chief minister, Senenmut, must have been her lover as well, a co-conspirator in her climb to power, the so-called evil genius behind what they viewed as her devious politics.’
Interestingly, this early period in modern Egyptology was not the only time Hatshepsut’s achievements were dismissed. 20 years after her death (around 1458 BC) there was a concerted effort to ‘re-write’ history to exclude her from it. Hateshepsut’s name was erased from her temple and monuments, and many of her images were viciously defiled so that it could no longer be seen that a woman had been the ruler of Egypt.
As famed Egyptologist Professor Bob Brier explains, ‘The crime that caused Hatshepsut to be omitted from the lists of the kings of Egypt seems to have simply been that she was a woman.’