Hatshepsut (c. 1508–1458 B.C.) seemed content for a long time to play the stereotypically subordinate female role among the Egyptian pharaohs. She was the queen wife of one pharaoh, Thutmose I, and the daughter of another (her half brother, Thutmose II). Hatshepsut obediently accepted the additional duty of regent to the young Thutmose III after her husband passed away in 1479 B.C. and her stepson was designated as heir.
But as the years went by, Hatshepsut began to behave more like Egypt’s legitimate ruler and began addressing herself as “Lady of the Two Lands.” She launched a risky power move as Thutmose IIIapproached adulthood, the time when he would formally ascend to the throne.
Hatshepsut was born at the beginning of the New Kingdom, a great period of Egyptian imperial power and prosperity. King Thutmose I, her father, was a dynamic ruler known for his daring military accomplishments. Scholars speculate that Hatshepsut may have been born around the time of his coronation, c. 1504 b.c. and would have been a toddler when he famously sailed home to Thebes with the naked body of a Nubian chieftain dangling from the prow of his ship—a warning to everyone who would threaten his empire.
Hatshepsut seems to have idolized her father (she would eventually have him reburied in the tomb she was having built for herself) and would claim that soon after her birth he had named her successor to his throne, an act that scholars feel would have been highly unlikely. There had been only two—possibly three—female pharaohs in the previous 1,500 years, and each had ascended to the throne only when there was no suitable male successor available. (Cleopatra would rule some 14 centuries later.)
The pharaonic line typically descended from father to son; if the queen had no children, the son of one of the pharaoh’s “harem,” or “secondary,” wives would inherit the throne. Thutmose I is thought to have fathered two boys with Queen Ahmes, both of whom predeceased him, in addition to Hatshepsut—and another younger daughter who evidently perished in infancy. Thus the son of a secondary wife, Mutnofret, was crowned Thutmose II. In short order (and probably to bolster the royal bloodlines of this “harem child”), young Thutmose II was married to his half sister Hatshepsut, making her Queen of Egypt at about age 12.
The Making Of Hatshepsut
According to Smithsonian Magazine, historians have generally described Thutmose II as frail and ineffectual—just the sort of person a supposedly shrewish Hatshepsut could push around. Public monuments, however, depict a dutiful Hatshepsut standing appropriately behind her husband. But while she bore her husband a daughter, Neferure (her only known child), Hatshepsut failed in the more important duty of producing a son.
So when Thutmose II died young (c. 1479 B.C.), possibly still in his 20s—the throne went, yet again, to a “harem child.” Duly named Thutmose III, this child was destined to become one of the great warrior kings of Egypt. But at the time of his father’s death, he was likely an infant, a “hawk…still in the nest”—and deemed too young to rule.
Monuments of the time show Thutmose III—still a child, but portrayed in the conventional manner as an adult king—performing his pharaonic duties, while Hatshepsut, dressed as queen, stands demurely off to one side. By the seventh year of her regency, however (and it may have been much earlier), the formerly slim, graceful queen appears as a full-blown, flail-and-crook-wielding king, with the broad, bare chest of a man and the pharaonic false beard.
Hatshepsut declared herself pharaoh, adopting the emblems and titles associated with the title. She had herself portrayed in pictures as a man, with a male body and false beard. She even claimed the god Amun as her father and insisted that he meant for her to take charge of Egypt: “I acted under his command; it was he who led me.”
For Hatshepsut to assert priority over Thutmose III was a radical move in conservative Egyptian society. She could not have achieved it without the support of high officials at court—including Senenmut, overseer of royal works—who risked losing their power, if not their lives, if she yielded to Thutmose III.
Given that she was a woman and that she had obtained the throne in an unusual way, Hatshepsut was probably aware that her position was precarious. As a result, it appears that she reinvented herself, as shrewd leaders frequently do in times of crisis. Being represented as a male pharaoh was the most overt manifestation of this. Nobody truly knows the reason. However, it might have been influenced by the fact that there was a male co-ruler, which was a situation that no prior female ruler had ever contested.
“She was not pretending to be a man! She was not cross-dressing!” Cathleen Keller, a professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of California at Berkeley said. Inscriptions on Hatshepsut’s statues, according to keller, almost always contain some indication of her true gender—a title, such as “Daughter of Re,” or feminine word endings, resulting in such grammatical conundrums as “His Majesty, Herself.”
Hatshepsut also took a new name, Maatkare, sometimes translated as Truth (maat) is the Soul (ka) of the Sun God (Re).
Maat, a term from ancient Egypt that refers to law and order created by the gods, is an important word. The country needed a legitimate pharaoh who could communicate directly with the gods, as only pharaohs could, in order to maintain and perpetuate maat and preserve the prosperity and stability of the nation. By referring to herself as Maatkare, Hatshepsut was probably ensuring her subjects that they had a legitimate ruler in place.
One important way pharaohs affirmed maat was by creating monuments, and Hatshepsut’s building projects were among the most ambitious of any pharaoh’s. She began with the erection of two 100-foot-tall obelisks at the great temple complex at Karnak. Reliefs commemorating the event show the obelisks, each weighing about 450 tons, being towed along the Nile by 27 ships manned by 850 oarsmen.
Hatshepsut implemented her public works program throughout the empire, although it was mostly focused in the region surrounding Thebes, the Thutmoside dynasty’s dynastic and theological heartland, where she constructed a network of towering processional routes and sanctuaries. Her masterpiece was built at Deir el-Bahri, just the other side of Thebes from the Nile, and it was a massive memorial temple utilized for rituals related to the cult that would ensure Hatshepsut’s eternal life after death.
Upon Hatshepsut’s death in c. 1458 b.c., her stepson, then likely still in his early 20s, finally ascended to the throne. By that time, according to Hayes, Thutmose III had developed “a loathing for Hatshepsut…her name and her very memory which practically beggars description.” The destruction of her monuments, carried out with such apparent fury, was almost universally interpreted as an act of long-awaited and bitter revenge on the part of Thutmose III, who, Winlock wrote, “could scarcely wait to take the vengeance on her dead that he had not dared in life.”
Hatshepsut was unable to match her father’s victories by commanding troops into war, as this was solely a male-only function. She eliminated the military from the situation instead. She chose to send her warriors on a trading mission to the mythical kingdom of Punt, along the southern side of the Red Sea, where no Egyptian had been in 500 years, rather than sending them to fight in battles, which would later become her biggest achievement.
The expedition brought back a menagerie of exotic animals, including apes, panthers, and giraffes, as depicted on the walls of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple. It also brought back gold, ivory, live myrrh trees, and other valuables. Her fame and reputation were greatly boosted by the successful campaign.
Hatshepsut did not banish Thutmose III, who technically served as her co-ruler, but she clearly overshadowed him. Her 21-year reign—15 as principal monarch—was a time of peace and prosperity for Egypt. She undertook grand building projects, including two pairs of imposing obelisks at Karnak and at her mortuary temple, Djeser-Djeseru. Upon Hatshepsut’s death in 1458 B.C., Thutmose III at last got the throne to himself.
Hatshepsut’s groundbreaking reign remained a secret for centuries. Before his own death, Thutmose III moved to erase Hatshepsut from the historical record by defacing her monuments and removing her name from the list of kings. When archaeologists began deciphering the hieroglyphics at Deir el Bahri in 1822, and later found her tomb in 1903, Hatshepsut’s legacy as Egypt’s powerful female pharaoh was restored.
The story of Hatshepsut will probably never be complete. “She’s like an iceberg,” says Joyce Tyldesley, scholar and author of the 1996 biography Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh. “On the surface we know quite a lot about her. But there’s so much we don’t know.”
“Of course, it made a wonderful story,” says Renée Dreyfus, curator of ancient art and interpretation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “And this is what we all read when we were growing up. But so much of what was written about Hatshepsut, I think, had to do with who the archaeologists were…gentlemen scholars of a certain generation.”