Female Pharaoh of Egypt
year was 1473 BC -- a thousand years before Alexander the Great; a
millennia and a half before the time of the Caesars. Egypt was the
center of culture and commerce and the most powerful man in the
world was a woman.
Hatshepsut was born about 1502 BC, the daughter of Thutmose I and
his Chief Wife, Ahmose. Thutmose I was a man of common birth who
had risen through the ranks of the military. He married Ahmose,
sister to Amenhotep I, and became pharaoh when his predecessor
died without an heir. Ambition, it seems, was in Thutmose's
blood, and his daughter inherited her full allowance.
Hatshepsut was married to her younger half-brother, Thutmose II.
This was a common practice in the Egyptian royal family. The
regency passed along the female bloodline and such marriages were
seen as necessary to cement the young pharaoh's claim to the
throne. Upon the death of Thuthmose I, Thutmose II became
Hatshepsut's titles were King's Daughter, Royal Wife, and God's
Wife of Amun. This last was a powerful priestly office.
Hatshepsut would maintain strong ties with the priesthood of Amun
throughout her life.
Thutmose II had a short reign, possibly as little as three years.
When he died his heir, Thutmose III, was little more than a
toddler. Normally, under such circumstances, the child's mother
would act as his regent. In this case, however, that was not
possible. Thutmose III's mother was a concubine named Aset who
was not highborn enough. It was agreed that Hatshepsut would
become his guardian and act in his stead.
first few years after her husband's death Hatshepsut behaved as a
traditional regent. In 1473 BC, however, she took the remarkable
step of having herself crowned pharaoh. This translated directly
as "king". There wasn't even a word in the language for a
reigning female. That did not stop Hatshepsut from assuming the
full pharoanic titles and regalia, including the ureaus headdress
and ceremonial false beard.
not depose her young nephew, but rather treated him as a
co-regent. In practice, this meant that Hatshepsut ruled the
country while Thutmose III pursued his studies and gained
experience in the military.
Hatshepsut was not the first female pharaoh of Egypt. A legend
from antiquity tells of a woman ruler named Nicritis, of whom
Egyptologists have found no reliable trace. Then, too,
Sobekneferu ruled in her own right at the end of the 12th
Dynasty. What set Hatshepsut apart from her predecessors was that
she did not step in to fill a gap left by the absence of a male
heir. There was already a pharaoh before she had herself crowned.
Hatshepsut was well aware how unorthodox her actions were, and
went to great lengths to justify them and to bolster her claim to
the throne. In later inscriptions and statuary she had herself
portrayed as man, in body as well as in title. She even went so
far as to promote a myth of her birth, claiming that she had been
sired by the god Amun, who visited her mother disguised as her
father. According to this tale, both Amun and Thutmose I had
intended for her to rule Egypt. Ever practical, she backed these
esoteric claims by maintaining solid ties to the powerful
priesthood of Amun and surrounding herself with strong and loyal
Hatshepsut's reign lasted nearly 22 years and was largely
addition to extending existing trade routes, Hatshepsut outfitted
an expedition to the land of Punt. Punt, probably present-day
Somalia, was a nearly mythic place to the ancient Egyptians, who
believed that their ancestors had originated there. Hatshepsut's
trade commission, seven ships with sails and oars under the Nubian
general Nehsi, was the first to travel to Punt in five centuries.
They returned laden with trade goods including incense, monkeys,
leopard skins, and exotic plants. Hatshepsut considered the
expedition to Punt one of the high points of her reign and had the
story of it engraved on the walls at Dier el-Bahri.
builder pharaoh she was responsible for the repair, expansion, or
outright construction of numerous temples and the production of
vast amounts of statuary. She erected two massive stone obelisks
at the entrance to the Temple at Karnak, and constructed the "Red
Chapel", an exquisite red quartz structure designed to hold the
Royal Barge of Amun. At Dier el-Bahri she built a vast mortuary
complex near the entrance to the Valley of the Kings, where she
intended that she and her father would be buried. Her building
projects were overseen by Senemut, her Steward and also, perhaps,
her lover. The temple complex at Dier el-Bahri was considered one
of the greatest buildings of the ancient world. Even today it is
an imposing edifice.
the troubled 21st Dynasty many royal mummies were displaced or
destroyed, the contents of their tombs scattered. Because pieces
of her funerary goods have turned up from time to time, we know
that Hatshepsut was given a proper burial, with all the ceremony
due a pharaoh. This suggests that she was revered by Thutmose
III, who was about 22 when he ascended to sole regency.
Thutmose III enjoyed a long reign and went on to become one of the
greatest of the Egyptian pharaohs. Because of his many military
conquests, he is known as "the Napoleon of Egypt". During the
later years of his reign he took his son, Amenhotep II, as
co-regent. And here is where the story becomes a mystery.
about the same time as Amenhotep II became co-regent, some twenty
years after Hatshepsut's death, a widespread destruction of her
statues and inscriptions was carried out. Why?
traditional answer is that Thutmose III resented his aunt for
failing to relinquish the throne when he reached adulthood and
determined to erase her memory. If that were so, why wait two
decades to exact revenge?
modern Egyptologists believe there is another explanation, more
complex and less personal. One possibility is that he was
reinforcing his son's right to rule in his stead, perhaps in the
face of a rival claim from one of Hatshepsut's relatives. Others
suggest he was erasing the evidence of a woman pharaoh because it
was seen as improper and politically incorrect. Whatever the
reason, it should be noted that the attacks on Hatshepsut's memory
were selective. Statues and inscriptions depicting her as
were destroyed, but those which showed her as a princess and as
Royal Wife were left intact. Also, the reliefs in her mortuary
temple at Dier el-Bahri were spared.
the end of the 19th Dynasty Twosret followed in Hatshepsut's
footsteps, crowning herself pharaoh and ruling in her own right.
Her reign only lasted some three years, however, and was
undistinguished. It would not be until the time of Cleopatra, in
the long twilight of that ancient civilization, that a woman would
again know such power in Egypt.