The 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 pharaoh. 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.
For the 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.
She did 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 advisors.
Hatshepsut’s reign lasted nearly 22 years and was largely peaceful.
In 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.
As a 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.
During 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.
At 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?
The 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?
Many 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 pharaoh 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.
Near 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.
Egyptology Online. “The New Kingdom”. 09/08/2005
The Temple of Pharaoh Maatkare Hatshepsut. 09/05/2005
Tyldesley, Dr Joyce; “Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis: a royal feud?” 09/06/2005
Watterson, Barbara. Women in Ancient Egypt. Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire. 1991.
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 09/06/2005
Loretta Ross is a freelance writer living and working in rural Missouri. She holds an Associate of Arts degree from Cottey College in Nevada, MO, and a Bachelor’s degree in Art History and Archaeology from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is an avid reader and writes fiction as well as factual articles. She lives alone with two cats and four dogs.