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Women in history month: Hatshepsut

Some of you may have seen the newspaper articles about the Cranky Women of History anthology, which aims to tell stories of women who bucked the trend and who forced the world to accept them on their terms. Some of these women were murderers, some were queens, some spies, and some were pioneers in a racist world - fighting for theirs, and others' rights. And some were gods...

Everyone has heard of Tutankhamun, the boy king of Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty. Tutankhamun wasn’t famous for being a pharaoh, though. He was famous because Edward Carter and Lord Carnarvon discovered his nearly intact tomb in 1922. In reality, he was little more than a blip on the dynastic radar, especially as he was overshadowed by his father/stepfather, Akhenaten. Akhenaten wasn’t the only interesting figure of the Eighteenth Dynasty, however. The Eighteenth Dynasty was populated by fascinating kings. No one more so than Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, a figure who ruled during the fifteenth century BCE.

A woman king.

A god.

Limestone statue of Hatshepsut wearing male clothing, but with a female form (statue is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, source en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hatshepsut.jpg)

Hatshepsut wasn’t the first woman to become king (or Pharaoh as it became in the Eighteenth Dynasty), nor was she the last. But out of the 31 dynasties of Egyptian rulers, only six of the kings were known to be women - although this number is contested. It could potentially be higher, with Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti, also suspected as having ruled after his death.  But most of these women came to the throne, not as King’s Mother (a title of power and prestige) but as king. And these women were not afforded the praise and honour of King’s Mother after their deaths – these women had their names obliterated from the record, images destroyed and their monuments reinscribed.

Hatshepsut has long been regaled as one of the most successful pharaohs of Egypt and was renowned for her building projects, but she remained a forgotten figure of history for thousands of years. For the non-archaeologist/history buff, it is only in recent times that you may have heard of her, as archaeologists claim to have discovered her body on the floor of the tomb of her wet-nurse, Sitre-Re. The body had been left without even a coffin for protection. Analysis regarding a tooth found with remains in canopic jars (funerary containers that hold viscera) found a link between the jar and a mummy found within the tomb. The mummy was thought to have died in middle age, the woman suffering from diabetes and bone cancer.

Hatshepsut was the daughter of Thutmose I and Ahmes, and according to inscriptions in Djeser-Djeseru at Deir el-Bahari, Hatshepsut was sired by the god Amun himself, and that her godly father had always intended she rule Egypt. But it was her half-brother Thutmose II who took the throne after their father’s death, with her at his side as his wife – as God’s Wife. She had one daughter with her brother-husband, their child named Neferure. In her youth, Hatshepsut was thought to have been a warrior.

Hatshepsut's mortuary temple, Djeser-Djeseru at Deir el-Bahari (source Dan Lundberg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:20111106_Egypt_0879_Thebes_Deir_el-Bahri.jpg)

After Thutmose II’s death (possibly from heart disease), Hatshepsut quickly had his son by another wife, Thutmose III, placed on the throne. But, as she was not King’s Mother, she could not officially rule on his behalf. It has been suggested that it was after Isis’ death, Thutmose III’s  mother, that Hatshepsut decided to take the throne. But the date of Isis’ death is not known. Nor is it known why Hatshepsut took the throne. There are theories: that Hatshepsut had already been ruling the throne from the shadows for years; that she may have needed to take power in order to hold the throne for Thutmose III; that she had wanted to consolidate her own power and ruling as king achieved this.

Whatever Hatshepsut’s reasons, she did decide to take the throne. And she never handed it back. Once a king, always a king. Pharaohs were gods. While she officially had a co-regent in Thutmose III, he didn’t ascend to the throne until after her death. There are also theories – some quite unflattering to him and women in general, with popular ones focusing on the evil stepmother role – as to why he didn’t fight for the throne, why he didn’t take back what was his by force. But he never did. And he later became known as the Napoleon of Egypt. So here was a man, cunning, clever, a fighter, who allowed his step-mother/aunt to rule Egypt for over two decades – two prosperous decades.

And rule she did. Hatshepsut’s official name was Maatkare, which is thought to mean ‘Maat is the soul of Ra’ or even ‘the proper manifestation of the sun’s life force’. The word maat meant divine order.  She took on the official regalia of her office, which was designed for male kings. In life, the Pharaoh was associated with the god Horus; in death, Osiris. So while females could be kings – and in fact, ‘king’ was not a gendered word for the Egyptians – the gods associated with Pharaoh were male.

It was only after her death, during the end of Thutmose III’s reign – some 20 years after her demise – that the process of wiping Hatshepsut’s name from the records began: her statues were smashed, her cartouches chiselled from walls. While originally thought to have been a rebellion against the woman who had usurped his throne, it is now proposed that Thutmose III may have undertaken the process to provide greater legitimacy for his son, Amenhotep II.

But despite this, no one could completely erase the 22 year reign of a female king who ruled Egypt through an undeniably prosperous era and who was one of the greatest builders the country had ever known.

Hatshepsut, female king and god.


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