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Hatshepsut: Egypt’s Trailblazing Female Pharaoh

Hatshepsut: Egypt’s Trailblazing Female Pharaoh

Queen Hatshepsut closeup view from the reverse side of the new first Egyptian 10 LE EGP ten pounds plastic polymer banknote with a part of the great pyramid of Giza Khufu pyramid, selective focus
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Egypt’s “New Kingdom” (ca. 1570 BCE – 1544 BCE) marked growth amid turmoil. The Pharaonic throne was reserved for men, rejecting female rulership. Hatshepsut I, born around 1504-1508 BCE into Egypt’s 18th ruling family, proved a glaring exception that proved the rule. What follows is the story of “His Majesty Herself” Hatshepsut I, the gender-bending Pharaoh who refused to stay buried.

Hatshepsut was born around 1504-1508 BCE into Egypt’s 18th ruling family and was named “Foremost of Noble Women.” She inherited a legacy shaped by her grandfather, Ahmose I, and her father, Thutmose I. Despite her dynasty’s youth, she embraced her role early on, proving her capability to fill the significant shoes of her predecessors.

Fortunatley, Hatshepsut benefited from a close relationship with her father, who imparted confidence and leadership skills to her during his short reign. Hatshepsut’s close bond with her father, Thutmose I, was pivotal in her development. Thutmose I’s brief yet successful reign saw him instilling confidence in his daughter, even allowing her to rule alongside him briefly as a child and imparting invaluable lessons that would shape her future leadership.

Thutmose I’s untimely death occurred when Hatshepsut was only 12, leaving her not only fatherless but forced to assume duties beyond her years. She was obliged to marry her half-brother, Thutmose II, and thrust into the role of “God’s Wife of Amun,” the Queen of Egypt. Despite her claim that her father designated her as his successor, societal norms dictated otherwise, igniting a contentious debate over rightful succession.

From Queen to Pharaoh

Thutmose II ascended to the throne, though his legitimacy was marred by his partial royal lineage. To solidify his rule, Hatshepsut, being of full royal blood, was compelled to marry him, a common albeit distasteful practice of the time aimed at preserving royal lineage. The younger Thutmose’s reign was lackluster, marked by negligible achievements and poor health. By necessity, it fell to Hatshepsut to run the nation. She wielded significant power as Queen, assuming administrative duties beyond the norm. Hatshepsut effectively ruled in her husband’s name from behind the throne.

Thutmose II’s sole notable accomplishment was fathering an heir, though like his predecessors, the child was not fully royal. Following Thutmose II’s demise, Hatshepsut, now 30, again played a crucial role in legitimizing her young stepson as the new Pharaoh. She joined forces with a chief minister to govern until he was ready to rule independently, continuing to lead under a male guise.

In 1473 BCE, Hatshepsut boldly assumed the mantle of Pharaoh alongside her 8-year-old stepson, wielding all the authority of kingship. The true motivation behind this abrupt move remains elusive. While some may argue it is a power play, the evidence suggests otherwise. Despite her stepson posing a potential threat to her newfound power, Hatshepsut never moved against him; instead, she strengthened his position by arranging a marriage to her daughter, fostering a harmonious relationship between the two monarchs. This suggests her actions were driven by a genuine concern for his welfare.

Usurpation still remained a constant threat in the tangled web of Egyptian politics at the time, particularly from rival factions eyeing Thutmose’s throne. Hatshepsut, therefore, likely perceived the necessity of consolidating power to protect her family and dynasty. Elevating herself to co-rule with her stepson would have presented a formidable obstacle to potential adversaries, safeguarding their reign against external threats.

Yet, despite the pragmatic reasoning behind her move, she still faced the formidable hurdle of her gender. The Egyptian belief in a force known as Ma’at, often translated as “Justice” or “the Correct Way,” decreed that the king of Egypt should be male.For one thing, kingship, along with strength and other inherent authoritative qualities, were seen as distinctly male traits through the cultural lens of the time. Also, though the specifics are unclear and seem to have changed over time, the Pharaoh was believed to be, in some way, the living embodiment of a male god such as Horus.

Undeterred by societal norms, Hatshepsut boldly asserted her divine lineage to justify her unprecedented ascent to the throne. By claiming divine parentage through the god Amun, who she alleged had temporarily possessed her father during her conception, she positioned herself as the rightful inheritor of Pharaonic authority. Though likely met with skepticism, her narrative was accepted by at least enough supporters to lend credence to her reign.

Hatshepsut with beard

His majesty herself

There was no turning back now. Pharaohs couldn’t resign from their divine claims, but Hatshepsut was in it to win it. Having secured the throne and navigated the complexities of Ma’at, she faced the challenge of winning over her people, unaccustomed to female leadership. Crafting a suitable image for herself and her new station became paramount.

Hatshepsut’s initial strategy involved downplaying her femininity and recognizing the masculine expectations of Pharaohs. Yet, she did not completely obscure her womanhood, opting for subtle adjustments to appear more masculine while retaining her feminine dignity. In her official portraits, Hatshepsut strategically adopted masculine traits. She donned male clothing, headdresses, and even fake beards (akin to a necktie in the cultural context) while sometimes lounging or standing in traditionally male poses. All the while, she maintained her feminine identity by maintaining her womanly body type. She also cleverly balanced her titles, identifying as “Daughter of Re” and Pharaoh.

Eventually, her gender seemed to matter less to the Egyptian people as they accepted her as their ruler. Looking at her achievements leaves little question about why. Hatshepsut was soon to distinguish herself as a Pharaoh beyond the novelty brought on by her gender.

Unlike her predecessors, Hatshepsut departed from the traditional warrior-king archetype, opting instead for a governance focused on commerce and diplomacy. Given the challenges she faced, this strategy would prove remarkably successful.

Statue of Queen Hatshepsut, in Luxor, Egypt, HDR Image.

Greatness through Commerce

In the era of the New Kingdom, Egyptian armies were formidable, eagerly seeking opportunities to showcase their prowess. Hatshepsut ingeniously redirected their energies towards exploration rather than conflict, thereby affirming both their value and her own. But Hatshepsut directed her ambitions toward exploration and the fabled land of Punt, shrouded in myth and mystery, aiming to establish a lucrative trade route connecting Egypt with this distant realm.

Still, numerous obstacles loomed. Centuries had passed since any Egyptian had tread upon the soil of Punt, and the route had long been forgotten. Nonetheless, the Pharaoh’s army was undeterred, embracing the challenge with courage, cunning, and ingenuity, driven by the allure of a peaceful endeavor.

Setting sail on five large ships down the Nile, Hatshepsut’s expedition embarked on a month-long journey to retrace the forgotten path. Disassembling their vessels upon reaching the Nile’s closest point to the coast, they transported them over 100 miles eastward to the Red Sea, where they were reassembled. From there, the fleet journeyed southward along the coast, guided by the whispers of legend, ultimately finding success in their quest.

The fleet came upon beehive-shaped structures standing high upon stilts in the cool shade of palm and myrrh trees. The Puntites received them well, impressed not only by the Egyptians’ courage but also by the fact that these visitors knew that Punt was there. The locals happily traded Egyptian tools, jewelry, and weapons. In return, the fleet returned home with boats full of treasures.

The ships returned fully loaded with ivory, skins, ebony, green gold of emu (aka electrum), and live exotic animals. Also notable among the bounty was a supply of frankincense and 31 live myrrh trees. Hatshepsut famously ground the charred frankincense to make eyeliner in the first recorded resin use. The triumphant arrival of the myrrh trees marked the first historical instance of the importation and transplantation of foreign flora.

The Pharaoh considered the expedition to Punt one of her most significant accomplishments. She had successfully proven her quality as a ruler to her people without shedding blood. Hatshepsut continued to encourage mutually beneficial economic relations. She reestablished several critical trading networks with neighboring kingdoms and initiated new commercial partnerships with distant nations overseas, securing great wealth for her people and dynasty.

Don’t test her, though!

Peace and prosperity may have been the new normal during Hatshepsut’s reign, but make no mistake, this woman was no pushover. Hatshepsut waged successful military campaigns against Nubia (Kush) and Syria (Canaan). Egypt had long coveted Nubia for the vast wealth its gold mines provided. Colonized on and off several times already, Egypt had recently retaken control of its southern neighbor under Hatshepsut’s grandfather. Therefore, she took action when insurrections and uprisings began during Hatshepsut’s reign. She was not about to lose that gold. We know less about her Syrian campaign, but she was also likely protecting Egyptian assets from insurgency there.

If the depictions in her tomb recounting these events are believable, then Hatshepsut led her troops into battle herself. She must have made quite a sight leading from the front while standing barely over five feet tall. But, in the end, it isn’t the size of the Sphinx in the fight. It’s the size of the battle in the Sphinx.

Although she proved competent as a war leader, it was not Hatshepsut’s favorite part of the job. She often put her stepson in charge of military matters, which worked well for both. The young prince seemed more than happy to live the adventurous life of an army man. He was content to see the world and share stories while his stepmother handled the dull administrative tasks. He continued to live the soldier’s life even after he eventually became the sole ruler. Hatshepsut used her time away from the action to focus on her preferred pastime, commissioning the construction of monuments.

Hatshepsut the builder

Hatshepsut’s legacy is quite literally etched in stone. Commissioning hundreds of public works, she earned a reputation as one of Egypt’s most ambitious builders. Noteworthy among her creations are the temple complexes of Deir el-Bahri and Karnak.

In contemplating her mortality after triumphing in Syria, Hatshepsut chose the Valley of the Kings as her final resting place, departing from the pyramid tradition of her predecessors. Construction began on her mortuary temple, Djeser-Djeseru, in 1490 BCE at Deir el Bahri, strategically located near her father’s tomb and an ancient temple honoring Mentuhotep I.

Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, View of the temple in the rock in Egypt

Designed by her chief minister, Senenmut, Djeser-Djeseru boasts three terraced colonnades leading to a sanctuary adorned with reliefs depicting pivotal moments in Hatshepsut’s reign, including the Divine Birth Cycle and the expedition to Punt, as well as scenes of battle and her coronation. Additionally, four chapels dedicated to various gods adorn the temple’s interior.

Not content with merely constructing new monuments, Hatshepsut also turned her attention to restoring the aging temple of Karnak. Undertaking a total renovation, she added two colossal obelisks, towering at 100 feet and weighing 343 tons each, crafted from pink granite sourced from Aswan. One remains standing today, holding the record as Egypt’s second-tallest obelisk.

The Obelisk of Hatshepsut by sunset with moon. It is the tallest obelisk still standing in Egypt and one of two still standing at Karnak. It is 97 feet high, and is 320 tons of solid Aswan granite.

Hatshepsut ordered three more obelisks to commemorate her sixteenth coronation anniversary, although one tragically fractured during construction. This “Unfinished Obelisk” offers valuable insights into ancient building techniques.

In a poignant inscription on one of the later obelisks at Karnak, Hatshepsut mused on her legacy, pondering the thoughts of future generations who would gaze upon her monuments. Little did she know that the remarkable story of her reign would face one final obstacle.

Queen Hatshepsut Temple, Valley of the Kings, Egypt

Death, Burial, Suppression, and Rediscovery

Hatshepsut’s death (ca.1458 BCE) marked the end of an era. Despite her remarkable accomplishments, her passing was shrouded in speculation. Explanations vary from dental complications to bone cancer, obesity, diabetes, and arthritis. With her demise, the Pharaonic throne passed to Thutmose III, who would reign for another 40 years, further solidifying Egypt’s power and prestige.

However, Hatshepsut’s legacy faced suppression as rivals sought to erase her from history. Images in her temples and palaces were defaced, and statues and murals were smashed and then dumped. The motivations behind this posthumous campaign remain debated. Theories range from personal resentment to cultural conservatism. The truth about Hatshepsut’s remarkable reign remained hidden for millennia.

The niche of the Upper Anubis shrine in the complex of the Sun Cult, Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir El-Bahari. 15 March 2011
The niche of the Upper Anubis shrine in the complex of the Sun Cult, Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir El-Bahari. 15 March 2011

Archaeologists unearthed evidence of Hatshepsut’s existence in burial chambers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite initial dismissals and misconceptions, many of them motivated by the gender stereotypes of the time, the true identity of the female Pharaoh slowly emerged. New evidence challenged harsh assessments of her character. Finally, in 2007, DNA evidence conclusively identified a mummy as Hatshepsut, and history was rewritten. This exoneration affirmed her rightful place in history.

Today, the resilient legacy of “His Majesty Herself,” Hatshepsut I, endures as a symbol of female empowerment and leadership. While she was neither the first nor the last example of female strength and leadership in Egyptian history, her story, in particular, stands as an inspiring one. Hatshepsut’s legacy serves as a reminder of the enduring legacy of powerful women throughout Egyptian history.

Hatshepsut’s Mummy








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