For over 20 years, the most powerful person in the Bronze Age world was a woman; Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh during the New Kingdom in Egypt. This Bronze Age showed the beginnings of writing, organised warfare, centralised states, massive irrigation projects in the desert, emperors, warlords, and chariots. One thing that doesn’t really spring to mind is the position of women and especially women with power.
Queen Hatshepsut, whose name means Foremost of Noble Women, was one of those women with power who ruled the wealthiest Kingdom ever seen, which she did as a fully-fledged Pharaoh. However, when she died, her legacy was purposefully erased. Today, people can barely pronounce her name. So, who was Hatshepsut and why is she considered one of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs? Well, Let’s find out.
What was Hatshepsut’s family like?
The Pharaoh Amenhotep I died without producing a male heir. Thutmose, a respected middle-aged nobleman from Thebes stepped into the power vacuum.
Around 1506 B.C. he was crowned Thutmose I. Under his rule, Egypt’s fortunes skyrocketed. The borders expanded, and gold poured in. During this prosperity Thutmose and his Great Wife, Ahmose had a daughter, Hatshepsut. While in Egyptian eyes, a son would have been preferable.
Thutmose I still had plans for his daughter. As soon as she could walk, Hatshepsut would have begun training to become the next God’s Wife of Amun. Amun was the Patron god of Thebes and a creator god. He fertilised the universe alone through the use of his God’s Hand.
The Amun Priesthood was like an ancient Egyptian Vatican, with immeasurable wealth, lands, and temples. The office of the God’s Wife was second only to the High Priest of Amun. If the God’s Wife did not perform the correct spiritual offerings or did not provide the “activity” Amun’s statue couldn’t do himself, the universe would cease to exist. As God’s Wife, she owned massive estates and lands.
As a result, Hatshepsut learned from the best political, religious, and economic tutors in Egypt. Hatshepsut became God’s wife at an extremely young age. Probably before 10. Thutmose wanted the influential position filled with someone loyal to him. Standing by Thutmose’s side at important events, Hatshepsut would have learned how to win wars and how building programmes functioned simultaneously as jobs programmes and propaganda. She grew up as the greatest priestess in the land.
All that was left was to marry her full brother and become the King’s Great Wife. Which, while super weird and rather uncomfortable, was used to produce the purest possible heir in Egyptian eyes.
However, tragedy struck. Her two full brothers and heirs to the throne died. At just the young age of 12, Hatshepsut was the only pure royal child left. Her half-brother also called Thutmose, who now became heir was nothing like his strong father.
Covered in lesions and born with an enlarged heart and shortness of breath. Yet everyone at court depended on this boy king to continue the Thutmosid line and thus, secure their own jobs and livelihoods. And then tragedy struck again. Thutmose I died, leaving behind a boy too weak and young to wield real power.
And so, at the age of about 13, Hatshepsut became the King’s Great Wife to her younger half-brother, now called Thutmose II.
How did Hatshepsut come to power?
Hatshepsut, a teenager was now the real power behind the Egyptian throne. An entire Kingdom depended on her ability to conceive a male heir. Luckily, she was an important religious figure and had experience running her own estates. She dominated the relationship and could advise Thutmose II on how to run his own Kingdom.
Hatshepsut soon gave birth to a princess, Neferure. It looked like the cycle of no male heir was repeating. Recall that Thutmose I only came to power due to this exact situation. Uncertainty would have swept Egypt. For the nasty brother-sister couple time was up.
After just three years on the throne, Thutmose II kicked the bucket when Hatshepsut was about sixteen years old. Thutmose II had managed to produce some male children with women from his harem. They weren’t considered as pure as ones that he and Hatshepsut could have made but desperate times would call for these impure non-incestuous babies.
Thus, one of these male babies had to be chosen. However, none were older than 2 years old. This was a rare case for Egypt. Pharaohs came to the throne as children or teens all the time. But a baby required at least 15 years of rule by a regent. Whispers of a new dynasty filled the palace.
Hatshepsut, however, stepped up. She understood that the best way to reassure the people was to make Amun choose the next Pharaoh. And in front of as many people as possible, she set up a public ceremony.
A statue of Amun was rolled in and the baby princes lined up in front of it. The statue, somehow, selected another Thutmose. Son of Isis. Known now as Thutmose III.
Thutmose III sat on the throne because Hatshepsut was there to make it happen. She played Kingmaker at 16. Had Hatshepsut not been there, it’s easy to see how the crown could have fallen into different, unfamiliar hands. Hatshepsut stepped in as regent for the young Thutmose III. This is odd considering that she was only his aunt…and stepmother when usually mothers acted as regent.
This shows the confidence that the priests, generals, and bureaucracy had in her. Hatshepsut began a slow and calculated accumulation of power. Palaces, Temples, Granaries, and the Army. Every sphere of Egyptian life soon found itself connected back to her. Rewards flowed out of the royal palace to the Amun priesthood who now owed an undying alliance to Hatshepsut.
Local governors were bribed or intimidated to ensure their support. Taxes across the country were collected efficiently and temples rose from the sand. Royal heralds were sent out across the realm and abroad to speak on her behalf and to reward loyal supporters. She staffed temples across Egypt with full-time professional priests with a vested interest in her.
Hatshepsut had amassed a legion of religious, political, and military supporters. She acquired power slowly, building a broad base of support from every possible corner of her realm. She made it so that supporting her was the logical choice.
She never attempted a coup or an assassination, she never tried to ally with a powerful male general, because she never really needed to. She simply patiently solidified her power. It now came time to relinquish the position of God’s Wife of Amun. She then prepared her daughter, Neferure, to take over the role.
What was Hatshepsut’s reign like?
God’s Wife was not a lifetime position, yet Hatshepsut needed more time to establish Thutmose III’s rule. Early in Thutmose III’s reign, Hatshepsut had begun carving important messages into obelisks, temples, and palaces across Egypt. Inscriptions that showed her doing things that a king would normally do.
Speaking to the gods, making offerings, issuing commands, and wearing the gown of a queen on her body but the crown of a king upon her head.
These were all traditional masculine tasks performed by the male Pharaoh. But here Hatshepsut—a woman—was claiming these duties and all that before she was officially king. She knew how people in Egypt thought.
As her image became more and more kingly, Hatshepsut made sure to inform her people that Amun himself had personally chosen her to rule.
In the ancient world, having a woman at the top of the political pyramid was practically impossible. But against all odds, sometime around the seventh year of Thutmose III’s reign, the impossible happened. Hatshepsut was crowned king. Her title had finally caught up to what she was already doing.
From the age of 12 to 20, she had positioned herself as queen, then regent, and now Pharaoh. Hatshepsut was already running Egypt’s day-to-day business. She was already building temples, collecting taxes, commanding governors, and crushing rebellions.
Hatshepsut’s kingship provides us with the ultimate case of merit over ambition. Doing kingly things made Hatshepsut king. To publicise her coronation, she erected two massive obelisks at Karnak Temple, at the time the tallest in the world.
In the ancient world, the creation of an obelisk was a miracle, something only someone ordained by the gods could achieve and Hatshepsut built these things like crazy, one of which still stands and another which was unfinished can still be seen trapped in the Earth.
She erected more pairs of red granite obelisks in Karnak Temple than any known Egyptian king. All of them are partly covered with electrum. So that when the sun hit them at the right angle they would light up and appear to capture the energy of the Sun itself.
In order to further prove the Gods trusted her, Hatshepsut decided to send men to the uncharted land of Punt on a dangerous expedition. Punt was located far to the southeast of Egypt, probably somewhere in modern-day Somalia, Djibouti or Eritrea. All previous expeditions to Punt had only been completed by the greatest of kings.
For two years they waited for news of the expedition’s return. Then in the ninth year of her reign, they returned with shiploads of incense, precious ebony, exotic materials, and myrrh. In the minds of the Egyptians, the entire Punt voyage would have failed if she wasn’t meant to be king.
As exotic goods poured in her prestige soared even higher. She continued to reopen exotic trade networks that had been closed for generations across the ancient world.
The confident Pharaoh now instigated a whirlwind of construction. More craftsmen than ever before were working on massive temple projects across Egypt. Work of this quality had not been seen in centuries. Temples carved out of live rock, massive pylons, and, of course, obelisks rose up.
The most innovative construction was her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri. Hatshepsut would call this temple Djeser-djeseru, meaning Holy of Holies.
This was a huge collonaded masterpiece. With large open spaces on 3 different layered terraces all connected by ramps. In their day these terraces would have housed gardens filled with exotic plants and incense trees. All while looking as if it’s coming out of the mountain behind it. For something over 3000 years old, it looks shockingly modern.
When Hatshepsut rose to power, Egypt was a country mostly made up of buildings of mud-brick, now it had been remade in stone. Meanwhile, Thutmose III grew up to be a healthy young warrior.
She sent Thutmose III across Egypt to learn how to be a great general. She made sure he made connections with elites from all around the Mediterranean. But in Egypt, a woman could outrank a boy but not a man. If she wanted to keep her and Thutmose’s rule legitimate, something had to change. Her earliest images show a woman wearing a dress but the headgear of a king.
This openly feminine representation wouldn’t work anymore. Soon Hatshepsut would slowly shift all her images to a man’s body. She was once again adapting to the times and culture. She hid all of her feminine features in images but continued to use “she” and “her” in writings, proof that she refused to give up all her feminine identity.
In order to complete her and Thutmose III’s transformation she threw a Sed festival. Which was supposed to celebrate a Pharaoh’s 30th year in power. It was about Hatshepsut’s 15th, another shift in tradition.
After the Sed festival, no temple image ever showed her as a woman, and her co-king, Thutmose III, would have been roughly 17 years old. He had come of age, and the Sed festival would have been the best way for Hatshepsut to formally announce his coming to power. The borders were growing, wealth was pouring in, the gods were happy and the succession had finally been secured. It was time for Hatshepsut to prepare for her own final end in the Valley of the Kings.
How did Hatshepsut die?
After 21 years as the leader of the world’s most powerful Kingdom the King’s Daughter, God’s Wife, and Pharaoh, Hatsheput died around the age of 50 in the year 1458 B.C. According to recent research, she died of bone cancer.
In 2018, some German researchers concluded that a flask of lotion Hatshepsut possessed contained a carcinogenic substance, which is also found in cigarette smoke, that might have killed her. It was believed the Pharaoh used it as a treatment for certain skin conditions like eczema.
Hatshepsut died as a king, was buried as a king (in the Valley of the Kings) and hoped to be remembered as a king for thousands of years.
But something changed.
Wiping out a Legacy
Despite all she had done to secure Thutmose III’s rule, all the hoops she jumped through and the monuments she built, in the end, it meant nothing. Thutmose decided to eradicate her from every temple in Egypt. Twenty-five years after her death, her image was hacked off of her monuments in a systematic campaign to destroy her memory.
Chisels and hammers rang out across Egypt, erasing one of its greatest rulers. The sheer volume of her monuments meant the work to replace her was pretty shoddy, some of the time she was just replaced with an offering table. But mostly we’re left with giant Hatshepsut-shaped holes scarring the walls of the temples she built.
This wasn’t an act of hatred on Thutmose’s part though. Thutmose III waited until the end of his reign to erase Hatshepsut’s because it was only then that he needed to establish legitimacy for his own son. He had to prove the crown went from Thutmose I to II, then to III and now it would go on to his son. Aberrations had to be removed. Once his son was on the throne, the destruction stopped.
Thutmose III’s act to erase Hatshepsut from history as a powerful female ruler was, possibly, to close the gap in the male succession of the Thutmosid Dynasty. As a result, the scholars of Ancient Egypt knew little or nothing of Hatshepsut’s existence until 1822, when they were able to decrypt and read the hieroglyphics or symbols on the walls of Deir el-Bahri.
The British archaeologist, Howard Carter found the sarcophagus of Hatshepsut in 1903 (one of three she had prepared), but it was empty, like almost all the tombs in the Kings Valley. After launching a new expedition in 2005, her mummy was discovered by a team of archaeologists in 2007 and is now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. A life-size statue of a sitting Hatshepsut that survived the devastation of her stepson is on display at the New York City Metropolitan Museum.
But Hatshepsut’s true legacy lived on, hidden but still there. Her architectural innovations dominated the landscape and the wealth she brought her people still helped them thrive. But in the end, her greatest achievement, her most daring innovation was that of creating the first truly successful female kingship.
She pushed aside traditional masculine domination without bloodshed and managed to keep her family and her country from collapsing. For Hatshepsut, her success was rewarded with a short memory. But time and knowledge have once again let her light shine on into the modern day. Just as you are reading this today…
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