Hatshepsut: the woman who ruled Egypt as a man

I’m delving into ancient history for this week’s post, to arguably the first great woman in recorded history. Hatshepsut was born in 1507 BC, the only surviving child of the pharaoh Thutmose I and his ‘great’ wife, but had a half brother, also called Thutmose, through a ‘minor’ wife. In order to strengthen his claim to the throne, this son was married to 12 year-old Hatsheput, something that wasn’t considered unusual at the time. They had a daughter although Thutmose II bore a son, yet another Thutmose, through a harem girl. However, Thutmose II died young, when his son was still a young boy, so Hatchepsut assumed the throne as queen regent. At first Hatchepsut played her role as expected, but after three years declared herself pharaoh, claiming that the god Amun had taken the form of her father and visited her mother, and that she was the result of this union. No-one knows why she took this radical step; historians assumed it was driven by personal ambition but there may have been a threat from another branch of the royal family and she may have been acting to save the throne for her stepson

Throughout her reign, Hatshepsut dressed as a man, even wearing a false beard, and even removed the female ending from her name, calling herself His Majesty, Hatshepsu. She wasn’t trying to pass herself as a man but this was the only way to demonstrate her authority; there were no words or imaged to portray a woman with such power. However, government officials respected and supported her, and under her 22-year rule, she maintained peace, re-established trading relations lost in previous conflicts and organised trading expeditions that brought great wealth to the country.

She seemed determined never to be forgotten; she was one of the most prolific builders in ancient Egypt. She renovated and constructed temples and shrines throughout Egypt; the memorial temple at Deir el-Bahri and the two 100-foot granite obelisks she erected at the temple of Karnak are considered among the greatest wonders of ancient Egypt. She commissioned hundreds of statues of herself and there are heiroglyphic accounts of her life that go into an unusual level of detail, including describing her feelings: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”

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Hatshepsut is thought to have died in 1478 BC, probably from bone cancer caused by a carcinogenic skin lotion found in her tomb. Toward the end of her son, Thutmose III’s reign, attempts were made to obliterate her memory, destroying statues and removing her name from monuments. It’s possible that a female ruler was seen as offensive, or that Thutmose III wanted to eliminate evidence of her reign to ensure that the royal succession ran smoothly to his son. Ironically, some of these efforts meant that her greatest work was preserved; stone walls around the granite obelisks were intended to hide them from public view but in fact protected the monuments from the elements.

In 1903, British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered a tomb in the Valley of the Kings containing two bodies. One was identified as Hatshepsut’s wetnurse, and the other unidentified until 2007, when a gap in the teeth matched a molar tooth that had been found in an ivory jar inscribed with Hatshepsut’s name. Her mummy now resides in the Egyptian museum in Cairo.

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