Author: Bridget Bracken
Sub-editor: Sunnie Habgood
Hatshepsut is viewed as somewhat of a phenomenon in the study of ancient Egypt. As a female pharaoh who appeared to have been erased from the annals of history, it is no wonder that she captures the modern imagination and entices contemporary scholars. Shedding light on this mysterious female King and exploring whether or not she’s put on a pedestal is essential.
Hatshepsut was born in 1525 BCE to Thutmose I and his Great Royal Wife Ahmose. As the couple did not have a son, Hatshepsut was married to her half-brother Thutmose II in order to strengthen his claim to the throne. Together they had one daughter, Neferure – but once again, no sons. When Thutmose II died around 1504 BCE, his young son by another of his wives became King as Thutmose III, and Hatshepsut his regent. From there she went on to become co-regent, crowning herself King at a feast in Luxor celebrating the god Amun. She claimed strong ties to Amun throughout her time as King, even referring to him as her divine father in order to further strengthen her claim to the crown.
Asserting her legitimacy as King was a task at the forefront of Hatshepsut’s rule. Being a woman in a traditionally male role as well as being a co-regent, Hatshepsut had to prove herself worthy of her status time and time again. In what may have been an astute plan to gain her peoples trust, instead of looking beyond Egypt to conquer other nations she took it upon herself to better the country from within. She is well known for her extensive building program, including unique buildings such as the Red Chapel at Karnak and Djeser-Djeseru at Deir el-Bahri. There is proof of her rule as far as the mining site Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula, dating back to her time not as regent or King, but as a Wife of Amun (despite the fact that she was using a throne name at this time). It is in these building programs that we are able to glean some idea of her relationship with her young co-regent, and how she rose to power. In the shrine of Hathor at Deir el-Bahri, Thutmose III is actually shown worshiping Hatshepsut, and in total Hatshepsut appears in fifty more depictions than Thutmose III in that same complex. In the places where Hatshepsut’s coronation and ancestry are depicted, Thutmose III is not depicted at all, hinting that she wished to solidify her power as a singular ruler rather than belonging as a pair.
Hatshepsut did also set her sights outside of Egypt, though to a lesser degree than kings that had come before her. One of the more famous events of her reign is her expedition to the Land of Punt. Once again, this was a carefully thought-out plan to assert her legitimacy as King – the timing of it lining up with her coronation certainly no coincidence. This expedition also allowed her to display her ability to command and involve the military, without the need for an actual military conquest. It had been approximately 150 to 300 years since the trade route between Egypt and Punt was last utilised, and it continued to stay in use long after Hatshepsut’s rule. But this was not only a show of power; it was a way of winning over the priests within Egypt’s chief cult. Aromatics such as frankincense and myrrh needed for temple rituals could be found in Punt, earning it the name of “God’s Land” and simultaneously earning Hatshepsut the support of the priests of Amun once these sacred necessities were dedicated directly to the god.
One of the aspects of Hatshepsut’s rule that is found most fascinating today is the way that she chose to portray herself primarily as male from the time of her coronation. This choice has created numerous theories, with modern scholars speculating whether she was transgender, or perhaps cross-dressing. However, despite the fact that her iconography depicted her as male, her names always retained feminine grammar accompaniments, and she referred to goddesses in her King names. There have been countless debates as to what prompted her to make these choices; some argue that it was in part so she could take a dominant position over her co-regent within the strict confines of Egyptian art, another method of asserting her power. Others take a view that, as Robins states, “she was playing a male gender role and for the role to be recognized it had to be given its traditional male form.” This view would explain why her name has retained its feminine form – she was not trying to fool the Egyptian public into thinking that she was male, but simply trying to assert herself as a legitimate, recognizable king.
For a long time, though, it seemed as though Hatshepsut’s efforts to legitimize her rule were for naught. After her death, the circumstances of which remain somewhat murky, her co-regent Thutmose III attempted to erase her from the historical record in an apparent attempt to legitimize his own power. His erasure of her failed spectacularly, however. It would appear that instead of trying to completely rid the record of her, he simply wanted to make it appear as though she had never been King, even going so far as to erase her from the king lists. At Karnak, Thutmose III’s goal seems to have been to erase the propaganda discussing Hatshepsut’s claim to the throne, and the same appears to have been his motivation in dismantling the Red Chapel, where there were scenes that reinforced Hatshepsut’s claim to the throne as well as ones that showed her utilizing power in the role of God’s Wife of Amun.
Despite the efforts of Thutmose III, Hatshepsut’s memory lives on today as a symbol of feminine strength in ancient Egyptian history. Throughout her time on the throne, she had to continuously assert her legitimacy, yet she not only retained her role as King but thrived in it, providing Egypt with new trade routes, new monuments and temples, and a time of great stability. Her determination, resourcefulness, cunning, and ability to make her country accept her as a woman in a role traditionally reserved for men are all reasons why she deserves and consequently earned her place on the King’s list, where those who came after her attempted to erase her memory thousands of years ago.
Seated Statue of Hatshepsut, ca. 1479–1458 BCE, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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