The last year or so brought about focus onto to gender and politics, specifically, the possibility of a woman being the leader of what is arguably the world’s strongest and most influential democratic republic. However, a woman in such influential role is not exactly a brand new idea, in fact, it dates back to around 1508 BCE. This revolutionary leader’s name was Hatshepsut. Her story is one of Game of Thrones-esque intrigue and scandal, or at least that was how 19th century Egyptologists saw it. Because, of course, how could, of all things, a woman come into power honestly, without malice or ulterior motive? Surely, she had a man do the heavy lifting. Clearly, she was nothing but a power hungry usurper. Right? Turns out that may not be the case. Shocker, I know.
Hatshepsut was born in around 1508 BCE to in a complicated family, which is an understatement. Her parents were Thutmose I and his principal wife, Ahmose. *Side note: pharaohs usually had a harem of wives to produce him a son, but a principal wife was usually of noble birth and be the highest ranking of all of them and it was concerningly common for them to be related.
Hatshepsut would have been given to a wet nurse (a woman who was to nurse and care for the child) almost immediately after her birth, while her mother would try to get back into ideal health to produce another child, hopefully a son. Hatshepsut would not have had quality family time with her parents. She would have spent her first few years in the harem with her father’s other wives and her half-siblings. She would have a tutor to teach her how to read, write, and perform rituals.
However, she was not completely neglected. After all, every great leader must have some mysterious mentor to lead them on the path of greatness. From the time she was a child, Hatshepsut was surrounded by strong, powerful women. One of which was Ahmes-Nefertari she was considered to be the “god’s wife” and wife to King Ahmose (not to be confused with Hatshepsut’s mother). Ahmes-Nefertari would have lead Egypt while her husband went off on campaigns and act as regent when her son was appointed king at a young age.
Another was Merytamen, She was the wife of King Amenhotep I and was Egypt’s highest priestess while Hatshepsut was growing up, and she would have been the person who taught Hatshepsut how to perform the daily rituals to the god, Amun. Though we have no proof if their relationship was completely amicable, Hatshepsut would have looked to these women as role models. Hatshepsut would eventually married her half-brother Thutmose II, son of one of Thutmose I’s minor wives.
It’s a “Game of Thrones”
Hatshepsut’s rise to power came with the death of her husband to diseases believed to have stemmed from, you guessed it, inbreeding. She first acted as a principal priestess to the god Amun. She was his favorite wife and would eventually give him a daughter, Neferure. However, he would have a son, Thutmose III, to a lesser wife and this son would take the throne after his father’s death. However, when her husband died, Hatshepsut was appointed regent, because Thutmose III was far too young to rule. She eventually named herself pharaoh and this is where the problems arise.
To support her claim to the throne, Hatshepsut cited her close relation to the god, Amun. As a high priestess, she saw herself as a daughter of the god. Hatshepsut also emphasised the purity of her bloodline and her direct relation to Thutmose I as his first child and child to his principle wife. Additionally, Hatshepsut surrounded herself with powerful people who would affirm and support her claim to power. A notable supporter of hers was Senemut. He was a prominent member in her husband’s court and Hatshepsut’s adviser for most of her reign. Senemut was also believed to have been her lover, but this only remains to be speculation. Hatshepsut also gained the support of many of the high priests in Egypt. With the support of these influential men, Hatshepsut was able to gain public support for her reign.
Many early egyptologist and archeologist saw Hatshepsut as a usurper as they thought she was taking the throne from Thutmose III, but Thutmose III had never officially taken the throne. How could have she usurped something that was never his in the first place?
Hatshepsut’s reign was on of peace and prosperity. She was successful in conquest and in war as well as securing the economy. During her reign, she established a trading relationship with Punt; this would prove to be extremely beneficial to Egypt as it allowed them access to new resources. However, it is important to keep in mind that the accounts of her success were written or overseen by Hatshepsut herself.
During her rule, Hatshepsut built and restored many monuments; most notable of these was her mortuary temple in Djeser-djeseru (“holiest of holy places”). It still stands today and is often looked upon as one of the heights in Egyptian architecture. When Hatshepsut commissioned art of herself (as seen above), she was always depicted in a more masculine way with the false beard, king’s tunic, and broad and muscular body, as depicted above. Although many early archeologists believe this was a way of deceiving the people, today we believe that this was simply a way of to assert her authority. In ancient Egypt, and for most of history for that matter, masculinity meant power.
“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”
Hatshepsut died in February of 1458 BCE, due to a toxic ointment or salve used to soothe a chronic, genetic skin condition caused by, you guessed: inbreeding. After her death, many images depicting her were destroyed during Thutmose III’s reign. Though, we do not know for sure what the true motivations were, many egyptologist have their own speculations.
Some believe that the iconoclasm came about because Thutmose III may have bore animosity towards her. Another theory is that Thutmose III’s contemporaries could have seen Hatshepsut as bringing an imbalance to maat. But perhaps the greatest injustice to meet Hatshepsut was not the attempt of eradicating her images. Instead, it was the 19th and 20th century egyptologist and archeologist who looked for every possible way to corrupt her name. Many of them insisting that she was a power-hungry usurper who stole the throne from a young king. Or that she was nothing more than a figurehead for a court that would use her. All of this because they could not seem to wrap their head around a woman ruling successfully, arguably more successful than most of her male counterparts.
I think Kara Cooney said it best:
“Hatshepsut has the misfortune to be antiquity’s female leader who did everything right, a woman who could math her wit to a task so seamlessly that she made no waves of discontent that have been recorded. For Hatshepsut, all that endured were the remnant of her success, props for later kings who never had to give her credit she deserved.”
And then there’s a Laurel Thatcher Ulrich quote that goes: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” I had always assumed that this was a beacon to misbehave, but Hatshepsut’s story makes me think otherwise; that, perhaps, we should start looking at and remembering the women who did everything right, those who stage silent rebellions against societies who tell them ‘no.’
- Cooney, Kara. The Woman Who Would Be King. New York. 2014.
- De Masson, Lucy. “Hatshepsut.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Published February 14, 2012. www.ancient.eu/hatshepsut
- “Hatshepsut Biography.” Biography. Last Updated August 17, 2016. http://www.biography.com/people/hatshepsut-9331094#synopsis
- Wilson, Elizabeth B. “The Queen Who Would Be King.” Smithsonian. Published. September 2006. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-queen-who-would-be-king-130328511/?no-ist’