Queen Hatshepsut a Female Pharaoh
Ancient Egypt has a long illustrious history. A compelling reason why it was one of the earliest civilizations has to be its geographic location. Situated on the northeastern tip of the African continent; bordered on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, the east by the Red Sea, and to the west by the great Sahara Desert, it was naturally protected from invasion. Egypt was vulnerable to invaders, by land, only from the south. Secondly, the great, fertile, Nile river valley contributed to Egypt’s emergence as a great civilization. The annual flooding of the river left a silt-rich valley region able to yield great quantities of cultivated crops capable of supporting an ever-growing population. The northern Delta (Lower Egypt) and the southern valley (Upper Egypt) regions where eventually united by King Menes (Dynastic period, 3100-2660 B.C.E.); thus, creating an important ancient civilization that lasted over 3000 years. King Menes established his capital city (Memphis) along the Nile located just before the flat delta region where the river branches out into several tributaries that flow to the Mediterranean Sea (Hawass, 18).
During an era called the New Kingdom (1550-1069 B.C.E.) Egypt experienced its greatest expansion and prosperity directly attributed to a series of strong warrior kings. The first being Ahmose I (r.1550-1525 B.C.E.) whom drove the Asiatic Hyksos out of the delta region and reunited Egypt. Thutmose I (r.1504-1492 B.C.E) using military tactics gleaned from the formidable Hyksos (fast, sleek horse drawn chariots and bronzed tipped arrows), further expanded Egyptian rule by destroying Kerma (1500 B.C.E.) the Nubian city to the south ( 3rd and 4th cataract regions). Thutmose III (r. 1479-1425) orchestrated 17 military campaigns in which he expanded southward further into Nubia; but more impressively he conquered city-states in Syria and Palestine known as the Levant region. Thutmose III had a co-regent `when he was a mere lad. Queen Hatshepsut his co-regent and aunt led a very interesting and atypical life. Even though several prominent Pharaohs followed her (Amenhotep IV, Sety I, Rameses II) during the New Kingdom era; she is the main point of interest for this discussion (lecture notes-timeline, 3-4).
The purpose of this essay is to explore Queen Hatshephut’s reign (r.1473-1458) as the most prominent female ruler in ancient Egyptian history. Several Egyptian Queens ruled Egypt but their short reigns took place during periods when the central government seem to be collapsing cause by invasions from outside peoples (Hyksos), or when the ruling family failed to produce male heirs. Such is the case with Queen Nitokerty the last ruler of the 6th Dynasty at the end of the Old Kingdom (2660-2160 B.C.E.). Queen Sobekneferu the last ruler of the 12th Dynasty ruled for four years. Queen Tausret the chief wife of King Seti II ruled for six years at the end of the 19th Dynasty. Records of all three women’s reigns were systematically obscured by the powers to be. This action was an attempt to reaffirm the Egyptian cultural belief that kingship was reserved for males only (Hawass, 31-35). Queen Hatshephut tried and succeeded to dispel this myth during her reign (1473-1458 B.C.E.). She challenged Egypt’s political theology of the era (New Kingdom), starting with her vicarious ascension to the throne. She accomplished things primarily reserved for her male counterparts. Being very ambitious and competent she even expanded Egypt’s repetition as an important world power. Yet; like all three of the aforementioned ruling Queens of the Egyptian pharaonic era, She died in obscurity.
Egypt’s political theology was one were only men rulers could secede to the throne under the guise that they were immortal for they were direct descendents of Amon-Re (lecture notes Ancient Egypt, 7). Amon and Re were sun gods worshiped originally in two different regions (Thebes and Heliopolis respectively), but they became the principal gods of Egpyt’s political theology (Bentley, Ziegler, 77). Further legitimizing their claims as absolute monarchs, Egyptian kings were thought to be upholders of cosmic harmony (MA’AT). The logical conclusion to this way of thinking is that only males where divine; thereby, only they could hold the royal office of Pharaoh (lecture notes-Ancient Egypt, 7). Now comes along a woman, feminist in nature, coupled with unyielding ambition and competent as any man to boot. Queen Hatshepsut reigned during the New Kingdom era (1473-1458 B.C.E.). She came to power by slick manipulation of the co-regent position.
Queen Hatshepsut’s husband (Thutmose II) died leaving as heir to the throne his son (Thutmose III) by a minor wife. The queen felt he was too young to rule. Therefore being a loving, ambition relative (aunt), she declared herself as co-regent convincing the bureaucratic class that this was the best course of action. Simultaneously she took on the throne name Ma’Atkare (Truthful harmony is the genius of the sun god) (Ray, 45). This was the beginning of 22 year reign during which Queen Hatshepsut begin constructing a female version of Egyptian political theology. Most apparent evidence of her course of action is best recorded in her tomb at Deir-el-Bahri (Essay assignment #1 The Divine conception of Queen Hatshepsut, 1-2). In this epitaph she explains how her mother (Queen Aahmes) was impregnated by the great sun god Amon whom tells the council of gods (The Great Ennead) that this offspring is to have dominion over all (1). Later in this inscription she writes that the great Amon unequivocally states she is of his seed and should be allotted all rights and privileges of kingship backed up by his divine protection (2). Feeling she had justified her right to hold the office of Pharaoh she begins to, pardon the euphemism, strut her stuff.
It must be remembered that Egyptian political theory purported that only males could ascend to the office of Pharaoh. Knowing this Queen Hatshepsut created the fiction of her birth via the god Amon; thereby, giving her kingship legitimacy. She further illustrated this claim by doing things previously reserved for her male counterparts such as directly making offerings to the gods as depicted in a relief at the temple of Karnak. Additionally she oversaw the building of two huge granite obelisks in front of the same temple. The inscriptions included such remarks as: the luminous seed of the mighty one, the fine gold of kings, as well as other writings along this vein. Other inscriptions make cunning references to her father (he also sired her half brother and husband Thutmose II). Queen Hatshepsut was much enamored with her father (Thutmose I). He was a great warrior Pharaoh; conversely, her husband (Thutmose II) was not. Could it be a simple matter of hero worship, or was she using her father’s validity as a great warrior for political reasons (Ray, 53-55). I think a little of both. Queen Hatshepsut proved to be an incredibly gifted administrator and a feminist extraordinaire (Hawass, 33), (Ray, 53-56). During her reign Egypt was experiencing great prosperity in regards to crop production. This enabled the Queen to establish trade with other countries as well as keep her populous fed. Once again, Queen Hatshepsut took advantage of this economic boon, provided by the Nile, to solidify her standing as a female Pharaoh (3). It was very probable that a few bureaucrats were opposed to her stance on kingship. Understandably so being that her claims was a great departure from the long standing divine male concept. Crafty as she was as a politician Queen Hatshepsut once again deferred to her fictional birthright in an attempted to quell the grumblings of her detractors(4).
Queen Hatshepsut changed the gender of language as evidenced in the inscriptions on the great monuments erected by her… The script referred to her/she; whereas, before the male counterpart him/he was used. Ironically she was portrayed as a male Pharaoh complete with ceremonial beard and headdress in temple scenes; yet, three-dimensional sculptures/statues showed her finer feminine features (rounded, softer facial bone structure, slender limbs, unmistakable breasts, arched eyebrows). She was well aware and proud of her softer feminine physical qualities despite her aggressive feminist ideals (Hawass, 28,31,197) (Ray, 46-47). Besides the great obelisks in front of the Karnak temple, the Queen built an amazing mortuary temple for herself at Deir al-Bahari. This architectural wonder is referred to as one of the jewels of ancient Egyptian. It is built against the cliffs at western Thebes and rises in a three terrace design. The avenue leading up to it is lined with sphinxes and trees. The architectural plan makes use of colonnades on each terrace, and exquisite reliefs that depict not only Hatshepsut’s fictional birthright prose but other accomplishments of her reign. Senenmut her top advisor had the responsibility of overseeing this great venture (Hawass, 33-34). He will be discussed in more debt later.
Queen Hatshepsut was portrayed as a great military leader and diplomat. I tend to believe she inherited a great standing army and advisors from her father’s/husband’s (Thutmose I & II) reigns. She did not possess great military experience; but, using her feminine wiles, coupled with her better-than-average political astuteness she was able to maintain control of the army and her administration. The army had successful campaigns under her father’s rule and the queen knew they had to be pacified (once a warrior, always a warrior). What better way than to send them off on a peace time campaign to Punt (1450 B.C.E.), under the guise of expanding Egypt’s borders. Brilliant! two birds with one stone. The military brass is sated and geographically speaking, out of her hair. The military set out for the Red Sea and down its coast to the gulf of Aden; a vast exploratory venture complete with a well equipped army, a great fleet, complete with scholars and artists to record the expedition. Engaging the people of Punt (possibly Ethiopia, Somalia or further south to Zanzibar, historians are not sure), they brought Egyptian goods to trade with the natives. In return they brought home all kinds of exotic goods never the like seen in Egypt (monkeys, gemstones, all sorts of animal skins, spices, tropical plants and trees of the most exotic variety). This expedition lasted two years. While the military was away Queen Hatshepsut surely began setting her own loyal people in key political roles, and systematically purged detractors and the old guard (advisors leftover from her fathe and husband’s reigns). What a smooth way to solidify her grip on the kingship. Naturally she had her artisans and scholars record this venture to Punt in elaborate reliefs on the walls of her temple at Deir el-Bahri for all posterity. Based on the observation of people who made the journey; the Queen of Punt was portrayed as, let us say, a very plumb representative of the female gender. This trip endeared the commoners to her for they experienced economic security; and based on the portrayal of the Queen of Punt commoners also felt a national pride in their Queen as being superior in all ways (diplomacy, military brilliance, physical beauty). Needless to say Queen Hatshepsut got considerable mileage out of this expedition for the rest of her reign (Ray, 49-52).
Being queen did not exclude Hatshepsut from moral impropriety as in the relationship between her and Senenmut: the royal advisor, architect, tutor to her daughter (Nefrure), and just one of many males of the court vying for her favor. She was a widow and it is not such a stretch to think of the Pharaoh Queen seeking male companionship from time to time. In the case of Senenmut he had the ear of the queen, and being a commoner (parents died with no title to speak of) he was granted quite a few perks. He even went so far as to portray himself and the royal mistress worshipping Amon together. Even though these reliefs where hidden when doors in the temple were opened, I would venture that Hatshepsut had full knowledge of their existence. Further evidence of their possible romantic involvement surfaced some years ago. At a dig on the cliffs above Hatshepsut’s temple a drawing was uncovered showing a female pharaoh engaged in a passive amorous affront from a male figure. This type of activity by male leaders is generally accepted; but, unfortunately strong women caught in this same scenario are generally ostracized. Queen Hatshepsut died in February 1458 B.C.E. (Hawass, 34) (Ray, 57-58). It is not known whether she was forced from office, assassinated, or died of natural causes. I am sure some evidence could be found to develop a theory for any of the three. Queen Hatshepsut’s many accomplishments; feats as a diplomat, architect of some of Egypt’s most beautiful monuments, and kingship as a female pharaoh were almost completely eradicated by her nephew and co-regent Thutmose III. He did not order the defacement of her name and image until late in his reign. His late action in this regard leads me to believe that he loved his aunt but was forced to take this action to appease various political factions (Hawass, 34) (lecture notes-timeline, 3) (Ray, 58-59).
Queen Hatshepsut, to coin a popular modern-day accolade, put a million cracks in the glass ceiling of Egyptian political theology during her reign. Unfortunately, her nephew king Thutmose III damn near repaired them all. She was a prolific diplomat, administrator, builder, spin doctor and feminist. The fictitious account of her birthright is a decent bit of prose. Queen Hatshepsut had no qualms whatsoever meshing reality with fiction. Her monuments and buildings like the temple at Deir el-Bahari is one of the finest ever constructed in Egypt. The expedition into Punt brought great wealth to Egypt, and cemented her fame as a diplomat. Her superb abilities as stateswoman kept Egypt’s standing army sound. Her feministic approach to kingship set her apart from other female Queens/Rulers of Egypt. I believe that fact alone led to her demise and the attempt to eradicate her accomplishments from ancient Egyptian history.
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Garasanin, Olivera (2009). Essay Assignment #1–The Divine conception of Queen Hatshepsut.
Garasanin, Olivera (2009). Lecture Notes–Ancient Egypt and Ancient Nubia.
Garasanin, Olivera (2009). Lecture Notes–Ancient Nubia and Ancient Egypt-Timeline.
Hawass, Zahi (2000). Silent Images: Women in Pharaonic Egypt. New York: Harry N. Abrams, INC.
Ray, J. D. (2002). Reflections of Osiris: Lives from Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press.