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While she was neither Egypt‘s first female ruler, nor its only female pharaoh, Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE) was ancient Egypt ‘s first female ruler to reign as a male with the full authority of a pharaoh’s office. The fifth pharaoh of Egypt‘s 18th Dynasty during the New Kingdom period (1570-1069 BCE), today, Hatshepsut is rightly celebrated as a powerful female ruler whose reign brought stability and prosperity to Egypt.

As the stepmother of the future Thuthmose III (1458-1425 BCE), Hatshepsut initially ruled as regent for her stepson who was too young when his father died to assume the throne. At first, Hatshepsut whose name translates as, “She is First Among Noble Women” or “Foremost of Noble Women” elected to rule conventionally as a woman. Around the seventh year of her rule, however, Hatshepsut elected to be shown as a male pharaoh on reliefs and statuary while still referring to herself as a woman in her inscriptions.

This dramatic move flew in the face of conservative Egyptian tradition, which reserved the role of pharaoh for royal males. This assertive move sparked controversy, as no woman should have been able to ascend to the full power of the Pharaoh.

Facts About Hatshepsut

  • Hatshepsut was the daughter of Thuthmose I and his Great Wife Ahmose and was married to her half-brother Thutmose II
  • Her name means “Foremost of Noble Women”
  • Hatshepsut was ancient Egypt‘s first female Pharaoh to rule as a man with all the authority of a pharaoh
  • Ruled initially as regent for her stepson who was too young to assume the throne upon his father’s death
  • Hatshepsut adopted male attributes to buttress her rule as a Pharaoh including dressing in a man’s traditional kilt and wearing a fake beard
  • Under her reign, Egypt enjoyed immense wealth and prosperity
  • She reopened trade routes and waged several successful military campaigns
  • Her stepson Thutmose III, succeeded her and attempted to erase her from history

Queen Hatshepsut’s Lineage

The daughter of Thuthmose I (1520-1492 BCE) by his Great Wife Ahmose, Hatshepsut was married to her half-brother Thutmose II in accordance with Egyptian royal traditions before she was 20.

Around this time, Queen Hatshepsut was raised to the role of God‘s Wife of Amun. This was the highest honour attainable by a woman in Egyptian society after that of a queen and conferred far more influence than most queens enjoyed.

Initially, the role of God’s Wife of Amun at Thebes was an honorary title conferred on a woman selected from Egypt’s upper class. God’s Wife assisted the high priest in his duties at the Great Temple. By the time of the New Kingdom, a woman holding the title of God’s Wife of Amun enjoyed sufficient power to shape policy.

During her regency for Thutmose III, Hatshepsut controlled the affairs of state until he came of age. Upon having herself crowned Pharaoh of Egypt, Hatshepsut assumed all the royal titles and names. These titles were inscribed using the feminine grammatical form but in statuary, Hatshepsut was depicted as a male pharaoh. Earlier Hatshepsut had been represented as a woman on earlier statues and reliefs, after her coronation as king she appeared wearing male dress and was gradually shown with a male physique. Some reliefs were even re-carved to change her image to resemble that of a man.

Hatshepsut’s Early Reign

Hatshepsut began her reign by securing her position. She married her daughter Neferu-Ra to Thutmose III and bestowing the position of God’s Wife of Amun on her. Even if Thutmose III assumed power, Hatshepsut would remain influential as his stepmother and mother-in-law, while her daughter occupied one of the most prestigious and powerful roles in Egypt.

New reliefs on public buildings depicted Thutmose I making Hatshepsut his co-ruler furthering her legitimacy. Similarly, Hatshepsut depicted herself as a direct successor to Ahmose to defend against detractors claiming a woman was unfit to rule. Numerous temples, monuments and inscriptions all illustrate how unprecedented her reign was. Prior to Hatshepsut no woman had ruled Egypt openly as pharaoh.

Hatshepsut complemented these domestic initiatives by dispatching military expeditions to strike at Nubia and Syria. In approving these campaigns, Hatshepsut was upholding the traditional male pharaoh’s role as a warrior-king who brought wealth to Egypt via conquest.

Hatshepsut’s expedition to ancient Punt in modern-day Somalia proved to be her military apogee. Punt had been a trading partner since the Middle Kingdom. Trading caravans to this distant region were laboriously time-consuming and witheringly expensive. Hatshepsut’s ability to mobilize such a lavishly provided expedition bears testimony to her wealth and power.

Hatshepsut’s Contribution To The Arts

Ironically given her later shattering of traditional mores, Hatshepsut began her rule conventionally by initiating a sweeping series of construction projects. Hatshepsut’s signature example of striking architecture was her temple at Deir el-Bahri.

However, throughout her reign, Hatshepsut’s passion proved to be her construction projects. These monumental edifices elevated her own name in history while honouring Egypt’s gods and providing employment for her people. Hatshepsut’s construction ambitions were on a grander scale than any pharaoh before or after her with the exception of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE).

The scope and size of Hatshepsut’s architectural ambitions, together with their elegance and style, speak of a reign blessed by prosperity. To this day, Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri remains one of Egypt’s most striking architectural achievements and continues to attract huge crowds of visitors.

Hatshepsut’s temple remained so widely admired by succeeding pharaohs that they chose to be buried nearby. This sprawling necropolis complex eventually evolved into the enigmatic Valley of the Kings.

Hatshepsut’s Death And Erasure

In 2006 CE Egyptologist Zahi Hawass claimed to have located Hatshepsut’s mummy amongst the Cairo museum’s collection. Medical examination of the mummy indicates she died in her fifties possibly from an abscess resulting from a tooth extraction.

Around c. 1457 BCE following Tuthmose III triumph at the Battle of Megiddo, Hatshepsut’s name vanishes from Egyptian historical records. Thuthmose III retrospectively dated the commencement of his reign to his father’s death and claimed Hatshepsut’s achievements as his own.

While numerous theories have been advanced for Tuthmose III’s erasure of Hatshepsut’s name from history, scholars accept the most likely explanation was that her rule’s unconventional nature broke with tradition and disturbed the country’s delicate harmony or balance encapsulated in the concept of ma’at.

Tuthmose III possibly feared other powerful queens might view Hatshepsut as inspiration and try to usurp the role of the male pharaohs. A female pharaoh regardless of how successful her rule proved to be far beyond the accepted norms of the role of a pharaoh.

Hatshepsut lay forgotten for centuries. Once her name was rediscovered during a 19th century CE excavation she gradually reclaimed her place in Egyptian history as one of its greatest pharaohs.

Reflecting On The Past

Was Tuthmose III edict erasing Hatshepsut from Egypt’s historical record an act of jealousy, an attempt to restore ma’at or a socially conservative action to preserve the role of the pharaoh exclusively for men?

Header image courtesy: User: MatthiasKabel Derivative work: JMCC1 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons