When a Woman Ruled Egypt
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Two centuries before the traditional date of the Exodus, a female pharaoh ruled Egypt. Very few women in the ancient world wielded any real political power. The greatest of these in ancient Egypt was Hatshepsut, who ruled for more than two decades (c. 1479–1458 B.C.) during the early part of the New Kingdom (c. 1539–1075 B.C.), when Egypt was the most powerful land in the eastern Mediterranean.
Hatshepsut was the daughter of Thutmose I, the third pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty (c. 1550–1295 B.C.), and she married her half-brother, Thutmose II. After her husband’s early death, she became regent to Thutmose III (c. 1479–1425 B.C.), the son of Thutmose II by another wife. Probably by Thutmose III’s seventh regnal year (c. 1473 B.C.), Hatshepsut had taken the extraordinary step of proclaiming herself king; now she was not just protecting the kingship until her nephew-stepson came of age, she was acting as the senior and far more powerful partner of a co-regency.
In her inscriptions, Hatshepsut claims that her father had appointed her heir to the throne. This is highly unlikely, however. Scholars agree that the claim was merely the product of Hatshepsut’s propaganda machine. Indeed, no inscription left by Thutmose I even mentions his daughter, and Hatshepsut’s brother-husband, Thutmose II, apparently succeeded their father without incident. Until Thutmose II’s death around 1479 B.C., Hatshepsut was known as the “king’s daughter,” the “king’s sister” and the “king’s principal wife.” She was always depicted with the trappings of the king’s principal wife, not with the insignia of a king.
Nonetheless, Hatshepsut was clearly an extremely important member of Thutmose II’s court. One of her titles, for instance, was “God’s Wife of Amun.” Amun was the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon. As the creator god, Amun was responsible for all of the diverse forms that exist in the universe, and he was attended by a coterie of distinguished male priests.
Why would a woman’s presence be necessary within this august and solemn cult? As “God’s Wife of Amun,” the pharaoh’s principal wife also bore another title: “God’s Hand.” This was the hand with which the creator god masturbated in order to produce the seed of all the diverse forms that exist in the universe. With this act, the “God’s Wife” gave necessary assistance to Amun in constantly reenacting the creation of the world and keeping it from falling into chaos and nothingness.
Hatshepsut also administered the estate that came with the office of “God’s Wife of Amun.” This estate consisted of significant property holdings, which meant that Hatshepsut would have had numerous officials beholden to her.
Although, during the early period of the regency, Hatshepsut referred to herself most often as “God’s Wife,” she later took the title “Lady of the Two Lands,”a a female version of the traditional pharaonic title “Lord of the Two Lands,” and she erected a pair of obelisks in the Temple of Amun at Karnak, a right normally reserved for kings. She had herself depicted in relief carvings performing duties that were traditionally performed by the king: For example, queens were often depicted making offerings to deities, but they were always accompanied by their husbands and always played a subordinate role; some reliefs from a building at Karnak, however, show Hatshepsut making offerings to Amun-Re—directly and by herself.
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Something changed in Thutmose III’s seventh regnal year. Until then, it seems, Hatshepsut was content to watch over the office of the kingship until her nephew-stepson was ready to take over; until then, she served as a faithful servant of Amun, referring to herself as “God’s Wife.” Around 1473 B.C., however, she suddenly and forcefully took the reins of kingship and adopted the five-name title that Egyptian kings had taken on since the Old Kingdom (c. 2575–2150 B.C.). In addition to her given name, Hatshepsut (which means “Foremost of Noblewomen”), she took on the epithet Khnemtamun (“One with Amun”), the throne name Maatkare (meaning something like the “Ma is the Ka of Re”),b the Horus name Wesretkau (“Strong of Kas”), the nebty name Wadjetrenput (“Flourishing of Years”),c and the Golden Horus name Netjerethau (“Divine of Appearances”). These names replaced her former title of Principal Queen (or King’s Great Wife), and her title of God’s Wife passed to her daughter, Neferure. Although Hatshepsut did not establish her own regnal years—she continued to use those of Thutmose III—she clearly now was the Egyptian pharaoh.
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No one really knows what happened—either when Hatshepsut took the unprecedented step of becoming the regent of Thutmose III or when she decided to take power herself. Some scholars have speculated that she seized the throne out of overweening ambition, or that she was the pawn of a faction of officials who were the real power behind the throne. Some have suggested that she sought to establish a female dynasty, with her daughter Neferure as her successor. The simplest and most logical explanation, however, is that some (now-unknown) circumstance arose that made it politically expedient for her to declare herself co-ruler—indeed, principal ruler—with her nephew.
Although Hatshepsut was not the first or the last female pharaoh to rule Egypt, her reign was the longest and most successful. The fact that she reigned as principal king for at least 15 years (c. 1473–1458 B.C.), a time of peace and prosperity for Egypt, suggests that she was accepted as the legitimate ruler by her people, by her officials and probably even by her co-ruler, Thutmose III.
It has often been suggested that Hatshepsut wore men’s attire in order to masquerade as a male king, but this seems unlikely. By the time she ascended the throne, the pyramids at Giza were more than a thousand years old, and the artistic conventions for depicting the Egyptian king had long been established. This iconography was overwhelmingly masculine, and it is therefore not surprising that official representations of Pharaoh Hatshepsut usually depict her in the traditional trappings of a king. For example, a superb statue in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shows her wearing the usual regalia of a king—crown, kilt and a false beard!
These depictions were largely ceremonial; although they could include personal details of an individual ruler, their principal purpose was to represent the office and functions of the king. In the case of Hatshepsut, inscriptions accompanying statuary or reliefs generally refer to her in the masculine form (for example, by calling her “He”). At the same time, these inscriptions usually include at least one feminine ending, particle or pronoun, thus revealing that the king was in fact a woman.
There is no reason to think that Hatshepsut was trying to deceive anyone into thinking that she was a man—or that anyone in Egypt was unaware that the primary ruler was a woman. Before becoming king, Hatshepsut had been known to the people of Egypt for more than two decades as a princess and as the king’s principal wife. On becoming ruler, she adopted the traditional masculine coronation names, but she also retained the female name “Hatshepsut.”
To imagine how Hatshepsut might have shown herself in public, one need only look at a superb granite statue now in the Metropolitan collection. This life-size sculpture represents Hatshepsut wearing a woman’s jewelry and dress, but she also wears the nemes—headcloth of a king. The inscription on her throne describes her as the “Perfect Goddess,” “Daughter of Re” and the “Lady of the Two Lands.”
Whereas the earlier kings of the 18th Dynasty are known for their military prowess, Hatshepsut’s 20-year reign, though not without military campaigns, was largely peaceful. Under her tutelage, Egypt experienced an explosion of artistic creativity, with traditional forms of architecture and art being refined and reinterpreted—as in Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri, in western Thebes, in which architecture, sculpture and landscape combine to form one of the world’s architectural masterpieces. Egyptian artists also introduced completely new forms of statuary, some of which became prototypes for later generations of artists—as in the corpus of statues depicting Senenmut, one of Hatshepsut’s principal courtiers. The fact, too, that the Hatshepsut administration maintained ties with the cultures of the Aegean, the eastern Mediterranean and Nubia meant that Egyptian artists could incorporate new resources and artistic motifs into their repertoire.
When Hatshepsut died, her co-ruler, Thutmose III, had her name and images destroyed. Although this process did not begin immediately (it may in fact have begun very late in Thutmose III’s long reign), it was conducted with such efficiency that only a vague memory persisted of the great female pharaoh, and Hatshepsut’s name does not appear on most of the Egyptian king lists. However, the Egyptian priest Manetho, who lived during the early Ptolemaic period (332–30 B.C.), recorded Hatshepsut as “Amessis” in his history.
Ever since the rediscovery of Hatshepsut in the early 19th century, scholarly opinion has varied considerably concerning Thutmose III’s motives for removing Hatshepsut from memory. The erasure of her name, the destruction of her monuments and the defacing of her images were at first interpreted as evidence of a war of succession among members of the Theban royal family. Later, this iconoclasm was interpreted as an act of revenge by a resentful Thutmose III. More recently, scholars have suggested that the idea of a female king was believed to be a disturbance to Maat, the Egyptian concept of order in the world, which made it necessary for Thutmose to destroy the monuments and memory of his predecessor. It is also possible that Thutmose III found it politically necessary to destroy the evidence of the co-regency, to establish himself as sole king for his entire reign and to ensure the succession of his young son and heir, the future Amenhotep II (c. 1426–1400 B.C.).
Thus, both the beginning and ending of Hatshepsut’s rule are shrouded in mystery.
We are greatly indebted and grateful to Catharine Roehrig, curator of Egyptian archaeology at the Met, for her kind assistance in preparing this article. Photos are from the exhibition catalog.