In 1903, Howard Carter discovered the sarcophagus of Hatshepsut but it was empty, much like many of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Carter also found a separate tomb (known as KV60) which contained two coffins, one belonging to Hatshepsut’s wet nurse (identified by the inscription on top of the coffin), and that of an unknown female. Scholars of ancient Egypt knew little of her existence until in 1822 when they were able to decode and read the hieroglyphs on the wall of Deir el-Bahri, her famous temple. In 2006 a team led by Dr. Zahi Hawass set out to determine if the unknown remains belonged to this 18th Dynasty “king”. Through comparison of a molar, thought to belong to Hatshepsut researchers believed that they had uncovered the mummy of this famous monarch.
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So why are we so interested in Hatshepsut? When compared to other ancient Egyptian women, she broke all the rules. She gained power as Egypt was thriving, rather than during a descent into civil unrest, where the ancient Egyptian women would normally stand in as regents to help to stabilise the dynasty. Hatshepsut arguably remains the only woman to have taken power as king in ancient Egypt during a time of prosperity and as such she has been viewed by many as an ambitious orchestrator of a power grab.
Before we look at Hatshepsut and her rise to power, it might be beneficial to look at the queens of Dynasty 17. The Pharaohs of the 17th Dynasty strived to put both the Nile Valley and the Delta back under the centralised Egyptian control and expel the Hyksos from their lands. In order to do this, the kings looked to their wives to maintain power in their absence. Women like Tetisheri, matriarch to her dynasty and her daughter Ahhotep who was buried with a gilded battle axe and a necklace made of golden flies to celebrate the dead enemy upon whom the insects feasted.
When there was a crisis the Egyptians demanded that their women take power to support the patriarchal hereditary kingship, Hatshepsut would have been raised knowing that supporting the established system would be part of her role as eldest daughter of the king. After all, Dynasty 18 began with a sibling marriage between Ahomse and his full sister Ahmes-Nefertri. This new family lineage was grounded on strong female authority. When Ahmose died and Crown Prince Amenhotep I was too young to rule his mother, Ahmes-Nefetari acted as regent making decisions on his behalf. She shielded him from his immaturity and trained him to take his sacred post.
Hatshepsut was the eldest daughter of Thutmose I, he was a born warrior and expanded Egypt’s borders father into the Levant that the rulers of Dynasty 17, crushing the gold-producing provinces of Nubia and Kush which ensured more mineral income than Egypt had seen for some time. Her father placed her into the role of High Priestess where she was trained to conduct rituals that maintained the workings of the universe by helping the god Amun remake himself each morning. In this role she would see first-hand how influential Egypt’s priesthood was. She understood her cosmic importance but she was also a young woman of worldly power and influence. She was well educated, trained in decision-making, rich in palaces and estates and thrown into close contact with the most powerful priests in Egypt. And most importantly she saw how an ideological base of power could make or break a ruler, knowledge she would later use in her own bid for power.
Her position as high priestess provided her with all the material wealth that came with an institutional household. She was now God’s Wife of Amun, a powerful holy woman in control of her own palace, income-producing lands, treasury, storerooms and hundreds of personnel from priests to bookkeepers to farmers tiling her fields. But while she had this power and wealth, Hatshepsut was a dutiful daughter who supported Egypt’s patriarchal system. She represented her family in Thebes while her father was active in the urban elite centres of Memphis or Heliopolis or when he was out on his summer campaigns. She was an extension of her father’s authority and It was in her best interest to protect her father’s agenda as she had yet to have any children to fight for or promote as the next heir to the throne and her position was dependent on her title of King’s Daughter.
Thutmose I died after 10 years on the throne and everything would change for Hatshepsut. Before her father’s death one or more of her brothers had died unexpectedly and in an unprecedented signal of mourning her father memorialised the boys in a stone temple. Following the deaths of his sons, every mother of a Royal Son would have been trying to push their child as the next candidate for the title of Crown Prince but there is no surviving evidence that in the days following the deaths of his sons, Thutmose chose another heir.
Following the death of her father, Hatshepsut would need to link herself to one of her brothers as his wife and queen to hold a title of power and it had likely been planned by her father before his death that she should marry one of her brothers. The boy that was chosen was Tutmose II, he was unprepared for the throne and he was far from healthy, based on anthropologist’s note on the examination of his remains, Thutmose II had enlarged heart and pockmarked skin. He would have not been prepared to take the throne as he was more than likely 3rd or 4th son and Hatshepsut was probably a little older than him, being around 12 when her father died. The reign was short, it is debated to have been between 3 and 10 years and historians agree that he left little mark on the landscape, there are few temples with his name on them, he participated in no campaigns and there was no mortuary complex for him. He and Hatshepsut had no sons but they did have a daughter, Neferure. Unfortunately the sons that he did leave behind were toddlers and Egypt was left staring at a possible crisis after his death around 1479 BCE. Ordinarily the ancient Egyptians would have looked to the mother of one of the sons to act as regent. But, Hatshepsut was the female descendant of the old family of Ahmose (a line that had ended the 17th Dynasty due to infertility) and the new lineage of Thutmose and so she was the choice as regent for one of her nephews.
Ordinarily the process involved in the choice of the next Egyptian king was one of the most secretive of their rituals but the naming of Thutmose III provides us with more information on this ancient ritual. An oracle was used to make the choice, the statue of the god Amun would be brought out of his shrine and placed into a barque carried aloft by priests who would then manipulate the god’s movements to provide answers to questions or to give direction about the future. The decision was not only based on the choice of the oracle, other factors included the health of the child and it may have also depended on the importance of the mother; her connections and how influential they were as well as the identity of the priests that were holding the oracle aloft may have also had an impact.
The mother of Thutmose III was an outsider and un-influential, perhaps the worries of infertility were still ripe in the minds of many or perhaps the mother’s lack of connections would allow another member of the Royal Family (perhaps Hatshepsut herself) to pull the strings. Egypt’s new boy king would have been wholly unprepared, he would need to be told what to do and where to stand while not being able to run around outside like other children of his age but Hatshepsut as Egypt’s high priestess was trained in arcane rituals, chanting, secret incantation, sleepless nights spent fasting and waiting, discussions with elites and priests. As far as we know, there was no bloodshed or contest in the transfer of power to Hatshepsut as regent but there would have been a great deal of anxiety around the age of the infant king, it was a time when child mortality was as high as 50%. Even with this anxiety, everyone seems to have trusted her to make the decisions on behalf of her infant nephew. She was the God’s wife of Amun with whom many of the elites had already worked with and thrived.
High officials like the courtier Ineni were happy enough to record their loyalty in their own tombs-
“He [Thutmose II] went up to heaven, and he united with the gods. His son was raised in his place as king of the Two Lands. He ruled upon the throne of the one who begat him. His sister, the God’s Wife (of Amun) Hatshepsut, fulfilled the needs of the land, the Two Lands following her councils. She was served; Egypt was obedient. The divine granaries were efficient and overflowing. The prow rope of upper Egypt was moored in the south. The stern rope was the beneficence of Lower Egypt. A mistress decrees and words, effective were her councils. The two banks were content with her speech. Her majesty praised me and she loved me. She knew me excellence in the palace. She provided me with things, and she made me great.”
What we can see from this inscription is that Hatshepsut was rewarding officials with “things” and it is likely that she had to give up a lot during negotiations with the elites in her early years as regent in order to build alliances. She did learn how best to use her experience in the temple as high priestess to her advantage, she was a master at cloaking her political ambitions in a veil of ideology calling her actions the will of the gods. She set up statues of her dead husband Thutmose II, in the Temple of Khnum at Elephantine, putting in the accompanying inscription that they were “for her brother” making an explicit justification for more power for herself as a pious supporter of this king that had died too young. Keeping his son safe was like the way that Isis had cared for Horus.
By Year 7 of Thutmose III rule, Hatshepsut was crowned as king. The famous oracle of Amun revealed her selection as his chosen leader, marking her for kingship before all her people in one of the most public religious festivals at Thebes. With every priest, temple and oracle naming her as a king anyone that went against this would be going against their own gods and therefore a heretic. Not only did she use religion as her propaganda, she also tells us that her human father Thutmose I (as king she was a descendant of the gods themselves) introduced her as king to his elites before his death and that everyone wanted her to be king at this occasion. Like many other queens in history, she had learned to avoid naming her own ambition at all costs instead placing the need for her back on the men in her life.
Hatshepsut’s images of herself have been widely debated by scholars. When she first showed herself as Egypt’s sovereign it was in female form. In her first depiction of her power on a Karnack block, she wore a tight-fitted dress showing her feminine hips and thighs but on her head she wore a masculine short wig and two tall ostrich plumes sitting atop ram’s horns. She layered her masculine kingship onto a feminine person, but later in her reign she would portray herself as male whilst still using the female forms of her name. It has been debated that perhaps she was in fact transgender but Cathleen Keller, an associate professor of Egyptology in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley before her death in 2008 said during an interview on the topic-
“She was not pretending to be a man! She was not cross-dressing! Inscriptions on Hatshepsut’s statues almost always contain some indication of her true gender—a title, such as “Daughter of Re,” or feminine word endings, resulting in such grammatical conundrums as “His Majesty, Herself.”
So why did she make the effort to move from regent to king? More recent scholarship suggests that a political crisis, such as a threat from a competing branch of the royal family, obliged Hatshepsut to become pharaoh. Catharine Roehrig, curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City argued that instead of stealing the throne from her nephew, she may have needed to declare herself king in order to protect the kingship for her nephew. Roehrig also argues that Thutmose III wasn’t under house arrest during the early years of his rule, he was being taught how to be king and once she had declared herself king she could no longer just step down, once you became king you were a god and couldn’t just step down. Furthermore, after her death Thutmose III finished some of her temples and there was no trace that Hatshepsut was ever unhappy with her nephew in her last years of kingship. While he would go on to destroy her name later in his reign, it has been argued that this was for the purpose of legitimising his son’s rule as after Hatshepsut’s death there was a marked movement away from royal female power.
Hatshepsut probably died around 1458 BCE and would have been in her mid-40s. She was buried in state with the full respect that her station as king demanded and in another effort to legitimise her rule, even in death, she had her father’s sarcophagus reburied within her tomb. While Thutmose III finished some of her temples and left her temple untouched for a time in more visible parts of the temple at Karnak he began to rewrite his past, writing out his aunt’s role in his selection as Pharaoh.
Her temple is located beneath the sheer cliffs of Deir el Bahri, strategically placed on the west bank of the Nile and next to the Temple of Mentuhotep II to reinforce her position among kings. It was decorated with scenes from her reign and housed shrines to Anubis, Hathor, Re and Amun. When it was first built the Egyptians would have approached the temple down a path lined by sphinx’s, but over the centuries it was vandalised. Eventually Thutmose III would remove his step-mother’s name, Akhenaten would remove references to Amun and the early Christians turned it into a monastery defecating the pagan reliefs.
When it came time to chose his Crown Prince, Thutmose III chose a son that was so young he would need a co-regency with his father and kings following him knew not to place members of the royal household into powerful positions and instead of their sisters, unconnected wives or on some occasions their mothers were placed as high priestess of Amun in order to exercise control over the temples.
While her death brought about the end of strong female rulers for a time in ancient Egypt, as pharaoh, Hatshepsut expanded Egyptian trade and oversaw ambitious building projects. Whether she planned an elaborate power grab or dutifully took her nephew under her wing until he was old enough to take the reins of Egypt himself we may never know. What we do know is that she was a competent leader and continued Egypt’s prosperity at a time when the country could have been plunged into an inheritance crisis.