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The Woman Who Would Be King

By Caroline Kim-Brown | HUMANITIES, November/December 2005 | Volume 26, Number 6

The story of Hatshepsut is a remarkable one. She led armies and trade expeditions, built one of the greatest monuments in Egypt, and switched her appearance from female to male in order to rule as pharaoh. In a fundamentally patriarchal society, she ruled for nearly twenty years.

After her death, someone tried to erase the memory of Hatshepsut as king. She was left off lists of rulers; her statuary was demolished; her image was systematically erased; and her name on monuments and reliefs was covered over by the names of other kings. For nearly two thousand years, she was forgotten, and she may have remained that way except for the discovery of her mortuary temple.

In 1828, Jean Francois Champollion, famous for deciphering the Rosetta Stone, made his one and only trip to Egypt. Among the places he visited was Deir al-Bahri, where a nearby temple had been buried under centuries of desert sand and piles of rocks fallen from the cliffs above. There he noticed a curious inconsistency. He discovered the partially erased name of a king, Amenenthe, accompanied by feminine titles and forms. Pictorially, the king was shown as male, bearded and dressed as a pharaoh, but hieroglyphically, he seemed to be a she.

Puzzled, Champollion wrote: "I found the same peculiarity everywhere. Not only was there the prenomen of Amenenthe preceded by the title of sovereign ruler of the world, with the feminine prefix, but also his own name immediately following on the title of 'Daughter of the Sun.'"

Champollion concocted a narrative in which a royal heiress named Amense, sister of Tuthmosis II, married another man named Tuthmosis, and that after his death, married someone named Amenenthe. The truth turned out to be far less convoluted and riddled with coincidences.

Champollion mistranslated the hieroglyphs: Amenenthe and Hatshepsut were one and the same, and she was pharaoh of Egypt.

Uncovering the story of Hatshepsut's reign is the subject of an exhibition at the new de Young Museum in San Francisco. Organized by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh" brings together more than 260 objects, offering modern viewers insight into Hatshepsut's rule and a glimpse into the daily life of the Eighteenth Dynasty (circa 1479-1458 BCE).

Objects range from monumental sculptures and painted limestone reliefs from Hatshepsut's mortuary temple to items such as a royal wooden bed inlaid with cobras of sheet gold, delicate jewelry made of gold and semiprecious stones, and gold finger and toe coverings used for funerary trappings.

The exhibition has been lent items from institutions around the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Louvre, the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrus-sammlung Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and the Egyptian Museums in Cairo and Karnak.

Daughter of a powerful king, Tuthmosis I, Hatshepsut became queen consort when she married her half-brother, Tuthmosis II. When he died a few years into his reign, succession passed to Tuthmosis III, a son by a lesser queen. Because of Tuthmosis III's young age, Hatshepsut became regent of Egypt.

It was rare but not unprecedented for a queen mother to assume the regency until her young son came of age. In the case of Tuthmosis III, it appears that either his mother was of too lowly a status in the royal hierarchy, or that she predeceased her son. In contrast, Hatshepsut's royal lineage could not be challenged. She was the only child of Tuthmosis I and his great royal wife, Queen Ahmose. This made her King's Daughter and King's Wife, both important titles in the royal hierarchy.

In year seven of Tuthmosis III's reign, Hatshepsut declared herself king, depicting herself on monuments as male, wearing a false beard and the short kilt of a pharaoh. Colossal sculptures in the exhibition reveal the lengths to which Hatshepsut went to affirm her role as ruler, including a massive granite sphinx depicting Hatshepsut as a lion. In images where both she and Tuthmosis III are represented, she is shown in the superior position in front of her stepson. Her motives for this are unknown.

According to Renee Dreyfus, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco Curator of Ancient Art and Interpretation, Hatshepsut has variously been written of as a usurper, a saintly model of self-reliance and empowerment, or a passive vessel who relied on her courtiers to keep her in power.

She initiated an ambitious trading expedition to the land of Punt, thought to be modern-day Somalia, and brought back luxury items such as myrrh, incense, ebony, ivory and gold. Hatshepsut embarked on military campaigns to quell insurrections along Egyptian borders. She also undertook a program of restoring the monuments of past kings and building new temples dedicated to the gods.

"This exhibition," says Dreyfus, "gives more background information of the importance of her reign, how she got to rule, what she accomplished, and her reputation." She adds, "We've tried to give a more balanced view that helps to give a little more of a behind-the-scenes of what Egypt was like in that day and age, and how in the Eighteenth Dynasty, women were already becoming stronger."

Hatshepsut may have been able to assume kingship without reprisal because of a change in the role of queen consorts. While the sages of the Old Kingdom cautioned, "Keep your wife from power, restrain her," by the Eighteenth Dynasty, queens held a range of secular and religious titles, were property owners with land, servants, and administrators, and wore a number of distinctive crowns that linked them to the king and various deities.

"The king was the link between the gods and the people," says Dreyfus. It was the king's responsibility to ensure that the gods were worshipped in the appropriate manner. In return, the gods guaranteed the success of Egypt and its people. A legitimate king preserved maat, translated as justice or truth, meaning the ideal state of the universe. "What the king did was uphold what had been put into place at the beginning of the cosmos," continues Dreyfus. "What Hatshepsut did as part of her claiming kingship was give herself a throne name--Maatkare." By taking on this particular name, Hatshepsut connected herself to the correct order of the universe.

Hatshepsut went further and created a divine myth-ology for herself. "Much of Hatshepsut's legitimacy is framed in her relationship with Amen-Re," says Cathleen Keller, professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the co-organizers of the exhibition. The most important deity at the time, Amen-Re was a combination of Amen, god of Thebes, and Re, the sun god from whom the pharaohs were descended. "Amen-Re, in the form of her father, Tuthmosis I, is supposed to be the actual entity that engendered Hatshepsut." While this type of divine lineage is not unique to Hatshepsut, "it's one that receives a tremendous amount of emphasis in her reign."

Dreyfus agrees. "When you needed some personal propaganda to bolster yourself and your legitimacy, this is something that you could do. Other kings have said that they had dreams that they were to be next."

While Hatshepsut showed herself in imagery as male, she did not do so in order to fool the gods. Nor did she want to fool her subjects. Rather, it seems that appearing as male solved several problems, the most important being that she could maintain maat by continuing established traditions. She could also replace her stepson in state and religious rituals in which a king was necessary. And only a king could lead troops into battle. "We know that Hatshepsut, at least at one point, goes and campaigns in Nubia," says Keller. "And in order to take that position, you have to be a king. You can't be a regent."

Keller believes that Hatshepsut appeared as male because she had to. "Anyone who could read Hatshepsut's titulary could tell from the actual royal epithets that she's female," says Keller. "The appearances she makes in the arts in male guise are roles--her role both as a recipient of homage and as a donor of offerings. In order for her to be depicted performing these roles and these rituals, she has to be king." Another reason had to do with artistic convention. "According to the rules of precedence in Egyptian art, a female has to be depicted in the subordinate position. So if Hatshepsut wants to present herself as the senior of the two coregents, she has to be depicted as male."

There are no documents to show how old Tuthmosis III was when his father died. "He seems to have been quite young," says Keller, "and some people have suggested that he may even have been an infant." In ancient Egypt, thirteen was the age when young men underwent puberty rituals. "So, theoretically, this situation should have lasted maybe ten to fifteen years. Why twenty? Why was she still around? Was it just convenient because he wanted to be doing something else? Was it just because she was so entrenched that they couldn't get her out? Was there something that happened, internally, externally, or both that made it expeditious for the dynasty to continue to support her in this position?"

These are many questions for which there may never be answers. What is known is that Tuthmosis III's reign lasted for fifty-four years, and that as a solitary king, he was a powerful warrior who led at least seventeen campaigns into Asia. "Tuthmosis III became the king to produce an empire that was greater than any that Egypt had ever seen before," says Drefus, "all the way from Syria and the Euphrates River down to Nubia and the Sudan." He also composed literary works and was interested in a range of subjects--from botany to history, from religion to interior design." It is also known that he was responsible for trying to erase the memory of Hatshepsut.

Until recently, it was thought that at Hatshepsut's death, Tuthmosis III, restrained no more, sprang into action, destroying her statuary, erasing her likeness and name, trying to inflict damnatio memoriae, or second death, on his hated stepmother. If all traces--name and image--of a person were erased, the spirit would perish too, having no place to go. Two scholars at the beginning of the twentieth century wrote about Tuthmosis III in this way.

"Two more facts of which we may be perfectly certain," W. C. Hayes wrote in 1935, "are: 1) that Tuthmosis III obtained supreme control over Egypt only after many years of humiliating subordination to Hatshepsut and only as the result of a long and bitter struggle against his aunt and against the capable members of her party, and 2) that, as a result of this, he came to independent power with a loathing for Hatshepsut, her partisans, her monuments, her name and her very memory which practically beggars description."

H. E. Winlock was writing along the same lines: "He had grown up a short, stocky young man full of a fiery Napoleonic energy, suppressed up to now but soon to cause the whole known world to smart. Long since he should have been sole ruler of Egypt but for Hatshepsut and we have hardly to stretch our imaginations unduly to picture the bitterness of such a man against those who had deprived him of his rights."

Later Egyptologists dated the attacks against Hatshepsut's statuary to twenty years after her death. "This revolutionized the whole view of the attack on Hatshepsut," says Keller. "If she dies around year twenty and you wait until year forty-two to start attacking her monuments, this doesn't sound like you were reacting in a lust for revenge.

"The attacks themselves seem to date almost exclusively to the very end of the reign of Tuthmosis III--his last fourteen years--and maybe to the very beginning of the reign of his son and successor, Amenhotep II."

"It may very well be that it has to do with succession," says Dreyfus. It may have been that Tuthmosis III did not produce a male heir until late in his reign. Perhaps he worried that other parts of the royal family might make claims to the throne.

In any case, it seems clear that what was being attacked was Hatshepsut's kingship. "The first thing they did was go after the uraeus, the serpent on the brow," says Keller. The uraeus was a mark of kingship. In many instances, her name was simply replaced by either that of Tuthmosis I, II or III. According to Keller, this was to show that Tuthmosis III's lineage and that of his sons was unbroken, that it made a straight line from Amenhotep II to Tuthmosis III to Tuthmosis II to Tuthmosis I. "To ensure the legitimacy of his own son," says Keller, "he has to remove this enigmatic person who could be construed as interrupting the royal succession." Bolstering this claim is the fact that soon after Amenhotep II's ascension to the throne, the attacks stop.

Time, shifting sands, and falling rocks completed the job of erasing Hatshepsut for two thousand years. However, she left a lasting legacy in her mortuary temple at Deir al-Bahri. It is one of the wonders of the ancient world. "What she did was of a scale and creativity that had never been seen before," according to Dreyfus. "She didn't just build on traditional architectural styles, she created something that was new." Built as a series of rising terraces cut into the rising cliff behind it, hundreds of pale yellow columns flash when struck by the setting sun. Two imposing rows of sphinxes, symbols of royal power, once led the way from the riverbank to the temple, and planted in the garden were the fragrant myrrh trees faraway lands. Inside, more than two hundred statues and relief carvings tell the story of Hatshepsut's divine birth and the incredible voyage to Punt. From these remains scholars have been able to reconstruct her life and successful reign as pharaoh. Despite the best efforts of Tuthmosis III, the glory of Hatshepsut has survived.

About the Author

Caroline Kim-Brown is a writer in Oakland, California.

Funding Information

The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco received $164,000 from NEH for the exhibition "Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh" and related programming. The exhibition will be on view at the de Young Museum until February 5, 2006, and will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from March 21 through July 9 and to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth from August 27 to December 10.