A female king

Educated at the University of Cambridge, Stephanie Aulsebrook has a PhD in the Late Bronze Age archaeology of Greece. Her research interests also include the wider East Mediterranean basin during the same period. She was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at IASH and is currently working on the publication of an important prehistoric cult building at the UNESCO-listed archaeological site of Mycenae. She also likes cats (almost to the same extent as the Ancient Egyptians).

In Ancient Egypt the fifth pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty was a woman, Hatshepsut. Clever and ambitious, she overcame the difficulty of being a female king by combining her acknowledged femininity with traditional (male) pharaonic representation. As the embodiment of Egyptian state power, she was without doubt a formidably dangerous woman. A campaign of violent destruction to eradicate her memory led to suggestions that the existence of this female king was considered transgressive. But was it her gender that led to Hatshepsut being considered a danger to the cherished cosmological order of Egypt?

Hatshepshut, born around 1507 BC, was the daughter of pharaoh Thutmose I and Ahmose, who amongst his many wives was the official queen or Great Royal Wife. Hatshepsut was Great Royal Wife to her father’s successor, Thutmose II. He was also Hatshepsut’s half-brother, the offspring of a less prestigious wife. During her father’s reign Hatshepsut was made the highest-ranked priestess in the cult of one of the chief Egyptian deities, Amun. With these titles came associated duties and privileges, and as a royal Hatshepsut would have owned and controlled large estates and workshops. Therefore Hatshepsut was high in the political and religious hierarchy of Egypt court with a substantial input into its governance.

Her husband’s reign was brief, although they had a daughter together, Neferure. Upon the death of Thutmose II his very young son, by another wife, was declared Thutmose III and Hatshepsut appointed co-regent. A contemporary stele stated:

‘[The King] went up to heaven and was united with the gods. His son took his place as King of the Two Lands (Egypt) and he was the sovereign on the throne of his father. His sister, the God’s Wife Hatshepsut, dealt with the affairs of the state: the Two Lands were under her government and taxes were paid to her.’

This arrangement was uncommon, but not unprecedented. Co-regency was used to protect the succession. Usually the incumbent pharaoh promoted their chosen successor to rule alongside them, ensuring an orderly transition; the co-regent was treated as a second pharaoh. Appointing a co-regent whilst the pharaoh was a child was accepted practice although infrequently required. In this case the co-regent was not made pharaoh and stepped down when the child-pharaoh reached maturity. It is not known whether, when declared as co-regent, Hatshepsut harboured further ambitions. Yet within the first seven years of the co-regency, perhaps even sooner, Hatshepsut was pharaoh.

Hatshepsut was not the first female pharaoh. Three centuries earlier Queen Sobekneferu of the 12th Dynasty became pharaoh. Her reign was short and unfortunately very little is known about her. Other earlier female pharaohs have been postulated, but the evidence for their status and even existence is scant. Hatshepsut stands out because of the way she inserted herself into the succession by bending contemporary political norms and her subsequent treatment after death.

To be pharaoh was not simply to rule the Egyptian state. There was more to it than making policy decisions or public appearances. Egyptians believed the pharaoh’s chief role was to maintain ma’at. This complex concept of cosmological order, encompassing truth, goodness and justice, was embodied by Egypt itself as well as by a goddess named ma’at. All Egyptians were charged with this responsibility but only the pharaoh, through their divine nature, could intercede directly with the gods. To be pharaoh was to be Egypt’s spiritual protector, guarding its people against chaos. By declaring herself pharaoh, Hatshepsut moved beyond the considerable power she already wielded as co-regent to assume the mantle of ultimate divine authority.

Hatshepsut needed to legitimise her claim. We can see how she achieved this through the reliefs, steles and sculptures commissioned for her impressive monuments. Deciding against using her husband as the basis for her claim, she declared herself chosen by the god Amun and her father, Thutmose I. Hatshepsut rewrote history by inventing a co-regency between herself and her father. She also adopted for herself the standard pharaonic fiction of a divine procreation.

Upon accession, pharaohs acquired several new names. Hatshepsut’s new pharaonic names were carefully selected to incorporate references to her father and various goddesses especially ma’at. For example, part of her new prenomen, ‘true one of the ka (spirit) of Re’, was, due to the feminine word construction, spelt the same as ma’at. This clever wordplay, impossible for male pharaohs, repeated the structure used by Sobekneferu for her prenomen and may have been a deliberate nod to this earlier female king.

Hatshepsut was a prolific monument builder. Pharaohs used this type of self-aggrandizement to justify their rule. Hatshepsut used forms popularised by earlier kings and placed her monuments by those of particularly celebrated pharaohs, grounding her status within Egypt’s architectural traditions. Her main focus was elaborating the religious complex at Karnak, dedicated to the god she regarded as her divine father, Amun.

Perhaps the most famous material expression of Hatshepsut’s concept of the female king is how she chose to visually represent her physical form. Early depictions followed conventions for queens. Then came a significant shift: Hatshepsut’s female body was given male pharaonic accoutrements including headdress and beard. Later statues are indistinguishable from those of male pharaohs, but their inscriptions use feminine forms. Hatshepsut was not pretending to be male but became confident enough to use the classic tropes of pharaonic imagery: this was a statement that she was at the height of her power. This male/female dualism was not new. Male pharaohs incorporated visual aspects of female goddesses when appropriate. The pharaoh embodied unity, whether that was the union between Upper and Lower Egypt (hence reference to Egypt as the Two Lands) or male and female. Hatshepsut combined both in a unique fashion still firmly set within traditional Egyptian imagery.

Hatshepsut continued the pharaonic tradition of military and diplomatic expeditions. She used an expedition to the Kingdom of Punt as an opportunity to bring back exotic materials and goods, such as myrhh trees, for dedication to her divine father Amun. Reliefs of Hatshepsut showed her as a sphinx trampling her enemies. Potential internal enemies were also warned of the dangers of opposing Hatshepsut:

‘He who shall do her homage shall live, he who shall speak evil in blasphemy of her Majesty shall die.’

Loyalty to the pharaoh was obligatory to maintain ma’at. To judge by the splendour of some of her officials’ tombs, Hatshepsut also generously rewarded those with faith in her kingship.

What happened to Thutmose III during this time? It seems that, though Hatshepsut’s actions meant he played a junior role, their relationship was amicable. Hatshepsut trusted him enough to make him head of the army. Her monuments emphasised his inferior role: she was mentioned more frequently, shown standing in front of him, depicted with the prestigious ‘double crown’ more often and in one scene, he is shown worshipping her and the powerful goddess Hathor. At no time did Hatshepsut deny Thutmose III was co-regent or seek to replace him, but by becoming pharaoh she rejected the expected path for temporary co-regents.

Hatshepsut died in her fifties. Originally buried alongside her father, Thutmose I, her body was moved when a new tomb was created for him. Her mummy has only recently been identified, and analysis appears to show that she suffered from diabetes and probably died of bone cancer.

After her death, Thutmose III had a long and successful reign. Hatshepsut’s legacy was accepted for two decades without difficulty. Attitudes changed when Thutmose III appointed his son, Amenhotep II, as co-regent. Hatshepsut was suddenly recast as a dangerous liability. A brutal campaign of destruction and mutilation took place at many of her greatest monuments. Her cartouche was hacked out of inscriptions, her image chipped off reliefs and sculptures of her were either toppled or had the male pharaonic elements removed. This assault on her physical memory was not extensive; many smaller monuments were left intact. They targeted the largest and most impressive of her architectural achievements where Hatshepsut was most publically visible and therefore at her most dangerous. The severity of this action was only matched by the treatment meted out two centuries later to the heretic king, Akhenaten, whose religious reforms shook Egyptian society.

For a while, many Egyptologists assumed this vindictive action was undertaken by Thutmose III in retaliation for being forced into the humiliating position of junior co-regent to a woman. However, this theory doesn’t account for the timing of the destruction – why wait all those years? It also doesn’t tally with the apparently amicable relationship between Hatshepsut and Thutmose III throughout the co-regency.

Generally scholars, particularly during the mid 20th century, were quick to blame Hatshepsut’s gender for what they perceived as her failings. Her use of male body imagery was suggested as an attempt to deceive Egyptian society, in an apparently analogous way to the Pope Joan legend. Some depicted her as scheming and overly-ambitious, wrestling power away from the rightful king. Hatshepsut was even criticised for failing to pursue suitably militaristic policies due to her femininity. Others focused upon finding the real (male) power behind the throne – a favourite candidate was her Royal Steward, Senenmut.

Some arguments were made from a position of ignorance; further excavation has uncovered more evidence concerning Hatshepsut’s reign. It has demonstrated that Hatshepsut followed a path of kingship very similar to the most celebrated male pharaohs. Other arguments, however, betray preconceptions about the role of women in Ancient Egypt, ideas not borne out by the evidence. In comparison to contemporary societies Egyptian women had better legal rights, a greater role in public life, participated more widely in economic activities and were given the same payments or privileges as men for performing the same task. Female overseers, governors and judges are attested. Of course, Ancient Egypt was not a female utopia, but neither can it be shown that a female pharaoh was considered inherently dangerous. No equivalent measures were taken to erase the name of Sobekneferu or any other female pharaoh. Sons were favoured over daughters for the succession, but a male pharaoh was clearly highly desirable, not essential.

So, why was so much effort taken to desecrate Hatshepsut’s achievements and obliterate her name? The answer is because Hatshepsut was dangerous to Thutmose III and Amenhotep II, not because of her gender but because she had demonstrated the power non-pharaonic royals could wield. Amenhotep II was, like his father and grandfather, also the son of a less prestigious wife, and his mother was not royal. His legitimacy had to be secured against family rivals. This fear may explain why Amenhotep II decided against recording his queens’ names; he hoped such action could prevent the same problem arising for his own successor. This strategy was unsuccessful – a younger son usurped his chosen successor. Nor did it prevent the accession of another female pharaoh just over a century after the reign of Hatshepsut.

That the eradication of Hatshepsut’s name was intended to protect Amenhotep II explains why it happened after he became co-regent. Hatshepsut’s officials were probably deceased by this point, removing a possible source of dissent. The destruction of her memory was not a vindictive frenzy borne of misogyny but a coldly calculated political act, advantageous to her immediate successors.

Hatshepsut’s modern reception remains mixed. On many occasions her life is judged by standards not applied to male pharaohs; Hatshepsut’s Wikipedia entry almost immediately commences with speculation about her relationship with her Royal Steward, presented as a motive for her rise to power. Others have been able to celebrate her achievements on their own merit and accept Hatshepsut as one of the most successful pharaohs to rule Ancient Egypt, male or female. For example, during the Cairo metro construction project her name was used for the tunnel boring machine in honour of her grand infrastructure developments. Forced to confront the ideological challenges of ascending to the throne through unconventional means and of being a female king, Hatshepsut proved herself dangerously capable of controlling the complex politics of Ancient Egypt to fulfil the role of the pharaoh.


Further reading

Grimal, Nicolas (Ian Shaw, transl.). 1992. A History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford and Cambridge (Massachusetts): Blackwell

Shaw, Ian. (ed.) 2000. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press