QUEEN HATSHEPSUT (ruled from 1479 to 1458 B.C.)


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Queen Hatshephut
as a small sphinx
Queen Hatshepsut was the only female to rule Egypt as a full pharaoh in a period when Egypt was strong. Often depicted as a man with a false beard, she rose to power after claiming divine birth. Her name means “the first, repeatable lady.” Other women ruled but they did so in weak period. Twosret was another female ruler. She ruled from 1198 B.C. to 1190 B.C. One, possibly two, other female pharaohs ruled briefly. Cleopatra came along 14 centuries after Hatshepsut. She wasn’t a Pharaoh or even full-blooded Egyptian but rather a Greek that ruled over the remains of a kingdom established by Alexander the Great. [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic. April 2009; Elizabeth Wilson, Smithsonian magazine, September 2006; Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker]

Queen Hatshepsut ruled from 1479 to 1458 B.C. She was referred to by both male and female pronouns depending on the situation but was regarded politically as an “honorary man.” There was no Egyptian word for "Her Majesty." People addressed her as "His Majesty." Bas-reliefs and statues often depict her with a lion’s mane and a male headdress in addition to the false beard.

Hatshepsut is thought to have been quite beautiful when she was young. At least that way it seems when you see images of her early in her rule. Even when she is portrayed a man she has soft feminine, features, a rounded chin and gently protruding breasts. Her mummy indicated she had an overbite as did other members of her family. Images of her when she was older depict her as heavy and haggard.

On seeing her in a number of art works at an exhibition. The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl wrote, “Hatshepsut is no Nefertiti. Even in colossal statuary, she’s more pleasant-looking than anything else---a woman whose appearance except for over-the-top eye make-up would not have startled one in a Midwestern mall...She often smiles slightly, projecting confident oneness with divinity.”

Queen Hatshepsut’s Family

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Queen Hatshephut
with a beard
Queen Hatshepsut was the daughter of Thutmose I, who had no royal blood, and Ahmose, his principal and most blue-blooded wife. Ahmose was the daughter of a great Pharaoh, also named Ahmose, which gave Hatshepsut a unique advantage because she had more royal blood in her than either Thutmose I, or his son Thutmose II or grandson Thutmose III.

Hatshepsut was born around the time of her father’s coronation in 1504 B.C. She appears to have idolized her father, later having him reburied in a tomb she built for herself, and claimed that soon after her birth he selected her to succeed him---a claim that seems unlikely.

When Hatshepsut was about 12 she married her half-brother---Thutmose II, the son of Thutmose I by a different wife---making her the Queen of Egypt before she was a teenager. When Thutmose II died young, probably when he was in his 20s, Hatshepsut became the regent for Thutmose III, her stepson, nephew and the legitimate heir. Thutmose III was still a child when his father Thutmose II died. His mother was a harem girl.

Hatshepsut gave birth to a single child, a daughter named Neferure, with Thutmose II. Some archaeologists and historians believe that Senenmut, Hatshepsut’s chief advisor and the architect of her great mortuary temple, was the father. Statues exist that show him cuddling Neferure, who died when she was 16. There is also a crude drawing scrawled in the tomb of man thought to be Senemut having sex with a woman in pharaonic headdress. Most historians think Hatshepsut was not involved with him physically because she had too much to lose if word got she was. In any case, Senemut was a very important figure; 25 known monuments were raised to honor him, a staggering number for a non-royal, and some even claim he was the brain and real power behind the throne. More likely, in the words of The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl, he was her Sir Walter Raleigh.

Queen Hatshepsut’s Rule

Queen Hatshepsut took power from Thutmose III and attained unprecedented power for a woman. She ruled for 21 years (from 1479 B.C. to 1473 B.C. as the regent of Thutmose III and 1473 B.C. to 1458 B.C. as Pharaoh and co-ruler with Thutmose III). Her father, Thutmose II, did not rule for long. When he died Thutmose III was just a boy and Hatshepsut was named his regent and took effective control of the kingdom. Early on she seemed to play her role as expected. She was careful to respect convention and did not overstep her herself. The earliest reliefs depict her as a queen standing by Thutmose III, who is portrayed as an adult king performing pharaonic duties.

But as time went on Hatshepsut became bolder. Early reliefs after Thutmose II’s death show her making offering to the gods and ordering an obelisk from Aswan. Within a few years she assumed the role of “king” and relegated her stepson to second-in-command. It is not clear what her motive was. Some have suggested it was a hunger for power. Other have said it was an effort to reinstate royal blood---and the divinity associated with it---to the ruling dynasty. Yet others say she took power to avoid a palace coup brewing while her stepson was still too young to act.

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Queen Hatshephut and Thutmose I's family

Queen Hatshepsut led an expedition to Punt (Somalia) and is thought to have led a military campaign into Nubia (Sudan). Overall though she presided over an extended period of peace and prosperity and helped Egypt get back on its feet in the wake of a string of military campaigns fought by her predecessors. Under Hatshepsut’s rule trade blossomed as timber poured in from Lebanon, turquoise mining was stepped up the Sinai and luxuries such as gold, ivory, spices, ebony, myrrh, panther skins and live baboons came in from Punt and Africa. Egypt became rich. The gold that was used in the making of the tomb of King Tutankhamun was accumulated during Hatshepsut’s reign.

There is also some evidence that Hatshepsut embraced “the common people” and this may have been the key to her lasting as long as she did. A word that pops up time and again in her hieroglyphic text is rekhyt ---a common Nile marsh bird associated with ordinary people. Egyptologist Kenneth Griffin of Swansea University in Wales told National Geographic, “her inscriptions seemed to show a personal association with the rekhyt which at this stage is unrivaled.”

Hatshepsut often spoke possessively of “my rekhyt” and asked for the approval of the rekhyt. On one of he obelisks at Karnak she confided, “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”

Queen Hatshepsut as the Woman-King

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Hatshepsut got around the issue of her gender and the implication that it made her unfit to rule by calling herself not the King’s Wife but rather the Wife of the god Amun (based on the premise that the king and Amun were one). During her rule Hatshepsut took the name Maatkare, sometimes translated as “Truth is the Soul of the Sun God”---with maat meaning “Truth,” ka meaning “Soul” and Re being the “the Sun God”--- an ancient Egyptians expression for order and justice which she seemed to have adopted to legitimize her position. She declared that the god Amun not only had chosen her to be the next pharaoh but also impregnated her mother to produce her divine birth. She thanked Amun by raising obelisks devoted to him at Karnak that were covered with electum, a mixture of gold and silver.

Early images of Hatshepsut were clearly feminine with a few kingly touches .She wore an ankle-length skirt like that worn by women and had a feminine face and bust but struck the pose of a king and wore the king’s cobra headdress. As time went on she became more masculine, wearing a pharaoh’s shendyt kilt and a false beard, and displaying a broad, open, manly chest, without any feminine touches. The text that accompanied her images were lists of accomplishments like those found with traditional male pharaohs and featured statements like: “My command stands firm like the mountains.” Even so, in most texts she was referred to as a woman, using feminine wordings that sometimes produced things like, “His Majesty, Herself.”

For a long time Hatshepsut was caste by historians as the evil stepmother to Thutmose III, with historian William Hayes, the curator of Egyptian art a the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the 1950s, calling her a “vain, ambitious and unscrupulous woman” and the “vilest type of usurper.” This view of Hatshepsut is based primarily on Thutmose III’s ruthless campaign to deface Hatshepsut’s monuments and destroy all evidence of her rule after her death. These days many historians say Thutmose III likely carried out the defacements to boost his image, arguing that because most of the defacing was done late in his career it was not done out of malice, suggesting that if he had done it out of spite he would have done it earlier on.

Catharine Roehrig, the curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, told National Geographic, “nobody can know what she was like, She ruled for 20 years because she was capable of making things work. I believe she was very canny and that she knew how play one person off against the next---without murdering them or getting murdered herself.”

Queen Hatshepsut Temples and Monuments

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Hatshepsut statue in her Mortuary Temple
Hatshepsut began her rule by erecting two 30-meter-high, 450-ton obelisks at the great temple in Karnak. Reliefs commemorating the event show 27 ships manned by 850 oarsmen towing the obelisks up the Nile. Hatshepsut reportedly spared no expenses and poured in "as many bushels of gold as sacks of wheat" to get the obelisk completed. One of the Karnak obelisks is the tallest one in the world. Both were originally covered in glistening electrum, a combination of gold and silver.

On Hatshepsut’s monument-building efforts Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic, “She seems to have been more afraid of anonymity than death. She raised and renovated temples and shrines from the Sinai to Nubia. The grandest obelisks she erected at the vast temple of the great god Amum at Karnak were among the most magnificent ever constructed. She commissioned hundreds of statues of herself and left accounts in stone of her lineage, her titles, her history , both real and concocted, even her thoughts and hopes, which at times she confided with uncommon candor.”

Most of her building projects, which included a network of grand processional roadways and sanctuaries, constructed in and around Thebes (present-day Luxor), the center of he Thutmoside dynasty. A lot of great art was created during her reign, some of which---including granite sphinxes with her likeness, fabulous cartouche jewelry, reliefs, sarcophagi, paintings, manuscripts, vessels, and amulets, “were the subject of a 300-piece exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006.

Hatshepsut's Temple

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Hatshepsut's Temple is a mortuary temple built into the side of a cliff near the Valley of the Kings in Luxor) while Hatshepsut was still alive. Named Djeser Djeseru, "the Splendor of Splendors" or “Holy of Holies” and known today as Deir el-Bahri, it is regarded as one of the great architectural achievements of the ancient world and was designed to be a place for people to gather for special religious rites connected with the cult of Hatshepsut to guarantee that she live on in the afterlife.

Hatshepsut's Temple was built in 1480 B.C., and dedicated to Amum and several other deities. Built into a dramatic lion-colored sandstone cliff on the eastern face of desert mountain, the temple is comprised of three terraces of colonnades, connected by massive ramps, and a small chamber tunneled deep into the rock and reached by a long ramp. The last set colonnades is set into the face of the cliff. Queen Hatshepsut planted botanical gardens at the site and had incense burners on the terraces.

Hatshepsut’s temple is huge, roughly the length of 2½ football fields, but the overall effect of the architecture is surprisingly light, especially in comparison to heavy fortress-like temples erected by her predecessors. A ramp sided by pillars leads from a large first courtyard to a second courtyard. At the back of this is a colonnade with walls and small enclosures with engravings and reliefs showing episodes from the queen’s life and images of gods.

The lower levels featured pools and gardens planted with fragrant trees. Some 100 statues of Hatshepsut as a sphinx guarded the processional way. The majority of these were smashed by Hatshepsut’s successor and stepson Thutmose III and thrown in a pit in front of the temple.

During her funeral Queen Hatshepsut was carried up the ramps to a funerary chamber inside the temple. The rear wall of the second courtyard consist of the Birth Colonnade on one side of the ramp and the Punt Colonnade on the other. The Birth Colonnade is a small sheltered area at the top of the terrace that describes the preparation for and birth of Queen Hatshepsut. Particularly interesting is the scene of birds being captured in nets. The Punt Colonnade depicts a trading expedition to Punt, with boats piled high with luxuries such as gold, ebony, ivory and exotic animals. In the 7th century the Copts used the temple as a monastery.

Hatshepsut’s Death

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defaced Hatshepsut Relief
Egyptian officials have said that the mummy of Hatshepsut suggests the woman was obese, probably suffered from diabetes, had liver cancer and died in her 50s. In 2011, Associated Press reported that researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany discovered a carcinogenic substance in a flask of lotion believed to have belonged to Queen Hatshepsut, raising a possibility she may have accidentally poisoned herself. The university said it spent two years researching the dried-out contents of the flask, which is part of its Egyptian Museum's collection and bears an inscription saying it belonged to Hatshepshut. [Source: Associated Press, August 19, 2011]

Researchers said the flask contains what appears to have been a lotion or medicine used to tackle skin disorders such as eczema. The contents included palm and nutmeg oil, along with fatty acids of the kind that can relieve such disorders. There are known to have been cases of skin diseases in Hatshepsut's family, the university said.

Researchers also found benzopyrene, an aromatic and highly carcinogenic hydrocarbon. "If one imagines that the queen had a chronic skin disease and the ointment gave her short-term relief, then she may have exposed herself to a major risk over the course of a few years," Helmut Wiedenfeld of the university's pharmaceutical institute said in a statement.

Identifying Queen Hatshepsut’s Lost Mummy

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For decades archaeologists looked for the mummy of Hatshepsut and had no luck finding it. Howard Carter, the discoverer of King Tut’s tomb, found two sarcophagus’s bearing Hatshepsut’s name along with some limestone wall panels and a canopic chest in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings labeled KV20 in 1903 but found no mummy. He did however find “two much denuded mummies of women and some mummified geese” nearby in a minor tomb known as KV60 in 1920. One of the mummies---a fat one---was in a coffin. The other---a skinny one---lay on the floor. Carter took the geese and closed the tomb. Three years later another archaeologist took the fat mummy in the coffin to the Egyptian Museum. The inscription on the coffin was later linked to Hatshepsut’s nurse. The skinny mummy on the floor was left where it was.

In the late 2000s, an effort was launched to identify Queen Hatshepsut’s mummy with CT (computerized tomography) scans and DNA analysis. There were four possible candidates. The two mummies found KV60. The one brought to the Egyptian Museum in the 1920s was still sitting there unidentified for decades. The second skinny one was brought to the museum. The two other candidates came from a cemetery next to Hatshepsut’s funerary temple. They were selected because a small box with Hatshepsut’s name on it was found in the tomb that housed them.

The whole thing was set up, of course, by Egyptologist Zahi Hawass. CT scans were taken of the four mummy candidates and their images where compared with images of mummies belonging to Hatshepsut relatives. The scans revealed little that was conclusive in identifying them. The key to identifying Hatshepsut’s mummy turned out to be a small box with Hatshepsut’s cartouche inscribed on it. Sealed with embalming fluid, the box was thought to contain some of Hatshepsut’s organs, most likely her liver. Because it was regarded as inappropriate to break open the box, a CT scan was taken instead. It showed the box contained a tooth---a secondary molar with part of its root missing.

As it tuned out the molar perfectly fit into a gap in the jaw of one of the mummies---the fat one that had been brought to the Egyptian Museum in the 1920s---thus identifying it, as best as could be expected, a Hatshepsut’s mummy. Not everyone saw the tooth as slam-dunk proof. Some scholars, for example, raised questions about the box with the tooth as it was not a typical canopic vessel.

The investigation of the mummies also provided clues on how Hatshepsut died. Evidence from the CT scan of her mummy seemed to indicate she died from an infected abscess in her gums, perhaps worsened by bone cancer or diabetes. The mummy itself seemed to lack the elaborate send off you would expect of a royal burial. There was no golden mask, no jewelry, none of the things found in burial of King Tutankhamun. Hawass initially thought that Hatshepsut’s mummy was the least likely of the four candidates to be her because she was fat and had “huge pendulous breast” of the sort more likely to be found on the queen’s wet nurse.

After Queen Hatshepsut’s Death

After Hatshepsut’s death there was a massive defacing campaign. Eyes were gouged out of reliefs. Images of her as king were systematically chiseled of temples, monuments and obelisks. Heads were loped off statues. Entire rows of statues were toppled over into pits. As we said before it is believed that Thutmose III was behind it. Images of Senenmut, Hatshepsut’s chief advisor, were also defaced.

Describing Hatshepsut’s mummy after it was put on display at the Egyptian Museum, Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic, “her mouth, with the upper lip shoved over the lower, was a gruesome crimp...her eye socket was packed with blind black resin, her nostrils unbecomingly plugged with tight rolls of cloth, her left ear had sunk into the flesh in the left side of her skull, and her head was almost completely without hair...The only human touch was in the bone shine of her nailed fingertips, where the mummified flesh had shrink back, creating the illusion of a manicure.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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