Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2012
Hatshepsut, whose name means "foremost of noble women" (also known as Ma’at-ka-re, translated as "spirit of harmony and truth") was the fifth ruler of the 18th Dynasty (1479-1458 BCE). She was the daughter of Tuthmosis I and Queen Ahmose and, as was common in Egyptian royal houses, married her half-brother Tuthmosis II. They had a daughter together, Neferu-Ra, and Tuthmosis had a son by a minor wife, Tuthmosis III, whom he named as his heir.
Tuthmosis II died in 1479, appointing Hatshepsut as regent to the young king. Tuthmosis III, though a child, officially ruled with Hatshepsut until 1473 when she declared herself pharaoh, had herself represented in male attire and took on the duties and obligations of the male pharaohs who had preceeded her. Perhaps to solidify her hold on the throne, she married her daughter Neferu-Ra to the young Tuthmosis III (a marriage which would last eleven years until Neferu-Ra’s death).
Hatshepsut immediately went to work on great public works projects, commissioning the tempe at Deir El-Bahri at Thebes early on. In reliefs carved at this site Hatshepsut claims divine origin as the daugher of the god Amon and, so, states her right to rule Egypt legitimately. She further claimed that her father, Tuthmosis I, had made her his co-ruler and heir during his reign before her marriage to Tuthmosis II. Her chief steward, Senenmut, who had served Tuthmosis II, and was her loyal companion, corroborated these stories as, it seems, he helped the queen in all of her affairs of state.
The reign of Queen Hatshepsut lasted twenty-two years and in that time she was responsible for more building projects than any pharaoh in history save Rameses II (The Great). Although historians recognize her rule as one of peace and prosperity there is evidence that, early on, after she had claimed descent from Amon, she led military expeditions against the neighboring countries of Syria and Nubia. She sent expeditions to the land of Punt (the exact location of which is not known but has been placed, alternately, at the Horn of Africa or in Arabia) in ships seventy feet long, each manned with 210 sailors and 30 rowers. These expeditions brought back, among other things, live frankincense trees in baskets of their native soil (the first time in history plants or trees were transported from a foreign land successfully for transplant) and had them situated to adorn her complex at Deir El-Bahri. This complex boasts perfect symmetry and was so awe-inspiring to the ancients that later pharaohs would choose the locale around her temple for their own tombs, an area known today as the Valley of the Kings.
Hatshepsut, further, restored the temple at Karnak, the Temple of Mut, employed the genius of the architect Ineni (who had worked for her father) in designing further temples and monuments and had erected the twin obelisks (at the time the tallest in the world) at the entrance to the Temple of Mut. So beautiful were her buildings that later pharaohs claimed them as their own and so numerous were her monuments and temple projects that, today, there are few museums in the world which do not house works she commissioned.
In 1458 (approximately) Tuthmosis III, whom Hatshepsut placed as General of her armies, led a campaign out of Egypt to suppress a revolt at Kadesh and, after this, Hatshepsut disappears from history. Her shrines were mutilated and her obelisks and monuments torn down under order of Tuthmosis III. So thorough was the work of Tuthmosis that Hatshepsut’s name was forgotten and her reign virtually unknown at the beginning of the 20th century. The motive behind the desecration and destruction of Hatshepsut’s works is not known. For many years it was speculated that Tuthmosis III resented a woman essentially usurping his throne but there is no evidence anywhere which supports this (in Egypt, to eliminate the likeness of a person from a temple or statue after that person’s death was to, essentially, kill their spirit in the afterlife and there is no evidence that Tuthmosis III bore such enmity for Hatshepsut). Another theory is simply that Tuthmosis III wanted to convey to history the idea of an unbroken line between his father and himself but this theory also fails in that Tuthmosis only had public images of Hatshepsut erased while maintaining those statues, paintings and reliefs in the interior of temples. Perhaps the best theory advanced for Tuthmosis’ actions is that he was trying to restore balance to Egypt and feared that the illustrious reign of a woman would inspire later women to seek positions of power reserved, by the gods, for males. The concept of Ma’at (universal harmony and balance) was of utmost importance to the Egyptians and, as a learned author, Tuthmosis may have felt he was simply performing his duties as pharaoh in eliminating evidence of a female ruler. The result of all his work was that, until the latter part of the 20th century, the most famous female ruler of Egypt was the last pharaoh Cleopatra VII who was not even Egyptian, but Greek.
It is held that Hatshepsut’s corpse was hidden from Tuthmosis and buried in secret. For many years it was believed that nothing was left of her body save some fragments found in a canopic jar along with Hatshepsut’s nurse Sitire-Ra. In 2006, however, the Egyptologist Zahi Hawass claimed to have located Hatshepsut’s mummy on the third floor of the Cairo museum. If the mummy is indeed Hatshepsut, she died in her fifties from an abscess following the removal of a tooth.
Though not the first woman to rule Egypt (Merneith is thought to have ruled in the 1st Dynasty, Nimaethap acted as regent for her son Djoser in the 3rd Dynasty and Queen Sobekneferu reigned in the 12th Dynasty) nor the last, Hatshepsut ruled longer than any other woman and, further, is today considered one of the greatest pharaohs in Egyptian history.