Although the status of women in ancient Egypt was higher than in any other ancient civilization, the notion that a woman could be king was abhorrent to the Egyptians. Yet, a woman did become king and not just an ordinary king. She became the first great woman in recorded history, the forerunner of such figures as Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Catherine the Great. Her name was Hatshepsut and she ruled as pharaoh for fifteen years. Sadly, after her death the Egyptians, who were a deeply conservative people, obliterated her memory so that later pharaohs such as Ramses II and Cleopatra would have been ignorant of her existence.
Hatshepsut’s grandfather, Ahmose I, defeated the Hyksos who had invaded Lower Egypt and occupied it for more than one hundred years during the Second Intermediate Period. It was he who inaugurated the New Kingdom and the eighteenth dynasty, giving rise to some of the most extraordinary characters in ancient Egyptian history.
Hatshepsut was descended from a number of strong women, including Aahotep, the mother of King Ahmose I. Aahotep was a military leader and she received the “Golden Flies” awarded to soldiers who fought courageously.
When Ahmose died, his son Amenhotep became pharaoh but he left no male heirs. Thutmose I, a commoner and army general, became king by marrying Amenhotep’s sister Nefertiri.
Thutmose I was a strong pharaoh and, with his large professional army, made conquests south into Nubia and north as far as the Euphrates River; the farthest any pharaoh had gone up to that time. He erected two large obelisks at Karnak Temple and began the tradition of royal burials in the Valley of the Kings.
Although Thutmose had three sons and two daughters by his great wife, only one of these children was alive when he died: the twelve-year-old Hatshepsut. Thutmose did have a son by a minor wife, also called Thutmose, and to strengthen his claim to the throne, this son was married to Hatshepsut.
However, Thutmose II suffered from poor health and reigned for only fourteen years. He left a daughter by Hatshepsut and a son, again called Thutmose, by Isis, a harem girl.
It is possible that Thutmose II realized Hatshepsut was ambitious for power because he proclaimed the young Thutmose his successor. But when he died Thutmose III was still a child, and his aunt and stepmother, Hatshepsut, acted as regent for him.
Not content to be the power behind the child king, Hatshepsut soon proclaimed herself pharaoh, and the boy was kept away from the court. He was sent off to join the army where he grew up.
To support her cause, Hatshepsut claimed that the god Amun had taken the form of her father and visited her mother, and she herself was the result of this divine union. As the self-proclaimed daughter of God, she further justified her right to the throne by declaring that the god Amun-Ra had spoken to her, saying, “Welcome my sweet daughter, my favourite, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Maatkare, Hatshepsut. Thou art the king, taking possession of the Two Lands.”
Hatshepsut dressed as a king, even affecting a false beard, but it was never her intention to pass herself off as a man; rather, she referred to herself as the “female falcon.” Her success was due, at least in part, to the respect of the people for her father’s memory and the loyal support of influential officials who controlled all the key positions of government.
During her rule, the Egyptian economy flourished; she expanded trading relations and dispatched a major sea-borne expedition to the land of Punt, on the African coast at the southernmost end of the Red Sea.
Hatshepsut launched an extensive building program, repairing the damage wrought by the invading Hyksos and building magnificent temples. She renovated her father’s hall in the Temple of Karnak, erecting four great obelisks nearly 100 feet (30m) tall, and added a chapel. But her greatest achievement was her mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri, one of the most beautiful temples in Egypt. She called it the ‘Most Sacred of Sacred Places’. The walls were illustrated with a colorful account of the trading expedition to Punt, featuring images of ships and of the marching army led by her general, Nehsi. From the drawings we can see that the expedition brought back many wonderful things including gold, ebony, animal skins, baboons, and refined myrrh, as well as living myrrh trees that were then planted around the temple. The walls at Deir el Bahri also depict the houses of the people of Punt and an image of its obese queen.
As Hatshepsut and her political allies aged, her hold on the throne weakened. The early death of her daughter, whom she had married to Thutmose III, may have contributed to her decline. Eventually, her nephew took his rightful place as pharaoh, though the circumstances of this event are unknown and what became of Hatshepsut is a mystery. Whether she died naturally or was deposed and eliminated is uncertain. What we do know is that about twenty years after her death, Thutmose had her name removed from nearly all the monuments and replaced with either the name of her father, her husband, or Thutmose III himself. Ironically, some of the best-preserved obelisks in Egypt are those of Hatshepsut. Thutmose III had stone walls built around them to hide them from public view, but these walls also served the purpose of protecting them from the elements.
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