Hatshepsut: the woman who became pharaoh

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Hatshepsut was the fifth pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt. She is one of only a handful of women who have ruled Egypt, and she is probably the only woman to have done so as a pharaoh in the New Kingdom. Her story is one of intrigue and mystery, and her reign was shrouded in controversy.


In this article, we will take a look at Hatshepsut's life and examine the key events of her 21-years on the throne of Egypt.

Early life

Hatshepsut was born around 1508 BC. She was the daughter of the pharaoh Thutmose I and his queen, Ahmose. Very information survives about her early childhood, but as a royal princess, she would have had a privileged upbring. As a young princess, Hatshepsut would have been educated in the palace along with her brother and sister. She would have learned about Egyptian history, religion, and language.


Hatshepsut grew up in a world dominated by the cult of Amun at Karnak. Karnak, at the city of Thebes, was the largest and most important temple complex in Ancient Egypt. The cult of Amun was one of the most powerful religious institutions in Ancient Egypt. The priests of Amun were some of the most influential people in the kingdom.


Around the year 1493 BC, Thutmose I died. Hatshepsut would have been around 13 to 14 years old at this time and her mother would die a few years later. Upon Thutmose I's death, Hatshepsut's half-brother, Thutmose II, then became king of Egypt at about the age of 20.


To strengthen his new position as pharaoh, Thutmose II decided to marry Hatshepsut, even though she was his half-sister. This was a common practice among Egyptian royals at the time, and it helped to solidify alliances between different families. 


As part of her position as queen, Hatshepsut took up the official role as 'God’s Wife of Amun'. This title was a politically powerful and spiritually role in Egyptian society. Theoretically, the woman who held it was 'married' to the god Amun and, as such, was required to perform important rituals during ceremonies and festivals at Karnak temple. Someone like Hatshepsut would receive significant wealth and prestige as a benefit of being the 'God's wife'.


However, Hatshepsut was not the only wife of the pharaoh. The kings of Egypt were expected to have many wives, whom they married as part of international deals with foreign powers. While Hatshepsut had the elevated position of the queen, if they didn't produce a male heir, then the next pharaoh could be the son of a lesser wife.


This was the unfortunate experience of Hatshepsut: she only gave birth to two children for Thutmose I. Both of them were daughters, and only one of them, called Neferure, survived to adulthood. One of Thutmose's other wives, called Iset, gave birth to a son who would be the next in line to the throne. This boy was called Thutmose III.

Rise to power

Around the year 1479 BC, Thutmose II died, leaving his two-year-old son, Thutmose III, as the new pharaoh. The royal court realised that a small child could not realistically rule the Egyptian empire and needed to arrange someone to act as a regent for the boy until he was old enough to be pharaoh himself.


A regent was a member of the royal household, usually a child's mother or stepmother, who made decisions on behalf of the pharaoh. This was often used during Egyptian history, and it was expected that the regent would temporarily be in charge of kingdom and rule in a way that was in the best interests of the country. Once the pharaoh was old enough to rule, the regent would then hand back the powers that had used.


Hatshepsut was appointed as regent for her stepson, Thutmose III. Even though she was in her late teens herself, she could be expected to remain as regent until the pharaoh turned about 15 or 16 years old. As a result, Hatshepsut could exercise the powers of a king for the next 13 or so years.


However, it soon became apparent that Hatshepsut was not going to be content with simply acting on her stepson's behalf. Instead, she made it very clear that she intended to be the pharaoh herself in every sense of the word. Somewhere between the second and seventh year of her regency, she held an elaborate coronation ceremony where she officially took the throne of Egypt and became pharaoh.


Given the speed with which Hatshepsut took power, some Egyptologists have wondered whether she had always been obsessed with seizing the throne. If so, they pondered whether Hatshepsut may have had Thutmose II killed so that she could take over as sole ruler. However, others believe that Thutmose II simply died of natural causes and point to the fact that even when she overthrew Thutmose III, she didn't have him killed. The young pharaoh continued to live on as a member of the royal household.


Whatever the case may be, from the time of her coronation, Hatshepsut took on the role of pharaoh and would go on to rule Egypt for more than two decades.

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Legitimising her rule

Despite the dramatic seizure of power, there were some inherent complications with a woman becoming pharaoh. The position of king was always a masculine role. Like many ancient language, the words of the Egyptians used had gendered endings. This meant that when you said the word 'king' or 'pharaoh', you were using a masculine word, which just didn't sound right when you were talking about a woman on the throne.


In a similar way, Egyptian art was heavily stylised, with pre-set forms of statues and paintings that were used to show the image of the pharaoh. These were also heavily gendered, which made the job of sculptors and artists very difficult when they started making images of a woman in these roles. For the first few years, statues show an awkward combination of both male and female features when trying to depict Hatshepsut.


Hatshepsut was well aware of the confusion and awkwardness that she created as a female pharaoh. She knew that she would have to work much harder than her predecessors to legitimise her rule to her people. As a result, she faced a similar uncomfortable position where the traditional clothes and accessories worn by pharaohs were very masculine. She decided that she needed to appear in public wearing the traditional pharaonic false-beard and male clothes so that people knew she was standing in the role of king.


To try and make her position as ruler acceptable, she emphasized her connection to the god Amun. She knew that if she could successfully produce convincing propaganda that could explain that she was authorised to be pharaoh by the gods themselves, then she might win over her subjects.


As a result, she had inscriptions made that portrayed herself as Amun's daughter. By doing so, she created a story in which the god Amun had visited her mother years ago and impregnated her. Obviously, she was trying to say that she was the child of their union. By linking herself so closely with Amun, Hatshepsut was able to gain the support of the powerful priests of Karnak and, by extension, convince the rest of Egypt to accept her authority.


Hatshepsut's reign was a time of great prosperity for Egypt. While some Egyptologists have struggled to find sufficient information, it is thought that she oversaw as many as four successful military campaigns. If this is true, it appears that they were defensive in nature and didn't add significant territories to Egypt's borders.


A main focus of her rule appears to have been infrastructure and building projects within Egypt. She ordered the construction of a massive memorial temple (called Djeser-Djeseru) for her future burial at Deir el-Bahri, just across the river from Thebes. It was so big that it dwarfed similar temples nearby. Also, Hatshepsut set up smaller chapels within the boundaries of the Karnak temple, as well as erecting four large obelisks in front of the temple gates as well. In addition, she had a grand new gate added to Karnak, with is known as the 'eighth pylon' today.

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Trade expedition to Punt

Probably the most famous event during Hatshepsut's reign was a huge trading expedition which she launched in her 9th year as pharaoh. Even Hatshepsut herself regarded this to be one of her greatest achievements, as it is depicted in great detail on the walls of her memorial chapel.


The expedition was sent to the land of Punt. It is still not entirely clear to historians where Punt was, but it had been an important trading partner for years. It was the key location from which pharaohs had gained access to exotic spices, oils and animal goods that originate from central Africa. Punt was located to the south of Egypt and was accessible by ships sailing along the coast. For this reason, modern historians surmise that it probably existed in the regions of modern-day Somalia, Eretria, or Ethiopia.


There were records of earlier pharaohs especially from the 5th, 11th, and 12th Dynasties who had sent trade voyages to Punt, but due to the incredible distances they had to travel to get there, such expeditions were rare. Usually, these were only possible when the land of Egypt was at peace and had significant levels of wealth to afford such a journey. Since direct contact with this land was so rare, Punt remained a mysterious location to the Egyptians themselves. However, none of the previous trade missions were on the scale of what Hatshepsut attempted.


Hatshepsut sent a fleet of five large trading ships with a number of soldiers to Punt under the command of a man called Nehesy. Onboard were stores of wine, beer, cloth, weapons and jewellery from Egypt that could be traded for foreign goods.


One of the most sought-after resources from Punt was incense resin. Incense was one of the most important elements of ceremonies in Egyptian temples, as it was burned used in purification rituals and in the mummification process. In addition, rare items such as cinnamon, balsam and ebony wood, as well as ivory from elephant tusks gold, live animals (such as baboons, monkeys, tigers, and panthers) and animal skins could be purchase there.


The only evidence we have of this trade mission comes from the representations of it on Hatshepsut's chapel walls. The carved reliefs show that the expedition was successful. The Egyptian ships returned home with myrrh resin, ebony wood, monkeys, panthers, plus much more. One of the most interesting goods they returned with were 31 young myrrh trees, which it appears that Hatshepsut had planted in Egypt in hopes of reducing the dependency on Punt for future myrrh resin.


One of the most interesting parts of Hatshepsut's images of this expedition is how the people of Punt are depicted. The Egyptian artists made a concerted effort to show them in particularly exotic ways. Their skin colour, their physical appearance, their houses, the body shapes of the people, and their names, are all carefully shown. This may have been a way of impressing the Egyptians with how remarkable it was that the pharaoh had managed to reach this mysterious land. 

Controversies about Hatshepsut

As Hatshepsut approached the end of her time in power, she could be considered a very successful ruler. The relative peace that Egypt enjoyed under her reign, combined with the economic prosperity they experienced from events such as the expedition to Punt, could be used as clear evidence of her decision-making prowess. 


However, her time in power was not without controversy. One of ongoing difficulties was due to the fact that she was as woman in a masculine role. Despite her best efforts, it seems that the Egyptian people never really become comfortable with this fact. Some tensions appear to have remained among the members of the royal courts, from the important noble families who may have felt as though their privileges were not sufficiently respected by Hatshepsut. 


These tensions may have arisen when royal advisors that had held power during the reign of Thutmose I were given less responsibilities during her reign. There is evidence that she may have preferred to promote people outside of the usual aristocratic families to positions of authority based upon their merits rather than their family lines. 


One example of this trend is the person Senenmut.

Relationship with Senenmut?

One of the most mysterious aspects of Hatshepsut's reign is her relationship with an important man in the royal court, named Senenmut. Senenmut seems to have experienced rapid promotion into positions of power in the early years of Hatshepsut's reign. Why this is particularly remarkable is due to the fact that Senenmut did not come from one of the noble families. As far as we can tell, he came from very humble beginnings, yet rose to be one of the most important and powerful people in Egypt.


Across the course of his career under Hatshepsut, he was awarded with over 80 titles, only 20 of which were official positions. Some of these included Chief Steward of Amun, Chief Steward of the King, controller of the estates of Amun. Controller of Works, and overseer of the royal household. Judging by the vast range of these roles, Senenmut must have been in charge of organising and supervising many of Hatshepsut's construction projects and helped in the day-to-day administration of the kingdom.


Many of these roles must have meant that Senenmut spent significant time with Hatshepsut, probably on a daily basis. Due to this, and judging by the range of responsibilities he accrued, many historians assume that he and the queen had a very close and personal friendship. Some go so far as to say that Senenmut and Hatshepsut were lovers. If this were true, a romantic relationship between the pharaoh and one of their workers, particularly one from a non-noble background, would have been considered taboo. 


No doubt, the elevation of someone like Senenmut would have upset the traditional aristocracy of ancient Egypt. There would have been unresolved tensions between powerful people in Hatshepsut's government that may not have been successfully resolved by the time of her death.

Erasing Hatshepsut's memory

Around the year 1458 BC, Hatshepsut died at the age of 50. A mummy has been identified as hers with a high degree of certainty, and modern analysis of the remains have sought to identify her cause of death. The mummy in question shows signs that she was overweight at the end of her life and suffered from diabetes. However, there is no obvious cause of death. There is evidence that one of her teeth had an abscess and she had bone cancer. Complications from either of these, or a combination of health concerns could have been the real reason for her death.


After Hatshepsut's death, Thutmose III finally took back the throne. He was over 30 years old by this stage, and it is not clear why he had not tried to take back power much earlier. However, once he was pharaoh once more, Thutmose II tried to erase all trace of Hatshepsut from history. He had her name removed from inscriptions and monuments, and he ordered that many of her statues be destroyed.


The process of trying to erase the memory of someone from history is known as damnatio memoriae. For ancient Egyptians, this was a particularly brutal measure due to their beliefs about the afterlife. They believed that for the deceased to live for eternity, their name had to remain somewhere on earth. By removing her Hatshepsut's name from throughout Egypt, Thutmose was trying to ensure that she would cease to exist for the rest of eternity: both her memory on earth and her spirit in the afterlife.


However, despite Thutmose III's best efforts, Hatshepsut's legacy has survived to the present day. This may be due to how Thutmose chose to destroy her building projects. When he had her temples pulled down, he used the rubble to build his own temples. When the structures begun falling apart in modern history, the crumbling remains revealed the rubble once more.


As archaeologists rediscovered the bricks and statues of Hatshepsut, they were able to reassemble many structures and piece together the history that Thutmose III tried to hide. Therefore, by seeking to destroy Hatshepsut's memory, Thutmose III inadvertently preserved it. 

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Hatshepsut was a complex and fascinating figure, and her story is one that continues to intrigue historians and archaeologists today. She was a woman who dared to challenge the traditional role of women in Ancient Egyptian society, but she was able to successfully rule Egypt for more than two decades.

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Further reading