The life of Hatshepsut is the story of a feminist ante litteram, a queen who proclaims herself pharaoh, one of the very few female rulers of ancient Egypt.
Her story fascinated me, especially since she was a woman of good taste, as well as of great power. Hatshepsut left us incredible temples, tombs, statues and obelisks, although unfortunately not all of them have survived up to today.
Who is Hatshepsut: the queen who proclaims herself pharaoh
Hatshepsut was born around 1500 BC, as part of the XVIII Egyptian dynasty, therefore we speak of the New Kingdom. She is the daughter of King and Pharaoh Thutmose I and the Great Royal Wife (some kind of “main” wife) Ahmose. Hatshepsut has several brothers and sisters, including her half-brother Thutmose II, son of a secondary wife.
Upon the death of her father, Hatshepsut seems ready to take the throne, as she is the only living heir of royal blood on both her father’s and mother’s sides. But something goes wrong and her throne passes to her half-brother Thutmose II. As often happened at the time, the two half-siblings merry each other. A convenient situation for both of them, but especially for him, because her 100% royal blood “authorizes” the half-blood Thutmose II to become pharaoh. Hatshepsut, for her part, is the Great Royal Wife, which is not a bad position anyway.
Egyptian feminism and the ascent to the throne
Thutmose II dies young. Hatshepsut had a daughter but no sons, who instead came through secondary wives. The succession is therefore very confused, because the little Thutmose III, the pharaoh’s first male, is perhaps two or three years old, he is not the son of Hatshepsut and certainly cannot take over the government of Egypt.
Hatshepsut claims the throne again, and this time she makes sure she to get it. She doesn’t just become regent, waiting for Thutmose III to grow up. Here is the feminist idea: she declares herself a pharaoh. Genius.
The pharaohs, we know, have divine lineage. And therefore Hatshepsut reveals her otherworldly origin as a daughter of the god Amon. A divine conception is what was missing to convince the nation that she’s the one who should reign.
Feminist, excellent politician and very smart, Hatshepsut behaves like a pharaoh and shows herself as such. The pharaohs were always portrayed with a false beard, a crown, a short dress and reddish skin. The women, on the contrary, were depicted with long dresses, yellow skin and, decidedly, no beard. In all her representations (statues, carvings, paitings…), Hatshepsut could be mistaken for a man.
Politics and achievements
Egyptologists believe that Hatshepsut was an excellent ruler. She reigned for a long time, much longer than any other Egyptian woman in power. She is also one of the Egyptian leader that built the most amount of great buildings during her reign. Among these, the most impressive are an incredible obelisk in the Karnak temple, the majestic mortuary temple for Hatshepsut herself and her father in Luxor and her own tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
She has also been recognized as a successful, pacifist politician. Without major new conquests, she led only a few military campaigns to strengthen Egypt’s power in specific territories. Among the others, the missions to Somalia are worth mentioning. From those lands she brought back all kind of goods and richness, as we see depicted multiple times on the buildings. We know of the frankincense trees, also because their fossilized remains are still visible in her temple in Luxor.
The death of Hatshepsut
It seems that Hatshepsut raised her stepson Thutmose III in luxury, educating him properly and preparing him to be king. But power goes to her head and she enjoys being a pharaoh. She ends up not leaving the throne even when the little prince reaches the right age to rule the country.
She indefinitely postpones the marriage between Thutmose III and his daughter Neferura to the bitter end. Neferura is indeed the only one with royal blood on both her mother’s and father’s sides, which would have made the prince’s accession to the throne legitimate.
The feminist pharaoh holds on to power until she dies, which doesn’t happens for a couple decades. Hatshepsut probably dies in her 50-60s, after 22 years of reign. At that point her stepson is a grown man and very tired and angry for all these years of waiting. His son, Amenhotep II, co-regent with his father for several years, is even madder. He is not the son of a Great Royal Wife nor of a father of 100% royal blood. Both things would make it difficult for him to justify a succession to power, especially in the eyes of his great-aunt Hatshepsut.
The stepson’s and/or newphew’s revenge
Thutmose III and/or Amenhotep II (depending on the theories) vent their anger against the deceased Hatshepsut by scratching all her images away from her temple in Luxor, erasing her name and breaking or removing her statues from various temples. It’s a revenge that doesn’t make much sense nowadays. But it must be understood from the cultural point of view of the time. Ancient Egyptians thought that the dead lived forever in the afterlife. But to reach eternity, the deceased needed the gods to recognize them and accompany them in their otherworldly passage. And the gods, in order to recognize the souls that presented themselves before them, would have had to find their embalmed body, or recognize their face or read their name in some tomb or temple. In the absence of all three elements, the gods could not have recognized the person. And an unnamed soul would then be denied eternal life.
In the mad destruction process, son and/or nephew also thought of building a wall around the very high obelisk that Hatshepsut has had built in Karnak temple (today a UNESCO world heritage site), so that only the tip of the majestic monument could be seen. They wanted to deny her not only eternal life, but also earthly fame. Time has restored some of her stolen glory, for the wall has collapsed, while the obelisk is still standing there (with the help of some restoration) for tourists to admire, next to that of Father Thutmose I.
Hatshepsut mortuary temple in Luxor
The mortuary temple that Hatshepsut had built for herself and her father is certainly one of the most impressive and most visited ancient buildings not only in Luxor, but in whole Egypt. It is not a simple tomb, but a huge complex for celebrations and rituals, which also houses small shrines for some of the Egyptian gods.
The architect was a certain Senenmut, who was perhaps also the sovereign’s lover. We know about him because Senenmut leaves a “signature” with both name and image of himself. He signs secretly, perhaps because he didn’t have Hatshepsut’s permission, behind one of the temple doors. When the door swung open, inward, the relief with the signature gets covered and hidden by the door itself. And since no one closed the doors while remaining inside the temple, the signature could remain secret without creating any scandal. A genius.
Hatshepsut’s temple is located on the western bank of the Nile, the one reserved for the world of the dead. It sits on the west bank of the Nile River, opposite to Karnak Temple, which was the main sanctuary of the god Osiris (or Amun-Ra), the most important good god of ancient Egypt.
The structure is impressive and must have looked even more impressive in the past. The pilgrims would have walked by a long line of sphinxes in the main esplanade and through gardens with Somali incense trees before reaching the entrance of the temple.
The temple consists of two more levels, somehow simulating a sort of pyramid-tomb for Hatshepsut. The second level has reliefs of the missions in Ethiopia, particularly significant from a historical point of view, full of details and still partially colourful. Partly dug directly into the rock, the third level houses the sanctuaries of Hathor, Ibis and Osiris and an area dedicated to the mortuary cult of Hatshepsut and his father Thutmose I.
The entrance ticket to Hatshepsut Temple costs 160 EGP (around 5-6 €), a little more if you want to spare yourself a (rather short) walk: electric carts run all day long from the ticket office to the base of the temple and back.