The Queen Who Would Be King

A scheming stepmother or a strong and effective ruler? History’s view of the pharaoh Hatshepsut changed over time

Hatshepsut is depicted in the clothing of a male king though with a feminine form. Inscriptions on the statue call her "Lady of the Two Lands." (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

In such cases, it was accepted New Kingdom practice for widowed queens to act as regents, handling the affairs of government until their sons—in this case, stepson/nephew—came of age, and Hatshepsut (more or less automatically, it seems) got the assignment. “I think it would have been pretty much the norm for Hatshepsut to step in,” says Peter Dorman, an Egyptologist who is president of the American University of Beirut. “But it’s also quite clear that Thutmose III was recognized as king from the very start.”

Monuments of the time show Thutmose III—still a child, but portrayed in the conventional manner as an adult king—performing his pharaonic duties, while Hatshepsut, dressed as queen, stands demurely off to one side. By the seventh year of her regency, however (and it may have been much earlier), the formerly slim, graceful queen appears as a full-blown, flail-and-crook-wielding king, with the broad, bare chest of a man and the pharaonic false beard.

But why? To Egyptologists of an earlier generation, Hatshepsut’s elevation to godlike status was an act of naked ambition. (“It was not long,” Hayes wrote, “before this vain, ambitious, and unscrupulous woman showed...her true colors.”) But more recent scholarship suggests that a political crisis, such as a threat from a competing branch of the royal family, obliged Hatshepsut to become pharaoh. Far from stealing the throne, says Catharine Roehrig, curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, “Hatshepsut may have had to declare herself king to protect the kingship for her stepson.”

It’s an interpretation that seems to be supported by Hatshepsut’s treatment of Thutmose III during her reign. “He wasn’t under house arrest for those 20-odd years,” says Roehrig. “He was learning how to be a very good soldier.” And it’s not as if Hatshepsut could have stepped down when her stepson came of age. “Once you took on the attributes of kingship,” explains Dreyfus, “that was it. You were a god. It’s not queen for a day, it’s king for all time.”

Hatshepsut probably knew her position was tenuous—both by virtue of her sex and the unconventional way she had gained the throne—and therefore appears to have done what canny leaders have often done in times of crisis: she reinvented herself. The most obvious form this took was having herself portrayed as a male pharaoh. As to why, “No one really knows,” says Dorman. But he believes it may have been motivated by the presence of a male co-ruler—a circumstance with which no previous female ruler had ever contended.

“She was not pretending to be a man! She was not cross-dressing!” Cathleen Keller, a professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of California at Berkeley, told me before her death last year. Inscriptions on Hatshepsut’s statues, she said, almost always contain some indication of her true gender—a title, such as “Daughter of Re,” or feminine word endings, resulting in such grammatical conundrums as “His Majesty, Herself.”

Hatshepsut also took a new name, Maatkare, sometimes translated as Truth (maat) is the Soul (ka) of the Sun God (Re). The key word here is maat—the ancient Egyptian expression for order and justice as established by the gods. Maintaining and perpetuating maat to ensure the prosperity and stability of the country required a legitimate pharaoh who could speak—as only pharaohs could—directly with the gods. By calling herself Maatkare, Hatshepsut was likely reassuring her people that they had a legitimate ruler on the throne.

One important way pharaohs affirmed maat was by creating monuments, and Hatshepsut’s building projects were among the most ambitious of any pharaoh’s. She began with the erection of two 100-foot-tall obelisks at the great temple complex at Karnak. Reliefs commemorating the event show the obelisks, each weighing about 450 tons, being towed along the Nile by 27 ships manned by 850 oarsmen.

Hatshepsut carried out her public works program across the empire, but it was concentrated in the area around Thebes, the dynastic and theological center of the Thutmoside dynasty, where she built a network of imposing processional roadways and sanctuaries. At Deir el-Bahri, just across the Nile from Thebes, she erected her magnum opus—an immense memorial temple, used for special religious rites connected to the cult that would guarantee Hatshepsut perpetual life after death.

Dramatically sited at the base of towering limestone cliffs, the temple, which is regarded as one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world, is approached through a series of terraced colonnades and courtyards that appear to ascend up the very side of the mountain. Despite the enormous scale of the complex—roughly the length of two and a half football fields—its overall impression is one of lightness and grace, unlike the fortresslike temples of her predecessors.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus