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)
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The temple’s lower levels featured pools and gardens planted with fragrant trees. Supersized images of Hatshepsut were everywhere. Some 100 colossal statues of the female pharaoh as a sphinx guarded the processional way. Lining the terraces were more images of the ruler (some more than ten feet tall) in various devotional attitudes—kneeling with offerings to the gods, striding into eternity or in the guise of Osiris, god of death and resurrection. Miraculously, a number of these statues—some reassembled, others still in a fragmentary state—survive. Most are massive, masculine and meant to be seen from a distance.

Hatshepsut’s temple also featured a series of reliefs marking the achievements of her reign, including a storied trading expedition to the mysterious and distant land called Punt, believed to be somewhere on the coast of the Red Sea, perhaps in current-day Eritrea. The reliefs show the Egyptians loading their boats in Punt with an array of highly prized luxury goods—ebony, ivory, gold, exotic animals and incense trees. “Never,” reads an inscription, “were such things brought to any king since the world was.”

As a work of art, of architecture and of self-glorification, Hatshepsut’s memorial was an enormous enterprise that must have involved an army of workers. It’s almost certain, scholars agree, that Senenmut, the official overseer of works at Deir el-Bahri, was the mastermind behind—if not the actual architect of—the temple. He had most likely begun his climb to power during the reign of Thutmose II, when he was appointed tutor to Hatshepsut’s daughter, Neferure. But his influence soared with Hatshepsut’s accession to the throne. In time he acquired some 93 titles, the most prestigious of which was Great Steward of Amun (the god of Thebes), which put him in charge of all of Karnak’s building and business activities.

Many of Senenmut’s monuments to himself (some 25—a staggering number for a nonroyal) mention his exceptional access to the throne; he was a “true confidant” of the pharaoh and the “one upon whose utterances his Lordrelied.” But earlier scholars’ belief that Senenmut was the real force behind Hatshepsut’s rule—not “even a woman of the most virile character could have attained such a pinnacle of success without masculine support,” wrote historian Alan Gardiner in 1961—has now been largely discounted by experts as a woeful underestimation of Hatshepsut.

Did she and Senenmut share more than power? Probably not, most scholars, including Peter Dorman, have concluded. Dorman does believe, however, that the pharaoh and her favorite minister may well have been victims ofspeculation and gossip.

Senenmut’s fate is a mystery. His privileged position allowed him to build a splendid tomb for himself near Hatshepsut’s—which is in the Valley of the Kings, just west of Deir el-Bahri—but he apparently never occupied it. The tomb suffered major damage, including the smashing of his impressive, if unused, stone sarcophagus. It was long thought that either Hatshepsut or Thutmose III were the culprits, but recent scholarship suggests some combination of religious upheaval, tomb robbers and natural collapse.

Hatshepsut’s own tomb was cut into the base of the cliffs on the east side of the Valley of the Kings and was large enough to accommodate both her sarcophagus and that of her father—reburying him in her tomb was yetanother attempt to legitimize her rule. It’s believed that Hatshepsut died (possibly in her late 40s) around 1458 b.c., the year that Thutmose III first used the title “Ruler of Maat.”

Thutmose III’s destruction of Hatshepsut’s monuments has long been recognized as a conscientious—and very nearly successful—attempt to obliterate her name and memory from history. But was it, as many early Egyptologists had assumed, an act of revenge and hatred? In recent decades, scholars have re-examined the archaeological evidence and come to the startling conclusion that the destruction, presumed to have been initiated soon after Hatshepsut’s death, was actually not begun until some 20 years later, toward the end of Thutmose III’s own long reign (c. 1458-1425 b.c.). “I think that people recognize now, because it happenedso late in Thutmose III’s reign, that it wasn’t personal animosity,” says Dorman of the rampage. “For some reason, Thutmose III must have decided it was necessary to essentially rewrite the official record of Hatshepsut’s kingship”—which meant eradicating all traces of it to suggest that the throne had gone directly from his father to him.

While numerous theories abound, most contemporary Egyptologists agree that the effort to delete Hatshepsut’s rule had something to do with Thutmose III’s concerns about the succession of power after his death. Wasthere some threat to the legitimacy of his own son, Amenhotep II, who in fact did succeed him? Possibly. But Dorman believes that Hatshepsut’s unconventional reign may have been too successful, a dangerous precedent “best erased,” he suggests, “to prevent the possibility of another powerful female ever inserting herself into the long line of Egyptian male kings.”

The story of Hatshepsut will probably never be complete. “She’s like an iceberg,” says Joyce Tyldesley, scholar and author of the 1996 biography Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh. “On the surface we know quite a lot about her. But there’s so much we don’t know.”


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