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Hatshepsut: Egypt's Forgotten Female Pharaoh, Re-examined

Attempts to destroy her legacy have been unsuccessful.

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  • The Seated Statue of Hatshepsut after its restoration.Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

If you’ve heard of Queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra, but not Hatshepsut, you’re not alone. Hatshepsut was an exceptional ruler of Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty, from c. 1473 to 1458 BCE. Although all three women named above were powerful, only Hatshepsut was such a great ruler that her successor was jealous of her even after her death. So much so that he defaced her temples and monuments and inscribed his own insignia on top of them. 

In fact, details of Hatshepsut’s existence and rule were pieced together millennia later, when a goatherd stumbled into a royal cache. In this makeshift storage tomb, priests who were contemporaries of Hatshepsut had stored her treasures (and her body) along with other items they feared would be looted. They hid it so well that it remained hidden for over 2,000 years—but let’s rewind and start this narrative at the beginning of her life.

Hatshepsut was the eldest daughter of Pharaoh Thutmose I and Ahmes, his Great Wife (the title given to the principal spouse of a pharaoh). If Hatshepsut had been male, she would have been first in line to inherit the throne. Hatshepsut was 12 years old when Thutmose I died, and because Ahmes did not have a son, the royal family had to make some decisions we would, today, find despicable.

The royal family observed the tradition of consolidating power, and they did so by marrying Hatshepsut to her half-brother, Thutmose II. Thutmose II was the eldest son of the late Pharaoh Thutmose I and one of his many secondary wives. Thutmose II died young, too. He and Queen Hatshepsut only had one daughter together.

The throne followed the lineage, and his infant son, Thutmose III, who was born to one of his secondary wives, inherited the throne. Hatshepsut became the queen regent, acting as ruler until her stepson and half-nephew (the same person) came of age to rule. 

Hatshepsut sent Thutmose III to military school, where he learned to be a powerful leader. In the seventh year of her rule as proxy/regent, though, she apparently tired of ruling in all but title: Hatshepsut broke with tradition and crowned herself pharaoh of Egypt. The power grab was not unanimously well received.

However, historian Joshua J. Mark says that Hatshepsut’s reign was “the most prosperous and peaceful in Egypt’s history,” and credits her with “successful trade, a booming economy, and many public works projects.'' Specifically, she launched a trading expedition that included far-off imports like ivory, ebony, gold, leopard skins, and incense. Historian Elizabeth B. Wilson states that Hatshepsut was also responsible for several “ambitious building projects,” like her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri (located very close to where the goatherd would later find the royal cache), and two 100-foot-tall obelisks at the Karnak temple. 

The construction of those obelisks was no joke, either—they are a truly remarkable architectural innovation. Artisans painstakingly chiseled the shapes horizontally from limestone quarries in Upper Egypt. They used ramps of wet sand and the strength of elephants to drag the 450-ton monuments onto boats. Then, when the annual Nile flood came, the water lifted the boats. With the help of 850 oarsmen, the obelisks were carried downstream to the temple at Karnak. Upon their arrival, workers had already measured and dug a foundation for the obelisks, and when the Nile waters subsided, more elephants dragged them up new ramps of wet sand, where they were carefully dropped into place. 

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  • Fragments of Seated Statue of Hatshepsut, 1929.

    Photo Credit: Harry Burton via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Perhaps even more importantly than these marvels, though, was the fact that even though Hatshepsut kept the army at peak efficiency, her entire reign is marked as peacetime.

Hatshepsut died in her mid-40s and was buried in the Valley of the Kings. To further engrave her legacy into history, she had her father, Pharaoh Thutmose I, disinterred and reburied alongside her. So with all these measures for her posterity in place, what took contemporary culture so long to remember Hatshepsut? As is the case with any tale from ancient Egypt, death is far from the end of one’s story. 

First off, when Howard Carter discovered one of three of Hatshepsut’s sarcophagi in 1903, it was empty. When Herbert Winlock, head archaeologist of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian team, unearthed the temple complex at Deir el-Bahri in 1927, he saw complete desecration. Of the statues of Hatshepsut, Elizabeth Wilson writes that their “eyes had been gouged out, heads lopped off, the cobra-like symbol of royalty hacked from foreheads.”

Despite her undeniable success—or perhaps because of it—Thutmose III destroyed evidence of Hatshepsut's reign after her death. He erased her name from public monuments and had his own image engraved over hers. Thutmose III even went so far as to backdate his reigning years, attributing Hatshepsut’s accomplishments to himself instead. 

While Hatshepsut reigned, she had given Thutmose III supreme command of the military. He had not been languishing at court; rather, he led armies on successful conquest campaigns. But why did he desecrate her monuments? There are many theories here: he may have wanted to eliminate her example as a powerful female ruler, or to “close the gap in the dynasty’s line of male succession”. Nearly all of the official theories are rooted in misogyny and jealousy. Plus, a veritable soap opera emerged around the life of the woman king, displaying her as power hungry, lusty woman who was perhaps murdered in vengeance by her stepson.

Thutmose III did not, however, erase Hatshepsut completely from her mortuary temple as that would have denied her memorialization, and the ancient Egyptians believed that they lived on through being remembered. 

Scholar Joshua J. Mark says,

"Although Thutmose III seems to have ordered this extreme measure, there is no evidence of any enmity between him and his step-mother, and significantly, he left relatively untouched the story of her divine birth and expedition to Punt inside her mortuary temple; only public mention of her was erased. This would indicate that he did not harbor Hatshepsut any ill will personally but was attempting to eradicate any overt evidence of a strong female pharaoh."

Nonetheless, in two generations, Hatshepsut had been forgotten, only to be rediscovered in the mid-19th century with the decoding of hieroglyphics enabled by the Rosetta Stone.

In fact, the actual mummy of Hatshepsut was not discovered until 2007. It was only then, thousands of years after her life, that we learned her cause of death was a tooth abscess. The tooth itself was the only evidence to identify the mummy as Hatshepsut: the extracted molar was located in a wooden box with Hatshepsut’s name on it.

If you ever have the chance to visit the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, you can look at a scale model in the antechamber that displays each of the pharaoh's tombs. It’s a sign of power and prosperity to even have a tomb, as artisans began work on its construction at coronation and did not stop until the ruler died. The longer the corridor and deeper the tomb, the more powerful the pharaoh was. The deepest tomb is 200 meters from its entrance, and the burial chamber is 97 meters below the surface. This tomb, deeper than every pharaoh buried in the Valley of the Kings, is that of the woman Pharaoh Hatshepsut.