‘His Majesty, Herself’ – Hatshepsut, Egypt’s Most Powerful Female Pharaoh

Hatshepsut was the fifth Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, ruling Egypt from 1473 to 1458 BCE. There are two fascinating stories I want to talk about her today. One deals with how we perceive who she was and what she did, and how that narrative was built. The second is the story of how her mummy was identified.

Before we tell the stories, a quick history of “His Majesty, Herself. ” Hatshepsut was the daughter of Thutmose I, a warrior king who sailed back victoriously from one of his campaigns with the body of one of the chieftains he had defeated hanging from the prow of his ship. While she was clearly her father’s favorite, her dad and mom had no male heir. As was the custom of the time, a son from another wife, Hatshepsut’s half-brother, was named Pharaoh, and Hatshepsut was married to him. This was Thutmose II, a Pharaoh who had an unremarkable time on the throne. Again, Hatshepsut and Thutmose II did not have a male heir, so a son by another wife, Isis, was deemed to be the heir apparent, Thutmose III. This child was a mere infant when Thutmose II passed on, leaving Hatshepsut to reign as regent. However, after seven years of regency, Hatshepsut took the unprecedented step of declaring herself Pharaoh. In Egypt, there was no provision for a woman to be Pharaoh – so much so that everything associated with the Pharaoh was styled male. Not merely the title, but the clothes of a Pharaoh were male – and Hatshepsut adopted them when she took on the title. The nemes (the striped head-dress), the false beard, and the kilt – all of these were male, and we see Hatshepsut adorned in them. This is also the reason we have an inscription that calls her, “His Majesty, Herself.”

She proved to be an able ruler, and one of Egypt’s most powerful and influential Pharaohs. She ushered in an age of peace and resumed trade with the mysterious land of Punt. Her mortuary temple at Deir-el-Bahri was the crowning achievement of a golden age of building, and hers was the first magnificent tomb that paved the way for the Valley of Kings to be chosen by Pharaohs after her to be their final resting place. Her mortuary temple is a perfect example of the golden ratio, a thousand years before the Parthenon was built. Her obelisks were the tallest monuments in all the world. The statuary of her time was so prolific that every major collection of Egyptian artifacts in the world has representations from her time.

While she was Pharaoh, her stepson and Pharaoh in waiting, Thutmose III, grew up learning the art of warfare. When she passed on, Thutmose III went on to become the most militarily accomplished of the Pharaohs, whose tactics are taught in military schools today.

A Sphinx of Hatshepsut

The Story of her Story

The name and history of Hatshepsut was largely unknown till the early 19th century. Once her story was unearthed, the archaeologists – all of them middle-aged male ‘gentlemen’ – put together a story of unscrupulous ambition, blind lust for power and treachery towards her own stepson. Hatshepsut, they said, stole Thutmose III’s birthright. Her lust for power and her willingness to hold on to it made her take Senenmut, a highly influential courtier, as lover, and together they schemed to make her Pharaoh. They interpreted her being depicted in a Pharaoh’s clothes as ‘unnatural’ cross-dressing, and made her out to be, in the words of a historian, the “vilest type of usurper.” This seems to have stemmed from their inability to accept that a woman can be a natural ruler, who can do what she deems best for her country. They also gleefully point to the fact that Thutmose III ordered all traces of her to be erased – during his reign, her statues were destroyed, her name was chiseled off the temples she had built and all records were amended to edit her out. The narrative was fixed and one of the most powerful and influential Pharaohs was cast as an evil villain.

Subsequent research and discoveries pointed out that Thutmose III did not carry out the destruction of her name until after the 20th year of his reign – which meant his reasons had more to do with ensuring a smooth accession for his son Amenhotep II than with any personal animosity towards his stepmother. Gradually a newer narrative emerged. Hatshepsut was a loyal guardian of the Pharaonic line entrusted to her. Her assuming Pharaohship would have countered any threats to the royal line from would-be usurpers who thought a toddler Pharaoh with a woman regent could be toppled easily. It also provided Egypt with a strong and wise ruler who presided over a prosperous and peaceful time. Once she became the Pharaoh, she could no longer count herself as having the blessings of the goddesses like the male Pharaoh’s would, but had to take her place amongst them as the Wife of God. That legitimized her as the true ruler of Egypt, but it also made stepping down in favor of Thutmose III impossible. Once you were a God, there was no way to un-God yourself!

This the fascinating story of how research and new discoveries add to our understanding of history, and allow us to strip away prejudiced narratives of our ancestors resulting from our own built-in beliefs.

Face to face with Hatshepsut

If you go the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and proceed to the Royal Mummies room, you can come face to face with the great Pharaoh Hatshepsut herself! This is definitely one of the most goose-bump-inducing things you can do in your life – stand in the presence of such a person! Of course, she is no longer as pretty as she is in her sculptures. She is a bit obese, and the millennia have not been kind to her, regardless of the best efforts of her embalmers.

The second story today tells us how this mummy was identified. When the sarcophagus of Hatshepsut was first found, it was empty, with no clue as to where her mummy was. This was not surprising – from the time the Pharaohs buried themselves with vast amounts of precious goods, there have been people looking to steal the treasures. So every now and then, there have been attempts to safeguard the mummies by the then-ruling Pharaohs. During the time of the 21st dynasty (1069 to 945 BCE), many of the earlier mummies were reburied in different tombs to prevent them from being stolen. It is possible that Hatshepsut’s mummy was removed from her sarcophagus at this time, and placed in a less obvious grave.

In 1989, a grave in the Valley of Kings, KV60, was re-excavated by an Americam academic. He found a sarcophagus with a mummy in it, and a naked mummy on the floor next to it. From the markings on the sarcophagus, the mummy inside it was identified as Hatshepsut’s wet nurse. After carefully documenting what was there, the tomb was sealed up. Twenty years later, Dr, Zahi Hawass, perhaps the most well-known modern Egyptologist today, reopened the tomb and had the mummies brought to the Egyptian museum. They were then scanned using the latest technologies, and this lead the astonishing discovery that the naked mummy on the floor was actually Hatshepsut. This was proved, quite like a modern detective story, by the fact that a box discovered in Hatshepsut’s tomb with her liver in it (a common practice during mummification) also had a tooth in it.

Analysis of the mummy had revealed that she had died of bone cancer and that she had a missing tooth. Researchers were able to match the tooth in Hatshepsut’s tomb to a gap in the mummy’s jaw, proving almost conclusively that this is Hatshepsut herself!

In the picture: Painted limestone head of Hatshepsut from her temple at Deir-el-Bahari