Queen Hatshepsut: A Woman’s Quest To Become A Pharaoh

by Vrinda Jain
Queen Hatshepsut: A Woman’s Quest To Become A Pharaoh

January 22, 2021

Egypt is known for its rich history and culture. It is also famous for its Pharaohs, and one such Pharaoh was Queen Hatshepsut, a first among noblewomen.

From 1479-1458 BCE, Queen Hatshepsut was the first female ruler of ancient Egypt to rule with the authority that was only granted to a male Pharaoh. She began her time in power as regent (a minister to govern until the son came of age) to her stepson, Thutmose III, who would eventually become a Pharaoh.

However, in her role as a regent, she became acquainted with power that she didn’t want to part from. With the ability and knowledge to handle the kingdom already with her, Queen Hatshepsut decided to be crowned as the Pharaoh of Egypt. Being a woman Pharaoh, she understood that she was an outsider in a man’s role.

She needed to take steps to protect herself as a monarch. For acceptance among the masses and for her protection, she chose to portray herself as god Amun’s daughter, the most influential and powerful God of the time. She was also widely referred to as ‘god’s wife’.

© Charles Hoffman - Head of Hatshepsut, Osiris Statue

Pharaoh, or God's Wife?

As God’s wife, Hatshepsut mastered the priesthood’s language and learnt the ceremonies associated with the deity. She danced and sung for God at festivals when God’s wife was meant to arouse God for the act of creation. By naming herself as the God’s daughter, she transcended her position beyond the semi-divine role of God’s ritualistic widow to that of God’s real daughter.

To further enhance her control on Egypt’s throne, she inscribed an oracle that she believed had been given long before her birth, in which Amun foretold that she would become Pharaoh.

Fragments of Seated Statue of Hatshepsut, 1929. Photograph by Harry Burton

Divine Association

While being associated with God, she became well known for the oracles. These oracles were ultimately taken so seriously that Amun became the de facto ruler of Thebes and Upper Egypt. The assertion of a prophet projecting her rise to power and authority of reign as the daughter of Amun had a significant impact on the Egyptian people.

She married her daughter to her purported successor. Queen Hatshepsut set out to rule her land by creating her dynasty. Even though she portrayed herself as closely associated with God, her problems did not end with the divine connection. She won over the Egyptian people, but to stand tall in a Pharaoh’s role, she still needed to act and dress like a ‘king’.

Queen Hatshepsut Temple is one of the most spectacular ancient Egyptian monuments in Luxor.

The King Herself

The kingship was supposed to be handed down from father to son in a hereditary fashion. The religious doctrine dictated that a woman could not appropriately execute the role of the King. But Hatshepsut managed to get over this hurdle. When her husband died, she preferred God Amun’s wife’s title over the King’s wife’s label.

Hatshepsut never hid her gender instincts in her writings; her inscriptions often used feminine endings. But in the early stages, she searched for ways to replicate the queen and monarch in her to portray herself as a victorious female sovereign.

In one seated red granite statue, Hatshepsut is seen with a woman’s unmistakable body. But with a striped Nemes headdress, a uraeus cobra, and other symbols of the King, her statue’s persona unquestionably portrays her as a queen with authority. In the sculpture, she is dressed in a typical restrictive ankle-length dress, but with her feet apart, since ‘open legs’ typify a king but are deemed unbecoming of a woman.

© tutincommon - Reliefs depicting Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt.

Reckoning With Her Gender

As the years went by, the queen deemed it better to sidestep the questions about her gender altogether. She was presented exclusively as a male ruler, in Pharaoh’s headdress, shendyt kilt, and false beard. Many of her sculptures, pictures, and texts seem to be part of a carefully calibrated publicity strategy to reinforce the legitimacy of her reign as King—and to justify her transgression.

In reliefs at Hatshepsut’s temple, she spun a fable of her accession as the fulfilment of the divine plan and proclaimed that her father, Thutmose I, had not only intended her to be King but had also been able to take part in her crowning. In the panels, the great God Amun appears before the mother of Hatshepsut disguised as Thutmose I.

From left to right: Head of the statue of Hatshepsut in 1929; after 1930 restoration; after 1979 restoration; after 1993 restoration

Hatshepsut's Legacy & Removal From History

Hatshepsut could not match her father’s conquests by leading troops into war, a position exclusively reserved for men. Instead, she took the army out of the equation. Instead of deploying forces to fight, she sent them on what had become her most proud venture: a commercial mission to the mythical land of Punt, on the southern shore of the Red Sea, where there had been no Egyptians for 500 years.

As depicted on Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple walls, the expeditionary men returned laden with gold, ivory, live myrrh trees, and with a host of exotic animals, including monkeys, panthers giraffes. The successful campaign massively advanced her reign’s prestige and popularity.

Hatshepsut did not exile Thutmose III, who was officially her co-ruler, but she overshadowed him. Her 21-year reign was a time of stability and prosperity for Egypt. She undertook large-scale construction projects, including two obelisks at Karnak and her mortuary temple, Djeser-Djeseru. She died in 1458 B.C., Thutmose III eventually took the throne for himself.

The revolutionary reign of Hatshepsut has remained a mystery for decades. Before Thutmose III died, he tried to remove Hatshepsut from the historical record by defacing her monuments and removing her name from the kings’ list. When archaeologists decoded the hieroglyphs in Deir el Bahri in 1822 and later discovered their tomb in 1903, Hatshepsut’s legacy as Egypt’s dominant female Pharaoh was uncovered for good.

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