One of the most successful pharaohs in Egyptian history was…a woman. GASP. Ancient history is generally the stories of men who accomplished great things being told by other men who want to tell stories about men. In the case of Hatshepsut, her story was nearly erased by a man – her own freaking stepson – who felt completely threatened by the successes of his feminine predecessor.
Hatshepsut became queen of Egypt at about the age of 12 when she married her half-brother, Thutmose II (don’t judge…it was totally normal at the time). Now, in addition to being queen, Hatshepsut was also the only offspring of her father (a pharaoh) and his ‘principal’ queen (pharaohs had MANY wives, and even as the only child of the ‘principal’ marriage, any son born from another wife still had some claim to the throne), and she would later use this to strengthen her position in the succession.
Fast forward 15 years or so to the death of her husband. Hatshepsut was a widow before the age of 30 and had failed to produce a male heir, only a daughter. The male heir to the throne, Thutmose III, was only an infant and was obviously far too young for the throne. Hatshepsut decided to serve as his regent, essentially ruling Egypt unchallenged until Thutmose III was old enough to take his place as pharaoh.
During her time as regent, though, Hatshepsut proved to be a skilled ruler, and eventually declared herself pharaoh. When Thutmose III came of age, the two were named co-rulers of the empire, though it was obvious who held real the authority. To prove her legitimacy, she began having herself depicted as a man in various artwork and statues – the king’s clothing and crown, fake beard, and even a male body.
Hatshepsut co-ruled as pharaoh for nearly two decades and enjoyed a great deal of success. Her reign is heralded by historians as a time of peace and relative prosperity. She greatly expanded Egypt’s trade and sphere of influence, grew the borders of the empire, and oversaw HUGE construction projects, most notably her temple at Deir el-Bahri. She is considered to be among the most accomplished pharaohs, especially as it pertains to building projects.
Hatshepsut died around 1458 BCE, possibly due to complications from either diabetes or bone cancer, having left an amazing and obvious legacy as one of the most accomplished females in ancient history. She was buried in Thebes, at the Valley of the Kings, as all pharaohs of the time were. But her stepson, Thutmose III, had a different take on her achievements…he wanted them to be his.
Thutmose III went on to rule about three more decades, and he did firmly establish his own legacy. He adopted his stepmother’s policy of undertaking massive building projects, and was a successful warrior. About two decades into his reign, though, Thutmose III got to work completely erasing her from the history of Egypt, ordering his men to destroy her statues and scrape her name and all references to her reign out of the hieroglyphic histories preserved on temple walls
A cartouche is a hieroglyph reserved for highlighting when a pharaohs name is used…this is what was removed, as you can see above.
Historians have multiple theories regarding Thutmose’s motivation for doing this. Some say he was furious at Hatshepsut for stealing his time as pharaoh earlier on. Others argue that Thutmose III was trying to prop up his own son’s rule and strengthen the legacy of his own family line. One final theory, also plausible, is the idea that it was actually Thutmose III’s son, Amenhotep II, who ordered all of this – it has been proven that Amenhotep II often tried to take credit for a number of Hatshepsut’s achievements.
The campaign of Hatshepsut’s successor(s) to erase her legacy was pretty darn successful, as historians knew virtually nothing about her until 1822, when her temple at Deir el-Bahri was discovered. Her temple displayed some of the only remaining intact references to her reign – preserved cartouches and statues. Her tomb was discovered in 1903, but it was empty, as most of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were. Egyptologists launched a new search in 2005 and discovered her mummy in 2007, and it is now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Hatshepsut was a powerful woman who made a way for herself in a man’s world, and, even at the time, she was completely aware of the significance of her situation. One of her obelisks outside the temple at Karnak contained the following statement in hieroglyphics: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”