'First Great Lady of the World' Brought Egypt Peace and Wealth

Front Page / Jul. 24, 2011 2:27pm EDT

By Chris Constanzo

She lived about 3500 years ago, and she reigned firmly and competently for 22 years over what may have then been the richest and largest empire in the world at that time. Her dominions extended from what is today southern Turkey down through Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Egypt, and the Sudan. 

Never before had the world seen a female sovereign of such a large realm, nor one who ruled so long. For that reason Queen Hatshepsut is considered the first great woman in history. 

Her parents were a king of Egypt, Thutmose I, and his consort Queen Ahmose, herself of royal descent. She had two brothers, but they died young. Since custom decreed that only a male could succeed to the throne, her father begot as an heir a son by another woman. Nevertheless, various narratives of the time suggest that Thutmose I doted on his daughter and gave her an education and training in kingship. It is known that when she grew up he associated her with his rule, giving her the powerful title of “God’s Wife.”  

Her illegitimate half brother, Thutmose II, succeeded to the throne when her their father died, and she married him. (The ancient Egyptians considered sibling marriage among royals desirable to reinforce the essence of divine royalty in their successors.) Thus she became Queen Consort rather than direct heiress to the throne, and she continued to play an important role in governing the kingdom.

She took the name Hatshepsut, which means “First Great Lady” by which she is most commonly known in history. She and Thutmose II had two daughters, but no sons. Thutmose II, like his father, required a male heir to succeed him, so he followed his father’s example and sired a son by another women. Hatshepsut became the baby’s step-mother.

  Thutmose II, who was sickly, died a relatively young man, and his illegitimate son, still a small child, succeeded him as Thutmose III. Hatshepsut, as his stepmother, became regent to rule in his name until he came of age. But it must have rankled her to play second fiddle once again by deferring to male prerogatives regarding the royal succession, especially since she was intelligent, well-educated, experienced in government, and the only legitimate, full-blooded royal in the family.

Shortly, a mighty and very revolutionary thought occurred to her. She decided to become the ruler in her own right. She had herself crowned “king” of Egypt and took an official throne name of Maatkara, which roughly means “Order and Balance with God.”

In deference to custom, she allowed herself to be depicted as a man, complete with a beard as worn by a king, and she was referred to as “he” rather than “she.” But it clearly irritated her. She started to have herself referred to in the feminine form, and soon statues and paintings appeared depicting her as a woman, with a distinctly female body. One must conclude that Hatshepsut was proud of her womanhood.

Accomplishments

As ruler of Egypt, Hatshepsut’s accomplishments were undeniable. Early in her reign she sent successful military expeditions abroad to consolidate Egyptian power north to the Near East, west to Libya, and south to Nubia (now the Sudan). It is believed she led some of them personally. In fact, her advisers wanted to add the epithet “The Strong Bull” to her name, but instead she had herself depicted as “The Great Lioness.” 

Despite her early military accomplishments, she dedicated most of her formidable energy and talent to ensure Egypt’s economic prosperity and national beautification. Although Egyptian policy for centuries was to preserve economic self-sufficiency, Hatshepsut believed it worthwhile to seek commercial relations with the outside world. She sent trading expeditions into neighboring lands and countries deep in Africa. An expedition to Somalia brought back hordes of riches in the form of spices and other luxuries, as well as trees to be transplanted in Egypt.

With the growing wealth that her country was accumulating during her peaceful and orderly rule, she carried out a great building program throughout her realm, as particularly seen in a her great temple at Deir el-Bahri, whose majestic ruins still stand.

How Did She Do It?

How did she accomplish her feats of power and sovereignty in the male-dominated world of remote antiquity? 

  Her education and competence were probably very evident to the key leaders of her kingdom, and she had gained important supporters when she assisted her father and then her husband in their own reigns. She certainly had the support of important male officials in the court, including the powerful priests of the god Amun-Ra, whom she claimed as her divine father. Her name was usually written “Hatshepsut Who Embraces Amun.”

In addition she was of stunning presence, described in contempory accounts as “a maiden beautiful and blooming.” One courtier noted that “to look upon her was more beautiful than anything.” Indeed, her depictions show a cool, confident, slender, lovely young woman with a kind, benevolent gaze that might indeed have melted the heart of many a grizzled warrior or court official.

Hatshepsut was keenly aware of the anomaly of a female “king,” and was sensitive to the need for popular support. She embarked on a large-scale and very effective propaganda effort to emphasize her divine origin, and to remind her subjects of the peace, prosperity, and stability of her reign. 

In becoming a reigning queen, however, Hatshepsut did not dethrone her stepson, Thutmose III. Instead she recognized him as joint monarch, but relegated him to a secondary position. In depictions of them standing together, his crowned image is usually placed behind her own, emphasizing his secondary role. 

During his earlier years she kept him out of sight by making him a priest of Amun, but she also took care that he got a royal education in both administration and in war, and she married him to one of her daughters. When he was old enough, she made him head of the army. It was clear that she expected him to continue as sole king after her, 

The End of Her Reign 

Until recently nobody knew how Hatshepsut ended her reign. After 22 years on the throne she seems to have vanished from the records. Inscriptions have now been found to confirm the date of her death as 1458 BC, when she would have been in her fifties. Thutmose III then became sole king.

After her reign, many of her monuments were defaced, and her name was chipped away where carved in stone. It was long assumed that an angry Thutmose III did it to obliterate the memory of his step-mother who had dared to ascend to the throne and held him back for so long. Historians even speculated that he had led an uprising against her and had her killed or removed. 

Modern scholarship now casts doubt on that opinion. It has shown that Thutmose III became head of the army long before the end of Hatshepsut’s reign, and could have removed Hatshepsut much earlier. Furthermore, it is now clear that the obliteration of her name occurred near the end of his own reign. 

It is now thought that the defacement may have been done by his own son and successor, Amenophis II, for complex religious reasons involving his own full ancestry and legitimacy, that may have required a belief that Hatshepsut had never ruled in her own right.

Four years ago, a mummy was discovered that is almost certainly that of Hatshepsut. Forensic analysis reveals that indeed she died in her fifties. She had diabetes, a large and debilitating abscess in her jaw, and bone cancer that had spread throughout her body. It would seem that she died of natural causes, and that sole power then passed peacefully to Thutmose III, her co-ruler, stepson and son-in-law, whose education, training and succession this formidable queen was careful to ensure.

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