November 3, 2020
Approximately four thousand years ago in Egypt, a pharaoh was violently attacked. This attack was not physical, but rather spiritual, as the ruler had been dead for twenty years. The attack was an act of damnatio memoriae, the damnation of memory. Someone had smashed the statues that represented the royal noble and attempted to remove the pharaoh’s name and identity from history. Who was this pharaoh, and what sort of decisions had the pharaoh made, and what sort of actions were taken while on the throne, to make somebody so furious? The reason behind this violent attack was because the pharaoh who suffered the damnation of memory was Hatshepsut, and she was a woman. According to traditional Egyptian society, she should have never been Pharaoh, and it wasn’t until about one hundred years ago that anyone even knew of Hatshepsut.1
Our story begins in Egypt, one of the most powerful of the ancient empires. The position of Pharaoh was more than just a king in the Egyptian world. A Pharaoh controlled most of the Egyptian land and controlled its military. In addition to these responsibilities, pharaohs built many temples, granaries, barges, pyramids, sculptures, as the more items that were built during one’s reign, the more surface area that the pharaoh had, essentially etching their lineage and triumphs as rulers. Building things during their time on the throne ruling was important because it was believed in Egyptian tradition that eternal life after death was dependent on a form of memory of the pharaoh that would continue existing in the real world. Thus, all the elaborate statues, temples, and tombs that are known about and still exist in modern times were initially built to guarantee that the spirits of the pharaohs lived forever, being kept in the memories of the living in further generations.2
The most straightforward way to gain the role of pharaoh was to be born the eldest son of the current pharaoh and queen. However, this was not as easy as it sounds. Pharaohs were polygamous, meaning they were married to several wives, but only one wife was considered to be the ruling queen. Additionally, a harem would be kept by the pharaohs. This harem was not royal and was considered to be “low-born.” If the queen had not given birth to a son by the time the land of Egypt needed a new pharaoh, a son from one of the women in the harem would be eligible to become heir. Thus, the system could become messy, as is evidenced in the case of our protagonist, Hatshepsut.3
Hatshepsut’s father was a man named Thutmose I. He was a charismatic man and according to texts, an effective leader. At the beginning his reign in 1500 B.C.E., he was a driven and focused military man who expanded the Egyptian kingdom by force. When King Thutmose I died, even though Hatshepsut was the child of Thutmose I and Queen Ahmose, the throne was not passed to Hatshepsut, but rather to Thutmose II. Thutmose II was in bad health at the time of his father’s death and his mother was not a royal; she was a secondary wife to Thutmose I.4
However, the story only gets more conventional from here. In Egyptian custom, it was not bizarre, or uncommon, for royal children to marry their siblings. At twelve years old, Hatshepsut married her half-brother Thutmose II, who had just been given the new role of pharaoh. Hatshepsut had given birth to a daughter before her husband had died, so the throne then again was passed to a son, not to Hatshepsut. The kingdom of Egypt was then to be ruled by Thutmose III. However, there was a problem naming Thutmose III king. He was only a baby at the time. Thus, Egypt needed someone to take over the throne and serve as regent while waiting for Thutmose III to mature and learn the skills he needed in order to become a strong leader. Because Thutmose III was a non-royal and Hatshepsut had been a royal since birth, she then acted as queen regent.5
During Hatshepsut’s first few years as acting ruler, everything was going according to plan and running smoothly. Thutmose III learned and grew while Hatshepsut took care of the work and looked after the land of Egypt. However, before Thutmose’s eighth birthday, Hatshepsut had proposed a promotion to Thutmose III and the elites of ancient Egypt. She wanted to become Thutmose III’s co-pharaoh.6
Thutmose and the elites of Egypt approved of the progressive idea and Hatshepsut was then made co-pharaoh of Egypt. Yet, this was not an innocent plan. While in position as queen regent, Hatshepsut had chosen talented non-royals to step into the leading positions of her regime and composed the new Egyptian leadership under Hatshepsut, rather than having individuals from elite families with questionable loyalty in such coveted and powerful positions. Thus, in order to sustain their positions, Hatshepsut had to stay ruling on the throne. However, holding on to the title as pharaoh was not an automatic given that Hatshepsut had to obtain and keep the loyalty and trust of the Egyptian people. She acquired this loyalty by launching an ambitious public infrastructure project.7
Ancient Egyptian infrastructure was different from the roads and buildings that some modern societies may have today. For example, during her reign, Hatshepsut had commissioned the construction of some of the largest Egyptian obelisks ever constructed, towering at one hundred feet tall. One hundred feet may not seem so tall today, but keep in mind, obelisks were made out of one solid piece of stone and some were built and erected by hand, without the convenience of modern technology and building tools. In addition to her building of obelisks, Hatshepsut oversaw the construction of one of the most impressive buildings to ever exist in the ancient world, an impressive temple at Deir el-Bahiri.8
This temple consisted of pools and gardens at its lower levels, and over one hundred giant statues of the pharaoh herself could be found throughout the temple. The walls were covered with inscriptions that illustrated and glorified Hatshepsut’s achievements as a ruler. Apart from building, Hatshepsut intended to establish and reinforce the legitimacy of her rule as Pharaoh by establishing her brand. She achieved this by not only changing her name, but also by changing her gender and adding an element of mythology to the story of her birth. Hatshepsut ensured that through Egypt, people believed that her mother had become pregnant by the god Aman, who had taken on the appearance of her father. She also changed her name to Maatkare; maat meaning truth, ka meaning soul, and Re the sun god. Hatshepsut also wanted to start being depicted as a man. Overall, she went through quite a transformation during her rule.9
Although in early statues and carvings Hatshepsut was illustrated as a woman, she later started being portrayed as a bare-chested, flail-and-hook-wielding man. This was not intended to confuse others into thinking she had been a man this whole time, but rather to emphasize that she deserved to be on the throne. Egyptian art depicted subjects not necessarily as what they actually were, but rather what they metaphorically were. Written texts conclusively confirm that Hatshepsut was a woman; she was just a woman who was depicted as a man. The reason for this gender change still remains unknown, though many have theorized that Hatshepsut was attempting to legitimize her rule.10
While Hatshepsut was carrying out her transformation and attempting to ensure her legitimate claim to the throne, her stepson/nephew was experiencing his own transformation, that of becoming a man capable of ruling Egypt without a regent or co-pharaoh. Hatshepsut’s biggest threat to her role, and permanence, as pharaoh was Thutmose III. While in charge, Hatshepsut made sure Thutmose III would be ready for his role as pharaoh. She had him educated as a scribe, a priest, and a soldier. He excelled at being a soldier and eventually was even promoted to Commander in Chief of the army. Hatshepsut made sure Thutmose III was a well-rounded individual. Despite setting Thutmose III onto a path for eventual greatness, Hatshepsut was still focused on legitimizing her throne and increasing Egypt’s power, influence, and accomplishments.11
In 1457 B.C.E., after a long and successful twenty-two year reign, Hatshepsut died. Thutmose II was then finally able to claim and maintain his position as sole Pharaoh of ancient Egypt. All the years of learning paid off as Thutmose III would also go on to have a successful reign as pharaoh, following in his mother’s footsteps. Utilizing his skills as a military leader, Thutmose III expanded Egypt’s control by force, and made the land of Egypt one of the wealthiest empires in the ancient world. For everything Hatshepsut had achieved as pharaoh, her name should have been remembered forever. However, history tells a different story.12
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that anyone knew that Hatshepsut had ever existed. Hatshepsut’s name hadn’t been spoken or read for such a long time due to her stepson destroying all records of her existence. About twenty years after his mother’s reign, Hatshepsut’s statues, monuments, engravings of her name, and carvings had been destroyed and replaced, in all likelihood, with that of her husband, Thutmose II. In ancient Egypt, the cause of actions such as this wasn’t to simply destroy a legacy, but rather a curse to damnation.13
With no statues or monuments to remember Hatshepsut by, she would not be able to enjoy the afterlife. Why did Thutmose III try to erase Hatshepsut’s name and legacy from history? The reason for this horrible action remains a mystery to this day, leaving historians curious. Because of Thutmose III, records of Hatshepsut’s achievements had been erased and will probably never be rediscovered.14
About three thousand years after Hatshepsut’s reign, in 1903, British archeologist Howard Carter discovered a non-royal tomb, today known as KV60. Inside the tomb, the discoveries included some mummified geese, Hatshepsut’s royal wet nurse, and the mummy of another unidentified female. Another one hundred years later, in 2007, thanks to advanced technology, a CT scan confirmed that the unidentified corpse from one hundred years prior was Hatshepsut.15
Once it was confirmed that the mummy was that of Hatshepsut, tests were then performed to determine the cause of her death. The CT scans performed in 2007 depicted that Hatshepsut was in bad health at the time of her death, and according to the evidence found in her pelvic region and spine, she suffered from cancer. A vial of skin cream had been found among Hatshepsut’s possessions; this wasn’t too unusual as known cases of skin disease ran in her family.16
However, pharmacologists discovered Benzo A Pyrene, a carcinogenic substance, in the skin cream. Due to the memory of her rule being restored, Hatshepsut’s spirit can now live on for eternity.
Mrs Carolyn Balaam
In 1457 B.C.E., after a long and successful twenty-two year reign, Hatshepsut died. Thutmose II was then finally able to claim and maintain his position as sole Pharaoh of ancient Egypt. All the years of learning paid off as Thutmose III would also go on to have a successful reign as pharaoh, following in his mother’s footsteps. Slight typo after Hatshepsut died……I think that should say Thutmose III not II.
From what I have studied, Senenmut (her chief steward) was the first to be punished and erased. Possibly by Hatshepsut herself. 20 years after her death, she was removed AND eventually her daughter was also removed. But whoever did this was NOT trying to erase her from the afterlife. Depictions of her that were hidden were not destroyed, even though they should have been. Something very odd happened here and I feel that we may never know. But the removal of all three of the above people is probably not just because of her being a woman and pharaoh.
A generally well-written and informative article. A few issues though, not necessarily incorrect, but incomplete. First, Hatshepsut was neither the first nor only female pharaoh. You don’t say this in the article, but several posters inferred that. It was *rare* for a woman to become pharaoh, but not forbidden nor impossible. Hatshepsut was unique in that she took it without it being official. Second, there’s no evidence that Thutmose III destroyed her memory either intentionally or maliciously. Much of her imagery was simply removed rather than destroyed. Many of her statues that depict her as pharaoh were altered (false beards removed, uraeus serpent damaged, crown hacked out, etc.) but that was designed to take away her legitimacy as pharaoh, not to destroy her memory or cause her not to enjoy the afterlife. Evidence shows she ‘stole’ the throne (if you want to call it that) from Thutmose III, so culturally speaking, Thutmose’s actions were justified. Also, speaking of her obelisks, they were not destroyed or taken down; rather, Thutmose walled them up, which actually helped preserve them. Third, why Hatshepsut was removed 20 years into Thutmose’s reign is equally fascinating to the fact that he did it at all. If he was truly so angered by having the throne ‘stolen’ from him, one would think he’d do it immediately. However, it took a generation for that to happen. Some scholars suggest it was imposed on him by the priesthood or nobles that were mistreated by Hatshepsut during her reign. The idea here was that Thutmose ignored them for years until finally being pressured to do it. Another theory suggests Thutmose III had a scandal during his own reign and needed to divert focus away from his failings to Hatshepsut’s illegitimacy (a sort of ‘Wag the Dog’ political move). Finally, there is the most unpopular, but worthy of thought, argument. Perhaps Hatshepsut’s legacy was not as great as we believed. Her expedition to Punt looks good on temple walls, but perhaps it led to conflict or a recession. Her building programs created jobs for the people temporarily, but they were unable to utilize their constructions, which possibly led to an economic collapse (much like the pyramid building probably created in the Old Kingdom). Ultimately, we can’t know for sure, but the reality is not that Hatshepsut was a ‘poor innocent woman who mistreated by a sexist man.’ The reality was that Thutmose III was equally innocent of a woman seizing what was rightfully his based on her own greed and thirst for power. Whether her reign was beneficial is debated (and very likely it was), but her innocence is naive. Hatshepsut was like anyone who wants power: they will do what they have to to get it. Thanks for the article!
Emilia Caballero Carmona
Hey Amanda, this is such a great article! I really enjoyed reading it and learning about Hatshepsut. It was so interesting to me because I had learned about Egyptian Pharos in middle school and high school, but all of them were men. I was so surprised to learn that Hatshepsut wanted to be depicted as a man because she wanted everyone to see she was capable of and deserved the throne.