Who was Hatshepsut? Were there female pharaohs in ancient Egypt?
I owe the idea for a Woman Crush Wednesday show on Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, to my fellow history promoters at the Deviant Women podcast (check them out on your favorite podcast app or go to https://deviantwomenpodcast.com/)
Yes, you heard me correctly, Hatshepsut, the fifth _pharaoh_ of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, who reigned from c. 1478 to 1458 BC. (We usually only deal in modern history, so I need to remind you that all the date ranges I’ll be talking about today go numerically “down.”)
Like many of you, I guess I just assumed that all ancient Egyptian pharaohs were men, but that’s not true. That’s what I get for assuming. Scholars agree on the identities of three female pharaohs, and disagree somewhat about whether there were three others. But they all definitely agree that Hatshepsut was a very prominent and powerful pharaoh, who famous American archaeologist and Egyptologist James Henry Breasted called, “the first great woman in history” that we know about.
Her name means “Foremost of the Noble Ladies” and she was born in 1507 BC to King Thutmose (or Thutmosis) I. When she was 12, she married her half-brother, Thutmose II, and became regent to her stepson, Thutmose III when Thutmose II died in 1479 BC. Within seven years, however, she had more or less become pharaoh, giving herself the full powers and entitlements of that throne.
Egyptologists consider Hatshepsut one of the most powerful and successful pharaoh’s in Egyptian history. She was very successful in trade negotiations, diplomacy, and building projects. These were among the most important aspects of ancient political life. Hatshepsut stretched Egyptian trading routes and networks in northern Africa and the Middle East. Along similar lines, she built diplomatic relationships (and strengthened ones that were weak) throughout those areas, which helped stabilize Egyptian power. There are even reports that she sent a diplomatic mission to a kingdom in South Asia (in what is now India).
Perhaps the most visible evidence of her power is the hundreds of building projects she commissioned and built in Upper and Lower Egypt. It’s easy to categorize (and dismiss) her constructions as temples of glorification to the rule of the pharaohs, and to what was becoming an Egyptian empire. But doing so hides the fact that, in order to plan and build the massive tombs, obelisks, temples, and statues, Hatshepsut’s reign had to be stable and peaceful. The simple construction of these projects strongly indicates (in fact, as strongly as we can be sure of almost anything in ancient history) that she fostered and maintained a stable economy, under which they could be planned, and, of course, the creation of extensive labor forces to build them.
The physical evidence of this aspect of her reign may be seen in almost every museum in the world, at least every museum that has antiquities, that houses Egyptian statuary. They all have works from her period. In fact, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has a Hatshepsut Room, dedicated to pieces from her reign.
So the next time you’re strolling through the Met looking for glory, make sure to pay Hatshepsut her due, and tell her that Professor Buzzkill sent you. That, and enough cold, hard cash to pay for regular admission, should get you right in.
Joyce A. Tyldesley, Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh (1998).
An absorbing scholarly biography, based on a meticulous review of the archaeological record, of a remarkable woman who ruled as pharaoh for 20 years in Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty. Tyldesley works closely from surviving texts and fragmentary monuments to recreate vividly an outstanding woman of the ancient past.