Hatshepsut’s rise to power as a female pharaoh during the early period of New Kingdom Egypt sparked controversy, but she effectively promoted herself during her reign. However, the reasons behind her actions are still uncertain, leading to speculation about whether she adhered to tradition like her predecessor or succumbed to the temptation of self-promotion.
Hatshepsut enhanced the financial condition of Egypt and implemented ambitious endeavors in construction and trade expeditions, all of which ensured Egypt’s prosperity and Hatshepsut’s hold on power. Her reign as pharaoh can be deemed an anomaly, as it was controversial due to her gender. Her acceptance may have been further boosted by her own self-promotion. Hatshepsut presented herself as both male and female, frequently highlighting her connection to Amun-Re and her father Thutmose I.
Despite the controversy surrounding her relationship with Senemut, which may have contributed to the downfall of her reign, Hatshepsut’s ascension to power is what makes her rule incredibly intriguing. For over a millennium, Egypt had been exclusively governed by men until Hatshepsut broke that tradition. Born into a position of authority as the daughter of the esteemed pharaoh Thutmose I and Aahames, both from royal backgrounds, Hatshepsut’s rise to power was unique.
After the death of Thutmose I, his only surviving son from a commoner took over as pharaoh to establish his authority. To ensure his legitimacy, he married his half-sister Hatshepsut. However, Ray argues that the king may have been concerned about his wife’s ambitions, as her name meant “foremost of the noble ladies.” According to Ray, Hatshepsut had significant aspirations before she ascended to the throne.
Despite the fact that Hatshepsut had a strong desire to rule, as shown by her early scenes dutifully following her partner, this eventually changed and she sought sole power. However, her co-regency with her partner was far from equal, as depicted in various conventional temple scenes from Deir el Bahri. According to Ray (1994), it was necessary for Hatshepsut to be portrayed as a male ruler in order to maintain the traditional icon of a pharaoh.
In sculpture, Hatshepsut is depicted as a female figure who possesses an imperial air, featuring the distinctive Tuthmosid face and arched profile. Her portraits were easily recognizable. This shift from male to female representation in art highlights the intriguing aspect of her reign, suggesting Hatshepsut’s increased confidence and secure position as a ruler. However, there is limited information available about the period of co-rule with Thutmose II, and it can be debated whether it is of significant importance.
(Hurley, 2008) Hatshepsut, the wife of Thutmose II, used her lineage from Thutmose I and her connection to Amun to assert her right to the throne. This threatened Thutmose II’s position as he saw her ambitions as a challenge. It is possible that Hatshepsut’s promotion of herself as the chosen heir was propaganda to justify her becoming pharaoh after Thutmose II’s death. With her status as a pharaoh’s daughter and prominent royal wife, she believed she had a stronger claim than Thutmose III, who was born from a concubine. As a result, Thutmose III became pharaoh at the age of ten.
While Thutmose III was too young to rule, Hatshepsut served as regent and eventually declared herself pharaoh. She successfully governed Egypt until her untimely death in her twenty-second year of reign on the tenth day of the sixth month. Sadly, Thutmose III later chose to erase his aunt’s memory by launching a campaign against her legacy.
Hatshepsut’s remarkable character or her resemblance to previous female rulers is notable. For a long time, officials have recognized Hatshepsut as “the excellent seed of a God,” (Lawless, 1996). It is widely acknowledged that Hatshepsut herself strongly promoted these beliefs through her temple Deir el Bahri. She not only affirms her rightful succession to the throne as her father’s heir but also declares herself as Amun’s daughter. Therefore, it can be inferred that Thutmose III did not share this belief and consequently tried to erase her from history. There are indications of other female rulers in the annals of dynastic Egypt.
According to Ray (1994), male society viewed female pharaohs as unnatural and believed that they would bring decline and punishment. Hatshepsut confirmed these beliefs when she went beyond her role as regent for Thutmose III and became the crowned pharaoh. It is not clear why she took this step when she already had immense power. Ray (1994) points out that while Egyptian society granted exceptional freedoms and legal rights to women, these freedoms had their limits, even along the Nile. Hatshepsut was able to justify her assumed power by claiming she was chosen by the gods. However, it is likely that she used this claim to conceal her insecurities as a woman in a society dominated by men.
At her temple Deir el Bahri, particularly in the Middle Colonnade, such scenes have been carved depicting these claims. Amun declared, “Khnemer-Amun-Hatshepsut shall be the name of this my daughter, whom I have placed in your body… she shall exercise the excellent kingship in this whole land. My soul is hers, my bounty is hers, my crown is hers, that she may rule the two lands” (Lawless, 1996). This evidence played a significant role in Hatshepsut’s bid for the throne, along with the necessary support from key courtiers to establish the bureaucracy and vast civil services. These supporters may have originated from her father and husband’s administrations in the Amun Priesthood, where she was already well-known as God’s wife Amun.
Hatshepsut needed the support of influential men to overcome the societal barriers she faced as a woman attempting to claim the throne. Despite this challenge, her reign as pharaoh in ancient Egypt was seen as successful. After establishing control, she embarked on ambitious construction projects, risky trade expeditions to unknown territories like Punt, and implemented reforms in the religious realm. This had a significant impact on Egypt, despite her being seen as an unusual anomaly due to her status as a female ruler in the 18th dynasty (Ray, 1994).
Hatshepsut’s reign has been viewed from different perspectives within the field of Egyptology. However, according to Roebuck (1966), her achievements as pharaoh are undermined by the constitutional aspects of her succession and co-regency. It is believed that Hatshepsut’s reliance on propaganda to strengthen her power may have contributed to this undermining. She held the title of “Hatshepsut the female Horus,” which was unconventional, and her kingship was dependent on both mythological and political support. In fact, she did not differentiate between the two.
According to Ray (1994), there may have been a third element at work in Hatshepsut’s reign, a personal one to prove her worth as a pharaoh. Additionally, Hatshepsut’s voyage to Punt allowed for the establishment of new trade links between Egypt and inner Africa, which confirmed her authority. As Hurley (2008) explains, this verified her position as Egypt was prospering and on the cusp of its greatest achievements in both internal and foreign affairs. Another notable aspect of her reign was the apparent lack of military activity, as pointed out by Ray (1994). It is worth noting that Hatshepsut focused on the internal development of Egypt and commercial enterprise, while Thutmose III focused on external expansion and military enterprise.
“Hatshepsut’s reign shows inconsequential indications of campaigns to Nubia” (Hurley, 2008). This lack of military expeditions may suggest her attempt to adopt a pacifist and feminine approach in Ancient Egyptian politics, or it could indicate that Hatshepsut simply did not trust the army. If she were to lead a campaign herself, the consequences of defeat would be attributed to her as a female commander (Clayton, 2006) (Ray, 1994). To conceal this perceived lack of military activity, the voyage to Punt was utilized as an exercise for the underemployed army. Regardless of the extent of her reign, Hatshepsut made a point of highlighting her prosperous and illustrious rule as pharaoh.
Hatshepsut’s accomplishments and her relationships with the gods were showcased in these publications. She implemented reforms in religious policies, including important developments related to gods like Amun, divine oracles, personal piety, kingship ideology, and religious festivities. Hatshepsut took great pride in these achievements. However, there is a chance that she was merely another pharaoh pretending to be superior. Many pharaohs before and after her built monuments for themselves and claimed to be practically deities. It is possible that Hatshepsut was no different from her predecessors in this aspect. Despite this possibility, Hatshepsut was known for being a generous employer towards those who faithfully served her.
The people who were tempted to deceive their mistress were warned about the consequences. This warning can be found in an inscription on the third terrace of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri: “he who pays homage to her will live, but he who speaks evil in blasphemy of her Majesty will die.” This coercion helped Hatshepsut maintain her dominance for a long period of time. Additionally, her hold on power may have been reinforced by the gradual disappearance of her father’s advisors. As a result, most of her supporters were newcomers who had no ties to the traditional aristocracy and little loyalty to conventional patronage.
Hatshepsut’s relationship with Senemut was controversial and influential, just like her relationship with her viziers. This aspect of her reign supports the idea that she was determined to hold onto power. Bedez supports this idea by stating that Hatshepsut did not have any children with Thutmose II and that her daughter Neferure was most likely the daughter of Senemut, who was Thutmose’s lover. Some Egyptologists believe that Hatshepsut and Senemut may have been lovers, but this part of her rule was kept hidden as it was considered immoral for a pharaoh to have a relationship with a commoner. Additional evidence for this theory comes from a graffito found in an unfinished tomb in Deir el-Bahri, which shows a person in pharaonic regalia engaged in a explicit sexual act from behind with a second person of ambiguous gender.
According to Hawass (2007), the graffito depicts a figure wearing a royal headdress, suggesting it could be viewed as political satire. This interpretation highlights the notion that Hatshepsut was unable to exercise authority over a man, in contrast to her current state of being dominated. However, it might also reflect the prejudice that an extraordinary woman like her couldn’t accomplish remarkable feats without a male companion. Nonetheless, these perspectives are hard to dismiss considering Hatshepsut’s fame as a prominent female figure in the 18th dynasty.
Despite the controversies and intrigues surrounding Hatshepsut’s ascension to power as pharaoh, her reign was marked by a period of peace and prosperity. There are no records indicating any threats from foreign lands during her rule, making military campaigns unnecessary. Instead, she focused on an ambitious construction project and implemented religious reforms within her realm. The controversies surrounding Hatshepsut’s reign still captivate historians, particularly regarding whether she used self-promotion and propaganda to solidify her position on the throne – a question that remains unanswered. While recognizing the undeniable impact of Hatshepsut’s influence, it is uncertain if feminists will rediscover her achievements or if her contemporaries and successors will continue to overlook her rule.