Mental Floss

Egypt’s First Great Female Pharaoh

Mark Mancini

Postdlf from w, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Everybody’s heard of King Tut. He's Egypt’s most famous pharaoh by far, with countless films and TV shows dedicated to the boy king. But if his tomb hadn’t been so nicely preserved for posterity, we’d see him as little more than a historical footnote. Before dying at age 18, Tut’s brief reign had been relatively uneventful. Throughout Egypt's long history, there were many more accomplished pharaohs that deserve such celebrity status. Among these, Hatshepsut is quite possibly the most incredible. 

Why? For starters, she was a woman. In the 15th century BCE, bona fide female rulers were almost entirely nonexistent. And even those few who appeared to be powerful generally weren’t. Before Hatshepsut came along, the evidence for female rulers is scant. There were queen regents—for which there wasn't even a word in the Egyptian language—and a few possible pharaohs, such as Sobeknefru. However, their reigns were short, and most historians don’t believe that they were particularly powerful.

Hatshepsut, on the other hand, was a force to be reckoned with. When her husband, King Thutmose II, passed away circa 1478 BCE, his only male heir was Thutmose III, who’d been born to a concubine. Since the child was too young to rule, Hatshepsut took over as his co-regent. At some point during the next seven years, she controversially went above and beyond this role by proclaiming herself pharaoh instead of handing her power over to Thutmose III—and, over the subsequent 3.5 millennia, such boldness has led many to condemn her as a usurper.

In an effort to legitimize her position of power and appease centuries of tradition, Hatshepsut took pains to masculinize her image. For example, in keeping with period custom, she was depicted with a false beard. She ordered sculptors to give some of her likenesses broader shoulders and manly chests. And she even went so far as to occasionally call herself “Hatshepsu” since, linguistically, her given name was more feminine. 

Egypt under Hatshepsut was relatively peaceful and prosperous; she engaged in little military pursuit, focusing instead on infrastructure within the nation and diplomatic ventures. The dynasty experienced increased trade under her watch by exploring such civilizations as Phonecia. Nine years into her rule, an expedition she’d organized to the mysterious land of Punt returned with droves of wood, gold, frankincense, myrrh, and even exotic animals. 

This particular episode was immortalized upon the walls of Hatshepsut’s most breathtaking project—her gorgeous, extant Djeser-Djeseru temple, which was built to glorify the great god Amun. Inside, the pharaoh’s name and likeness were proudly displayed. Or at least, they were until someone erased them. 

Hatshepsut remained in power right up to the day she died, meaning that her stepson, Thutmose III, wouldn’t become Egypt’s solitary ruler until 1458 BCE. It has been suggested that after Hatshepsut's death, Thutmose III set about spitefully chiseling out numerous references to her at the temple and elsewhere as part of an orchestrated attempt to obliterate her memory, but the timing for this sort of posthumous revenge doesn't quite line up. The destruction of Hatshepsut's various likenesses didn't occur until many years into Thutmose III's reign and continued into that of his son, Amenhotep II. The goal was likely to remove Hatshepsut from the annals of then-recent history, but not out of a particular hatred for the female pharaoh. Because Thutmose III was born to a concubine, his claim to the throne was relatively weak. He likely worried that after Hatshepsut's successful reign, her true blood relatives would stake a claim to the throne, threatening him and his descendants. By defacing her temple, Thutmose III was not trying to insult her memory, but rather protect his future authority.

Regardless of whether someone actually tried to make the world forget that Hatshepsut had ever existed, they obviously failed. And, given her amazing life story, she certainly won’t be forgotten anytime soon. After all, as historian James Henry Breasted put it, she was “the first great woman in history of whom we are informed.”