Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, April 24, 2015

Hatshepsut, "Foremost of Noble Ladies"

Hatshepsut (assumes regency, 24 April 1479 BCE)

When I was in elementary school, I wanted passionately to be an Egyptologist, although I am not sure I knew that word at the time. I dreamed about pyramids, the Sphinx, and King Tutankhamun. I wanted to spend my life on digs, making fabulous discoveries.

I never fulfilled that long-ago dream, obviously, but I wonder now if I might have devoted myself to Egyptian studies if I had known about Hatshepsut. 

A sculpture of Hatshepsut,
Metropolitan Museum of Art
I can't remember when I first learned about the powerful female pharoah, but, then, Hatshepsut was erased from history's memory for thousands of years. She reigned from approximately 1479 to 1458 BCE, at first as a regent for Thutmose III, but eventually as co-ruler with him, and, more importantly, as the dominant partner.

Her reign was peaceful and economically prosperous. After her death, however, every effort was made to eliminate all traces of Hatshepsut--her name was removed from official records, her images were defaced, her statues were torn down.

For more than three thousand years, Hatshepsut--or, rather, knowledge of her--was gone. In the early nineteenth century, the groundbreaking French archaeologist Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, was "confused" by references to her that he discovered on the Deir el-Bahri temple walls. Through the next decades, historians continued to misread or misinterpret references to her, but in 1845 the Prussian archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius finally identified the presence of a "female Egyptian king," though he assigned her period of rule to the seventeenth, rather than the eighteenth, dynasty. It wasn't until 1875 that Hatshepsut and her "titles and principal monuments" were fully restored and correctly identified in Egyptian archaeology.

Hatshepsut's sarcophagus was discovered by Howard Carter in 1903. In 1927, the American archaeologist Herbert Winlock discovered a pit at the Deir el-Bahri temple site filled with smashed sculpture--pieces of Hatshepsut. For Winlock and his colleagues, the destruction "proved" that Egyptians "could scarcely wait to take the vengeance on her dead that [they] had not dared in life." 

Hatshepsut's beautiful colonnaded mortuary temple
at Deir el-Bahri

Most historians today do not regard the erasure of Hatshepsut as an act of personal hatred; rather, as Egyptologist Peter Dorman argues, the reign of a female pharoah may have been regarded as "a dangerous precedent," one that was "best erased" in order "to prevent the possibility of another powerful female ever inserting herself into the long line of Egyptian male kings."

There is an excellent article on Hatshepsut (one in which Dorman is quoted) published in the online version of Smithsonian; titled "The Queen Who Would Be King," you can access it by clicking here. A Discovery Channel documentary, with the same title, is available on YouTube; to link to it, click here.

There are several good biographies, but I like Joyce Tyldesley's Hatchepsut: The Female Pharoah. There is also a wonderful discussion of Hatshepsut available by podcast from BBC radio's In Our Times; you can listen by clicking here. Also on the site are links to related programs and a great reading list.