Hatshepsut: The Pharaoh Who Rewrote Gender Roles in Ancient Egypt


Statue of Hatsheput and photo of her tomb main

Travel back to ancient Egypt, and meet the captivating Hatshepsut, a trailblazing figure born in 1504 BCE. In her twenties, she assumed the role of regent to the two-year-old pharaoh Thutmose III, defying the age-old norms that dictated Egyptian pharaohs had to be men. Hatshepsut, an audacious and determined leader, publicly presented herself as a male pharaoh to assert her authority. Her reign, spanning two decades, brought about a golden era marked by ambitious building projects and prosperous trade routes. Later her stepson, Thutmose III, attempted to erase her legacy. Yet, history refuses to forget this unique man/woman pharaoh, ensuring that Hatshepsut’s story continues to inspire and intrigue.

Pharaohs Of Egypt

Ancient Egypt was a significant regional power for thousands of years. 

The leader of Egypt was known as the pharaoh (“great house”), who was both the religious and political leader of society. The pharaoh was a sort of middleman between the gods and humans.  

The term “middleman” is advisedly used because pharaohs were men. Women sometimes served as short-term regents while male heirs reached maturity. Cleopatra, the last pharaoh, is the most well-known exception. There were also one or more short-term obscure women pharaohs.

Nefertiti, whose bust is one of the most copied works of art of ancient Egypt, was the queen of a male pharaoh. Hatshepsut (c. 1504 – 1458 BCE) is a unique case. She ruled as a man. 

Early Years 

Ancient Egypt started its golden age in the 1500s BCE. The “New Kingdom” began. New leadership defeated foreign invaders (the Hykos). The Hyksos were the leaders who might have welcomed  Joseph and his family in the biblical stories.  

Thutmose I (1520 – 1492 BCE) expanded Egyptian power into Syria and Palestine. Hatshepsut was born about 1504 BCE to Thutmose and his royal wife. If a queen did not have a son, next in line was the oldest male heir of one of the pharaoh’s “secondary” or “harem” wives. 

Thutmose II (1492 – 1479 BCE) was the son of a secondary wife. The queen’s sons died before their father. Hatshepsut married her half-brother (brother-sister marriages were traditional in Egypt until Cleopatra’s time) to help establish his royal line. 

Hatshepsut Becomes Regent 

They had a daughter named Neferure, Hatshepsut’s only known child. Thutmose has a son by a secondary wife. Nonetheless, Thutmose II died when the child was only two years old.  

Thutmose’s son was now Thutmose III. Monuments, a primary way we can understand Egypt in the distant past, portray Thutmose as an adult king conducting his duties. Hatshepsut, dressed as a queen, is to the side in an appropriately submissive role.  

Nonetheless, he was a “hawk still in the nest,” too young to rule. Queen Hatshepsut, following traditional practice, became Thutmose’s regent. She had the authority to rule in his name. 

Portrayals of Hatshepsut in her first years as regent depicted her as a woman.  

Maatkare: A “Male” Pharaoh

When Thutmose was about eight (c. 1473 BCE), things started to change:

The formerly slim, graceful queen appears as a full-blown, flail-and-crook-wielding king, with the broad, bare chest of a man and the pharaonic false beard.

The crook and flail were symbols of royalty and the gods in Ancient Egypt. She also took a new name, Maatkare. “Maat” is the ancient Egyptian expression for order and justice established by the gods.  Hatshepsut now was not only regent. She was the ruler of Egypt.  

Historians now believe that it is likely that there was a power struggle. Her young nephew was too young to take charge. So, she had to assert her authority. Since pharaohs were traditionally male, Hatsheput portrayed herself using traditional male symbolism. Once she began ruling as a male pharaoh, she continued doing so when Thutmose grew up. 

Hatshepsut’s Reign 

Hatshepsut also continued to retain some femininity. For instance, statues contained inscriptions such as “Daughter of Re” or feminine word endings, resulting in such tongue twisters as “His Majesty, Herself.” She also used religious imagery instead of the typical military representation, which was more masculine.  

Her reign was peaceful and prosperous. She re-established trade routes disrupted during the Hyksos period. The highlight was an expedition to the land of Punt (exact location unknown), which brought back timber, gold, frankincense, myrrh, and exotic animals. 

Senenmut was her chief minister. Historians doubt the rumors that Hatshepsut and Senemut were lovers are true. The number of monuments (about twenty-five) honoring him underlines his importance. Senenmut assisted with public work projects throughout the empire, some of which still exist today. Such works demonstrated the pharaoh’s power and prestige. 

The most breathtaking is the Deir el-Bahri Temple, built to honor the god Amun. Amun was the most dominant and popular Egyptian god of the times. Hatshepsut proclaimed herself “God’s wife of Amun.”  Inside, there was a memorial for Hatshepsut. 

Meanwhile, Thutmose became the supreme commander of the military. He is considered one of the leading Egyptian military leaders of ancient times. 

Death And Erasure 

Hatshepsut died about 1458 BCE. Her tomb is in the Valley of the Kings (also home to King Tut) in the hills behind Deir el-Bahri. A recent examination of her mummy determined that she likely died from an abscess following a tooth extraction.

Thutmose III reigned for over thirty years after her death. Late in his reign, Thutmose destroyed all public references to Hatshepsut. Thutmose now officially reigned alone. Lists of pharaohs did not contain Hatshepsut’s name. He erased her existence.

Historians previously thought Thutmose did this at the beginning of his reign. Nonetheless, archaeological research later changed this understanding. Her memorial in the temple (out of view) also remained. The erasure does not appear to be a result of personal dislike.

Why did he do it? Thutmose might not have wanted to leave in place the precedent of a female pharaoh. A power struggle might have arisen that required him to strengthen his legitimacy. Thutmose was the son of a second wife. Hatshepsut was the daughter of a queen.  

Either way, with all the benefits of modern archeological and historical research, we now know about the reign of this unique woman/man pharaoh.

QUESTIONS

  1. How did Hatshepsut defy traditional gender roles to become a pharaoh, and why was this significant in ancient Egypt?
  2. What role did Hatshepsut play in the early years of her nephew Thutmose III’s rule, and how was her authority depicted in monuments?
  3. What were the key symbols and titles that Hatshepsut adopted to assert her authority as a male pharaoh, and what might this indicate about her motivations and challenges?
  4. How did Hatshepsut’s reign contribute to the prosperity and development of ancient Egypt, particularly through her trade and building projects?
  5. Who was Senenmut, and what was his significance in Hatshepsut’s administration and public works projects?
  6. How did Thutmose III erase public references to Hatshepsut’s reign, and what could have motivated him to do so?

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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