Hatshepsut: The Woman Who Became An Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh (Killed By Her Nephew)

By | December 10, 2020

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Seated Statue of Hatshepsut, circa 1479–1458 B.C.E. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons)

Cleopatra may have the name recognition when it comes to famous women of Ancient Egypt, but the path to the throne was paved by Hatshepsut. She reigned for close to 20 years during the 15th century B.C.E., a period known as the New Kingdom, but even though her time as pharaoh was long and filled with magnificent accomplishments, Hatshepsut was buried by history. Her significance wasn't uncovered until the 19th century, when she was seen more as a vile usurper than a celebrated ruler who led Egypt into peace and prosperity.

Born To Be A Regent

As the eldest of two daughters born to Thutmose I and his queen, Ahmes, 12-year-old Hatshepsut ascended to the throne as Queen of Egypt following the death of her father. At the time, she was married to her half-brother, Thutmose II, the son of her father and a member of his harem. Thutmose II died young, around 1479 B.C.E., and the throne was passed down to his infant son, Thutmose III, born to a secondary wife.

As was custom at the time, Hatshepsut reigned as Thutmose III's regent and handled affairs of state until he came of age. At least, that was the plan. At the onset of her time as regent, Hatshepsut performed her job diligently and without any excitement. She recognized her stepson as the one and only pharaoh, and that was that. Then, with no warning, Hatshepsut was crowned pharaoh, and Thutmosis III was left to languish in the background for the next 20 years.

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Large granite sphinx bearing the likeness of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, depicted with the traditional false beard. (Keith Schengili-Roberts/Wikimedia Commons)


The question of why Hatshepsut retained power is the subject of some debate among Egyptologists. Older researchers maintain that she usurped the throne out of nothing more than greedy ambition, but today's researchers believe it's more likely that Egypt faced a political crisis and Hatsheput had to act fast to save the throne for her branch of the royal family. It's possible that Thutmose I or II had more sons via their harems who had their eyes on the throne in its weakened state, so to secure the throne for her stepson, Hatshepsut did what she had to do.

To legitimize her rule, Hatshepsut made a controversial move that confounds Egyptologists to this day. While fighting to prove her royal lineage, she overhauled her image by ordering artists to portray her with ripped muscles and the traditional pharaonic false beard, decidedly masculinizing her appearance. She also made the smart move of surrounding herself with scholarly supporters in key roles of the government. Many researchers believe that Senenmut, her chief minister, was also her lover, but much like the belief that she stole the throne from her stepson, this claim of a secret male ruler behind the scenes is likely just another attempt to discredit the first female pharaoh.

During her two decades as pharaoh, Hatshepsut undertook a series of incredible building projects in and around Thebes, turning it into one of the most interesting places in Egypt. She erected a series of obelisks at the Palace of Ma'at, a rectangular structure made of small rooms with a large hall, the walls of which were covered with brightly painted relief scenes of Hatshepsut and Thutmose II. However, the most exciting architectural offering courtesy of Hatshepsut was the giant memorial temple Deir el-Bahri, a structure that's now considered one of the great achievements of Ancient Egypt. Hatshepsut also turned her kingdom into an economic powerhouse, undertaking a trading exposition with a land called Punt that brought ivory, ebony, gold, leopard skins, and incense into the country.