Life of the Week: Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut was one of the longest-reigning and most prominent female pharaohs of ancient Egypt

A statue of Hatshepsut in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, US.

Hailed as one of the most politically minded pharaohs to ever rule ancient Egypt, until the 19th century surprisingly little was known about her reign.

Here, we explore the life of one of ancient Egypt’s most successful rulers…

Born: c1508 BC

Died: c1458 BC

Remembered for: Being one of the most prominent female pharaohs in ancient Egyptian history. Hatshepsut is praised for taking a great interest in the administration of her kingdom, and for constructing some of Egypt’s most famous buildings, including the temple of Deir el-Bahri, located on the west bank of the Nile.

Until the 19th century, historians were unaware of Hatshepsut’s reign, as all traces of her rule were destroyed under the commands of her successor – her stepson, Thutmose III. Any images, inscriptions or monuments relating to her were ordered to be demolished.

Family: Hatshepsut was the daughter of King Thutmose I, a pharaoh of ancient Egypt. Her mother, Ahmose, was an Egyptian queen.

Thutmose I had another wife, Mutnofret, and together they had a son who succeeded as the pharaoh Thutmose II after Thutmose I’s death in around 1492 BC. Upon her father’s death, Hatshepsut married her half-brother when she was around 12 years old, and together they had one daughter named Neferure.

Her life: Hatshepsut was born into one of the most famous dynasties of ancient Egypt – the 18th dynasty. This dynasty produced the some of the most prominent pharaohs in history, including Tutankhamun.

Despite being of royal descent, Hatshepsut was never expected to become a pharaoh of Egypt. In order to protect the dynasty’s lineage from rivaling noble families, heirs were encouraged to marry their siblings and close family members. In around 1492 BC, Hatshepsut was married to her half-brother Thutmose II.

In approximately 1479 BC, Hatshepsut’s husband died, leaving his young son from another marriage to inherit the throne. As was customary at the time, Hatshepsut acted as a regent on behalf of her stepson, Thutmose III, who was around three years old.

However, in around 1486 BC, after holding the position of regent for nearly seven years, Hatshepsut demanded more political power. Consequently, she was promoted to the position of co-ruler alongside Thutmose III. Despite being equal rulers, some historians have argued that Hatshepsut dominated political decisions throughout their joint rule, and that the young Thutmose III was not as involved in governmental decisions.

A depiction of Hatshepsut's trading expedition to the Land of Punt on the walls of the mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Historians are also divided on Hatshepsut’s motive for taking control of the throne. While some have argued she did so out of sheer ambition, more recent historians have suggested there might have been a threat to the throne from a rivaling branch of the royal family at the time, and that Hatshepsut became a co-ruler in order to secure and protect her family’s control of the throne.

Determined to demonstrate her authority as a legitimate pharaoh, Hatshepsut developed Egypt’s economy through the expansion of trade. Early in her reign, she launched an expedition to the Land of Punt, one of Egypt’s traditional trading allies. The ships brought back masses of gold and ivory, along with numerous myrrh trees. This great expedition was so significant at the time that it was later commemorated on the walls of the temple of Deir el-Bahri.

Hatshepsut also made her mark on the landscape of Egypt. She rebuilt many buildings, created impressive temples, and restored the Temple of Karnak that her father, King Thutmose I, had built. Hatshepsut also expanded the temple by building a chapel and assembling two obelisks that towered at nearly 100 feet.

Hatshepsut is believed to have died in around 1458 BC, though archaeologists are unsure of the precise date. Hatshepsut was laid to rest at the mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. Her father’s sarcophagus was reinterred with her in her tomb – Hatshepsut had requested that it be moved there after her death.

Following Hatshepsut’s death, her stepson, Thutmose III, became the sole pharaoh of Egypt and ruled for around another 30 years. During the later years of his reign, Thutmose III attempted to destroy any evidence of Hatshepsut’s rule. Originally, historians argued that Thutmose was motivated by animosity towards his stepmother’s overriding power during their joint reign. However, historians have since suggested that Thutmose was faced with the threat of usurpation from rivaling family members at this time, and so he ordered Hatshepsut’s name to be eradicated in order to strengthen his position on the throne and secure his heir’s succession.

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in Egypt. (Credit: Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

With traces of Hatshepsut’s reign demolished, until the 19th century there was very little evidence available of her rule. In the 1800s, archaeologists began to translate the hieroglyphics that adorn the walls of the temple of Deir el-Bahri. These revealed Hatshepsut’s position as a pharaoh and her success as a female ruler.

Howard Carter, the British archeologist who later discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, located the first of Hatshepsut’s sarcophaguses in 1903, but it was found to be empty. In 1904, two additional sarcophagi were found in the Valley of the Kings.

More than a century later, in 2007, Hatshepsut’s mummy was finally discovered in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. It is now held at The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

This article was first published in September 2015.

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