Hatshepsut, The Queen Who Became Pharaoh

Hayley Milliman - Content Lead

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Wise, fair… bearded? Hatshepsut ruled Egypt as pharaoh for twenty years.

Take a look at the image above. It depicts Hatshepsut, the second female pharaoh in Egypt’s history. Do you notice anything special about her?

Perhaps her heavy, resplendent headdress?

Her meticulously arched eyebrows?

Or what about her lush, fabulous beard?

That’s right. Hatshepsut isn’t sporting some type of weird, heavy chin warmer to ward off those cool Egyptian breezes in this image; she’s rocking the distinctive long beard associated with male pharaohs. Why?

Though Hatshepsut had legitimate ties to the throne and was by far the most capable candidate around, she recognized that, in patriarchal ancient Egypt, most Egyptians weren’t quite ready to proclaim “I’m with her.” Like any good politician, Hatshepsut knew the power of a concentrated media campaign in swaying public opinion, so she ordered that she be portrayed as a male pharaoh in many paintings and statues to bolster her status.

Not that Hatshepsut should have needed to go to those lengths to prove her worth. As pharaoh, Hatshepsut was a master builder and an unrivaled negotiator. She’s the reason Jesus was able to get myrrh trees at his birthday. Seriously.

Despite Hatshepsut’s attempts to protect her legacy and her all-around-awesomeness, her stepson fought to scrub her completely from Egypt’s history, meaning that we didn’t even know this badass bitch existed until about 200 years ago.

The Real-Life Targaryens

Hatshepsut’s path to becoming pharaoh was filled with more plot twists and incestual relationships than Game of Thrones. That’s because ancient Egyptians, like the Targaryens, believed in keeping royal bloodlines pure, meaning that brothers and sisters often married each other.

Hatshepsut was the daughter of Thutmose I and his chief wife, Ahmose. Nepotism was alive and well in ancient Egypt, so male pharaohs often took more than one wife to ensure they had a male heir to continue to their family’s rule. Thutmose I was no exception – he had a number of “secondary wives,” whose primary job was to give the pharaoh a son.

Several of those wives succeeded. One of them, Mutnofret, gave birth to a boy named Thutmose II. Despite his on-the-nose name, Thutmose II’s path to power was a bit complicated. Because Thutmose II was the son of a “lesser wife,” he had to compete with his other siblings to become pharaoh. (We told you it was like Game of Thrones.)

So what was the best way for Thutmose II to secure the throne? Marry his sister, of course.

Thutmose I died when Hatshepsut was basically still a preteen, so she became queen of Egypt at a very young age. Her husband/brother, Thutmose II, was also super young and, by all accounts was a solid D-minus at the whole pharaoh thing. Thutmose II needed a whole lot of help leading Egypt, and, lucky for him, Hatshepsut was more than capable.

There are some complicated succession and power laws that come into play here, but the TL;DR of it is that Thutmose II also died pretty young, leaving behind an infant son named Thutmose III who became pharaoh. Even though Thutmose III wasn’t Hatshepsut’s actual son, she assumed the title of regent to help him govern, since her stepson was still learning to read his hieroglyphics and Hatshepsut was already a full-fledged ruling badass bitch.

After a handful of years playing along with tradition, Hatshepsut decided to take a more drastic step. Her stepson, Thutmose III, was still a literal child and she was doing a pretty bang-up job as regent. Rather than continue to play second fiddle to kid, Hatshepsut declared herself pharaoh.

Image Is Everything

The temple at Deir el Bahri. Check out those people, for scale.

When Hatshepsut declared herself pharaoh, she knew she had a lot of work to do. And not just the work of running the kingdom of ancient Egypt, which was, you know, a pretty big job, but also the work of convincing people that she deserved to rule.

Hatshepsut launched a large-scale propaganda campaign to position herself as pharaoh. She was, after all, the only child of the former ruler and his official queen and, she claimed, her father’s choice for his successor.

In addition to talking herself up, Hatshepsut used art to solidify her role. She ordered that she be portrayed as a male pharaoh, complete with the long beard and hefty pecs that true male pharaohs sported in their imagery. While she also wore traditional female clothing in some images, most surviving art of Hatshepsut shows her as a male.

Besides working on her public appearance, Hatshepsut spent her time ruling Egypt really damn well. Turns out, Hatshepsut wasn’t just pharaoh in name – she was also really freaking good at the job.

Hatshepsut’s rule brought a time of peace, prosperity, and growth to ancient Egypt. Here are a few of her biggest accomplishments:

  • Building. A Lot. Hatshepsut was one of the most prolific builders in Egypt’s history, whose projects were grander than any of her ancestors. Later pharaohs even tried to claim her work as their own. One of Hatshepsut’s greatest building projects is the temple at Deir el-Bahri, which is considered one of the wonders of ancient Egypt.
  • Trading. A Lot. One of Hatshepsut’s most important trade expeditions was to the Land of Punt, where traders bought goods like frankincense, leopard skins, and myrrh (aka, the tree the wise men brought to Jesus to celebrate his birth), among other things. So, Hatshepsut basically gave Jesus his birth gifts.
  • Negotiating. A Lot. Hatshepsut was an unparalleled diplomat and, despite her controversial role as pharaoh, kept Egypt from falling apart at a critical time in the kingdom’s history. Under Hatshepsut’s rule, there was peace and little conflict.

Basically, when Hatshepsut became pharaoh of Egypt, she ruled the way she always knew she would: like a badass bitch.

Deleted From History

Way back when Hatshepsut was just Thutmose II’s queen, she began preparing for the afterlife. If you didn’t know, the Egyptians were just a little bit obsessed with death, and pharaohs were often buried in magnificent tombs, like those pyramids you may have heard of now and then.

Initially, Hatshepsut built a fairly modest tomb for her and her husband. After she became pharaoh though, Hatshepsut decided to carve a place for herself in the Valley of the Kings, right behind temple at Deir el-Bahri. Keeping with her goal of legitimizing her reign, Hatshepsut had her father reburied in her own tomb.

When she died, in her mid to late 40s, Hatshepsut left behind a legacy of ambitious growth, newly forged alliances, and a really angry stepson.

That’s right. Instead of being grateful that his aunt did such a bangup job ruling his country when he was a child, Thutmose III did everything he could to erase Hatshepsut’s memory. He tore down and destroyed statues of her, and had all the images of Hatshepsut as pharaoh stricken from the temples and monuments she had built.

What was the cause of Thutmose III’s animosity? It’s hard to say. Maybe he was angry at her for taking power from him for all those years. Maybe he wanted to claim some of her accomplishments as his own. Maybe he just hated the idea of a woman ruling Egypt.

Whatever the reason, Thutmose III’s magic eraser didn’t work quite like he wanted. Hatshepsut had been such a prolific creator that it proved impossible to destroy all evidence of her rule. Eventually, scholars found a reference to her on the walls of Deir el-Bahri and an archaeologist discovered her sarcophagus.

Once the world knew she existed, it was only a matter of time before the remarkable achievements of the badass bitch named Hatshepsut came to light.

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