Imagine the ancient Egyptians of the 18th Dynasty had their own tabloid. It's full of political 'facts' and soap opera-worthy intrigue. The big headlines of the times: Cross-Dressing Queen Steals Boy Pharaoh's Throne; Lady King's Courtier Caught With Pants Down; Young Pharaoh Takes Revenge on Wicked Stepmother. The controversial matriarch in question? Hatshepsut, who ruled from circa 1478 to 1458 BCE.
As one of the few women in Egypt's history to take the title of king, Hatshepsut is already pretty interesting. Her 20-year reign was marked by an explosion of artistic creativity—from jewelry to literature to her Deir el-Bahri temple, one of the great architectural wonders of the ancient world. But there's something rather enigmatic about Hatshepsut.
Her fascinating history has been literally pieced together from fragments of statues, forgotten reliefs, recarved cartouches (name plates), and even ancient graffiti. With such little evidence, it's a story ripe for speculation and sensation. Most curious is the fact that this woman was, for the most part, portrayed as a man.
As Egyptology professor Ann Macy Roth writes in Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh, Hatshepsut is depicted “wearing the traditional kilts of a king and a variety of crowns” and shown in reliefs “striding forward and reaching out, where a female figure would have stood passively. Most striking of all are her kingly ritual scenes, in which she is seen “spearing fish in the marshes, bashing in the heads of foreign captives or, in the form of a sphinx, trampling on them.”
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How far did this show of masculine power extend to Hatshepsut's real-life appearance? Did she really “rule as a man” and “wear a fake beard,” as is popularly believed? According to historian and philologist Peter F. Dorman, that seems unlikely—but not impossible. “The point was to portray her, at least in religious settings, as the full [male] equivalent of her younger co-regent, Thutmose III,” he tells Broadly, “but not to deny the essential femininity of her persona, which could not be hidden and was never concealed in these public contexts.”
It was pioneering Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion who first came across Hatshepsut. Between 1828 and 1829, he discovered wall texts that coupled hieroglyphs of a male king with feminine noun endings. Champollion eventually surmised that a queen had included her name with King Thutmose III. But, as subsequent scholars would realize, Hatshepsut was not Thutmose III's wife; she was his half-aunt and stepmother. As for how and when she ruled? It was all guesswork.
In many cartouches, Hatshepsut's name had been destroyed and replaced with that of Thutmose III, his father Thutmose II (Hatshepsut's half-brother and husband), or his grandfather Thutmose I (Hatshepsut's father). According to early 20th century Egyptologist Kurt Sethe, this strange sequence could only be explained by an elaborate power struggle. He explained that the then-queen Hatshepsut had schemed her way into joint regency with the infant Thutmose III, effectively stealing his crown. When the boy king grew up, he sought revenge by literally scrubbing Hatshepsut's name from history.
All of this was only the beginning of the headline-worthy intrigue in Egyptology. If Hatshepsut had ruled for 20 years, how could she have done it alone? Enter Senenmut, a courtier who was promoted to primary office when the queen became pharaoh.
Senenmut and Hatshepsut appear to have been close; she afforded him great power and access to her household, and lavished him with many tokens of favor, including devotional reliefs in her funerary temple. If you were looking for an “evil genius” behind Hatshepsut's reign, Senenmut would be the perfect candidate.
In fact, on the wall of an unfinished tomb north of Hatshepsut's temple is a graffito depicting Hatshepsut and an unidentified man going at it doggy-style. Dated roughly to the time of the temple's construction, could this ancient grotto porn support the pharaoh's alleged love affair with Senenmut?
“Whether the graffito implicates Senenmut is a separate question,” Peter explains. “There is a large sketch of him nearby with his title clearly indicated, so one can make that connection, but there is not an iota of other evidence to confirm even a suspicion that he and Hatshepsut were lovers.”
According to Peter, the idea that Senenmut wielded influence over Hatshepsut is completely backwards: “Senenmut seems to have had no other power base but her —indications are that his stature grew by association with the queen, rather than vice versa.”
From the 1960s onward, the prevailing sexism that had depicted Hatshepsut as wicked and weak made way for research focusing on her creative and intellectual prowess. With her crafting of sophisticated political and theological concepts, she was a force to be reckoned with. The best example is the origin story Hatshepsut contrived for herself: It brushed aside her inconvenient past as Thutmose II’s queen and solidified her legitimacy by placing her as the daughter of the god Amun-Ra himself. “Hatshepsut was ahead of her time,” writes Egyptologist Zbigniew E. Szafrański. “Generations had to pass before her ideas were reborn.”
Evidence from 1966 also discounts the Thutmose III revenge scenario. Not only had the destruction been caused some twenty years after his stepmother's death, but the remaining depictions of Hatshepsut as queen were untouched. In 2007, Egyptian archaeologist Dr. Zahi Hawass further dispelled the mystery, uncovering a missing tooth which identified an anonymous mummy as Hatshepsut.
While it is unclear why her body had been displaced from its original tomb, she had certainly not been killed by her stepson as some had speculated. “She had tumors that had spread to her bones and were in a very advanced stage,” Hawass tells Broadly, “and she also suffered from diabetes and obesity.”
The most widely accepted theory is not one of personal attack, but of pragmatism. Nearing the end of his reign and faced with a more legitimate female threat to his son's inheritance—likely one of the many descendants of the earlier kings of the 18th Dynasty —Thutmose III set out to erase all memory of a woman on the throne. By replacing Hatshepsut's name with his father's or grandfather's, Thutmose III could reinforce his son’s lineage.
Hatshepsut's monuments, her male portrayal, and the near effacement of her image were not merely a reflection of political events. They represented a ruthless jostle for power. In ancient Egypt, home of hieroglyphics, a picture really did speak a thousand words. As archaeologist and curator Dorothea Arnold writes, “one might be tempted to call ancient monuments the media of their time —keeping in mind, however, that in ancient Egypt, politics and religion were two sides of the same coin.”