Egyptian "Female King" Gets Royal Treatment

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
April 10, 2006
Around 1479 B.C. King Hatshepsut guided Egypt through 20 years of peace,
prosperity, and artistic expression.

But there's a twist: Hatshepsut was a woman.

"She's the most significant female ruler in ancient Egypt," said Catharine Roehrig, an Egyptologist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Some of the fruits of Hatshepsut's prosperous reign—statues, jewelry, papyrus, and more—make up a recently opened traveling exhibition at the Met through July 9.

Princess, Queen, Pharaoh

Cathleen Keller, an Egyptologist at the University of California, Berkeley, served as a consultant for the exhibition.

Egypt had several female rulers, including Cleopatra, she says. But all of them, except Hatshepsut, emerged at the end of a dynasty.

These other female leaders "represent a last attempt by the ruling dynasty to remain in power," she said.

Hatshepsut's predecessors—the first rulers of Egypt's New Kingdom period (1539 to 1075 B.C.)—reasserted Egypt's influence and secured borders with military might.

The story of her ascent rivals a modern-day soap opera.

The plot summary: Hatshepsut, daughter of a late king, married Pharaoh Thutmose II, who was also her half-brother. Her husband died, leaving, Thutmose III, a young son by a different wife.

In Egypt queens often ruled as regents until a young pharaoh came of age.

But instead of stepping aside, Hatshepsut took on the title of king about seven years into her reign. She and Thutmose III became co-rulers, with Hatshepsut as senior king.

Hatshepsut didn't shy away from national security, trade, and exploration. But her kingdom is best known for its blossoming artistic creativity and innovation.

Her unique role added a feminine touch to the art and artifacts on display at the Met.

One striking statue shows Hatshepsut wearing the nemes, or pharaoh's head cloth, along with a sleeveless dress and jewelry specific to female royalty.

Her face, with its large eyes, arched brows, and slight smile, give the viewer the impression of a woman at ease in her kingship, says Renée Dreyfus, the exhibition's curator at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, where the show originated last fall.

This pivotal sculpture, Dreyfus says, shows Hatshepsut's transition from queen to pharaoh.

"You cannot walk by the statue of Hatshepsut as a female king—the beautiful red granite statue—without being pulled into looking at the compelling face," she said.

Other pieces, like a colossal sphinx from Hatshepsut's temple of Deir el Bahri, have few feminine attributes. (Related photos: See the Sphinx at Giza, Egypt.)

The Met's Roehrig and others suggest that public depictions of Hatshepsut appeared more masculine, while feminine sculptures stood in private areas of her mortuary (see photo).

No matter where statues appeared, hieroglyphic inscriptions included feminine modifiers or Hatshepsut's full name, which means "foremost of noblewomen."

Damaged but Not Forgotten

When archaeologists unearthed many relics from Hatshepsut's time, they found an ancient vandal had gotten to them first.

The female king's name had been scratched out of inscriptions on temple walls, and the faces and kingly garb of her statues had been destroyed.

The culprit was most likely Thutmose III. Researchers surmised that he might have destroyed evidence of Hatshepsut's reign out of spite.

New analysis of the damaged artifacts has revealed the objects were damaged two decades after Hatshepsut's death.

Some researchers suggest Thutmose III wanted to solidify his own son's ascent to the throne by wiping out the record of his co-ruler.

But it's hard to forget a pharaoh. More than a thousand years later the Ptolemaic dynasty commissioned a history of Egypt that mentioned a powerful female king.

Despite Thutmose III's probable handiwork, Hatshepsut's story proved an indestructible part of Egyptian culture.

"I love the idea that people retained this memory," Roehrig said.

From Egypt to Exhibition

Both the Met and the de Young Museum have close ties to Hatshepsut.

The de Young was founded using artifacts from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition held in Golden Gate Park. The fair featured a pavilion decorated in the style of Hatshepsut's mortuary temple.

The Met's Egyptian Expedition in the early 20th century excavated many of the pieces on display, including the temple sphinx.

The exhibition, organized by the Met and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, will move to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, at the end of the summer.

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