Long before the time of Cleopatra, there was another woman who ruled with absolute power along the Nile. Unfortunately, because of reasons unknown, her legacy was hidden until the 19th century.
Hatshepsut was born at the beginning of the New Kingdom around 1504 BCE. Although women were granted a higher status in Egypt than in other ancient civilizations, the idea of a female Pharaoh was unheard of so Hatshepsut was not trained to rule. Her father, Ahmose I, was a great military leader and brought home a Nubian chieftain on the prow of his ship as a warning to his enemies.
Since the throne of Egypt could not pass to a woman, Thutmose, the son of a secondary wife, was made the heir. To bolster his bloodline, he was married to his 12 year old half sister, Hatshepsut. Brother and sister marriages were not unusual in the Egyptian royal family. Upon their father’s death, Thutmose II became pharaoh with Hatshepsut at his side.
All of this seemed usual enough. Thutmose and Hatshepsut had a daughter, Neferure, but failed to have a son. Carvings show Hatshepsut standing properly behind her husband, but one can imagine a strong willed woman chaffing at the bit.
Thutmose II was sickly and died young. Later CT scans of his mummy would suggest heart disease. He left a young son by a secondary wife, who would become Thutmose III, but he was much too young to rule. As his stepmother and the widowed queen, Hatshepsut took the reigns of government ostensibly until Thutmose was of age.
At first, she acted on her stepson’s behalf, careful to emphasize his name. Eventually this expanded until she was pharaoh in all but name. After a few years, she took the final step and claimed her father had named her heir at her birth and took the kingship for herself. Into the seventh year of her rule, she began to be depicted not as the formerly willowy queen but a stock pharaoh with a false beard, crook and flail. This is power she kept until her death. This did not mean she was cross dressing or was addressed as a man. Carvings refer to her with feminine articles, and call her “his majesty, herself.” A bit confusing.
There is much speculation as to what caused to make this jump. Early Egyptologists chalked this up to her “ambition and vanity” and cast her in the role of the wicked stepmother to Thutmose. However, he was not imprisoned during her rule. He was educated as her heir. There is some emphasis in her carvings on being the first born daughter of Thutmose I, so it could have been bloodlines. Whatever made her break with tradition and pick up the crook and flail, it was not easily put down just because her stepson came of age. You didn’t pick up godhood then say just kidding.
Hatshepsut ruled for twenty-one years and was an elaborate builder, improving roads and building sanctuaries. The largest was a memorial temple at Deir el-Bahri. This was designed by her chief minister, and suspected lover, Sennemut. He rose from Neferure’s tutor to Great Steward of Amun, in charge of all buildings. Early Egyptologists decided this was the mastermind behind Hatshepsut’s rise because according to historian Alan Gardiner, “even a woman of the most virile character could have attained such a pinnacle of success without masculine support.” Cue eyerolls.
Playing into the evil stepmother story, Thutmose III had all carvings and monuments of Hatshepsut as pharaoh obliterated. No one knows why. It could have been family squabbling or politics. However, his covering the carvings on her obelisks only preserved them for future generations. Leaving us with the wonder and the mystery of the woman who would be king.