Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Nefertari … women who are famous as the wives of pharaohs in Ancient Egypt. Many women had a relatively high status and some enjoyed the legal right to own, inherit and bequeath property. But for a woman to become pharaoh in her own right was very rare, and Hatshepsut (1507–1458 BC) is only the second that we know of with certainty.
(To help with pronunciation and as an aid to memory, her name is often spoken as Hat-cheap-suit)
Hatshepsut came to the throne of Egypt in 1478 BC and ruled for 20 years as the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Her pedigree was impeccable as she was the daughter, sister and wife of a king. She was the daughter and only child of Thutmose I and a wife of Thutmose II. Officially, she ruled jointly with Thutmose III, son of Thutmose II by another wife named Iset, but he was still only a baby who had ascended to the throne the previous year as a child of about two years old.
Growing up in the royal house, the 29-year old Hatshepsut was familiar with pharaonic traditions and was also well-versed in matters of religion. She identified herself with the wife of the chief god Amun and assumed the royal regalia and symbols of the Pharaonic office. This included wearing a head cloth topped with the uraeus, an upright cobra which was recognised as a symbol of sovereignty and divine authority. In official representations she is often shown wearing the traditional false beard which was also adopted by male pharaohs.
Hatshepsut is generally regarded by Egyptologists as one of the most successful of all pharaohs, male or female. She re-established international trade networks and built a fleet of ships to trade across the Red Sea. She personally organised the most famous ancient Egyptian expedition, a voyage of 210 men in five ships to the fabled Land of Punt. The precise location of this country is still debated but Hatshepsut’s scribes described it as “The Land of the Gods, a region far to the east in the direction of the sunrise”.
The ships returned laden with trade goods including gold, ivory, ebony, animal skins, live animals, fragrant woods, cinnamon, frankincense and myrrh. They also reputedly brought back 31 live myrrh trees, the roots carefully kept in baskets during the voyage. This is the first recorded attempt to transplant foreign trees and it is reported that Hatshepsut had them planted in the courts of her mortuary temple complex at Deir el-Bahri.
The expedition is commemorated in detailed reliefs on the walls of the temple at Deir el-Bahri, which are famous for the realistic depiction of the Queen of the Land of Punt, Queen Ati. The queen is shown (to the right in the image) as being relatively tall and generously proportioned, with large breasts and rolls of fat on her body.
Hatshepsut commissioned hundreds of construction projects during her reign. In pharaonic tradition she had monuments built at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, erecting two obelisks at the entrance. At the time these were the tallest in the world, and one of them still stands as the tallest surviving ancient obelisk on Earth.
Also at Karnak she restored the Precinct of Mut, mother goddess and consort of Amun. This area, next to the main Temple of Karnak in Luxor, has long since fallen into disrepair but is remarkable for the enormous number of statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet. (On my visit to Egypt many years ago I found this overgrown and abandoned area to be an atmospheric place, full of lion-headed statues standing, leaning over or lying on the ground, many cracked and broken. The area is little visited and off the tourist route, yet is just a few minutes away from the main temple, and I recommend it to all visitors to Egypt seeking a short respite from tour guides.).
The precise location of Hatshepsut’s tomb is unknown, but her masterpiece stands at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings. This is her great mortuary temple, designed by her vizier Senemut. It is unlike any other Egyptian temples such as those at Karnak or Philae, for instance, and the main building rises in symmetrical colonnaded tiers against a dramatic mountainous backdrop.
In fact it was the first grand building erected here and it was only later that the area became known as the Valley of the Kings when later pharaohs chose to follow her example. The site of the temple is known now as Deir el-Bahri but this is a much later Christian name which means Monastery of the North.
The walls inside the temple are covered in reliefs and hieroglyphics in magnificent colours. One section, known as the Birth Colonnade, describes the conception and birth of Hatshepsut as the daughter of Amun. The Punt Colonnade records her famous expedition to the mysterious ‘Land of the Gods’. The Royal Cult Chapel and Solar Cult Chapel depict scenes of the royal family making offerings to the gods.
Text Alun Harvey