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Hatshepsut, a woman acknowledged to be the most successful female Pharaoh in Egyptian history, was born in 1508 BCE. Her father was the Pharaoh Thothmes I and her mother was his Chief Royal Wife Aahmose. She had a younger half-brother named Thothmes II, who as the only surviving male offspring of the Pharaoh, should have inherited the throne.
Historians speculate that Hatshepsut had a co-regency with her father during the last few years of his reign, meaning Thothmes was grooming his daughter for the title of Pharaoh, rather than his son. In Hatshepsut’s own tomb is an inscription where her father declared her his heir: “This daughter of mine Khnum-Amun Hatshepsut—may she live!—I have appointed as my successor upon my throne…she shall direct the people in every sphere of the palace; it is she indeed who will lead you. Obey her words, unite yourselves at her command.”
After her father’s death, Hatshepsut began to adopt many titles traditionally held by males and dropped titles that could only be held by women. Amun’s Oracle had pronounced it was the god’s will Hatshepsut become Pharaoh, therefore helping legitimize her claim to the throne. Hatshepsut began to appear in male clothes; she wore the shendyt kilt, the nemes headdress with its uraeus, khat head cloth and false beard. Despite this attempt to legitimize becoming the first female Pharaoh, Hatshepsut was forced to marry Thothmes II and he became Pharaoh instead. Tradition stated that the women in the royal family held the power that legitimized the Pharaohs and Hatshepsut was the only surviving female member of the royal family, so she and Thothmes had to marry.
Thothmes and Hatshepsut had two daughters, Neferura and Merytre-Hatshepsut. Thothmes’ only male heir was Thothmes III, his child by one of his lesser wives, Aset. Thothmes II died shortly after his son’s birth, leaving Hatshepsut the most powerful person in Egypt. She declared herself regent of Thothmes III and in all but name, became the Pharaoh because of Thothmes’ young age. Later, as Thothmes III reached manhood, Hatshepsut dropped all pretences and declared herself Pharaoh circa 1479 BCE.
Hatshepsut’s reign is usually assigned a length of twenty years. Historical records dispute the length of her reign, so there is no way of knowing exactly how long she actually ruled. While historians cannot agree on the length of her reign, they can generally agree on her achievements.
After becoming Pharaoh, Hatshepsut ordered many building projects, some new and some carrying on her father’s unfinished works. Her first independent building projects were two obelisks that were cut at Aswan and raised at Karnak. These were later vandalized during the reign of Thothmes III, who seemed to want to erase all records of his aunt. At Karnak, the religious capital of Egypt, she ordered many temples restored, thus ensuring the favour of the priesthood. She ordered a new tomb built for herself (her first tomb had been smaller, built for her before she was queen) while married to Thothmes II in the Valley of the Kings, but it was never completed. After this tomb was abandoned, she began work at Deir el-Bahri on her famous mortuary temple.
Her mortuary temple was built on an even older site, that of Mentuhotep I’s mortuary temple from the 11th Dynasty. This site has many inscriptions chronicling her reign, but these too were vandalized after her death. Some of the inscriptions refer to military activity, but Hatshepsut was known as a peaceful queen, so these were likely small skirmishes along the borders of Egypt.
On the walls of her tomb, there is also a depiction of her expedition to the land of Punt (probably modern day Somalia). Punt had many things Egyptians desired: myrrh, frankincense, wood, sweet-smelling resin, ivory, spices, gold, ebony and aromatic trees. When the expedition returned laden with tribute, Hatshepsut herself led a procession to the temple of Amun, where inscriptions stated that the god himself and the goddess Hathor guided the expedition. Sacrifices were made and tributes from Punt were transferred to the temple as thanks to Amun for the safe return of her ambassadors.
One of the reasons Hatshepsut’s reign was so successful was the fact that she elevated people to positions of power based on competence rather than birth. One of her most trusted officials was Senmut. Senmut was born a lowly peasant, but slowly rose to power under her rule. During this time, he acquired 40 titles, including the illustrious title of Chief Architect. Senmut was also the man who oversaw the education of Hatshepsut’s eldest daughter, Neferura, and many statues found in his tomb include him holding Neferura protectively. Some historians speculate he was Hatshepsut’s lover (thus explaining his quick rise to power and his role as protector of Neferura), but there is no evidence that can conclusively prove or disprove this theory. Senmut disappeared from all historical records between Year 16 and Year 19 of Hatshepsut’s reign. His mummy was never found and both tombs he built for himself are empty.
There is evidence that Hatshepsut wanted her daughter Neferura to begin a line of female Pharaohs because many titles bestowed on her eldest daughter were those Hatshepsut held herself as a young girl. But this plan was thwarted when Neferura died at a young age. Mertyre-Hatshepsut, her youngest daughter, expressed little interest in ruling as Pharaoh and would later marry her half-brother Thothmes III.
As soon as Thothmes III ascended the throne, Hatshepsut disappeared from all historical records. No one is sure if she was murdered, died or simply retired from politics to let her daughter and nephew rule in peace. But looking at how hard Hatshepsut fought to rule in the first place, the only way Thothmes III would rule was if she was dead. Whether or not she was killed or died of natural causes, we probably will never know.
Hatshepsut ranks not only among the best female Pharaohs, but among the best Pharaohs in Egypt’s long history. Egypt prospered under her rule and her numerous building projects are the reason she is so well remembered. Even though her nephew Thothmes III tried to erase her memory from all records, her mortuary temple and other tombs from the era tell her story. Hatshepsut, the woman Pharaoh, lives on.