Cartouche of Hatshepsut


Hatshepsut and Cleopatra; Zenobia; Catherine of Russia; Elizabeth the Great.

History records the names of many famous women and many famous queens, but the women in the brief list above share one attribute in addition to their royalty and their fame. Born into one sex, they carried out the traditional duties of the other. Further—all of them succeeded, at least temporarily, in the difficult and conventionally masculine task of directing the affairs of a great nation.

Hatshepsut of Egypt heads the list because (except for the short-reigned and little known Sobekneferu of the Twelfth Dynasty) she is the earliest of that impressive group. She merits the highest place for another reason. In her assumption of the throne she cast off the trailing skirts of a woman and put on the kilt and crown of a king, and she carried it off for twenty years.

She was beautiful, of course; all great queens are beautiful. The statues we have of her do not give much of a clue to her actual appearance. One of them shows a small, rather gentle face, with a pointed chin and a broad forehead; but the sculptured body of a queen of Egypt was always as slim and graceful as that of a goddess, just as a king’s body had to be the ideal of masculine beauty. Since she was an Egyptian, we can assume that Hatshepsut was slim and fine-boned, with small hands and feet; she must have been dark, with black hair and the black eyes of most Egyptian women. If, in middle age, she acquired a double chin and the harsh-lined face of royal responsibility, we need not take official cognizance of such a disillusioning idea.

From earliest childhood she had been taught the duties of the high position she would one day fill. She was the daughter of a king of Egypt and his chief royal wife; inevitably as sunrise, she would be queen of Egypt in her turn. The king? He would be her husband—her half-brother, named Thutmose after his father and hers. Thutmose II’s mother was a noble lady, one of the official wives of the king, but not the chief wife, who had borne Hatshepsut.

There is an impression among archaeologists that Thutmose II was not the man his father had been. In part the idea stems from the description of his mummy as that of a “diseased” man who died young; in part from the contrast of his two minor campaigns with the warlike prowess of his father; and perhaps in part from the mere fact that he was married to Hatshepsut, whose personality overshadowed stronger men than her young husband.

The picture may be unfair to Thutmose II. The mummy in question may not be his, and it may not be diseased. Opinions as to the length of his reign differ, and if he only occupied the throne for a few years he would not have had time to do much. Still, the impressive figure of his wife towers above him and all he did.

Thutmose II died. What ever his potentialities, this is just about the most important statement of fact we can make about him. He left, with regard to the problem of the succession, a domestic situation similar to the one which had prevailed after his father’s death. His chief wife, Hatshepsut, had borne no sons, only a daughter, Nefrure. By a woman of lowly birth, a palace concubine named Isis, Thutmose II had sired one son. The situation and its solution were not unusual. The child, Thutmose III, would, in due course, expect to marry his little half-sister, Nefrure. Upon his father’s demise, the toddler became the Horus, Lord of the Two Lands, Beloved of the Two Ladies, Menkheperre, Thutmose III.

They were heavy titles for a small boy, and the weight of the Red and White Crowns was a burden no infant could assume. Again, the situation had precedent, but in this case the mother of the king was no fit person to assume the regency. A commoner to administer the affairs of the Two Lands? That was against tradition, particularly when Egypt had so fitting a regent available in the person of the Great Royal Wife Hatshepsut, Wife of the God, Daughter of the former King and his Great Wife.

So far, the affair had been conducted in a perfectly respectable and dignified fashion, consistent with tradition and—as the Egyptians might have said—“in keeping with maat,” the universal order of justice and correctness. Hatshepsut was now dowager queen and regent of Egypt, as we would say; the Egyptians had no equivalent titles, and Hatshepsut simply retained the ones she had used when her husband was living.

Then, a few years after the little king had climbed the high stairs to the throne, the universal order received a shock that rocked it to its foundations.

Came forth the king of the gods, Amon-Re, from his temple, saying: “Welcome, my sweet daughter, my favorite, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Maatkare Hatshepsut. Thou art the king, taking possession of the Two Lands.”

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