The Egyptians were tolerant people, and they were seldom troubled by inconsistencies. But here was an astounding event, so unusual that the very structure of the language rebelled against it. The word we translate from the hieroglyphs as queen literally means “king’s wife.” There are a number of words that refer to the king; the most common was originally the title of the king of Upper Egypt only, but when it appears alone it is translated as king. The king was also called “sovereign” or “His Majesty.” His titles included “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” and “Lord of the Two Lands.” During the first years of the Eighteenth Dynasty we find the famous word pharaoh as a title of the king. (It comes from two Egyptian words meaning “great house,” and originally referred to the palace.)
Titles of the Egyptian king Above, left to right: king; sovereign; his majesty Below: pharaoh
The point is that all these titles were masculine. Egyptian has two genders, the feminine ending being a t; and there were no words for a reigning monarch that were feminine in gender. The bewildered scribes were forced to some strange expedients in order to deal with Her Majesty, King Hatshepsut. They usually employed the feminine pronoun, but now and then, in the middle of one of the long, flattering texts that they could have written in their sleep, they would forget, and a he or his might creep in. Sometimes they added the feminine ending to the word for lord or majesty. But they still had to face such grotesque descriptions as “the (female) Horus.”
Hatshepsut’s statues and reliefs show her in both roles: as a woman, wearing female dress and the queen’s crown, and as a king, in a man’s kilt (and body!) wearing the king’s crown and the artificial beard. The dichotomy carries over into other spheres: two tombs, one in a remote valley where other queens’ tombs were located, and the other in the Valley of the Kings; two sarcophagi, one for a queen and one for a king.
Can her seizure of the kingship be regarded as an usurpation? Strictly speaking, no. Thutmose III was not deposed. He kept his titles and appears on various monuments with his coruler; but when the two are shown together there is no question as to which is number one, and the fact that she is there at all, in a king’s crown and body, could be seen as usurpation of a sort.
What ever the strength of her will and personality, Hatshepsut must have had the support of powerful forces in the state to hang on to power as long as she did. We have not yet tried to explain how she succeeded in this fantastic coup, which seized the throne of Horus for a woman; and in fact it is very hard to understand how she did succeed. She must have had that indefinable quality that is called “charisma”; it blazes at us now over a gulf of four thousand years, and we can imagine what the impact must have been firsthand. But personality alone is not enough to explain a phenomenon such as Hatshepsut. She must have had the help of powerful supporters.
The most influential of Hatshepsut’s adherents was a man named Hapuseneb, who was, early in her reign, both vizier and High Priest of Amon. One is tempted to see in this man the power behind the throne, the Cardinal Richelieu of the reign. It is hard to vizualize Hatshepsut in the role of Louis XIII; her husband, Thutmose II, might have fit the part better. But certainly a woman in her position needed all the help she could get, and Hapuseneb represented a lot of help. An interesting, and as yet unexplained, point is that a number of Thutmose I’s favored officials transferred their allegiance to Hatshepsut when she assumed joint reign with her nephew—Ineni the architect and Ahmose Pen-Nekhbet, the old soldier from El Kab, among others. Another of her officials had the unusual name “Nehsi,” which means “the Nubian.”
Senenmut’s name (below) and title, steward of Amon
The most intriguing of her supporters was a man named Senenmut (formerly read Senmut). He was a parvenu, an upstart, a nobody; he was not even particularly good-looking. His long aquiline nose and flexible, rather cynical mouth were distinctive rather than handsome. Who and what he was originally we do not know; he appears among the servants of the queen even before she proclaimed herself king—possibly before her husband, Thutmose II, died. From that time on, Senenmut’s meteoric rise to power parallels that of Hatshepsut. He held over twenty different titles, and he was singled out by the queen as was no other official.
Hatshepsut bolstered her position with propaganda as well as with picked allies. The propaganda was based on two major pieces of evidence, both of which are totally fictitious. One of them claimed that she had been chosen by her father as his successor and raised to the throne by his own hand. The other proposed the magnificent notion that she was the physical daughter of Amon-Re, the god.
There was nothing new about this idea; other kings were called “son of Amon” and “son of Re,” and the queenly title “God’s Wife,” which is first held by the mother of King Ahmose, certainly applies to the god Amon, the patron of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Theban Dynasties. Hatshepsut’s reliefs depict in some detail the process by which she became the daughter of the god. They are the earliest of this type of scene to survive, although the fiction must have been current earlier.
On the walls of the temple of Deir el Bahri we see the god on his way to visit the queen and God’s Wife Ahmose, Hatshepsut’s mother. “He [Amon] made his form like the majesty of this husband, the king Aakheperure [Thutmose I]. He found her [Queen Ahmose] as she slept, in the beauty of the palace. She awoke at the fragrance of the god, which she smelled in the presence of His Majesty. He went to her immediately.”
At this point Breasted, who first translated these inscriptions, primly breaks into Latin, but the sense is clear without any translation at all. Afterward, Amon made a little speech to the delighted queen: “Hatshepsut shall be the name of this my daughter, whom I have placed in your body. She shall exercise the excellent kingship in this whole land.”
Successive scenes show the matters, physical and religious, that have to do with the birth of the divine child. Khnum, the creator of men, is instructed by Amon to fashion the baby and its ka, or double, on his divine potter’s wheel. Both the little figures are unquestionably male—another of the unconscious slips of the confused artist, who probably copied the whole series from more ancient reliefs, now destroyed. Then the queen is shown holding the newborn infant and attended by the traditional goddesses of birth and midwifery. There are other scenes, most of them badly broken.
Except for the little error of the male babies, this sequence makes an impressive story. How impressed anyone actually was is open to question. What ever the combination of propaganda and power, Hatshepsut succeeded not only in gaining the throne but in holding it for more than twenty years. Under her reign the land prospered. She built magnificently all over Egypt and Nubia, particularly at the Temple of Amon at Karnak, where one of her huge obelisks, the largest to be quarried in Egypt up to that time, still towers into the sky. These tall, four-sided spires were usually erected in pairs near the gateway, or pylon, of a temple. The obelisk form suggests majesty and ambition, and the ancient Egyptians were not the only ones to appreciate these qualities. The Washington Monument is an obelisk, and many of the biggest Egyptian obelisks were carried off by foreign conquerors to augment the grandeur of their native capitals, from London to Constantinople. The second obelisk of this pair of Hatshepsut’s collapsed in antiquity. When they were first erected, both monuments were ornamented with fine gold. The inscriptions on the sides and base of the obelisk state that the queen measured out the precious metal by the bushel, like sacks of grain.
From this, and from other evidences, we can be fairly sure that the female king’s acccession did not interrupt the flow of wealth into Egypt. There are some references to military campaigns, in Nubia and Syria, but I am inclined to take them with a grain of salt. The scenes on her surviving monuments do not show her leading the charge or bashing captives on the head. They feature religious activities and, in one case, an economic triumph—a trading mission to the distant, almost fabled, land of Punt.
No one knows exactly where Punt lay; the latest guesses put it somewhere on the Somali coast. The products of this country included goods highly coveted by the luxury-loving Egyptians—apes and ivory, gold and spices—and dwarfs, like the one Harkhuf brought to his king during the Old Kingdom.
The scenes showing Hatshepsut’s expedition to Punt, which was organized and led by Nehsi the Nubian, occupy more of the wall space at the Deir el Bahri temple. The great ships are shown setting out, with sailors hanging like monkeys from the rigging. When they finally reached Punt they were greeted by the astounded natives, including the wife of the chief—an enormously fat woman accompanied by a very small donkey, presumably her means of transportation. (The Egyptians undoubtedly thought this was very funny; even in so solemn a venture as the Punt expedition, they could not resist poking fun at inferiors.) After a successful trading mission the ships returned, bringing not only gold and ivory, but also a collection of myrrh trees, zealously tended on the long journey, to adorn the terraces of the temple of Amon and the queen.
All this energy—the expedition, the obelisks, and other undertakings—were carried out to the glory of Amon. “Her Majesty did this because she loved her father Amon so much, more than all other gods…. I have done this from a loving heart for my father Amon.” It looks as if Hatshepsut were trying to propitiate someone—the god or the priests or both.
We have mentioned the great obstacle of her sex, and the sullen weight of tradition, which Hatshepsut had to overcome in her quest for power. But we have not yet discussed another handicap, which makes her success truly inexplicable. All the time Hatshepsut was wielding the scepter so energetically, there was another king of Egypt in the background. He was to be one of the greatest and most forceful kings who ever ruled Egypt, a conqueror who, in breadth of vision and martial prowess, may legitimately be compared with the great Alexander. To be sure, Thutmose III was only a child when Hatshepsut squeezed herself onto his throne.
But she ruled for over twenty years; long before the end, the boy would have become a man and begun to show the stubbornness and intelligence that are so conspicuous in his character later on.
She didn’t ignore him altogether. He appears with her in a number of scenes—behind her. To what tasks did Hatshepsut set the future warrior? She let him burn incense before Amon when her Punt expedition returned in triumph.
This image would make a good subject for historical drama. The queen, brilliant in her gorgeous regalia and robe of sheer pleated linen; conspicuously near her, the no-less-gorgeous figure of that upstart Senenmut, loaded with the ornaments of gold and precious stones with which the queen’s bounty had provided him; above all, the towering statue of the god, wreathed in blue, sweet-smelling smoke. And behind them, obscure and unnoticed, the slender figure of the boy-king—he must have been in his early teens by then—smoldering with suppressed fury and aquiver with thwarted ambition, his sullen black eyes glowering at the intricate shape of the Red and White Crowns upon the head of his aunt—those crowns which should have been his alone.
Hatshepsut and her allies were at the height of their power, unchallenged. Trade flourished, great building works gave employment to the people, there was no lack of food. The large professional armies of the later empire, who turned to looting and violence when foreign conquests failed, had yet to be formed. The great campaigns of Thutmose I lay years in the past. And if there were men who chafed at the boredom of peace, and yearned to continue the imperial designs of the queen’s father, no doubt there were men—and women—who cherished the peaceful years and found happiness in the simple activities of family and crops. The life of the peasant was hard, but it was life; and almost any kind of existence was preferable to dying far from home and being buried at a distance from the gods and temples of Egypt.
Many of the common people, and all of the artisans and craftsmen, were busy with Hatshepsut’s main interest, the construction and restoration of temples and monuments. She was, she claims, the first ruler to restore the damage which had been done by the Hyksos to many of the sanctuaries of the gods, and her own building works were numerous. In the thick of it all was Senenmut, who held the offices of overseer of works at Karnak and at Deir el Bahri. Ancient Egyptian had no word for architect; we cannot be certain that the overseer of works designed the monuments whose construction he supervised. He certainly approved the plans, and since no other candidate is known, we may as well give Senenmut credit for the marvel of Deir el Bahri: the most beautiful temple in Egypt, and one of the finest of all ancient buildings.
Deir el Bahri lies across the Nile from modern Luxor. In its bay is the temple that Hatshepsut built for her mortuary cult and for the glory of Amon and other gods. The external design is dramatically simple; in form and in mood it echoes the strong, severe shape of the cliffs that rise behind it. The temple consists of rows of pillared colonnades on three levels, which are reached by long sloping ramps. A wing at right angles to the lowest level has fluted circular columns, which irresistibly suggest Greece rather than Egypt. The first impression of this noble building is, somehow, non-Egyptian, although the basic inspiration for its design was drawn from the earlier Eleventh Dynasty temple of Mentuhotep II nearby. But Senenmut was not an imitator. His design is as superior to the older building as the Parthenon is superior to the graceless, stubby old temple at Corinth. The implied comparison with the Parthenon is not inappropriate, for both structures—the Parthenon and the temple of Deir el Bahri—have one major triumph in common: the observer is instantly struck with a sense of harmony in the proportions. No dimension could be altered without damaging the whole. The graceful colonnade of the Egyptian temple show that the Greeks were not the first to comprehend this particular architectural form.
The architect of Deir el Bahri also made full use of the terrain and of the peculiarly brilliant Egyptian climate. The overhanging cliffs do not diminish the handiwork of man but support and frame it, and the contrast of strong shadow and sharp sunlight is deliberately made a part of the design.
Though this temple, which was named Djeser-djeseru (“holiest of holy places”) in Egyptian, was dedicated to Amon and other gods, its primary function was to serve the funerary cult of the king Hatshepsut. Her first tomb, when she was still queen, was high in the cliffs of the western desert. Howard Carter found it in 1916, or, to be more accurate, he followed a group of would-be robbers who had found the tomb first and were busy at work inside when Carter arrived. Since the only access was via a rope from the clifftop above, Carter had the fellows right where he wanted them. He threatened to cut the rope and leave them stranded unless they came out with their hands up. Being sensible men, they did. Anyhow, they had wasted their time; the tomb was empty except for a handsome but unwieldy sarcophagus.
Presumably work on this tomb stopped when Hatshepsut proclaimed herself king. Her second tomb is one of the most extraordinary in the Valley of the Kings. It may have been the one Ineni constructed for his master—opinions differ on this. If it was, Hatshepsut, who liked to emphasize her relationship to her father, decided to have herself buried with him and began enlarging it. The seven-hundred-foot-long corridor wriggles around, but its general direction is in a line toward the temple at Deir el Bahri. Perhaps the original intention had been to drive the corridors straight under the mountain ridge so that the burial chamber would lie directly below the temple. The poor quality of the rock and the sheer dimensions of the tomb may have frustrated this intent; working in those airless lightless depths must have taken a toll on the workers. Few modern excavators have had the gumption to follow in their footsteps. One was Howard Carter, who got, for his pains, only the two sarcophagi from the burial chamber. One was Hatshepsut’s; the other, originally made for her, had been reinscribed for Thutmose I. He wasn’t there, and neither was she.
It is believed by some that Thutmose was removed by his grandson from the contaminating presence of Hatshepsut and reinstalled in another tomb in the Valley of the Kings—number 38, which contains fragmentary objects inscribed with his name. Formerly scholars thought KV38 was Ineni’s tomb, so to speak, the original sepulchre of Thutmose I. The revisionists base their theory on the fact that KV38 is simpler in plan than Thutmose III’s tomb, so it must be earlier in date. Maybe they’re right, although I am always skeptical of dating based on typological sequence. But if Thutmose I originally occupied KV38, then Hatshepsut moved him to KV20 and then Thutmose III put him back in KV38.
Anyhow, Hatshepsut’s father wasn’t in KV38 either. Tomb robbers had gotten to him, as they did to most of the other royals. One of the mummies from the royal cache was thought to be his, but of Hatshepsut the only certain trace is a mummified spleen, from the same cache. People are still looking for her, most recently in the tomb of her nurse, which contained two female mummies. One of them may be Hatshepsut’s. Another potential candidate is an unidentified mummy found in the tomb of Amenhotep II, along with the bodies of other monarchs rescued from their desecrated sepulchres. The techniques of mummification suit the period, and the investigators described the body as that of an “elderly woman.” (I take leave to resent the adjective; the lady was probably between thirty-five and forty-five when she died.) This same mummy has been identified as Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III, and as Nefertiti.
Or it could be somebody else.
There was a tomb under the sanctuary of the temple of Djeser djeseru. It was the tomb of the commoner, Senenmut, and his image still remains in the “holiest of holy places.”
Deir el Bahri has changed a lot since I first visited it in the 1960s; some would say not for the better. A Polish expedition has carried out extensive restorations. Greatly as this has added to the preservation and appearance of the temple, the retaining wall at the back, designed to prevent rockfalls, cannot be said to be an architectural success. One critic has compared the effect to a modern parking garage.
Though the dedicated Poles have opened up areas that were not accessible all those years ago, one part of the temple is no longer open to visitors. I will never forget my sight of it. Supervision of the sites was laxer in those days, and as I strolled, musing, I must have mentioned the name of Senmut (as we used to call him). One of the unavoidable guides pounced, nodding eagerly and making imperative gestures. “Senmut! Senmut!” he exclaimed and led me back into the shadows of the inner rooms. The darkness thickened, and the floor was rough and hazardous. I stumbled over a loose stone and wondered what the devil I was doing alone in the dark with a strange gentleman. Then the gentleman, for indeed he was, stopped and lit a pitiful little stub of candle. There was an open doorway to the left, leading into a small windowless room. The doors that had once closed it in had long since vanished. I squatted (I could do it then) and saw, by flickering candlelight, the small carved figure of a man, in the space that would have been hidden by the opened door. He knelt in the graceful Egyptian position of worship, with hands uplifted; and above him was the name that he dared to intrude into a shrine reserved for divinity: SENENMUT, STEWARD OF AMON.
The small carving is rather rough, and the conventionalized profile probably bears no resemblance to its supposed model. It is impossible to explain why the sight of it should have left such an unforgettable impression. Outside the temple the brazen sun blistered down out of a hard, hot sky; but the corridor beside the little storeroom was black and breathless, just as it must have been on that vanished day when Senenmut the Overseer of Works supervised by lamplight the insurance of his survival among the gods. Was it done with the approval of the queen, or did he risk her divine anger in his anxiety for life everlasting in her company?
Senenmut’s tomb under the temple has been described as another piece of matchless impudence; only members of the royal family could hope for such a favor. Some archaeologists have suggested that Hatshepsut found out about her favorite’s presumption and dismissed him from favor (possibly from life), but it is fantastic to assume that he could carry out a project as large as this without Hatshepsut’s knowledge; she was a woman of great energy and undoubtedly visited her mortuary temple often while it was abuilding. As for the images of Senenmut at Deir el Bahri—over sixty of them—they were signs of extraordinary privilege, granted by royal permission, according to a contemporary inscription. The tomb was disfigured later, but there is no way of knowing why or by whom. It was meant to have truly royal proportions; the corridors are over a hundred yards long as they stand.
The steward of Amon’s gamble for eternity did not pay off. He never occupied his gorgeous tomb; we do not know where his bones were laid to rest, if they found rest at all. He had another tomb, more suited to his official rank, on the slopes of a hill not far from Deir el Bahri. Perhaps Senenmut was buried here. His magnificent sarcophagus certainly was; it is strikingly similar to Hatshepsut’s sarcophagus and was probably made at the same time. (Is there no limit to this man’s ambition? asked the scandalized nobility.)
Senenmut may have been a “man on the make”—one of the most successful of all time—but he did not lack finer feelings. He caused his mother and father to be reburied near him so that they might share his good fortune in the West. In proximity to his tomb are several other burials that may be connected with him. He may have been a lover of music, for one of these burials is that of a minstrel, with the singer’s harp laid in the coffin. His pets were buried too—a pet ape and a little mare, enclosed in coffins and provided with food and water to last them until they reached the West.
Was he the queen’s lover? Serious historians might come back with another question: Who cares? The answer has no bearing on the important events of Hatshepsut’s reign—foreign policy, trade, political developments. But history is not only sterile events, it is people, and we are, most of us, gossips at heart. So let’s gossip.
I don’t know the answer to my question, and neither does anybody else. In official documents Senenmut is never shown as having more intimate relations with the queen than any other courtier. That doesn’t prove anything one way or the other, since the standardized formulae and conventional depictions of royalty would not allow for such deviations. His prominence, his high titles, and that interesting tomb at Deir el Bahri are the only evidences of unusual status.
Unofficial documents suggest that Senenmut’s contemporaries were not above a little gossip. The most interesting is a graffito—a sketch—in a cave near Deir el Bahri, which may have been dashed off in an idle hour by one of the men working on the temple. It shows two people in an intimate position. One of them is unquestionably female, the other unmistakeably male. Sketches like this are not altogether uncommon; the depiction of explicit sexual relations was not allowed by the puritanical, formal art canon, but in their private lives Egyptians were no more prim and proper than anyone else. In this particular case, some scholars have suggested that the couple are meant to be Hatshepsut and her chief architect. The female figure wears (only) a headdress with long lappets that fall over her shoulders. The male figure appears to be wearing a close-fitting cap. Is the headdress the nemes of royalty? Is the cap the type worn by certain officials?
Even if the answer to both questions is yes, even if the graffito can be dated to Hatshepsut’s reign, it proves only that people were smirking and gossiping about the queen and her overseer of works. In fact, we haven’t the faintest idea how such a liaison would have been regarded. Maybe everybody knew and nobody cared. Egyptians kings were allowed all the wives and concubines they wanted. Egyptian queens probably were not encouraged to stray, for the simple reason that a king likes to be sure he is the father of his heir. But Hatshepsut was a reigning king.
To an aficionado of detective stories, no fictitious crime holds the fascination of the many unsolved mysteries with which history abounds. Did the little dauphin die in prison, or was the child who perished a substitute? Was Richard III really the murderer of his nephews in the Tower? Did Leicester push his wife down the staircase at Kenilworth, in the over-weening hope of marrying Elizabeth the Queen? Whose gold hired the cutthroats who stabbed Cesare Borgia’s brother and threw his body into the Tiber? To these delightfully ghoulish questions we might add another, with equally dark implications: How did Hatshepsut meet her end?
We have a lot of material about the other mysteries of history (at least it seems quite a bit to an archaeologist), enough for a strong presumption in most cases, if not a certainty. But an inquest on the death of Hatshepsut would be a brief affair. We know that she disappeared from the scene and that her nephew, Thutmose III, became sole king of Egypt. But the lack of information only whets our curiosity. Was it Hatshepsut’s death that gave Thutmose sole power? Or, as some have recently suggested, did she retire, voluntarily or otherwise? If she did die, was it of natural causes? What part did Senenmut the Steward of Amon play in the last days and years of her reign?
There was no one to replace her. Her daughter, Nefrure, was her only child. What little we know about this princess provides more questions than answers. One of Senenmut’s titles was that of tutor to the princess, and several statues show them in a close if conventional embrace. Some scholars believe she married young Thutmose III. If so, she did not last long. Did she die a natural death, and if so, when?
It’s no wonder that historical novelists and some historians (including me) have interpreted this morass of nonevidence in dramatic terms. The new king was careful to ensure that Hatshepsut would die the second and final death, by obliterating her name and her carved image from every spot he could get at. One of the places that echoed to the blows of sledgehammers smashing stone was the temple at Deir el Bahri. The Metropolitan Museum Expedition, working at that site, found the pieces of dozens of statues of Hatshepsut dumped into a quarry near the temple, and fragments of others were strewn over a wide area. Hatshepsut’s titles and portraits were erased from the walls of the temple. The great obelisks at Karnak were not overthrown, but Thutmose III ordered them sheathed in masonry, which would cover up the female king’s name and her proud inscriptions.
Hatshepsut’s kingly sarcophagus was left intact, but Senenmut’s, the mate to hers, was literally broken to bits. Over twelve hundred fragments of it were found, scattered broadside over the ground near his tomb, and these pieces represented only about half of the original sarcophagus. Of the mummy that lay within it, there is no trace. Thutmose even sent his agents after the little images behind the doors of Djeser djeseru. Luckily for us, the human tools erred. They had no strong feelings one way or the other about Senenmut, and in the heat of the day it was pleasant to snatch a nap in a secluded spot where the overseer could not see. Many of the hidden figures escaped their notice, and it is these that we would see today if we could venture into the recesses of the great temple.
We have been talking all this time about people, and quite rightly, because Hatshepsut and her successor are figures that cannot be ignored. But there were other elements involved in the struggle for power; they certainly affected Hatshepsut’s seizure of the throne, and they were, perhaps, connected with her downfall. Hatshepsut’s devotion to Amon, and the position of her ally Hapuseneb as high priest of Amon, suggest that this mighty spiritual power supported her. But Thutmose III also honored Amon; and how he honored Amon! After he assumed full power, he caused to be circulated a curious and suggestive story.
As a youth, or “nestling,” he had served in the temple of Amon as a minor priest. One day came the occasion of a great festival of the god, in which the shrine was carried in procession through the north colonnaded hall of the Karnak temple. The reigning king (who is not named) made the offering, while the young priest stood humbly in his place, unnoticed. Then, to the amazement of all beholders, the shrine that held the god began to wander about, as if in search of something. It made an unexpected circuit of the hall and finally stopped before the gaping young priest. When that worthy prostrated himself, the god raised him up and led him to the “Station of the King.” “Thereafter the god opened for me [Thutmose speaking] the doors of heaven, and I flew to heaven as a divine hawk that I might see his mysterious form.”
And so on. The god Re himself crowned Thutmose, his titulary was fixed, and he was seated at the right hand of Re.
The last part of this tale, one need hardly say, is a fine example of poetical fiction-making. But the first part is significant—and perhaps no less fictitious. It is hard to believe that such an event really happened at the time Thutmose says (or implies) that it did. He can hardly have been more than a toddler when his father died, too young to have even a minor temple position; and if the unnamed “king” of the inscription was Hatshepsut in her prime, I, for one, would not like to have been one of the priests who guided the movements of the god under her critical eye. All ruling kings blandly claimed the favor of the god, and Hatshepsut was assiduous in honoring Amon—with good reason, since according to her version that divine spirit had fathered her. What we see in these tales is an attempt to use the symbol of the god as a polite substitute for the political support of the priesthoods. There are only two possible explanations for Thutmose’s story. Either it is pure fiction, like Hatshepsut’s divine birth, or the event took place at a later date and may have been the signal for a coup d’état. This implies a political shift, or split, in the priesthood itself.
Hapuseneb, the politician-priest who had supported Hatshepsut’s claim, was not the man who led the transfer of allegiance to the rising sun of Thutmose. Hapuseneb is significantly absent after Thutmose assumes power; in fact, his memory was bitterly persecuted. If Amon decided to switch to Thutmose, the oracle who voiced the god’s decision was another man.
But why switch at all? The Egyptians never heard of the adage about the horses and the middle of the stream, but no people were ever more satisfied with the status quo. Was the queen getting old? Then Thutmose would succeed to the throne in any case (in theory he already held it, and had for more than twenty years). Why rush things in an undignified and violent manner? A plausible answer is that the cannier of the priests knew quite well that nobody who had been popular with Hatshepsut was going to be a bosom companion of her nephew’s. It would be good policy to assure the coming king of one’s loyalty before allegiance became a necessity.
Conspiracies have been formed for less logical reasons, but in this case there may have been a stronger motive. Let us anticipate a trifle and look at Thutmose’s first official act as king de facto. Within a few months of assuming power, Thutmose had left Egypt. He was on his way to Syria, where a powerful confederation of local princes was threatening the supremacy of Egypt, established in that area by Thutmose I.
We have no records of disaffection or of rebellion under Hatshepsut, but it would be naive to suppose that there were none just because she did not choose to mention them. We know, from later cases, that the “pacified” territories of Syria did not stay pacified very long without a display of force from Egypt. The last major campaigns before those of Thutmose III had been those of his grandfather, some thirty years earlier. Although Hatshepsut’s reign appears to have been peaceful and prosperous, we can be fairly sure that by the end of her time the local princes of northern Syria were getting ideas. No matter how benevolent its control, a conqueror will be resented by the conquered, especially by those who want power for themselves.
Thutmose III marched, not for exercise, but to face a confederation of rebels. It is tempting to suppose that it was the news of this confederation, reaching Egypt, that brought l’affaire Hatshepsut to its crisis. It has been suggested that Hatshepsut did carry out a few minor military campaigns. I find the evidence for this idea unconvincing, and I am equally unpersuaded by the argument that Thutmose III led Egyptian armies abroad during her reign. I can’t imagine how Hatshepsut would dare let her gifted nephew become a military hero, or win the allegiance of the army. The overwhelming impression of her reign is one of peace, commerce, and trade, especially in contrast to the reigns of her father and her successor.
So, in detective story tradition, we might ask who profited most by war, after the king himself? The beneficiary of Thutmose’s generosity is clear—the god Amon and the priesthood of the god. The young king’s sudden favor in the eyes of the god might have been due to the fact that he had succeeded in convincing a significant part of the priesthood that Amon would wax fat with gold if he were allowed to run things in Egypt. One can, in fancy, see the meeting, in some dark cell in the temple of Amon; the young man, eyes alight above the magnificent Thutmosid nose which so eloquently supported his claim to kingship, leaning forward and gesturing in the eagerness of his discourse; the group of priests in their immaculate white linen robes, faces impassive at first—and then, wordlessly, a nod of agreement here, a slow and thoughtful scratching of a shaven chin there.
This is historical fictionalizing, of course. There is a difference between a theory and a possibility; neither should contradict known data, but an honest theory ought to have some little something in the way of proof behind it. Unless new facts come to light, there never can be a theory about Hatshepsut’s fall because there is no evidence of any kind. You can see why Egyptologists occasionally turn to fictionalizing for lack of anything more solid. As a feeble justification for my own predilections in that direction, I can only add that I’m not the only one.
There were other reigning queens in ancient Egypt; some of them even assumed the king’s titles. But none ruled for a generation without opposition, and none held the throne during the adulthood of a man like Thutmose III. They have come down to us as equals, each unique in his or her own sphere. None of his successors tried to tarnish Thutmose’s glory, and his designs on Hatshepsut’s name and fame were foiled by the leveling forces of time and by the brilliance of modern scholarship. The masonry with which he encased her mighty obelisks collapsed, and archaeologists put the pieces of her shattered statues back together. They stand today in the museums of Cairo and New York, and on the terraces of her temple.