After forty-two years of rule, Thutmose III was now faced with the same problems of succession that had plagued his own accession. If he chose a son from a queen of great lineage, she might feel empowered by recent precedent to involve herself in government affairs, as Hatshepsut had done. Thutmose had learned his lesson, it seems, and he was already in the process of curtailing the office of God’s Wife of Amen, stripping its power little by little, handing the title off to one of his daughters so that he could better wield control. Soon the God’s Wife would be nothing more than a ritualist, without income, lands, personnel, or political influence.
If he chose the son of a lesser wife, however, there was the worry of legitimacy because the child would have no other ties to the old kings and no links to Egypt’s great families. His own lineage from Isis had been problematic enough to cause Hatshepsut to step in as king, when many elites ostensibly complained that her young nephew lacked a pure and lofty descent.1 Passing over any sons of Nefrure or other highly placed wives would be a bold move. It may be that Thutmose III was carefully laying the groundwork for the acceptance of a successor who had no maternal connection to Egypt’s ancient bloodline. He chose to demonstrate that it was the king’s lineage alone that mattered; the queen’s origins had to be made inconsequential. He was looking forward to the future—to the support of his heir and to his legacy—but in so doing, he had to go back to the past and rewrite history so that it followed his desired patriarchal succession. Thus, for the remainder of his reign, Thutmose III systematically removed all of Hatshepsut’s images and substituted the names and figures of his male line of descent for hers. Hatshepsut was now treated like an intercessor.
Despite all the time Hatshepsut had invested in her co-king, all the political support she had built for him, all the elites she had empowered, all the bureaucratic systems she had legitimized, and all the timeless monuments she had built, none of it mattered. Many of her supporters had already lost favor and were powerless to stop this machine of destruction that Thutmose III was now rolling out against her. Her legacy would soon be erased. Her monuments had been built to stand for centuries, as the temples and chapels of her predecessors had. But nothing could stop a king who was given the power to both build monuments and destroy them. It had taken almost no time for the legacy of Hatshepsut’s supporters—Nefrure, Senenmut, Amenhotep, Nehesy—to be swept away. Now the time had come for the most powerful woman in Egypt’s history to suffer the same fate.
Hatshepsut’s Red Chapel had already been dismantled, its quartzite blocks lying in a jumbled pile somewhere on the grounds of Karnak Temple. Her Djeser Djeseru temple was apparently still the main focus of the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, providing the context for the revelry, drinking, and sacred processions that took place over a week every summer in Thebes. But Thutmose III’s building program in Thebes was finally catching up with his aunt’s. His west bank funerary temple was probably complete at this point. His Akhmenu jubilee temple at Karnak had been finished, and his other modifications at Karnak would have been extensive and visible to many.
Something happened to change his perception of Hatshepsut, causing him to abandon any protection of her legacy in stone. He decided to eradicate her from every temple in Egypt. Between his years 43 or 44 and 46 or 47, when he was fast approaching fifty years of age, an astounding twenty-five years after her death, Thutmose III decided to embark on an official and systematic campaign to destroy the images and names of his aunt and former coruler, Hatshepsut.2 All around Egypt, but in Thebes especially, Thutmose sent chisel bearers to demolish what she had labored so long to build. The boy she had raised and trained as her partner and heir for all of those years had become a man who, after twenty-five years of waiting, had finally come to the momentous decision to wipe all trace of her as king off the face of the earth.
At the beginning of Thutmose III’s reign, he had actually ordered his craftsmen to finish her monuments and piously add his name and likeness to Hatshepsut’s sacred structures where appropriate. Now he adopted the diametrically opposite approach by removing hundreds, if not thousands, of Hatshepsut’s images and replacing them with depictions of his father and grandfather. Dozens of life-size statues and Osirian monuments from Djeser Djeseru were attacked with hammer, mallet, and chisel until they were nothing more than fragments of their former splendor, fit only to be thrown into pits close to the temple site, to be buried and kept away from view. Those carved of hard stones like red granite or granodiorite required tremendous investments of labor and time to destroy. Any effort diverted toward this cause was costly and slowed the progress of Thutmose’s own extensive building program. Yet despite his advanced age and the urgency of the work on his own funerary temples and tombs, he obviously felt he had no choice but to allocate workmen and resources for such an important task. The woman who had paved his way to a stable and legitimate kingship now had to be obliterated from the Egyptian temple landscape. His own legacy demanded it.
Thutmose III never wrote down any explanations for his removal of Hatshepsut from the Egyptian temples, but he had already been distancing himself from her for some time before he diverted precious resources to destroy her images. He had already changed his own portrait to give it a unique visage apart from his aunt’s stylistic legacy. He chose a likeness that resembled the faces of his father and grandfather instead, visibly aligning himself with the male ancestors with whom he wanted to be associated. Statue after statue featured Thutmose’s new portrait; it was an inevitable development to distinguish his face from what he was now having demolished.
The erasure of his former coruler was methodical and calculating. He removed her from the public spots that served as settings for particular festivals and from the innermost shrines where the gods dwelled. Nearly every image of Hatshepsut as king was affected. Sometimes craftsmen were clearly ordered to leave the reliefs of her face and body alone but to cut down the raised carving of her names, so that they could quickly and easily replace them with the hieroglyphic names of Thutmose I or II. But this strategy proved more troublesome than expected because many of the texts surrounding her figure included remnants of her femininity. Every .s of “she” had to be replaced with .f for “he.” The -t after sat, for “daughter,” had to be removed so that the label read only sa, for “son.”
Hatshepsut’s nuanced use of pronouns often tripped up Thutmose III’s craftsmen. For instance, on the gateway to the upper terrace of Djeser Djeseru they changed the name of the king from Hatshepsut to Thutmose III but neglected to change “her” to “his,” so one inscription about him incongruously reads, “Amen is satisfied by her monuments.”
The sheer volume of monuments to destroy, coupled with the painstaking attention to detail required to complete the erasure work, meant that Thutmose III’s men couldn’t always get around to creating new images to fill the blanks. Sometimes he substituted a tall offering table of food for Hatshepsut’s image, which left the god standing before a meal instead of interacting with the king. This solution removed most of the ritual activity and movement from the temple walls, so it was not always a satisfying fix. Instead of seeing the king burning incense in a brazier before the god, now the viewer observed the god standing inexplicably still before his offering table. Instead of the female king running before the god, now the god was simply standing before another offering table.
The banality of such fixes was probably disappointing to both the craftsmen and the king, but in many other places nothing at all was added to beautify or clean up the destroyed reliefs. We see only the rough shape of a human body formed by overlapping chisel marks, as if Hatshepsut’s crisply cut concrete form had been supplanted by an unlabeled and blurry shadow of her former self.
Interestingly, images of Hatshepsut as queen—from before her claim to the throne—were left untouched. Only reliefs and statuary that supported the presumption of her kingship were revised. Thutmose III was attacking only Hatshepsut’s kingly ambitions and actions, not her soul as a woman or a human being. In fact, he seems to have been content to coexist with her depictions as God’s Wife, King’s Daughter, and King’s Wife. But portraits and texts showing her as king caused him grief, enough to create an ideological purge twenty-five years after her death. Most Egyptians only lived thirty years. It’s important to remember that Thutmose III waited an entire lifetime before he attacked his aunt’s monuments. Something must have shifted in his political landscape, something that hadn’t been a problem before, something that kings worry about at the end of their reigns, not the beginning. After twenty-five years of coexisting with the memory of his aunt—the extraordinary woman with whom he had once reigned and worked, perhaps even argued with and loved—he now removed her from his presence.
He even ordered his men to erase her from the dismantled blocks of her Red Chapel at Karnak, even though they were not being used in any current structure. A disassembled monument with images of Hatshepsut as king was enough to vex Thutmose III. Leaving the great heap of heavy blocks where they lay, the craftsmen chiseled away her name and images only from those stones that proved to be easily accessible in the massive pile.3 And so, after all visible traces of Hatshepsut had been removed from the quartzite, the blocks would remain there for a few generations until they were salvaged as rubble fill for the construction of a new pylon. Eventually they were discovered inside of a Karnak pylon by archaeologists quite confused at the haphazard pattern of Hatshepsut’s removal.
Near where the Red Chapel had once stood and around his own new barque shrine of gray granodiorite, Thutmose III ordered Hatshepsut erased from the surrounding suite of rooms.4 Perhaps since so few people saw these rooms, he never replaced these images with anything at all; the raw chisel marks remain as an open wound on these most sacred and intimate spaces in Karnak Temple.5 He was already distracting his elites with new monuments nearby, so perhaps no one really noticed. Around his new barque shrine he carved his own historical annals, which documented his feats, campaigns, and successes as king.6
Thutmose III never took down Hatshepsut’s obelisks, perhaps because that would have been seen as an affront to the gods or because the intense labor would have drawn more attention to his destructions than his constructions. She had already covered up the lower section of one pair of obelisks, building walls between the fourth and fifth pylons, which concealed the pertinent inscriptions and saved them from Thutmose III’s chisels.7 Apparently Thutmose III wasn’t worried about leaving the ideological essence of Hatshepsut’s names and images—and thus, in the Egyptian mind-set, her spirit—in the temple of Karnak. He simply wanted to prevent people from seeing and interacting with her as king. He did attack the other obelisks more visible to the public; craftsmen were sent to the very top of these six-story shafts with rigging and rappelling equipment so that they could remove any figures of Hatshepsut and replace them with offering tables.8
On the southern face of the eighth pylon, where her monumental statuary had already been reassigned to earlier kings, Thutmose III completely defaced the reliefs of Hatshepsut; the entire pylon was essentially left blank, with only violent chisel marks as decoration. A temple pylon was meant to introduce the king as the protector of his people and was typically decorated with images of him grasping his vile enemies by the scruff of the hair, ready to smash their skulls with a stone mace. The king’s violence was thought to protect the temple space, creating a kind of force field between the profanity of the outside world and the sacred, clean, undefiled space inside the temple walls. Thutmose III had just such an image—smiting his eastern foes—carved on the seventh pylon, but because this pylon was hidden behind the eighth (Karnak was essentially a series of pylon gateways with shrines and colonnades in between), the public standing outside the temple entrance saw only undecorated surfaces, not images of their heroic king. Perhaps Thutmose III’s seventh pylon reliefs sufficed for the festival activity that took place in this part of Karnak Temple. Indeed, it wasn’t until the reign of his son that the eighth pylon was recarved with any new reliefs.9
Across the river, the defacement of Hatshepsut’s monuments on the west bank was also under way. Thutmose III wasn’t intent on dismantling the entire temple of Djeser Djeseru, probably because the site was intensely sacred, not only to Hathor but also to Amen and to deified kingship in general. Instead, he decided to transform this structure from a funerary temple dedicated to Hatshepsut into one dedicated to his father and grandfather. He converted every possible relief image into one of these kings, and because Hatshepsut was depicted as masculine here anyway, it was relatively easy work. Some of the images at Djeser Djeseru already represented Thutmose III, and thus the structure was altered into a confirmation of how kingship could move through three generations, ending at the rightful heir—himself. Hatshepsut did not fit into this story of masculine linear succession, nor did her daughter Nefrure. They were both removed from the temple walls, although Nefrure’s images were probably already long erased by this point.
Hatshepsut’s divine birth narrative claiming godly ancestry had to be removed entirely, but the chiseling was so superficial that the text and imagery could still be easily read by any who cared to visit. The reliefs of Hatshepsut’s expedition to Punt and her obelisk scenes—some of Hatshepsut’s proudest achievements as king—were likewise only shaved down and never entirely erased. If Thutmose III redecorated these walls, he relied heavily on plaster, none of which remains today.
At Hatshepsut’s sacred funerary temple, all the ritual activity for Amen-Re, Hathor, Anubis, Re-Horakhty, and Osiris, all the incense offering, running, libation pouring, embracing, and other rites were assigned to different kings. It was now Thutmose I, Thutmose II, and Thutmose III who facilitated these most sacred rites as depicted in the reliefs. It must be said that Thutmose III may not have viewed his activities as destruction but rather as a transformation, senefer, “making good.” Regardless of any rationalized justification, Hatshepsut was still deprived of an eternal afterlife as chief priest and king in these temples; she was relegated to a few images in Karnak and elsewhere as queen, wife, and mother. As king she had merely been a placeholder.
It was the Djeser Akhet, Thutmose III’s new temple just south of Hatshepsut’s, that saved Djeser Djeseru from complete obliteration, because it created an architectural complex unifying all the buildings at the site, a visible manifestation in stone of three generations of kings.10 After Thutmose’s recarving, the bay of cliffs at Deir el-Bahri could be seen as containing an orderly progression of structures dedicated to the kingship of the Theban ancestors (Mentuhotep II’s funerary complex), to his father and his grandfather (Djeser Djeseru), and to his own cult (Djeser Akhet).
The statues from Hatshepsut’s funerary temple were probably a great annoyance for Thutmose III, as they could not be converted into other kings without extensive recarving of the face and sometimes of the body as well. Despite the expense of stones like red granite, which other later New Kingdom kings (like Ramses II) would have been more than happy to reuse rather than throw away, Thutmose III decided that the best course of action was the removal and complete destruction of all of Hatshepsut’s statuary. Crews of men pulled down and smashed the dozens of colossal limestone statues of Hatshepsut as Osiris that fronted the temple colonnades. A row of standing Osiris-Hatshepsut divinities fronting each colonnade was renovated into a row of plain rectangular columns, which lent Deir el-Bahri a more austere, and perhaps less Egyptian, air.
Thutmose III ordered any freestanding statues of his aunt utterly destroyed—one depicted her wearing a dress in combination with the king’s nemes headdress; another showed her wearing a masculine kilt but with girlish breasts on her bare chest. Most of the statues from Djeser Djeseru, however, depicted her in an orthodox fashion, as a strong man kneeling before the gods in the act of offering jars, vessels, or insignia. But all of these statues, too, even though they could have been easily reassigned like the colossi in front of the eighth pylon, were dragged down the ramps of the temple from their sanctuaries or processional avenues and into the courtyards below, where they were brutally smashed.11
The ancient Egyptians believed that harming a statue or removing a name could provoke the dead. Angry ghosts could visit considerable devastation upon the living. Hatshepsut had been a formidable personality in life and remained a force to be reckoned with after her death. The priests must have tried to calm Hatshepsut’s spirit during all of this destruction by performing spells and incantations or placating her with food and drink offerings. We don’t know how the Egyptians justified this destruction in their own minds. All we have is the devastation they left behind.
Thutmose III’s craftsmen were instructed in how to best annihilate these statues, presumably so that they could deactivate them and break the link between Hatshepsut and the kingship. Every statue was purposefully and directly struck at the uraeus cobra on her forehead, severing the queen from her kingly rule in one swift blow. And each one had erasures or strikes where Hatshepsut had been named king, thus cutting the owner from the royal titulary. These explicitly destructive ritual actions were likely performed first, and then the statues were haphazardly struck to pieces. Workmen used an old limestone quarry near the Djeser Djeseru temple causeway—ignominiously termed the “Hatshepsut Hole” by twentieth-century archaeologists—as a dumping ground for the fragments of Hatshepsut’s once grand statuary.
Some officials seem to have followed their king’s lead. For example, Puyemre, the Second High Priest of Amen, perhaps worried about his close professional connections to the former female king, removed all her names and images from his tomb and modified scenes to include Thutmose III instead. He was able to keep his position when Thutmose III became sole king, but his son Menkheperre never rose in rank as high as his father. His family’s political associations with Hatshepsut may have been to blame for his son’s stunted career.12
Despite the breadth and organization of the destruction, Hatshepsut had simply built too much and embellished Egypt too widely for Thutmose III to destroy it all. He did not start his methodical removal of Hatshepsut until the last decade of his reign, and ten years was, astoundingly, not enough time for him to complete it. Destruction fatigue seems to have set in for him and for his workmen.13 Perhaps his architects and engineers became anxious about the time and expense of these side activities and encouraged their crewmen to focus on the living king’s construction work so that they could finish vital building before his death. Thutmose III’s successor would have to continue the removal of Hatshepsut, but history would show that he lacked the necessary zeal for the work, eventually dropping the chisel, as it were, a few years into his own reign.
When Egyptologists first considered the destruction of Hatshepsut’s monuments, it was easy to write a simplistic story about a woman who took what was not hers and got what was coming to her in the end, a tale of the rightful heir taking revenge on an aunt who had deigned to claim his crown for herself. Narratives full of loathing and retaliation were written with impunity. It wasn’t until 1966 that the Egyptologist Charles Nims concluded that the systematic erasure of her names and images did not happen until after year 42 of Thutmose III, at least twenty years after her death.14 Other Egyptologists have since pushed the date even further.15 It seems that Thutmose III’s campaign of destruction was done more for complex political reasons than personal hatred and vendettas. Hatshepsut’s erasure does not seem to have been a campaign driven by Thutmose’s narcissism, either, since he replaced most of her images with those of his ancestors, not himself. Her defacement wasn’t about the status and perception of his own kingship but about something larger: how the office of kingship was transferred from one generation to the next. Thutmose III was repairing the ideology of succession to fit his current needs, and each modification he made to a relief or a statue was ostensibly to show how the sacred office had been passed from Thutmose I through Thutmose II to him—and eventually to his own son.16 Thutmose III waited until the end of his reign to erase Hatshepsut’s presence because it was only then that he needed to shore up the legitimate kingship for a son who had no genealogical connection to Hatshepsut’s side of the family. By removing his aunt, whose lofty and pure family connections sullied the aspirations of his own chosen son, Thutmose III was strengthening the history ofhisdynasty.
Some Egyptologists have theorized the existence of two rival family lines: one descended from Hatshepsut’s family and the other from Thutmose III’s, both vying for the throne.17 Unfortunately, no direct evidence speaks to any claims to the kingship by men descended from Thutmose I and Ahmes, but there is no doubt that this calculated destruction of Hatshepsut’s images would have sent a powerful message that Thutmose III would brook no upheavals among his courtiers and family members, or against his chosen heir.
As expected, the Egyptians left little information in the historical record about the sons of Thutmose III, but there are clues. There is the evidence of Prince Amenemhat, who had been named as Overseer of Cattle earlier in his reign, and we also hear of another boy named Siamen, who lived long enough to have his name recorded on Egypt’s sacred monuments. If either of these princes had lived or been deemed suitable for the throne, then perhaps Thutmose III would never have destroyed Hatshepsut’s monuments.18Each of these sons may have had strong connections to both their powerful father and a well-bred mother, lineage enough to allow some influential families at court real power. Both also would have been old enough to rule out any need for a regent even if Thutmose III had died in his fourth or fifth decade. But it seems likely that both of these boys died before their father did.
Or perhaps we shouldn’t discount the possibility that Amenemhat and Siamen were still alive when the campaign against Hatshepsut began. Maybe they were born to women too powerful for Thutmose III’s tastes or had family connections that proved too problematic for his current political agenda. We know too little about Egyptian rules of royal succession to say with certainty that the kingship always went to the eldest son or that these princes were definitely dead. While it is clear that Thutmose III was making an ideological statement with his destruction of Hatshepsut’s images, we still don’t know the exact nature of the political problems that made him expend so many of his resources on her ruin. But the best explanation, using all the available evidence, is that he was anxious about his succession, his dynasty, and the legitimacy of his chosen heir.
Either by choice or by necessity, Thutmose III picked Amenhotep, a very young prince who was probably no older than eight. He made his choice around the same time as he embarked on his campaign of destruction against Hatshepsut. The boy’s mother, Merytre-Hatshepsut, certainly does not seem to have been a woman educated to rule. Although her parents were never named on any monuments, her mother was almost certainly a royal nurse named Huy. Merytre-Hatshepsut was not a high-ranking queen; her titles were unimpressive until she was named King’s Mother. Prince Amenhotep may have been born as late as year 37 of Thutmose III’s reign, and his father assigned him as many tutors and nurses as possible, not just one as was conventional, but two male tutors and at least nine nurses.19 He was making sure that his son had plenty of political supporters at his disposal, in case his own unexpected death left a young boy on the throne, who would be just as vulnerable to the ambitious and the power hungry as he had once been.
When Prince Amenhotep was crowned as Aakheperure Amenhotep, thus becoming Amenhotep II, his father was still alive. Amenhotep II was crowned as a coregent, ruling alongside Thutmose III, just as the elder king had reigned with his aunt Hatshepsut so many years ago. Once this coregency was in place, the destruction of Hatshepsut’s monuments largely stopped, and Egypt’s craftsmen returned to building rather than dismantling.20 So it appears that Hatshepsut’s destruction was only necessary when Amenhotep’s future was uncertain. Once he was crowned, once he was king, its usefulness had passed.21
By erasing Hatshepsut from the landscape, Thutmose III was probably helping his son to avoid all the problems that he himself had faced: kingship while too young to rule; an overbearing regent who took his power before he was even aware of what it was; a lack of strong advisers who could speak up on his behalf; a mother too weak or politically marginal to help him succeed as king; and humble origins on his maternal side. Like so many parents who want their children to avoid their own missteps and misfortunes, Thutmose III actively worked to create a better life for Amenhotep than he had had himself by paving the way for a reign unhindered by doubt and insecurity.
Amazingly, the campaign of destruction suggests that Thutmose III’s own complicated origins and succession still haunted him as he prepared to pass the kingship to his son.22 But if he corrected the perception that his rule was somehow less valid or legitimate than Hatshepsut’s, then Amenhotep stood a better chance of ruling unmolested. According to some Egyptologists, Thutmose III was essentially dissolving Hatshepsut’s reign into his own and into that of her father and her husband.23 And after he did so, before he died during his fifty-fourth regnal year, when he was in his midfifties, it was as if she had never existed at all. Hatshepsut was gone.
Thutmose III’s actions suggest that he worried about the threats posed to the Egyptian government by women with power and influence, particularly the God’s Wife of Amen, an office that both Hatshepsut and Nefrure had occupied. He systematically and ruthlessly gutted the authority of the position; first he bestowed it on his daughter Merytamen, a girl who was under his control, and after her on Amenhotep II’s mother, Merytre-Hatshepsut, a woman of no royal blood and of no apparent talents or ambitions. Later in the Eighteenth Dynasty, kings usually decided that the safest people to trust with such a powerful position were their own mothers, women who ostensibly would do nothing to jeopardize the ambitions of their own sons.24 After Thutmose III, the office of God’s Wife was forever weakened.25 And after the reign of Thutmose IV, all record of the God’s Wife of Amen disappears for hundreds of years.
Amenhotep II apparently learned the lessons warning against wives who were too influential, at his father’s knee. He never named or depicted any of his wives, not even his Great Wife, depriving her of any platform for authority during his reign. Without titles and offices these women had no political place at court. And so it went with Amenhotep’s son Thutmose IV. Both kings focused on their mothers at the expense of their wives, presumably because a mother was much less likely to become overly ambitious on her own behalf. Amenhotep II actually relied on his own mother, Merytre-Hatshepsut, to serve in the official role of wife in religious activities. These kings shied away from including their queens in any public rituals. Hatshepsut had left a legacy indeed—of keeping women from power. Everything she had built and fought for—to empower herself and her daughter—seems to have pushed the liberal Egyptian allowance of female rule to the breaking point. If anything, Hatshepsut’s kingship would eventually drive influential women out of positions of authority for generations to come.
Most likely the ambitions of Hatshepsut and Nefrure pushed these kings to forbid their women a public persona and, in turn, to undermine the importance of maternal lineage. With the royal succession restricted to the paternal line and the queen’s line of descent deemed irrelevant, the King’s Wife truly became just a vessel for the king’s sacred seed. And interestingly, none of the women we know about from this time period—generally just King’s Mothers—had any royal lineage. These royal women were not King’s Daughters or King’s Wives.26 Later Eighteenth Dynasty kings ruthlessly cracked down on their women’s power; female genealogy was simply ignored—certainly not the legacy Hatshepsut would have wished on the women of her dynasty.
Although we might assume that Hatshepsut was completely forgotten by the people she had once ruled, her existence and achievements lived on in the shadows of Egyptians’ historical memory. During the Twenty-First Dynasty, the priest-king of Thebes, Panedjem I, named a daughter Maatkare and a son Menkheperre—clearly in memory of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III—thus showing that even some four centuries later they were still remembered as a family partnership in royal authority. Indeed, Panedjem seems to have been something of a Thutmoside enthusiast: for his own burial he took over and redecorated Thutmose I’s coffin. Maatkare went on to become God’s Wife of Amen; one wonders whether Panedjem had an eye to Hatshepsut’s occupancy of the role when choosing which daughter to invest with that honor.
Thutmose III may have removed Hatshepsut’s images as king from formal temple inscriptions, but the Egyptians kept a record of her reign in a different, less public set of texts meant for the learned and intellectual to consult. The fourth century BCE Egyptian historian-priest named Manetho—the same man who first recorded Egypt’s system of thirty dynasties as a king list for posterity—included a woman named Amessis in his history.27 His text was written in Greek, which was common for scholars of the time, so we should expect her name to be different. This female king was said to be the sister of a king named Amenophis (instead of Thutmosis). Some of the details don’t fit with the story Egyptology has reconstructed, but this woman was recorded to rule for twenty-one years and nine months, which corresponds quite well with Hatshepsut’s last attested regnal year of 22. Manetho also mentions a great deal of military campaigning after the death of this female king, which aligns with our information about Megiddo and later conflicts of Thutmose III. Thus, almost a millennium after Hatshepsut was erased from the temple landscape, her name, rule, and deeds were still remembered by historians. Egypt has always maintained two narratives, the ideological and the real: temple reliefs were religiously driven and represented a cleaned-up and idealized version of history, while historical papyri recorded what was actually known to have happened, even if it did not accord with the orthodox expectations of the gods or the political agenda of the ruling king. Present-day knowledge about ancient Egypt is largely based on the ideologically driven story, the one inscribed on massive blocks of stone meant to survive through the ages, because stone lasts longer than fragile papyrus or vellum rolls.
But Hatshepsut had another legacy, too; her architectural innovations and royal theologies remained meaningful to the kings who came after her. Even though her names and images were removed from Egyptian temples, the royal and priestly libraries seem to have been full of information about her creations and successes as king. Perhaps later Egyptian rulers perceived her to be a pious leader, but one their people couldn’t understand or appreciate. Egyptologists have pointed out that Amenhotep III—a king unrivaled in exquisite temple building and known for extraordinary innovations, who arguably outbuilt Ramses the Great—used Hatshepsut as a model for his own kingship.28 As a child, this Eighteenth Dynasty monarch was instructed in various styles of leadership, including that of Hatshepsut, and apparently he was strongly affected by her ideologies, particularly her interest in divine revelations. Thutmose III and Amenhotep II fostered an image of themselves as warrior-kings—with multiple ruthless campaigns and records of athletic and hunting exploits—but Amenhotep III strove to be more like Hatshepsut: a pious child of the gods who was ready to accept their oracles and act on their behalf, a builder of sacred monuments, and a participant in profound mysteries. By the time Amenhotep III came to the throne, no one alive in Egypt remembered Hatshepsut’s rule, but her methodology of leadership, her platforms, and maybe even her own letters and communications must have been accessible to Amenhotep III and his agents. She was preserved in the written and unwritten memories of the Egyptian people—in temple libraries, in the craftsmen’s songs, or in the stories heard by the oldest Amen priests.
There was much in Hatshepsut’s innovative reign to impress a king like Amenhotep III. She systematized the Opet festival by creating a stone stage for the Theban ritual that stretched from Karnak Temple to Luxor Temple. She solarized the monuments of her kingship—dedicating them to the mysterious workings of the sun god. She resurrected the practice of populating Egypt’s temples with obelisks, rays of the sun set in stone. Her use of stone was unprecedented: she built the southern axis of Karnak Temple in stone for the first time, added stone elements to Luxor Temple, constructed the temple of Amen Kamutef and the temple in the Mut precinct in stone. And she dedicated her workmen to building temples for goddesses all over Egypt—female divinities who devoted their viciousness and their sexuality to their father, the sun god.
During her reign, we see evidence for the first codified and large-scale Beautiful Feast of the Valley. Hatshepsut took esoteric valley celebrations of renewal and firmly linked them to the politics of her own kingship—in her capacity as a high priest who could understand the mysteries of life after death—to her benefit and that of every king who followed her. She styled herself as a sun priest, and she was initiated into the secrets of that cult. In her open sun chapel at Djeser Djeseru, she recorded the journey of the sun through its hourly manifestations, probably a first for any New Kingdom monarch.
Hatshepsut was the first known Egyptian king to choose divine revelation as the chief justification for her kingship. In accordance with her deep piety, everything she did was in service to the gods, and to Amen of Thebes in particular. She used sacred festivals, when the god went forth from his sanctuary and communed with the people, as a public setting to demonstrate the gods’ support of her rule. Even the wealth she collected on Nubian campaigns was described as the gods’ due, and every bureaucratic or priestly position created was said to be for the gods’ glory. Hatshepsut needed to intertwine her kingship with the religious structures that meant so much to people, the rituals and traditions on which they depended to make their crops grow and their children healthy, to facilitate her unprecedented political and economic control.
In keeping with Hatshepsut’s model, her officials and priests sought more immersion in religious mysteries and wider access to sacred books, which led to the first extensive papyri inscribed with the Book of the Dead. She instituted an intellectual theological renaissance in Thebes. Before that time, extracts of sacred books had appeared on funerary pieces like coffins or canopic jars, but now for the first time elites were being buried with lengthy and personalized papyri, which provided evidence of participation in the mysteries of divine renewal at a broader, abstracter, level than ever before. During her reign, people were writing new things down on papyrus and carving inscriptions into stone that they hadn’t ever recorded before.
In the end, Hatshepsut’s greatest accomplishment and most daring innovation was her methodical and calculated creation of the only truly successful female kingship in the ancient world. Historians can find almost no evidence of effective, formally defined, long-term female leadership from antiquity—not from the Mediterranean, the Near East, Africa, Central Asia, or the New World. These societies—city-states, regional states, or vast empires—were inherently based on masculine dominance because of their reliance on kingship and dynastic succession. A woman could take the throne only when regional or imperial aggressions had removed all men from the centers of power or when a dynasty was at its end and all appropriate males in the royal family were dead. The only rivals to Hatshepsut’s models of female power would come later, from imperial China.29
In the ancient world, female power was made possible only in times of crisis; catastrophe was seemingly a prerequisite to a woman’s participation in an exclusively male system. Queen Tawosret of the Nineteenth Dynasty claimed the kingship alone for a mere two years after she had no son to continue her lineage; however, the only thing her reign brought about was the beginning of a new ruling family. Boudicca led her Britons against the aggressions of Rome around 60 CE, but only after that relentless imperial force had all but swallowed up her fiercest and most noble kinsmen. A few decades later, Cleopatra used her great wealth, intelligence, and sexuality to tie herself to not one but two of Rome’s greatest warlords, just as Egypt was on the brink of provincial servitude. She bore offspring to Julius Caesar and Marc Antony in the hope that her children would bond Egypt’s dynastic succession to the fortunes of a victorious Roman warlord. Boudicca and Cleopatra gained power only once the Roman Empire threatened their people’s sovereignty and only because there were no remaining male candidates to lead the defense. Both women saw the destruction of their dynasty, their independence, their very way of life, and ultimately their own selves during the crises that defined their rule.
Not until the development of the modern nation-state did women like Elizabeth I or Catherine the Great take on long-lasting mantles of power. The post–Roman Empire, Christian reconfiguration of a fragmented Europe depended on a delicate balance of intertwined dynastic bloodlines that always preferred the person, male or female, who had the clearest claim of descent. In other words, in an ethnically and linguistically divided Europe, when no man could be found to continue a ruling house’s bloodline, a female representative of the ruling family was generally preferred over handing the kingdom over to a “foreigner.”
Through all of antiquity, however, history records only one female ruler who successfully negotiated a systematic rise to power—without assassinations or coups—during a time of peace, who formally labeled herself with the highest position known in government, and who ruled for a significant stretch of time: Hatshepsut. She should have been no exception to the biological rules that stymied ancient women’s ability to hold political power—the vulnerabilities of their wombs, their childbearing abilities, their hormonal changes, their physical weakness. The ancient Egyptians themselves conceived of the Egyptian goddess not only as a womb for the regenerating god but also as an unstable and fickle feminine force—sometimes kind, other times vicious—that could decide on a whim to destroy or to safeguard. Feminine power was a dangerous energy that needed to be contained and placated, not encouraged or expanded. As a rule, women in ancient Egypt were only allowed to rule as a regent on behalf of a man, as Ahmes-Nefertari did for her young son, or as the last living member of a ruling family, as Sobeknefru did on behalf of her dying dynasty. Given more latitude than in most other places in the ancient world, women in Egypt assumed leadership roles in the household and palace and every so often popped up on the political landscape as king of all Egypt: Nitocris of Dynasty 6 (if Herodotus is to be believed), Sobeknefru of Dynasty 12, Hatshepsut of Dynasty 18, Nefertiti of Dynasty 18, Tawosret of Dynasty 19, and Cleopatra VII of the Ptolemaic dynasty, all of them, with the exception of Hatshepsut (and Nefertiti), the last gasp of their dynastic lineage (although Tawosret was not of royal blood and may have come to the kingship by murdering the young king for whom she was acting as regent: she showed none of Hatshepsut’s compassion, elegance, or political acuity).
In the eyes of the Egyptologist Betsy Bryan, Egyptian women fulfilled an important role: they were a reliable means of transferring elite lineage within a dynasty. Kings often married their highborn sisters because those elite women were connected to the people and families who were meant to be in power and thus could serve as receptacles to breed the next king.
Bryan describes female power as analogous to the spokes of a wheel radiating out from the king, the hub of the political system. The king required unions with multiple women to continue the royal lineage from himself to a son, but when that son did not materialize, a woman could—albeit rarely—become ruler of Egypt. As Bryan puts it, “Females were guarantors of dynasty continuity.”30 Thus, in a few cases, the desire to protect the interests of the ruling family could trump the imperative to have a male king rule Egypt, but usually only at the end of the line.
And so, as Bryan argues, royal women were sometimes essential in moments of great political uncertainty, when the ruling family needed a monarch with ironclad and uncontested connections to the family lineage. But once power returned to a man, all evidence of that woman’s rule was stifled, which explains why we have so little information about female kings of Egypt or anywhere else in the ancient world.31
Hatshepsut learned firsthand that a female leader could not transmit succession through her own womb. As a queen, if she had produced a son, the boy could have acted as the next ruler. But as king, Hatshepsut was not, it seems, allowed to hand the reins of power to any of her own offspring, including her daughter. She may have tried to place the girl next in line for power, just as a man would do with his son. Her attempts to position Nefrure ultimately failed, and she may have even lived to see them collapse. Since Hatshepsut was essentially acting as a placeholder for Thutmose III, any male child of her womb at this point in her reign would have produced a reaction even stronger than that against Nefrure. She was ruling alongside a masculine ruler as coregent. Hewas the spoke of the political wheel. She was just the insurance policy against the young king’s unexpected death and an interim solution to his temporary youth and inexperience.
Hatshepsut ruled Egypt in her own right, to be sure, and she ruled until her life ended. She was the ultimate working mother, hiring wet nurses and nannies to care for her offspring during those vulnerable years before her children reached the age of five. She may have even felt the ancient version of “mommy guilt” for relegating her precious daughter Nefrure to the care of others while she saw to the leadership of Egypt. But in the long term, Hatshepsut’s authority was finite and severely limited. A man could pass down rule to his male progeny in the ancient world whereas a woman could not—because when considering men as an economic construct, the male body will always outproduce the female body. He can create multiple children simultaneously, using the wombs of many women, but women can only depend on their one womb, with one (or, rarely, two) offspring in a given year. In a system dependent on royal succession, it was in no dynasty’s best interest to place a woman at the center of the wheel of political power. Evolutionarily speaking, this was tremendously inefficient. Even if she was surrounded by a series of men, a female ruler still could not secure the succession of her dynasty because her production of offspring would always be limited. Thus no female monarch could expect her rule to last long in any ancient complex society or, if she reigned until her death, to continue after her through her own female progeny. Her leadership would always conclude with a man resuming the throne.
All of this biological reality only makes Hatshepsut’s achievements that much more extraordinary. She was only twenty years old when she methodically consolidated power and catapulted herself into the highest office in the land. She stepped into the position of king during the Eighteenth Dynasty, when the Egyptian empire was experiencing a renaissance—imperialism made everyone rich, and new building projects were under way, including the sprawling temples of Karnak and Luxor. Hatshepsut remains the only ancient woman who claimed absolute authority on a firm foundation when her civilization was at its most robust.
Her femininity was really the only strange part of her rule. In many ways, Hatshepsut’s unconventional kingship was an exercise in conformity. Apparently it was too much to expect the kingship to adapt to her womanhood. Instead, she fit herself into the patterns of kingship with which she had grown up, at least those in which a woman could conceivably participate. Like any successful male king, she waged imperial warfare and ruthlessly exploited the population of Nubia to enrich her gods and her people. She participated in the respected system of coregency in which an elder king fostered a junior king in a divinely inspired partnership, thus protecting the future kingship of Thutmose III. She created a masculine identity for herself so that she could perform and participate in religious rituals that demanded a male presence. She constructed temples and obelisks according to accepted traditions and left behind more stone temples and monuments than any previous Egyptian king. Her innovation was directed at sustaining a successful, if unusual and unprecedented, kingship. She wreaked no havoc on the economic and political systems around her; she led no insurrections. She made no revolutionary breaks with tradition but attempted to link herself to the unending line of masculine kings who had come before her. Hatshepsut’s kingship was a fantastic and unbelievable aberration, but little more than a necessity of the moment. Her feminine kingship was always to be perceived as a negative complication by the ancient Egyptians, a problem that could only be reconciled publicly and formally through its obliteration. After all her great accomplishments, despite her unique triumph, her fate was to be erased, expunged, silenced.
Thousands of years later, when archaeologists began to find traces of her rule, historians disparaged her character, saying little about her success and a great deal about how she had stolen the throne from its rightful heir, Thutmose III. They commented on her torrid affair with Senenmut and her audacity to make the ridiculous and scheming claim to be a man, or to celebrate a Sed festival, or to be the offspring of the gods. The chisel marks and smashed statues were seen by some as indications of some kind of transgression on her part, proof that she really was a bad woman in need of a beating. When historians began to correct the simplistic misconception of Hatshepsut as an overreaching witch, some ended up turning her into a selfless, first-wave feminist, willing to sacrifice her sexuality for her career, dynasty, and family, paving the way for her nephew’s future success as king. And as for academia, most Egyptologists became so mired in the thousands of monuments, statues, and inscriptions she left behind that many forgot Hatshepsut was human at all.
Through the millennia, we have called powerful women many things—bitches, witches, regents, seductresses. And we have demanded that women relinquish their sexuality to assume authority, including the God’s Wives of Amen of the Twenty-Fifth and Twenty-Sixth Dynasties, vestal virgins of ancient Rome, Catholic nuns, and countless women of the 1970s and ’80s in business or government or academia. In the ancient world (and in many places today), women who made decisions about their own bodies were at first seen as threatening to systems of power and were usually considered nothing more than immoral sluts. The women of antiquity who held political and military power can be counted on the fingers of one hand—women like Boudicca, Empress Lü, Cleopatra, and Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut’s story can help us appreciate why authoritative women are still often considered to be dangerous beings who need to be controlled, monitored, contained, and watched.
Hatshepsut had to carve out her own niche in a society that identified power with masculinity. To do this, she had to explore what feats a woman could accomplish: commission obelisks the likes of which Egypt had never seen or trade with far-flung lands like Punt. She recorded a step-by-step account of her divine origins from Amen-Re and how the god’s statue revealed that she was chosen to rule all of Egypt. The challenges Hatshepsut faced and the sacrifices she made are familiar to powerful women of the twenty-first century: balancing the personal and the political, overcoming stereotypes of hysterical and unbalanced femininity, and making compromises never asked of powerful men. For Hatshepsut, her unprecedented success was rewarded with a short memory, while the failures of other female leaders from antiquity will be forever immortalized in our cultural consciousness.