A Place of Her Own

As the eldest child of the highest-ranking wife in the palace, Hatshepsut must have known she was special. And experience would prove to her that she was strong. Family members and tutors may have told her so, but the knowledge that she would manifest great power likely came from deep inside her, from her quiet moments in the temple, from talking to the god Amen or the goddess Mut. We can imagine her as a serious, quiet child who carefully watched everything that happened around her, attending to the attitudes and postures of her royal mother in court rituals, or to the words spoken by her father when he read the incantations on festival days.

In the palace apartments, she likely looked on as her father’s women vied for his attention by spending hours at their dressing tables fashioning fabulous wig and hair creations and smoothing their young bodies with perfumed oils and exotic scents. She would have noticed when some of these women swelled with pride and pregnancy as they made plans for a son, and seen the grief in their eyes after they had delivered a dead baby. She probably recognized the worried look of mothers whose infants were on the brink of death, about to be yanked from this world by some unnameable demon that could not be placated by even the most generous offerings.

Perhaps Hatshepsut caught a glimpse of the royal princes at their daily lessons in the House of Life—this boisterous, rowdy crowd of boys who shoved and yelled and jostled as they sat cross-legged with pens in hand, until their teacher whacked them on their backs with a switch to keep them at their scribal practice. In any case, she did not belong with the princes and their pursuits of chariot racing and archery. She may have listened as the other princesses talked about new dresses with fancy braided fringes and jewelry, but perhaps she did not share their interests; these girls were not eager to learn about the world outside.

Most likely Hatshepsut worked quietly with her tutor, who would instruct her and only her on how to see shapes in the sacred script, how to find the names of the gods and of the kings in the ornate writings, and how to form her own sacred images with a pen on her wax tablet. She also helped the God’s Wife of Amen to ready rituals for the Great God in Karnak. She memorized the proper incantations and the correct gestures and movements. She yearned to please the King of the Gods and for him to find favor in her person. As the eldest child of Aakheperkare Thutmose, the Lord of the Two Lands, He of the Sedge and the Bee, and his Great Wife, Ahmes, she needed to be strong. Much was expected of her.

We have little direct knowledge of Hatshepsut’s perspective on her own importance and her place in the world, but she would have grown up in a number of palaces around Egypt, most of them easily reached via the plush, luxurious royal barges that traveled up and down the Nile. The most important members of the royal family needed to be mobile. They might want to attend an important religious festival in Memphis, or stay at the southern town of Elephantine while the king was on a campaign in Nubia and Kush, or spend time in the verdant green of the Fayum while the king was hunting hippos with his noblemen. The King’s Great Wife, Ahmes, and their children accompanied him on some of his travels, but most of Hatshepsut’s early life would have been spent in Thebes, in the southern Nile valley, sacred to the god Amen.

Hatshepsut’s immediate family included the most important people in all of Egypt if not the entire Mediterranean World. Her father was king—the link between the gods and the Egyptian people. Her mother was the king’s most highly placed wife and the most sacred vessel of his fertile abilities. Hatshepsut also had two highly placed brothers, perhaps her full brothers, princes of great importance in the dynastic succession—Wadjmose and Amenmose, one of whom was destined to be the next king of Egypt and thus Hatshepsut’s husband.1 Her sister Neferubity must have been a close friend and ally.2 Her wet nurse, Satre, was an intimate as well, because in the Egyptian mind, the bond of nursing had transformed Hatshepsut into Satre’s real blood daughter. Her half brother Thutmose was nothing more than a small prince in the arms of his highly ranked mother and second King’s Wife, Mutnofret. These were the essential players in Hatshepsut’s family, but we must remember that the quarters of the king’s women were also filled with Hatshepsut’s half brothers and sisters from lesser-ranked wives.

At Thebes, the king likely had more than one palace. On the east bank, a ceremonial palace just at the entrance to Karnak bore a name that signified its importance to the king as chief priest: “I Am Not Far from Him,” with “Him” referring to Amen, the Great God and lord of Thebes.3 At this palace, Thutmose I wore the complex ceremonial attire and the tall crowns that demanded such attention and balance. Here he could meet with his chief priests and courtiers in preparation for important rituals and festivals, or to discuss temple administration. This palace was small but formal, in contrast to the sprawling and luxurious apartments occupied by his family.

The actual living residence was probably built far from the crowded and dusty town of Thebes, a good distance from its sewage, flies, and thousands of smoky cooking fires. The royal palace may have even stood on the west bank, across the river from the town of Thebes, where it was quieter and where animals and birds were abundant. The palace would have been close to the Nile and its cool waters, but not situated so low that it could be destroyed by the annual floods. Only columns, balustrades, door thresholds, and sometimes toilets were made from stone. Unbaked Nile mud bricks were used to build the other structural elements; they were the main source of building material for everyone in ancient Egypt—peasants and elites alike. In the king’s palace, the walls were whitewashed and brightly painted with scenes of the flora and fauna of Egypt. Its rooms were appointed with soft, elegant furnishings. And everywhere servants moved about the complex—waving massive ostrich fans from the corner of an outdoor lounge to provide a cool breeze for the royal inhabitants, standing at the ready to fetch a cool drink or nourishment, assisting the royal family with wigs, makeup, and adornments, emptying chamber pots, and servicing the baser human needs of the royal family.

The centerpiece of the palace was the audience hall and throne room, where the king sat to discuss formal matters with his courtiers. Hatshepsut would have seen little of these areas as a young child, although she may have been expected to show herself at official court functions as she grew older. Most of her time was spent with her many brothers and sisters and the courtiers’ children in the royal nursery. The children were allowed to run around naked; they played with balls, hoops, and sticks, waded in their courtyard pool, and napped in the shade of date palms. Royal children’s heads were shaved, except for small locks of hair that dangled down on the side of the head. This near-shaven look was not only a marker of status but also a practical expedient against lice infestations.

As a small child, Hatshepsut was likely taught the discipline of standing still and stoic on a dais before a mass of people during formal engagements, and one wonders if she looked on with envy at the fidgeting and whining of other children. Hatshepsut must have always known the feeling of many eyes watching her, judging her bearing and expression. As the eldest King’s Daughter by the King’s Great Wife, Hatshepsut probably stood close to the king in important ceremonies and events in Thebes. She would have observed the king’s movements and heard his words in the throne room, learning by osmosis the effective way to rule. As her father—one of the most successful warrior-kings Egypt had ever seen—relentlessly planned for campaign after campaign abroad, she received firsthand training in imperial domination. During the second year of her father’s reign, after he waged a successful military operation in Nubia, the army returned to Thebes with the mutilated corpse of a conquered enemy hanging upside down from the prow of his boat. Hatshepsut may have been a witness when this body was transferred to Karnak’s outer walls for a gruesome triumphal display—a real foe to enhance the symbolic images of violence and smiting carved on the exteriors of Egyptian temples. But perhaps she did not yet understand what she was seeing. She was just a baby, around a year and a half in age, and she likely did not even remember the sight. Or maybe she just imagined that she had seen it, because this triumphant moment was spoken about so often that it was formally recorded during Thutmose I’s reign.4

As a child, Hatshepsut probably saw the young black-skinned sons of the dead Nubian chieftain at her father’s court. Brought to Egypt for a kind of “reeducation,” they held their heads high in proud defiance of their new master, who had killed the rest of their family before their eyes. Thutmose was following a clever and age-old tactic: abduct elite foreign children of subjugated lands, train them from a young age to love and respect their conquerors, and then return them to their own land as puppet rulers beholden to Egypt, brainwashed to obey the very king who had enslaved and murdered their families and people. For her part, Hatshepsut would have learned from infancy what constituted a successful foreign policy toward rebels in Nubia, Egypt’s closest neighbor: utter destruction, brutal executions, and absolutely no mercy.

By the age of ten, Hatshepsut may well have begun her travels abroad. An inscription from Hagr el-Merwa shows Thutmose I traveling up the Nile to Kurgus in modern-day Sudan with a large entourage, including his Great Wife, Ahmes, his crown prince, Amenmose, and a princess whose name is barely legible in the inscription, but which might read Hatshepsut.5 Journeying with her father while on campaign in Upper Nubia would have given an impressionable and smart girl direct knowledge of how a subjugated enemy should be treated, how cheap the lives of these exploited people were, and how brutally and publicly rebels needed to be punished if Egypt was to continue to prosper by extracting gold and minerals from this southern land.

Hatshepsut may have witnessed public executions and other displays of violence against the Nubian people, as they constituted the main foe during her father’s reign. Indeed, there is no evidence that children were shielded from the violent realities of life, and it is likely that as King’s Daughter she was well placed to witness some of the most ruthless moments of her father’s imperialism. She would have been taught that violence was necessary, even righteous. Hatshepsut must have understood that Nubia’s riches were Egypt’s birthright, but only attained once its inhabitants had been cruelly subjugated; only the king could deliver Egypt from the dangers its enemies presented.

 Hatshepsut’s formal education would have begun when she was four or five. It was unusual for an ancient Egyptian girl to be trained to read and write, but Hatshepsut was not a normal girl. She was meant to hold high religious office and to marry the next king of Egypt.

First she was taught how to hold a scribe’s brush and ink palette in her lap while she sat cross-legged. As her instruction advanced, she learned the difference between formal hieroglyphic and cursive hieratic writing, to draw the many hundreds of hieroglyphs, and to memorize their phonetic equivalents and symbolic meanings. Gaining more confidence, she would make lists of words categorized into types, including the gods, people and professions, and animals. To master the written language, Hatshepsut would then read and copy all kinds of Egyptian literature—mythical stories, ethical instructions, songs and hymns, and the great histories of the kings who had served Egypt before her father. The texts gave her training in leadership, ethics, religion, ritual, economics, morality, and history. In addition to copying these words onto a reusable wax tablet, Hatshepsut practiced her ink penmanship, learning how to hold the delicate brush, dip it into water, and then touch the cakes of red or black pigment to fill the brush with ink so that she could form swooping, liquid cursive script, or strictly balanced, formal, hieroglyphic images. She learned to read out loud, appreciating reading’s function as a social activity with a public purpose, unlike the solitary pursuit it is today.

We don’t know the details of Hatshepsut’s education, only that such a highborn girl would have received the very best available. Excluded from any formal classroom instruction with her male peers, she was probably tutored in private as a young girl, spending most of her time with adults instead of children her own age. The other girls of the royal household were learning how to spin and weave linen cloth, how to create beautiful and ornate wigs and ornaments, perhaps even how to read and write a little. Whether Hatshepsut experienced her upbringing as lonely, we will never know.

The responsibilities and training shouldered by young royals must have been burdensome, but Eighteenth Dynasty court life provided some moral support. It’s as if everyone knew that the king and queen would be neglectful, absent parents, as they moved through their sacred duties and political demands. Thus royal children were provided with a system of ersatz parentage—nurses and tutors from among the ranks of Egypt’s courtiers and administrators who were able to teach, scold, comfort, and love the royal princes and princesses.6 For a princess like Hatshepsut, a female nurse might have been more of a mother to her than the woman who gave birth to her. Her male tutor, Senimen, certainly provided her with more fatherly care and attention than Thutmose I, and all records show that he became a close ally and adviser to her later. The children of her nurses and tutors were meant to be like playmates or siblings with whom she could relax instead of compete.

No one needed to tell the young Hatshepsut that she was different. It was apparent to her simply because she was a royal living among nonroyal courtiers, including her nurses, tutors, and their families, who likely treated her—even as a small child—with deference and respect. Such obsequious treatment kept her removed from the other inhabitants of the palace; Hatshepsut knew they were there to serve her, to be kind to her, to guide her, because she was more important than any of them and had greater responsibilities to uphold. She likely heard the daughters of her nurses talking about the men they were going to marry and the towns where they would live, the property they were taking with them into their marriage and the jewelry they were to receive. Making the right match was likely a constant topic of conversation for the wives and daughters of viziers, treasurers, stewards, and butlers who lived at the palace. Hatshepsut, however, knew that as the King’s Daughter she was exclusively destined to marry the next king, bound to whichever of her brothers lived to see that day.

As she grew older, she may have witnessed some of the most beautiful and elegant of the courtiers’ daughters join the ranks of the King’s Wives and move into the royal harems to occasionally share the company and bed of her father. Hatshepsut might have noticed the conflicting emotions of these girls and their parents. We can only imagine the worry of a treasurer’s wife who knew that her lovely daughter was destined for a life in the harem—an ambitious move to say the least, one that could vault a young woman to the very top of society if her son became the next king, but no doubt a lonely existence among many other contenders, all of whom shared the same man and whose importance rested for the most part upon their breeding capabilities.

 As soon as she could walk and talk, Hatshepsut would have begun training to become the next God’s Wife of Amen. She likely assisted Ahmes-Nefertari and Merytamen, both of whom had once been a wife to the king, as well as a wife to the god Amen in his temple. Hatshepsut would have learned many of the more mundane things about her role in temple activity—including the correct actions and postures to assume during temple rituals and offerings, the appropriate dresses and wigs to wear for certain rites, and the proper ways to address the god and move within his temple space. She would have learned how to effectively hold and shake a sistrum, a kind of rattle, and how to chant and sing to the god. She would have committed to memory the words of incantations and songs—by rote at first, only understanding the deeper mysteries with age, experience, and further instruction.

We don’t know how old Hatshepsut was when she officially became the God’s Wife of Amen, but she may have been very young.7 Thutmose I likely wanted the influential priestess position filled by one of his own direct lineage. We have no idea if such an appointment demanded that Hatshepsut physically act as wife in reality, if she experienced menstruation and puberty before her initiation, or if she witnessed the rituals of the God’s Hand priestesses before her own induction into the sacred mystery.8 There is no evidence to suggest that the ancient Egyptians shielded children from human sexuality. On the contrary, it seems that little girls as young as eight or nine became objects of sexual attention. If Hatshepsut’s destiny was to become the God’s Wife of Amen herself, to connect the god’s rebirth to her father’s kingship, then she had to begin her training early, including knowledge of the more sexual aspects of the job.

Despite the separation enforced by palace duties and strictures, Hatshepsut’s relationship with her mother and older female relations must have proved vital to the formation of her character and to the understanding of her own importance. Hatshepsut learned leadership skills from powerful women with proven track records. Ahmes-Nefertari was arguably the very first God’s Wife. But Ahmes-Nefertari had also been wife to King Ahmose, whose many campaigns against the Hyksos demanded that she rule the homeland in his absence. She was also mother to King Amenhotep I, for whom she had acted as regent when he took the throne as a young boy. If nothing else, Ahmes-Nefertari knew that a highborn woman could exercise great political, ideological, military, and economic power. Merytamen, likely the acting God’s Wife at the time of Hatshepsut’s birth, was wife to King Amenhotep I. Despite her lack of success breeding a King’s Son, she still wielded great authority as Egypt’s most important high priestess.

In many ways, it was the support of these two women that linked Hatshepsut to the older Ahmoside family, because they essentially adopted the young princess as their own daughter during the process of Hatshepsut’s initiation into the priestesshood. We have no idea what Hatshepsut’s relationship with these older women entailed—whether friction or gentle guidance, or great love or even cruelty—but they were her models of female power. The office of the God’s Wife was second only to the High Priest of Amen within the sacred precincts of Thebes. She outranked the Second High Priest in lands and title. She owned her own estates and palaces. She commanded a powerful steward who watched over her treasury and administered her affairs.

Even if Hatshepsut’s relationship with these matron priestesses was fraught with troubles, they no doubt taught Hatshepsut her worth and ability as a leader, a priestess, and an administrator. These women knew what it was like to wield power, wealth, and influence that were not connected to the health and productivity of their wombs. They fervently believed that their rites and sexuality facilitated the ongoing creation of the universe. As God’s Wife of Amen, Hatshepsut was to assist the very machinery of the cosmos.

As the very first God’s Wife of Amen to come from her father’s Thutmoside family, Hatshepsut represented a momentous political move, positioning Thutmose I to exert direct influence over the powerful Amen priesthood. The Amen institution—with its many temples, priests, lands, and tenants—was a kind of ancient Egyptian Vatican, a force to be reckoned with, both economically and politically, and even the king needed to tread lightly.9

God’s Wife was not an inherited position passed down the female line, despite the great power of women like Ahmes-Nefertari and Merytamen. Instead, the post always followed the king, who remained the absolute center of Egyptian society. If the kingship jumped to another family line, as it had with the accession of Thutmose I, the office of God’s Wife had to move with him.10 Thus Thutmose I’s eldest daughter, Hatshepsut, assumed the office from powerful women allied with the Ahmoside family, but who saw it as their duty—and political necessity—to uphold an Egyptian kingship that was right and proper in the eyes of the gods. They undertook the training of a girl from a family not wholly their own11 and initiated her to please the god.

As her preparation became more involved, Hatshepsut probably spent most of her time in Thebes and its holy spaces, working with her mentors and preparing herself for her initiation with the god. She was meant to become One Who Was Beautiful in the House of the Sistrum, a title that only subtly veils the sexual nature of her new position. The sistrum was a kind of rattle—a wooden handle supporting bars of metal, each piercing small rings that clanged together when the instrument was vibrated. The sistrum itself represented human sexuality—round objects penetrated by a phallic rod holding them in place. Sistra were vaginally shaped, often decorated at the top with the head of the cow goddess Hathor, a fierce protector of the sun god (her father and lover), and a violent devourer of his enemies. According to mythology, Hathor was the only one able to cheer her father, Re, when he despaired for his future. The tale reads: “Hathor, lady of the southern sycamore, came and stood before her father, the Universal Lord, and she exposed her vagina before his very eyes. Thereupon the great god laughed with her.”12

It may be creepy for us to read about a daughter exposing her genitals to her father to make him happy, but the sun god was believed to copulate with his own mother, daughter, and wife, depending on the cycle of his daily regeneration. The familial connections with the sun god were sacred, and his daughters were meant to be lovers as well as protectors. Hathor’s sexuality was a key part of her power. The sistrum decorated with Hathor’s head is illustrative of what the God’s Wife of Amen was meant to be doing to the god. If the sistrum was like a vagina, then her shaking it was meant to simulate sex. Part of Hatshepsut’s training in the mysteries of pleasing Amen-Re involved vibrating the sistrum, and probably her body, in just the right way to create his release and rebirth. Hatshepsut was likely trained to be a lover to a god before she had ever known a man.

We can envision her initiation—the first time she beheld the statue of the Great God unveiled in his shrine. She was probably accompanied by the elder God’s Wife, perhaps Merytamen, as well as the First High Priest. Hatshepsut would have been young if she ascended to the position during the reign of her father. Nine or ten years old, perhaps? She was expected at the climax of the ritual to interact with the god’s statue sexually—perhaps to step forward and grasp the statue’s erect member, simulating sexual activity while shaking her sistrum at the same time. The continued existence of her family, of Thebes, of Egypt, of the whole cosmos, depended on this god’s continued re-creation. The moment must have been quite psychedelic for Hatshepsut and everyone else involved—full of incense, chanting, swaying, drums, sistra shaking, and primal rhythmic movements.

Hatshepsut may have even been left alone with the god in his sanctuary—a rare honor for any Egyptian—for the most sacred part of her initiation as she was revealed to his face and body for the first time, instructed to close her eyes, to listen for his words, to feel his presence. This first moment with Amen, and all her activity thereafter as the God’s Wife, must have been profoundly meaningful to her, because all written documentation stresses repeatedly that Hatshepsut believed wholeheartedly in Amen’s support of her power and her person, that he was personally guiding her. A later inscription of hers from Karnak states, “I acted under his command; it was he who led me. I did not plan a work without his doing. It was he who gave directions.”13 Her connection with Amen and her faith in him were ironclad, and her intimate relationship with this great Egyptian god would serve her well in her political life to come.

 While Hatshepsut was learning these mysteries of the god Amen and his many manifestations, there must have been one question on everyone’s mind: who would be the next king of Egypt? Thutmose I had taken the throne as a mature man. Life expectancy in ancient Egypt was in the early thirties for men, perhaps fifty for an elite who benefited from good nutrition. Thutmose I might fly to heaven at any moment. The monuments and statues left by him—all charged with political messages—tell us indirectly that he had indeed chosen a crown prince. A King’s Son named Amenmose was depicted at least twice as a grown man on monuments cut during his father’s reign; in year 4 he was also named a Great General of the Army.14 In the Eighteenth Dynasty, male children of the king were generally not mentioned unless they were picked to be the next king. The absence of princes in the public eye could be seen as a canny scheme to cut down on competition among those in line for the throne. If they were denied a political platform, most princes (and their entourages) seem to have found themselves powerless to advance their own candidacy, instead passively waiting for the death of their father. Ancient Egypt was generally not plagued by the regicides and coup attempts that occurred in the courts of Syria-Palestine and Babylon, not to mention later Ptolemaic Egypt.15

But because the princes were denied a public stage, we know almost nothing about them during their father’s rule, and even less about how the reigning king chose from among his sons (or how family members or priests might have selected from among a litter of princes at the unexpected death of the king). In the end, it seems that a particular prince was chosen to be king based on a combination of birth order, lineage, and circumstance. In other words, if you were the king’s oldest son, then you would gain the throne at his death—unless of course your mother was of low rank, only one of the Beauties of the harem, instead of a highborn woman of royal lineage. If the eldest King’s Son was born to a beautiful but unimportant woman, the family might move on to the next son, even if he was younger, because he contained a better lineage from a well-connected, highborn mother. Prince Amenmose’s candidacy was strong. His figure was carved into sacred stone, which, for the Egyptians, magically made this outcome real. He was called Great General of the Army, a designation usually reserved for the crown prince. To depict a royal child as a functioning adult (leaving aside his actual age) was not just a political message but also a means of willing this future into existence ideologically.

Theoretically, though, each royal succession should have been blessed with many potential candidates for the throne. Each king had a mass of ladies to procreate the next heir. What could go wrong? Ideology and politics demanded at least some attempt at pure-blood unions between royal brother and royal sister, but owing to the perils of incestuous pairing, most of the kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty had mothers who were not of royal lineage. The ancient Egyptians might have used any number of criteria to select the next heir: age, pedigree, oracular decisions by the gods Amen, Ptah, or Atum. Whatever the requirements, Amenmose’s depictions in temple stone indicate that he was meant to ascend the throne next. Such an important decision was made years in advance, likely to prepare the groundwork for a boy’s accession with careful training. But even the most rigorously thought-out plans could fall through in ancient Egypt.

In addition to Amenmose, Hatshepsut had another highborn brother—Wadjmose—and both were groomed for leadership in Egypt’s palaces and temples. Hatshepsut knew that it was her fate to marry one of these boys, and thus she likely observed her brothers when circumstances allowed—while they worked with their many tutors or memorized liturgies with high priests, as they suffered under the demands imposed on those of whom much is expected in the future. But it is possible that Hatshepsut, as young as she was, knew to approach life with less certainty. She had already been exposed to the practical coping mechanisms of the adults around her who were weighed down with constant anxieties and the ever-present spectres of illness and death. The ancient Egyptians knew that a sickness could sweep through a town, a region, a palace, or a military encampment like a flock of demons, taking all the small children, the elderly, even the princes of the harem, or 30 percent of the population, no matter where they lived. All the favored royal children were at risk, even those who had been chosen for great things, like Wadjmose, Amenmose, and Hatshepsut herself.

Smallpox was a particular evil. In the ancient world, smallpox was like chicken pox. Everyone got it, but tragically infants and pregnant mothers were most susceptible. A bad case settled in the face and left deep scarring in its wake. If one of the King’s Beauties contracted such a case of smallpox, with thousands of pustules marring her once smooth features, her hold on power in the harem could vanish instantly. It is doubtful that the king would visit the bed of a disfigured woman, even after the disease had retreated.

Cholera epidemics were frighteningly common and violent. Few people could survive the bouts of simultaneous vomiting and diarrhea. The dehydration was so severe and so sudden that it could turn the body blue. Another scourge was the bubonic plague brought on by bites from infected fleas. Victims vomited blood and endured hard, painful swelling in the lymph nodes at the armpits, groin, and neck that left black necrotized fingers and noses in its wake. Malaria affected everyone, too, and serious cases created chronic problems. Children who survived a bad bout of malaria often suffered from severe brain damage and recurring fevers for the rest of their lives. If one survived these maladies, there were always measles, polio, typhoid, influenza, and more.

Kings and commoners alike were also forced to live with chronic diseases caused by parasites. The wasting diseases typical of tapeworm infestation were prevalent. Guinea worms expelled hundreds of thousands of new larvae through pustules in victims’ feet. Hookworms voraciously drank blood from their host’s intestinal walls, and the anemia they caused was a huge factor in the deaths of mothers and babies. In small children, hookworms caused mental and physical retardation. As tiny pinworms made their way through the body, the host was forced to endure the annoyance of an inflamed anus. Fatigue and bloody pink urine accompanied schistosomiasis. When life was constantly threatened by pathogens and parasites, how could succession plans be made at all? How did any dynasty survive?

Even the most basic actions of life—eating and drinking—were plagued by dangers. The Egyptians were afflicted by the ubiquitous sand, dust, and grit that got into everything, particularly bread flour. Every bite of food contained a tiny dose of quartz dust that wore down tooth enamel, until the dentin was compromised and infection could easily eat away the root of a tooth. Abscesses followed, tunneling deep into the bone of the jaw, forming hollows full of pus that would eventually burst, spreading poison throughout the bloodstream. Infected teeth killed kings as readily as commoners.

The ancient Egyptians knew that infested water was the cause of many maladies, so elites in the palace relied on wine and beer; distilled or processed products killed worms and fleas along with their larvae. The flip side, of course, was that the palace population spent day after day in a constant state of low-level intoxication. Alcoholism must have been routine in the royal palace and tolerated, although little evidence about it exists.

Hatshepsut’s family lived a life that was as far removed as possible from that of a peasant who was surrounded by human and animal excrement, who warmed himself by a smoky fire fueled by dried clumps of dung, who drank from the fetid village pond when he couldn’t get any beer, who worried about his empty belly and the hunger pangs of his children, who spent his nights by the fire pulling guinea worms out of an oozing wound on his foot by slowly curling the nematode around and around a stick. But the rich were not immune to parasites and sickness.

Imagine the young crown princes at dinner parties scratching their pinworm-infected rear ends, or Thutmose on his throne coughing from a newly acquired case of tuberculosis, or elegant queens like Ahmes and Mutnofret, their bellies distended by tapeworms, attending to their coiffure. In the ancient world, being healthy meant merely being alive. It may not be romantic to imagine Hatshepsut riddled with parasites, examining the bloody urine in her chamber pot or fatigued by the chronic anemia of a hookworm infestation, but it is certainly realistic. She and everyone else in the palace were afflicted by these maladies. This constant, inescapable physical suffering is the greatest difference between us and the ancients, even making allowance for the vast disparities of society, language, culture and circumstance, and it is certainly a chief obstacle when it comes to our understanding of their motivations. Perhaps if our outlook on life were shortened to twenty-five years, and if we lived in constant discomfort and anxiety over our very survival, we could know them better.

Like the dozens of other palace children, Hatshepsut and her brothers would have been particularly prone to such epidemics. Elite children were well nourished and well groomed, to be sure, and certainly their surroundings were much cleaner than the muddy alleys and mosquito-infested canals of the village children, but close proximity to one another meant that if one princess became sick, they all got sick. We have no record of what maladies Hatshepsut contracted as a child, but we do know there must have been many sleepless nights for her caretakers. And that through luck, skill, or stamina, she survived when others succumbed. We can envision the panicked behavior of the royal nurses who immediately carted the most favored royal children—Wadjmose and Amenmose in particular—onto a royal barge at the first sign of plague or cholera, hoping to keep them isolated from infection, trying to protect the future dynasty of Thutmose I. Every time the adults around Hatshepsut and her brothers acted this way, the young princess and princes would have been clued in to their own elevated worth.

What would happen if Wadjmose were to fall ill? Indeed, this crown prince disappears from historical records before his brother Amenmose, which suggests that something dire occurred.16 Amenmose was the backup. But with such impossible odds, it was almost an act of defiant arrogance by Thutmose I to commemorate an heir into stone as an adult before he had even survived to take the crown. Early and unexpected deaths ruined many long-term plans for lineage and succession. With risks to one’s health lurking everywhere, how could anyone count on anything? The harem constituted an imperfect system adapted to these impossible odds, providing the king with as many children as humanly possible. But Hatshepsut still knew that her father occupied the throne only because the previous king had sired no living sons. She must have recognized that even if the numbers were on your side, succession plans did not always work out as intended.

 At around the age of eight or nine, Hatshepsut may have moved out of the royal nursery into quarters associated with the office of the God’s Wife of Amen. How close she was to her mother, Ahmes, at this point is unclear, because Ahmes herself had no affiliation with the priestesses and the evidence tells us that this office was still associated with the previous ruling family. If Hatshepsut wasn’t God’s Wife yet, she would have been initiated soon, giving her the title, lands, and power that came with this position and vaulting her into a prominence her mother could never achieve. Ahmes was the King’s Great Wife, but Hatshepsut hoped to better that by becoming God’s Wife in addition to her destined pairing with the next king. After her initiation and her marriage to Amenmose, she could combine the powers of the two most important posts an Egyptian female could hold.

There is no evidence that Hatshepsut was betrothed to any particular crown prince at this point.17 The Egyptians did not practice engagements and for good reason: Hatshepsut was intended to join the office of the kingship, whoever might occupy it. Given the health challenges in the ancient world, formal advance pairings between a particular prince and princess were probably not only impractical but even frowned upon as premature and foolhardy. No one had prior knowledge about whom Hatshepsut’s husband would be, because no one knew which prince would actually survive to be king. No one knew when the current king would meet his end. And no one could tell which of the king’s many sons would survive as a strong candidate—Wadjmose, Amenmose, or some other prince. There was no reason to lock in a betrothal, as happened millennia later between fragmented medieval European kingdoms. These Egyptian princes and princesses were already in the same family, and diplomatic ties were not an issue. It was better to just wait out the vagaries of fate and disease and see who made it through, rather than explicitly choose a partner.

And so Hatshepsut survives as other royal children die. She learns more and more about the intricacies of court life and ritual, as well as temple rites, and waits to find out who her future husband will be, knowing that when her father, King Thutmose I, flies to heaven, the process of succession will proceed in a whirlwind, sweeping her up into marriage with one of her brothers and the role of King’s Great Wife.

Once Hatshepsut left the royal nursery, waiting to see which prince she would wed, she moved to her own palace rooms. They were likely surrounded by a meticulously maintained pool and gardens filled with birdsong and cool breezes. Instead of a space shared with many nurses and sisters, her new bedroom was more private, perhaps for her alone if she had wanted it, with a sleeping area made from a light woven material with a smooth, low, wooden headrest wrapped in soft textiles. Her bed was covered with linen sheets produced by palace Beauties, woven of the highest thread count they could manage, as many as five hundred threads per square inch. She was covered with her own soft, pashmina-like imported woolen blankets on cold winter nights when a fire made of fragrant local woods was laid on her hearth. Young naked girls wearing only girdles around their waists rushed to and fro carrying drinks, fans, and nibbles for her and her guests. A series of scribes, serving only her office, managed her day-to-day activities and the economic dealings of her now-extensive holdings, and they would have dashed about, too, waiting on the great lady’s pleasure. Hatshepsut could now choose her own daily menu, or perhaps she left that domestic task to her ladies-in-waiting. Food was plentiful and beautifully prepared: beef, lamb, mutton, duck, and goose; spiced milk, fresh cheese, and goose egg custards; fragrant breads, some sweet, some savory; date and honey tarts; dishes made with green onions, leeks, greens, and garlic; smooth dipping pastes made of lentils and other beans; sweet fig cakes and delicate pistachio puddings. And there was always plenty of beer and wine, much of it sweetened with honey and laced with exotic spices that a poor villager would never taste.

No longer a little girl, though probably still a child in our eyes, Hatshepsut was now dressed as one of the highborn ladies of the palace. She likely wore a long, narrow, linen shift of the finest, most gossamer, royal fabric, enhanced with sharply pleated linen robes of diaphanous thinness that covered her arms and fastened tightly under her breasts, accentuating her femininity and her slender form. Her sandals were made from the softest leather, and her feet lay on a footstool before her high chair. She wore kohl around her eyes, which not only protected her from the glare of the harsh sun but also kept away some of the more virulent eye diseases. She was now expected to wear a wig over her own hair, and perhaps the weight of it took some getting used to—a full, structured hairpiece made of human plaits and braids cut from the heads of many peasant women who may or may not have been happy to give their locks to serve the God’s Wife. A diadem of delicate filigreed stars likely adorned her wig. On her wrists and upper arms she wore solid gold bands, and her fingers bore elaborate rings, some of golden scarabs on whose undersides were embossed the names of apotropaic divinities, her father’s cartouches, and images of her own name and titles.

And what did this blossoming Hatshepsut look like, as she came into her own? Her skin color was probably darker than that of most modern Egyptians, but certainly not as black as that of the sub-Saharan princes captured from Kerma whom she saw at court functions. As a princess, it was not her place to be out of doors in the full light of the sun, and so she remained as pale as her station allowed. Perhaps her hair had fully grown out from the baldness of childhood and was maintained in rows of tiny braids that would be covered with a heavy wig during formal occasions, giving her full and long tresses like today’s hair extensions. She likely commissioned a collection of both summer and winter wigs for her new station in society. Her body would have been conditioned to accept the North African heat, but a brutal summer day would still demand lighter coverings.

We will never know what Hatshepsut really looked like, even if her mummy is someday identified with certainty. Later statues of her as king certainly communicate how she wanted to appear and how she envisioned herself—as a delicate girl with a charming face full of life, joy, and alertness, blessed with a tiny, straight, Barbie-doll nose, large Disney-princess eyes that opened wide in an unblinking gaze, and small, smiling lips placed into a heart-shaped face that tapered to an elegant, feminine chin. According to Hatshepsut’s later portraiture, her body was slim and slight, complemented by pert breasts and the trim waist of a young woman, surmounted by the narrow shoulders of an elegant patrician who performed no manual labor in the fields. If we believe her statues and reliefs, Hatshepsut’s person embodied all the ideals that most cultures hold for young women—a symmetrical, thin, shapely girl, exactly what Hatshepsut wanted to be.

She had come of age as the greatest priestess in the land, one step away from her looming marriage and transformation into the King’s Great Wife. As the God’s Wife of Amen, Hatshepsut was set apart from others in the palace; perhaps she conducted her daily administrative business seated upon an inlaid wooden chair on a raised dais. She had her own steward in charge of looking after the management of her extensive real estate, making sure that the production of grain, wine, oils, honey, and beer was enriching them. An official’s prosperity was inherently tied to the long-term well-being of his master, and it would have been in the best interest of Hatshepsut’s steward to administer her affairs honestly. Indeed, there is no evidence that the young God’s Wife was in any way a pawn of her steward, just because he was male and she was female. Her word was likely followed, and she was guided in economic and political matters by her tutors, who helped her to understand the repercussions of her decisions. But Hatshepsut certainly learned about manipulative and greedy officials along the way, and as she ascended the ranks of power, she likely grasped that it was wise to reward the loyal and true members of her staff with riches and honors, while passing over the self-interested and fickle ones.

Hatshepsut’s new life was luxurious, to be sure, but it was one full of responsibilities. Her temple duties included deeply important ritual moments that demanded her presence before dawn and during the darkest hours of night. Some rites required that she leave her family and friends and travel to other temples, accompanying Amen as his statue was taken on yearly visits. She must have spent tedious hours working with the high priests of the many Amen temples in the Theban region to maintain the smooth running of the God’s House. As God’s Wife, she was the intermediary between two fathers—bringing communications back and forth between her earthly father, Thutmose I, and her heavenly father, Amen of Karnak.18 The stakes were high for such a young woman. The Amen priesthood was an institution with temple lands that rivaled the king’s private holdings, but all indications are that the Amen priests worked in tandem with the king during Hatshepsut’s tenure as God’s Wife, enriching one another in their exploitation of peasants and foreigners. Hatshepsut’s bureaucratic meetings with priests and stewards and scribes were vital to keeping her own house in order, but it was also her duty to maintain the sacred connection between the king and the god Amen. In other words, her life was not her own. It belonged to her god, to her father, to her people, and soon, to her husband, the next king.

Meanwhile, Thutmose I was busy shocking the Theban elite with some of his decisions and expenses. As money poured into Egypt from his successful campaigns and tributary extractions, he was able to flaunt Egypt’s wealth with visible excess. He added more stone to the God’s Houses than had ever been seen: he charged his architect Ineni with constructing a sandstone enclosure wall around Karnak, adding great stone pylon gateways at the Amen temple that were unprecedented in size and material, and crafting giant monoliths of red granite excavated by tens of thousands of prisoners of war and criminals in the southern quarries at Aswan into obelisks that caught the rays of the sun, when the massive stone needles’ tips were covered with hammered sheets of gold and electrum. They were the first new obelisks seen in Egypt for hundreds of years.19

Thutmose I blossomed as king, and perhaps because he was not brought up to follow old traditions, he was deeply interested in innovation. Ever practical, he was the first king to construct a royal tomb hidden from public view, deep in the newly consecrated and secret Valley of the Kings. Every other monarch before him, at least those who had lived during a time of prosperity, had built grand tombs for all to see, usually pyramids faced with precious white limestone so brilliant they would have caught the blinding rays of the sun, essentially turning rock into light, and thus the king inside into the sun. The pyramid was a machine of resurrection but also a beacon to potential tomb robbers. Thutmose I must have been aware of this. His predecessor Ahmose I seems to have been buried at Abydos, while Amenhotep I followed his Seventeenth Dynasty ancestors by being interred at Dra Abu el-Naga, on the Theban west bank of the Nile, facing toward Karnak.20 Thutmose I, however, wanted something different, and he was confident enough to follow through, despite the radical nature of his burial plans.21 He chose to be buried within the sacred mountain of western Thebes, a geological formation that resembles a massive pyramid. He selected a final resting place within the goddess, that Thebans called Hathor of the Mistress of the West, underneath the body of the great cobra goddess Meretseger, She Who Loves Silence. The goddess of the mountain would keep his body safe and hidden, and she would gestate him into a transformed sun god. He planned for a secret installation, a burial space in which his body could be placed with “no one seeing, no one hearing.”22 It was this decision of Thutmose I that forever separated the sepulcher holding the king’s body from the temple space that maintained his health and happiness in the great beyond. People must have talked about these novelties and changes, especially the elites, whose education allowed them to know what had come before and what was to be expected. For everyone else, Thutmose I’s excesses were nothing short of miracles, demonstrations of godly power that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he contained the grace of the gods.

Thutmose I was the perfect model of royal authority for Hatshepsut. She grew up seeing the economic fruits of hard military campaigning and the value of architectural and artistic creativity within Egypt’s conservative cultural system. Instead of slavishly doing what kings before him had done, Thutmose I piously followed the core of established kingship, while embellishing its fringes with wonders in stone, a form of respectful progressiveness. But more than anything else, Thutmose I created a stable income of imperial tribute from vanquished foes. He made Egypt rich. Successful wars were an Egyptian king’s lifeblood, at least in the early years of his reign, and Thutmose maintained that tradition through heartless exploitation of lands beyond Egypt. The money he brought back from those wars allowed him to build temples, as hundreds of kings had done before him, but Thutmose I crafted his architecture in stone, not just mud brick. Now with authority of her own, Hatshepsut would have seen the impact of his ambitious building projects. She likely heard her courtiers talking with wonder about the king’s constructions at the Amen temple, and like her father before her, she understood how building programs functioned simultaneously as jobs programs, propaganda machines, and gifts to the gods. What a king did for religious reasons could prove to be of political benefit as well.

With a room of her own, so to speak, she grew as a leader in her own right. She had her own advisers and her own holdings. As servant to her father, the king, Hatshepsut was a close observer of true successful kingship, and her mind absorbed both formal and informal lessons to share with her own future husband, the next king. She likely analyzed her father’s policies and agenda, and perhaps as she waited out her fate—marriage to a brother upon the death of her father—she knew she could be of profound use to her future husband. She would soon serve as Egypt’s great queen. She was smart, quick, and resourceful. She had received the best possible training for her future role. She would put those qualities to virtuous use for her husband and her god.

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