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The queen who was king

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 3/22/2012, 3:22 p.m.

Today, we take a trip to ancient Egypt and meet one of the most powerful rulers of all time--who just happened to be a woman.

Egypt is located on the upper right-hand side of the African continent. It is bordered on the north by the Mediterranean Sea; on the south by Sudan; the Red Sea on the east; and Libya on the west.

When we think of ancient Egypt, we think of the Pyramids, the Nile, the splendid temples and pharaohs--and, of course, mummies. Its dynasties showcased excellence in architecture, construction, medicine, mathematics, arts and sciences. Much of the knowledge we have today in these areas and others was born in the valley of the Nile.

Ancient Egypt is divided into three parts: lower Egypt, upper Egypt and Nubia. It was governed by 30 dynasties from 3100 B.C. to 322 B.C., for 2,278 years in total. Dynasties were ruled by pharaohs, and pharaohs were almost always men.

Hatshepsut (pronounced hat-shep-soot) came to power in the 15th century B.C. Hers was one of the most powerful and prosperous reigns in Egyptian history. She is today considered to be one of the greatest female rulers of all time.

African societies were matrilineal, meaning that power could be transferred through the female bloodline. When a king came to power, his wife took the title of Great King's Wife or God's Wife. When a king died, leaving a male heir too young to assume power, his wife or mother would step in, taking the role of King's Mother. These women ruled as regents until the heir came of age to assume his birthright.

King's Mother Merneith is believed to have been the first such ruler. The discovery of her pyramid-like tomb in 1900 indicate that she was indeed a high-ranking and well-respected woman.

The title of King's Mother was very important in ancient Egypt. It was under these circumstances that Hatshepsut came to power.

Hatshepsut's parents were King Thutmose I and Queen Ahmose. When the king died, he was succeeded by his son, Thutmose II, who was Hatshepsut's stepbrother. A custom in Egyptian royal families was that the succeeding pharaoh marry his father's eldest daughter; in this case, it was Hatshepsut.

Her new husband was overweight and sickly, and she easily assumed a position of authority. When he died, the rule was passed to the next male heir in line, her infant nephew Thutmose III.

With the new heir too young to rule, Hatshepsut appointed herself pharaoh. She enjoyed a peaceful and prosperous 20-year reign, from 1479 to 1458 B.C.

Hatshepsut dressed the part. To help the priests and other public figures relate to her position as pharaoh, she dressed in sacred pharaoh robes and kilts and even wore a fake beard but was, by all accounts, very feminine, beautiful and graceful.

Unlike her male predecessors, whose main occupations were war and conquest, Hatshepsut's reign was marked by cultural development and commercial progress. She encouraged agriculture and trade and established new sea trade routes that replaced long overland journeys. The arts--architecture especially--flourished under her rule. She built more temples, pyramids and obelisks that any other ruler before her.