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.
Hatshepsut’s greatest architectural achievement was her temple, Deir el Bahari. Her chief architect and Great Steward of Amun, Senenmut, conceived the structure, which was built out of a rock cliff looking down on the temple of Amen-Ra in the Valley of the Kings. The 800-foot temple was decorated with shrines, statues, terraces and gardens. It is considered one of the world’s most remarkable architectural specimens and the crowning achievement of Senenmut’s genius.
Trouble came for Hatshepsut when Thutmose III came of age and took his birthright. The queen simply disappeared suddenly under mysterious circumstances. It is speculated that Thutmose had his aunt killed, but no one could prove it. Her mummy would not be found for centuries.
The new ruler worked hard to erase Hatshepsut from history, removing her name from the king’s list, defacing her statues and destroying her temples, obelisks and anything else with her name or image on it. For centuries after her death, the question loomed: Where was her mummy and how did she really die?
The mystery may finally have been solved. In 1881, a canoptic box, used to store the organs of royal mummies, was discovered in a tomb with other mummies. The box had the name Hatshepsut on it. It is suspected that the box and the mummies were moved to protect them from grave robbers.
In 1903, Howard Carter discovered a tomb called KV60 with two female mummies, one inside an ill-fitting coffin and one on the floor. Carter closed the tomb, thinking that these were not royal mummies. He went on to discover the tomb of Tutankhamun (aka King Tut).
In 1989, Donald Ryan rediscovered the tomb and suspected that the uncoffined mummy called KV60A was Hatshepsut, as it was in the royal position, with the left arm bent across the chest.
Dr. Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of Egypt’s Council of Antiquities, conducted DNA testing on four mummies taken from the tomb and tests on mummies known to be Hatshepsut’s relatives. He found similarities in the facial features and, most notably, a skin condition thought to be hereditary. The results were not conclusive.
The mummy KV60A is that of a woman who died at around 50 years of age. She was about 5 feet tall and obese. She had gum disease, rotted teeth and the skin disease found on the mummies of Thutmose I, II and III. The female mummy was also found to have bone cancer and diabetes.
What finally sealed the deal on the identification was a tooth found in the canoptic box. It was a molar with a missing root. The uncoffined mummy had a missing molar, but the root was still intact. Measurements determined that the missing tooth belonged to mummy KV60A, now identified as Hatshepsut.
It is now speculated that the queen’s last days were agonizing, as she was plagued by obesity, painful cancer and a mouth full of bad teeth. This great Egyptian ruler had none of the grandeur in her discovery that surrounded King Tut; there were no royal treasures or gold sarcophagus. She had been removed from her original coffin and was simply left on the floor of the tomb — a sad end for the pharaoh queen.
However, despite Thutmose III’s best efforts to erase her, Hatshepsut’s legacy as one of the greatest rulers of the ancient Egyptian world remains cemented in history.
- Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about Hatshepsut and the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Use a map or globe to find Egypt. Locate the Nile River. Why do you think this location was an ideal location?
- Talk about it: Talk about what you think it must have been like for Hatshepsut. Do you think her rule was respected? Why do you think her nephew Thutmose III went to such trouble to erase her name and image?
- Write it down: Make a list of great female leaders. These could be leaders in politics, arts or sports. Discuss your choices with your classmates and the impact they have made on history.
- Go See It: There’s a bit of ancient Egypt right in Central Park. The great obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle is located at East Side Drive at 81st Street.
This Week in Black History
- March 19, 1619: The first African child, William Tucker, is born in the colonies.
- March 21, 1965: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leads the famous 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
- March 23, 1916: Marcus Garvey arrives in the United States from Jamaica. Garvey’s ideals would lay the groundwork for Pan-Africanism.