Hatshepsut - First Great Woman in History

During the Eighteen Dynasty, something really unusual and extraordinary happened - a female took the title of King of Upper and Lower Egypt, and became the first great woman in recorded history.

video dr. kara cooney

In ancient Egypt, women had a higher status than they did elsewhere in the ancient world, including the court-protected right to own or inherit property. Yet having a female ruler in her own right was rare. Pharaoh was an exclusively male title. Hatshepsut is unique in that she was the first woman to take the title of King in the absence of a word for a ruler of the female gender, since the title for a queen was that of Great Royal Wife.

Read Dr. Kara Cooney's most recent article on Hatshepsut here

Hatshepsut, the eldest daughter of Thutmose I and Queen Ahmose, thus of royal birth, was able to become pharaoh upon the death of her husband and half brother Thutmose II, who ruled for only thirteen years. The throne passed to Thutmose III, a son by a non royal wife of the harem of Thutmose II, but he was a small boyat the time, so the Great Royal Wife assumed regency with his nephew until he came of age. Two years after, around 1473 BC, Hatshepsut proclaimed herself pharaoh, assuming the throne name Maatkare and ruled in her own right for 22 years.

hatshepsut egypt female pharaohAs pharaoh, Hatshepsut had to wear the traditional male regalia of Egyptian kings, the Khat head cloth, topped with an uraeus, the traditional false beard, and shendyt kilt, and she is depicted as such in many statues and reliefs. This doesn't mean that she denied her gender. Rather it is more a show of authority to foreign rulers, respect to tradition and a way to gain acceptance among the population.

The Queen who would be King turned out to be among the greatest Egyptian pharaohs, reigning long enough to garner some remarkable achievements.

Hatshepsut was a prolific builder, and her mortuary temple at Deir el Bahari is a superb example of architectural design with a strikingly contemporary style. It was built into a cliff face that rises sharply above it on a site on the West Bank of the Nile close to the entrance to the Valley of the Kings. The collonades are reached by a series of terraces that were once adorned with gardens. Large Osirian figures of Hatshepsut grace this magnificent temple. It was the creation of Senmut, her royal steward, architect and supposed lover.

Another beautiful example of fine construction is her recently restored Red Chapel at the complex of Karnak. Here, visitors can also witness a standing obelisk erected in her honor, and another that has since toppled, so you can see at close range the carved image of her seated figure receiving the blessing of Amon-Re. She later ordered two more obelisks to be made to celebrate her sixteenth year as pharaoh. However, one of the obelisks broke during constrution, thus a third was made to replace it. The broken obelisk was left at its quarrying site in Aswan, where it still is today, and has proven valuable in learning how obelisks were quarried. A visit to this Unfinished Obelisk is included in most Egypt tours.

The Egyptian Museum at Cairo has a colossal head of Hatshepsut from her temple at Deir el Bahari. Her face, in this and many other portrait sculptures, is round with large almond shaped eyes and softly smiling lips.

hatshepsute statue metropolitan museum queen hatshepsutHatshepsut Sphinx Met MuseumThe Hatshepsut Room in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the best collections of her statuary. She is variously depicted as a royal sphinx, and also seated wearing a tight-fitting dress and the nemes crown, probably a more accurate representation of how she would have presented herself.

Other great achievements of Hatshepsut includes a commercial expedition to the legendary land of Punt, where her sailors brought back many goods, notably myrrh, which is said to have been Hatshepsut's favorite fragrance, and thirty-one live frankincense trees. She had the trees planted in the courts of her Deir el Bahari mortuary temple, and commemorated the expedition in relief at that site.

video mummy of hatshepsutAfter her death, many of Hatshepsut's monuments were defaced or destroyed. The most common interpretation is that Thutmose III was responsible, as an act of revenge for being denied the throne for so long. In fact, keeping the great Thutmose, regarded by egyptologists and scholars as the greatest of Egyptian pharaohs (despite the fame of Ramses II or Tutankhamen), in check for 22 years until her death, is proof enough that Hatshepsut is indeed the First Great Woman in History.

In what has been called the archaeological find of the century, the mummy of Hatshepsut has been positively identified. A tooth found in a relic box displaying the pharaoh’s insignia matched a gap in the mummy’s jaw. CT scans also showed facial similarities between the mummy and already identified mummies of Hatshepsut’s royal relatives, as well as evidence of a skin disease that the queen may have shared with some of them.


After Hatshepsut

By Maria Isabel Pita

Approximately twenty years after her death, Hatshepsut’s nephew, Thutmose III, set about systematically, but very selectively, erasing her name and images from her monuments. Her “representations as queen were never touched; the attacks were directed solely at her kingly representations.”[1] In most instances, Thutmose replaced Maatkare’s name with that of his father or grandfather, his direct male ancestors. However, the statues in her Mansion of Millions of Years, now called Deir el-Bahri, were completely destroyed and thrown into a pit that in the end mysteriously served to protect them. Centuries later they were discovered and lovingly reassembled. Perhaps these statues were simply too unique to be re-inscribed for someone else.

The original theory that Thutmose III hated his aunt has essentially been ruled out. I personally agree with the Egyptologists who believe “the obliteration of Hatshepsut’s kingship may thus be linked with the determination to eradicate the possibility of another powerful female ever inserting herself, as the personification of Horus on Earth, into the long line of Egyptian male kings.”[2] After Thutmose III’s death, the title of God’s Wife of Amun, created for his wife by Hatshepsut’s grandfather, fell into disuse, for it was “this powerful economic and political office that may initially have given her (Hatshepsut) special leverage to act in the name of Thutmose III during the years of his minority.”[3] But it was Hatshepsut herself who took profound advantage of her position like no other queen before or after her.

Regarding Hatshepsut’s so-called mummy, the Egyptian government has refused to disclose the full results of the DNA analysis done on the body identified as Hatshepsut in a 2007 television special. “So far, the science shown in the Discovery Channel’s ‘Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen’ has not been published in a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal—the gold standard of scientific research worldwide.”[4] Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s Chief of Antiquities, “has never disclosed full results of the examinations, sometimes on grounds of national security. Though Hawass has never explained the reasons for this, apparently there is concern the tests could cast doubt on the Egyptian lineage of the mummies.”[5]

maatkare hatshepsutMuch of the evidence for Dr. Hawass’ identification rests on a tooth and yet no independent confirmation based on forensic dentistry has ever been produced. It is also highly probable the box containing the tooth, along with a liver and intestines, was actually used by someone else. “It is remarkable that the package (with the visceral organs), that was found in the box is obviously too large for the box as it prevents the lid from closing properly. Therefore, it is possible that the package was originally accommodated in another container and does [not] belong to this box. Furthermore, it must be taken into account that the package indicates a re-use of the box in later times.”[6] The box was not found in Hatshepsut’s tomb whereas a quartzite canopic chest was found at the foot of her sarcophagus. The stone chest was divided into four compartments designed to hold her heart, liver, lungs and intestines.

“The scientists have proved only that a tooth in a box belongs to a mummy. The identification is based on the assumption that the contents of the box are properly labeled and were once vital parts of the famous female pharaoh. And the box inscribed with Hatshepsut's cartouche is not the typical canopic vessel in which mummified organs are found. It's made of wood, not stone, and might have been used to hold jewelry or oils or small valuables. Some would say we have not found absolute proof and I would agree.”[7] Personally, I do not believe Hatshepsut’s so-called mummy really belonged to her. Based on all the other extensive material evidence the female Pharaoh left behind the identification does not make sense and to date it does not make for true science either. “The investigation's (perhaps inconclusive) results were never published, leaving the mummy's true identity in question.”[8]

[1] From The Proscription of Hatshepsut by Peter F. Forman, in Hatshepsut—From Queen to Pharaoh (Roehrig, et. al) 267
[2] Ibid, 269
[3] Ibid.
[4] FOXNews.com (2007) DNA Tests Fail to Confirm Identity of Mummy Claimed to be Pharaoh Queen
[5] FOXNews.com (2008) Egypt Planning DNA Test for 3,500-Year-Old Mummy
[6] Leser, K.H. www.maat-ka-ra.de/english/start_e.htm
[7] Ashraf Selim, professor of radiology at Cairo University
[8] Parchin, S. (2008) Egyptian Museum Tests Mummy’s DNA, Suite101.com


Maria Isabel Pita was born in Havana, Cuba. Her family left the country when she was ten months old and she grew up in Fairfax, Virginia. Reading, writing and history, especially ancient Egypt, have been her abiding passions ever since she can remember. She attended Florida International University, where she majored in World History and did a double minor in Cultural Anthropology and English Literature. Maria is well known for her literary erotic romances, two of which are set in contemporary Egypt, and for her book Guilty Pleasures,a critically acclaimed collection of romantic erotic stories set all through history. "Truth is the Soul of the Sun" is her first biographical novel.


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Cars can now park in the area of Deir el-Bahari. Tourists walk through a visitor’s center in which they can see a model of the temple and cliffs, and then watch a four minute film about the site. After leaving the visitor’s center, electric cars transport the people to the Temple of Hatshepsut.

After sunset, the cliffs of Deir el Bahari and the interior of the Temple of Hatshepsut are illuminated for a truly magnificent visual experience.

Private Tour of Deir el-Bahari

Hatshepsut temple Deir el Bahari

The Mansion of Million of Years of Hatshepsut

Framed by steep cliffs and poised in elegant relief is the mortuary temple of Deir el-Bahari, known in ancient times as the "Most Holy of Holies".

The Polish - Egyptian mission has been excavating and restoring the Temple of Hatshepsut for 30 years and has recently come upon remarkable evidence about her life and times.

It was in the seventh year of her reign that Hatshepsut decided to present herself as "King of Upper and Lower Egypt". Indication of this appears in her image, carved in relief, honouring Amun at the entrance to the main sanctuary on the upper terrace, which was first painted pink (the usual skin tone of women), and then over-painted in red, denoting that the god was being honoured by his son.

It was her most talented architect, Senmut, who designed the terraced temple for Hatshepsut. When approaching the temple from the east one becomes aware that the stark purity of the cliffs to its rear forms a dramatic backcloth.

The structure appears to have been inspired by the adjacent 11th- Dynasty temple built by Hatshepsut's distant predecessor Pharaoh Mentuhotep II, but it was carried out on a very much larger scale. Senmut adopted the idea of the terrace and added an extra tier, so that the whole temple comprised courts, one above the other, with connecting, inclined planes at the center. The Polish mission has recently been hard at work on the upper terrace, a festival courtyard and two chambers which were added later -- one in honour of Hathor and devoted to the cult of the queen and her parents, and the other devoted to Anubis. These will soon be open to the public.

The sanctuary of the Temple of Hatshepsut has a vaulted ceiling and some of the wall paintings bear a marked resemblance to those to be found in Old Kingdom tombs at Saqqara. Here are such scenes as Hatshepsut in front of an offering table, and registers of offering bearers.

The Temple of Hatshepsut is best viewed early in the morning when the sun is low in the sky and the air is cool. Later in the day it tends to be very hot and the reliefs are all but invisible. You'll want to see details of the famous colonnades of the voyage to Punt and the Birth Colonnade in their best light. The former commemorates an expedition ordered by Hatshepsut to the East African/Somali coast to bring back myrrh and frankincense trees to be planted on the terraces of her temple, where, at the center of a long wall, is a scene of the queen (defaced) offering the fruits of her expedition to Amun: frankincense trees, wild game, cattle, electrum and bows. The Birth Colonnade includes a scene of the ram- headed Khnum shaping Hatshepsut and her ka on a potter's wheel. Among the particularly fine representations is one of the queen mother, Ahmose, full with child and radiating joy as she stands dignified in her pregnancy, being led to the birth room.

Source: Al-Ahram Weekly