When you think of an Egyptian queen, it’s natural to imagine Cleopatra, a lover of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. She was the last ruler of an independent Egypt before Rome conquered it and she, facing certain execution, committed suicide by snakebite (or so the story goes). However, a more significant queen came before Cleopatra, she ruled over all of Egypt as the pharaoh, though she remains unknown by the majority of people.
Queen Hatshepsut was the daughter of King Thutmose I, and the sister/wife of his son, Thutmose II. Odd to us now, but the marriage of direct relatives was common for status purposes at the time. When Thutmose II died, his son from another wife, Thutmose III, was too young to take the throne. As Hatshepsut was closest in relation to royal blood, she became her nephew’s regent, acting on his behalf until he reached a competent age.
Accounts vary, but some argue that Hatshepsut grew accustomed to her role and the power that came with it and so she decided to leave regency behind to become the pharaoh. Thutmose III, having eventually reached maturity, did not get a chance to claim his throne and had to wait until Hatshepsut’s death to take her place.
In this artwork, dully titled “The Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut,” the 5 foot half inch statue depicts the seated queen with a royal headdress and long, tight-fitting robe. The piece comes from the time during or after her pharaonic reign, as it once stood in her funerary temple, and it is one of the few sculptures of her that accentuates her femininity.
Most of her statues display her in royal, principally male, regalia, often donning a false beard and more masculine facial features, in order to stay true to over a millennium of tradition. In this work though, besides the headdress which was usually reserved for a male ruler, she is shown in a woman’s dress and lacks a lot of the common symbols of kingship.
When the Metropolitan Museum of Art excavated her temple at Deir el-Bahari in the 1920s, they found this sculpture, and many others, in jagged pieces next to the complex.
After a painstaking reassembly and historical guesswork, it is believed that after Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s death and burial, Thutmose III decided to take revenge and had her sculptures pushed off the side of her temple, shattering them, and removing her name from the archival record wherever he could.
Thankfully, his plan was not successful, for today, she is recognized as one of the most important rulers in Egyptian history.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of women at Fairfield University, let this work be a lesson that women can, and have, reach the very top of political and social power. Of course, it was not easy, and it still isn’t. It is an endless and thoroughly unfair struggle that will outlive all of us.
The women who do attain the highest ranks in our world are envied, disparaged and actively erased by those who come after her. But, it is important to note that Hatshepsut did not ask politely to be pharaoh, nor did she always follow the rules set by the men before her.
This is precisely the reason why her image, her power and her legacy are remembered, and remembered far more than her vicious young nephew’s.