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The Woman Who Would Be King

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Ancient civilization rarely suffered a woman to rule. Historians can find almost no evidence of successful, long-term female leadership from antiquity—not from the Mediterranean nor the Near East, not from Africa, Central Asia, East Asia, nor the New World. In the ancient world, a woman only came to power when crisis descended on her land—a civil war that set brother against husband against cousin, leaving a vacuum of power—or when a dynasty was at its end and all the men in a royal family were dead. Boudicca led her Britons against the aggressions of Rome around 60, but only after that relentless imperial force had all but swallowed up her fiercest kinsmen. A few decades later, Cleopatra used her great wealth and sexuality to tie herself to not one but two of Rome’s greatest generals, just as Egypt was on the brink of provincial servitude to the empire’s insatiable imperial machine. It wasn’t until the development of the modern nation-state that women took on long-lasting mantles of power. After the fall of Rome, the Continent was held in a balance by a delicate web of bloodlines. In an ethnically and linguistically divided Europe when no man could be found to continue a ruling house, finding a female family member was generally preferred to handing the kingdom over to a foreigner.

In all antiquity, history records only one woman who successfully calculated a systematic rise to power during a time of peace: Hatshepsut, meaning “the Foremost of Noble Women,” an Egyptian king of the Eighteenth Dynasty who ruled during the fifteenth century BC and negotiated a path from the royal nursery to the very pinnacle of authority. It is not precise to call Hatshepsut a queen, despite the English understanding of the word; once she took the throne, Hatshepsut could only be called a king. In the ancient Egyptian language, the word queen only existed in relation to a man, as the “king’s woman.” Once crowned, Hatshepsut served no man; her husband had been dead some seven years by the time she ascended the throne.

Hatshepsut’s legacy includes her temples, such as the tiered mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri—hieroglyphic texts on the structure were first translated in the nineteenth century, revealing the substance of her reign—and her red quartzite sanctuary from Karnak. Her tomb in the Valley of the Kings was decorated with spells to the sun as he traversed the hours of night, and her statuary reveals the essential duality of her reign: some show her as a woman, others as a man. Egyptologists remain divided about the identification of her mummy; there are a number of candidates for the valuable corpse that would reveal the wear and tear life dealt her. It is characteristic of ancient Egyptians that they would have forever preserved Hatshepsut’s body but that they recorded so little from her mind. Instead her story must be pieced together from thousands of broken fragments—temples, ritual texts, administrative documents, countless statues and reliefs of herself, her daughter, her stepson, her favored courtiers—a scattered portrait of human life. We don’t know the details of her relationships, if she was loved or reviled. Egyptology reveals the trappings of kingship, but it is very hard to locate the king. Egyptian kings were meant to be living gods on earth, shrouded in idealism and dogma, and those in power played their politics close to the vest—the throne took precedence over any individual and his or her emotions, wants, or desires. Gossip was almost unheard of among the elite and powerful of ancient Egyptian society; public scandal was never recorded into official documents or even unofficial letters. The lives of these mortal gods could only be spoken of in hushed tones.

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Politics
About the Author

Kara Cooney is an associate professor of Egyptian art and architecture at UCLA in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. She is currently working on a book about Hatshepsut.

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