Hatshepsut: 10 Facts on the Queen Who Would Be King

The great Queen Hatshepsut was the longest reigning female pharaoh in ancient Egypt’s history. How did she do it?

Aug 20, 2021By Marian Vermeulen
queen hatshepsut statue osiride figure pharaoh
Statue of Pharaoh Hatshepsut and head from an Osiride figure of Hatshepsut, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The 18th Dynasty of Egypt saw the return of native rulers to the throne and the peak of Egyptian wealth and prosperity. Among those rulers was Queen Hatshepsut, the longest reigning female Pharaoh in Egyptian history, ruling from 1473-1458 B.C. When her half-brother and husband, Thutmose II, died early, her infant step-son succeeded as Pharaoh. Though only in her early twenties, Hatshepsut took over active rule as his regent. After a few years, ousted her step-son and took over as official Pharaoh of Egypt, enjoying a long and prosperous reign.

 

1. An Attempt to Erase Hatshepsut from History Failed

thutmose III statue
Statue of Thutmose III, ca. 1479–1425 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Historians have struggled to piece together the details of Hatshepsut’s life and reign. One major factor of the uncertainty is the lack of evidence, as her name was intentionally erased from Egyptian monuments and sculptures. This was presumably the work of her step-son, Thutmose III. For years his actions were thought to be bitter revenge against his stepmother for her usurpation of his throne, but careful investigation reveals more practical motives. Hatshepsut never persecuted her stepson, and, in fact, he held important posts within her government and led the army. There is little evidence of any hatred between them. Even more peculiar is the timing of the erasure. It was undertaken at the end of Thutmose’s life rather than the beginning.

 

anubis hatshepsut relied painted
Hatshepsut (her image erased) standing before the god Anubis, photograph by Peter Alscher, Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, via maat-ka-ra.de

 

Additionally, mentions of Hatshepsut were not destroyed in the inner chambers of her tomb, something that would have hindered her in the afterlife according to Egyptian tradition. An angry, jealous attack would most certainly have also targeted those inscriptions indicating that he had no personal grudge against his stepmother. Instead, it appears that the destruction was a careful political move, intended to ensure no argument about the ascension of Thutmose III’s own son, Amenhotep II. Some historians even suggest that it was Amenhotep, not his father, who attempted to remove Hatshepsut from history.

 

2. She Lead Her Own Military Campaign

ancient egypt stela djehuty
Stela of Djehuty, ca. 1550–1295 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

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Upon taking control, at only twenty-two years of age, Hatshepsut followed the example of her 18th dynasty predecessors and solidified her power with a short and successful military campaign to the south against the Kingdom of Kush. Images and inscriptions from the tomb of Senenmut, Tiy at Seheil, and the stela of Djehuty all record the campaign, with the latter two being quite explicit that the campaign was led by Hatshepsut herself.

 

3. Hatshepsut Altered Her Image to Be More Masculine

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Statue of Hatshepsut flanking her Mortuary Temple, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Early depictions of her are quite feminine, likely more realistic portrayals of her appearance. Partway into her reign, the carvings and sculptures begin to take on a more masculine appearance, and she is sometimes shown in the traditional garments of male rulers of Egypt. In the later part of her life, she was depicted fully male, in male clothing, and even with the traditional beard of Egyptian Pharaohs. This, not surprisingly, caused a great deal of confusion for early archeologists attempting to pinpoint the timelines and identities of the Egyptian Pharaohs. To make things worse, by the end of her reign, Hatshepsut had dropped any titles that were exclusively held by women in ancient Egypt, and was even using the masculine form of her name, Hatshepsu.

 

4. In the Ninth Year of her Reign, She Launched a Massive Expedition to the Land of Punt 

expedition punt carrying myrrh ancient egypt
Painted relief from Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple showing the expedition to Punt carrying myrrh trees back to Egypt, via flickr

 

Punt, or “the Divine Land,” is believed to be located near modern Somalia. The expedition was a major success, and the Egyptians returned home laden with fantastic and exotic items. One of the most ambitious goals of the journey was to bring back living myrrh trees to cultivate in Egypt. Incense and myrrh were very expensive substances in the ancient world as they grew in very limited locations. Yet, many cultures, including Egypt, required their use in religious and funerary ceremonies. Wall paintings in Hatshepsut’s funerary temple show the expedition members returning with these trees. Unfortunately, they were ill-suited to Egypt’s climate and none survived, but trade with Punt appears to have continued throughout her reign.

 

5. One Theory Suggests that Hatshepsut Might Be the Biblical Queen of Sheba 

edward poynter visit queen sheba king solomon painting
The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, Sir Edward John Poynter, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

 

An interesting theory suggests that Punt was not a region to the south of Egypt but was actually the region of Judea, and that Hatshepsut is, in fact, the legendary Biblical Queen of Sheba who met with Solomon. In his 1952 book Ages of Chaos, Immanuel Velikovsky argued that the 18th Dynasty had been incorrectly dated and actually landed almost five centuries later in history. The change in timeline resolves several long-standing discrepancies between the histories of Egypt and Israel.

 

It also makes Hatshepsut and Solomon contemporaries. Velikovsky pointed to a passage in the well-known ancient Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the 1st century A.D., who explicitly states that the Queen of Sheba was “the woman who, at that time, ruled as queen of Egypt.” Velikovsky believed that the mysterious “land of Punt” actually referred to Jerusalem, and that all of the exotic items brought back to Egypt could have been found, at that time, in the Jordan River Valley. Though the theory has not been widely accepted, and reliefs depicting the journey seem far more consistent with a southern African destination, it is still fascinating to consider.

 

6. She Was One of the Most Prolific Builders in Egyptian History

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Obelisk of Hatshepsut (left) and Thutmose I (right), Karnak Temple Complex, Luxor, via obelisk.org

 

The previous dynasty of occupying Hyksos rulers had caused heavy destruction to Egyptian art and monuments. Hatshepsut restored the damages and rebuilt even bigger and greater. Her works included the restoration of the Precinct of Mut at Karnak, The construction of the Red Chapel at Karnak, and the construction of the Temple of Pakhet at Beni Hasan. So many statues were commissioned during her reign that almost every museum in the world today that features Egyptian artifacts contains some from her era. In fact, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has an entire Hatshepsut room dedicated to statues from her reign. Hatshepsut also commissioned numerous obelisks, including one that remains the tallest surviving ancient obelisk in the world.

 

7. Her Greatest Architectural Creation Is Her Mortuary Temple Complex at Deir El-Bahri

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Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple at Deir el-Bahri, via ancient-origins.net

 

The construction of the magnificent Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut was overseen by her chief steward, Senenmut, and took around fifteen years to complete. Although the nearby Temple of Mentuhotep II provided some inspiration, Queen Hatshepsut’s temple varies significantly in several stylistic aspects. It marks a switch in Egyptian temple design from the massive, geometric Old Kingdom style toward one intended for more active use by worshippers. The temple is three stories tall, connected by ramps and terraces. In its day, it contained shrines, chapels, and the sanctuary of Amun-re. These were all woven together with carved reliefs, reflecting pools, and elaborate gardens of exotic plants and trees.

 

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Scene from the “Birth Hall” from Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, via bellabs.ru

 

The mortuary temple contains two important, painted, low-relief sequences, one detailing the famous expedition to Punt and the other portraying events of Queen Hatshepsut’s life, carefully planned by Hatshepsut to further establish her right to rule. In the relief, Amun asks the blessings of the other gods for the great and powerful Queen that is to come, and then visits Hatshepsut’s mother disguised as Thutmose I and conceives Hatshepsut. In another scene showing Hatshepsut’s elaborate coronation, her father crowns her King, conveying the idea that it was always his intention for his daughter to rule. There may be some truth to that, as Hatshepsut had an active role in the government of both her father and brother and came to power experienced in administration. However, true or not, it forms an effective piece of propaganda in support of Hatshepsut’s sole right to rule.

 

8. She May Have Had an Affair With Her Steward

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Wall painting near the mortuary temple that aroused suspicions of an affair, thairath.co.th

 

Historians today whisper rumors that Queen Hatshepsut had a lover – none other than her chief steward, Senenmut. Archeologists were shocked to discover that Hatshepsut allowed Senenmut to have his own name and image painted into her mortuary temple, an unprecedented honor. He was also apparently unmarried, a very odd state for a mature Egyptian man, and he and Hatshepsut were buried in a matching pair of sarcophagi.

 

The other clue to this comes from a piece of interesting graffiti. Near Hatshepsut’s temple was an old, unfinished tomb that workers used as a house during construction. On one of its walls is an image of a man and a pharaoh making love. The pharaoh is depicted rather androgynously, and the man is presumed to be Senemut. Of course, this is not proof of a love affair but suggests that the temple workers had the same suspicions that plague historians today.

 

9. Finding Hatshepsut’s Body Has Been a Long and Restless Endeavor 

queen hatshepsut sarcophagus
Sarcophagus of Queen Hatshepsut but recut by the queen to inter her father, 1473–1458 BC, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

 

In the Old and Middle Kingdoms of ancient Egypt, the king’s mortuary temple usually adjoined their pyramid and tomb. However, when archeologists excavated Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, her body was nowhere to be found. Exploration of tomb KV20 in the Valley of Kings, believed to be the original tomb of Thutmose I, found items associated with Hatshepsut, as well as a canopic box inscribed to her. Historians believe that Queen Hatshepsut built an addition onto her father’s tomb and was originally interred with him, but her body was later removed. Another tomb in the valley, KV60, revealed two female mummies. One had a coffin inscribed with the title “royal nurse,” speculated to be that of Hatshepsut’s nurse, Sit-Ra. The second body was thought to be that of Hatshepsut, and CT scans of both the mummy and the canopic box found in KV20 seemed to confirm that.

 

queen hatshepsut mummy photograph
The mummy of Hatshepsut, via National Geographic

 

The female mummy bore certain physiological aspects that are consistent with CT scans of other royal family members. The scans also showed that the mummy was missing a molar with one broken root remaining in the jaw. Scans of the canopic box revealed an embalmed liver or spleen, intestines, and a single human molar, missing one root. Dr. Galal El-Beheri, an orthodontist, working on the project, concluded that the tooth fit the gap, but not all scholars are convinced.

 

Questions remain regarding the precision of the match and the question of the missing third root of the upper molar. Although absolute positive identification has not been made, the large collection of circumstantial evidence suggests that the mummy with the missing tooth is that of Queen Hatshepsut.

 

10. Queen Hatshepsut May Have Accidentally Caused Her Own Death

mummy hatshepsut image
The mummy identified as Queen Hatshepsut, ca. 1479-1458 BC, Egyptian Museum, Cairo

 

The mummy believed to be Hatshepsut reveals the Queen as standing just over five feet, was overweight and had rotten at the time of her death. She had long hair of a golden color and red-painted fingernails. Modern technology has been able to determine even more about the great Queen. She apparently suffered from arthritis and diabetes in her later years, as well as bone cancer, which is presumed to be the cause of her death. The cancer’s cause has even been determined. Queen Hatshepsut appears to have struggled with some kind of chronic, genetic skin disease. She covered this with a lotion, whether to disguise it or as an attempt to improve it. Unfortunately for the Queen, the lotion itself was a carcinogenic substance, which slowly penetrated and caused her fatal bone cancer.

 

Traveling to Egypt? Make sure to read our curated itinerary for History Lovers compiled by an Egyptologist living in Egypt for the last 20 years.



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By Marian VermeulenMarian has been a devoted student of the ancient world since primary school. She received her BA in History and Philosophy from Hope College and has continued researching and writing on topics of ancient history from the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire and everything in between. She enjoys dabbling in historical fiction, but generally finds the actual true individuals of history and their stories more fascinating than any fictional invention. Her other passion is horses, and in her spare time she enjoys starting young horses under saddle and volunteer training for the local horse rescue.