Pharaoh Hatshepsut: Depictions of a Female King in Egyptian Artwork

Take a look at this sculpture and note the figure’s clothing, position of the body, materials used, and anything else that strikes you as interesting:

Now this one:

Fairly standard Egyptian portraiture, these two sculptures are solid with stiff and rigid poses; both figures adhering to Egyptian canon. Appearing timeless and serene, the main difference seems to be that one is a portrait of a man and one a portrait of a woman. The first, a kneeling man, wears the nemes (headdress of the Pharaoh) and false beard, with clothing typical of an Egyptian male. The second, a seated woman, also wears the nemes and is clothed by a simple, thin shift commonly worn by female Egyptian nobility of the time.

What if I were to tell you that both are portraits of the same person?

Here we see the female Pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut, who came to the throne around 1479 BCE and ruled for approximately 22 years.

Queen Hatshepsut has an interesting history. Coming to the throne as Pharaoh regent, she eventually gained full power and is now considered to be one of ancient Egypt’s more successful Pharaohs, with the longest reign of any woman in Egyptian history (Of which there were a surprising amount. Many ruled as regents, but many others ruled in their own right). Hatshepsut reestablished trade with the Land of Punt which brought more wealth to Egypt, and is known to have been a prolific builder, creating many structures throughout Upper and Lower Egypt (Some of which later Pharaohs attempted to claim as their own). She was also very adept at promoting herself, commissioning many artworks which exalted her reopening of trade with Punt.

The Temple of Hatshepsut. Notice how the long flat plane of the building with the vertical lines of the columns parallel the landscape.

Now, you may be wondering why Hatshepsut is depicted in statuary as both a man and a woman. Ancient Egyptians had no word meaning female ruler. The word they had was Pharaoh, which means king, and implies that the title-bearer is a man. While women had ruled as Pharaoh before, they had not done so with great frequency, resulting in no one creating a female form of Pharaoh. In addition to not having a word for a female king, the Egyptians had no standard way of depicting a woman as Pharaoh.

Egyptians were unlikely to ever see their Pharaoh up close, or even see them long enough to remember what they looked like. Because of this, Egyptian artists had to create stylistic indicators that someone in a work of art was the Pharaoh. They used cues such as the nemes, the false beard, the royal kilt, large size in comparison to others (hieratic scale), and, this is the one that’s important, they depicted the Pharaoh as a man.

Originally, artists seemed to struggle with reconciling Hatshepsut’s gender with her position and depicted her as a woman with the clothing of a man. However, as time went on artists began to depict Hatshepsut as a man.

Dual Stela of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III

Thutmose III and Hatshepsut from the Red Chapel at Karnak

Thutmose III and Hatshepsut from the Red Chapel at Karnak

It’s interesting to note that twenty years following Hatshepsut’s death, her stepson (for whom she first acted as regent and then kept the throne from) Thutmose III had many of the images depicting Hatshepsut as king destroyed. For a long time historians thought that this was an indicator of a stepson’s rage at his wily stepmother taking the throne, but this is likely not the case. As the destruction of her image began twenty years following her death, not immediately afterwards as one would expect from a stepson riddled with jealousy and anger, historians now believe that Thutmose III did it to strengthen his own son’s claim to the throne.

Plaster cast recreation of Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt. Her image has been removed from the piece, chipped away from the stone.

Upon her discover, people did love the portrait of Hatshepsut as a power-hungry shrew. The curator of Egyptian art at the Met himself said in 1953, “It was not long… before this vain, ambitious, and unscrupulous woman showed herself in her true colors”.

Huh. Obviously, as a woman ruler with some vandalized images, she was a bad, bad person. I guess that’s the fifties for ya! It is a good example of presentism in art history, we view the past through a contemporary lens, which is generally not a good thing. How can we fully comprehend the meaning of ancient Egyptian’s actions? Sure, we can guess, but looking back at many guesses made by historians in the past that turned out to be incredibly wrong (At least, that’s what we think now!), we can never be sure.

Queen Hatshepsut has a fascinating story and appeared to be a very clever leader, able to manipulate public perception of her through the artwork and buildings created during her reign. While we may never understand her life fully, we can still hope to learn more.

There’s an interesting article about Queen Hatshepsut over at National Geographic. Check it out if you have some time!

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