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A Woman's View of Hatshepsut's History

Interview with Dr. Kara Cooney

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Karnak - Obelisks of Hatshepsut

Karnak - Obelisks of Hatshepsut

(c) DCI

I interviewed Dr. Kara Cooney, Egyptologist, in July, 2007. Cooney appears in the 2007 Discovery Channel documentary, Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen, about the identification of the mummy of the female Egyptian Pharaoh, Hatshepsut. Cooney is a post-doctoral teaching fellow at Stanford University, and has appeared in several other television programs about ancient Egypt.

While Cooney was not part of the research highlighted in the film, she was "the storyteller and the teacher." She brought both the perspective of cultural archaeology and -- important to telling the story of a female pharaoh -- a woman's perspective.

We talked mostly about Hatshepsut's story. It's important to remember, Cooney said, that Hatshepsut's historical record is "full of half-truths and embellished." What we see from the public images of Egyptian royalty in any case are "results not processes." Especially with the special circumstances of Hatshepsut's history, it's necessary to piece together Hatshepsut's history using circumstantial evidence.

Hatshepsut is important in history not just because she's a woman who ruled Egypt. Other women ruled Egypt -- but no other took on the full identity of a Pharaoh, fulfilling what was seen as inherently a male role. Other women ruled in uncertain times, and had "dramatic downfalls." Hatshepsut's rule was a time of "political stability and economic prosperity."

Cooney explained that it was likely necessary for Hatshepsut to take the extraordinary step of taking on the full pharaoh role. Hatshepsut was young when the deaths first of her father, Thutmose I, and then of her husband, Thutmose II, left her with a daughter but not a son. She was aunt and stepmother of the very young Thutmose III, son of her husband (and half-brother) by a minor wife. She would have known of the power wielded by earlier queens in the 18th dynasty -- they'd reigned as King's Mother (there's no Egyptian word equivalent to the English "queen"). In year seven of Hatshepsut's regency, she takes the unprecedented "big jump" -- she was, Cooney said, "probably partly forced into it."

Did Cooney accept the theory that the documentary seems to put forward, that Hatshepsut was actually groomed by her father (Thutmose I) to rule Egypt? She says in the documentary "I would love to believe it" but added, "it just doesn't make sense." That addition didn't make it into the documentary. "It's incredibly unlikely," Cooney added. The images of Hatshepsut being groomed or accepted as heir are part of Hatshepsut's propaganda -- the image she created after assuming the pharaoh role, to show that she was wielding legitimate authority. There's "no evidence" beyond these later images to suggest that Thutmose I ever actually considered Hatshepsut as a more legitimate heir than his son by a minor wife, Thutmose II.

Maleness and kingship went together in this period. The king's role was sexual, not just a gender role. It was linked to mythical creation and rebirth stories: Atum; Osiris, Isis, and Horus; Amun, Mut, and Khonsu. Hatshepsut taking on maleness was a ritual necessity. The "king on earth is Horus -- there is no 'next Isis.'"

So for what was Hatshepsut preparing her daughter, Neferure? For marriage to Thutmose III, when they were old enough? We don't know, Cooney said. It could have been to become high priestess, or marriage to Thutmose II, or something else. We do know that Hatshepsut in her identity as a male pharaoh needed a God's Wife -- usually the role of the pharaoh's Great Wife, usually a royal spouse. That role was also necessary for the complementarity required by the creation and rebirth myths. Atum masturbates himself and the universe into existence -- his hand is the female complement. Osiris has his Isis. Atum has Mut.

I asked Cooney about Hatshepsut's assumption of a male identity as pharaoh. Was this just for ceremonial purposes, or did she extend what some have described as cross-dressing or a transvestite preference into her private life?

Cooney responded that we really don't know. Hatshepsut's private life was, well, private. But even after her assumption of a male pharaoh identity, Hatshepsut's representation where it has to do with her expectations of the afterlife remain female. Hatshepsut expected, Cooney explained, to exist as a female in the afterlife.

I also asked Cooney to clarify more about the removal of Hatshepsut's images. This was done "10 to 20 years" after Hatshepsut's death, so it was not the act of an enraged and vengeful stepson denied power until his evil stepmother's death, as older tellings of Hatshepsut's story had it.

What speaks to that are several pieces of strong circumstantial evidence.

  • In Karnak, images of Hatshepsut as priestess and queen were untouched.
  • In Deir el-Bahri, whoever defaced the images "sent the guys in with sledgehammers" and there was more massive destruction.
  • Female images of Hatshepsut were also destroyed especially if they were connected with her power or title as king. Some such images that were hidden were spared, like those covered by the wall at the base of her obelisks.

Some histories of Hatshepsut mention that Thutmose III was inactive until after the death of Hatshepsut, after which he suddenly becomes a military hero, expanding and solidifying the empire. He's called the "Napoleon of Egypt."

This ignores, Cooney explained, that Thutmose III was general of Hatshepsut's army before her death. If he had wanted her gone, "he could have easily taken her out," she added. So Thutmose III, once he came to maturity, had an active and important role in Egypt -- and he did not choose to take power away from his stepmother/aunt.

Cooney's conclusion is that Thutmose III tried to erase Hatshepsut's kingship images in order to establish a clear patrilinear heritage for his son. He does not replace Hatshepsut's image with his own, but largely with that of his father or grandfather, Thutmose I or II.

I asked Cooney about her comments in the documentary about Senenmut's role and place in Hatshepsut's life. She pointed out that, while we'll never know if they were lovers, they "sure do appear" to have had a highly unusual and close partnership.

Hatshepsut never remarried, and Senenmut seems never to have married or had children - highly unusual for an Egyptian man in his position.

The theory of Hatshepsut as "evil stepmother" and the theory of Senenmut as a lover of Hatshepsut have tended to go together, Cooney said, so concluding that they may have been close is uncomfortable if one does not accept the "evil stepmother" story.

Some of Senenmut's images were defaced -- we don't know why, but it may speak to them having had a close relationship. It's also possible that the evidence for their relationship is biased because Senenmut "claimed too much." We "probably won't ever solve it," Cooney added. But "it's possible that his relationship is more than as an advisor to the king."

With my interest in women's history and issues, I asked Cooney, "How's the field of Egyptology for women today?" She said that about half, maybe more, of new Egyptologists are women -- and that even in the 19th century, there were prominent women in archaeology -- Margaret Murray, for example.

Gender analysis is a "sexy topic" in archaeology today. "Antiquity is a man's world but gender analysis means we're looking at the reality that it's a man's world," Cooney explained. Women, she added, tend to bring interests in other forgotten voices, too: not just women, but foreigners, slaves, commoners.

Cooney's on-screen presence in Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen indeed does add an expert and confident -- and female -- voice for the cultural aspects of the archaeological story of Hatshepsut. Having her discuss with me some of these issues added a special dimension to the story of this unprecedented Egyptian woman, Hatshepsut -- one of the most interesting stories in women's history to hit the news in at least a decade.

Reported by Jone Johnson Lewis, About.com Women's History Expert.

All About Hatshepsut:

Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut Issues

Discovery Channel: Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen

Related Archaeology:

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