Hatshepsut was Pharaoh of Egypt for twenty-two years, from about 1479 to 1458, BCE, during the eighteenth dynasty. Hatshepsut’s tenure saw the reestablishment of trade routes that had been decimated during the Hyksos occupation, and the commissioning of scores of building projects in both upper and lower Egypt. Hatshepsut was also skilled in using propaganda to bolster the standing of the royals, one of the most skilled manipulators in the ancient world.
Oh, and Hatshepsut was a woman, only the second to rule Egypt using the title of Pharaoh, and the longest-tenured by far. Other than Hatshepsut, only Khentkaues II and Sobekneferu are known to have ruled in their own right. (Nefertiti may have ruled for some time after the death of Akhenaten; Nitocris’s gender is the subject of some debate.)
The mummy of Hatshepsut was identified last month, found in tomb KV60. While there is some debate over the identification (as one might expect, 3,500 years later), it is certainly something to note with interest, and a reason to remember Hatshepsut’s reign, and the the difficulty a woman must have had ascending to power and maintaining it, even in what was, for the time, a reasonably egalitarian society for women.
Or if you’re the media, it’s a moment to note that when Hatshepsut died, somewhere in her mid-fifties, that she wasn’t totally hot.
More startling, the descriptions of Hatshepsut suggest that women haven’t changed all that much over the centuries.
Turns out, Hatshepsut was no Cleopatra. Instead, she was a 50-year-old fat lady; apparently she used her power over the Upper and Lower Nile to eat well and abundantly. Archaeologists also claim that she probably had diabetes, just like many obese women today.
Got that, everyone? Hatshepsut was arguably the most powerful woman in history, and certainly in the top ten. She ruled over what was at the time the most powerful nation on the planet. She built temples throughout the land of Egypt, she reestablished trade routes, held off a strong challenge to her rule from her stepson, Thutmose III, and even attempted, unsuccessfully, to change succession rules so that her daughter, Neferure, could succeed her. Along the way, she may have had a torrid affair with one of her royal architects, Senenmut, and merely became one of the most successful rulers of the Nile. But she was fat when she died, and that’s really the most important part of the story. Also, obesity means diabetes, so fatties, lose some weight.
Of course, it’s not just her weight that draws mockery 3,500 years after her death:
Hatshepsut also suffered from what all women over 40 need—a stylist. She was balding in front but let the hair on the back of her head to grow really long, like an aging female Dead Head with alopecia.
This Queen of Egypt also sported black and red nail polish, a rather Goth look for someone past middle age.
It’s so hard to find a stylist in Thebes, especially in the fifteenth century BCE. Especially one who can fit you in if you have a busy schedule ruling Egypt. Also, Hatshepsut wore nail polish patterns that seem odd three and a half millennia later, because styles never, ever change.
Of course, the article notes that she was a ruler:
But like today, one should never be fooled by a woman’s Look. Hatshepsut was a powerful, successful woman. She married one of her half brothers, Thutmose II, and helped rule Egypt as his “Great Royal Wife.” When her husband died, Hatshepsut was named regent for her step-son but quickly grabbed the throne for herself.
Yeah, so what if the dyke — ahem, powerful woman — liked to wear men’s clothing? It couldn’t be part of a brilliant propaganda campaign to assert that she was king regardless of her gender, and that the symbols of her rule were just that — symbols of her power, not her gender. I mean, it’s probably that she was just a little androgynous — if you know what I’m saying.
Hatshepsut’s reign was successful, but that didn’t stop her successor, stepson Thutmose III, from attempting to disappear her from the records. Possibly he did so out of an attempt to head off the claim of Neferure to the throne, and ensure that Amenhotep II, Thutmose III’s son, would succeed him. Possibly he did so to take credit for Hatshepsut’s accomplishments himself. And possibly he did so in order to ensure that the people didn’t get the wrong idea that a woman could actually lead a nation successfully, and wonder why more women didn’t get the opportunity.
Happily for history, Thutmose III failed in at least part of his bid. He is now remembered, if at all, as an antagonist in Hatshepsut’s story. But as we stand here 3,500 years later, knowing that we may have found at last Hatshepsut’s remains, which will go on display in Cairo along with the other Pharaohs of Egypt, it would be a shame for us again to miss the point of Hatshepsut’s story, which is simple: given the chance, women are quite capable of leading effectively, as well as if not better than men. It would be a tragedy for us to focus on Hatshepsut’s weight at death (which would be unsurprising for a middle-aged, rich woman) and the cut of her hair, and for that focus miss out on the story of the extraordinary woman she must have been.
(Via zuzu, who says, “But of course, there’s a double bind — can’t be too pretty, or you won’t be taken seriously, but you can’t be old, fat and/or ugly, either. Being 3500 years old and having your own burial complex won’t help you with that catch-22.”)