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Pharaoh Hatshepsup

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A statue of Hatshepsup as a sphinx, in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Regarded as Egypt's greatest female pharaoh1, Hatshepsup reigned for over 20 years, between 1479 and 1458 (or possibly 1457) BC, and was only the second out of at least six women known to have ruled Egypt as absolute monarch. The best-known of the female pharaohs was Cleopatra, but there is also compelling evidence that Nefertiti, ruling under the name of Smenkhkare2, may also have had full pharaonic status after the death of her husband Akhenaten.

Originally named Hatshepsut, meaning 'foremost of the noble ladies', she was the daughter of Tuthmosis I and his wife, Queen Ahmose. However, Tuthmosis I also had a number of minor wives, one of whom produced a male heir, Tuthmosis II, who became king around 1492 BC. In order to strengthen this half-brother's somewhat weak claim to the throne3 he was married to Hatshepsut. Tuthmosis II, however, reigned for only about 11 years before dying around 1479 BC, when Hatshepsut was about 30 years old. Although Hatshepsut had a daughter, Princess Neferure, by Tuthmosis II4, the succession passed to a male heir by a minor wife of Tuthmosis II. This was the infant Tuthmosis III (who was to become the greatest empire builder of the dynasty, and whose military exploits have earned him the modern appellation of 'The Napoleon of Ancient Egypt'), and Hatshepsut ruled as regent on his behalf. As regent, she wore the vulture crown and lily sceptre regalia of a queen. In this role she noted that, but for her gender, she would be the rightful heir to the throne.

Hatshepsut as Pharaoh

After about six years as regent, Hatshepsut evidently decided that she could 'cut the mustard' as pharaoh herself, as daughters, sisters and wives of kings had a greater legitimacy to the throne than the offspring of minor wives. She was canny enough to make sure that her metamorphosis from queen to pharaoh was not too sudden, and so she gradually discarded her queenly titles as she took up more kingly ones. She eventually proclaimed herself as pharaoh in 1473 BC, backed by her trusted adviser, Senmut, Chief of All Works and Chief Steward of the god Amen, a commoner whom she had elevated to high office.

As a queen taking on full status as a pharaoh she needed additional official appellations and so she became King Maatkara Hatshepsut-Khnemet-Amen. She even eventually dropped the feminine 't' suffix to her name thus becoming, in effect, His Majesty King Maatkara Hatshepsup-Khnemet-Amen ('foremost of the nobles').

From this time onwards, Hatshepsup had herself depicted as a man, and wore the male pharaonic regalia of crowns, nemes headdress and uraeus5, the shendyt kilt, khat headcloth and even a false beard.

As kings were regarded as demigods, Hatshepsup enhanced her status by attributing her birth to a union between her mother and the deity Amen, and had her lineage depicted thus upon the wall of her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari. (Her father, Tuthmosis I had been born a commoner but claimed to have 'come from the Aten', the sun disc now named as a god in its own right some 150 years before Akhenaten is supposed to have pioneered the concept.)

As a pharaoh, Hatshepsup could no longer function as the pharaoh's wife and so she passed this hereditary position to her daughter, Princess Neferure. Neferure therefore became her mother's queen.

Some Egyptologists are of the opinion that Hatshepsup had been preparing her own daughter, Princess Neferure, to be her successor, as her education had been entrusted to Senmut, Hatshepsup's trusted adviser6. Sadly, Neferure died as a teenager some time after the 11th year of Hatshepsup's reign, around 1462 BC. Two years after this Senmut also died and so, at this time, Hatshepsup reinstated her step-son Tuthmosis III as her heir and co-regent. A detail on a wall scene at the temple at Karnak, near Luxor shows the two kings identically dressed in blue crowns and kilts and holding the royal sceptre in their right hands, bent across their chests.

Pharaoh Hatshepsup's Achievements

Once she came to power, Hatshepsup proved to be a forceful and ambitious ruler, and Egypt prospered for almost 20 years under her strong leadership. During her coronation it was decreed that she 'seize the chiefs of Retenu [Palestine] by violence, those left over from your father's reign. Your catch shall be men by the thousands.' She sent an army into Nubia where she 'destroyed the southern lands'.

During her reign Hatshepsup also reopened the turquoise and copper mines of Sinai, and expanded the temple of Hathor where she worshipped as the 'Lady of the Turquoise'. She also re-established long-distance trade networks between Egypt and the 'Land of Punt'7 on the Red Sea coast, following disruption by the Hyksos Wars. This region was the main area for production of the frankincense, myrrh and pistacia resins used for temple rituals, perfumes and in mummification.

Hatshepsup can be considered one of the great builders of ancient Egypt who did more than anyone else to make her country the wealthy kingdom it had become by the time Tutankhamun came to the throne over a century later.

Hatshepsup's name abruptly disappeared from the record when Tuthmosis III became sole monarch in 1458 BC, and it is not clear whether she died naturally at this time or whether there may be a more sinister explanation. However, she left behind more monuments and works of art than any other Egyptian queen to come. Some time after Tuthmosis III assumed the throne, he took steps to erase all traces of Hatshepsup, and stone portraits were shattered and her name erased from monuments. Archaeologists now believe that this was done in order that the Tuthmosis lineage appeared all male.

The Tomb of Tuthmosis I

During her time as queen, Hatshepsup had ordered the second of a large double burial chamber at Deir el-Bahari for herself. The first had been ordered by her father Tuthmosis I (1504 BC - 1492 BC) and was originally designed by the royal architect, Ineni. Tuthmosis I had chosen this as his final resting place due to its isolation and after having observed that there was hardly a tomb in the whole of Egypt, including the pyramids, that hadn't been plundered by robbers.

In a break with tradition, he had his tomb (now known as KV208) hewn from living rock, thus setting the pattern for interments of three pharaonic dynasties, the 18th, 19th and 20th. On the death of her father, Hatshepsup ordered that his tomb be enlarged to accommodate matching stone sarcophagi for herself and her father, so that they could 'be eternal like an undying star'. The original tomb of Tuthmosis I is the earliest datable tomb in the Valley.

The tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1902, and when he explored it properly in 1920, two years before his famous discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, he found two yellow quartzite sarcophagi - but both were empty, having been ransacked in ancient times. Interestingly, both sarcophagi had originally been inscribed for Hatshepsup, although one had subsequently been reinscribed for her earthly father, Tuthmosis I. (Stone sarcophagi were extremely time-consuming and expensive to produce.) The mummy of Tuthmosis I had at some stage been transferred to a great cache of mummies which were found in 1881 at Deir el-Bahari, but the location of Hatshepsup's mummy was unknown and has therefore exercised the minds of Egyptologists ever since. In particular, they would like to understand the causes of her death.

In spring 1903, Howard Carter found and opened a tomb, now known as KV60, in which he found the coffins of mummified geese and the partially disturbed and decaying coffins of two women, lying side-by-side. One bore the inscription of Sitre-In, Hatshepsup's wet nurse, the other was anonymous. As the tomb was not royal it received little attention at this time; in fact Carter closed the tomb and left no map of its exact location.

In 1906 the tomb was happened upon by another archaeologist who had the mummy of Sitre-In shipped to the Cairo Museum.

Hatshepsup's Mummy?

The tomb was rediscovered again in 1989 by Donald P Ryan, an American. When he reopened the tomb he found the abandoned mummy of an elderly female lying on the floor. Her nails were painted red and outlined in black. Her left arm, with clenched fist, lay diagonally across her chest: this is a pose thought to have been reserved for female royalty of the 18th Dynasty. Her folded, shrunken flesh suggested that she may have been obese in life. Her evisceration had been performed through the pelvic floor instead of the normal side-cut because of her obesity. Ryan also found a fragment of a wooden face - a fragment from a coffin lid - with a notched chin where a false beard could have been attached.

According to Dr Zahi Hawass, Head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, and therefore Egypt's foremost archaeologist, early accounts of these two female mummies confused their roles and identities. One indeed had her right arm clasped over her breast in the posture often adopted by Egyptian royalty, which led Egyptologists to postulate that this might be the missing queen, but Dr Hawass claims that the mummy found in this posture was, in fact, the queen's wet nurse.

In 2007 Dr Hawass, decided to re-investigate the other mummy in the hope that she might be Hatshepsup, and sent it to Cairo for a CT scan9.

The scan revealed an obese woman of between 45-60 years of age, who had bad teeth and probably had diabetes and liver cancer10.

In search of more clues, Dr Hawass used the CT scanner to examine other artefacts associated with Hatshepsup, in particular a small wooden box, discovered in 1881 with the Deir el-Bahari cache and bearing the cartouche of Hatshepsup. Inside the box was a liver11 and a molar tooth, which subsequently proved to be an exact match, give or take a fraction of a millimetre, with a cavity in the jaw of the anonymous mummy, thus conclusively identifying her as Hatshepsup. The minuscule difference between the size of the tooth and the gap was likely to be due to erosion after the tooth was extracted. Further analysis revealed identical bone densities between the tooth and the teeth remaining in the mummy's mouth.

Dr Hawass stated that the discovery of the Hatshepsup mummy was 'the most important find in Egypt since the discovery of Tutankhamun in 1922.' However, not all archaeologists are as yet fully convinced. One Egyptologist, who wishes to remain anonymous, has told the Reuters news agency that, 'It's an interesting piece of scientific deduction which might point to the truth.'

1The great American Egyptologist, James Henry Breasted, referred to her as 'the first great woman in history'.2Alternative spellings: Smenkhare and Smenkare.3It is thought that, in ancient Egypt, the royal blood was carried through the female line and so, to become Pharaoh, the man had to marry a female of royal blood, often a sister, half-sister or other near relative. Usually it was the eldest daughter of the previous Pharaoh.4Although there is a school of thought that Princess Neferure's father may have been Hatshepsut's lover, Senmut! 5The classic blue and gold number made famous by Tutankhamun.6There is a beautiful block statue of Senmut, holding the child Neferure enfolded in his arms. Neferure is wearing the royal false beard, and the side lock of a youth. 7The Land of Punt, which may be identified with the biblical Ophir, and which was also called 'Pwenet' by the ancient Egyptians, was a legendary place thought to have been perhaps in eastern Africa or Asia. It was the source of such exotic products as gold, aromatic resins, African blackwood, ebony, ivory, slaves and wild animals.8All the tombs in the Valley of the Kings are numbered with KV, shorthand for 'Kings' Valley'.9CT scanning, or 'Computerised Tomography', is a medical imaging technique which is basically a three-dimensional X-Ray. The object, usually a patient, is passed through a rotating X-Ray beam. A series of detectors capture a series of cross-sectional images, or 'slices', which a computer programme then compiles into a 3-D shape. Advanced CT scanners are capable of dividing a four centimetre portion of the patient into 74 distinct slices. CT scanning is faster and easier than an alternative procedure of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).10This belies her own image of herself as she has described herself as 'beautiful and blooming'11Embalmers typically eviscerated the dead before embalming them, and normally preserved the internal organs in alabaster 'Canopic jars', so that they could be reunited with the body in the afterlife.

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