Friday, June 29, 2007

King Hatshepsut, the Female Falcon

Hatshepsut, female king of Egypt

Bear with me - this may seem a bit off-topic:
Tooth brings lost Egyptian queen to light
CAIRO – A single tooth has clinched the identification of an ancient mummy as that of Hatshepsut, Egypt’s most famous queen, who ruled about 3,500 years ago, the country’s chief archaeologist said yesterday.

The right mummy turned out to be that of a fat woman in her 50s who had rotten teeth and died of bone cancer, Zahi Hawass said.

It was found in 1903 in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, where the young Pharaoh Tutankhamun was buried, and Hawass himself thought until recently that it belonged to the owner of the tomb, Hatshepsut’s wetnurse by the name of Sitre In.

But the decisive evidence was a molar in a wood box inscribed with the queen’s name, found in 1881 in a cache of royal mummies collected and hidden away for safekeeping at a temple about 1,000 metres away.

During the embalming process, it was common to set aside spare body parts and preserve them in such a box.

Orthodontics professor Yehya Zakariya checked all the mummies that might be Hatshepsut’s and found the tooth was a perfect fit in a gap in the upper jaw of the fat woman.

The team examining the mummy are also doing DNA tests and preliminary results show similarities between its DNA and that of Ahmose Nefertari, the wife of the founder of the 18th dynasty and a probable ancestor of Hatsephsut.

So what's the deal with this "fat woman in her 50s", and why am i blogging about the ruling class of ancient Egypt?

Well, like i said, bear with me. While not of direct relevance to the battles of today, and while certainly not worth basing your line on, the way in which anything, even long dead-monarchs from thousands of years ago, gets discussed can be worth discussing... and besides, i find it interesting, perhaps even because it isn't all clear and isn't all directly related to stuff going on down the street today. Combine this basic predilection with the fact that i just finished Bob Brier's The History of Ancient Egypt (told you all i was looking for new shit to listen to while making buttons) and there you go...

There are a few things which are special about Hatshepsut, none of which get mentioned in this malestream news article. And no, it's not her weight or her dental hygiene - both of which were standard for the Egyptian ruling class, for being heavy was simply a sign that you were privileged enough to eat a lot, and bad teeth were an almost inevitable consequence of living long enough for the sand in your bread to grind them down. So unlike what Reuters would have us believe was significant about Hatshepsut, it wasn't a matter of her smile or her figure.

Nor indeed was it the fact that Hatshepsut was queen... because in fact she never was, there was no word for "Queen" in Egypt at the time, only for "King's wife". So Hatshepsut would go from being the king's wife to being the king herself. That's an important distinction, one which Egyptologists are unambiguous about, but also one which probably got edited out of your daily paper. At a certain point Hatshepsut made a play for power, and won, and in winning took on the false beard and crown of the Pharaoh, and from that point on had herself depicted as king on the temple walls.

Note that i am still referring to Hashepsut as "her" and "she" - i understand that some people will be tempted to retroactively claim the king as an FTM, or at least as being utterly genderqueer, but (1) it's authoritarian, dishonest and unhelpful to retrofit folks from the past with terms and concepts that did not even exist when they were alive and (2) while she was alive, at the same time as she had herself described as "king", she also had herself described with as the "female falcon", the "daughter of Amun" and with various female pronouns.

So rather than transitioning, Hatshepsut's becoming king seems to have been a way to establish herself as having all the same power that until then had been both ontologically and etymologically reserved for men. Which isn't to say she might not have been leaving a gender, that what she was doing may not have involved more than "just" putting on a fake beard... only that there is no evidence that Hatshepsut considered themself a man, or wanted to have male pronouns used. Embrace the complexity is what i say...

Like everyone else, there must be two back-stories to Hatshepsut, one looking at her personal life and one looking at the society in which she lived. Perhaps because of the focus of what i have read and listened to, or perhaps because of limitations in what egyptologists know (thanks to most archaeological evidence being monuments and papyri created by the ruling class) most of what i've come across focuses on the former. So was Hatshepsut innovating or was changing aspects of gender something other people were doing to? Were men living "like women", were women living "like men"? Is this a sole remaining hint of some ancient revolt against patriarchy on the shores of Northern Africa? Or not at all???

As i said, from what i have found i just don't know, the story being normally framed in terms of the female king's own personal life... But even here there is some stuff of interest...

Throughout all their dynasties the Pharaohs practiced polygyny - the men could have sexual relationships with several women at the same time, established in a hierarchy with one "great wife", multiple other wives, and a number of concubines. While the exact logic of succession is unclear, there is some evidence that is was quasi-matrilineal, with Pharaoship being claimed by marrying the daughter of the great wife; then when her father would die, you would be next in line. (This would, as we shall see, explain the prevalence of brother-sister incest amongst Pharaohs: for the son of a Pharoah marrying his sister would be the only way to assure his "legitimacy".)

In the eighteenth dynasty, about 1500 BC, the Pharaoh Tuthmosis ruled Egypt. His "great wife" Ahmose had three children, two boys and a girl, but the boys and Ahmose herself died before the regent. So while he had sons by his other wives, at the time of his death he had none by his great wife Ahmose, only a twelve year old girl, named Hatsheptsut. So what to do? Well, one of his sons by another wife - also named Tuthmosis (making this the second) - married his half-sister Hatshepsut, and thus made himself king of Egypt.

Tuthmosis II is thought to have been in his twenties when he married his twelve year old half-sister. They would be married for twenty years, and she would become pregnant and give birth to a daughter (Neferu-Ra). This was almost certainly not a good time for her - we can imagine what it would be like for a twelve year old girl to be married to her twenty some year old big brother, and we can note that after he died we have no record of her ever referring to him or honoring him, and that when she later had her tomb built in the Valley of the Kings she had her father's sarcophagus and not her brother/husband's placed beside her within it.

Like his father before him, when Tuthmosis II died he only had one child by his "great wife"/sister Hatshepsut, though he had at least one son by another wife - you guessed it, also named Tuthmosis (he'll be the third). But at the time of his father's death, Tuthmosis III was still a boy, and it is at this point that Hatshepsut made her bid for power, claiming that she herself was king. (Some people have claimed that she imprisoned her nephew/stepson to keep him out ow power, but most now agree it was more likely that she sent him off to train with the military.)

According to most egypologists Hatsheptsup ruled from 1479 to 1458 BC. She is famous for establishing the first zoo in Thebes, and for sending out the first trade expeditions to the land of Punt - modern-day Eritrea - which brought back wild animals and also frankincense trees which from that point on were cultivated on Egyptian soil. She built many monuments and buildings throughout Egypt, including a mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri on the walls of which she had written the story of her life. While some have tried to claim that her reign was peaceful - unlike most other Pharaohs - there is evidence that she led military expeditions to loot and murder the people of Nubia, the Levant and Syria. (Throughout most of ancient Egyptian history the country's ruing class carried out military expeditions against other African and Near Eastern peoples, sucking in tribute and slaves to supplement its already great agricultural wealth.)

Hatshepsut would never remarry though some egyptologists believe she had a long-term sexual relationship with her daughter's tutor and royal architect, the commoner and "life-long bachelor" Senemut. There is graffiti of the workers who worked on the west bank of Thebes (from 3000 years ago!), showing a woman wearing the crown of Egypt fucking with an overseer - which egyptologists presume were Hatshepsut and Senemut. (Mind you, if we're open to looking at what class and gender politics could have been represented by this female king, i'm not convinced that we need to shoehorn her into having a male lover; i'm equally open to the possibility that Senemut could have been a fag... there is evidence that homosexuality had some place in ancient Egypt...)

What is most interesting to me about Hatshepsut is not her rule, or even simply the fact that a woman maneuvered herself into the seat of power. Whether under a female monarch or a male monarch (like the question of whether ancient Egyptians were "Black" or not) makes little difference to the fact that Egypt represented a murderous and exploitative power, which (like the other States of the ancient world) was continuously waging war against its neighbours in an effort to extract wealth for its own ruling class.

But in terms of politics and what we know of the world that came before us, the story of Hatshepsut is pretty interesting and there is evidence that her reign was not simply the same as those who came before or after, but perhaps represented one set of class or gender politics in contradiction with the others. So while i am certainly no expert on ancient history, it does strike me that there may have been something more here than a woman simply filling male shoes.

We must remain clear that liberation is not even on the menu when we are talking about members of the ruling class, but this does not mean that different class forces don't get expressed through different rulers, and the ruling class can also reflect, albeit in distorted form, changes and movements in the real world. As one indication that this may have been what was going on, unlike other Pharaohs who all claimed to be the literal children of the sun-god Ra, Hatshepsut claimed that the air-god Amun had disguised himself as Tuthmosis and had impregnated her mother. i can't help but mention that at that point Amun was viewed as a patron of justice, being known as the "Vizier of the Poor" - without reading too much into it, isn't it possible that this represented an attempt to tap into or exploit real class contradictions, ones which were certainly laced with gender?

Although there is some evidence that Hatshepsut and Senenmut had been grooming Neferu-Ra to follow in her mother-king's footsteps - there are inscriptions that depict her daughter as a young prince, with a beard and side-lock - the daughter leaves the historical record at the age of eleven, which probably means that she had died. So we know that when Hatshepsut died it was Tuthmosis III - her dead husband's son by another wife - who became Pharaoh.

It is what happened at this point, when Tuthmosis III took over, that provides the most convincing evidence that the life of Hatshepsut reflected real social contradictions which could not be resolved or recuperated after her death.

As already mentioned, Hatshepsut had had her life's story written in her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri - but today nowhere on the temple walls can you find her name - everywhere where it was put it has been erased, chiselled away and replaced with one of the three Tuthmosises. You see, it is now known that at some point in his reign Tuthmosis III initiated a campaign to systematically erase all mention of the female king from Egyptian society. Her name was chiselled off of walls, her image destroyed, her friend (or lover) Senemut's sarcophagus was smashed to bits, and even the 90 foot tall obelisks she had had erected were walled in and affixed with the name of a male Pharaoh, so that no one would know what had originally been there.

As Tour Egypt magazine puts it:
Few years after Hatshepsut’s death, "Thotmose III" started his revenge. He started to erase her name, which was so crucial for an ancient Egyptian and constituted an integral part of existence during afterlife. "Thotmose III" started by chiseling the names off the inscriptions, and replaced them by his own, those of "Thotmose I or II" or were left vacant. He aimed to give an impression of the continuity of the three pharaohs’ reign uninterrupted by Hatshepsut. This was followed by defacing her reliefs. Her statues were smashed, burned and soaked in water, particularly those of the "Ka" [similar concept to "soul" - st]. The eyes and nose of the statues were smashed so the deceased queen could not see or breathe in her afterlife, and uraeus (royal cobra placed on the forehead) was smashed too, to deprive her any power.

What "Thotmose III" failed to destroy, he remolded and related to himself. At el-Karnak after destroying her statue sitting beside Amon, the design of the god’s figure did not make any sense. Amon was made to stand instead of sitting, and the base of the smashed queen’s statue was replaced by drawings. On top of one obelisk, the queen was kneeling on her knees, with Amon performing her coronation. Removal of the queen’s figure rendered the god’s hand stretched for no reason, and hence a wand was placed in it. When he could not deface the inscriptions on another obelisk, he simply surrounded it by a high fence. At the top which could not be hidden, he replaced her name and figure with his. In one temple when he failed to coat with gold to hide her name, "Thotmose III" dismantled it. He also usurped the golden gates of her temples and utilized the stones of a temple to tile his orchard. This was disclosed when the name of the queen was later found in its base.

Note that the above section refers to this in personal terms, as Tuthmosis' "revenge" - which is because the main theory used to be that he hated his step-mother for having kept him off the throne for so many years. However, in recent years this theory has been challenged: not only have artifacts been found in which Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III are shown side by side, but it also seems that the new Pharaoh waited decades into his reign before cleansing the historical record. According to egyptologist Bob Brier this historical vandalism was simply because after Tuthmosis III consolidated his rule it was deemed impolitic to record that a woman had ruled Egypt as king. And so in subsequent years all the "king's lists" which later rulers would make to list their predecessors would never mention Hatshepsut having even existed. Again, the motivations for this seem to have been gender-political - according to the Hapi-Ur resource page on ancient Egypt:
It was not at all uncommon for Egyptian kings to rewrite history to their favor. It should also be noted that the inscriptions depicting the story of Hatshepsut's conception were partially hacked away. It is possible that Thutmosis III or subsequent pharaohs saw her reign as an upset to the balance of ma'at. The role of pharaoh was a role strictly reserved for men, even in a society that offered considerable freedoms to women. By claiming her father was Amun and then coronating herself, Hatshepsut essentially commits blasphemy.
Nothing earth-shattering, and like i said, perhaps no direct relevance to our day-to-day struggles in the here and now... but still, a lot more interesting than simply "a fat woman with rotten teeth", no?


  1. Hey there,

    I still haven't read the whole of this post, although it looks fascinating. Just wanted to mention that back in the late 1970's, when the first King Tut exhibit was touring the US, STO published a lengthy and very interesting analysis of the politics and aesthetics of the exhibit -- and the outline of class dynamics in the King Tut era -- by the ever-attentive Ken Lawrence. (As a side note, CLR James himself sent a little note to STO admiring the quality of the piece.) Sadly, this essay isn't yet up on the STO web archive, but hopefully it will be soon.

  2. DNAPrint ... Bible Geneology n DNA, what can we learn from Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen HATSHEPSUT