Who Was She?
Hatshepsut was a woman who had the courage to take power and the fortitude to hold that power in a society where women in power went against the status quo. Because she went against the status quo she was often thought of as power hungry, and that she stole power from the true (male) owner of that power. The author, Kara Cooney, of The Woman Who Would Be King goes a long way in proving Hatshepsut’s story was different than what was previously believed.
Born to Thutmose I and his Great Wife Ahmose, Hatshepsut automatically gained the title King’s Daughter and the prestige that went with it. When she was old enough she inherited the powerful religious position of God’s Wife to Amen from her mother. This religious position was a powerful position for a woman in Ancient Egypt because it came with power and lands that were independent of any man. She married half-brother Thutmose II when they were of age and became King’s Wife. When he died she became regent for Thutmose III who was not yet old enough to rule.
During her regency, Hatshepsut was able to gain power and consolidate her power over the kingdom and transition from regent to ruler in her own right. She became not only a queen but a king. Through a combination of political acumen, propaganda and luck she was able to gain support for her kingship and her rule. She was now the more powerful partner of the co-rulership with Thutmose III. She had made herself indispensable to the kingdom. Her leadership was successful due to her ability to navigate the politics of the kingdom take advantage of the little bit of luck that came her way. The Nile had good flood years allowing for a good harvest. Hatshepsut was successful in her wars against Nubia, which was largely responsible for the wealth that was pouring into Egypt during her reign and with this new wealth that was coming into Egypt, she paid her subordinates well and created new positions that kept her supporters and their heirs loyal to her.
The theme the author often returns to is the theme of identity. The identity that Hatshepsut kept hidden and the identity she created to be seen by the world. We can only guess at her private identity but as to her public one, we can gain insight by looking at the images she ordered created. Because we know that Hatshepsut ordered these images it allows the modern viewer insight into how Hatshepsut wanted her people to see her, what character traits she want emphasized and seen. So the fact that these images changed over time is particularly interesting. The statues at the beginning of her reign were the more radical, these were the statues that projected a woman king. Over time these statues and images gradually conformed to the expected images of a ruler and over time her images developed into a masculine depiction of her. However, the author points out that in the writing that surrounds these images she never changed her pronoun to a masculine one, but kept a feminine one.
Ultimately many of these monuments were destroyed by her successor and co-ruler Thutmose the III. The author makes a good case that the destruction was rather a result of Thutmose the III trying to ensure the succession of his heir and the stability of his heir’s reign due to the fact that they were not destroyed until quite a few years after her death.
What I Thought of the Book
The writing in this book lacks consistency. At times it felt like the book had been written by two different authors. The beginning the author seemed to be trying to make Hatshepsut’s story more engaging by making detail depictions of scenes by describing how she might have felt and what she might have been doing. These scenes ultimately fell flat to me because there seemed to be no real basis for these depictions in fact. While some of the religious ceremonies might have been accurate, there is no way the author could tell us how Hatshepsut would have been feeling. The facts and the story itself is extremely interesting so I felt that in order to make the story interesting the author could have let the facts speak for themselves.
The second half of this book was much more straightforward and lacks the sensationalism that the first half had. Needless to say, I got along much better with this half. If the whole book had been written like this I would have enjoyed it much more than I did. However, I appreciate what the author was trying to do, I think she was trying to connect her audience with a woman who lived thousands of years before we were born. By putting thoughts that she believed that Hatshepsut would have been thinking into the text she was trying to make her more relatable. However, she would have done better by letting the facts speak for themselves and led the audience to make the conclusion for ourselves rather than creating hypothetical scenes in which to evoke an artificial response that might have allowed us to connect with Hatshepsut.
Ultimately, I thought this book was okay. It wasn’t horrible but it wasn’t great either. If you are interested in learning about Hatshepsut I would pick this book up. However, if you are interested in learning a little bit about the culture and history of Egypt you might be better off picking up a different book. This biography tends to stick with the facts of Hatshepsut’s life and doesn’t delve much into other events of Egyptian history.