For many years, Hatshepsut (ca 1508– 1458 B.C.) appeared content with the traditional female role of supporting player among Egypt’s royals. She was the daughter of one pharaoh (Thutmose I) and queen wife of another (her half brother, Thutmose II). When her husband died in 1479 B.C. and her stepson was appointed heir, Hatshepsut dutifully took on the added responsibility of regent to the young Thutmose III.
As the years passed, however, Hatshepsut acted less like a temporary overseer and more like Egypt’s rightful ruler, referring to herself as “Lady of the Two Lands.” With Thutmose III nearing maturity—when he would officially assume the throne—she made a daring power play.
Hatshepsut declared herself pharaoh, adopting the emblems and titles associated with the title. She had herself portrayed in pictures as a man, with a male body and false beard. She even claimed the god Amun as her father and insisted that he meant for her to take charge of Egypt: “I acted under his command; it was he who led me.”
For Hatshepsut to assert priority over Thutmose III was a radical move in conservative Egyptian society. She could not have achieved it without the support of high officials at court—including Senenmut, overseer of royal works—who risked losing their power, if not their lives, if she yielded to Thutmose III.
Making—and losing—her name
Hatshepsut couldn’t match her father’s conquests by leading troops into battle, a role strictly reserved for men. Instead, she took the military out of the equation. Rather than sending soldiers to war, she sent them on what became her proudest venture: a trading expedition to the fabled land of Punt, along the southern shore of the Red Sea, where no Egyptian had been for 500 years. As portrayed on the walls of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, the expedition returned laden with gold, ivory, live myrrh trees, and a menagerie of exotic animals, including apes, panthers, and giraffes. The successful campaign significantly enhanced her reputation and popularity.
Hatshepsut did not banish Thutmose III, who technically served as her co-ruler, but she clearly overshadowed him. Her 21-year reign—15 as principal monarch—was a time of peace and prosperity for Egypt. She undertook grand building projects, including two pairs of imposing obelisks at Karnak and at her mortuary temple, Djeser-Djeseru. Upon Hatshepsut’s death in 1458 B.C., Thutmose III at last got the throne to himself.
Hatshepsut’s groundbreaking reign remained a secret for centuries. Before his own death, Thutmose III moved to erase Hatshepsut from the historical record by defacing her monuments and removing her name from the list of kings. When archaeologists began deciphering the hieroglyphics at Deir el Bahri in 1822, and later found her tomb in 1903, Hatshepsut’s legacy as Egypt’s powerful female pharaoh was restored.
This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.