The King Herself

What motivated Hatshepsut to rule ancient Egypt as a man while her stepson stood in the shadows? Her mummy, and her true story, have come to light.

There was something strangely touching about her fingertips. Everywhere else about her person all human grace had vanished. The raveled linen around her neck looked like a fashion statement gone horribly awry. Her mouth, with the upper lip shelved over the lower, was a gruesome crimp. (She came from a famous lineage of overbites.) Her eye sockets were packed with blind black resin, her nostrils unbecomingly plugged with tight rolls of cloth. Her left ear had sunk into the flesh on the side of her skull, and her head was almost completely without hair.

I leaned toward the open display case in Cairo's Egyptian Museum and gazed at what in all likelihood is the body of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, the extraordinary woman who ruled Egypt from 1479 to 1458 B.C. and is famous today less for her reign during the golden age of Egypt's 18th dynasty than for having the audacity to portray herself as a man. There was no beguiling myrrh perfume in the air, only some sharp and sour smell that seemed minted during the many centuries she had spent in a limestone cave. It was hard to square this prostrate thing with the great ruler who lived so long ago and of whom it was written, "To look upon her was more beautiful than anything." The only human touch was in the bone shine of her nailless fingertips where the mummified flesh had shrunk back, creating the illusion of a manicure and evoking not just our primordial vanity but our tenuous intimacies, our brief and passing feel for the world.

The discovery of Hatshepsut's lost mummy made headlines two summers ago, but the full story unfolded slowly, in increments, a forensic drama more along the lines of CSI than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indeed the search for Hatshepsut showed the extent to which the trowels and brushes of archaeology's traditional toolbox have been supplemented by CT scanners and DNA gradient thermocyclers.

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