Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Woman Who Would Be King, by Kara Cooney

Today I'm looking at a book about ancient Egypt, specifically a biography of Hatshepsut who ruled as king in Egypt during the 18th Dynasty. The information that we have about Hatshepsut is fragmentary at best due to the loss of records over three thousand years, as well as later destruction of Hatshepsut's monuments. Cooney admits that a good portion of her book is conjecture, however Cooney creates an evocative image of Egyptian society and the life of Hatshepsut within the larger context of the Thutmosid Dynasty.

When Hatshepsut's images and carvings were first discovered by Egyptologists historians (all men, of course) assumed that Hatshepsut was an example of a woman usurping power from a rightful male leader. This was explained because many of her statues and inscriptions were deliberately demolished or defaced, reflecting a backlash during the reign of her successor Thutmose III. Cooney draws upon more recent analysis of Hatshepsut's inscriptions and other existing evidence of her reign to create a more nuanced and ultimately positive understanding of her place in Egyptian history.

Egyptology is a difficult field because the reality of politics and the ideology of politics were almost never separated. Central to Egyptian culture was the idea of the god-king, an aspect of the eternal sun who always had and always would rule over the land of Egypt. Who the king happened to be was largely irrelevant so long as there was a king and in both official and unofficial sources opinions on the king and the royal family were largely reserved. We are unsure about how the Thutmosid dynasty came to power. We know that the previous dynasty failed to produce a viable heir and the mantle of kingship was passed to Thutmose I. Why Thutmose was chosen or any familial connection with the previous dynasty he may have had has been obscured. But we do know among his many children were Hatshepsut who took on the powerful and influential role of God's Wife of Amen, the principle deity of the city of Thebes associated with the sun. The God's Wife was a position traditionally held by a member of the royal family close to the king and came with control of the temple's wealth and influence. We assume that this role gave Hatshepsut sufficient experience to become a political operator in her own right.

Thutmose I was, in his turn, followed by Thutmose II, probably Hatshepsut's half-brother who she married as his Great Wife. Although the couple produced one daughter, Neferure, if they produced any male offspring it does not appear in the record. In fact Thutmose II had trouble producing any offspring and by most accounts appears to have been a sickly individual dying only a few years into his reign. This created yet another succession crisis within perhaps fifteen years of resolving the last crisis. Thutmose II had produced another son, Thutmose III, but he was just an infant and from a low-ranked birth mother, giving him a weaker claim in the complex web of Egyptian royalty we still don't fully understand. With the high child mortality it was questionable Thutmose III would even survive to rule, much less produce an heir of his own. But Hatshepsut stepped into this vacuum and provided much-needed continuity as regent.

It was not uncommon for queen mothers to step in as regents for their sons, and even made good sene because a mother was unlikely to sabotage her own son's reign. Hatshepsut's case, like so much else about her, was unusual. Hatshepsut was not Thutmose III's birth mother, but his own mother Isis was considered too low-ranked to actually serve as regent. Cooney argues, however, the fact that Hatshepsut became regent, and ruled unchallenged for nearly twenty years suggests that the religious and political elites trusted Hatshepsut and supported her role as regent and later king, to ensure that Egypt would continue to prosper while Thutmose III could grow up.

We know that Egypt prospered during Hatshepsut's rule because of several events. First was a series of highly successful campaigns in Nubia to maintain Egyptian hegemony and continue the flow of gold, gems, stone, and slaves which were immense economic boons for Egypt and Hatshepsut was able to channel the wealth to government figures, including new political appointees like Senenmut, ensuring their continued support for her reign. Hatshepsut also launched a successful trading expedition to the Land of Punt (believed to be somewhere around the Horn of Africa) which brought back even more wealth including the all-important incense which was not so much a luxury as a staple for the deeply religious culture of ancient Egypt.

This economic wealth was then channeled into massive construction programs throughout Egypt, resulting in upgrades of many temples from structures of the near-ubiquitous mud brick to worked stone, creating a new permanence to Egyptian life and the temple complex of Luxor at Thebes, making a veritable bonanza for archaeologists and Egyptologists of today. During all of this Hatshepsut continued to accumulate more power to herself and adopting the title of king, tying her legitimacy and right to rule with her descent from her father, the respected Thutmose I. Hatshepsut was formally coronated as a co-ruler in or about year 7 of Thutmose III's rule, and Hatshepsut celebrated the Sed Festival, a celebration of a king's successful rule, in year 16 of her and Thutmose III's ''joint'' rule of Egypt.

We don't know when Hatshepsut died, but evidence suggests it was about year 22 of Thutmose III's reign because that is when he launched his highly successful war into Syria and inscriptions make no mention of his co-ruler. The success of this first campaign made Thutmose III a warrior king who executed multiple successful campaigns to neighboring regions and exacted enormous tributes. But interestingly the evidence suggests that Thutmose III's attacks on his aunt, step-mother, and predecessor's legacy did not begin until fairly late in his reign, some twenty years after Hatshepsut's death. Why Thutmose III began this attack and destruction is unclear, but Cooney thinks the traditional explanation of a usurping woman being put back in her place is not only unconvincing but unsupported by the evidence of the continued respect and support of elites for Hatshepsut even after her death.

Cooney instead argues that perhaps it was the status of Thutmose III's own son, Amenhotep II, whose legacy Thutmose sought to prop up. Cooney suggest that Amenhotep II, much like his father, was born to a lower-ranked wife. Because of this lack of direct links with the dynasty, usually reinforced by brother-sister marriages in the royal family to keep the bloodline concentrated, Cooney argues that Thutmose III was seeking to change the source of legitimacy to a father-son link rather than a larger dynastic link. It wasn't important if the mother wasn't of sufficient background or even within the family group, as long as the next king was son of the previous king. To this end Thutmose III tried to connect his kingship to his father and grandfather, Thutmose I and II, and edited many of Hatshepsut's statues to be dedicated to his father and grandfather. by eliminating or reducing his aunt, Thutmose III shifted the focus from a family dynasty to a male line, reinforcing Amenhotep II's own claim on the throne.

Overall I thought this book was really interesting. Ancient Egypt is an area I have little to no knowledge so a lot of this was new to me and I thought Cooney did an excellent job explaining not just the history but the larger context of Egypt some 3,500 years ago. The image of Hatshepsut that emerges is a queen who is, above all else, successful. It seems her reign enriched and expanded Egypt, to the benefit of at least the elites, if not everyone. It certainly seems unlikely that a cruel and wanton usurper would be able to rule unchallenged, even in Egypt, for twenty years. Even if Cooney has to rely on conjecture to fill in the blanks left by the fairly sparse historical record, I highly recommend people check out this book.

- Kalpar

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