Egypt's cross-gender queen
THE WOMAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Hatshepsut's rise to power in ancient Egypt
320pp. Oneworld. £20.
978 1 78074 650 0
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Sometime around 1475 BC, a young woman of impeccable royal lineage began to present herself as co-ruler with her nephew, a boy-king for whom she had already been acting as regent. For the next fifteen years or so, until her death, Queen Hatshepsut became King Hatshepsut, a cross-gender role that ancient Egyptian artists and scribes dealt with as well as they could, given that the elaborate iconography of kingship was uniquely male. Hatshepsut's reign appears to have been peaceful and prosperous, enabling her to build the monument for which she is best known today: the grand terraced temple at Deir el-Bahri on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor, where the funerary cult to maintain her divine memory would be celebrated in perpetuity, or thereabouts. The ancient name of the temple was Djeser Djeseru, the "Holy of Holies". Its form and location leave no doubt as to the genuineness and efficacy of Hatshepsut's claim to kingship, for it shares the bay of cliffs with a similar temple built 500 years earlier for a much-revered ruler. Hatshepsut did monarchy on an Elizabethan scale.
Why, then, is Hatshepsut's name so little remembered, compared to that other Egyptian queen, Cleopatra – and is the oversight indicative of some larger truth about women, power and the writing of history? These are the questions with which the American Egyptologist Kara Cooney opens The Woman Who Would Be King, whose catchy title is matched by the pacy – and, in some places, racy – style of the text. Written in the form of a biography (though the term is never used), the book supplies almost fifty pages of worthy endnotes and specialist reading. However, its intended audience is that amorphous body, the "general reader", for whom all things connected with ancient Egypt feed a mini-industry of uneven calibre. Cooney – surely the only Egyptologist to have appeared on the Late Late Show in the United States – is in many ways well placed to communicate academic research in an intelligent, accessible way. The difficulty she encounters in bringing Hatshepsut to life speaks to the pitfalls of a universalizing approach, which here has the unsettling effect of grafting both twenty-first-century concerns and nineteenth-century tropes onto the Egyptian elite of the fifteenth-century BC.
We watch by flickering lamplight as a pubescent Hatshepsut joins her younger half-brother, who has just become King, on their wedding night
In her preface, Cooney defends the role of speculation and imagination in her Life of Hatshepsut, arguing that these were necessary tools to reconstruct the ruler's decision-making process. The truth is that the nature of the ancient evidence puts a figure like Hatshepsut beyond the biographer's reach. Yet, in the face of an Egyptian history based on the discourse of kingship monumentalized in art and architecture and the meticulous piecing together of regnal dates from myriad sources, scholars have often tried to marshal some kind of narrative to put flesh on the factual bones. What Cooney emphasizes is that this flesh, in Hatshepsut's case, is female flesh, here defined by its ability to arouse men and give birth to babies. We watch by flickering lamplight as a pubescent Hatshepsut joins her younger half-brother, who has just become King, on their wedding night; "special priestesses" stand by to help. Later, we hear Hatshepsut labour as she bears her only child, a daughter, in "blood and shit and screams of pain". And in what can only make for uncomfortable reading in post-Savile Britain, we imagine an even younger Hatshepsut, aged just eight or nine, being initiated into the "more sexual aspects" of being the God's Wife of Amun, which (in Cooney's version) involves baring her body to the divine statue, bringing him (it?) to orgasm, and collapsing in a state of sacred exhaustion. In the anachronistic idiom of the book, this is Hatshepsut's "job" before she moves on to being Queen, then King.
The author's self-confessed conjectures litter the text with "would have beens" and "likelys", which at least have the virtue of being circumspect. Less colourful interpretations are confined to the endnotes. Being God's Wife of Amun, for instance, was a role that kings gave to their daughters or sisters to help the royal household tap into the wealth of the Amun priesthood. How often any God's Wife – or for that matter, the king – actually turned up to perform the daily temple rites is difficult to say, and while Egyptian cult statues were certainly objects of devotion, carefully tended and secluded by priests, there is no evidence that a god's masturbatory hand was anything other than a metaphor for the mystery of creation.
Sacred and otherwise, the sexual exploits attributed to Hatshepsut owe more to Orientalist fantasy than feminist history; the same applies to skin colour, which manages to be "darker than that of most modern Egyptians" yet "as pale as her station allowed". Cooney contrasts Hatshepsut's indeterminate-sounding tone to the black skin of captured Nubian princes at the court (who are, inevitably, proud and defiant). Such awkward formulations typify Egyptology's attempts to write colour-blind ancient history, as if modern history can thus be glossed over; suffice it to say that neither Hatshepsut nor those Nubian princes would have had seats at the front of an Alabama bus.
Throughout The Woman Who Would Be King, ancient Egyptians behave like exotic, inhibition-free Others on one page, and stereotypes of contemporary life on the next. In the book's conclusion, Hatshepsut is the "ultimate working mother", and in her acknowledgements, the author states that she could only understand Hatshepsut once she became a working mother herself. Over the past twenty years, interpretive archaeology has fostered an approach to the past that actively seeks to recover embodied experiences, the agency of objects, and the worlds of individuals other than a presumed elite male actor. This does not mean that we can simply attribute our own values and emotions to people from other cultures, including other times. Such universalism risks reinforcing popular assumptions, which – especially where the contentious terrain of ancient Egypt is concerned – deserve to be challenged. Hatshepsut is a historical figure worthy of wider renown, but turning her into a more successful version of Cleopatra does neither woman justice.
Christina Riggs is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient Art at the University of East Anglia. Her books include Ancient Egyptian Art and Architecture: A very short introduction and Unwrapping Ancient Egypt, both of which appeared last year.
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