A True History

The Endless Death of Pharaoh Hatshepsut

After a recent death in my family, I’ve been fascinated with how different cultures view death and life after death. It’s comforting to believe that there could be something else after death, that there’s something more than just getting thrown in the ground. I love the idea that some cultures believe that as long as people remember you, in a way, you’ll live forever.

But what happens if people try to erase you from memory?

It’s not something I’d ever thought about until recently when I heard about Pharaoh Hatshepsut. She ruled in Ancient Egypt for over 20 years and by all accounts she was one of the most successful female pharaoh’s ever; her rule was full of peace and prosperity and was filled with art and new buildings. By all accounts, she was a well respected ruler who made great strides in Egypt, but even though she had a laundry list of impressive acts as ruler, there were still plenty of people who weren’t thrilled with her.

Hatshepsut was a royal princess who married her half-brother Tuthmosis II when he ascended to the throne. Three years into his reign, he passed away suddenly creating a small succession crisis. You see, Hatshepsut had only bore 1 child, a daughter, which meant that the prince would come from one of the other members of Tuthmosis II’s harem, but he only had one son and that son was a baby. Normally, the mother of that son would act as Queen Regent, but that mother was from an incredibly low social status so instead, Hatshepsut became the Queen Regent to temporarily guide the boy until he was old enough to make his own decisions.

This worked well for a while, Hatshepsut acted as most Queen Regents do, she acknowledged that Tuthmosis III was the true ruler, but after a few years she was crowned king. It wasn’t like she deposed of her stepson, he was still alive and thriving and was expected to take the throne when she died, but she ruled for much longer than most people expected, over 20 years.

It’s her death that gets interesting though. You see, Egyptians believed that there was life after death, but only if there was something to remember the deceased by (like a body or a statue). If nothing existed then one would essentially be cursed with an endless death.

Supposedly, in the years following Hatshepsut’s death everything she’d created as a monument to herself, the statues, the art, even her tomb, were defaced. Her stepson, the culprit, allowed her a traditional royal funeral, but over the years he and his men fit the desecration of Hatshepsut’s image into their schedules, slowly chipping away at a large chunk of her images. Most recent assumptions of this historical tale don’t paint either Hatshepsut or Tuthmosis III as angry or hateful people, especially not of each other, but the idea was that Tuthmosis III aimed to paint a picture of his reign for future pharaoh’s and that picture did not contain Hatshepsut.

Historians believe Tuthmosis III’s goal was to show that the line of succession went to him immediately after his father’s death. They believe that he didn’t want a similar succession issue down the line where a woman could insert herself into the position of pharaoh on a technicality and do the job just as well, if not better, than a man. Getting rid of her images ensured that the people would forget about her over time and she would be doomed to die an endless death.

There is some good news though, Tuthmosis III didn’t get rid of every single image of her, there’s enough left over for Historians to put together an understanding of her reign. Not to mention, technically to die a true “endless death” her body would also have to be desecrated, and other than being moved to an unmarked grave alone, it went untouched*. So the title of this post is sort of a misnomer, but for hundreds of years she was forgotten by the people and it wasn’t until the 1920’s when early Egyptologists uncovered her grave, that we began to uncover a portrait of who this Pharaoh really was.

*This didn’t fit well into the post, but I thought it was so cool to mention that when they unearthed her mummy, they found she wore red and black nail polish and they found residue of her fancy imported perfume from present-day Somalia. I’d never thought about pharaoh’s wearing nail polish or what kind of perfume they’d wear so that stood out to me.